May 11, 2011

Look Back: Cities of Mystery

I bought very few TSR products during the dreadful "2nd edition" era, but there is one that has remained as one of my favorite D&D supplements of all time: Forgotten Realms Cities of Mystery. This boxed set has proven to be, and continues to be, one of the most useful sets published.

My own boxed set has long since disintegrated, and the cardboard buildings that came with it long gone. The main booklet though remains on my gaming table as an essential resource whenever I have to run a city adventure.

Of all the adventure types I always find running city adventures to be the most difficult. Give me a good dungeon any day! Even extra-planar adventures on radically strange dimensions are easier to run than a city. The openness of a city combined with the complexity and endless possibilities drives me to madness. I never seem to have the time to develop a proper detailed city before hand, and I find most published city settings to be tedious at best (City State of the Invincible Overlord, the original Thieves' World set, and Lankhmar excepted).

Looking over the credits I see it was written by Jean Rabe and edited by Kim Mohan. Considering that my favorite era of Dragon magazine was when Kim was the editor, and many other TSR products edited by Kim also being some of my favorites I think that may be part of the reason. While Jean Rabe seems to be a very good writer, though nothing else in her bibliography particularly stands out to me.

The first thing about Cities of Mystery that makes it my favorite city resource are the random tables. While there have been many random tables for city encounters such as the excellent one in the original DMG (brazen strumpet!) and in Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets, I find the ones in Cities of Mystery to be the most useful to my campaign. Particularly when I am playing sandbox style. Which is usually the case, though the occasional "adventure path" appeals to me once in a blue moon. These random tables manage to be relatively comprehensive, yet remain easy to use.

I've made a PDF file of the pages I most use, which boil down to 11, 12, 15, 38, 44, & 45.

Mixing Governments (page 11). In previous posts I've discussed how to randomly choose two cultures or government types and combine them to create a new, interesting government/culture. Cities of Mystery beaks government types down to 20 basic different types - convenient for rolling a d20 for. You can quickly roll twice and come up with dynamic combinations like: Magocracy Theocracy. Imagine how the tension of ruling bodies of mages and clerics make for a city! Who has the dominant power? How does that affect daily life in the city?

Putting Life into Leaders (page 12). With two dice rolls, one for alignment another for personality, an influential city NPC can be rolled up. A Chaotic Good Foolhardy council member, a Neutral Evil power hungry sheriff, or a Lawful Neutral soft-hearted mayor all generated on the fly as needed.

City's Defenses (page 15). Whether the town is heavily militarized and defended, or a sitting duck can be figured out instantly. This is very useful, particularly when player's are higher level and operating on city or nation-threatening level adventures.

Business tables (page 38). This is perhaps the most useful section. Player's quickly get tired of the typical tavern and store locations. These tables help the DM to come up with a wide variety of more interesting, and believable businesses. Herbalist, Perfumer, Soap Maker, Wainwright, and so on. These are just a few of the business types I probably wouldn't think of on my own in the heat of a gaming session. I like some of the additional modifiers to business types such as: a shoddy store where the merchant is sour and gruff but actually likes to provide a service to help others. These kind of combinations make for a more interesting encounter than just providing a laundry list of items a store has and not much else in terms of "flavor".

City Encounter Tables (page 44-45). While the business tables are highly useful, the city encounter tables help to keep the game from being stale. Interesting encounters are always right around the next corner. A parade, a pick pocket in progress, an unusual animal running around the streets, or any number of other interesting things can happen. I like that these tables are divided by district type (much like the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheet city encounters are, but these are far more extensive).

Other parts. Like I said, I have long since lost the rest of the boxed set. Though I do remember constructing the 3d cardboard buildings and using them on the map posters that were included and using them a lot, particularly for encounters that required use of miniatures to help visualize the scene.

The cover of Cities of Mystery is one of Larry Elmore's more evocative covers. A classic encounter with the player characters being offered some bauble by a con man, while a wererat lurks in the shadows waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims. Anyone who says Elmore paints nothing but the same heroes and monsters over and over hasn't paid enough attention to the wide variety of inspired work he did for TSR throughout the 80's.


  1. I never even knew this product existed, though I remember seeing the cover art somewhere. I always assumed the big furry guy was a gnoll.

  2. I am fond of the new Vornheim book, which is full of useful random tables for on-the-spot city exploration. I reviewed it here, and there are lots of other reviews around the internet, as it's been quite popular.

    I also quite like one called One Roll Cities, which uses the mechanics of the One Roll Cities engine to generate entire cities in, er, one roll. There was a pdf available, but the site hosting it seems to have gone, but there's a blog post by the same author here that looks more or less the same.

  3. hmm, that could be a gnoll. i always thought is was a badly drawn wererat.

  4. Yeah, pretty sure that's a gnoll.

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