Dungeons & Dragons

Rethinking Cities in Role-Playing Games, a Long Term, Background Project

One aspect of my games that I’ve often found lacking is the way that I deal with cities. For years now I have treated my cities like they were simply locations on an electronic Japanese role-playing game. I have a shop, usually with a silly name, an inn, maybe a few specialty shops, and once in a great while a few other notable locations like a University of Magic or some other such thing. The cities have no real sense of verisimilitude; they paper cutouts that my players couldn’t care less about because I don’t care about them.

This year I’m attempting to change all of that by learning about the way that cities are constructed, thought about, and planned in the real world. To do this I’ve been slowly picking up a few book about Urban Theory and planning, and a few books about architecture.

The first book that I picked up, and the one that sent me down this line of thought about improving the way that my imaginary cities function, was Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City. The book asks, and attempts to answer, what does the city mean to the people who live there? How can we make the city’s image more vivid and memorable?

I’m not yet sure of the answers to either of those questions but I desperately want to find out.

The next book that I’m going to be reading is Susan Fainstein and Scott Campbell’s Readings in Urban Theory Second Edition. This one is more of your classical text book and it looks like it’s going to give me a firm grounding in the actual thought process of city planning – something that if I want to make my cities better I need desperately.

I’m going to be following this up by reading Timothy Beatle’s Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design. This book is all about green spaces inside of cities and how to make them work within the urban context. I’ve had a few gardens in my games but they’ve always been an afterthought. This will help place them front and center, and make them something meaningful within the city.

The last book I’ve picked up for this project – for the moment a the least – is Trent Elwood Sanford’s The Story of Architecture in Mexico Including the Work of the Ancient Indian Civilizations and that of the Spanish Colonial Empire Which Succeeded Them, Together with an Account of the Background in Spain and a Glimpse of the Modern Trend. If you’re wondering why this one would show up it’s because I love Aztec and Mexican architecture. So I’m going to start making a better effort at bringing them into my games.

Anyway, this is a long term project that’s going to be going on for a while behind the scenes because these books are thick (except for The Image of the City) but I wanted to talk about it for a few minutes to organize my thoughts on the project.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking Cities in Role-Playing Games, a Long Term, Background Project”

  1. Hey man, hey. I didn’t realize you’d started up a new blog and taken your writing elsewhere. Just wanted to drop in and say hi (or “hey”), and let you know that I am also interested in this thing you are researching: cities, architecture, and urban planning.

    I approached city planning from a game perspective, and have long wrestled with how to make parts of a city “important” to the players in some form or another. It seems that an RPG city has to meet certain requirements in order to see use in play:

    * Players have to -CARE- or they won’t go there/do anything. There has to be cool stuff there that they want to explore, protect, exploit, or something. Like a dungeon.
    * Players have to -USE- the city in some fashion. To that end, they have to be able to navigate it, find things, and be able to work relatively uninhibited like, “most” of the time.

    There needs to be a CONTRAST between dungeon, wilderness, and urban environment. A city could, in many ways, be considered “like a dungeon–but perhaps LESS immediately lethal and MILDLY easier to navigate.” That said, all three environments should have ENCOUNTERS in some form or another, which suggests coming up with some trick-or-trap type encounters that better fit the city environment.

    I have read a number of game-oriented materials about cities, including D&D 3e’s Cityscape, The Dresden Files RPG (FATE), and Zak S.’s excellent Vornheim, and I have played a number of city-management sim/games like Civilization (1, 3, 4, 6), Rome: Total War, Sim City (2000), as well as base-management type games like WarCraft/StarCraft.

    I love this subject and would be happy to discuss it in comments or blog-to-blog. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Let’s just throw some ideas around then to give your research some direction.

        Maybe a good starting place would be to consider is where cities & settlements fit into the milieu, and how much detail you need to convey to your players. Let’s assume for the most part that the cities are ABOVE GROUND and feature HUMANS most prominently.

