Sunday, 24 January 2021

Exploring Space: Procedure in Different RPG Environments (Part 2)

Part 1 of this 2-part post special can be read here:

In a previous post I look at play procedures in different environments, in the hope that this might somehow "unlock" the secret to running a city encounter. For many readers I'm trying to solve a problem that isn't there, and I'm not going to argue with you: I think this is probably about my own obsession with cities and what they mean. Hopefully something good can come out of it.

Lilith, Anselm Kiefer

Before digging into the urban environment I want to examine the final play procedure: delving. In producing this text it occurred to me that my issues with cities in RPGs is that they can offer the same high risk/high reward scenario that dungeons and other discrete locations can offer, but the procedure for exploring such sites is entirely unsuited for the majority of play within a city.

Anyway, here's my breakdown of dungeoneering. Again: this is not didactic, merely how I interpret old-school style play at my table, ymmv:

Delving: Exploring a Network of Discrete Locations 

The classic RPG scenario since 0e D&D is the delve.

The PCs uncover a discrete location (a building, dungeon or cave) which then (usually) reveals itself to have multiple discrete locations within it (rooms, chambers, corridors, caverns).

Key features of these sites:
  • Generative text: a map with a key.
  • Interconnected locations of relatively small size.
  • No or low light.
  • Hazards and traps.
  • Sparsely populated by inhabitants likely to be hostile.
  • Expected to be high risk/high reward.
  • Risk and reward increase with depth (not necessarily deeper underground, just further from the beginning).
The Lost City, module B4.

The size of these locations is usually small: this is significant as it means moving between locations is measured in a short time frame, usually a ten minute turn. Players discuss the actions of their characters before committing to them. It also means that decisions are made about which routes to take, and a map (whether physical or mental) is constructed of the environment, which in some cases might lead to predictions about secret doors, changes between level etc.

In the low-light environment, resource management will initially focus on the party's light source. This gives them a limited "clock" for the length of their delve. It also means that they have a restricted sensory field, and rely on listening to understand the world beyond their 30' light radius.

They move cautiously through the environment, expecting the structure to be unsound and possibly to contain traps placed by current or previous inhabitants.

Most of the locations they encounter will be uninhabited, but dark corners hide dark creatures: vermin and predatory beasts might lair here... or worse. The party is prepared for encounters to be hostile, but will likely wish to avoid the use of lethal force unless the situation cannot be avoided,

All of this begs the question: why bother going to such a place? Partly because they anticipate that it will grant them some great reward that somehow outweighs the risk involved... but mainly because this is where the drama the players crave is going to occur.

Delves in a Proto-Neolithic World

PARIAH is set in a world where humans are just beginning to develop agriculture and sedentary lifestyles: the PCs are assumed to come from nomadic backgrounds and to find this emerging culture fascinating and possibly frightening.

A world where architecture is in its infancy means that the following delve sites are most likely to be encountered:
  • Cave networks.
  • Abandoned cities, temples and structures of precursor civilisations.
  • Tombs built by existing or precursor culture.
  • Burrows and tunnels of giant animals.
Delving is all about surprise and discovery over short time frames, so I've also considered the possibilities:
  • Incredibly dense corn maze (an amazing maize maze?), meteorite at the centre.
  • Swamp or mangrove shrouded in dense fog: party navigates channels between islands of vegetation by boat.
  • Dense forest with established path: thick canopy prevents light from entering. Possibility of higher levels of navigation (through various levels of canopy, structures of human or humanoid inhabitants or giant spider webs)

Non-mapped Delves

Where the environment is especially complex but still defined by discrete nodes an overall map might be in appropriate: instead of asking the party where they wish to go at every junction, there options might be more abstract (do you want to go deeper? head towards the light? You hear a soft voice calling to you from one direction, whereas to your right the smell of delicious meats being cooked is wafting towards you... or do you want to go back?)

Instead of a map the GM might use any one of the following generators:
  • Series of tables modified by the party's depth (YnnStygian Library) to generate interesting locations. Travel between locations is hand-waved to a large extent. Often generated on the fly, to represent the environment shifting for magical or other reasons.
  • An abstracted map of nodes or points with connections. This could represent a vast forest or small cave network (or a small forest and a vast cave network). Journey between locations is hand-waved. This is one of the methods outlined in Carapace by Goblin's Henchman
  • Somewhere between the two above lies Heart (Rowan Rook and Decard): nodes might be mapped by the GM in advance or generated on the fly. In either case, it is accepted that the map might shift in response to unseen forces beyond the players' control, or in response to PCs' actions. 
  • Hex flower crawl: locations are randomly generated but, similar to a depth crawl, the current depth or location has a bearing on the likely outcome of that random generation. There is a version of Carapace (above) which uses this technique, but it is also utilised in In the Heart of the Delve & Dangerous by the same author.
One of the features of depth crawls and hex flower engines is that the party aren't always given clear choices about how to proceed: it's usually "go deeper" or "go back". Sometimes this choice is removed all together.

