I've got dungeons. I know exactly how to run them, as does practically everyone else.
I've more recently acquired hexcrawl competence, and now I want to expand that to settlements (not that lacking that competence stopped me from muddling my way through a city campaign).
So here is a first stab at a city procedure, together with a sketch of a city to be passed through in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. There's not enough there to use for a whole campaign, but cities in HDQ are just meant to be stopped in briefly.
The elements of the city (look, encounters, taverns, etc) have generative procedures, but I'm not going into that now. What I'm trying to hammer out here is the procedure for actually linking up the elements of the city into a smooth, gameable thing.
You know how it's no sweat to run a dungeon, and you're not fumbling for what to do next?
The idea is to reproduce that in the city.
- Begin turn.
- Ask the players what they want to do, and tell them options if they don't have something in mind.
- Tavern: here they can find rumors, bards, and rest.
- Shop: shopping.
- Contact: if they know of someone or a group (like a faction of which they're a member), let them know that they can get in touch with a bit of asking around
- Explore: if you have points of interest or random encounter tables, you can present this as an option.
- Special: any special features of the district that are obvious, like if you've made a coliseum where they can participate in gladiatorial matches for cash.
- Objective: anything else they want to do falls under this category.
- Once they've told you what they want to do, check for random encounters, if you're going to.
- Determine the turn length. This is how long it takes to get something done (like getting rumors from a tavern), and it's the schedule random encounters are checked on. 6 hours is fine, but scale up or down as feels right, from hours or minutes to months.
- If a random encounter is indicated, interrupt their action with it and resolve it.
- If they wish to change their action because of the encounter, accommodate it.
- If the action involves entering a new district (including the first time they enter a city), narrate a transition.
- If it's a boring village or district, or a place you don't intend to be a play hub, then it's either "average village", or "unremarkable district"
- If it's not boring, take a moment to think about what makes it unique and describe one or two of those things (pink gulls, towering walls, skull-lined gates) and how the people look, if interesting (pirates, metal, bird costumes)
- If it's not boring, do an encounter as part of the transition from wilderness/district to district. This is part of its intro cutscene, so to speak. Examples: a rowdy duel between outlandish personalities, a market where all are masked and selling items hidden beneath velvet drapes, mounted bullfighting.
- If they would encounter a special feature of the area (you've found the blue palace!), handle it as a random encounter.
- Cut to the interesting part of their chosen action and resolve it.
- End of turn.
- People are aggressively insecure
- Cracked wood white sails, salt and trade, casual violence
- Pirate haven, founded by pirates, rum in everything, argh me mateys
The Sugar (rowdy market on harbor)
- mostly sellers of sugar from all over, in all colors, for consumption and display
- +1% XP to next level if you become enthralled with a piece of sugar jewelry and simply must have and wear it (1d20 gp, random color and shape)
- Kurtz (desperate female Clint Eastwood, wants to buy a stilt-house and sell jewelry, ah, that's the life), sugar merchant (specialty: magenta, with chartreuse particles in the crystals, from an island called The Croaks where giant frogs grow legs on their backs and are essentially reversible), extorted by cult; you see two thugs demanding money and threatening her, then leaving. She'll tell you about them and will try to kill them if you don't. She'll succeed 50/50. She'll team up and join party if prospects for cash look better.
- Broadsides: buy a share in a cheaply made boat rigged with cannons. Make it a QTE game or push your luck game with death saves. Generate a captain; or, if you're trained, you can captain your own and get double the payout.