Welcome to the Page of City Resources!
Alternate Method for Generating a City's NPCs
City Encounters and NPCs
My article in Regdar's Repository (WotC Message Boards)
All material contained in this website is Copyright 2002-2004 by Matthew J. Finch unless otherwise identified. No claim is made herein, whether intentionally or inadvertently, to copyrighted materials of others.
Links to other City Resources
*Wizards web enhancement
*Medieval Demographics Made Easy
*8 City NPC Tips (Johnn Four)
*9 ways to bring town guards to life (Johnn Four ezine author=Pahl)
*City features and flavors (Dariel Quiogue in Four's Newsletter)
*City services, landmarks and businesses (John Simcoe in Four's ezine)
*15 Tips for makings cities come to life (Emmet Harris in Four's ezine)
At some time or another, most Dungeon Masters will attempt a city adventure, or at least need to handle a party's trip to the city. It is conventional wisdom that cities are extremely hard to DM, and it is also widely acknowledged that when designing worlds it is difficult to make individual cities memorable.
For some time, I have maintained a thread on the topic of fantasy cities, which is located here . The thread is a somewhat rambling assortment of various city-building and city-DMing tools. This article is intended as a more organized and better-articulated guideline for designing and administering city adventures.
First of all, let me take note of the fact that city adventures are often some of the most memorable events of a party's experiences. I have noticed that gaming groups time and again return to their war stories of city adventures, rather than dungeons. Cities add a richness of character and a feeling of completeness to a campaign that is hard to match. The effort of running a good city is well worth the effort, and hopefully the tips contained herein will make the effort far less onerous.
The first step in designing a city is to get a rudimentary understanding of how cities worked in the Middle Ages. Even if your campaign isn't set in a Medieval-type locale, it's helpful to understand that historical cities were quite different from the sprawling megalopolises of today. Cities were a part of the feudal system, and at the time, no one really made much of a distinction between towns and cities. What defined a town was its charter. A baron, duke, or even a monarch would grant a charter to a town, giving it limited rights of self-government, coinage, and the right to be exempt from the rule of local lords (in other words, a citizen didn't have to pay feudal taxes or do military service in the lord's levee). The town paid taxes as a town, not as a collection of individuals. Towns were immensely profitable in terms of these taxes, and many great nobles began actively seeking to create towns in their landholdings. The towns were run by guilds (usually having a council made up of guild leaders), and would elect a mayor. Some cities (especially in Italy) actually held popular votes for city leaders.
Further background on the history of Medieval cities can be found at the following sites:
Medieval Cities, Bruges and Florence, Dr. Richard Ingersoll, Rice University, Houston
What did people do in a medieval city?
Medieval English Towns.
Okay, so you've got some idea of the fact that these cities were small (a half mile square, commonly), had walls thirty feet thick and up to fifty feet high, and were usually built on hills or at the highest navigable point on a river. Let's turn to the fantasy city, and how to build one. I'm going to get a lot less long-winded from here on out, and give my opinions on how to approach creating a city. Other DMs may differ, and I'll occasionally describe alternate viewpoints that I consider viable.
Step One: the tag-line. I always, always, come up with a one-sentence description of the city, similar to what a travel agency might say about the place in the tag-line on an advertisement. This might be as brief as "The City of Sorcerers," or a long as "A beautiful trade city dominated by elven trading cartels, on a river." However it's done, the tag line should give you a theme for your city and create at least a basic picture in your mind.
Step Two: important NPCs. There are two ways to do this. If you are good at creating personalities off the top of your head, you might choose to invent some of the powerful or interesting NPCs who live in the city. Otherwise, this is the time when you take out the trusty DMG and your dice, and roll up the city in accordance with the formulae and tables of the DMG.
The DMG system creates a city with a particular - and some think peculiar - demographic. There will be a high level NPC of each character class, and then a precipitous drop in terms of level down to the next set of NPCs of the same class.
I don't like this system. I think it creates lots of "high level" NPCs who are actually not high enough level, and I don't like the gap between the NPCs of the highest level and the NPCs of the next level down. Moreover, the system makes it hard to figure out where prestige-class NPCs fit in. In gaming terms, it can be hard to find a cleric of high enough level to raise dead in many settlements. Even more importantly, though, the demographic itself makes cities less memorable because of the large number of highest-level NPCs. More than almost anything else, players remember a city as "the place where that crazy wizard with the owls lives" (or whatever). NPCs make a city memorable. It is more worth your while to create a few really individual personalities for city’s major NPCs than any other endeavor. Thus, here is an alternate method for generating a city's NPCs.
The following tables generate a population of player type characters. I tend to ignore the NPC classes for a city, because they add little to roleplaying.
Table 1 (Top NPC level): Alternate Method for Generating a City's NPCs
Step Three: Make something else memorable about the city. One possibility is an odd custom. The following table will allow you to quickly generate an odd custom of dress for the city's inhabitants.
Unusual Customs of Dress in a City
Step Four: Power structures and memorable buildings. Now that you've got a picture of the city's NPCs, you can create power structures. Who rules the city? Look at the high level NPCs. You've got it right there. If you generate (or pick) alignments for them, you've got an idea of who gets along and who doesn't. Look in the DMG for ideas about the different sorts of power structures that a city might have. Write down some notes about power structures in your city. And once you've done that, it's a piece of cake to figure out what buildings are likely to be important enough for the players to visit or see. List these.
Step Five: The map. You may, at this time, want to take a gander at the WOTC supplement to the DMG for making cities. It is to be found
Here. The supplement describes what I consider to be the only way of handling a city; the system of wards (neighborhoods backing onto a courtyard or a system of alleyways, with the streets surrounding the neighborhood on all sides. When you make your city map you can either
(1) go through the WOTC supplement, determine what wards you want in the city, and sketch them out on a map (use a pencil - you'll have to redraw and resize them several times to make it work), or
(2) just make a sketch map of two main roads zigzagging into a central market in the middle and leaving through four gates. This is the default geography of almost every Medieval city. You can fill in wards later if you feel the need. I recommend leaving the wards until later, because you will find that as the campaign progresses you will suddenly want the city to contain something that it didn’t originally have.
Step Six: How to describe and game in a city. First off, remember that players don't absorb information easily, and they hate listening to long descriptions. For some reason (pride of authorship, probably), DMs often wax eloquent about a city's history and appearance when describing the city to the players. Don't do this. Only describe what the players notice, not everything they see. Your city should be described in terms of the big buildings, the main streets, and the places that the players will care about, like taverns. The more you still sound like you're describing a dungeon environment (usually quite short descriptions, and you sound like you're holding back information), the more you will hold the players' attention. Leave a lot to their imaginations. Their own mental pictures are more compelling than your descriptions, galling as this may be.
Be ready with certain pieces of key information, prepared ahead of time. The names and quick descriptions of a few taverns, and a list of at least twenty names for use when the players invariably do something like ask a beggar his name, will come in very handy. Decide if the city has a tax at the gate, and pick some colors for the city guard to wear. If there are major political factions in your city, pick an identifying badge or color for them.
Let the players meet the city's major NPCs. Why do the work if you're going to pretend that the party is too low level to meet the power brokers of the city? The power brokers are the soul of the city, and are memorable. Use them to best advantage. Don't make an endless parade of them, of course, but make them accessible.
Finally, adventuring. There are a few common plots for city adventures. The following may give you some ideas:
I hope you have enjoyed reading as much as I have enjoyed writing. There is considerably more information on Mythmere's Citythread, including sample encounters, links, building descriptions, and more tables.