A convention of D&D campaign worlds and much fantasy fiction is the great metropolitan capital, the focal trade-city and hub of the continent, which is often a nation unto itself. This only somewhat reflects reality: there are many great cities in the world but few tend to be city-states, which predate the medieval periods D&D bases itself on. Large cities tend to be a rarity in the medieval world, having size limitations.
And yet every D&D setting has some large city. Greyhawk takes its name from the central Free City of that setting. Dragonlance has Palanthas, the Forgotten Realms has Waterdeep (and others), Eberron has Sharn, and so on. Planescape has Sigil. The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories have Lankhmar and the Discworld novels have Ankh-Morpork. The excellent Ptolus mega-book is almost entirely a city and related dungeon. Even Dark Sun, where all civilization is a series of city-states, has Tyr standing out as the centerpiece. It's almost expected that there will be a large metropolis for urban adventures, so this warrants it's own chapter in this series.
There are a number of online tools and referneces that might help. Medieval Demographics Made Easy and The Domesday Book are handy. WotC released the book Cityscape as one of their 3e environment series. And while working for Fantasy Flight Games Mike Mearls wrote the book on designing cities, called City Works (well worth the $20 if you plan on seriously designing a city for an urban campaign).
This is the eighth part in a series on fantasy world building.
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
Placement of Cities
Placing cities was covered in the Nations chapter, but I'll reiterate quickly.
City placement requires some thought thought as cities have large fresh water and food requirements, and are frequently built on rivers for that reason. Given you cannot farm inside a city, large cities are dependent on the surrounding countryside, which is often a network of satellite farms and villages. As a loose rule, cities need twice their space in farmland.
As they grow, large cities expand onto the surrounding arable land. Thus very large cities are either exceedingly rich and able to import all the food they need (but are vulnerable to sieges), part of empires that can ship food to the capital, or are surrounded by large stretches of truly rich farming land. Thia is one of the reasons many cities expand up rather than out to avoid building atop farmland. In a fantasy world cities might expand even higher (see Sharn), or out into water, or even down into the ground.
Defence is a big issue for cities. Prior to gunpowder, walls were a reliable and necessary defence against assault; rocky areas have stone walls, forested areas would have palisades, arid lands have clay or adobe walls, and plains have man-made hills. Castles and fortified keeps were kept close on the most defensible nearby location, often atop cliffs or upon bluffs. These would often be a short distance away from the city, having to balance proximity with defence. Sometimes these distant castles become surrounded by the city as it grows, as was the case in Edinburgh.
Capitals tend to be in a central location, acting as a hub for communication with messengers equally able to reach all corners of the nation. Settlements at the edge of territories lack the land buffer to ready defenses, making those cities vulnerable to sacking. Trade cities are located near borders, along trade routes, or by the coast, although coastal trade cites tend to be a short distance upstream from the actual harbour for defensive reasons, but like all cities these expand and often end up absorbing their harbour satellite.
Cities also form in strategic location and need not be important for military reasons, and instead might be trade cities if set on a choke point. Larger nations often have important cities necessary for providing goods, such as mining or quarrying towns. The settlement might have grown and serve other purposes, such as processing and smelting the raw materials prior to shipping.
Layout of a City
Modern cities tend to be build on a grid, as it is easy to navigate. This is a feature of planned communities with the luxury of time and money needed to both plan ahead and work around the terrain such as uncooperative hills, gullies, and trees. Medieval cities tend to not be built on a grid, with streets growing and connecting organically. Wide straight roads are also easier for invaders to navigate and travel, making them a potential liability. And with cars being exceedingly rare, city streets seldom need to accommodate anything larger than a horse. Large cities are often unplanned. Small towns might be planned to a point, but often lack the time and money to smooth rough terrain and cut dense foliage, not when they could just build around. Thus, the terrain guides the layout. Until someone wealthy enough notices the prime real estate that just needs to be cleared.
