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[ISTCKOTTO] How to design a Fantasy City

Ashikaider

seeker of things AWESOME
#1
I've been looking for resources on coming up with fantasy cities, but what little I've found tended to read like stereo instructions/tax forms, which tends to make the eyes glaze over.

I'm not looking to map out an entire city, as I've been told on this forum that that way lies madness. I just want to be able to come up with a basic framework that can be added to over time.


Best case scenario? A resource with random generation tables that would cover things like population, trade, housing, etc. This probably doesn't exist, so I'll take what I can find.

so TTO, what can you tell me about designing a city?
 

CardinalXimenes

Registered User
Validated User
#2
so TTO, what can you tell me about designing a city?
First, figure out exactly why you want to design the city. What do you intend to use it for? Is it going to be a home base for an adventuring group? Is it going to be the focus of the campaign, with lots of urban escapades? Is it going to be the capital of your campaign's Evil Empire? The work you need to do on it is going to depend largely on what sort of demands you're going to make on it in play.
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
Validated User
#3
Here is how I usually proceed for cities in Urbis:

First, I come up with an overall "theme" for the city, or at least a feature which makes it noteworthy and different from other towns. "Yet Another Trade City" is boring - you want to make it stand out!

Then, I brainstorm. Whenever I come up with a location, district, person, organization, or anything else that would fit into the city, I write it up (wikis work very well for this). The main idea here is to be cool and memorable, though of course some logical consistency is also important. Reading up on other cities, whether fictional or real, is a great help for this - do so, and take plenty of notes during the process.

Then, once I have come up with a sufficient number of city districts/neighborhoods, I draw a rough map of the city, establishing which district lies next to which and establishing the general geography. After that, it's more brainstorming to fill out the details - often you can come up with "missing links" when you think how two previously unrelated elements of the city might interact with each other.

For examples, check out the cities of Dartmouth and Nimdenthal of Urbis, which I have developed in fairly great detail.
 

Ravenswing

New member
Banned
#4
A few random thoughts:

1) Cities start from villages, almost always on a river or a coast, and grow somewhat haphazardly from those modest beginnings. Design that village first, then expand around it. That's far more what a city would look like than these checkerboard grids many folks design.

2) How populous and rich is the region? Northern Italy in the Middle Ages was richer than France, which was richer than England, which was richer than Germany, which was richer than Russia. Florence and Milan were a hell of a lot richer and more cosmopolitan than Novgorod or Kiev. Your numbers will vary a lot, depending.

3) I've always been boggled at the tendency of gamers to make their fantasy cities these giant metropolises, with populations into the hundreds of thousands or even the millions. Only four cities on Earth even broke half-million populations before the Renaissance (Rome, Baghdad, Beijing and Constantinople) at any stage in their histories, and each required continent-sized empires to feed them.

A city of a million people requires over two thousand bushels of grain an hour, each and every hour of each and every day, to feed it. This doesn't count cooking oil, firewood, beverages, livestock, building materials and anything else a city would need or want, or the amount of spoilage inherent in the system.

How big do cities really get? In the 14th century, London had about sixty thousand people. Outside of Italy, only Paris was larger in all of Europe, and London was over three times as large as any other city in Britain. Ten thousand people, that's a good-sized city by medieval standards.

3a) Cities also exist because there are resources to support them and reasons for them to be there. Want to know how many significant cities in the United States were founded before the era of railroads that were not on a coast or navigable waterway? Indianapolis, period. Mountain metropolises don't exist, because there's no particular reason for them to be there, no agriculture to support them and no ease of travel or trade to get there.

4) Most game systems do NOT have generous enough enchantment rules in order for magic items to make any impact. Let's do a hypothetical for whatever game system you use. Suppose you have a city of ten thousand people. The water is no good, and as its ruler, you decide to commission a bunch of Create Water widgets. Those ten thousand people will use for drinking and cooking a conservative estimate of 25,000 gallons each and every day. You can figure out for yourself, I'm sure, how many gallons a day that item makes, how long it takes a mage to enchant it, and whether non-mages can use it.

