Building a City Guide

Cities are one of the most fun places to experience the game. They are also extremely difficult for a DM to administer due to the lack of monsters (usually) and terrain. They are seen as boring, and only good for having a character home or party base-of-operations, a place to put the PlawtHooke Tavern, and a giant Wal-Mart for dumping all your treasure. For some types of groups, this is fine. I, however, like my cities to teem with experiences that the players simply cannot experience out in the wild. I drew my first city as a lark. I was a brand-spanking new DM and needed a place for the party to begin their adventuring lives. I wanted to use a city, so they could all be from the same area and so that they all knew each other without having to do some elaborate riverdance with their backstories to get them together.

The city was born. It was a single sheet of graph with a bunch of boxes with numbers in them. I know I have it in my archives somewhere still. I wrote down all the usual places I had seen in cities and towns from all the modules I had played in over the preceeding years. Then came the time to actually run the game. Know what I spent a ton of time doing? Looking up numbers on my list. We ended up circling one of them (the tavern. big surprise eh?) just so I didn't have to keep looking it up.

It was a pain in the ass.

So I redrew the city and made bigger boxes this time. Ones I could write in. Bliss. Over time, as the campaign grew and grew, and the party kept returning to the city, I kept adding things, like street names. I added statues and parks in the blank areas of the map. Any place I had a tiny bit of white paper, I tried to put something there. Over time the city became its own unique place. Sure it had a blacksmith, and a weapons merchant, an inn and several taverns (I branched out), and the Fighter's Guild, all the usual places, but the Fighter's Guild was on Salt Street, next to Mareth Park, and I knew that a group of homeless kids hung out round the back at night because the party had had several run-ins with them over the months, and the encounters always seemed to happen near the Guild. I knew that Fat Teddy had a sausages-in-rolls stall near the alleyway to Trenchtown because one of the party members had a shouting match with him (when he was just Ted) and everytime the character went by, he'd yell out, "Eat shit, Fat Teddy" (it always sounded like a capitol "F" to my ears, anyway).

This wasn't just a city. This was my city.

Here's how you can build yours.

If you have seen my comments lately (and how could you not, I'm like bad breath, turn around and I'm there), you'll know that my DM style comes from the "Ask Questions" School of Design. So let's ask ourselves some.

Where is this city in the world?

Why is it there?

How many people live there?

What is the racial makeup?

Is the city walled? Or protected by any natural features?

What is the government?

What kind of legal system, if any, is there?

What are the main Temples/Shrines/Cults/Whatevers?

What is the city's means of income? Do they produce raw goods, or finished, or luxury, or all three?

How does the city get its food?

What is the economy like? Is the city rich? Or poor? Or somewhere in-beween?

Are there any Guilds?

These are basic questions. They are boring as shit, I know. But by doing this, you'll make a city that makes sense to you and your players. It will operate along the same lines that you are used to reading about, and experiencing on a daily basis in the real world. Once you get a grasp on that, then you can branch out and start actually getting to the good bit.

SHOPS AND BUILDINGS AND HOUSES OH MY

Once you have decided how large your city will be, then you can get down to deciding how many buildings there should be. People like to build their cities large, when thinking about population, and I think that's because our modern cities are massive, so they scale down from there, but you should really scale that down again, because the larger you go, the more buildings you need to draw, and trust me when I say this, there is nothing more terrifying than 4 huge sheets of paper taped together covering the entire table and 800 boxes to fill in and you got NO IDEA WHERE TO BEGIN.

Start small with your first. Go for a city of 5,000 or 10,000. Aim for maybe 50 buildings. That might seem like a lot, but once we start listing stuff, it will fill up quick.

Start with housing. Its always overlooked and its the hardest thing to add in later if you forget (trust me. although you can retcon the fuckup and just say everyone lives outside the main part of town, but that's kinda weird, especially if your city is walled).

I've done this two ways. I've actually drawn in 100 tiny squares in rows and columns to make a neighborhood, or you can just square something off and write, largely, "Example District" or whatever you will call the area. Some faint grid lines to loosely represent streets is ok too. For every 2,500 people in your city, add 1 neighborhood. Name them. Name the streets too if you go with the first method of actually adding the houses. You can put tiny numbers in the houses for exact addresses too, which is fun. "Yeah meet me at my place. I'm #7 Dusty Lane" and then point to it. Its awesome.

