Mar 282011

So we’ve talked about the importance of population size. When we think of city size, we generally picture a particular kind of density as well. Hamlets and villages don’t take up too much room, but their populations are a bit spread out – they’re usually managing farms, with maybe a slightly denser center. Contrary to this, the cities and metropolises are generally pictured as much denser, with two to four-storied buildings, small living areas, and rare open spaces separating living quarters.

Some of the most interesting elements of fantasy play come from the exceptions to our expectations. What happens when the small populations are right on top of each other? How does that change the way they act? Why do they live like this? What kind of adventures stem from that? And what about the reverse, when larger populations are spread out?

Let’s start with the former, the surprisingly dense populations. Cities that take up a smaller area are easier to defend. You can build walls, use gates, and have more defenders per critical point. They also generally produce a higher living standard and more specialized goods. With people living closer together, less time is spent traveling and moving resources from one point to another. This makes life much easier on craftsmen and the middle class.

So maybe the question is why are villages and hamlets so spread out? The answer is primarily one of livelihood. In villages, your primary goal is to produce enough food to feed yourself, and if things go well, others. Farms and livestock take up a lot of room. Larger towns and up generally have many villages that support them, and do very little of the food collection themselves. They also might have access to resources that help them deal with less food, like magic. So in order to have a small population living close together, we need to make it so that growing and tending food that takes up lots of space is not the most important thing.

I have such a village waiting for my players in our current campaign that does such a thing. It’s only a few hundred people, and they all live within one set of walls that aren’t very wide. In order to help make due, they’ve built up with two or three story buildings, but also down into the earth. A lot of their food comes from specialized farms in underground caverns. They carved out most of the underground facilities themselves over a number of years. Obviously, this is hardly natural for human commoners, and took a great amount of effort. They did so because a plague of undead scoured the land. Being exposed (and far from others) quickly became a good way to not survive. So, they banded together and did exactly what they had to do with the resources present.

The reverse would also work. Undead don’t need to eat, sleep or breathe. A large group of intelligent undead, such as vampires, might be a thriving community of hundreds in one temple or complex. Imagine walking into living quarters, not to find one family, but rows and rows of vampire living cubes, stacked atop each other.

An especially dense population is bound to have less loyal subgroups than one that’s more spread out. These people see a lot of faces everyday, buts it’s a lot of the same faces. Cliques are bound to happen naturally, but many factions are less likely as it would lead to a frequent friction, as opposed groups don’t have space to avoid each other. Some faction forming is bound to happen regardless. These communities might be powder kegs of emotion, and a group of new heroes, with strange abilities, might be just the thing to set them off.

Small populations are likely to be suspicious of a new face. This is even more true in a dense population, where rumor and information travels fast, and a large portion of people see each other regularly.  If adventurers lie to one person, they had better keep that lie going everywhere in the community.

So why would a large population, such as a city or metropolis, be more spread out than we expect? We could take our above example in reverse. If a city doesn’t have villages to support it, then they would have to do their own farming. Such a large sized population would take up a great deal of space while also providing food for all its people individually. Spreading out increases travel time of people, resources and information. There are now less specialized citizens and less diverse goods created. Quality of life goes down, and more factions are likely. It also becomes much easier to be a new face and blend in. These people are used to seeing the same people often, but due to distance and total population would also be meeting people from other parts of the city (that they’ve never seen) on a semi regular basis. It’s also much harder to defend.

So why isn’t this city using outlying towns and villages for food production to supplement its own? Maybe there was a blight, and the only arable land is in a certain area. Maybe it is its own city state, and while not at war, does not trust those around it. Perhaps this is the Shadowfell and they can’t move beyond the mists. Maybe the city once took up this area because it used to be a super metropolis with double the population. After a major attack by demons the city’s population is now at half, but people are still living where they are used to being. This leaves areas of the city deserted or near to it comparatively and other areas still densely populated. These middle grounds are ripe with adventure opportunity and bound to be filled with cults, thieves and lingering demons. It also polarizes the city into more factions. Not only are there more people to sustain more groups, but they have natural barriers. In some extremes they may as well be separate towns.

Our next article in this series will deal with Who lives in our city.

Previous Article in Series: Designing Fantasy Cities: Size, Part 1

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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

  One Response to “Designing Fantasy Cities: Size, Part 2”

  1. I think it’s important to remember that most cities, especially large cities, will have many smaller villages, farms, fields, and ranches outside of it. I played with a DM who made sure that we got to know of these little places as we were approaching a city. – lots of roleplaying opportunity there.

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