Due to location and luck, some towns grow wealthy and expand until they reach their neighbors, becoming a single city. This plays havoc with layout as the streets of two or more towns suddenly intersect. As mentioned earlier, large cities frequently have satellite communities that provide food (grains and meats) to the larger city. As large cities expand, they often amalgamate the closer satellite communities, which adds to the mismatched feel to city streets.
In a small town, important buildings tend to be centralized. The main street or village square design. Cities aren't that different, but because of their origins they might have two or three centers. It often becomes handy to separate and segregate the centers, with business being on one center and government or religion in another. Alternatively, one center may expand into a single sprawling downtown.
These are pretty huge generalities and lots of factors could change things. A fire might gut part of the town allowing it to be redesigned from scratch. A ruler might demolish the city for similar reasons. A city built on a river might join with the city on the other side but not overlap. A planned city might be built overtop the ruins of a sacked city. A few kings have even built whole cities from scratch.
Designing a City
Where you start in designing a settlement depends on its size and your needs. For a small town the heroes are just passing through all you need is a name, maybe an inn, and the standard list of random names in case the PCs strike up a conversation. For someplace the PCs might have an adventure or two, some kind description or memorable feature helps. Something so they can describe it later as "the place with the _____." However, for a town that will be the base of operations for the players or serves some other important or memorable role, knowing the layout (or at least a list of places) is handy.When designing a city that will see a lot of use a little extra work can make all the difference.
I recommend starting with the reason the town exists. Settlements don’t exist without reason. People don’t decide to spend months breaking ground on a new town “just because” nor do people move to that town for similar reasons. They don’t do it in the real world and they certainly don’t do it in a fantasy world with monsters around every corner lurking in every dark space, not when they have the safety and shelter of other established towns. So why are people there? Is there ore? A ready supply of lumber? Good ranching or farmland? Was the area very defendable? Is it between two (or more) other towns making it a useful rest stop? Is there a fresh water oasis? Is there some unique nearby feature such as a freshwater spring, geyser, or waterfall? Did god speak to the founder and tell him to settle there?
From there, pick the terrain and loosely sketch out what the ground looked like. Decide where the hills and dips were and where the heavy brush was. This step can be skipped if you want a very planned city, but it adds a nice organic feel. You don’t need to draw every house (and likely shouldn’t) but you can mark where major structures would originally be and sketch the major roads, likely with busier roads connecting the major landmarks. If you’re doing a small town just expand the city wherever it’s easiest, stopping when the town looks large enough.
As always, scale and numbers are important. Don’t forget to establish how large you want your settlement to be before you start, in terms of both population and geography. A good estimate for the average house size of a medieval home would be fifteen to twenty feet. Mostly due to the size limits of timbers for overhead and support beams. Nails and rope needed to tie beams together for larger houses would be a complicated procedure requiring some skill and more help, so it would only be done for wealthier folk or communal buildings.
The average village would have a couple hundred people in it, with fifty to a hundred buildings. People in towns frequently lived where they work, sleeping above shops or in the back rooms. Towns have a few thousand people in them, again with five-hundred to a thousand buildings. Cities have around ten thousand people, while big cities would top off in the hundred thousand range. 200,000 would be massive by medieval standards and millions would be inconceivable. The 130,000 of Waterdeep puts it as the equal of Medieval Venice and far larger than medieval London or Paris, and the Free City of Greyhawk is a reasonable 70,000. Palanthas is a modest 32,000 but Krynn is a mite smaller than other campaign settings.
Two final things to consider when designing a town are the trades present and the settlement’s demographics. These can get a little finicky and can also make-or-break the verisimilitude of a town.
People need places to get clothings, food, tools, and other goods they cannot make themselves. Very small towns might only have a general store while everyone makes their own clothes and grows most of their own food. Other towns might rely on annual or seasonal visits from traders bringing needed goods. Larger towns have more specialization, as there becomes enough people that it’s easier to focus on one profession and trade for what you need.