Now the fun bit. Shops and other stuff.

The larger your city, the more stuff there is to do, buy, visit and potentially rob, burn down, send to another plane of existance or use as a focal point to raise Cthulhu (again).

Break your building list into general categories. I use these:

• Merchants

• Entertainment

• Guilds

• Inns/Taverns/Brothels (ITB)

• Craftsmen

• Government Buildings

• Public Services

• Security

• Religion

• Decoration

Again, depending on the size of your city, the more things will be here. Larger cities will definitely have more craftsmen, and since you already know how the city makes its money, you already know what the production chain will be and can write down the appropriate buildings to support those economic streams. (You can tell I played a lot of Sierra/Impression games in the past, eh? Ahhh..Pharoah, I owned you, bitch)

The larger the city, the more of each kind of craftsmen can exist as well. No way is one blacksmith serving a city of 10,000. These create rivalries which you can spin plot from as well, but that's a different post. Multiple merchant types as well are fine. Don't put 8 jewelery stores in a city of 10,000, but 2 or 3 is ok.

Start with a basic list though, and fill them in first. If you start doing multiples from the beginning, you'll run out of buildings to fill in and be stuck.

So let's examine the categories and give some examples, although most will be obvious.

• Merchants sell goods of any kind to the public. Examples include jewelry stores, furniture stores, weapon dealers, armor dealers, decorative items stores, clothing and book stores.

• Entertainment includes anything that is fun and isn't drinking or sex. Examples include zoos, libraries, museums, art galleries, circuses, sporting arenas, dance halls, theaters, music halls, and even blood sports.

• Guilds are organizations dedicated to promoting one particular kind of profession. Members get benefits by joining such as being able to visit any guild house in any city that is affiliated with the home guild, discounts on profession-related items, training, and even special treatment at sponsored shops/whatever in the city itself. Examples include Fighters and Mages guilds, Craftsmen and Sailors guilds and even Cartographer and Bardic guilds.

• Inns/Taverns/Brothels (ITB) should be obvious. Use the same population-to-building ratio as we used in determining areas of housing to figure out how many of each of these places are in a city. Brothel, is of course, optional.

• Craftsmen are exactly that. People who take raw goods and create finished goods. Examples are almost endless with Blacksmith, Carpenter, Bowyer, Fletcher, Armorer, Weapon Smith, White (or Gold) Smith, Perfumer, Glassmaker, Cooper, Joiner, Limner, Clockmaker, Shoemaker, Leather Smith, and Wainwright.

• Government Buildings are both the housing for the nobles of the city, and the actual buildings where the government does its business. Examples include Palace, Courts, Asylum, Currency Exchange or Bank, School, Army Barracks or Stables, Freight Warehouses, Officer housing, Embassies and Public Execution areas like a gallows or guillotine.

• Public Services are places where the public can get help from the government, usually, but some Religions or other groups could run these. Examples include Hospitals, Guide or Messenger Services, public wells, Records or Information buildings, public housing (like a hostel), soup kitchens, or other social services like Veteran's Care.

• Security is anything directly related to keeping the city safe. These have some cross-over with Government buildings sometimes. Examples include Watchtowers, Gatehouses, Watch Barracks, Impound or Customs Yards, Jail, Holding Cells (before transferred to the Jail) and Armories.

• Religion encompasses actual Temples, which are large, well-staffed and sometimes house artefacts or other divine objects; Shrines which are usually much smaller, and with only a few staff (or none), and Cemetaries. 1 boneyard per 50,000 people is sufficient, I've found.

• Decoration is anything that improves the city. Examples include statues, parks, fountains, commons, courtyards, gardens and ponds/lakes.

So you can see there are a helluva lot of things you can come up with if you think about them for a minute. Sometimes (oftentimes) you will have too much.

So what you want to do is decide what things are in the city and fill in the categories until you have as many buildings as you have empty boxes on your map.

Now the hard part. Names. Oh yes. You need to do a LOT of naming, and its not easy. You will quickly find that the "punny" or obvious-type names will be your default. This is not always a bad thing, as you can tell what the building is just by looking at the name, and it will be easier for your players to remember what those places actually are.

