Fantasy Cities

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Fantasy Cities

At some time or another, most Dungeon Masters will attempt a city adventure, or at least need to handle a party's trip to the city. It is conventional wisdom that cities are extremely hard to DM, and it is also widely acknowledged that when designing worlds it is difficult to make individual cities memorable.

For some time, I have maintained a thread on the topic of fantasy cities, which is located here . The thread is a somewhat rambling assortment of various city-building and city-DMing tools. This article is intended as a more organized and better-articulated guideline for designing and administering city adventures.

First of all, let me take note of the fact that city adventures are often some of the most memorable events of a party's experiences. I have noticed that gaming groups time and again return to their war stories of city adventures, rather than dungeons. Cities add a richness of character and a feeling of completeness to a campaign that is hard to match. The effort of running a good city is well worth the effort, and hopefully the tips contained herein will make the effort far less onerous.

The first step in designing a city is to get a rudimentary understanding of how cities worked in the Middle Ages. Even if your campaign isn't set in a Medieval-type locale, it's helpful to understand that historical cities were quite different from the sprawling megalopolises of today. Cities were a part of the feudal system, and at the time, no one really made much of a distinction between towns and cities. What defined a town was its charter. A baron, duke, or even a monarch would grant a charter to a town, giving it limited rights of self-government, coinage, and the right to be exempt from the rule of local lords (in other words, a citizen didn't have to pay feudal taxes or do military service in the lord's levee). The town paid taxes as a town, not as a collection of individuals. Towns were immensely profitable in terms of these taxes, and many great nobles began actively seeking to create towns in their landholdings. The towns were run by guilds (usually having a council made up of guild leaders), and would elect a mayor. Some cities (especially in Italy) actually held popular votes for city leaders.

Further background on the history of Medieval cities can be found at the following sites: Medieval Cities, Bruges and Florence, Dr. Richard Ingersoll, Rice University, Houston
What did people do in a medieval city?
Medieval English Towns.

Okay, so you've got some idea of the fact that these cities were small (a half mile square, commonly), had walls thirty feet thick and up to fifty feet high, and were usually built on hills or at the highest navigable point on a river. Let's turn to the fantasy city, and how to build one. I'm going to get a lot less long-winded from here on out, and give my opinions on how to approach creating a city. Other DMs may differ, and I'll occasionally describe alternate viewpoints that I consider viable.

Step One: the tag-line. I always, always, come up with a one-sentence description of the city, similar to what a travel agency might say about the place in the tag-line on an advertisement. This might be as brief as "The City of Sorcerers," or a long as "A beautiful trade city dominated by elven trading cartels, on a river." However it's done, the tag line should give you a theme for your city and create at least a basic picture in your mind.

Step Two: important NPCs. There are two ways to do this. If you are good at creating personalities off the top of your head, you might choose to invent some of the powerful or interesting NPCs who live in the city. Otherwise, this is the time when you take out the trusty DMG and your dice, and roll up the city in accordance with the formulae and tables of the DMG.

The DMG system creates a city with a particular - and some think peculiar - demographic. There will be a high level NPC of each character class, and then a precipitous drop in terms of level down to the next set of NPCs of the same class.

I don't like this system. I think it creates lots of "high level" NPCs who are actually not high enough level, and I don't like the gap between the NPCs of the highest level and the NPCs of the next level down. Moreover, the system makes it hard to figure out where prestige-class NPCs fit in. In gaming terms, it can be hard to find a cleric of high enough level to raise dead in many settlements. Even more importantly, though, the demographic itself makes cities less memorable because of the large number of highest-level NPCs. More than almost anything else, players remember a city as "the place where that crazy wizard with the owls lives" (or whatever). NPCs make a city memorable. It is more worth your while to create a few really individual personalities for city’s major NPCs than any other endeavor. Thus, here is an alternate method for generating a city's NPCs.

The following tables generate a population of player type characters. I tend to ignore the NPC classes for a city, because they add little to roleplaying. Look on Table 1 to find out the one NPC in the city with the highest level, and which progression is to be used to generate the lower level NPCs. In some cases, there are addition high level NPCs who don't have a progression of lower level NPCs. Unlike the DMG method, the progression is done once for the entire city, and the classes of the NPCs are determined randomly to fill the slots for different levels.

