Designing a fantasy city
Designing a fantasy city for an RPG setting is quite a challenge, even for those GMs that have been running games for years! While I’ve described much of a mediaeval-style city or settlement, the ideas here can easily be applied to any setting.
This is the easiest place to start for many GMs. Depending on the environment and ruler-ship, a settlement may have a number of possible defences. Whether it is a castle in the mountains or a village in the wilds, the importance of security is the same: keep the people safe and enemies out (whether they are animals, opposing countries, whatever). If a settlement is constrained by the walls, there will be an overspill of the population into the surrounding land – perhaps needing further walls to be created as a city grows.
The most basic defence is the wall, whether it is made of stone, living plants, wood or adamantium. This may be simple stockade where a village is concerned, or a huge stone construction with battlements and guard rooms. Magic, if available, may have been used to strengthen the walls with wards and other augmentation. If you’re feeling really nasty, the wall itself could be alive…
Depending upon the regime in power, access to the city may be restricted to only one or a few gates. Do all visitors have to produce identification papers or sign their names? Does a cleric cast Detect Good/Evil on all visitors? Does the city have only one heavily-guarded gate?
However, there is more to the defence of a city than just walls – does the city have a standing militia? Do all the citizens get some military training? Are there muster points and choke points throughout the city? Are the streets narrow? Do magic users regularly train with troops?
One final point: strongholds and castles. Every city will have some form of reinforced area: a castle, fort or armoury where the ruler can feel safe. Whether they allow the citizenry to shelter there during times of war is largely dependent on the ruler. If you can find it on eBay, the old AD&D Castles Supplement is a marvellous source for designing and building castles.
Everyone needs somewhere to live: from a palace to a hovel, every city will have its own distinctive architecture. Are the city streets clean? What are the buildings made out of? How many storeys are they? Are the streets narrow and dark with closes and alleys or are they large buildings with open grounds? Are they built with mud/marble/wood/mortar? Are the roofs flat or thatched?
Most cities have a variety of zones that correspond to social standing – the nobility and priesthood usually remain close to the positions of power, be they palaces or castles. The poor and disenfranchised usually end up in slums. Those in between comprise the majority of the city buildings – shops, inns and other dwellings.
Depending on the regime and climate, the houses may be large and airy or small and cosy. They may be built to fill the visitor with a sense of wonder or terror, or they may be functional and stark. If you pick up a book on architecture you’ll find a number of styles that may be of use.
Cities don’t spring into being overnight – usually they form where business is conducted, or for strategic military reasons. Either way, it brings money to the settlement – and those seeking money.
The economy of a city may be as simple as a market for livestock or goods, or a garrison town. A livestock market town is likely to have large open areas where the beast are sold and auctioned. Crops are stored in large silos and warehouses. If the city is as administration centre or capital, there will also be academical institutions and temples/cathedrals/mosques, etc.
Even when the city has one source of income, there are still support mechanisms for this. In a livestock market town livestock needs transportation, the beasts need fodder, and the farmers need to stay somewhere. Large sums of gold may change hands and both banks and thieves may flourish in such an environment.
Garrison towns usually have a large military presence. Blacksmiths and weaponsmiths may be commonplace, fixing soldiers gear, horse traders selling mounts to officers and the army, seamy bars and other establishments catering to the soldiers vices. At the end of the day, apply a little logic: try and make something stand out about the town; even if it is just “the finest pipe-leaf west of the Misty Mountains”.
First off, decide whether magic is legal – this in itself can provide you with a few ideas. How are those who practise magic viewed? Are they valued as professional members of the community or burnt at the stake?
If they are valued, are there academies? A wizards quarter? An Unseen University? Do they have any power within the city itself (see Guilds & Power Brokers in part 2)?
If wizards are a power bloc of their own, what magic is permitted? Demon summoning and necromancy may well be frowned upon, but spells that damage property or goods may also be banned. Do the wizards have their own process for dealing with rogue spellcasters? For instance, from the PC game, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn:
“Spellhold is an insane asylum located on the island of Brynnlaw, one of the Nelanther Isles, off the western coast of Amn, under the command of the Cowled Wizards of Amn. They use the asylum to house the ‘deviants’ they have found in Amn, practicing magic without an official license.”
