Mar 162011

In our previous article we spoke about the importance of having a city’s purpose planned out in advance, even if it’s just a few sentences. Now we’ll each of our five facets of purpose, and talk about what each really means to our game.

Our first facet of purpose was size. When designing cities quickly, say at the game table while playing, this is our instinctive way to define a city. You might say it’s a small village or a large metropolis. When we’re designing cities ahead of time let’s look at it a bit more. Three different elements of size really need to be considered here: how many people are there, how much living space is available, and how much space is left to build.

The 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide defines size in three ways: a village (mostly farmers, maximum population around 1,000), a town (artisans and trade center, maximum population around 10,000) and a City (major trade centers surrounded by large amounts of good farmland, maximum population around 25,000). This is a slight downsizing of options from the previous edition. I still use Hamlets for really small populations, and metropolises for huge, incredible cities.

Population size affects a lot of things. The larger a town’s population, the more people there are to tax and take advantage of. The difference between the rich and poor will more naturally separate. In a village, the local leadership might be a council of elders, a town manager, trade leader or local regent. Let’s pick a slightly more extreme example and say the local noble has sent his second nephew to oversee this particular village as regent. There will be a rich poor divide. The regent will have nicer clothes, a bigger house, and his pick of certain trade goods. In the larger cities the opportunity for this is much grander. Now we’re dealing with a noble who has regents reporting from several villages and towns. Trade naturally flows here from many directions. so the upper class get their pick of a much larger selection. There are more people to hire, put to work and sell to, so even those not in the government have more opportunity to develop wealth based on numbers.

Off of the same reasoning two more important elements are likely to develop. In larger cities there’s more room in between. Professional soldiers, artisans, scholars, priests and specialists make up a middle class. These people have more respect and control of their lives than the poor, but don’t have the opulence of the wealthy. These are generally the people who create the goods, or provide the services both the nobles and the player characters needs. That makes them important.

In 3.5, the town’s size helped determine how much could be bought and sold, and the maximum level of magic items that could be found. The 4e DMG threw this idea out the window. It claims that a players’ fun should not be hindered by what town they are in. Villages are built on trade routes, and your ranger can definitely find his +5 Sword or Orc Murder in this tiny farming community.

This a choice I think you need to make for your campaign early on, and not one city at a time. Will your PCs need to travel to find their equipment as the increase in level, or will they be able to shop anywhere they please for whatever they want? There can always be exceptions. Your village might be the retirement home of an aging wizard who favors adventurers who can spin a good tale, or your metropolis might have strict laws about magic item traffic that are not government regulated. In order to have an exception, there first needs to be a known rule. Make sure your players know it too!

You probably guessed which camp I’m in. I still make my players travel to buy their uber loot when they jump into higher tiers. It just makes more sense to me, plus it gives my players a clear motivation to encounter a new area, with new plot hooks and new NPCs. It’s realistic and a gimmick!

The other element that develops from the rich poor divide and wealth from populace is a certain set of minimal expectations. The poorest of the poor in a large city assumes there will be a certain amount of protection from outside forces. It’s one of the most basic expectations from those who are taxed or live under a rule. In cities, walls are built, siege engines manned, and soldiers trained, and even the poor expect to be protected. This mentality is a distinct difference to that of the village. The village might be taxed, but it feels separate, due to distance and visible resources. The regent, if there is one, might have a small personal guard. More likely the farmers themselves form a small, informal, barely trained militia. They expect to have to rely on themselves.

This mentality reaches to other things besides protection. In a smaller community, your face is known and you’re a depended-upon resource. Everyone is that ‘one person’ that might make a big difference, and needs to be counted on in order for the community to survive the next winter.  This self reliance may eventually make a community distrustful of outsiders, since they’re not used to anything helpful or dependable coming from outside the community. It’s harder to keep a secret here, because people care more for the individual. Cults and secret societies, ironically, can work really well here. This external distrust means that the cult just needs to make itself seem intrinsic or personal to community members. As soon as a hero comes looking for followers of Bel, the heroes seem more like invading monsters, threatening what they hold dear. This cult may not be secret to any community members, and just kept from the prying eyes of outsiders.

That is not to say that a large town cannot have the purpose of the location for your cult. It will, however play out differently there. Cults are generally small by definition. In a city, they are more likely to be ignored, never found out, or have competition from rival cults and other organizations. The location of three demonic cults waging a secret underground war is a great purpose for a large fantasy city.

I have one final say today on the size of a city, and how it can shape its purpose. More so than a place to sleep and buy things, the most basic purpose of a city is to support adventure. Even if the adventure is not located in the town, this is the place that has people. The heroes are protecting these people. This is a place the Player Characters receive praise or judgment. The reaction and livelihood of the people they encounter directly reflects the consequences of their actions when dealing with cults, roaming monsters, dragons and undead. A town gives players resolution, satisfaction and a means to measure their deeds.

Size matters. A village is great for heroic players. They simply don’t have the resources that equal three level 1 PCs. Starting heroes are able to do things these people can only pray for. They could be instantly hailed as eternal heroes coming back from their first adventure. Whereas clearing out an infestation of were-rats in a large city might not even get recognized by the city watch. The location of your players deeds, and the kind of response given, is often in direct correlation to the difference between town size and player level.

That’s enough for now. Next time we’ll talk about how things change when the population doesn’t match the size of the city.

Previous Article in Series: Designing Fantasy Cities: Purpose

Next Article in Series: Designing Fantasy Cities: Size, Part2

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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: Size, Part 1”

  1. *cough*
    Reagent: Part of a chemical, magical, or cookery recipe.

    Regent: Ruler when the monarch is underage, absent, or debilitated.

    That nit is PICKED. Otherwise, excellent article!

    The larger the city, the more stratified and specialized the society. A small village might be ruled, day to day, de facto by elders, but on important issues might be egalitarian enough to call a moot (or something like). A “moot point” was, once upon a time, something so important it had to be decided by the community as a whole. As communities grew, so did the discussions, and moots could no longer make decisions with any practical speed, hence a moot point became something so unimportant it could be left to the moot. In one fell swoop we see the evolution of both society and language.

  2. Whoops! Thanks for the catch – some editor, huh? I’ll have to do better. *fixed*

    I love reading “World-Builder” type articles. They so easily get the creative mojo flowing. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. Excellent article. Great if you are planning for a campaign!

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