Table 1 (Top NPC level):
Thorp: 4 (and 2-5 second level NPCs)
Hamlet: 8 (use village progression)
Village: 12 (use village progression)
Small Town: 14 (use village progression)
Large Town: 16 (use city progression)
Small city: 18 plus one cleric level 18 (no progression)
Large City: 20 plus one cleric level 18-20 (no progression) and one wizard level 18-20.
Metropolis: 20 (1 progression for each 25,000 population up to 100,000; 1 additional progression for each 50,000 population over 100,000 up to 200,000; 1 additional progression per 100,000 population over 200,000). I.e., a metropolis of 500,000 will have 9 progressions. Add one cleric of level 20 with no progression.

Village progression: top level NPC, 1 NPC at that level –2, 2 at that level –3, 3 at that level –4, down to level 2. (ie: hamlet has 1 lv 8, 1 lv 6, 2 lv 5, 3 lv 4, 4 lv 3, 5 lv 2.

City Progression: Highest level, 2 NPCs of highest level minus 1d6 (roll for each), 3 NPCs of half highest level, 6 NPCs of half highest level minus 1d3, 10 NPCs of one-quarter highest level, 20 NPCs of one-quarter highest level minus one, 40 NPCs of one-quarter highest level minus two, 80 NPCs of one-quarter highest level minus 3, etc.

For each NPC, roll for class:
1-50 single class
50-85 prestige class
86-95 double class
96-00 triple class

A small city with a population of 7,000 will have the following:
One 18th level cleric
One 18th level NPC character, with class determined randomly
Roll d6 (example result 3): there is another NPC of level 15.
Roll d6 (example result 6): there is another NPC of level 12.
3 NPCs of level 9
(roll 6 d3: 1,1,2,2,3,3): 2 level 8 NPCs, 2 level 7 NPCs, 2 level 6 NPCs.
10 NPCs of level 5
20 NPCs of level 4
40 NPCs of level 3
80 NPCs of level 2
160 NPCs of level 1

Everyone else is an NPC class, not a player class.

Step Three: Make something else memorable about the city. One possibility is an odd custom. The following table will allow you to quickly generate an odd custom of dress for the city's inhabitants.

Odd Customs of Dress Table
1-2 - All citizens customarily wear a particular unusual item of clothing (see unusual item of clothing subtable)
3-4 - Certain citizens (see citizen subgroup table) customarily wear a particular unusual item of clothing (see unusual item of clothing subtable)
5 - Visitors must wear an identifying badge, device, or article.
6 - Visitors of a particular PC class (eg, wizards, arcane spellcasters, fighters, etc) have to wear an identifying badge, device, or article.

Unusual Item of Clothing Subtable
1 Pointy hat
2 Pointy shoes
3 jingle bells
4 metal or wooden box
5 wooden spoon
6 spray of feathers
7 ribbons
8 flowers
9 nose ring
10 single earring
11 embroidered badge
12 sleeves too long
13 normal item of clothing, but uniform color (eg, red gloves)
14 gloves
15 wooden shoes
16 hat with wide brim
17 tattoo
18 relict (mummified ancestor scalp, necklace of your baby teeth, lock of hair from your wife, mother, etc)
19 metal gauntlet or other item of armor
20 mask or veil

Citizen Subgroup
1 - Members of a particular guild
2 - Anyone not a member of any guild
3 - Females
4 - Males
5 - By Marriage (see Marriage groups subsubtable)
6 - Members of a particular race
7 - Members of a particular religion
8 - Members of a political faction (check "power groups")
9 - Members of a particular social class (ala Hindu untouchables)
10 - Criminals of a particular kind (ala the Scarlet Letter)

Marriage Groups Subsubtable
1 - Single Males
2 - Single Females
3 - Married Males
4 - Married Females
5 - Uncles
6 - Aunts

Step Four: Power structures and memorable buildings. Now that you've got a picture of the city's NPCs, you can create power structures. Who rules the city? Look at the high level NPCs. You've got it right there. If you generate (or pick) alignments for them, you've got an idea of who gets along and who doesn't. Look in the DMG for ideas about the different sorts of power structures that a city might have. Write down some notes about power structures in your city. And once you've done that, it's a piece of cake to figure out what buildings are likely to be important enough for the players to visit or see. List these.

Step Five: The map. You may, at this time, want to take a gander at the WOTC supplement to the DMG for making cities. It is to be found
Wizards web enhancement ]here.[/url] The supplement describes what I consider to be the only way of handling a city; the system of wards (neighborhoods backing onto a courtyard or a system of alleyways, with the streets surrounding the neighborhood on all sides. When you make your city map you can either (1) go through the WOTC supplement, determine what wards you want in the city, and sketch them out on a map (use a pencil - you'll have to redraw and resize them several times to make it work), or (2) just make a sketch map of two main roads zigzagging into a central market in the middle and leaving through four gates. This is the default geography of almost every Medieval city. You can fill in wards later if you feel the need. I recommend leaving the wards until later, because you will find that as the campaign progresses you will suddenly want the city to contain something that it didn’t originally have.