The tropes of D&D help with this, as PCs need to buy weapons, repair gear, and generally restock. The needs of the game and expecting starting gear help establish a baseline of what should be available somewhere, and its absence should be deliberate. There should always be a longsword somewhere in town. Even if there is not weapon shoppe or smithy, there might be a former guard who has an extra blade or someone whose father was a member of the army and has the sword tucked away in the attic, but s willing to sell it for a price.
There won’t be every available profession represented in a small town and most villages are not going to support someone who does not work or earn their keep: folk might rely on “the next town over” for certain goods. A farming town middle of nowhere might not have a dedicated blacksmith as there might not be enough ore to employ one full time; each farmer might do their own smithing or there might be a part time smith.
For example, a town of one-hundred likely does not have a shoemaker despite everyone needing shoes. Even if it takes him two days to make a pair of good boots (which seems long even if he’s curing his own leather and spinning his own thread) he’ll have made one pair for every inhabitant of the town in eight months and a spare pair in sixteen months. People will not be wearing out boots fast enough for him to remain employed for more than a year and a half. But in a small city of five-hundred, there’s likely enough people to employ a couple shoemakers, especially with passing trade.
Demographics are similar, in that they require some thought but get nitpicky quickly. While this blog is all about making a detailed Top Down campaign setting, going too deep into demographics is likely overkill. You don’t need to know how many children or seniors are in a town. But demographics are something to keep in mind, but only to avoid anomalies.
In real world terms demographics would be the breakdown of genders and ages. Typical women outnumber men by a hair. Fantasy kingdoms and settlements have the added wrinkle of demihuman races. In addition to knowing how many people are in a town, it’s handy to know how many elves, dwarves, dragonborn, and the like are in the town.
For example, a small town of 150 people is unlikely to have more than a handful of people of different races. There might be a family or two, but not many for the obvious reason of breeding: the family is going to last a single generation before the children need to go off to find mates or they die alone and childless. If you try and squeeze a token elf, halfling, dwarf, gnome, dragonborn, half-orc, tiefling, deva, shifter, and goliath family of 2.5 (half of them have a child) into the town, that eats-up a seventh of the total population of the village. It’s fine to have a small family of elves living with humans, but there should be a reason, there should be a story there.
Features of a City
Just having a town complete with buildings, known businesses, a map, and a rough idea of population does not make for a living breathing fantasy location. What defines a city is everything else. Specifically, things like landmarks, local features, events, and the like. What is the town known for? Are their any local customs or fairs? Local superstitions or legends?
A city’s memorable features might be constructed, such as a large bridge the town came together to build across the river, or natural objects, such as a massive tree thirty feet wide or massive boulder at the center of town, or even relics from a bygone age such as a ring of standing stones or the massive head of a fallen statue long whose body has long since crumbled to rubble.
A few options include places for people recreate such as parks and wild areas, but also amphitheatres, theaters, brothels, or coliseums. There might be monuments, such as dedications to past wars or famous residents, or royal memorials such as armies of clay soldiers, giant pyramids, or bronze statues. There should also be places of worship, both small shrines, modest churches, and a few grand cathedrals. Don’t forget graveyards. While these are often outside or at the edge the main town, larger cities frequently surround and engulf their old graveyards.
Given the fantasy setting, don’t forget places of objects of mystery. Inspiration can be gathered from some real world sites such as Stonehenge or the assorted massive works seen in the Lord of the Rings movies. These can enigmatic yet magical objects such as a massive stone tor of perfectly smooth rock with no sign of tool marks or entrances, statues of a forgotten king whose expression changes with the season or the nature of the onlooker, rocky cairns from an unknown era with pictographs of strange people and unfamiliar gods, or a pillar of fire that consumes no fuel and never goes out regardless of the weather.
A unique feature of urban campaigns is the possibility of courtly strife and politics. So when designing your city, remember Step 2: Conflict. Where is the conflict in the city? Who hates who? This doesn’t just apply to feuding noble houses but also competing merchant companies, rival guilds, and opposed churches. In the lower quarter,there might be rival gangs or tension between smugglers and the law. As always, think about where there might be adventure. Think about who the movers and shakers might be, and possible patrons for adventurers.