So you've drawn your map. You've made your buildings list and you've actually filled everything in. Now what? Now you will need encounters to bring it all to life. I have a large city encounter table that I posted previously that can serve as a template for you to customize for your own cities. Every city's encounter tables should be different in many areas. Sure, some things can be the same, but the interesting bits of your city should get entries on the table. Mine, for instance, have specific religious encounters that are specific to my deities and temples/shrines/cults.

/u/Tunafishsam had a great comment and I asked his permission to add this to the main body of the post.

Couple thoughts to add. First, most cities have a distinct lack of urban planning and no building codes. Thus, buildings will butt up against each other and form long blocks.

Twisty alleys will snake between them. Knowing what alleys go where and which ones dead end is pretty handy information in a chase scene or running fight.

Second, cities operate on the same principles as people: food and water go in, and shit and piss come out. So areas near gates will frequently have farmer's markets. Cities need water, so think about how that works. Is there a river where people get water from? An aqueduct that runs from the nearby hills? Public fountains scattered through the city provide landmarks. Especially when they are unique fountains that give color and history to the city. So Conqueror's Square might have a statute of a famous king mounted on a rearing steed. Dolphin plaza might have a bunch of leaping fish spouting water from blowholes or mouths. Fountains should reflect the character of the city by illustrating what the locals find important.

Sewers also are fantasy staple. They are usually only present in large, well developed cities. But sewers lead to all sorts of fun under-city concepts. On the other hand, rinky dink cities can be characterized by stinking trenches of human waste that flow down the city streets. Nightsoil carts might make the rounds each to collect chamberpots, or people might just empty them out the nearest window, possibly on the heads of wandering PC's. Is waste dumped into the river or harbor? Or is there a giant mound on the outskirts of town. This area would also be where the slums are.

Another thing to think about is whether streets are cobbled. Most small towns will just have mud in between buildings. Fancy buildings might build boardwalks to keep the high and mighty out of the muck. Only bigger/wealthier cities will have cobbled streets. If they are, that means there's also a quarry nearby that supplies rocks, or there might be giant kilns that churn clay into bricks.


CHOOSE YOUR DIFFICULTY

The cunning DM evaluates his free time, his party's level-of-commitment, and his style of DMing when approaching the task of creating a city for D&D. The task before you is as complex as you'd like it to be. There are no rules when it comes to doing this. This post is only a suggestion, its not the One True Way, and you are encouraged to take what you like and toss the rest (or toss all of it and do something even better!) Cities can become timesinks, and you can very easily get caught up building this multi-layered construct that dances to your design and lose sight of what's really important – fun.

  • No Map: This is the easiest version and one that requires less preparation on your part, but more improvisation. In the no-map approach, no shops/buildings/whatever exist until your party asks after them. "Is there a blacksmith in town?" – "Yes, its about a ten minute walk, up Muckleham Street." You create a list of all the places the party visits. Maybe write down some NPC names if you know them. This is still a map, yeah? Its just not built with pictograms. Keep adding to the list as needed and amend when necessary.

You don't need a list of goods for sale either. Ask the party what they are looking for. If its something normal, then the merchant has the item and you can negotiate the price. If its something unusual (a village blacksmith won't usually have an elven masterwork blade just lying around), then you can roll to see if the merchant has the goods on hand. I'm a dinosaur, so I tend to use a percentile roll. The d20 doesn't have enough probability slots for my liking, and I prefer the nuance of the d100. Set the probability to whatever you like, but for unusual goods, 20% is a good place to start.

You will need some random encounters. Some basic descriptions of streets or neighborhoods or districts (depending on how far you want to drill down into the infrastructure). Some basic history of the city itself. Maybe a stat block for the Watch patrols. No Map doesn't mean No Work. You are the DM, and nobody else is gonna do it.

  • Partial Map - This method involves creating a mostly blank map with some highlighted features labelled, like the tavern, the blacksmith, the provisioner, the temple, etc…, but a partial map works the exact same way as the no-map approach – build only what you need, on demand. Write down anything you create

  • Full Map - If you are like me, then you want a full-blown city map with every building, street, alleyway, park and feature labelled. I do this because I love to look at the players' faces when they see it and marvel at "all the stuff to go and do!" This is also the most work. You will need to not only come up with a list of every single thing in the city, but you'll need to physically create the map (I draw by hand as its faster for me, but digital versions are amazing if you have those skills). But yeah, you got a shitload of work ahead of you. The main difference between this approach and the Partial/No Map approach is that you write all the things you create down beforehand, and then seed the map with them. This allows you to control the theme from the start, instead of maybe having a mish-mashy town, which are ok too, that's how real cities start anyway, but when you are on your 5th or 6th city, that approach can get stale. Planning, for me, is easier as a DM. You use what works for you. The advice to follow will apply to all methods.

