Today I'm going to write about urban campaigns and adapting the conventions of the Point of Light design for large cities. Having discussed Points of Light in my last blog entry and my preference for variety and the idea of large Points of Light that encompass large areas it seemed only fair to expand on that one-line idea, or – as it was called in the comments – a sprawl of light.
I also used the term Points of Darkness, where a large Light Point might be so large that it's unbroken but has areas of danger inside. That’s where we start.
The Urban Campaign
Sprawl of Light adventures or campaigns are set in large civilized cities or areas. It need not be a single city but it could be a series of allied villages that have banded together to keep the spaces between their walls safe and free and with regular patrols. But typically, it would be centered around a single capital or keep that embodied safety.
It might have been the provincial capital before the empire’s collapse, and rumours of its existence and glory have spread throughout the region attracting those with nowhere else to go. In such a place the PCs can not only resupply and rest, but feel completely safe and gain access to hereinto unseen services.
It’s often the archetypal metropolis of the world, a Greyhawk City or a Waterdeep or a Palathas or a Ptolus. But none of those cities are fully illuminated because even the brightest light casts a shadow.
So where in this brightest Point of Light would there be shadows?
Slums: Not everyone is rich, and those without a place of their own will always make on. And in a world with tiny light points, the bright searchlight the metropolis would be would attract stragglers, refugees, and traders from across the continent. The brighter its light in the darkness the bigger its slums.
Stereotypically, slums would be havens of crime and trouble, although little of it would be overtly monstrous. Visible monsters are typically a minority in such a PoL, but monsters able to move unseen or high would almost be more common.
Sewers: The single place scary and visible monsters would be common is the sewers. Some fantasy sewers are almost modern waste disposal tunnels (medieval “sewers” were usually a dip or groove in the road that funnelled waste to the river). More likely they’d be older ruins the current city was built atop, but more powerful nations might have aqueduct systems that have fallen into disrepair or invented magical alternatives (I believe Greyhawk City was known for its gelatinous cubes in the sewer that moved around eating trash).
Sewers might also be a home to Thieves’ Guilds or other troublesome groups. Or they might lead to a cavernous dungeon complex under the city (like in Waterdeep or Ptolus).
Parks: While open public spaces of greenery might seem calm and peaceful during the day, they might take on a whole other life during the night. Central Park in New York has a lovely reputation for muggers and trouble during the twilight hours, and a fantasy park might be no different.
Alleys: Like parks, alleys between buildings are a place of real world terror, humiliation, and emasculation for an unlucky few. Adventurers might easily stumble across trouble in an alley, especially if the city’s houses are not laid-out in any logical order. Alleys, if street-exits are sealed-off and the attached buildings lack windows, might easily turn into a maze-like dungeon of passages and dead-ends.
Docks: Where there is a need to import or smuggle in illegal or illicit substances, there will people doing so and making a pile of gold. Docks are the logical places for gangs, Thieves’ Guilds, and unsavoury people to frequent, not including sailors in need of “a good time”.
Monsters are the deadly force in the wilds and borderlands of the world, but people and groups might control the dark spaces of an urban campaign. These can be mundane (gangs, guilds) or magical (cults, arcane orders), and possibly even more devious and deadly than monsters.
In a standard PoL campaign, the heroes are generally safe in the light. They’ve adventured, they’ve returned to town, they rest in safety. The giant evil lich with his death cult minions generally doesn’t strike in the town. But when the megadventure is taking place in a greater PoL the heroes aren’t necessarily safe. They could be attacked anywhere at any time. And unlike the wilds where the villain is easily identified (by the fact it’s a feral beast charging towards the PCs), urban villains could be anyone.
Bright lights also create dark shadows, at least in comparison. Compared to the nobility of much of a civilized nation, minor wilds might seem even less untamed and the truly uncivilized becomes very, very savage and feral. With the whole world being pinpricks of light the wild isn’t that far removed. Likewise, most civilizations rise at the cost of someone somewhere. The brighter and more noteworthy the sprawl of light the more likely its people stepped on someone or something to rise to their station (or is still standing on them). Just like The United States founded its current empire on a history of exploiting developing nations and slavery, a grand empire might have leeched small border settlements into extinction, exploited a local populace, or oppressed and used a monstrous or magical force.
The City of Evil
A twist on the above is where the civilization is not a Point of Light. The traditional PoL design states that the settlements need not be good as long as they’re a haven from the monsters and the wild. This minor twist has the urban metropolis be an evil place, perhaps rules by a dark lord or evil cultists, and there are few safe havens from the forces of evil.
Good examples of this are evil nations (like Thay or Mordor) where the PCs have to hide their race or allegiance. Enemy nations need not be evil, just ruled by an evil overlord. The PCs might be spies in enemy territory (such as Nazi occupied France or Soviet Russia… or Thrane agents sneaking through Karrnath). The entire (excellent) Midnight campaign setting is almost based around this, with civilization being innately unfriendly to heroes.
The Big Pond
One of the reasons big Points of Light attract me, other than my innate moth-ish nature, is that it makes being a hero more impressive.
When you’re the only person above and beyond the ordinary it makes being a hero simple. You just have to beat-up some bandits and get praised, and you know no one else is going to do it. You are the Big Fish in the Small Pond. In a big city rules by the stereotypical Wise and Noble King with his oval table of knights, there could be many more people interested in being heroes. There could be dozens of groups of adventurers (competition!) looking to do the same job and possibly as competent as you. You need to do more and be more impressive to stand out, be recognized, and get praise.
The generic Point of Light campaign might feed into the criticism of D&D becoming easier. It certainly sets-up an easier situation for PCs to have smoke blown-up their… quivers.