Nightwatch – A Campaign Premise

Bad guards, bad guards, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?


The City Watch. Urban-based. Local problems. Local dramas.

I like to run mono-groups, by which I mean parties that only have 1 class represented. I find the challenge in running these to be on the harder end of the DM-experience scale, and I like to sometimes dip my toes in such heavy waters. The idea behind this campaign premise is a group of watchmen (or women) based in a large city, and the campaign takes place in and around the city environs, as duties permit. The group would start as raw recruits and slowly make their way up the ladder. What's fun about this is you can run a group with varying class levels and these can represent the positions in the Watch. There's no need to keep everyone at parity (and indeed would not make much sense to have 4 Commanders of the Guard!).

I have included some basic ideas and a list of potential plot hooks to fire your imaginations. I hope you enjoy.

The Barracks

Every Watch needs structure and the hierarchy of responsibilities can be as large or as small as you like. I've included a sample for you to take and make your own.

  • Guardsman: This is the recruit position. Guardsmen walk a "beat" and are often the first respondents to the aftermath of crimes or disputes. These guardsmen are put through the meat grinder of street life, and deal with the dregs of society on a daily basis.
  • Sergeant at Arms: These watchmen command small groups of guardsmen and are in charge of rostering, handing out weapons and equipment to active guardsmen and settling internal disputes.
  • Night Watchman: These are watchmen who have proven themselves to be fearless and are given the task of monitoring the city at night, and are given specialized training in tactics and resolution techniques, as well as being responsible for running task forces to tackle various problems that traditional methods have been unable to curb.
  • Captain of the Guard: This is a prestige position and is responsible for overseeing all the squads of Day and Night watchmen, processing all the monthly budgets into tangible assets, and serving as a liaison to the nobles or high courts.
  • Commander of the Guard: This is the top rank, and has all the perks and responsibilities that one would normally expect.

The list of classes allowed by the Watch could be anything, really, depending on your setting and tone, but generally Fighter, Fighter/Mage, Fighter/Cleric, and Paladin would fit, with perhaps Fighter/Rogues, Rangers, or even Druids or Monks serving as "special forces".

Daily Life

Watch patrols are set to run 24/7 in larger cities, as the amount of crime is commiserate with that level of policing. In smaller towns, there might only be Watch patrols until sundown or midnight. In any case, there will be "shifts" that the patrols work during and these will often rotate to keep boredom and complacency from setting in.

Most patrols in large cities travel in groups of 4 and up. In really dangerous areas, the patrols may even number as high as 12. The makeup of these groups varies by setting, DM-style, and need. There may be Fighter/Mages in the Watch, or Rangers, Fighter/Rogues, or even Fighter/Druids or Fighter Clerics. Its really up to you, but these kinds of "special forces" should be limited to being auxillieries in the larger force. For example, there might be a Watch patrol of 6, with 4 being Fighters, and 1 Fighter/Mage and 1 Fighter/Cleric. This gives the watch a lot of flexibility and you can custom design these "loadouts" to suit your requirements. Be creative!

Patrols involve physically walking around the area and interacting with the population. This can be likened to the old "beat cops" who patrolled the same neighborhoods everyday and got to know everyone by name and knew their issues and dramas. The Watch functions the same way, and this type of interaction is what will fuel most of the narrative. Without an outside agency driving the plot (like monsters or epic events), its vital to craft deep, rich NPCs with complex relationships with one another as well as the Watch.

Watch patrols will, if the worldbuilding requires it, check the legal documents of citizens and travelers for everything from citizenship, travel visas, and work permits, to weapon licences and merchant licenses. They will often stop random people for no reason other than pure suspicion or curiosity (or malice in the case of "bad cops").

Local businesses are checked at night, to ensure their doors and windows are secure, and that no one is currently robbing or vandalising the premises. Depending on the size of the patrol area, they may be checked twice a night (or more).

Areas of high security have permanent Watchmen stationed there, and there may be roving patrols or towers with archers or mages to supplement these fixed positions.


Aside from physically apprehending criminals, dealing with the aftermath of crime, and recording information, the Watch gets information from a few different sources, and these can be as simple or as complex as you like.

  • The Locals. These are the best sources of information, and the locals have a vested interest in cooperating with the law, especially those who run businesses.
  • Snitches. These are "one off" NPCs who report criminal activity to the Watch because of some driving motivation that forces them to act outside their normal behavior patterns. The motivation could be guilt, fear, or even a desperate act of deception to achieve some hidden end.
  • Informants. These are criminals who give information to the law for profit, revenge, or because they are being forced by the law to cooperate. They are the most unreliable sources, because they always have some agenda and due to the nature of their activities, might disappear or die without warning.
  • Spies. These are law enforcment agents who are deep undercover and well-placed to deliver trustworthy infomation on a regular basis. They are also the most vulnerable and dealing with them is a balancing act of stealth, deception and timing, lest they be caught and the asset lost.