WE BUILT THIS CITY ON ROCKET-TROLL

Ok Architects. Popquiz time. Get out your clipboards.

  • Where is this city located. What makes this location unique? – Is the city on the coast, or along a river, or near a crossroads, bridge, mine, forest, or whatever? WHY IS THIS CITY HERE, in other words, and not somewhere else? Give it a bit of history. Connect it to at least 1 other thing in your world. Its a city, it needs to trade to survive. Mercantilism is the bread and butter of D&D. Embrace it.

  • How does the city survive, economically? Based on location, you can start deciding what the income streams are for the settlement. What gets produced? What gets exported? What gets imported? Go grab yourself a copy of "Grain Into Gold" and start off on the right foot. If you want to keep it basic, you could quickly create 5 base income streams that feed into more advanced end-products, such as:

  • Mining – Creates industry, weapons, armor, tools, etc..

  • Farming – Creates food, artisanal goods, wines, beers, etc…

  • Fishing – Creates food, boatmaking, sailmaking, ropemaking, etc…

  • Forestry – Creates fuel, carpentry, furniture makers, etc…

  • Husbandry – Creates food, leatherworkers, woolmakers, etc…

Thats a very basic look at it, and there are other base incomes that could go on that list, but the point is that you want to start small and then grow into something large in your thinking about how the city survives. Once you figure out what the city makes then you can figure out what the city does.

  • Who lives here? Is it multi-cultural? Why do these folk live here and not somewhere else? – This is the foundation of the social layer you will need to add. Who's on top and who's on the bottom, economically is an obvious thing to see, but the byplay of race and status is something else entirely. The percentage of folk matters a great deal as well. If the 1% are small in number, then you need to think of the reasons why they are still in power, especially if the 99% is very downtrodden. You can play with the percentages all you want once you lay down the races. Mix them up and have a 5-minute think about how that would change things when you include how the city survives and its location in relation to the rest of the world. People matter. In a city, that's the Prime Maxim. Never forget it.

ALPHABET CITY

The first thing you should do is to sit down and break the city into sections. You can do this as large or as small as you like, but I tend to go with neighborhoods. You can do districts if you want a larger scale, or streets, if you want a smaller one.

What is the purpose of neighborhoods? Put simply, it gives each section of the city its own flavor. The docks are going to have different shops, different people on the streets, and maybe even different architecture from, say, the merchant quarter.

So break the city up. Here's some common categories:

  • Docks/Shipyards
  • Merchant/Retail
  • Merchant/Manufacturing
  • Industrial/Factory
  • Craftsmen
  • Nobles
  • Temples
  • Academic
  • Military/Prison/Asylum
  • Entertainment/Arts/Parks/Sports

The Temple district is going to be vastly different from the Military quarter. Each neighborhood needs its own distinct set of parameters. Keep in mind that list was just a suggestion, not a comprehensive list.

BREAK IT DOWN

  • Name
  • Description
  • Population
  • Random Encounters
  • Notable features

Arts Quarter: Set in a wide thoroughfare, this neighborhood is lined with fruit trees, flowering trees, and gardens in and amongst parklands and shady bowers. There are museums, galleries, open air art spaces, an open air stage, and numerous buskers plying their trade on a daily basis. The architecture is mostly baroque, the evolution of design on the traditional elven and human classic style that dominates the rest of the city.

People and artists of all races congregate, relax, perform and entertain here.

  1. Groups of rowdy elven youths, intoxicated, and loudly exclaiming their mockery, amazement, insights and jokes.
  2. Mixed race groups of all ages, being led by one of the paid Guides who show tour groups around all the cultural sights.
  3. Many races of buskers, performing every manner of artistic expression, from poetry to interactive dance.
  4. Wealthy patrons stroll with bodyguards and take great pains not to mingle with the crowds.