(By the way, even exclusive of bathing and cleaning, the industrial needs of the city require perhaps ten times as much water as that: for tanning, for fulling, for foundries and smithying and dyeing and all manner of purposes.)

Suppose they actually go through with it, but then there are a couple other factors. How many mages are actually in the town? ... as many as one mage in five hundred makes practicing magicians as common as smiths or carpenters. How many of those are skilled enchanters? How many of the ones who ARE skilled enchanters know how to enchant Create Water widgets? Devoting all the mages' time to Creating Water means they're not casting Continual Light on street lamps, and they're certainly not whipping up healing potions or enchanted doohickeys for PCs.

5) Another factor I've noticed is the tendency of city builders to focus on long, involved histories, dissertations on politics, mover-and-shaker NPCs, major civic monuments and the like. Err ... why? I've known very, very few players who gave a rat's ass about the circumstances of the city's founding, the key siege of 500 years ago, the issues behind the political stalemate in the Conclave or the blurb about the long-dead bishop to whom Yet Another Obelisk was dedicated. PCs are interested in businesses they patronize, in NPCs with whom they have a reasonable chance of interacting, in issues which directly affect them. That's what I focus my energies on.
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
Validated User
#5
3) I've always been boggled at the tendency of gamers to make their fantasy cities these giant metropolises, with populations into the hundreds of thousands or even the millions. Only four cities on Earth even broke half-million populations before the Renaissance (Rome, Baghdad, Beijing and Constantinople) at any stage in their histories, and each required continent-sized empires to feed them.

A city of a million people requires over two thousand bushels of grain an hour, each and every hour of each and every day, to feed it. This doesn't count cooking oil, firewood, beverages, livestock, building materials and anything else a city would need or want, or the amount of spoilage inherent in the system.

How big do cities really get? In the 14th century, London had about sixty thousand people. Outside of Italy, only Paris was larger in all of Europe, and London was over three times as large as any other city in Britain. Ten thousand people, that's a good-sized city by medieval standards.
Fantasy != Medieval. My own Urbis, for example, uses many of the assumption of the Age of Industrialization - and yet, it is quite clearly a fantasy setting.

4) Most game systems do NOT have generous enough enchantment rules in order for magic items to make any impact. Let's do a hypothetical for whatever game system you use. Suppose you have a city of ten thousand people. The water is no good, and as its ruler, you decide to commission a bunch of Create Water widgets. Those ten thousand people will use for drinking and cooking a conservative estimate of 25,000 gallons each and every day. You can figure out for yourself, I'm sure, how many gallons a day that item makes, how long it takes a mage to enchant it, and whether non-mages can use it.
These rules can be changed to accommodate the setting. Again using mine as an example, I've introduced a reason for why magic and enchantment are so common that they can support large cities with a million or more inhabitants.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't think about these issues. But I tend to see them less as an obstacle to city design, and more of an opportunity to introduce all sorts of cool stuff that makes fantasy, well, fantastic.
 

Ravenswing

New member
Banned
#6
Indeed, those are some of the classic anti-realism rebuttals. They don't wash.

Well, yes, fantasy is all imaginary. So why use cities at all? Why not adventure in big fluffy masses of amorphia? Or just ‘port to anywhere we want to go, and imagine it to be anything convenient to us?

Why should we use perfectly recognizable medieval weaponry? It's imaginary, isn't it? Don't limit yourself, hit the enemy with your kerfluffmezoz or your wheezimithuzit! (They do, after all, sound a lot more "fantasy" than boring old broadswords and maces.)

And since it doesn't have to make sense, we don't need to have these pesky movement rules, besides which we all want to be Matrixy and John Woo-esque, don't we? Tell your DM that you're running through the air and phasing right through every intervening tree and foe to hit the Big Bad with your wheezimithuzit, and better yet you're doing it before he cut down your friend, because since it's all imaginary we don't have to use linear time either.

No, I don't care that I rolled a "miss." Skill progression is one of those boring realism constructs, and I don't believe in it. Let's just imagine that I hit the Big Bad whenever I need to, and for twenty-five hundred d8 of damage, too. Encumbrance is boringly realistic too, so I’m ignoring it, and I’d rather imagine that my snazzy quilted vest protected me like the glacis armor on a T-72, please.

