“As a kid, I lived in a fantasy world. I used to believe ants could talk. Not once did they say thank you.”
I think many of us create and play fantasy role-playing games as an escape from reality and way to explore ideas that aren’t bound by strictures of our societies, or even our natural laws. So it seems slightly odd how much effort we put into plausible structures and believable rationale for our fantasies as we strive for the vague Gygaxian “verisimilitude”.
And sometimes these efforts undermine the magic of our creation. Our desire to create a logical hierarchy to the Church of Grognar Brighthelm might just throw shade on his holy radiance, or building a food chain where dragons have a steady food source might starve the joy from your questing knights. Sometimes its enough that Grognar shines, or that a dragon’s diet consists entirely of princesses.
Its a game, so don’t sweat the small stuff (like gnomes).
In our world, cities often grow up around crossroads, river fords, and sheltered ports. These are good starting places, but there could be so many more. Perhaps a rare magical resource can only be mined from the lava fields around volcanoes? Or a particular tree is sacred to a god, and her worshipers have migrated to be near it. If its a magical tree, it may even be large enough to house the entire environment.
In fantasy, cities don’t even have to be in the same place. Brigadoon shows up for one day every 100 years, and then vanishes. Cities could be on cloud islands, or the backs of gigantic creatures, or shaped from living coral at the bottom of the sea.
Magic can be a great equalizer for what could be very difficult environments. In our world, people can easily die from lack of oxygen in underground systems, but you won’t see that problem in Moria. Or the problems of extreme temperature or access to fresh water and food. It can be interesting to solve these problems in your worlds (large condenser sheets collecting moisture from around the cloud castle, for example), but you don’t always have to. Sometimes its just magic.
This can simply be a reflection of its environment, or it could something all on its own. The residents of the WorldTree might live in vast complex carved out of its massive trunk, or they might collect items from the surrounding area and build colorful nest homes, or they might have a symbiotic relationship with a spider races that weaves gigantic slings, and airy silken structures for them. Just stretch your imagination and see what comes.
Structure can go beyond materials as well. Perhaps the entire city layout is a ritual pattern that keeps a demon imprisoned, and the people unwittingly repeat a ritual going about their daily lives. Or competitive wizards build ever taller and more slender towers to show their power and wealth, to where a person would have to shimmy up a shaft to reach the top?
Natural features can make fantasy cities unique as well. There may be an artifact of an ancient civilization like the Colossus of Rhodes in the harbor, or a massive well that is said to transcend worlds. The city may have even adapted to the fantastic feature and integrated it into itself. There is a city in Osirion in the Pathfinder world with a massive beetle shell in the middle of it, and many blocks of buildings built inside.
Different races would have a big impact on the structure of a city. A large population of dwarves might create a city that seems like a small village from above, but has many soaring galleries and busy workshops below. A city of woodland fey might not be seen at all, and is so cunningly built into the forest as to be invisible.
This is an area where both magic and fantasy races can truly alter the city’s landscape. When one group can literal cast lightning down on rivals, it causes a shift in power. And if there is magic working for multiple factions it can get complex very quickly. Not to mention the political power that can be gained by divination or charm spells.
Religion is also quite different in worlds where a gods power is tangible and reliable in the hands of their worshipers. Or what if the ruler of a region was an actual god? On the flip side, the ruler may have made a bargain with dark forces to gain this position, and is now bound to their agenda.
But even without that sort of heavyweight political manipulation, think of how completely different races might govern. Or how their worldviews will react when pressed against each other in a city. A tribe of warlike minotaurs might create a stable, moderately repressive tribal government in the mines of their homeland, but what happens when they set up permanent encampments to trade in the heavily gnomish hillsides.
Races may choose their leader through combat, or by lot, or by who the sacred pigeon of Plo’tzz chooses to grace with its blessing. And this may be engrained into their culture and not easy to change.
As varied as human culture and creative endeavor can be, the culture of a urban fantasy would be even more so. Magic could change our arts in many ways. Just think back on the background design of a Harry Potter for a moment. And those were largely just visual arts.
Other races might have have different senses, or at least a different focus on the senses we share. How would dark vision effect painting? Or what would theater be like for a race that can read surface thoughts. And what happens when drastically different styles collide in a crowded city. Are heavy stone statues found surrounded by living tableaus of plants? Is one group concept of harmony physically jarring to another. These are just a few of the cultural touchstones you can use to make your cities unique.
These ideas can rapidly get out of hand, and turn your lovingly crafted world into a freak show of breathing towers and skittle-pooping elephants feeding the populace. But even one or two elements can make a city more intriguing to your players, and a better backdrop for their stories.
Fantastic elements can also be used to reinforce the themes of your campaign. A city of cruel, manipulative schemers could be filled with winding alleys and shadowy markets, or a warlord’s stronghold could be built from jagged rocks constantly lashed by wind and storms off the sea. Or even serve as a counterpoint, where your players discover the rulers that serve as the heart of the WorldTree have been corrupted, and its seeds will bear no fruit.
Plausibility and structure are important is you want a world to make ‘sense’ and want your players to feel like they understand how your world works. But its just as important to break those rules, and inject some wonder into your world.
Do you have tricks you use to make your cities wondrous and unique? Or do you think these ideas are for theme parks and Saturday morning cartoons, and prefer your worlds realistic— caked with grit and grime? Let us know in the comments below.