Encounters

  1. A street magician is performing his act and delighting the crowds. You notice, however, that there is something quite odd about his face, as if an illusion was flickering.
  2. Food vendors have set up carts up and down the boulevard and many are offering free samples.
  3. Musicians stroll the streets, playing requests for small coin and all but one (playing a crumhorn) are quite good.
  4. A young elven maiden is handing out flyers to passersby. (If one is taken) The flyer reads, "TONIGHT ONLY! An exclusive audience with Lars Sparrowdown from the supergroup, "Thrashgnome" – tickets 50 coins (includes a free portrait!)

!! Features !! There is a large statue of a lyranthe near the Museum, carved 300 years ago by Dahruk Isske, dwarven artist and Masterbard, and its titled, "Muse". Tradition holds that any musician who pays homage to Ars Musica in front of the statue, and gifts a copper piece into the poorbox, will have a great performance. This unfortunately has drawn ruffians and other scoundrels after dark, and the Watch pays little heed to complaints from bards and performance artists.


That's just one way of doing this. You create a little blurb for every neighborhood and you give each place its own flavor, its own encounters, and it becomes more than just a bunch of streets, instead it becomes YOUR street in YOUR city, and is unique to YOU. Isn't that what we want? To personalize our creations? Neighborhoods allow us to do that with ease.

Names are very important. They can be as obvious or as obscure as you like, but they should be something that you enjoy saying out loud. I'll never tire of "Big Bad Bart's Bloodpit Bar & Grill".

Here's a list of names to inspire.

CAN YOU DIG IT?

Once you have laid out your neighborhoods, you'll need to populate them with factions. These can take myriad forms and go a long, long way to giving your city even more of a personal feel.

So what are these factions, exactly?

  • Street Gangs – These criminal elements can be as weak or as powerful as you like. You can have only a few strong ones, or hundreds of weak ones, or any method in-between. They should have evocative names (The Bone Street Killers, The 16th Street Jump) and should be led by strong personalities.
  • Rogue Guilds – You can read my posts on them here and here
  • Mage Guilds – I wrote about them here
  • Bard Guilds – There's a post that obliquely talks about them here
  • Fighter Guilds – These generally come in two forms: Mercenaries-for-hire, and training organizations. Oftentimes they supplement the military or militia in times of need.
  • Trade Guilds – Strong Guilds oftentimes are the ones who actually run the cities, or at least need to work with the government. Wars between guilds can be open and bloody or subtle and terrifying.
  • Temple Clergy – Temples need strong clergy to make a lasting impression. You can read about how to build a religion here
  • Political Groups – Any number of groups working for change can be prominent players in the city, from oldmoney secret organizations to radical subversives or anything in between.
  • Social Groups – Don't overlook the lighter aspects of factions. I once had a Kite Flying Club in one of my cities that got caught up in a massive conspiracy. Be creative and don't be afraid to do something lighthearted.
  • Academic Groups – Scholars will oftentimes organize to discuss specific aspects of philosophy or to effect change at the political or social level. The level of secrecy in these groups is entirely up to you.
  • Bubble Groups – This is a word I made up to categorize groups of people that come together for only a short time before dispersing. Grass-roots movements and fad-of-the-day groups often fall under this category.

The more factions you add, and the more connections you string between them, the deeper and richer the city's experiences will be.


START AT THE BEGINNING AND WHEN YOU GET TO THE END, STOP

Looming before you are the walls and bailey of the grand city of Hippopolari. A long line of visitors stretches back nearly a half-mile; wagons piled with produce, carrying chickens in willow baskets, merchants in fussy clothing bearing goods from every quarter of the known world. The Watch is inspecting every entrant, and some are pulled out of the queue and their belongings are searched thoroughly – every 1 in 10 are hauled off in chains for trying to bypass the tariffs or smuggling some illegal good through the gates. Its Market Day and you are in for a long wait.

Description, the staple of the DM, is more important than ever when in an urban environment. Little things can set off a riot of images in your listener's minds. You should consider the following when doing any kind of description (regardless of the setting)

  • Time of Day

  • Weather

  • Sights

  • Sounds

  • Smells

  • Architecture

  • Size of Crowds

This isn't as daunting as it sounds. ALL of these things can be accomplished in 2 or 3 sentences. Here's an example:

You emerge from the Laughing Troll around sunset. The wind is cold and the crowds have started to thin. All around you tall brick buildings reach for the sky, and the rotting smell of garbage sours your nose. A few Watchmen clatter by on horseback, but for the most part, the street is empty.