Metropolis in War World
I'll describe a couple settlements for my continuing example campaign setting of War World. I'll be using the northern mercantile nation of Firaxies for both. There is the smaller crossroad town of Lamres and the bustling port capital of Nespirc.
I didn’t write much on Firaxies, unnamed until this blog, so I’ll reiterate what is known, for myself as much as readers. It’s a nation of merchants that is plutocracy (the rich rule). I’ll further refine this as an autocratic plutocracy (i.e. no slaves) with a theocratic background that is still present. Tying things together is always nice, so I’ll use my previous article on gods and connect this nation with Sampait, god of wealth and merchants. The nation literally worships wealth and the richest rule directly. I thought about making this a republic with only the wealthy voting, but I like the idea of non-idle rich who actively rule. The wealthy of Firaxies are not people of leisure, and decadence like Kaledon, for they know there is innumerable poor folk hungry for wealthy and eager to depose them and take their place among the rich elite.
I’ll start with the smaller crossroad town of Lamres. I picked this town, as I designed Firacies around its southern river - which serves a quick natural highway - then connected the cities with roads. I placed a city (Lamres) at the intersection of a couple roads: being roughly a day’s travel from two of the towns it would be where people stopped to rest and eat overnight.
When planning the town I drew the roads first and then added a few buildings where the road intersected. I randomly drew where the thick forests happened to be. Then I added the second wave of housing. The town continues to grow along the road but also expands outward, moving first into the clear spaces between the woods.
A note before I continue, I’m not drawing individual houses so much as blocks or groups of houses, connecting or with alleys in-between. I’m trying to quickly get the overall layout of the town, not give it a full map. This should be a large town with five times as many homes as it looks like my map will show.
Next, I expand out even farther, now going into the treeline as people view the extra work of clearing the land as an investment, rather than building even farther away from the center of town. From there the city expands once again, continuing along the road but also finishing construction over the trees.
The buildings along the main road would be the businesses that appeal most to travellers. Food, shelter, places to restock and rest. Taverns, inns, caravan yards and the like. The actual heart of town might be off to the side, where it’s quieter and there are less visitors. This is where the government buildings would be, smaller businesses that cater to the locals, and the like. I’ll call that “main street” opposed to the busier “market row”. At the key real estate of the junction of the main highways I’ll put a small park and monument. Something big and expensive to show off how impressive the town is to travellers.
I’ll put the richer part of town to the south. It was initially at the edge and erected during the third wave of construction, when the town became noteworthy enough to warrant the wealthy living there (and for the older families to build newer properties). Since then more housing has recently gone up to the south, also wealthy homes creating a division between the “old money” and the “newer money” across the road. Socializing “across the road” is mildly inappropriate and saying someone did is a local insult.
The lower end of town is to the north. I gave it a colourful name. It’s the housing that continued to build in the cleared area, when townsfolk were effluent enough to clear forest. Everyone who couldn’t afford a better home instead built in the Tangle, which is less organized and planned.
That's more than enough for a quick location. This isn’t a vital place, and while it has become a large town, it’s still just a town most people just pass through. It should feel like that: not particularly memorable yet fairly familiar. If I were going to have my PCs intersect more with the town I'd name the inn and stores, but keep them deliberately generic. The Red Dragon Inn and such.
If this were meant to be a more important local, such as the launch point of an adventure or place to regularly refuel between adventures I'd give it more memorable features. For example, Lamres is in light woodland I'll suited for crops yet likely good land for orchards. Grains are rarer, but fruits are common. It's fairly northernly (Nova Scotia / Portland) so apples might grow well ( as well as cherries and plums). This means it's a cider town. The wealthy like their brandy by everyone else gets hard cider. The local inns are known for their varieties and house blends of cider. Beer is an expensive luxury from a couple towns over. Suddenly Lamres isn't "that place" but "that place with the cider."
Moving onto the capital. Nespirc was built along the river, where the mouth opens into the ocean.