Step Six: How to describe and game in a city.
First off, remember that players don't absorb information easily, and they hate listening to long descriptions. For some reason (pride of authorship, probably), DMs often wax eloquent about a city's history and appearance when describing the city to the players. Don't do this. Only describe what the players notice, not everything they see. Your city should be described in terms of the big buildings, the main streets, and the places that the players will care about, like taverns. The more you still sound like you're describing a dungeon environment (usually quite short descriptions, and you sound like you're holding back information), the more you will hold the players' attention. Leave a lot to their imaginations. Their own mental pictures are more compelling than your descriptions, galling as this may be.

Be ready with certain pieces of key information, prepared ahead of time. The names and quick descriptions of a few taverns, and a list of at least twenty names for use when the players invariably do something like ask a beggar his name, will come in very handy. Decide if the city has a tax at the gate, and pick some colors for the city guard to wear. If there are major political factions in your city, pick an identifying badge or color for them.

Let the players meet the city's major NPCs. Why do the work if you're going to pretend that the party is too low level to meet the power brokers of the city? The power brokers are the soul of the city, and are memorable. Use them to best advantage. Don't make an endless parade of them, of course, but make them accessible.

Finally, adventuring. There are a few common plots for city adventures. The following may give you some ideas:

Capture a criminal
Defeat a rival faction
Deliver an item or message (Roll on City Adventure Item Table)
Disrupt an event (Roll on City Adventure Event Table)
Find a lost item (Roll on City Adventure Item Table)
Floor or street collapses over a small dungeon complex
Guard a building
Guard an event (Roll on City Adventure Event Table)
Guard a person (Roll on City Adventure People Table)
Impersonate a person (roll on City Adventure People Table)
Investigate a crime
Investigate a strange event (roll on City Strange Events Table)
Kidnap a person (roll on City Adventure People Table)
Kill an enemy
Protect innocents from disaster or monster
Rescue a person (roll on City Adventure People Table)
Rob a building
Smuggle someone (or something) out of the city
Win a competition

City Adventure People. Use an adjective and a description.
The adjectives:

The descriptions:
City Official
Contest winner
Relative of a Nobleman
Troublemaker or Rabble-Rouser
Weapon maker

City Adventure Item
Magic Item
Merchant’s Cargo
Religious Artifact
Stolen Goods

City Adventure Event
Coming of Age Ceremony or birthday party
Delivery of city adventure item
Departure of a caravan
Guild Ceremony
Market day
Military Ceremony
Religious Service

I hope you have enjoyed reading as much as I have enjoyed writing. There is considerably more information onMythmere's Citythread Mythmere's Citythread, including sample encounters, links, building descriptions, and more tables.

Good Gaming!
Excellently written, Myth. In the future I'd like to see more random Odd Custom tables. Some things off the top of my head are physical mannerisms (avoiding/ensuring eye contact with the speaker) and speech patterns (always addressing others with the title of "Master" or "Mistress", regardless of social rank).

I also really like the idea that larger towns, by their very nature, have more Clerics. More than any other class, the Cleric keeps societies tightly knit (much as their traditional role in an adventuring party) as wherever you have more people, you inevitably have more sick/injured/dying/dead people.

I'd vote twice, if it let me!
MinusInnocence: Just for you, fellow Texan.

City Customs (Speech and Mannerisms)
Avoid eye contact
Nod throughout another’s speech
Address foreigners as “Sir Foreigner,” or other “foreigner” appellation
Bow constantly
Distinctive Gesture instead of nodding to indicate affirmative or negative response
Distinctive Gesture when confronted with agreement or disagreement
Distinctive Greeting
Distinctive Expostulation
Calling people (including total strangers of any gender) by a term of endearment such as “Darling, Brother, Lovey”
Calling people by their full name, with any applicable titles
Referring to self by name, in third person

Distinctive Gesture Subtable (d12)
Fist over heart
Open hand over heart
Fist to forehead (hard or soft contact)
Smack self
Smack other
Flutter fingers
Low whistle
Clasp own hands
Flick own ears with fingers
Smack sole of foot
Tap nose
Snap fingers