How do the local temples view magic and clerics of other orders (see Religion in part 2 of this article)?
In a city where magic use is commonplace, the citizens are less likely to react in fear to a magic users powers. However, in those where magic is outlawed or feared, there may be literal witch hunts – and a strong religious doctrine.
According to some literature, civilisation is only a few meals from anarchy.
Unless the city is under siege, food will vary depending on climate, as will the abundance. A city will often buy in their food from nearby market towns, or acquire it from the sea. If the crops fail, it can be a famine disaster on a national scale.
As a GM, you can actually have some fun creating local delicacies and foodstuffs such as vegetables. Consider the humble potato – it didn’t exist in Europe until it was brought back as a curiosity in the 16th century. Just by altering some of the basic ingredients you can give a city a whole new flavour (if you pardon the pun!). In the New World for example, there are no cows or pigs: the local meat comes from dinosaurs. Spices also are a good way to enrich the setting: they can be expensive and can be used as an alternative treasure.
Cities also need to keep grain and other staples usually in granaries or similar storage. There may be large cold-stores for keeping meat but remember that there are no hygiene standards or refrigeration facilities (unless magical).
Water sources and drainage
Water, like food is critical to the survival of a settlement. It is also one of the settlement’s greatest vulnerabilities: it can be poisoned and contaminated, either by intent or accident (see Sewers below). No siege can be withstood without the defenders having access to fresh water.
In most fantasy settings, fresh water will likely come from subterranean wells or nearby sources of water. Wells would often be located in communal areas, such as market places. In many desert cultures, large catchment pools or cisterns will be created to collect water from the rare rainfall. More advanced civilisations may have large underground cisterns, and will also have drains, leading to the sewers (see below).
In a high-magic environment, gates to the Elemental plane of Water provide water sources, bound Water Elementals sweeping the streets clean on a nightly basis. One of my favourite monsters, the Cistern Fiend (from the Dark Sun D&D setting) actually purifies the water it lives in – it is a big bad-ass guardian monster and water treatment plant in one. Also, imagine the value of a decanter of endless water to a desert nomad.
One final thing to consider: does the settlement get flooded in heavy rain? Do the rivers burst their banks? If the undercity floods what are the ramifications – what gets driven to the surface?
It’s almost a cliché now, but any city adventure will likely see your PCs in the sewers. Which just happen to be tall enough and wide enough for them to walk, fight and spell cast in. At some point one of your PCs will fall in the sewer where they will likely get munched upon. Don’t forget the luminescent moss in case the players haven’t brought illumination.
Oh, please. Unless you’re running a modern or Steampunk/Victoriana game, the sewers are likely to be be much smaller. For those games, subways are also cool – see the film Mimic for some ideas on how to create these kind of tunnels.
All is not lost though – many city areas are often built on the ruins of others (Mary Kings Close in Edinburgh for a real life example), post-apocalyptic or not. These forgotten buildings and ruins can easily be turned into their own city below, may be leading to the Underdark or other buildings long-forgotten. Neverwhere is also a good source of ideas for an undercity (London Below).
Subterranean sewers aren’t new. The Romans used them, but in fantasy they’re often far too elaborate (often based on a modern point of view of what sewers are like). Sewers are probably only a few feet wide and likely tall enough for however much water is expected – PCs will likely be stooped over with standing water in low areas, possibly with some nasty critters living in the muck that lies everywhere. In most cases the channels will empty into a nearby river, possibly contaminating a water source. Most sewers may flood during heavy rain or if the city has expanded without taking account of the drainage (see above).
What you want to go for with sewers is claustrophobia. There’s barely room to fight. It is dark, wet and cold. It stinks and you don’t want to touch the walls or be fall over in the filth. When the players emerge, they should be tired, wet, and stinking – and longing for a dungeon crawl.
One final point, consider how other fantasy races may deal with refuse: Elves may recycle theirs, as fertiliser where possible. Dwarves may burn it their forges. Orcs throw theirs in the street :).
