Designing Fantasy Cities: Purpose

 Posted by on February 18, 2011  Filed as: World-Building  Add comments
Feb 182011

When you break D&D game play down, players are generally in one of three areas: the dungeon, the wilderness, or the city. Sure, the wilderness sometimes means Baator, and the dungeon sometimes means the wizard’s labyrinth, but these are rough ideas. Even if you don’t spend equal time in each area, your party is likely to spend a fair bit of time among civilization. It’s not just a place to buy and sell your loot; it’s a place of intrigue, ripe with opportunities for roleplay, skill challenges and combat.

Yet we often devote so little time to prepping these locations. Compare it to your latest dungeon. When you prepare a dungeon, you map out every square, note nearly (if not all) the monsters in the dungeon, plan encounter groups, and probably even have a rough description for each room.

Somehow cities feel more daunting than that. You’ve got the dots on the map with their names. You know what nation they do (or did) belong to, and probably the dominant race. After that, things get fuzzy. Some supplements give you rules for setting exact populations, economic limits, architecture styles, establishing distinct districts . . . the list can go on and on.

You can’t do that for every city in your world, and I feel your pain. I am certainly guilty of not prepping my towns enough to speak confidently when my players suddenly change direction. No one expects you to map each square and name every villager, but I need (and I think it would do you good as well) to have a certain amount of information for each of those dots on the map.

So what’s important?

Purpose. What is the purpose of this city? I’m not trying to get philosophical on you. I mean this quite literally. What purpose does this city serve its people and the world around it? Similarly, what purpose does this city serve you, your game and your story? The answers are tied in ways that might surprise you. In these articles I’m going to be looking at how the In-Game Purpose can feed the Out-of-Character Purpose.

There are five main ways I break down a city’s purpose:

  1. How big is the city? This is often the first thing we decide. Is it a village, a town or a metropolis? Are we talking about fifty people in a sprawling space or thousands or people pushed within a long outgrown city wall? The size of the city helps determine the economic options, the number of possible competing factions, and how easy it is to go unnoticed. The size and density helps determine the culture almost as much as the national history and racial breakdown. This brings us to the next question.
  2. Who lives in the city? The most obvious answer is that of race. If the city is predominantly filled with elves, dwarves, or shadar-kai, that’s important. Just as important though is that all the citizens are refugees from a destroyed nation, or they’re all arcane researchers, or they’re all related to one ancestor. It doesn’t have to be such a big choice for each city, though I really won’t discourage big choices. If the city is made up mostly of the affluent, or was recently part of particular empire, that’s an important bit of who these people are.
  3. Where is the city located? This may have been where you started. You’ve got a map and you started placing dots. Big and little ideas are important here. Is the city near another city, or a nation’s border? Is it on the ocean, or at the edge of a cliff? On a smaller scale, was it built near an Iron Deposit, or is it surrounded by a certain type of farm? Thinking fantastic (remember, I won’t discourage big choices) your city might be adrift in the air, at the base of a volcano, in the Astral Sea or built on an ancient sealed portal leading to an unspeakable evil.
  4. What do the people do? This ties heavily into the other questions. Is this city a group of miners that export rare ores? Is the city built around an arcane college with some of the most renowned libraries? Perhaps the people sustain themselves only on a day-to-day basis, focusing on keeping out the darkness and hoping they will do enough to survive till the morning. We’re talking about the big ideas only here and not each individual. A military town is still going to have a baker, but that baker’s attitude and personality is going to be pretty different than the baker of your small fishing village built around the Peloran Monastery.
  5. Why did people decide to live here in the first place? You may have already answered this question. Location often has a lot to do with it. Maybe people gathered because natural features make it defensible. That’s fine, but why did they need to defend themselves. Were they being terrorized by orcs, or perhaps fear a monotheistic government that did not approve of their worship? The land might be suited well for farming, but why did they feel the need for a new farming community? Did another area just get too crowded, did the crops fail somewhere else do to a curse, or did a family get kicked out of another area? Why was the seal that holds back the unspeakable evil placed here? Perhaps there are natural fey lines of power, or maybe this is where the creature once fell, the site of a great battle.

This is enough to jot quick notes for each town. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just answer each question. That way when players show up, you’ll have a feel of things and enough interesting points to riff off of that your players will think you planned this for months. Here’s a couple of examples of what I think is plenty.

Durngard is a dwarven outpost located on what was once a border between two kingdoms. The craggy steppes here made it easy for the dwarves to put up a defensible fortress quickly and then expand underground. While both kingdoms have fallen from prominence, Durngard remains a popular (and needed) stop between the cities of the once nations. Earlier military mentality has slowly given way for a desire for new trade and many warrior families have become stone workers. This welcome trade and specialty goods have increased the size to that of a small town, while its relative distance to other communities and rocky terrain keep it from growing too quickly.

Tristan was once a sprawling economic center, housing thousands of people, at a natural crossroads for the continent. After the zombie outbreak, the population dropped and many fled. The Heroes of the Silver Light cleared out the undead, but didn’t stick around to rebuild the infrastructure. Now this massive city is home to only a few hundred people, split between those families who refused to leave and those who see an opportunity to plunder what was abandoned.

In future articles we’ll explore each point a bit more, so that if you’re inspired by part of your city’s purpose, you can expand it into new adventures and scenarios.

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Brian Liberge

Brian Liberge is a father of one, living in Boston, MA. Introduced to AD&D at an early age, he’s continued to update with the editions, and new games. He loves home-brewed ideas, is honest to a fault, and thinks that ideas and mechanics should absolutely be shared between systems. With a B.S. Degree in Theatre Arts, a job in Information Technology, and a love of strategy gaming, he tries to bring the best of each into his new creations for StufferShack. Check out his latest book the Midgard Bestiary for 4e, available now. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  3 Responses to “Designing Fantasy Cities: Purpose”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dazed (save ends), Brian A Liberge. Brian A Liberge said: Today on StufferShack, 1st in a series of articles about designing cities based around purpose. #dnd #rpg […]

  2. It’s funny that this article comes up. You are right, especially in 4th Edition I find that location is not as important. I just finished a 3.5 campaign (that ended up TPK) where all I did to prep was to have a bunch of random facts. We had a general map of the whole world created by one of my players. As the players went along I had random figures on my pages to be able to build a town at the blink of a hat, based on the region they were travelling to. The random information I had were:

    1. Size
    2. Region
    3. Commerce
    4. NPCs and personalities
    5. Races
    6. Names of common places for a town, such as blacksmith, schools, trade shops, etc…

    On this adventure, it was the players who created their own destinies based on this information. We have since reused all of the towns from this adventure, and have even chosen one for our base of operation.

    I am looking forward to the rest of your articles.

  3. Lots of good nuggets here. I’m definitely looking forward to more articles on this topic, as I’m sure there are lots of DMs out there, myself included, that could use some help on this aspect of gaming. I’ve definitely found that having some randomness tables at the ready can help throw some details together when PCs go off the rails.

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