The river turns before it reaches the sea, so there’s likely some higher terrain at the bend. This would be a defensible hill, so I’ll be starting with a village there, as well as a couple fishing villages on either side of the river’s mouth. It’s a swift river (two large rivers combined) so there’s likely a noticeable river valley. However, it’s not quite cliffs, as the nation is in the rain shadow of the mountains. At this point in the sketching, there’s won’t be housing down by the edge of the river where the ground is rougher and steeper.
Trade comes down the river, both wood and ore, so the city becomes a good hub. People sail there to buy goods, so the fishing villages grow and become wealthy. Defended against costal raids, the village on the nearby bluff also grows. Traders set up shop. Mercantile companies are established. The ports grow.
There’s no natural harbour, so the city would rely on docks along the river. Another smaller satellite springs up offering alternate docking on the other side of the river. At this point, the two eastern towns likely flirt with amalgamation, and the western settlements might be convinced to join over the next few years. And thus a city is born.
While not on the below maps, the city would be wealthy enough and worried enough of raiders that it would fortify itself. There’s ore and rock coming from downstream and the city has money, so this fortification is likely a stone wall quarried and shipped to the city. The wall initially surrounds the eastern city, but a second wall is built around the western settlements, as they slowly agree to join the city. (If there was a wall surrounding the city on the hill, it would be torn down at this point to help make the newer more secure wall.
From there the city hits critical mass. Houses explode within the safety of the walls, even in the rougher ravine of the river valley. Then more housing is built along the outside of the walls.
With the city now being a true city more and more people flock to the safety it provides. As mentioned in an earlier blog, the nation of Firaxies is a neutral nation that acts as arms merchants for the other nations. It’s one of the few places not at open war, which attracts many people who are tired of war and battle. Refugees, artists, objectors, and pacifists from across the continent. The city balloons in size.
Swollen but wealthy, the city constructs even more walls. It knows its wealth and that the city is a target to its southern neighbours. While it is too remote to be easily assaulted, the city does not want to be too tempting by leaving itself undefended.
Adding some names to the city I make the older areas of one of the towns the government offices. As the town has a distinct religious slant, I also have a number of churches nearby. The largest is likely the cathedral to Sampait but there are likely a number of other churches to the other gods or the entire pantheon. Surrounding that is the “Old Town” where they money lives. The rent and taxes are high to keep out the riffraff, but it’s the place to live. Everyone aspires to live in Old Town.
To the north of that is the original docks, and surrounding that is likely a glut of warehouses (to store goods being shipped elsewhere). The offices of most of the trading companies and the like would be nearby, but a safe distance from the docks themselves.
Between the old wall and the newer wall is the stretches of New Town. There’d be a number of small markets and sub-districts here. This is likely divided among species, with a “little elfland” and “halfling town”. Near one of the gates would be the local market, for out of towners to shop and buy and were smaller traders sell their goods. This would be the great bazaar of the city. It starts out cheap closest to New Town and the gates (growing more illicit the farther away from the main road) but grows all the more pricey as it nears the walls of Old Town where the expensive stores and goods are sold.
On the other side of the river we have much of the industrial businesses. The refinery has been collectively moved close to the old docks, where the ore can be unloaded and processed then the runoff dumped in the river where no one will drink it (or no one wealthy). From there the ore is moved back upstream to the vast smithy that has replaced the small satellite community that makes the arms and armour Firaxies is known for.
As the weaponry is made and limited to the west side of the river, weaponry can be controlled on the wealthier east side of the river. Carrying a sword requires permission and a licence (to keep them out of the hands of the poor and servants) and weapons are typically peace bound. However, on the western side of the city, weapon laws have to be a little more looser with so many are being made and tested, so it’s a little more common.
Sadly, the slums of the city are also on the west side, making sword violence fairly common there. The Alleys, as the slums are known, are cheap houses constructed in the easily cleared land just inside the newest wall but between the still forested sections (likely wild parkland now, as it was easier to build the wall around the small forest than cut through the woods). Like New Town, there’s likely some ethnic or racial neighbourhoods here. The neighbourhood south of the forest is likely lower income but not quite as bad as the Alleys.