What does that convey to you? The dark, the cold, the sweet-sickly smell of rotting garbage and the emptiness of the streets? Do you feel it? Can you see it? That's the real key here. YOU need to be able to picture what you are saying. If you can't see it, your players won't either.

You will, of course, find your own level when playing with your group. Some may want heaps of description, others will want very little. Find what works for you and your players and remember that you are literally their eyes and ears, so don't leave things out!

WELCOME TO OZ

Your party finally gets through the gates. You may or not have a map. If you do, you want to show it to them, right? Nearly all of my cities use the same conceit: right as you enter a small child is selling maps for cheap (1 coin). Now they have a map (or not). They will want to go somewhere, most likely, as they probably came here for a specific reason. You can show (or tell) them where they are now and then show (or tell) them where they need to go. You can give an estimate of how long it will take to walk (or ride if the city is massive and walking would take too long).

You then need to start dicing encounters. Now keep in mind that these ARE random encounters, the same as you would have in any city that you are in right now. Most of these encounters are passive - the party decides whether or not to interact with what's going on. The rest are active, in that the encounter directly interacts with the party.

Some examples

Passive

  • A merchant is selling X by the side of the road. A small crowd has formed.

  • A musician is playing ballads on his lyranthe. A tin cup full of small coins is at his feet.

  • A woman suddenly screams and points towards a fleeing figure, yelling, "THIEF! THIEF!"

Active

  • One of the party members is pickpocketed

  • A random person in the crowd suddenly points at one of the party members and shouts, "THERE HE IS! CALL THE WATCH!"

  • A woman collapses in front of one of the party members and knocks into him.

For every "city block" that the party traverses, I roll one encounter die (I use a d6, and if a "1" comes up, its an encounter). How big is a block? Well if you are using a map, that's really up to you, but maybe every 10 buildings or so. If you aren't using a map, then just set an arbitrary number and roll. You could even just roll once or twice per neighborhood.

I describe what they are seeing and smelling and how the crowd changes as they travel. I try to keep them in that moment, of being in the streets. That's very important. Keep them focused.

Keep in mind that the party may choose to interact with all, some, or none of your encounters. They could very easily get sidetracked. That's ok. That's story and that's what you want. The party may even split up. That's ok too. Use the method I described in the linked post and you'll be fine. Your party may engage in a chase (here's a chase in story form). Or they may completely ignore everything and head right to the place they came here for. That's all fine. Let them pursue what interests them.

Maybe they meet a beggar child and the kid says something like "Thanks! Remember to avoid the Green Door on Bullcrap Street!" and the party starts talking about this door. Now, you just made up the green door thing. But if your party brings it up outside of the encounter, then you need to make that door into something.

You must get right with making stuff up on-the-spot. Especially in a city, as there are so many places to go and so many people, that you will need to get used to drawing connecting threads through things that may not have any obvious connection. This is a skill and it must be practiced. So don't worry if you don't feel like you are doing a very good job. It takes years to master the skills a DM needs, and we were all crap once (believe me). Its ok. /r/DMAcademy (and /r/DndBehindTheScreen) has your back!

THERE ARE A MILLION STORIES IN THE NAKED CITY

You may want to make up some plot threads for your city. I don't do that, but lots of you no doubt will want some sort of framework. A city has every conceivable way to let you run nearly any idea that you can think of. The hardest part is incorporating monsters. Sure, you can have some in the sewers (if there are any) or through some sort of invasion, but for the most part, urban stories are stories about people (whatever their humanoid race). Its up to you to make the city as gritty or as light-hearted as you'd like. Decide while you are designing the city what the "tone" is going to be, and build accordingly. High magic, low magic, no magic, all those things play a role in the theme of the city.

Keep your threads chunky and layered. Don't just have a Rogue's Guild pulling some heist. Add layers. Maybe the target is someone deeply involved in a rival guild, or is doing some really illegal things, or has some powerful artifact. Maybe there are other Guilds vying for the same prize. Maybe a cadre of Paladins has gotten wind of the job and are waiting to spring an ambush.

Intrigue is your friend in a city. Everything should be connected to several things. Nothing exists in a vacuum in a city. As you create threads, and others fall away, disused, keep everything moving. NPCs have lives, too. They go to work, they go out after work, they go home. They have ideals, goals, plots, secrets, and they should feel as real as any PC. Don't just move the pieces around when the PCs are around. This isn't Minecraft, and there are no "chunk unloads". Everything is moving all the time. Create countdown timers if you must – even for little things. Roleplaying in a city often comes down to the small things.