Alright, show of hands. Why don’t we play our RPGs that way?

It’s called suspension of disbelief. We put our games into recognizable settings that mimic real life. We use swords in fantasy games because we have the expectation that such milieus use swords, and those swords do the relative damage of a sword instead of the damage of a 155mm mortar shell because that is our expectation too. Our fantasy characters wear tunics and cloaks, live in walled cities or sacred groves, and scale ramparts where the force of gravity pulls us downward, not pushes us up. We have an expectation of how fast we can walk, how far we can ride, and how long we can sail. All these expectations are founded in reality.

To the degree we ignore these things, just because, we lose touch with suspension of disbelief. And why do we want to, in this case? What is the percentage in creating cities of millions of people, instead of a mere ten thousand or so? Why should I have to create dozens of sprawling districts, thousands of businesses, hundreds of NPCs, when I can just create what I need? What is, in fact, inherently fantastical - or even desirable - about cities so overwhelmingly huge?

That there are a great many gamers who want their milieus to reflect common sense, rather than ignore it, ought be a surprise to no one.
 

Ravenswing

New member
Banned
#7
These rules can be changed to accommodate the setting. Again using mine as an example, I've introduced a reason for why magic and enchantment are so common that they can support large cities with a million or more inhabitants.
I thought I'd respond to this one separately.

Are you sure you want to go there?

To wit, any magic you claim allows you to support these giant cities will be available to the PCs. In your specific example, I see no reason why PCs shouldn't be able to get their hands on some of this "azoth," which will of course ratchet up the degree to which wizards get to rule the adventuring roost.

Beyond that, let's examine the numbers. That city you linked of nearly three million people requires (say) eight or nine million meals a day. Let's assume that the city's clerics are doing nothing but casting Create Food (or your system's equivalent thereof) eight hours a day, once per minute, without letting up at all. This requires us to swallow the following assumptions:

1) That nearly twenty thousand clerics are permanently available for the task;
2) That there is a game system extant which allows clerics at any level of ability to cast five hundred or more Create Food spells per day, "azoth" or otherwise;
3) That they do not blow themselves up with klutz, critical failures, or just plain have their gods pissed off at them for playing assembly line with divine power;
4) That those clerics are available for nothing else: no healing, no Create Water, and certainly not the pastoral, liturgical or scholarly pursuits expected of most priests;
5) That those clerics are happy to be drones doing nothing more than Create Food all their lives; and
6) By the bye, your city doesn't also need vast amounts of water, fuel, fodder for animals, cloth or other raw materials.

That's a powerful lot of assumption to swallow.
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
Validated User
#8
Indeed, those are some of the classic anti-realism rebuttals. They don't wash.


"Realism" goes out of the window as soon as you introduce magic - i.e., as soon as you use fantasy at all. What matters more is internal consistency.

Well, yes, fantasy is all imaginary. So why use cities at all? Why not adventure in big fluffy masses of amorphia? Or just ‘port to anywhere we want to go, and imagine it to be anything convenient to us?

Why should we use perfectly recognizable medieval weaponry? It's imaginary, isn't it? Don't limit yourself, hit the enemy with your kerfluffmezoz or your wheezimithuzit! (They do, after all, sound a lot more "fantasy" than boring old broadswords and maces.)
Because players need familiar elements so that they know what to expect in the world and play their characters accordingly. This has nothing to do with realism per see - for the same reason, we have lots and lots of fantasy worlds with elves, dwarves, orcs and so forth even though there is nothing realistic about them at all. But players are familiar with these tropes, and so we continue to use them.

And many, if not most fantasy settings are based upon the European Middle Ages, because many people are familiar with that period in history - or at least, with the common stereotypes about that period (as the real Middle Ages often differed in quite a lot of details).

That's an entirely legitimate approach, but for my own setting I have decided to use 19th century Europe as the model instead of the Middle Ages, because very large cities are a lot more plausible in such a framework - and players familiar with that period will find a lot of recognizable elements in my setting as well, which will help them with playing in that world.