Many fledgling GMs find that it’s very easy to come up with the city of the Dark Lord: human sacrifice is common and everyone lives in fear. However, there’s only so far that a ruler can push his city – and a city is the sum of its parts, notably the people. If the ruler is an evil despot, the people will find a way to work around them.
In a city where law is valued (whether good or evil), there are likely to be levels of bureaucracy that require paperwork for everything. In chaotic cities, gang warfare and whichever faction has the greatest power rules – overtly or otherwise.
Consider how your city is run: is it a democracy? A theocracy? Ruled by a Prince? A dictatorship? How much power do the guilds and other factions have?
Port Blacksand, Ankh-Morpork and Lankhmar are all very different cities but they are all Lawful Evil when you consider the city’s “alignment”. Think about how your city is ruled: are the citizens taxed to the hilt? Do they love or hate their ruler?
Many cities have more than one religion. Usually the primary deity is the patron of the state, with other religions having a presence because of circumstance or environment: military garrison towns may have more warlike deities as their predominant deities, but any religion with healing powers is likely to be well-regarded as well. The people tend to worship whatever gods are relevant to them at any time. If it is a large city, there may be many local religions if a large number of races dwell there.
The best way to approach religion is to consider the regime in power: if it is strict and unforgiving, certain religions will be persecuted. Whether this persecution takes the form of paladins or the Inquisition is up to you: the end result may be the same!
Try looking at real life examples: for example, Christians were a persecuted cult in Imperial Rome, and the Romans deified their Emperors. However they also had the habit of integrating religions into their own, such as the sun god Mithras: it also allowed them to absorb local religions into their “state” religions as it were.
In my own settings (Ashes of Freedom and Against the Odds), Volkraad and Thulemar are very different: Pelor and Bane being the state religions. They may tolerate other religions so long as they are not inimical to their god’s goals, within certain parameters. Thulemar tolerates Undead (in the form of the Gheribean Legion), whereas Volkraad destroy undead and rule their creation as blasphemous.
Most settlements will dispose of their dead in a certain way, according to the appropriate religion. Do they cremate, bury their dead? Is it carried out with a celebration of the deceased life or a sombre occasion? Do they practice sky burials or mummification?
In warmer countries, bodies are more likely to be cremated due to the possibility of pestilence. A city that fears undead and necromancy (whether state sanctioned or otherwise!) are more likely to burn the bodies than inter them in the ground.
In those cases where a body is buried, are they buried in a catacomb, tomb or graveyard? The graveyard is pretty much like the sewers in fantasy RPGs – they are usually home to so many undead and necromancers that graves are pretty much like revolving doors.
A large city may have many graveyards, but it it only has large one then you can really go to town (if you’ll forgive the pun). Undead have a society of sorts – Ghouls feed on the dead and may construct tunnels so they move around unseen beneath the surface. Vampires may rule sections of catacombs, patrolled by their minions – not necessarily zombies or skeletons either, vampire spawn may be trusted with their own areas. Carrion crawlers nest there, close to a plentiful food supply. It can also be a hiding place for necromancers and also thieves and other ne’er-do-wells.
Even those cultures that practice sky burials can have beings haunting their grave sites – predators such as werewolves and ghouls seeking an easy meal. More mundane creatures such as bears may also smell carrion and come scavenging if the site is in the wild.
Finally, cities are often built on older sites – not all undead may be of the modern era as it were. A human city built on an elven ruin may have some very old elven undead still resident.
Whether the weather has changed or not, most cities are built to withstand whatever weather is common to that area, be it broiling sun or icy winds. Cities provide shelter to their citizens, and unless the weather has changed vastly, will be built along those lines.
Cities that are in colder climes will likely be constructed of thick walls (stone or wood, whatever is more commonplace), with many fireplaces and chimneys to keep the citizens warm. Smoke from torches on the streets likely hang over the city, and stain the walls. Floors are likely to be cold stone, with rushes or sawdust on the floors that may or may not be changed regularly. Richer homes may have rugs or drapes (often imported at great cost) to remove the chill, or fur rugs. Doors tend to be thick and sturdy.