        So, basic information about a city.
        * WHO built it? A city is built by a people. Some cities are besieged and claimed by other cultural groups, some are assimilated, and some start as one group and change through the passage of time. A city should reflect the identity of A) the people who built it, and B) the people who currently live there.
        * WHAT sets this city apart from every other city in the world? We can get more into this when we talk about the WHERE and the WHEN, but for example–certain historical Japanese towns are forbidden from encroaching on each others’ honored/traditional trades. Sometimes it’s toys, statues, candy, or other thing. A lot of towns have a “specialty” of sorts, which helps define its identity.
        * WHERE is it? Cities have historically been built in specific sorts of places. A lot of times the WHY is nestled in the WHERE, but there’s more to it.
        * WHEN was it built? Cities, like species, evolve and change over time. Some things come and go, some things continue for ages without alteration. It can be hard to narrow this down in a meaningful way, but consider a human lifespan of 80 years and the length of a generation in 20-25 years.

        WHERE
        So, let’s look at the WHERE first. Cities are built in one of two places: A) where it’s convenient to live, and B) where it’s convenient to trade. If you know something about Graph Theory, you basically have the OLDEST cities that are placed on coasts or in river valleys or near other sources of fresh water. People live there because food and water are plentiful, FIRST. Once these cities get on in age, the second group of cities spring up in between them, where they can grow thanks to trade. This second group includes your improbable cities in the mountains and deserts.

        WHEN
        Let’s be honest, it doesn’t really matter how old a city is. You pretty much need to know if it is A) two-three generations (one hundred years or less), B) a few hundred hundred years (let’s say 300-500 years, or 10-12 generations), or C) one thousand years or more. Why does age matter? Let’s break it down:

        A typical “war” falls into one of three categories: 6-month campaign, 2-year campaign, or 10-year campaign. The older a city, the more of the third category it will have experienced, and the more likely the city has been razed to the ground and rebuilt. A city’s age contributes to its personality, because the city has SEEN SOME SHIT. Earthquakes, storms, sieges, assassinations, riots, and weirder stuff. Most places don’t go more than 50 years without experiencing some form of violent conflict. Figure at least one significant conflict PER GENERATION.

        Four hundred years and a dozen or more generations means a dozen or more major wars–most of which will have contributed toward shaping the city. A thousand-year old city will probably have been rebuilt from the ground up half a dozen times from wars and natural disasters. Also, seriously expanded from its original location.

        WHAT
        You should have a nickname for the city, and it can follow a specific format: City of Angels, The Windy City, Cradle of Life, Heart of the Empire, City of Skulls, Gateway to the West, City of Lights, The Big Apple, The Hellmouth, Navel of the World, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Emerald City, Tinsel Town, City of Doors, Alexandria, Chinatown. Maybe it’s an industry, or group of immigrants, or a great person who was born there/built it/died there/burned it down. Sometimes it’s known for a natural phenomenon.

        A city’s moniker should raise questions. Why was it nicknamed that, and did it choose the name for itself or is it a subversive nickname given by some other group? A nickname is often more important than the name of the place itself–because let’s face it, humans are pretty shite at naming things.

        WHO
        Almost everyone builds near water, so this can’t be part of the city’s immediate identity. Also, people build with whatever is available unless they can import stuff. Usually a city is built of wood, clay/brick, or stone. Oftentimes it’s hilly because hills are easier to defend than plains. Oftentimes cities are near earthquake fault lines–what can I say, humans are stubborn and drawn to death like moths to the flame.

        Okay, none of the above stuff tells you anything about WHO built the city, because all of that is pretty much given. You need to ask yourself some questions about WHY they built the city. Was it a colony first? Was the city planned (less common)? Did they arrive by boat or did they walk? How old were the settlers and how experienced were they? Was the city an outpost/colony for a long time before it grew into a city, or was it a boom-town? Has it ever been abandoned and resettled? Why (both questions)? Is it currently inhabited by the same cultural group that built it? Where is the city relative to any national borders/coastlines?

        CONCLUSION
        Hopefully that’s enough to get thinking about what to investigate first. Art and architecture tend to come later, once a city has money and some importance.

        Liked by 1 person

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