Usually a key feature of the delve is exploration based around player choice: however, there are circumstances in which removing (or limiting) this choice make sense in world:
  • The environment is shifting or unpredictable (it is an extra-dimensional micro plane; it exists in the PC's imagination; the party are adrift at sea)
  • The environment is impossibly complex (they are wandering through fog/ a complex labyrinth/ the tunnels of giant ants)
I've written about how different generators might be appropriate to the psychedelic experiences engendered by entheogens in other posts:

Analysis of Procedures

Before finally moving on to cities, I want to think about how the various levels of play have been assessed in the both the previous post and in the above text.
  • Generative text: does this procedure use a map, tables or a combination of both? What is the scale? Do player/characters have access/influence over it?
  • Time: how is time measured? How does this relate to the actions/choices the player/characters make?
  • Choice: What is the frequency and nature of the choices the player/characters make in this environment? How granular (description of individual actions “I pull the lever”) or abstracted (“we go deeper”).

  • Risk: What are the threats to the characters’ resources and safety? How easy are they to avoid?

  • Reward: What do the players hope to achieve by visiting this environment?

Here’s a tabulated summary of my analysis:



Generative text






- Simple map (possibly shared with PCs).

- List of locations and NPCs, usually known to PCs already.

- Hook or rumour generator/ table.

- Hours, days, weeks, months: dictated by “downtime” activity.

- Actual table time varies according to style of play: how much do the players wish to RP? (“shopping episodes”).

- Clear choices with predictable outcomes.

- Largely abstracted: “I’m going to rest up until fully healed.” “2 weeks pass.”

Low to non-existent except:

- Unique adventure scenarios (bar room brawl, trouble at the thieves guild etc.)

- Risk of paying taxes or being charged for crimes (the haven represents order in good and bad aspects).

Low to non-existent except:

- Finding out new leads and hooks for further rewards.

- Cashing in” i.e gold for experience, deeds for reputation.

- Recovering depleted resources (including health, wounds etc.) 


- Hex map (some of which shared with PCs).

- Encounter tables for different areas, possibly modified by other aspects (party size, use of stealth, time of day etc.)

- Possible weather generator.

- Can the party get lost?

- Hours/watches or hexes: party asked to make decisions every few hours of game time. 

- Clear choices with unpredictable outcomes:

- Direction of travel (are they lost?)

- Stop to forage?
- Stop to investigate?

- Marching order?
- Continue or rest?

Low to high: to make choices meaningful, players should be given hints to the threats they are likely to face:

- Wild animals or even monsters.

- Adverse and/or extreme weather effects.

- Hazards (carnivorous plants, rock falls, sinkholes, quick sand etc.)

- Resource depletion, principally food and water (but also health, light, shelter etc.).

- Getting lost.

- Bandits/ rival parties/ foreign powers.

- Exposure to the elements and bad weather effects.

Typical low but include:

- finding food, fuel and shelter.

- Contact with new communities and allies.

- Herbs and spices (including medicine and entheogens).

- Access to high risk/reward sites (“delves”) 

Delve (classic)

- Grid map with key, hidden from PCs.

- Possibly a more abstract pointcrawl type map (if nodes and connections are fixed).

- Encounter and/or activity table (possibly modified by depth, light, noise or other PC choices)

- Ten minute exploration turns.

- Encounters might be broken down into rounds (6 or 10 seconds) or even use real time (RP conversations with inhabitants).

- Infinite range of choices with (sometimes)  unpredictable outcomes.

- Extreme caution exercised.

- Decision points arrive at the start of each turn, most frequent choice relates to direction of travel.

- Understanding that actions are limited by the length of the turn, and become more granular in combat etc.

- Resource management shifts to time, light and health rather than food and water.

- High risk, usually increasing the further the party stray from the entrance, whether that's up, down or just further along…

- Inhabitants assumed to be hostile, but combat is avoided if possible.

- Traps and hazards abound, party responds to seemingly benign objects with extreme suspicion.

High reward: the PCs gamble that the extreme risks will be worth it.

Rewards include:

- Monetary wealth/gold.

- Magical items or artefacts.

- Experience leading to greater personal power.

- Knowledge: both solving a mystery or obtaining a new skill or ability

- Reputation: winning the trust of a community (removing a threat, saving prisoners etc.)

- Personal (character): slaying a nemesis, avenging a falling comrade, rescuing a loved one.

- Personal (player): experiencing drama, solving a puzzle, overcoming challenges, creating a story.

Delve (unorthodox)

An engine (hex flower, matrix or other) to generate nodes/ locations.

Possibly further matrices for how those locations interconnect.

Usually randomly determined, but the outcome might be weighted by player actions (depth etc.)

As above, but time between locations might be stretched out or hand waved in some other way.

