Life In The Big City – Gather Information

Once you start running an urban campaign, you start seeing the gaps in the existing rules on a lot of points.  In our case, we had a good number of times where PCs needed to go out into the city and hunt down some piece of information or person.  When we started working through it, I realized there were a lot of gaps that needed filling to make a satisfying play experience.

The rules components you have to work with from the Pathfinder core book and the APs are:

1.  A random encounter table for a given city (with no instruction as to when to roll a random encounter). Maybe I’ve missed it in poring over the Pathfinder RPG and Bestiary, but despite there being random encounter tables, I can find no place where they assign a chance of a random encounter happening.

2.  The Diplomacy skill has replaced Gather Information from 3.5e.  Information on using the skill in this way is light, just saying it’s a variable DC to find out something about a “topic or individual.”  As is traditional, there’s an unclear overlap between this skill and Knowledge: Local when it comes to the practical work of finding a nearby fence for your stolen goods.  Furthermore, there’s no accounting for a check being opposed by someone trying to hide or conceal information.

3.  The “Urban Adventures” part of Chapter 13: Environment in the Pathfinder RPG (p.433) has some other details that may be helpful – kinda.  But not really in this case.

4.  Rumors.  Every AP has a load and every DM loves having a bunch of rumors to pass out, but their incorporation is always an adventure-specific hack.

These are the ingredients, but a recipe is lacking, especially once you hit the intrigue-laden bits of any city campaign.  I wanted to bring all these things – gathering information, random encounters, rumors – into one easy to use system.  Here’s how I put them together.


When the PCs hit the streets, they may have a variety of different goals in mind.  Sometimes they are looking for a specific fact or person.  Sometimes they just want the “word on the street” about what’s going on.  In certain cases they want something else specific to happen – to spread the word about a particular rumor themselves, maybe to provoke or mislead someone.

As a result, someone seeking a specific goal will use a different skill check depending on what they’re trying to find.  Diplomacy/Gather Information is the clear choice for traditional finding stuff out, for example, but you could use Bluff instead to spread a false rumor.  Or Perform to get the peasants all singing a catchy yet treasonous little ditty.  There’s a lot of possibilities here.  Consider rewarding relevant Craft and Profession skills by letting them be used instead when relevant; if you’re looking for someone you hear is a blacksmith, then a relevant Craft or Profession check would be a great way of tracking them down by talking to other smiths, checking at places smiths would tend to buy supplies, etc.  If you are trying to find out when the Midnight Mermaid is setting sail, Profession: Sailor would be appropriate.

In many cases you’ll want to call for a complex skill check for tasks taking more than a cursory amount of time.  Each attempt would usually reflect a half day of asking around, staking out places, fending off streetwalkers and beggars, etc.  You can reflect each success with some kind of in-game description of how they’re getting closer.  “You find someone who says they’ve seen two guys with mustaches like that hanging out around the Wharf District – you can focus your search there.”  If there’s an extenuating factor like “find them before they leave town” or “figure out the cult’s leader before they sacrifice that victim” then the check should be of the “X successes before Y failures” model.

If the goal being sought is simple – a fact or public personality – then the DM simply sets the DC, with perhaps more knowledge available at higher DCs.

“I’m looking for a high quality weaponsmith!”

  • Natural 1 – “Your mother’s a weaponsmith!  She can bang on my sword anytime!”
  • DC 5 – A random blacksmith’s name, probably makes simple weapons only.
  • DC 10 -A decent weaponsmith’s name who has a selection of martial weapons.
  • DC 15 – Otto the retired adventurer reliably makes masterwork blades.
  • DC 20 – Otto hates elves, don’t take your buddy with you if you’re going there, he’ll refuse to help you.
  • Natural 20 – “Oh, I know Otto, tell him Grey sent you and he’ll cut you a deal.”

Sometimes, however, the PCs are trying to track someone down who’s actively trying to conceal themselves.  Or, they need to lay low and thwart other people’s attempts to track them down using these rules!

If someone is just trying passively to stay hidden or hide an item, place, or bit of information, they make a check using a plausible skill to set the seekers’ DC.  If you’re hiding out, you can try Stealth or even Disguise.  If you are in a friendly ethnic enclave, you can try Diplomacy to convince people not to help snoopers.  If you’re going by a fake name, use Bluff.  The DM should see fit to add on bonuses or penalties based on the circumstances.

Keep in mind the quarry may not know specifically that anyone’s looking for them.  Many criminals or other underground figures will routinely be trying to stay somewhat off the public’s radar as part of their daily routine.

Stay flexible and use common sense.  If the PCs are trying to place a false rumor to flush someone out of hiding, their seeker checks might be opposed by the target’s Sense Motive, for example.

