Building a city as a home base or where your adventure is taking place can be a cool thing to do, it can also be a daunting thing to do, because putting together a whole city can be a lot of work. I rarely go into a city knowing everything about it, even if I’m running the game. There are multiple reasons for this, from me not wanting to spend the time to giving the players more control over the shape and feel of the game. But you might want to lay out more of a city, if it’s very important to your game.
When you start to build the city, first ask yourself, what is this city built around. In the case of D&D, most cities are going to spring up close to water for shipping purposes or along trade routes. That’s how most cities were founded in the real world for the large cities. You’re also going to have the smaller towns spring up along these trade routes. So, what is the primary good that’s being traded along this route? Is it going to be that there are a lot of different things coming down into a port city, so they have basically everything, or are you going to make this a city at the edge of a large forest that sends furs and wood down the river to a city along the coast with no trees?
To go along with trade, what significance does your city have in the realm that you are building. Is it a city that has a lord or lady ruling over it, but is under a king. Is it something that is near the border of two realms so it might be in a state of war more often than a city in the middle of a kingdom would be, though even in the middle, there could be land disputes around it. Or is it the seat of the king or queen of the realm and so it has that more heavily political atmosphere around it. Some of this will depend on the story you want to tell in the game, maybe you want the throne or politics to be further away from your game, if that’s the case, and you still want a city game, keep them away from the politicians and a long ways away from that.
Once you have an idea of the basics of your city, trade and political positioning, you can move more into the finer details. You will want to consider the different aspects of the city such as crime, wealth, what sort of businesses are going to be common, what sort of education is there, what sort of power merchants have in the city, how common are temples, how much magic is there, and more. Now, that is daunting, so I tend to keep it pretty simple in my games.
Generally, I think it is good to know how much crime there is outside of thieve’s guilds or other sort of criminal organizations. A good criminal organization is going to keep other crime down so that they are able to operate more freely, and also to keep the law enforcement off of their back. An example of this would be John Marcone from the Dresden Files who keeps other gangs and criminal organizations out of Chicago. Yes, Marcone is not a good man and causes a lot of issues of his own, but he’s running a business of crime, and that is what a thieve’s guild would do in a city.
The other big one is magic, how common is magic in the city, is it only tied to the temples, or are there shops set-up on street corners that are selling potions. There are going to be some cities that have more magic in them than others because of having a wizarding school or something of the sort in them. But you can also think about this on a grander scale as well. If you’re world is fairly low magic, you might then need to consider how special it would be if in a city you had magical items. That would have to be an extremely rich city, and most likely is going to have to be the seat of power for that realm. Or it could be that magic is mainly focused on those given by the divine, so clerics and paladins are accepted, but warlocks, wizards, and sorcerers might not be.
You can see how it is a bit daunting to completely build a city, so what are some things that you can do to make it easier on yourself.
You could have, as part of session 0, a brainstorming session with the players. Together you can come up with what sort of city it is. There are several nice things about doing this or doing my next suggestion of asking players to help describe the city in game when needed. The reasons being that it takes pressure off of you to come up with everything for the city and it gives the players more ownership over the game and the city.
If you were to go with either brainstorming in session 0 or asking in game for help building the city, I’d consider having a few surprises. If you’ve listened to Dungeons And Flagons season 2, you’ll hear me asking for things, but there are certain things, like the underground city that had been there that they stumbled into that were meant to be surprises for the players. That will keep the world and city more interesting for the players when they realize that their characters might know the city well or at least parts of it well, but there are still surprises even for their characters that they didn’t realize were happening in the background.
Another solution is to use an online resource. There are various things that will help you build your city, especially the layout of it and map it out for you that would be a lot of work otherwise. I haven’t used it much, but https://watabou.itch.io/medieval-fantasy-city-generator makes a beautiful city and you can tweak it as you need. It would help you get up and running faster. There are also more detailed articles on building cities out there, but if you’re trying to lesson your work load, using something to generate the map would be very helpful.
Finally, you can just build your city as you need it on demand. Quickly figure out if this is a big city or a small city. Will your characters run into the politics of the city, and how much magic there is. Then just build it as you go, if you need a docks section of the city for a session, spend time fleshing that out. Flesh it out only as you need it and you’ll have a fully planned out city eventually. That can keep some pressure off of you at the start, but you’ll eventually have to put the effort in.
How have you built cities before for an RPG? What’s worked well for you before or do you keep them out in the country and in dungeons so that you don’t have to build a city?
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