Warmer or more humid climes may tend towards whitewashed open buildings to reflect the sun. They may be larger, more open-plan buildings with water features such as fountains and mosaics. Internal doors may not exist, with curtains or veils used to separate rooms. It may be that there are no buildings as such – just tents or marquees in some cases.
Also consider the water table – does the city have a high water table and have canals like Venice? Does it flood regularly – if so, the more wealthy will likely live on the higher ground – and how bad do the floods get? In warmer climes, large cisterns are likely to be used to catch some of the water for later use. Are there such things as tidal bores or hurricanes that regularly hit the city?
Law & Order
No matter how chaotic or anarchic a city, there are always those seeking to impose order, be it for their own good or that of the city. They may be an organised police force like the Watch or a gang of street toughs protecting their territory. Either way, they maintain a form of status quo within the city.
When designing a fantasy city think about how the population react to their rulers. If the city is occupied by a foreign military force, soldiers will likely patrol the streets, with a curfew imposed to restrict those plotting sedition and rebellion. If riots and fires are common place a city Watch likely exists.
Watch members may be paid or not. They may be volunteers with some training that allows them to be militia in times of war. Depending upon the regime, some may be corrupt while others work to the book. The justice system may not exist – the City Watch may be similar to the Judges in Judge Dredd: judge, jury, and executioner. This sort of system, “The Judge” usually requires a certain strength of character as well (not necessarily a moral one) – such characters are usually far better trained than the militia. Judges should be pretty dangerous to normal PCs – from Judge Dredd to bounty hunters like Boba Fett!
Think about how the legal system works in your city. Does the nobility get away with murder? Are trials by combat permitted? Does the legal system permit lawyers or legal counsel? Or do local magistrates administer justice at he rulers whim? Does it use bail?
At the end of the day consider the flip side of the coin: in a town where the Thieves Guild holds a lot of power, many of the Watch will be on the take. How does crime and punishment work in your city: do pickpockets loose their fingers if they are caught? Do murderers get executed? Where are criminals incarcerated?
Guilds & Power Brokers
Even if your city’s ruler is Supreme Overlord of the Life, Universe and Everything; he’s not alone. Whether it is the Galactic Empire and Rebel Alliance, or Mordor and Gondor, there’s always going to be more than one faction in politics.
It should be the same within your city: there’s always someone wanting more power. Consider how the city’s economy works. Merchants do have power and they always want more power and wealth. Money flows: whether it is called bribes, grants or incentives – it can buy nobles and influence, even kings given time.
It is not just merchants that cultivate power: thieves may have their own power bloc, whether crime is organised or not in the town. They may also have access to assassins and other skilled killers, along with a great deal of information – including some that can be used for blackmail. They may also know the homes of the Nobility better than the nobles themselves.
The Nobility jockey for position at court and elsewhere: it may be outright warfare between Noble House (like in Herbert’s Dune), or more genteel where a cutting or barbed remark can cause a House to lose face. Read Machiavelli’s The Prince for some ideas about how to bring this level of intrigue to a court. Vendettas and blood feuds can add to the mix.
When it comes to creating power blocs I find it useful to create a sort of mind map which shows how each bloc relates to another. Sometimes you can have a lot of fun with your players as they try and figure out just how they are being manipulated into something larger than themselves…
No matter how strong a city walls are they can’t keep out time and chance: a fire in a bakery caused the Great Fire of London. Some people believe that it helped stop the Black Death. This brings us to the last part of the article: whether it is costumed vigilantes tearing up a city block or the bar room brawl that became a riot, there are always repercussions: rebuilding or repairing.
Has the city been involved in a siege? Or a military coup d’etat? Does something stalk the streets like Jack the Ripper? What rumours are there of foreign lands? Has the city had a large influx of new visitors?
However you do it, there should be something that makes the city feel more dynamic: that it is alive. Whether your PCs get caught up in a riot, the city comes under siege, or plague breaks out, you need to breath life into it. It is all very well to read a dusty history book; it is something else to live it!