Maybe your party's mage really wanted to buy that elven armoire he had his eye on, but he slept late and when he gets to the shop, its gone. Someone else bought it and yeah, maybe its just a stupid thing that your mage said he wanted, but he said he wanted it so that makes it important, and that means it should be important to you! There could be some plot in that armoire. Or it could just be a piece of furniture and the mage suddenly finds he has a rival ("Hello, Newman.") The point is that in a city, there is very little downtime. Every time they take a walk, story can find them. If they go out to piss at midnight, there could be story waiting to jump out and scare them. Every time they shop there could be a story that's 50% off.


Questions

Its up to you to decide the level of overall wealth, lifestyles and amenities in your cities.

  • Is poverty common?
  • Are people generally literate or illiterate?
  • What's the level of healthcare?
  • How much security is there?
  • What's the government like?
  • How robust is the economy?
  • How prevalent is magic?
  • How much faith is there?
  • How much entertainment is there?

Answering these questions will give you an instant snapshot of the kinds of businesses, services, and the kinds of people you are likely to meet.

Is poverty common?

If your answer is yes, then there will be lots of homeless people and lots of beggars. Crime and disease is probably rampant, and most people are probably crudely armed with clubs and knives. If the government is oppressive or the security is high, then the level of underground criminal organizations is probably quite high, and the people will only cooperate with the authorities if forced. Businesses will have a lot of defensive measures (strong doors and locks, bars on windows, guards or guard dogs on the premises, and depending on the prevalence of magic, some magical protections).

Are people generally literate or illiterate?

A high level of illiteracy means that the method of disseminating information is going to be through word-of-mouth, town criers and public proclamations. Libraries will be virtually non-existent, although literate nobles will probably have their own private collections. Schools and universities will also be rare, or perhaps reserved for the wealthy elite. Wages will be low, and the bulk of the workforce will be low-level laborers.

The opposite will be true. Literate societies will have public libraries and universities. Education would be available from a young age to all but the poorest families. Wages will be higher and more specialist NPCs like sages, cartographers, and the like will ply their trades there.

What's the level of healthcare?

In history, disease was rampant in the Medieval period, but in the game, this wouldn't be much fun. However, the level of healthcare should have some impact. If the city is wealthy, it stands to reason that there is a reasonable health system. This would most likely be administered through a religious group (The Temple of the Deity of Life/Health). Clerics could have an actual hospital set up, or clinics scattered around the city.

If the wealth level is not so high, there could still be a level of healthcare at the grass-roots level, e.g., Clerics who visit people in their homes and perhaps have an open clinic once a month in the marketplace or large open area. If the city is quite poor, then there will be a lot of epidemics and sickness sweeping through the populace on a regular basis.

Terrain will play a large role too, as cities that are near swamps are often subject to more sickness. Poor cities will often have "hedge witches" who know about basic first aid and midwifery, but are ill-equipped to deal with more serious problems.

How much security is there?

Security can take a number of forms; from a militia, to a city watch, to an actual army. Mages and Clerics could be involved. There could be permanent magical defenses or surveillance positioned throughout the city. There could be Urban Rangers or Urban Druids who patrol the "green spaces" or parts of the city itself. Animals could be involved. Or even helpful spirits.

It also doesn't have to be that formal. In a less secure city there could only be a Neighborhood Watch-type element.

The more security you have, the less criminal elements will be present (or at least severely suppressed), and the reverse is true. In a high-security city there may be a lot of bureaucracy - ID papers, weapon licenses, travel documents and the like may be required.

In a low security city, there will be plenty of Thieves Guilds who control the city. There would be lots of crime and lots of death/assaults in the streets.

Executions would be driven by mob-rule, whereas in a high-security city there would be formal declarations of crime and any number of punishments – from imprisonment, to execution/mutilation to public shame to exile.

What's the government like?

I don't use alignments for PCs anymore, but I've found that using them to define governments to be quite helpful. Keep in mind that not all alignments would apply to all government types. A chaotic government wouldn't usually be a bureaucracy (although that could be quite hilarious).