Crime & Punishment

What is legal and illegal in your setting may vary wildly from the list I've provided. These are only examples. Feel free to amend/alter/toss as you see fit!

Minor Crimes

These crimes are generally handled with an on-the-spot fine or some minor jail time (less than 3 days) or light laboring in service of the city.

  • Minor Theft
  • Graffiti/Minor Property Destruction
  • Cruelty/Assault
  • Public Intoxication
  • Disturbing the Peace

Moderate Crimes

These crimes are generally handled with huge fines or moderate jail time (less than 3 years) or moderate laboring in service of the city.

  • Theft
  • Battery
  • Property Destruction
  • Blackmail
  • Smuggling
  • Sale of Illegal Goods
  • Sale of Illegal Goods

Major Crimes

These crimes are generally handled with severe jail time (up to Life Imprisonment) or physical punishment (like maiming), massive fines, exile, or even forced servitude in service of the party wronged.

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Major Theft
  • Major Property Destruction
  • Treason

Punishment is obviously a major part of the cycle of law. Its up to you to decide what forms these will take, but I would personally shy away from trying to recreate modern paradigms – courts, lawyers, and legal shegannigannery can be fun, but can also bog down the game if not closely monitored (this isn't Depositions & Declarations after all!).

Here are some examples of methods of punishment, but by no means all of them (especially when you add magic to the mix), so please do what fits your campaign:

  • Fines. These are paid on-the-spot, and if they cannot be paid, then the punishment escalates.
  • Public Shaming. This usually comprises the prisoner being forced to wear a sign declaring their crimes, or being confined in a stockade or open cell and being subject to public mockery (and rotten fruit!)
  • Flogging. This is a public beating and is often accompanied by the declaration of the crime and the denouncement of the criminal.
  • Forced Servitude. This is government slavery, whereby the wronged must work for the victim(s) for a period of time in whatever role the afflicted deems is sufficient.
  • Forced Labor. This is a period of time wherein the prisoner must work for the government, and this most often involves manual labor, oftentimes quite dangerous.
  • Confinement. This is jailtime. The nature of the confinement is up to you, obviously, but be creative! This is your chance to play Prison Architect, at least in a worldbuilding sense, if not in actual practice (unless your PCs fuck up real bad).
  • Maiming. This is the removal of appendages, generally, but sometimes eyes or tongues are removed. Lesser maimings would include severe beatings and the breakage of limbs.
  • Torture. While this is sometimes used as an interrogation device, some crueler governments might do this for funzies.
  • Exile. This is being forcibly ejected from a society and forsworn among the populace. Stephen King used this idea to great effect in the Dark Tower series when failed gunslingers were "sent West" into the wastelands.
  • Execution. This is government-sanctioned murder and is often done with pomp and propaganda surrounding the event.

Guilds and Gangs

I've written a lot on the subject, and if you want to start escalating your narratives, I urge you to consider adding in some street gangs, and guilds to spice things up. Here's a list of my posts, but by all means gather info from as many sources as you can!


Having a Villain in your urban games can be great fun, and they don't need to necessarily be the head of a guild or gang. They could be a serial killer, or a grifter, or anything you can imagine. Don't be afraid to add more than one, but be careful that you don't overwhelm yourself. Making flowcharts of the activities of Villains is a good way to keep everything straight in your head, especially if they are involved in long-plots with lots of moving pieces.

Villains don't need to be humanoid, and there are many, many monster types that could fit the bill, and playing around with these ideas will make your games a lot more dynamic.

Here's a short, but obviously incomplete, list to spark your imagination:

  • Beholder
  • Illithid
  • Hag
  • Steel Dragon (but any will do)
  • A nest of Moon Rats
  • Medusa
  • A Kenku flock
  • Aboleth
  • Vampire
  • Any humanoid monster type (just boost their Int/Wis)
  • Awakened Animal, Plant or Object

Plot Hooks (The Urban Dramas)

Here's a sample list to get you started:

  1. A domestic violence calls turns out to be a symptom of a much large secret plot.
  2. A prominent local figure has been murdered and there are conflicting clues.
  3. A drunk has taken his local pub hostage and has wounded several patrons.
  4. Some kids have stolen two wagons and are racing them near the docks.
  5. A new drug has appeared on the street. One with strange effects on the users.
  6. A serial killer is operating here. His signature is up to you 🙂
  7. A slave has escaped from captivity, and has conflicting stories about the perpetrators.
  8. A rash of burglaries has broken out in the rich and poor districts alike.
  9. An illegal fighting circuit is uncovered when one of the participants turns up dead.
  10. A prominent local figure has been kidnapped and the ransom is outrageous.
  11. An arsonist has struck and unless captured quickly, will go on a spree.
  12. A local counterfeit ring is discovered when some locals are found with illegal papers.

I hope this inspires you to try something different and run a game of cops and robbers!




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