“Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.”
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Creating cities for fantasy games is a complex process that requires you balance several different aspects. You want them to seem believable, and at the same time fantastic. You want them to vibrant, open, and intriguing — but they still need to serve the overall plot thread of the game. Much more than dungeon or a wilderness encounter, urban environments require a lot more juggling on the GM’s part. For this installment, lets just talk about the realistic elements that can help make your cities relatable to players.
It has been discussed previously that a city in your game world needs a reason to exist, whether its trade, religion, government, or defense. These reasons will have a pretty large effect on where the city will be. Most cities in our world are built near sources of fresh water and other resources. Its also common for cities grow up at crossroads or where trade routes converge. Other reasons include strategic locations like mountain passes or narrow straights, river fords or natural harbors.
These aspects will have major impact on how a city would grow. Military outposts will cluster around defensive structures, while a crossroads trading post might spread out along the roads. Regional geography will also impact your city as well. A city in a northern forest will be much different than one in a desert or on a tropical coast. These should be kept in mind when you are trying to get a feel for cities you create.
Geography and purpose affect how a city is built as much as where. Take a look at our own world and you can immediately see the differences, from the materials used to overall layout. Cities built around finite resources, like harbors or mountain passes, tend to be crowded more vertical. Warmer locations feature more open spaces and outdoor gatherings.
Local materials would also change how an individual city would be built. Is there a source for stone? Or heavy timbers to build with? Perhaps the structures are made form bricks or adobe. The roofs could be thatch, baked tiles, or flat stonework in dryer climes.
What is used for decoration? Stones like marble or granite can sheath important buildings. Decorative details could be touched with precious metals or gems. What about glass? Are windows commonly glass, and do they use stained or painted glass for decorative effect?
Was the city built from a plan, or did it grow organically over time? This would have a big impact on the layout of the city, from the size of the streets to the location of important locations. Government or religious centers would have more monumental architecture and ritual plazas. Market towns might have a large open central trading area, or several specialized markets scattered throughout.
How are the population’s needs met? Is there fresh water from wells, or from some public system. Is there plumbing? How do people handle their waste. Is there a sewer system, or do they simply toss chamber pots in the gutter? How do people heat their homes, and what is used for light? These details may seem trivial, but they can add flavor to the different places where your players travel.
As important as the physical layout, the political landscape can shape your city. Is there a single ruler, with a large palace or castle to impress and intimidate the populace? Or a council of wealthy and powerful traders, each with their own opulent mansion and manicured grounds. A military outpost would be centered on some kind of defensive structure, and may have internal walls and garrisons throughout the community.
Religion puts its own stamp on a settlement as well. Is there one dominant faith with a central place of worship, or a multitude of beliefs who may have their temples in nearby locations, or in different districts segregated by religion.
Economics is another political force that would have physical impact on a city. While the wealthy might make the rules, but every segment of society plays its part. Merchants and traders push their agenda and drive the engine of the economy. Farmers and workers might be marginalized, but their numbers make them dangerous to overlook.
The interplay of the various power groups can drastically change the outlook of a city, from a untied force against a common enemy to bitter rival factions on the verge of civil war.
This can mean can mean many different things in your city, and can be reflected in all the other elements of your environment. A city drawn together by clans of horsemen could be reflected in wide grassy spaces, decentralized government, and a overall feeling of rugged independence. Their arts might be more practical, and definitely more portable, than an agrarian society.
Or, a community based on international trade might be a very open and accepting place. The constant flow of new ideas might lead to very intellectual cultural life, or perhaps just fashion-driven and ostentatious shows of wealth.
The cultural aspects of fantastic societies are often under-represented in games. Even bards wander endless fantasy landscapes with the same lutes on their back singing the same romantic lays. Picture a bard busting out a little Chinese opera in your next tavern encounter.
The last aspect to consider in building a ‘realistic’ urban setting for your fantasy game is the narrative. The city must be whatever it needs to be to further your players’ story. The Enterprise doesn’t need bathrooms, until and ensign needs a place to hide and remove a disguise. Medieval cities were overflowing with disease and filth, but it it doesn’t effect the overall story, its not necessary to describe every pox and sore.
Its a fine line between color and clutter, and urban adventures offer enough distractions to paralyze players with too many choices. Pick a few key elements that make a city unique, and ground them in the reality of your world, and you will create a memorable backdrop for your players’ adventures.
Do you have any tricks to make your cities more realistic, or do you think the whole idea is wrongheaded thinking? Let us know in the comments below.