And if you consider that using any model for fantasy worlds other than the European Middle Ages to be Bad Wrong Fun... well, that's your choice, but please recognize that there are other options.
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
Validated User
#9
I thought I'd respond to this one separately.

Are you sure you want to go there?
Going there, diving right in, and making hot, sweaty love to it.

To wit, any magic you claim allows you to support these giant cities will be available to the PCs. In your specific example, I see no reason why PCs shouldn't be able to get their hands on some of this "azoth," which will of course ratchet up the degree to which wizards get to rule the adventuring roost.
If they can afford it, sure, they can get it. The stuff costs money, after all, and there are many people who wish to use it. Besides, it's not as if ritual magic is the sole domain of wizards - or of clerics, for that matter. Anyone can learn it, but using it always costs azoth or other, equally pricey material components - while normal wizard spells generally don't.

Beyond that, let's examine the numbers. That city you linked of nearly three million people requires (say) eight or nine million meals a day. Let's assume that the city's clerics are doing nothing but casting Create Food (or your system's equivalent thereof) eight hours a day, once per minute, without letting up at all. This requires us to swallow the following assumptions:

1) That nearly twenty thousand clerics are permanently available for the task;
2) That there is a game system extant which allows clerics at any level of ability to cast five hundred or more Create Food spells per day, "azoth" or otherwise;
3) That they do not blow themselves up with klutz, critical failures, or just plain have their gods pissed off at them for playing assembly line with divine power;
4) That those clerics are available for nothing else: no healing, no Create Water, and certainly not the pastoral, liturgical or scholarly pursuits expected of most priests;
5) That those clerics are happy to be drones doing nothing more than Create Food all their lives; and
6) By the bye, your city doesn't also need vast amounts of water, fuel, fodder for animals, cloth or other raw materials.

That's a powerful lot of assumption to swallow.
[/COLOR]
Indeed, they would be - if they weren't also wrong. First of all, clerics aren't the only ones who can create food via ritual magic (and which game system are you using for your assumptions? Certainly not D&D 4E...). Secondly, the vast majority of food is still grown on conventional plantations - but magically altered crops, plant growth spells, and alchemical fertilizers have helped to bring crop yields to levels quite equivalent to that of our own Age of Industrialization, if not beyond. And the much-improved transportation infrastructure - such as golem-powered railroads, help bring all that food into the cities.

Yes, I have been thinking about these issues.
 

Mithras

5859B7 Age 48 7 Terms
Validated User
#10
I wrote these guidelines for a game several years ago:

Whether you want to add a bit of realistic detail to a group of cities your players will be passing through, or whether you are planning to create one city to act as a focus for a campaign - you will probably already have a particular settlement in mind. It will probably be just a black dot on a map with a name, but any other information you have on the place should be noted as well. Firstly, look at the location of the city. Perhaps it is on the coast, near a forest or desert, or astride a major highway or river. The location is a big indicator of the settlement’s primary economic base. Every city requires some sort of activity to sustain it. The five chief economic activities and the local geographic factors that suggest them are listed below. Sometimes a city will share two or more of these functions - but referees may find it easier just to select a single category for the settlement. The economic activity chosen will thoroughly dominate all aspects of life in the city.

• Agriculture - Large areas of adjacent flat agri-cultural land.
• Mining and metalwork - Mountainous or hilly area.
• Trade - Located on a main road or river, a mountain pass, a caravan route, or on the coast.
• Religious Tourism - Site of pilgrimage, a holy shrine, temple or oracle. The centre of a great religion.
• Administration - Largest and most important city of a kingdom, empire or province. Also situated on the coast, a river or main highway.

As an example, we can follow the creation of Byblos as a campaign city. On the coast, backed by mountains and desert, Byblos stands on a busy north-south caravan route. We designate Byblos as a trade city. What kind of people live and (more importantly) work here? There will be merchants, of course, but also accountants, caravan guards, animal handlers and breeders, guildsmen, money lenders and local traders. Always think of the people behind the local economy. A farming city (perhaps the most common of all), won’t be full of typical fantasy folk, but local farmers selling goods, agents buying goods for resale, landowners and their staff, guildsmen, livestock traders, butchers, leather-workers and all those involved in transporting the grain and meat. In an administrative city, there should be a whole community of people just manufacturing or importing papyrus and inks! You may find almost any sort of craft being carried out in a city, but those that predominate will be associated with its primary industry.

