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Sevenscore Thousand Smokes and One: Making Lankhmar Home

The Circle CurseIn such wise Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser returned flat against their oaths to the city they despised, yet hankered after…in any case Lankhmar seemed no worse than any other place in Nehwon and more interesting than most. So they stayed there for a space, making it once more the headquarters of their adventuring.

My Nehwon campaign is – frighteningly – over twenty years old. In that time many characters have come and gone through the gates of Lankhmar City, but only two have ever called it home1). (That is why it is my Nehwon and not my Lankhmar campaign). In this post I will talk about some ways to make your players want to stick around. I'm concentrating on the City of the Black Toga, but of course much of this post could be applied to any fantasy urban setting.

In the early days I think I overplayed the 'city of thieves' bit. Characters would be robbed mercilessly almost as soon as they stepped through the gate. In retrospect, this was the wrong approach. It left characters with the worst taste of the city; they would conclude whatever business they had and get out of town as soon as possible. If you have ever had a bad experience in a foreign city on your first and only visit, it is likely to have similarly darkened your opinion of that place forever.

Lankhmar is undoubtedly a city of great interest and with many hooks to adventure, as well as a multitude of available goods and services. Centrally located in Nehwon it can be a base of operations as well as an adventure locale in its own right. But it is important in a game to get the balance right between adventure and rest. Here are some ideas.

Bolt-hole

Don't underestimate the lure of free rent. If players have a place they know they can come back to; maybe even store some stuff safely (perhaps in a hidden nook), it can be very reassuring. This can be an abandoned building, or a friend's house or shop, even an unused tower above the walls or a former enemy's abode. Or of course, something more exotic, like the Mouser's Bones Alley nook or the stolen house of Duke Danius. A safe-house is a good way to make Lankhmar more palatable as a permanent base. If offered as a reward for an adventure, it can be even more effective in enticing players to put down some roots.

Guilds and Cults

Lankhmar is full of guilds. Every profession is represented. For a few rilks you can be off the streets, surrounded by colleagues who understand you. (Not like that other guild on the seedier side of Carter Street, maybe that's something you could help with? For a suitable reward of course.) Perhaps you need help finding your way around, or you get into an unfair fight; your guild might back you up.

Similarly every known (and some unknown) religion can be found somewhere on the Street of the Gods. Which god does your character worship? Where in the Street is their temple? Can the priests of your cult help you in the city, or perhaps you could do them some small service (perhaps in exchange for a bolt-hole as described above)?

The trick with these I think is to make the guilds and cults active recruiters. So, unlike modern bureaucratic and unresponsive trade organisations, these people would be out on the streets actively looking for new members/cultists, taking especial note of any newly-arrived but possibly like-minded individuals in the city. Once the characters have joined a few guilds or cults for their own benefits, the organisations can become sources of both aid and adventure, and help to establish the characters in the social fabric of the city.

Unexpected friends

Lankhmar is a cosmopolitan city, with strangers from all parts of Nehwon regularly rubbing shoulders in the streets. Not everyone in the city should be out to get the player characters. Many people may even be particularly friendly (though usually with some kind of ulterior motive – it is Lankhmar, after all). Most of this comes out through roleplaying, but people who view the players favourably might be folk of the same ethnic background or even clan; the guild and temple recruiters mentioned above; potential lovers (the Overlord's bored niece or the swaggering sailor just in from Kvarch Nar with a pouchful of cash – or Hisvet, looking for a new pain-puppet to toy with) or just those who have been favourably impressed by the adventurers' deeds. Certainly Lanhkmar can throw up unexpected allies as well as foes. The trick is, I think, to let the friends be a bit more forthcoming early on if you want your players to like the city and want to stay.

To sum up, characters (and players) will like a place more if they have some positive experiences there, preferably early on. Positive social interactions with the inhabitants as well as a bit of City real estate, no matter how small, can encourage characters to set up their base in Lankhmar. Once they have made an emotional investment in the city, it enables them to participate in much richer and more ongoing urban adventures.

1)
One of these, a freelance thief named Fritz the Pulverizer had just one adventure; after acquiring a chest of jewels from the catacombs beneath the city he married a local girl called Annelle and retired in a mansion opposite the Park of Pleasure. He didn't quite live happily ever after and his wife became a feared river pirate of the Hlal, but that's another story.