Exploration choices might be abstracted (“go deeper or go back”) or removed all together.

Otherwise similar to a classic delve.

Usually high risk, but a short, low risk delve might be carried out for flavour i.e. a “spirit quest” or mild psychedelic experience, dreamstate etc.

As above.


With this all laid out in tabular form I now realise which of these types is best used for a city adventure… all of them!

The one which is least applicable and requires the most modification is the wilderness.  

In this scenario PCs explore or travel through a district in a similar manner to a wilderness hex: the time taken depends on the time of day, crowds, layout and size. Generally, the longer they spend there, the more they are likely to uncover, both in terms of buildings and NPCs as well as random encounters (tailored for the district).

When closely exploring a network of tunnels, a warren of backstreet alleys or a specific building—perhaps wary all the while of unwelcoming inhabitants—it seems reasonable to follow a similar or identical set-up to a delve. The characters are moving cautiously through a potentially hostile environment.

Finally, a more abstracted form of the delve might occur in any circumstances where player agency is removed by in-game conditions such as:

  • Getting swept up in a huge crowd, riot or brawl.

  • Magical incursion in an otherwise mundane city.

  • Visiting an interplanar city that is impossible to map or explore with human logic.



When/ where?



A full explored and safe area of the city.
This could be a room, building, street or even a whole district.

  • Guest house

  • Temple

  • Guild

  • Foreign quarter

Over time the PCs establish their presence, building strong enough relationships with the immediate community to ensure they have at least one haven.

They come to these places to rest, to train and to stow the spoils of their adventures.

(modelled on wilderness)

Entering unfamiliar districts for the first time.

Exploring districts when time is an important factor (locating an NPC, investigating a cult or faction etc.).

The PCs can’t move through cities with impunity: they are big places partly defined by barriers, both visible and invisible.

Random encounters during these journeys present new plot hooks and also add to the sense of the city feeling alive.

(modelled on the classic delve)

Closely scrutinising/surveying/raiding a particular area of the city consisting of linked discrete locations.

  • Sewers

  • Catacombs

  • Royal palace

  • Fortifications or defences

  • Slum warrens

  • Tombs

  • Gardens

  • Covered market

  • Temple complex

Danger is lurking around every corner: the decisions PCs make will have an immediate impact on their well-being. A high risk/ high reward scenario:

  • Spying on an NPC

  • Rescuing or capturing an NPC

  • Stealing an artefact

  • Destroying a threat

  • Acts of terror or insurrection

  • Escaping from imprisonment

  • Searching for hidden truths

Derive (modelled on unorthodox delve)

As above, but the PCs’ ability to anticipate and navigate the space is impeded for some reason:

  • Caught up in a crowd

  • Caught up in a riot

  • Caught up in a bar room brawl

  • Natural disaster (flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption etc.)

  • Winding labyrinths of a tunnel system the GM did not have time to map.

  • Magical incursion causes shifts in geometry.

  • City is magical: impossible to predict, the party lurches from one weird encounter to the next.

This might be beyond the PCs’ control in which case their priority is getting themselves to safety or assisting others caught up in the disaster/riot/brawl to safety.

Alternatively, the PCs may have voluntarily entered this chaotic situation for similar reasons to the above.

I think this provides a neat framework upon which a city can be built, and I feel a little more confident about making city adventures with which I feel comfortable. No doubt this will be followed up with a (Neolithic?) city generation post, but for now sate yourself with this post from earlier in the year:

* * *

Print edition of PARIAH available from Soul Muppet:

Free edition of PARIAH available here (no nice pictures though):

You can buy the wilderness supplement for PARIAH here:


  1. I'm catching up after some time away, but I've been enjoying your neolithic city posts, and this most recent pair has been particularly good. It's a really nice overview of different play procedures, and I like the way you keep linking the big ideas to the specifics of your setting.

    1. Thank you Anne. I think you can probably tell these posts have very much been examples of thinking out loud and they're a little rough around the edges (and also in the middle in many cases) but I'm a great believer in showing one's working! Likewise the "other planar" adventures in *Dusk* and *Death* that I've been writing up as I go... incidentally, your post on procedural generation has been a valuable reference tool for this and other hitherto unrevealed projects. So I'm very grateful!

    2. Sorry the post to which I refer was actually from the December 2019:

  2. So would you then use a grid while exploring new districts?

    1. I think I would reference a main, scaled city map. The new districts would be clearly demarcated and I'd use each district as the equivalent of a "hex". Entering a new district would be like entering a new hex.

      Bigger districts take more time to cross or explore, but then again small crowded districts with lots of winding lanes might also take more time to navigate. Each district would have its own encounter tables, possibly very different by day or night.

      Still a WIP atm but wanted to get some of the ideas down now.

  3. Okay, that makes sense. This would combine nicely with Into the Wyrd and Wild's hex navigation system.