I love cities in fiction, especially if they are well written and realistic. And in this respect, I always come back to Sir Terry Pratchett. If you’ve never read any of his Discworld novels, please stop reading this and go and read one. Now. Yes, please.
Back? Amazing, wasn’t it?
But back to Pratchett. He said, and I paraphrase:
‘I always got tired of fantasy cities. They were simply like set designs. They appeared at the start of the story and were gone at the end. When I created the city of Ankh-Morpork for the Discworld, I wanted a city that looked like it was always THERE, working in the background. You just caught it at some particular moment, but it was there before and would be there after.’
Now if you’re designing an RPG adventure and simply want a bunch of streets, a tavern and a palace, fair play to you. It would be simple, and almost instantaneous to make. Now me…. I love my cities. I like to know the roads, the history. I like to know why that alley is dangerous. I like to come back to them, again and again, to have the players have their base there, to know it more. And when I build them, in my mind, these are the 10 questions I have to answer:
1. How old is it? -
A population centre’s shape relates directly to how it grew. A Martian sci fi colony might be based around the original landing area. A modern built city might have all roads at right angles. A medieval/fantasy city will usually have grown organically and will be a warren of random alleys and narrow roads. A contemporary city, if it’s old enough, might have a convoluted ancient centre, and more regular outskirts, built later, as it grew.
2. Who runs it? –
If you want to open a shop, who do you talk to? Is there a regent? A prince? Then there might be a palace. A ruling council? A council house. How did they get there? Is it based on tradition? Money? Family?
3. Who keeps the peace? –
This might seem simple, but it isn’t. Before police departments, cities made do with city militias. As a rule, the more modern the setting, the more organised the peace keeping organisation. If you punch a pickpocket for taking your money, do you get in trouble?
4. Where does the poo go? –
By far my favourite question. Yes, I like to think about the infrastructure. Why? Because it’s the reason why it takes months and millions of dollars to make CGI skin look authentic. If it’s too clean and tidy, your brain rejects it as false. Same with my question. You don’t HAVE to address where all the poo goes, or how the citizens get water, but this NEEDS to pop into your mind during the making process. Because if it’s not there, your brain will subconsciously realise this city is a fake one. A couple of sentences, and there you go, you have a sewer all the way to the docks and a network of aqueducts. And now you can have chases in the former and your elf can climb the latter. For elf reasons.
5. Who lives in them? –
This can be as broad a question as what races are accepted in your town. Trolls aren’t that welcome? Fine, maybe they’re banned. Not that bad? Ok, so then they have their own neighbourhood, call it Fang Square, and they keep to themselves. This might help you get the neighbourhoods developed further.
6. How did it evolve? -
Does it have an old quarter in the middle, and new outskirts (see point 1). Or did it expand around a port or river and had a more linear growth? Did it start with a fortified position? Maybe it’s still there, or its ruins are, lost somewhere downtown.
7. What do the citizens eat –
Another Terry Pratchett/infrastructure question. This one mostly regards the outskirts of town. It takes A LOT of food to make a metropolis work, we’ve simply forgotten about it in the supermarkets of the 21st century. So is the town linked to others by trade? Are there fields around it? Hydroponic farms? Growing vats?
8. What’s legal? –
A very quick and simple one, linking with point 5, what’s considered to be acceptable or not. This question leads you to design subterranean gambling dens and huge slums, where legality is more a set of guidelines.
9. What’s in a name? –
The name of your town is important, as you will come back to it again and again. Feel free to throw a bunch of Scrabble tiles into the air and see what lands. Also, try and find less known names of towns and places with the same background/culture of your city. These will give you a massive head start.
10. How it all fits together -
On the Pakistan-Indian border, in an area called the Indus Valley there are a set of ruins of an ancient city. It is called Mohenjo Daro, it's about 5000 years old, and its complexity would put most towns up to the late 20th century (and in some parts of the world to this very day) to shame. It had roads and streets (some with asphalt), boxed in between pavements. It had defined neighbourhoods, broad roads and what might have been squares or markets. My point is this: we've been building our cities in the same way for millennia. It works. We're happy with the layout.
And this is what your town must be. Something you’d recognise as a town. Something that works. Something that breathes. Something that will continue to work and live, long before and long after your adventurers venture into it.
Now all you need is a shady trader, a tavern, and some heroes.
Look, here they come now….
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after a decade doing odd things in labs, became a teacher. Then, 18 months ago, RPG’ing came into his life and he is now happily juggling the two. He’s designed two major cities, the cyberpunk metropolis that is New Hades (www.welcometonewhades.blogspot.com ) and the interdimensional steampunk nexus that is Thyra (http://cityofthyra.blogspot.co.uk/ ). He lives in England with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants and fictional maps. Quite a few of them.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.