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Sim City, Eat Your Heart Out: City-Building in Role-Playing Games

Updated on May 5, 2015
Not quite like this, but you get the idea.
Not quite like this, but you get the idea.

Previously I have discussed the plethora of gamemastering skills, with particular focus on World-building. Now it is about time that we talk about cities.

As mentioned in passing, cities do not have to be actual cities within a campaign setting; the key concept is that of a more centralized location from which a particular cast (or roster, if you prefer) of characters can be drawn. Another important factor when it comes to City-building is the fact that the location has a vibe and flair onto its own; it too is a character that can be developed for your campaign. Finally, tying back to the city-as-a-character element, building upon the City is an opportunity to further explore and refine the themes and ideas founded upon your World.

Without much further ado, let us delve right into City-building.

Outta Time

As with World-building, you are concerned with establishing and building upon a location, both in terms of a physical description and a temporal one (e.g. Victorian-era steamy streets of England or a futuristic sci-fi outpost on an alien world). Both are going to have a significant impact on the themes and aesthetics you will be developing for your campaign. When set in more antiquated times, you are going to be lacking more creature comforts of the modern world as well as more ubiquitous ambience; you aren’t going to have street lights (or much lighting at all depending how far back you go) everywhere and your group may be more subjected to the vagaries of the environment than in other worlds. On the opposite side, when set in a distant future, you will have the opportunity to explore new creature comforts and norms of a fictional culture.

It is important to note that there is a difference between antiquated and primitive. How? Antiquated implies a universal quality; such that it can be applied everywhere you go. However, primitive implies that existing conditions can be improved upon or otherwise made in line with the conventional norm. In other words, just because isolated populations thrive as tribes using simple tools in a contemporary world, doesn’t mean that everyone is living like cave-folk. And those profound differences can be worth exploring in game either through theme, plot, or other elements as you and your group deem fit.

Where to Put it All

When figuring out the physical details of your City, your biggest thought is probably going to be a matter of geography. And just like when you were developing your World, you are going to ask yourself many questions that will in all likelihood lead you to further questions. For example, suppose you have settled on a modern realistic world (so not that far off from our own). Where is the city going to be located? Which continent? Which country? Alright, let’s go with a snappy answer of America to my badgering from three sentences ago. Were you envisioning a coastal city? East coast or west coast? Again, the answers will impact further decision making for your campaign as well as your particular city. So it is an American east-coast city and (assuming you preempted a few more of my questions; how cheeky of you) it is a more moderate city in terms of size, population and population density. These factors let you know what kind of economy and cost of living your city will have. This helps to establish various motifs, potential stories and plot points. If it is established that the city is sustaining itself as well as one might expect, considering the high cost of living and economical potential from being ostensibly a port city, then the overwhelming presence of homeless people or otherwise destitute folk may be something worth exploring as a group (again, depending on your group and campaign).

The temporal setting of your story will also have an impact on your City’s physical details. For example, if this were a more traditionally medieval (European) fantasy game, then cities tended towards more specialized exports, such as wines, lumber, marble, fishes, etc. Also, this would make importation potentially more important than in more modern Worlds; its not like you can just phone in a major order for the city, but rather you have to hope that the city/village has enough supplies to make it through until the next major shipment arrives. This latter concept can also apply to frontier settings regardless of time, but that goes along with the temporal question of antiquated-versus-primitive as mentioned above.

All the Shiny Details

As much as figuring out some of the themes and motifs are important to establishing an atmosphere within a global setting, designing, implementing and describing the aesthetic details in a city are equally important. Those details can help convey the world’s themes as well as your campaign’s. And whereas it is a handsome perk to figure out some of the more interesting niche details for your campaign, it is much more important that you lay out those same kinds of minute details for your City. The difference is due to scale: when developing the World, you have to look at the big picture. However, when City-building, you still keep your eyes on the bigger picture, but all of those “glossed over” details that you could skip over at the World-building level are much more pertinent to a smaller stage of people; it may be interesting to (foot) note that a world has a dangerous and notorious mobster, but it is another when that same gangster resides in your city! And speaking of people . . .

The Cast

Besides translating your bigger-than-life ideas into a more relatable and digestible level of storytelling, Cities are where you can draw an established cast of characters for your stories. No matter the size, Cities will have non-transient residents in them; some more important to the City than others. Others are going to be friends and families to your players’ characters; some will be enemies. And still many others may be just interesting for your players to interact with. On the whole, non-player characters (NPCs) are tools by which the GM can interact with the player-characters directly. Each NPC can progress (or start) the various story threads for your group as needed; or likewise, provide the push for your players to further the campaign. That is why it is important to have an established cast of NPCs for your group to work with (or against); so the game can progress at the speed of the player’s choosing. Cities provide a centralized location for that established cast. Why is this character here? Because they live there.

But why do they live there? Well, there isn’t an easy answer for that question. It really does depend upon the individual character and their functionality within the story. If they are an antagonist to the players, then maybe there is an opportunity in the city for them to exploit; for example, if the NPC in question has revenge on the mind for one of the players, then of course he/she will pursue the player-character to that city and maybe set down for the end game. Is the NPC an information broker? Then why wouldn’t they set up a base of operations in this town.

Also, interesting (not necessarily important, mind you) NPCs provide you with an opportunity to flesh out the physical and aesthetic details of your City. The players know a friendly barkeep? What kind of bar do they own? Do they own it, or just run it? What kind of services, besides the sauce, does it provide? Who else frequents it?

When it comes to populating the City, don’t forget about the players; their characters live there too. So . . . why are your players in this city? Did they grow up here? Were they called here by something or someone? All of these questions along with many others (as I am sure you are already thinking) will help you to develop the best City for your campaign.

lays the foundation for detailing the City
fills in details for City
reinforces themes of the World
provides a roster of NPCs for the GM and players
remember to differentiate between Antiquated settings and Primitive settings
provides story elements for campaign
allows direct GM to PC interaction

So, are you ready to make your own City?

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    • Kevin Debler profile image

      Kevin Debler 2 years ago from Expansive Highlands of Michigan

      Well, at first thought, from a street level you are going to probably have all sorts of street-magicians or hedge mages; people making their way with what they have. Depending on their abilities, these might simply be novel entertainment, while others (less scrupulous) are going to be con-artists. If you watched Marvel's Jessica Jones, think of someone with mind control or mental influence like Kilgrave.

      For the more organized and/or developed groups of mages, any coordinated efforts can be found for the right price. Imagine banks (which may be available to lend money to the government and private elite) with magically protected vaults. Picture mystically reinforced architecture that allows for impossible structures.

      From a socio-political level, you may end up with citizenry scared of the power of any mage. As such, you could have acts of violence and/or protest. Also, depending on the government, you may have laws being enacted or already passed to monitor and/or control the use of magic.

      Most of that is spit-balling ideas. It depends on how detailed you want, the kind of stories your group wants, the kinds of magic you and your group want access to, as well as the overall themes and atmosphere.

      With the idea of themes, the level of sophistication of the magic can and should vary based on the origin; with the outlying cultures having more primitive magic, while the city has more refined and developed forms. Think shamans and witch doctors compared to wizards and alchemists.

      I hope something of that helps.

    • profile image

      Chris 2 years ago

      Having more ambition than sense, I'm designing a setting with a single, very powerful city-state as the centrepiece.

      One of the running themes is that this city-state is well into a renaissance with the surrounding cultures lagging behind.

      Any advice about incorporating magical elements into the everyday life of a city? Magicians are still uncommon, but I want the results of their efforts to be everywhere. I'm also interested in the down-sides of this sort of thing. Magical externalities, to butcher a phrase from economics.