City Planning: No College Degree Required

Before reading the post, take a look at these different pictures, a few minutes to review each is enough.






Those pictures were majorly from video games, with a couple from real life. The idea behind all those pictures was a concept that some Gamemasters may overlook when they start creating towns for their players to play in. When you enter a real town, you can pick up on a lot of cues about the city just by walking into the place and looking around. You can understand a lot about the people and the city that may not be directly evident, but you will get a feeling based on the evidence. Some of the sort of questions you want to consider when you make a city include:

  • Do they dress in elaborate outfits or are they more basic?
  • How fit is the average citizen?
  • Do they show religious icons freely?
  • Do they have food and drink in public or is it done indoors?
  • Are children and animals free to roam or are they kept in secure areas, like animal pens and in homes?
  • Are there visible guards?
  • Are the regular citizens armed?
  • What are the houses made out of?
  • Where are some of the more popular places to go?

Little things like this give you an idea of the sort of culture you are looking at. I tried to use pictures of markets in mine because that was where the games had larger groups of people around, but also because it lets us get a better idea at the people and their general culture as well. One example of this is if they are dressed in armor and carrying weapons and the average citizen is fit or muscular, they are likely a society of fighters. If this society is on a frontier like the Wild West, then they have to defend themselves from beasts or raiders, while if it is a more peaceful area or a less than hospitable area, it is likely these are raiders like Vikings and get their supplies by taking them from others.

By looking at where the people go, you can find out a lot about the culture as well. If the church is popular then this is a religious population, and if your city has more than one church, it will give you an idea of the different levels of worship and belief among the breakdown of your city. Also, the crowds will lead you to the best places to eat and do business as well as the places that are best avoided, usually for some good reasons. For this point, just look at how often people check things like Yelp before going to a new restaurant.

Coming up with these points of interest is just essentially coming up with like 15-30 key elements of your city. While there are going to be a bunch of other things in there, these are the sort of key places that you will see coming up in tourist guides or being the places that people will talk about. In my city for example, we have ‘Five Corners’, ‘Pizza Corner’, ‘The Dark Side’, “BLIP’, ‘Old Bridge’ and ‘New Bridge’, ‘The Commons’, and so forth. Every city is going to have some places like these that are in some way unique and thus used in their slang to give the place some color. Imagine asking someone where they could go to get something to eat, and they answer with, “Alright, so you want to go down this road till you cross the New Bridge, then turn left and take the right before The Commons. Go down three blocks and you’ll hit Pizza Corner and the food’s great there.”

Usually, the predominant sources of income will be easy to spot when you enter the city. If it is a resource gathering community, such as farming or fishing, it will be quite obvious as these have sprawling requirements like docks and farms. If it is more of manufacturing, there will be the buildings for that as well such as a blacksmith shop which in a fantasy type of city should be obvious where it is located. A trade based economy will have larger open areas for their markets, either on the streets or in a main area to let the outsiders set up stalls. Also, if the community is a trade community it usually shows that it is more accepting of outsiders, at least enough to let them come into their city.

If there are no visible guards, then you could have a secret police force like the Yakuza or the Obsidian Order from Star Trek or the Dai Li from Avatar the Last Air Bender. Of course, if this is a high magic world, it could be protected with magic spells or if the city is extremely religious or the Gods are active in your world it could be protected as taking something could anger the Gods and no one would want that. This could make for interesting stories as the thief sees all this loot left out in the open and unsupervised only to later be taken in the evening and no one is willing to talk about it to the rest of the party. Another twist could be the things are there for those who need them and if anyone is greedy and takes too much the Gods get angry and try to exact revenge. Exactly how this revenge happens would depend on the God in question, maybe the person becomes target of various accidents happening around them or they are sought by all animals in the wilderness.

One book worth taking a look at is Vornheim: The Complete City Kit by Zak S. from D&D with Pornstars blog fame. As he says himself in the introduction:

 [T]his supplement is less about floorplans, major NPCs, and conspiracies that threaten to annihilate all the civilized nations of the earth and more about ways to quickly and easily generate floorplans, major NPCs, and conspiracies that threaten to annihilate all the civilized nations of the earth in the middle of a session while the players are breathing down your neck waiting for you to tell them what’s going on. That’s why we called it a ‘Kit’ – you can use it to build your own city, even in the middle of a game. Give somebody a floorplan and they’ll GM for a day – show them how to make 30 floorplans in 30 seconds and they’ll GM forever.

The book is a lot of details that can be used to come up on the fly as you need it. How to determine a floorplan for a building or a map of a neighbourhood or what buildings are in the current block the players are in, you can easily come up with in about two minutes with the book laid out here.

Another way to build a city is seen in this video by Tarol Hunt, the author of the Goblins webcomic. In the roughly two and a half hour video, he talks about how to build a city from nothing and populating it with NPCs, points of interest, and all the detail that would be required for this city to feel realistic. It was his comment, ‘If you walk into a city, you can look around and pick up clues about where you are and what type of place you’re standing in’ that actually got this topic started, so it is only fair he gets some credit for this as his system is very easy to use and effective to get things off the ground for Gamemasters.