Town & City Building 101

Medieval town by Hetman80
Writing up towns can be a spooky task for the DM, but it really shouldn’t be. Towns are actually one of the best rewards that we get! Free and creative writing! Well, how about writing major cities? We are talking about an even bigger task! But fear not friends, All we need is a plan.
There is a quick formula that I always use for creating towns, which I got from the Forgotten Realms Adventures book by Jeff Grubb and Ed Greenwood. Now I am new to the Realms, but I am not new to this book. A friend of mine let me look at it years ago to help me pick my first character’s religion, I fell in love and bought the book and have always used it as a trusty DM tool, namely for the formula which I’m about to talk about. The book served me better then most of them combined! I highly recommend getting it. Not only does it help with city building, but it aids in religion building and has a couple of treasure tables that is far superior to anything in the Dungeon Master’s guide.
I’m going to let you in on a secret about city maps. They aren’t for Dungeon Masters. You don’t want to sit there and label everything; it is a colossal waste of time. Nobody wants to slow the game down to a dungeon crawl speed, not unless a major attack is going to take place on one of the streets, or some such scenario where you need to know exactly what is where (but that is where smaller maps come into play) so for this exercise, we don’t really need a detailed map. Of course, if you are playing in an established setting, such as Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms, then it is best to see what is out there. Maybe some strange module came with a map of the place? Or another DM built one, you never know and it only takes a moment or two.
A map can be helpful during this stage, and if you are going to generate one, now is probably the time to do so.  Don’t put anything on the map that is too revealing, because when it comes to game day, you’ll just be throwing the thing at the PC’s anyway, so that they can get a better idea of how to see the city.
Of course the most important part of the mapping process is finding your location on your big map. This leads us to our very first question that we have to ask ourselves.
“Why is this place here?”
Available Resources
A good rule of thumb for everything that you add to your map is that small towns produce raw goods. The more raw goods a town produces, the larger it can be. Larger cities buy the raw goods and produce finished goods.
What is out there? If a village is in the mountains, they must be mining something, in the forest, wood. Do they grow a spice? Dig clay? Form bricks? Once we got an idea of how they get money, we have to figure out how a small town moves the raw goods to a city. The most common answer is WATER! A river is the main ingredient for a successful town. If a city is on the Ocean, its chances of being large are extremely good, but if it also has river access, this town is going to be colossal because of shipping.
Shipping raw goods down river is always preferable and cheaper then shipping them by road.
This just helps us establish size and population. Once we know this then we can draw up a quick and very brief map, or, if we have a map already, then we can figure out how much money the town can gain access too and we are off to the Magic Formula!
The Magic Formula
For this step I recommend putting your computer away and grabbing the old-school DMs best friend, a common notebook. It is common for our initial answers to these questions to change as we write, so none of this is final. We are going to use this information to write up our outline.
  • Who rules:
  • Who really rules:
  • Population:
  • Major Products:
  • Armed Forces:
  • Notable Mages:
  • Notable Churches:
  • Notable Rogues’ and Thieves’ Guilds:
  • Equipment Shops:
  • Adventurers’ Quarters:
  • Important Characters:
  • Important Features in Town:
  • Local Lore:
No matter how big or small a community, AWAYS use this summery. This is stuff that you’ll have to know to make your life easier. Also pay close attention to what your PCs will be interested in, we’ll want to add color, but we need this place to be functional too. Of course we don’t need to get overly complex here. You can spend the rest of your life creating every NPC that lives in this place, but you’ll never use it all. As long and as drawn out as we are going to get, this still must remain a sketch.
Some of these items need some explaining.
Unless it is noted, always assume that 100% of the population is human. If this isn’t true, then we have to make a notation. Are there elves, dwarfs, or some other demi-race that lives here along with the humans? Is it a city just for the demi-race, or is it mixed, and why. The why may come up later in local lore.
We are not writing “Anytown, USA”. We need to think of something that sets this place apart. While not that important for tiny little villages; the larger the population, the more important that it is.
This also sets up the history of the place: Where it came from, how it succeeds (if it is or not), this section will grow as you write. For our first draft, just write a couple of suggestions to yourself to guide you in fleshing the place out, though, I’ve abandoned some of my original ideas completely once I got going.
We need to create the NPCs which the PCs are likely to have to deal with. People who have push in the town. If a town doesn’t have a mage, then just write: none. If it does, then why is he there? What does he do? If the place has no church it probably has a shrine and somebody to maintain it. What gods are important to these people? Don’t get too carried away! Even large cities won’t have churches to the entire pantheon! They will have a couple of major gods (possible just one) and a few minor shrines. Churches will change the way the town or city functions, if not the entire area around them so be careful with them.
