Photo by Scott Lidell

Photo by Scott Lidell, colourshifted by Mike - click the image to view it in the orginal colours

I recently had the need to design a Drow Outpost for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, and in the process, I made a few mental notes concerning how I go about designing cities, and population centres in general, that I thought I would share with our readers.

Design First, Draw Later

I don’t put pencil to paper until I have a fairly clear understanding of how the city will operate and what I am going to have to draw. That means defining its style, and its nature – what makes it distinctive – and having some idea of its history, and how all of those elements have influanced the construction.

Planned Cities are Rational, Unplanned Cities Rationalise

All cities have an inherant logic, though the nuances of that logic might escape casual understanding. The most important functions of a city will generally occur at its centre, though that ‘centre’ might actually be on one extreme edge adjacent to a natural barrier that cuts through through an urban area.

Surrounding these will be everything that those functions need in order to operate, in sequence of descending wealth. This defines the inner city, and in a planned community, that’s as far as you need to go in designing it conceptually.

Unplanned cities are rather more haphazard, with structures intended for one use being adapted to another. In such cases, the functions and their overall locations will still be more-or-less the same, but various aspects of the architecture, the streets, etc, will continue to reflect the original purpose. In a word, a pre-existing urban structure has been rationalised.

Surface cities, of the type humans are used to, will often replace older less-permanent structures with ones more suited to the modern purpose of the district, though there will usually be clues to the district’s legacy; this is rather more difficult to achieve when you are considering an underground structure, or a city amongst the trees; and traditionalists may block any reconstruction in any conservative community. Larger and more expensive structures are far harder to replace, and will tend to remain where they were first constructed even if that becomes illogical in terms of the current functioning of the city. For example, opulantly-constructed Temples can cost a great deal of wealth to construct, and will tend to stay put long after the surrounding districts have changed in nature.

It’s also fair to say that no city is ever fully planned or completely random; there once was a logic to the arrangement, and that logic will form part of the history of the city in the form of both its architectural and social legacies.

When designing a relatively unplanned urban environment, the best place to start is by designing what was there originally, and then adapting each district to whatever its modern function is, just as the inhabitants supposedly did. But that can be quite a lot of work, unless you know a shortcut.

I just happen to have one handy: work with ‘districts’ instead of individual buildings and streets. A district is an urban area within which the buildings share a common general function, and hence will have many attributes in common. I treat these as very abstract in nature, drawing a rough ‘blob’ or area on a sheet of paper for each.

Outside Access defines district boundaries and centres

Once the central districts and their industries have been defined, you can determine what variety of access to the outside they require. Do fancy carraiges need a clear path through the city to the Diplomatic centre? Do large wagons need to bring in resources for industry, or will smaller modes of transport suffice? Do smaller wagons imply more frequent traffic? What is the nature of the transport mode, and what infrastructure does it, in turn, require?

Once you have these figured out, you know where the major roads in and out of the city centre are located, and something of their character. One of these will be the dominant freight road, and another may be a dominant civil road; the rest will suit a combination of foot traffic and light freight. It’s those first two that are significant to the design of the rest of the city.

The dominant civil road will have all the things that travellers require or desire lining it, and any industry that targets the passing wealthy. In effect, it has another type of district running along its length. Temples (unless they have already been placed), accommodation, entertainment, eateries, etc, will all be found along that road. It is also likely that the city patrol (or city watch, or police force, or whatever the correct term is for the culture of the city) will have its main office on that route, and most government centres and administrative structures will also be nearby if they have not already been emplaced.

The dominant freight road will likewise have other districts either straddling the roadway or alongside it; animal yards and corrals, warehouses, freight yards, dockyards, other industries which require heavy freight access, etc.

Each time a district is identified, there will be only one or two places where it lies close to the infrastructure districts that it requires (if that has already been emplaced) or where there is room for districts containing that infrastructure to be emplaced alongside it. City design is a bit like those sliding-block puzzles that we all played with as kids!

And if there is no logical connection possible between a functional district and it’s necessary infrastructure because there are other districts in the way? There are two major solutions: either the city operates ineficiently, or more than one district of the needed infrastructure type required will develop, over time. The first is, at best, a temporary solution; canny business types will slowly bring about the second, one building at a time. As a result, you will get impure districts – areas that are a blend of two different functions, giving them a somewhat distinctive flavour.

Complete The Jigsaw

Each type of district will have a type of population district associated with it – factories will have factory worker accommodations, and so on. Again, there will be only one logical arrangement of these when you consider that the wealthy won’t want the lower classes tramping through their streets every day on their way to and from work, and certainly won’t tramp through the poor district daily to get to where they want to go. Piece by piece, you can work outwards to place and define the required district types, and the major roads and byways that connect them.

The results can generally be drawn on your ‘district blobs’ to form a logic map of the urban layout, with a dot at the centre of each district connecting vertices to show the relations between districts.

The next stage is to assess the relative physical size of each district. Some require lots of space (warehouses), some are condensed with low amounts of space per head (industrial workers). Some need more space simply because they have higher populations associated with them, regardless of the function of the district, because of the nature of the urban centre itself. The larger districts will grow and push each of the surrounding districts outwards, away from the city centre.

