“How do you design awesome RPG cities? You know, the kind that feeds your session with ideas, that comes alive in player’s minds and that is uniquely memorable. A city that players never forget.”
In the real world, no one would want to go to Tokyo or New York if those cities didn’t have something exciting to offer. An RPG setting is just the same. So, in designing a city for your campaign, think about what will make it fun for the players, and enticing for their characters. The answer? Conflict.
Let’s take New York as an example, because I’m playing Marvel Heroic Roleplay tonight. The New York City of the comics (and in the game) is a rougher version of the real thing, filled with super-powered criminals, giant robots, vengeful mutants, and alien beings. Those threats all exist to give the heroes meaning through conflict.
Conflict can come from sources other than monsters. Calimshan, from the Forgotten Realms, has a social divide that is bound to throw adventurers into conflict with those above their station. At the same time, that conflict affects the relationship between NPCs in the city, creating tension. Tension draws players into the game, promising conflict. When the characters get involved in that tension, when they pick a side, they become part of the conflict, earning new allies, and plenty of enemies.
The most memorable city I ever visited was Port Blacksand, which featured in the Fighting Fantasy’s City of Thieves. Ian Livingstone’s city felt alive to me. It was intricately detailed, solidly themed, and there was something hiding around every corner. As the name implies, it was a city full of the worst scum you can find – tension was balanced on a knife blade, and every decision presented dangerous consequences.
Conflict doesn’t only happen in dangerous cities, however. Rivendell, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was possibly one of the safest cities in Middle Earth. Yet there was conflict. Sometimes this peace serves to highlight a character’s inner turmoil, as it does with Aragon when he contemplates the shards of Narsil and his inheritance as Isildur heir. At other times, the peace if smashed, and the destruction serves as a stark reminder of other conflicts in the narrative.
No matter how you present elements of conflict in your city, it will always be tied to your city’s theme, so let’s look at theme a little more.
The best cities have a strong theme. It’s a little like how you might roleplay a stereotypical villain, or better yet, how you might repeatedly use the same ques for an NPC to drive home their character to the players. Gotham City, home to Batman, is a great example of this; it’s dark and dangerous.
City of Thieves has this too. Pick a theme — just a few words is all you need — then ensure that every character in every building on every street fits that theme. When you add something to the city that doesn’t fit the theme, the contrast will make that character or location stand out, like the narrative equivalent of the woman in the red dress in Frank Miller’s Sin City comic. A well-themed city becomes another character in the story you’re creating, rather than a collection of city stats, locations, and random encounters. It’s your descriptions as the Game Master that ultimately bring this theme across, but it always starts with picking a strong theme.
Cool, so let’s end off with a practical next step. If you’ve got a copy of Patherfinder’s GameMastery Guide, you’ll find a great list of questions on page 157. This list is an invaluable tool for bringing your city to life (including conflict) by focusing on the necessary information you’ll need during play. Some similar questions might include:
- Who controls the local thieves guild?
- What monsters are wandering around in the sewers?
- How corrupt is the city watch?
- Who is actively working to overthrow the city’s government?
- What types of natural disasters might threaten the city, what countermeasures are in place?
Do you have some neat ideas for a city or town? Or do you have some unbeatable tricks you use when designing cities for your campaign? Share them below!