Adventuring in the big city poses big challenges for some gaming groups. Players need to think about how to get what they want without simply killing their way through problems. Consider what happens in a game like Oblivion or Skyrim when you commit a crime in front of the guards. And while Waterdeep: Dragon Heist provides the broad strokes of the city’s Code Legal to help DMs adjudicate the consequences of the player character’s reckless actions, simply punishing your players for playing D&D the way they want to isn’t exactly fun.
Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Encounters in Sharn (by the DMs Guild Adepts) are both major urban adventures, set in the fantasy metropoles of Waterdeep (in the Forgotten Realms) or Sharn (in the Eberron campaign setting). Both of these adventures dabble in the themes and styles of gangster films, film noir, and heist movies like Ocean’s 11 (or the recent Ocean’s 8!), and both take place in big cities that operate just a little bit differently from the usual wilderness and ancient ruins of more traditional D&D adventures.
It may sound like a lot of work to prepare yourself for an adventure focused around character motivations and intrigue instead of dungeon crawling and casual monster-killing, but it’s actually very easy! Here are three tips to help both players and Dungeon Masters alike have a great time playing in your upcoming urban intrigue game, whether it’s Waterdeep: Dragon Heist or any other adventure.
For DMs: All Aboard?
The quickest way to ensure that your campaign will fail is if the players don’t like what the campaign is about, so make sure they know that your campaign is about urban intrigue. If you’re a Dungeon Master planning an urban intrigue campaign, make sure that your players know exactly what they’re getting into. When people think of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, their logical first thought will be that the story is all about exploring dungeons and fighting dragons, not about hunting thieves atop the rooftops of a busy city, dodging the city watch, and hunting the sewers for the agents of the Xanathar.
And go the extra mile: when you say your campaign is about “urban intrigue,” make sure that your players know what that means! This is the spiel I give people about Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Feel free to steal and modify it to help pitch this game to your group:
“In this story, you are D&D heroes with swords and magic living in fantasy New York City. A lot of normal people live here trying to get by, but the city is really run by monstrous crime lords, secret nobility, and a lot of evil people trying to get very, very rich. But since this is a city with laws and a police force, you have to act like detectives or vigilantes to get results, like Batman or Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. Words are weapons, and it’s better to bring villains down by revealing their deep dark secrets than by killing them with a sword.”
And ask your players if they’re interested. If they’re all opposed to it, that’s a clear sign that you need to find something else. On the other hand, if there are just one or two players on the fence, you can easily run an urban campaign if you balance out their needs.
For Players: Make Thematic Characters
Conan the Barbarian isn’t going to have a good time in the big city. Now, Conan definitely spent time in the city, but look what happened when he did: he got high, punched a camel, and infiltrated a cult. He is a stranger to civilization, and to wasteland wanderers like him, it is “ancient and wicked.” A character like Conan would spend a few moments in the big city, get bored, start a fight, and be swiftly thrown in prison, much to his party members’ annoyance.
If your DM and fellow players want to play a game of urban intrigue, you would be well served to create a character that fits in that genre. This way you not only respect others’ fun, you set yourself up to have fun by creating a character well-equipped to handle the sort of challenges the campaign will throw your way. A barbarian suited only for fighting will have fun when combat encounters arise, but when a campaign is mostly based around infiltrating manor houses, schmoozing with nobility, and hunting for clues in ancient archives? You aren’t doing yourself any favors by playing that kind of character.
That’s not to say you can’t play a character who’s good at fighting in an intrigue game! But consider what their other talents are. In the TV show Leverage, the five members of the main cast fill roles in their heist unit just like how D&D classes fill their roles in an adventuring party. Elliot, the party’s “fighter” is good at more than just punching people, he’s also got a lot of knowledge about mobs and gang activity, and he can be a charming liar and charismatic public face when the situation calls for it. As long as your character has skills and motivations beyond “killing stuff and taking their loot,” you’ll make your intrigue game more fun for everyone.
For DMs: Create Breaks in the Intrigue
No matter how good your plot is or how much your players love roleplaying, you will get tired. You’ll itch to roll your dice. Wise DMs know when to give in to the urge to hurl monsters at their players, lest you all burn out on roleplaying.
There are plenty of opportunities for the characters to get into monster fights in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, free of the usual legal ramifications of committing murder. Sewers are everywhere beneath Waterdeep, and the Xanathar’s goblin, kenku, bugbear, and kobold agents use them for rapid travel. They could kidnap a local lordling, giving the characters an opportunity to pursue them and win a reward and gain an ally. Perhaps a black pudding made of congealed excrement and other offal bursts from the pipes and invades the streets, eating horses and terrorizing the local marketplace. Or a group of Zhentarim thieves could break into the player characters’ place of residence, forcing them to nonlethally defend their turf.
All of these options work in Eberron, too if you’re running Encounters in Sharn. But in a city like Sharn where magic is analogous to technology, there are even more outlandish options. Perhaps a shambling mound breaks free of a local wizard’s shop and starts devouring energy from the Lightning Rail. Or maybe an airship crashes in the city streets, swarming with zombies of the crew who were killed and turned into ravenous undead by a mysterious artifact they picked up from Xen’drik. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination, but monstrosities, plants, undead, and fiends are generally acceptable targets for fantasy violence, even in a city regulated by laws against murder.
For Players: Get Involved in the City
Waterdeep is as much a character as any of the DM’s NPCs. Its many wards all have different moods and treat the characters differently. High-class characters with the noble background may feel out of place among rough-and-tumble sailors in muddy Dock Ward, and common city folk may feel like the North Ward’s suburban atmosphere is a bit too clean for their taste—to say nothing of the opulent extravagance of the Sea Ward. Waterdeep is teeming with personality of its own, to say nothing of the dozens upon dozens of NPCs that live there.
Your character has the opportunity to become involved in the city and make a life there. You aren’t a wanderer, camping out on the side of a road as you travel from ruin to ruin. You may have a regular room in the Yawning Portal Inn and Tavern, and get to know the locals. You might want to start up a business of your own and get to know your neighbors and customers. This creates opportunities for roleplaying, but this is a good idea even if you don’t like roleplaying very much. Making friends with the common people of Waterdeep will help you create valuable alliances that may lead you to finding new adventures, new treasure, and other rewards.
Any Other Ideas?
These are just a few ways for players and DMs alike to make the most out of their urban adventures. It can be hard to stop thinking of all problems in D&D as combat encounters, but when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Think of tools to give your players that aren’t focused on combat, and you might see them start trying to solve problems in other ways. What ideas for encouraging intrigue, deceit, and diplomacy over violence have you had in your campaigns?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two alley cats, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.