If the space isn’t available, there will be some development up (multistory structures) and/or down (subterranean structures), and there will be overcrowding despite this – overcrowding which will put pressure on the neighbouring districts to move farther away. So district intersection lines will slowly push outwards from the city centre, taking over structures that – once again – were intended for some other purpose; and the district being consumed will in turn expand into it’s neighbouring regions.

This is where the vertices drawn earlier become significant, because they resist this pushing. As a result, the affected districts will distort into more crescent-like shapes, with the horns located on the edges farthest from the vertices. For each additional vertice, there will be additional ‘horns’ projecting outwards like fingers between the vertices, resulting in a district boundary that looks crennelated, like a castle wall. There will also be some spreading around a circumferance line drawn through the original boundaries of the district and centred on the point in the neighbouring district containing the other point of the vertice.

It is necessary, in order for this to be practical, to be systematic in working outwards from the centre of the map.

A second logic map can be prepared when you’ve finished, in which these relative sizes and distortions are taken into account. Once you have that, you are ready to go to the next stage.

The Way Things Were

It can often be useful to prepare two or three of these logic maps showing the city in different stages of its development, as was intimated earlier. This is especially the case where a city has changed in primary purpose several times over the years. Political Changes can shift the seat of government, new commodities and technologies can encourage new industries or wipe out old ones, trade routes can shift, wars can place an emphasis on defence, and so on.

Onion Skins

In some respects, city design can be viewed as a series of onion skins or layers, either metaphoric or literal. I start with the metaphoric, drawing arrows on the second logic map to indicate the flow of money, the flow of administrative control, the flow of freight, and the daily flow of people, generally using a different colour for each (don’t neglect the flow of money from illegal activities!)

Areas which are part of the flow of money will normally be subject to civic improvements and amenities; areas which are not will be poorly maintained. Areas which are part of the flow of administrative function will receive police stations / patrols (or the equivalents) while those which are not will be wilder. The two define which areas are slums, which are middle class, and which are comparatively well-off. Where the arrows cross, you are likely to get a traffic bottleneck. Each city design and each district quickly develop a more subtle and sophisticated level of definition.

Once these are known, the city plan is finally ready to be converted into an actual layout. This calls for the ‘literal’ layers. It’s my practice to identify, define, and design layouts for these out from the outside in, and then map in “detail” from the inside back out, perpandicular to the exterior ‘surface’ of the city. More important, though, than the actual streets are the district descriptions that you have developed for each part of the urban setting.

With typical human cities, this is all fairly straightforward: you have sewers, water delivery, garbage disposal, roads & streets, and buildings, one layer stacked on top of another. With exotic locations and other societies, it can get more complicated (and more interesting); a cliffside community has waste disposal at right angles to the layers of buildings, and accessways running in three dimensions. A treetop city has multiple layers of each type, some running vertically with gravity, and some horizontally. These layers are all about infrastructure, about how things work in this particular city; consider them seperately, both overall and by district, using the information gathered in the planning so far.

Draw The Map

Armed with all these details, it becomes relatively easy to draw the map itself, however crudely. It’s not necessary to show individual buildings, or (in a modern metropolis) even individual city blocks; an outline of each district showing the major access and travel routes and with individual descriptions of what each part of the city is like, both in population, architectural style, road style, business types, social activities, and even level of criminal activity, is generally enough. You can get more detailed, and more specific, whenever you need to, in-game; there’s no need to invest valuable prep time in doing it now. The street names will reflect the original purposes of the district, giving you a means for making them up on the spot as necessary.

Maps created like this may be less defined than a street map, but they are a HECK of a lot less work, and a heck of a lot better defined. The city becomes areas in which predefined blocks of flavour text describe the districts, a far more functional approach.

Working with Map Generators and existing maps

There are some beautiful maps out there, and there are some pieces of software that permit you to generate your own. But the odds of one of these matching your logical map are so low as to be almost trivial. Unless, of course, you cheat.

Look for natural district boundaries on your existing maps. Relate these back to your second logic map. Stretch and distort the shape of a district as necessary – so long as you don’t change it’s overall size or the district types that neighbour it, your information will be correct. And it’s much easier to do things this way than to go through each and every building and street, deciding what should be there!

Typical Experiences

I generally like to finish each ‘map’ by listing two or three things that the PCs might see or encounter within each district by day, and two or three more by night. In some districts, I might add a description of the early mornings (as workers set out to start work for the day) and/or early evenings (when they are on their way home). I’ll generally drop in half a dozen or more specific landmarks – statues or unique buildings or whatever – with quick descriptions, just to complete the design. A plot hook or two for each district (even if you don’t know the explanation) can also be a good idea. With those in place, the city is ready to be populated with NPCs as necessary (again, I make most of these up on the fly), and for the PCs to stroll into town.

Designing and constructing cities can be as much work as you make it; this technique shortcuts all the fiddly little bits in favour of a more general, more abstract, and much faster approach. And yet, for all that abbreviation, the cities that result often feel more alive than many more detailed ones that I’ve seen, simply because it’s easier for the GM to get a handle on the way of life and the daily routine; his or her consequent narrative is more lively, informed, and cohesive, as a result.

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