Random Encounters

Let’s get an important distinction out of the way first.  There are several different kinds of random encounter charts, derived from different unspoken philosophies of what an encounter should consist of.

The first, which I’ll call the “normal” encounter table, includes a bunch of stuff a PC might come across in a locale, whether it’s a “hostile monster” or not.  These kinds of charts contain everything from peasants to hookers to “Event: someone empties their chamberpot out of a second floor window as you walk by” to real threats.  The first edition AD&D DMG was a great example of this theory of random encounter design, what with the random harlot table.

The second, the “hostile” encounter table, limits itself only to likely combat situations.  A city encounter chart with only “Muggers, press gangs, stirges, and vampires” is a hostile encounter chart.  This kind of chart has become more popular over time as D&D groups who “just want to kill something” don’t want to bother with chatting up some “rich panderer”.

It should be obvious why you need to understand what kind of chart you have in hand – if it’s the former, the chance of encounter should be higher, but if it’s the latter, it should be much lower.

Traditionally in D&D, there’s a flat random chance of having a random encounter.  But there’s a reason native New Yorkers run afoul of trouble less than visiting tourists; an innate knowledge for an area leads to instinctively safer behavior.  You avoid “that street,” know to ignore certain voices calling “Hey Mister!”, et cetera.  Therefore it would seem to me that Knowledge: Local is perhaps a relevant factor. It feels about right to say the chance of encounter in a normal city is when you roll a DC 5 or less for a “hostile” table and DC 10 or less for a “normal” table.  You’d manipulate these chances for special places or times – if the city is wracked by revolution or martial law reigns, crank the DCs up.  (Consider using Survival in the same way in the wilderness.)

Pro tip – consider customizing your encounter table over time.  Have 91-100 be “someone who the party knows” and keep a list of likely people.  PCs love running across people they know, it adds to their sense of belonging in the game world.


Rumors.  The lifeblood of any campaign.  You can always rely on the PCs to spend a bunch of time interacting with your lovingly crafted setting and NPCs if you feed them random information that they think might be amusing to follow up on.  It turns setting information from something you inflict on them using boxed text to something more akin to “treasure I found!” which is innately more motivating.

As with random encounters, there are a couple schools of thought on rumor creation, largely depending on how much work the DM wants to put into it.  Some create a small number of mostly valid and/or important rumors, or even customize them to individual PCs.  Some create a vast host of rumors of varying importance and accuracy.  In this case you want to divvy them up by DC (crappy false rumors=DC 5, etc.).

As the PCs roll their seeker checks, you can give them rumors according to your chosen DCs.  I usually do the “small number of good rumors” approach and give one out on a DC 15, plus an additional rumor for every 5 points of success.  You’d select DC 10 or DC 5 if you had a lot more rumors of varying provenance.

Make sure and hand out rumors you really want them to have first and then hand out the random stuff.

Keeping It Quiet

In some cases, the PCs want to track someone or something down without other people getting wind of it.

If you’re actively seeking but want to keep it quiet, you need choose a skill designed for misdirection to use as you ferret out information.  This could be Bluff (I tell people I’m a merchant from some other city who owes the guy money) to Stealth (I try to overhear conversations more than actually precipitate them) to whatever’s plausible given the circumstance.  Seeking “quietly” doubles the time required to make each seeker check.  The DC for the quarry to detect the seekers’ activity is set at 10+the selected skill bonus.  The seekers can deliberately take a penalty on their seeker checks and add that as a bonus to their keeping quiet check.

The quarry (or other interested third parties) can make seeker checks of their own to determine if someone’s looking for something or someone.

For example, the PCs are looking for a jumpy guy who owes them money.  They decide to take it easy and send a seeker group that has a good Bluff skill of +10 out to find him.  The seeker group searches at the rate of one check per day, and the jumpy guy asks around every other day to see if anyone’s after him – a DC 20 on his Diplomacy check would indicate yes, there’s some guys asking around after him.

Hitting the Streets

All of this boils down to a reasonably simple system for urban information warfare.  The various participants break up into teams as they desire.

1.  Setup

The DM sets the random encounter DC and chooses a random encounter chart, and decides the success DC, how many successes are required, and what those successes mean.

2.  Hide

If there’s an active opposition, the “hiders” roll their check first to set the DC for the “seekers” (if the hider’s an NPC it’s easiest to just take 10 on this check).  If there isn’t, the DM sets the DC based on the availability of the knowledge or whatever is being sought.