By the Old Docks, there’s some old town that’s likely home to fishermen, sailors, and dock workers. It’s the place for labourers, with many taverns and inns closer to the water. Being a trade town there would be a lot of temporary residents living here, and the population would shift depending on the season. "The Seaan District empties with the tides." Its a rough part of town but honest in a Blue Collar kind of way. Folk are poorer but all have jobs and no one goes hungry. The old wall cuts the labourer Seaman District in half, but I don’t see this as being more than superficial division: every home beside the wall has a ladder on the roof. The guards stopped trying to reinforce use of the gates long ago and just let people pass as they please. There is likely a problem with drunk people not quite making the full journey and falling off ladders, which is likely a local joke: “taking a tumble from the wall” (or “taking a tumble” for short) refers to being drunk. "Crossing the wall" refers to going home.
As I forgot about drawing in walls until late in my design process there was a small anomaly in my design: I had a large gap which ended up inside the wall (aka the first place people build) that I had few people building on. Rather than just let it slide as a mistake, I decided to embrace that goof and that area became the necropolis.
To justify it being the sole graveyard and so far from the original towns, I’m saying this was an ancient graveyard that predated the founding of any of the towns. The land naturally has some form of hallowed properties that keep the number of restless dead down (although the reasons for this are unknown). And so all the villages burried their dead there, until the last few centuries.
The necropolis is now quite full and is riddled with catacombs and cairns that date back centuries or even millennia. After the ground was filled up the wealthy knocked over gravestones and just built mausoleums to inter their dead above ground (with plaques representing the former headstones to hopefully avoid upsetting any restless spirits).
For a citywide hook, the phrase "everything's for sale in Nespirc" works and emphasised the mercantile nature, as does "everything in Nespirc has a price." It's the place to find anything. But everything has a cost in one way or another. There are information brokers, sages that sell their knowledge, drugs, prostitution, and the like.
Life in the city is expensive. Whie slavery is likely one of the few illegalities, debt and indentured servitude are not. People fall into debt and are forced to work for their debt holders, with debt transferred like currency. I can see this becoming foralized quickly. First it's word of mouth ("I give you this 100gp debt" or "I'll exchange half of Greiner's debt to me") and then paper, and finally something else. Something passed around the wealthy like currency. Magical scrolls inititially spring to mind, but they I started thinking glass beads: they are easy to wear and pass between people, and enchanted so the signer knows who holds it and the wearer can look through the beas and see the signer. More expensive ones might have defenses against theft. I'm going with beads as making them physical means they're also fashion statement and makes them a descriptive element. Nespircian merchants are identified by their beads and you can set the tone of the city with noblemen buying things with beads as much as gold. It's memorable.
Briefly thinking conflict, I'll have racial gangs in The Alleys (elven and kenku). There is a division a,of the laborers, typically between the dwarves (long employed in the smithies and shelters) and humans, with discussion of guilds and unions. There will be a number of thieves guilds of course, reflecting the existence of that background in the core rules. As the rich rule, there'd be a continued struggle for financial power, weathy nobel families and guilds competing and struggling to advance. The church would be a wealthy landowner and formidable power, but no longer the sole ruler. While they are but the fifth most wealthy organization in the kingdom, they are also the most stable. A strong economy needs some stability.
And that’s some thoughts on designing a city. This is a topic you could quite literally write a book on, so this blog just scratches the surface of the topic. But it’s enough to work with.
You don’t need to follow all the steps, especially if you want to explore the city with the players, making it up as you go along. But for those of you making a settlement ahead of time from scratch, I hope this helps.
I personally like the creative touches that happen when you design how things might naturally go and then have to react to that design. Such as the gap in my map becoming the graveyard, or the wall dividing a district and thinking about what that might mean for the inhabitants. It’s small unique touches that sell the city as a place and not just some names on a map.
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