For our brief outline we want to keep it simple. The equipment list assumes that it is a huge city. If it is, then it will be FULL/Normal. But for smaller towns and hamlets, they are probably limited to things that they use to acquire their raw goods (which would be affordable), and things that you can put a cap on; for instance we’ll put a 50gp cap on the town, they don’t sell anything over this amount. The prices for this stuff will also be a bit higher then listed in the PHB as well, any where from 25% to 100% increase. Also keep in mind that seasons effect items availability too. For our outline, we’ll just keep it to terms like Partial, and Cheap or Expensive. We’ll fill in the specific rules later. Same goes for Adventurers Quarters, which we know are important. Do they have taverns? Are they squalid or fine? Do you have to share a bed with a stranger? Do they offer food? Are they expensive or cheap? For larger towns you can have a variety and let the PC’s choose for their selves based on how much they are willing to spend.
If we are dealing with just a small little mining town, then we’re probably done. We’ve used all of these questions to fill in the blanks and we can start writing up our summary, but what about BIG GIANT CITIES that the mean people at TSR failed to flesh out beyond a paragraph? Well friends, if this is the case, then NOW the fun really starts!
How do we do this without going insane? Easy! We chop it up into manageable pieces. We break our city down into smaller sections, or districts, and we treat them like they are their own small little towns. Our ruler doesn’t change, but who really rules might. Each section will have its own flavor and reason for being there. You’ll want to assign social classes to each section, the larger the city, the more divided that it becomes. Where are the people that we already have on our lists? We’ll recreate these lists but this time adding real detail.
We’ll put the wizard in the poor part of town called the Shadow District because of the thieves’ guild that runs it. We’ve got to figure out if he runs the gang or if he is there to fight the gang. Maybe he doesn’t care and that was the best land that he’s got! What do the local guards think about him, or the people? Do they think that he secretly runs the gang? Enjoy yourself! Have fun! Think of what-ifs!
For big cities, we also have to consider those around it. Do they have an enemy nearby? Are they actively at war, or has it gone cold? Who are their allies? Are there any secret societies in the town? How do these answers affect our summary? I have found that now is the time to write up a paragraph or five to better see the area that I’m writing about.
This is a lot of work.  It will take a couple of days and it does help to have some kind of map to look at and just work on it section by section until you’ve answered all of the questions again for each section.
It is nice to have places already named and ready to go. Again, we are going to keep it simple. We’ll look at the needs of our PCs, what kind of shops would they be interested in, and what kind of services might they be interested in? Who is likely to employ them? While there may be hundreds of shops in town, we only need to describe a few. Running a city scene should be like a movie, the players might say, I wonder what kind of armor they have here? Or “Where can I get spell components?” Anticipate their questions and describe the places where they might want to go, as well a few other places just for local color if you want to.
Once we are done with the individual outlines for all of the different city districts, it is time to put them all together. This time we are going to make the Master Outline. We will know all of the answers for each question. Don’t be afraid to edit yourself, we wanted lots of information, most of the stuff on our lists will find homes on our master lists, but probably not all of it.
Your Big City Master List should contain the following information:
  • Name of the City
  • Country it is a part of, or independent
  • Who Rules
  • Who Really Rules
  • Major Products
  • Armed Forces: (include Town Guard totals, Naval Forces, Constables, and the number of men the ruler can gather to form a standing army. I try not to be too specific about WHO. If I developed a cool Constable or something, he goes down in “Important Characters”)
  • Notable Mages: (who and where)
  • Notable Churches: (who, where, brief description of what they do)
  • Notable Rogues & Thieves Guilds: (who, where, brief descriptions)
  • Equipment shops: (Name and what they sell)
  • Adventurers Quarters:
  • Taverns:
  • Food:
  • Services:
  • Important Characters: (anybody who I noted in my outlines who didn’t make it elsewhere on this list)
  • Important Features in Town: (Quick descriptions of all of the districts including places not elsewhere on this list)
  • Local Lore:
  • A Key: (I do make notations on the map, but I first ask myself if it is important or not. Do I need to know EXACTLY where something is? Usually the answer is, No.)
  • Notes: (things that either are or are not on the map, describe strange conditions of weather if any, add a couple of rumors that are floating around, or long term plans of some NPC to destroy the place; etc.)
  • Festivals: (holidays and events that people fear/look forward too.)
And you’re done! Now you have a well balanced description of a large city that is described enough for quick play, but brief enough to allow room for growth.

Further Reading:
Let's Build a City
1001 Common Structures in a Village, Town, or City
The Secrets of Great City Campaigns


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