Here's a list:

  • AUTOCRACY – Government which rests in self-derived, absolute power, typified by a hereditary emperor, for example.
  • BUREAUCRACY – Government by department, ruling through the heads of the various departments and conducted by their chief administrators.
  • CONFEDERACY – Government by a league of (possibly diverse) social entities so designed as to promote the common good of each.
  • DEMOCRACY – Government by the people, whether through direct role or through elected representatives.
  • DICTATORSHIP – Government whose final authority rests in the hands of one supreme head.
  • FEUDALITY – Government nature where each successive layer of authority derives power and authority from the one above.
  • GERIATOCRACY – Government reserved to the elderly or very old
  • GYNARCHY – Government reserved to females only.
  • HIERARCHY – Government which is typically religious in nature and generally similar to a feudality.
  • MAGOCRACY – Government by professional magic-users only.
  • MATRIARCHY – Government by the eldest females of whatever social units exist.
  • MILITOCRACY – Government headed by the military leaders and the armed forces in general.
  • MONARCHY – Government by a single sovereign, usually hereditary, whether an absolute ruler or with power limited in some form.
  • OLIGARCHY – Government by a few (usually absolute) rulers who are coequal.
  • PEDOCRACY – Government by the learned, savants, and scholars.
  • PLUTOCRACY – Government by the wealthy.
  • REPUBLIC – Government by representatives of an established electorate who rule in behalf of the electors.
  • THEOCRACY – Government by god-rule, that is, rule by the direct representative of the god.
  • SYNDICRACY – Government by a body of syndics, each representing some business interest (syndicate).
  • TECHNOCRACY – Government by the engineers, scientists and technologists

How robust is the economy?

It stands to reason that the more robust the economy, the more wealth is available to all citizens, and the more disposable income they will have. This leads to more entertainment available in the form of art galleries, museums, zoos, sports arenas, and the like. It also means that taxes will be higher, and that usually leads to more Merchant Guilds that are active in the city.

The less robust, the less wealth, the more crime, and the lower the taxes (usually).

How prevalent is magic?

Cities that have a lot of magic around usually have a lot of wealth and a lot of security. If magic is available to the masses, their lives are usually easier, and the more "automation" will be present. It could range from simple cantrips to make daily life a bit nicer, all the way up to permanent teleport circles for transporting people and goods. Any number of paradigms could exist, and this portion of designing a city takes a long time to figure out. The creative DM could implement any number of "technological advances" due to magic, which really shapes the individuality of each city. Perhaps City A has a lot of divination magic available, while City B is steeped in healing magic.

The more magic available means the more Mage Guilds are present, most likely, and the more regulated that magic becomes. Mages may require licenses to operate, or face harsh sanctions and penalties.

How much faith is there?

How many Temples are present? How many Shrines? How many Cults?

I define the above in the following manner:

  • Temple: A building that serves as the "headquarters" for the faith in the area. An artefact is present that is a direct gift from the Deity. If the Deity can manifest an avatar, it always appears at the nearest Temple.

  • Shrine: This is usually an informal, outdoor location and is where the faithful who cannot attend a Temple go to worship. There is sometimes a Cleric present, but not always.

  • Cult: This is almost always a hidden faith powerbase. They are also usually Chaotic or Evil, but not always (the reverse would be true in a primarily hostile environment to the Faith). Cults are not always "wackadoo" group of people as we think of them in the modern sense. A cult is simply a group that has split from the faith over ideology or rituals.

Here's a template for designing a religion.

Here's an example of a fleshed-out religion.

The more Faith in an area, the more Clerics and Paladins (and maybe Druids) that will be present. There will be a lot of proselytising and a lot of religious holidays and feast days.

How much entertainment is there?

The availability of entertainment is almost always tied directly to wealth, but not always. In poor areas, the entertainment may still be prevalent, but just of a different type.

The kinds of entertainment one could find are:

  • Museum
  • Art Gallery
  • Zoo
  • Sports Arena
  • Swimming Pool
  • Horse Riding
  • Hedge Maze
  • Brothel
  • Narcotics Cafe
  • Blood Sports
  • Animal Fighting
  • Fortune Telling
  • Dance Hall
  • Sculpture Garden
  • Carnival
  • Circus
  • Gymnasium
  • Theatre
  • Water Park
  • Casino

Don't forget the power of names. Oftentimes the simple name of something can be quite evocative and even if you name something without knowing what the place is, it can spark ideas in your mind that you might not thought of on your own. Be creative!

 

Building a City Guide

Dungeons & Dragons Zatra