Chad Perrin: SOB

26 January 2009

notes for building cities

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 05:18

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

GMs who prefer to create their own game worlds, rather than using published campaign settings, sometimes run up against some pretty significant challenges if they want to be prepared for what their PCs are going to do. Some of us are better at creating details in advance, providing significant coverage of the aspects of the setting PCs will see and with which they’ll interact so that we’re (almost) never caught off-balance. Others of us are better at making things up as we go along. Most fall somewhere between the two.

I’m one of those that falls somewhere between the two. I like to come up with some general structure for features of the campaign world, and some specifics of how they affect character creation — then make up low-level details as the players encounter them. I wouldn’t do it that way if it were easier to flesh out the details in advance, but after working at something for a while it starts feeling like tedious scut-work, and I want to just get on with the game and (if necessary) make up stuff on the fly.

I decided to take some implicit advice from my own writings, and work on things from a higher level of abstraction. It would be nice to have more stuff figured out about (for instance) city design before I have to deal with PCs wandering through a city encountering features of it I haven’t yet figured out. Toward that end, I started making notes about how to organize the process of city building. Between examples of cities in several game setting books, a couple of books with information about city building, and my own experience and knowledge of what makes both game setting cities and real-world cities work, I worked up a list of details that should be addressed in the creation of a detailed game world city:

City Building Notes

That page will be edited as I come up with more information to include. It isn’t intended as a static document, but rather as an up-to-date reference that incorporates my latest ideas about how things should be done. It’s more for my benefit than anyone else’s, but I don’t see any reason I shouldn’t share it with the rest of the world.

If you have any ideas for how I might improve on my notes or otherwise move forward to develop better city building (or, more broadly, world building) tools, please share them either in comments here or by way of my contact page (see the link in the right-hand column here).

To wrap things up, I’ll share an excerpt from an IM conversation I had with a friend about these notes, because I found this part of the conversation amusing (when it went slightly off-topic). The names have been changed to protect the guilty:

@: I’ll probably develop a workflow process for defining a city, and maybe eventually even write a program to automate it somewhat. If I do write such a program, I’ll probably include some randomization capability, too.

BMB: That would be kind of awesome actually to have a random city generator for a campaign.

@: It’ll be kind of an interesting challenge to write the program, since I’d want to make sure that the stuff it randomly selects actually fits together. I’d probably need some kind of hierarchical dependency system for probabilities. . . .

BMB: Hmm yeah

BMB: Eg have different weights or ‘Tech levels’ [to borrow from gurps] assigned to each level of complexity, eg stratified labor, standing army, &c, and then build up from the basics

@: Yeah — and more subtle stuff like tying different economic conditions and governmental monetary polices together (such as the fact that exotic imports shouldn’t be really cheap and widely available if there are import tariffs, and industry should take a hit for high levels of commerce taxation, and so on).

@: Standard of living would be affected by economic conditions, agriculture would be affected by the “external holdings” stuff . . .

@: . . . and agriculture would in turn affect the local foods stuff.

BMB: Definitely. Sounds like it could be a pretty fascinating project.

@: The hard part is non-programming related — figuring out the relationships between the various factors.

BMB: True. Though depending how fantasy you want, you can sort of invent variables that may not be quite realistic economically

@: Come to think of it, I guess the US government is playing the economy like a fantasy game.

@: “Hey — if we impose tariffs on imports, that won’t have any effect on exports at all!”

@: “Maybe if we tax the crap out of people later to pay for economic stimulus packages, we can improve the economy now without suffering the side-effects later!”

BMB: Roll 3d10 against a dc of 44 to see if it works..

I think I’d rather just go with a standard d20 roll using a Profession(Politician) skill once per day to see how well it’s working. A DC of 44 appears to be about right, though. No “take 20” would be allowed, of course, though I guess you could “take 10” all you like. Each point by which you succeed or fail causes a 1% change in economic circumstances — so if you take 10 with a 5 skill total, you end up with a -29% penalty to economic prosperity for that day. It wouldn’t reset the next day, of course; you’d just apply that day’s percentage variance to whatever resulting number you get from today’s damage to prosperity.

What do you think the chances are that a mayor (or whatever the chief executive office of the city is called) would have a Profession(Politician) skill total greater than 24?


  1. I’d quite like to see how this project of yours progresses. I’m glad to see that you’ve included layout and location in your list. I tend to start there when designing my cities (digging out my urban geography text books and central place theory notes), beginning the process by asking “Why there?”

    However, I tend to gloss over quite a lot of things (e.g. local food, job security), and just through reading through your list now has sparked some creativity. Hopefully, my next city will be better designed (not just the streets) and feel more alive because of it.

    Comment by jatori — 27 January 2009 @ 10:30

  2. I’d quite like to see how this project of yours progresses.

    Me too.

    urban geography text books and central place theory notes

    Oooh . . . I’d like to have access to some of that.

    Hopefully, my next city will be better designed (not just the streets) and feel more alive because of it.

    Let me know how that works out for you — and whether you come up with any interesting ways to more effectively apply the stuff in my page of notes about city building.

    Comment by apotheon — 27 January 2009 @ 12:48

  3. Nifty. I tend to run games on the fly, but the biggest problem I have is keeping track of all things that I’ve made up so that I don’t contradict myself later on. I might just print out your notes and fill in each aspect as I create new cities.

    I’ve never had much luck in pre-planning. When I go to incredible lengths to flesh out details, the players will always take the one option you’ve never thought of and then you’re back at square one, having to make things up on the fly. Trying to make the game stick to what I have fleshed out generally devolves into railroading the players. Even when the pre-plan works out well, I always end up changing it mid game to better accommodate the players or present situations in which the character personalities would come into play, so it ends up having been a waste of time. Generally I start games with a theme in mind (a world where humanity is barely surviving against hordes of monsters) and then plan a short first adventure that brings this theme in to play (the town the pcs start is in attacked by ogres, the guards ring the bells as everyone in town grabs their weapons in a very coordinated fashion, which might indicate this happens often, etc) and from there on player choices pretty much provide all the material I need to keep the game going (one pc might want to help beef up the town’s defenses, one might want to go raid the ogres that attacked…)

    All of my campaign worlds, except one, have started out like this. As the players explore, I create more and the world gets more fleshed out. The next group I play with then has a slightly more fleshed out world to start in, and they in turn flesh it out for the next group some more. That, for me at least, is 90% of the fun of the game; having a world grow “organically” and then looking at what I have after it’s been built through several campaigns.

    Comment by Mina — 27 January 2009 @ 03:28

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License