Distinctive Greeting/Departure Subtable (d8)
Any Distinctive Gesture
“Hail fellow, well met”
“May blessings rain upon your {any body part or internal organ}”
“Have you eaten {or any other bodily function} this day?”
“Good morrow”
“Good day, may your {body part} never fail”
“Are you lost?” (this may refer to the status of the immortal soul, which invites misunderstandings)
Nonsense Word (write it down, or you will forget it)

Distinctive Expostulation (d6)
“Bless your heart”
“Heavens of {deity}”
Nonsense word (write it down, or you will forget it)
The term for a group of animals (Example: “Covey of Quail,” or “Herd of Bullocks”)
“May you have ample {name of ability: strength, dexterity, constitution, etc}”
I'd like to make a little contribution to this excellent thread with some advice that has proven very useful in my current city based campaign.

There are several things you can do as a DM that will help make your city and npcs (even spur of the moment ones) come alive.

This is how I did things:
1. Decide on a general theme for your city and the surrounding environment and run through the town generation system on page 137 of the 3.5 DMG Why was the city placed here? Where does it get its food and water? What resources made this location valuable? What is unique about the city itself? What and Who govern the city? What fantasy element will be in the city? What is the racial mix of the city? What is the population of the city? The DMG will help you get a good start on this with the tables on Random Town generation.
Keep in mind that at most about 10% of a region's population lives in cities and towns, the rest is rural. Also that 1 square mile of farmland can support a little under 200 people. So a city of 20,000 people will have a rural population of about 180,000 surrounding it (not necessarily immediately around the city but in the general region) and will require about 1,000 square miles of farmland to support it. Of course magic can highly skew these numbers.

2. Make a map of the city and specify a number of wards. Wards are larger groupings of districts. Download the DMG enhancement from WotC to learn about districts. The map can be very general or very detailed depending on your style and desires. I created 12 wards and then filled them in with appropriate districts. As an example the River Ward has the following districts: warehouse district, waterfront district, red light district, apartment homes, shops, and a halfling settlement. This will give you a great sense of the layout of the city and where the PCs will need to go to find things and people that they are looking for.

3. Take the Urban encounters table on page 102 of the DMG and expand and customize it. Rewrite the encounter table inserting additional encounter types that are appropriate to your city. Also customize versions of the generic encounters to your city. As an example I added dragon cultists and matchmakers to my encounter table because they were common in my city. I also customized the robbery in progress encounter by creating a street gang called the Blood Rune gang. I came up with specific encounters related to the city for employment offers, duels, gang wars, admirers, monsters, spells gone awry, and everything else on the table. This led me to create several organizations that had nothing to do with the PCs adventures. Why would someone be dueling in my city if I roll up a Duel in progress as a random encounter? So I created a lawful group of private guardsman and a chaotic group of mercenaries with a known rivalry. Any random duels that come up can be between them. Providing an explanation for all of these possible random events really helped flesh-out the city.
Additionally this table can be used whenever the players make a Gather Information check. If they get a result above 10 roll on the encounter table and that is what people are talking about for the day. This helps ensure that your city always feels like something new and interesting is going on right around the corner. They can then make additonal inquiries into the event if they want. Be sure to drop a lot of adventure hooks into your random encounter table.

4. Copy the npc stat tables from the 3.0 DMG and the One Hundred Traits table from pg. 128 of the 3.5 DMG and keep them handy. There are tables in both DMGs which detail generic examples of every class from level 1 to level 20. I recommend using the ones in the 3.0 DMG however because they are MUCH more useful than the ones in the 3.5 DMG. Yes, you'll have to make adjustments on the fly for some classes (like rangers in particular), but it's worth it. The 3.5 DMG's examples are too specific and not detailed enough to be very useful. 3.0's were much better. The One-Hundred Traits table allows you to quickly make any npc unique. For example, I needed a spur of the moment caravan driver. I rolled on the table twice and found that he was a spendthrift with bad breath. I made the PCs who were negotiating with him make Fortitude saves modified by their charisma rather than constitution to hide their reactions to his horrible breath. When one of them failed their save a great role-playing opportunity was created!

5. Start Playing! With only these things done you can start adventuring in your city. Roll random encounters and begin stitching them together into a plot. Roll Gather Information checks and let the PCs investigate what they hear about (also from the table). Let them seek aid in the Temple Ward and learn of an abandoned necropolis (crypt/graveyard) hidden below it or choose an inn from the Inn district in the Merchant Ward. Have them inadvertently get involved in a war between the Urgot gang and the thieves guild.

Adventure awaits! Enjoy!