3. Seek

Each seeker team makes a DC 10 Knowledge: Local check, the team member with the best score leading and any others assisting.  Rolling below the random encounter DC  indicates a random encounter.  Success indicates that the seeker team has used their knowledge of the city to find a good audience or locale for whatever it is they’re trying to do.  Success gives a +2 bonus to subsequent checks, with an additional +2 for each 5 points by which the team beats the DC.  Each seeker team decides whether they are keeping the search quiet or not, and makes a relevant skill check to seek out their goal.  Time spent and successes are noted and rumors are handed out.

4.  Cover Up

The hider can take time to do their own seeker check against the DC of the seekers’ chosen mode of sneakiness if they want to know if anyone’s looking for them.

Repeat steps 3-4 as necessary.

Playtest: Guerilla Marketing

In this case, the PCs were looking to go out on the mean streets to promote an upcoming animal fight they were arranging; they weren’t specifically looking for information in the traditional sense.  No problem, these rules handle that.  They divided up into solo teams of one to cover the most ground and were not trying to be subtle in any way, confident that the crooked town guard would not care one bit about all this.  I gave them their choice of social skill to use – Diplomacy (“Come see the awesome matchup!”),  Bluff (“You’ll win big if you bet on the bear!”), or Intimidate (“You punks can’t handle carnage like you’re gonna see at this fight!”).  They disperse throughout the city and promote their fight.

Since this was a fairly diffuse goal, it doesn’t have a clear success or failure criteria.  The locals are, in general, all about a semi-legal animal fight.  Therefore I set the base DC at 10, with each increment of 5 above that indicating that more people would hear about the match and come. Each attempt would reflect a half day of work.  They could do as many checks as they wanted to spend the time on until fight night.

The encounter table I was using has both “normal” encounters and “hostile” encounters so I set the encounter DC level to 10.  If any PC rolled below the base DC of 10 while conducting their marketing, it would generate an encounter.

I had prepared a small number (7) of fairly juicy rumors, so set a base DC of 15 to get a rumor, with an extra for every 5 points above.

All the DCs were set, so each PC made their skill check.  1-9 indicated an encounter, 10-14 indicated limited success, 15-19 indicated moderate success and a rumor, 20-24 was good success and two rumors, and so on.

Because most of this group lacks meaningful social skills, they started provoking random encounters, and since they were alone, those encounters didn’t go well.  One PC, trying to drum up business outside the competition’s gambling halls, got beaten insensible by some goons and had his cash stolen.    One got bitten by a monstrous centipede as he sat down to rest outside an alley.  One had a nice chat with a friendly lady who owns a fruit stand (later destroyed by the PCs in the commission of a chase, that’ll show her).  After a day of that they decided to leave off; they got an OK crowd in at the fight night.

Playtest: Manhunt

In this scenario, the PCs had killed off a criminal gang but the leader, the Splithog Pauper, got away.  They decided to hunt him down (and by decided, I mean another crime lord made them an offer they couldn’t refuse and told them to).

The goal was pretty concrete – find him!   He was very much trying not to be found.  His main skill is Disguise at +11, which would normally mean a pretty hardcore DC of 21 for the seekers.  However, when they raided his gang’s headquarters the PCs got an encoded list of various IOUs to various petty criminals and business associates.  Since the Pauper was staying in town and trying to rebuild, this was an extremely relevant leverage point and I gave them a huge +5 bonus for having it in hand.  Also, they got a description of two thugs that may or may not have been affiliated with the Pauper (turns out they were).

The PCs learned their lesson about running around the streets solo.  They split into two teams, one of which was following up on the list of associates and the other of which was talking to various prostitutes and homeless people they associated with to track down the thugs.

They were rolling well, and since each team had several assists they stayed well out of random encounter DC territory, sad to say.  It took them a day and a half to get the five successes I figured were needed to track him down.  They had not been subtle in their inquiries, however, and he knew someone was looking for him, so when they went to the inn he was laying low in, he was disguised and had a bunch of thugs nearby ready to ambush intruders.

5 responses to “Life In The Big City – Gather Information

  1. I’d be very curious to see what your random encounter tables look like, as a possible future installment of this “Life in the Big City” feature.

  2. When I had the time to actually prepare adventures in advance, I handled GI checks with pre-written tables.

    I’d divide the city up into various interest groups (tradesmen, dockworkers, nobles, etc.) and then assign topics to them, and break out each topic into a table of possible roll results. Some of them were dialogue snippets; others might lead into a full-blown encounter (asking the Wrong People about the Wrong Thing).

    Then, when the players wanted to gather information, I’d ask them who they were mingling with that afternoon, and what they’d like to ask about. Bonuses and penalties for relative apparent social status were applied, they made a roll, and got the results.

    This worked pretty well for players who wanted to do information-gathering, but who didn’t feel comfortable relying on their own initiative to find and pursue leads.

  3. Just wanted to say that I really liked all of your “pocket rules”, both the ones for looking for information and the ones for chases.

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