Next, add any other information that you have available into the melting pot. Does some particularly important person live here? Is the city well known for an industry or a building? Byblos, we note, is renowned for its trade in papyrus scrolls. Our city, then, will have a substantial ‘scribes’ quarter where papyrus is imported and stored, and where books, letters and official documents are written.

A list of the city’s districts and important features will help you to visualise the city as a unique and distinct place. If possible, draw a simple sketch map to illustrate where the various districts are in relation to each other. Byblos has a sailors’ section, a potters’, smiths’ and weavers’ section, a large scribes’ and merchants’ section, and an area near the main gate for a detachment of soldiers. In addition there are three temples close to the nobles’ section. All of these different areas are encompassed by a city wall. We now know what the city does, what kind of people live there, and something about its layout. But does this help us actually improve our games? The most important part of the city campaign has yet to be addressed - the individual story-lines of the most influential of the city’s residents.

Who Are The V.I.P.S?
As our city stands it is still a predominantly physical environment with little to entice the adventurous player into its complex plots. The city comes alive only when its most powerful residents are added to the picture and given life. These important non-player characters can influence the campaign, provide motivation for scenarios, and help or hinder the player characters. Every VIP added to the city gives the place a new dimension, and helps to extend the possibilities of further games and plots. An average city, used as wallpaper for PCs just travelling through, might have three or four VIPs in residence. For a campaign city, requiring plots and counter-plots to keep a group of players busy for months, perhaps a dozen or more VIPs are required.

These VIPs aren’t just the richest residents, just the most influential. Look at each industry within the city and figure out who might be likely to have some say in local affairs. Look at religion, at security, perhaps at any minorities within the city (local barbarians, cultists, foreigners, etc.). These VIPs will be your scenario catalysts, your bad guys, your patrons, your sources of information and help. Even though they may not get involved personally, their assistants, workers and slaves might. As an example, the central NPCs for the Byblos campaign are:

Leading noblemen - Leads the senate of Byblos. Wants to bring an end to the rule of Palmyra
Minor nobleman - Although an ally of leading nobleman, thinks his son would do a better job
Rich Merchant - The most powerful importer/exporter in Byblos
Poor Merchant - The Rich Merchant’s greatest rival, involved in plots and espionage
Nobleman’s Son - Hates Palmyra, is being approached by a representative of the Empire
Caravan Owner - Sheikh’s daughter who runs a camel business, stubborn and proud
Prince of Thieves - Exiled young nobleman from nearby city, living as a flamboyant thief
Pirate Captain - Brave adventurer based in Byblos, makes money, whoever pays
High Priestess - Daughter of Minor Noble. Devoted to the people, in love with Pirate Captain
1st Centurion - Head of the legionary cohort, trying to undermine the Nobleman’s Son
2nd Centurion - Assists first centurion. Suspects Prince of Thieves of being rebel leader
Chief of Scribe’s Guild - Troubled by rumours of rebellion, panders to the Centurion

By creating an important resident for each aspect of the city’s affairs the player characters can easily get ‘hooked’ into any of its businesses or plots. Remember too, that each VIP will have followers, customers, allies and enemies. Any occurrence worth mentioning in Byblos will probably involve one or more of our VIPs. Players adventuring in such a city will find the same names cropping up again and again. The worst thing a referee could do is make up NPCs when needed, none of whom know of, or have even heard of, each other. Imagine the fantasy city as a community of bickering factions and individuals, between whom all the residents of the city are split. Use the list of VIPs you have created as a starting point.

Of course you could continue to endlessly detail further VIPs and their associates. You could draw street maps and building plans, think-up timelines of events and create adventure seeds. But all that is icing on the cake - aspects of the city that you could easily develop stage by stage when you design your later scenarios. The two essential steps to remember are:

1) Decide on how the city makes a living, and
2) List the city’s dozen or so most influential VIPs

This basic information should be all you need to make your campaign city unique!
 
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