Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Possible Cities

My players are growing disgruntled.  One keeps asking: "so there are only two places we can go?" I need to give them a world map so they can choose where they would like to go themselves.  In the past I would have made that all first.  Now I find myself clinging to the abstraction of the fantasy world because anything is possible until I start pinning down cultures and geographical features.  Oh well, got to make decisions sometime.

I thought I might just generate a whole list of possible cities before scattering them around on a map.  I'm not sure where I read it (I think Zak), but the idea is to give players some sense of what a city is about, a characteristic or predominate feature.

I'll just start with the categories from here and work from the bottom up:
  • Substance: City of Brass, baby.  My favorite.  Basically what a city is built from, brick, alabaster, iron, sandstone
  • Quantity: Um, city of a million fires, can't think of what quantity would be but lots of people.  A city of ten families, mostly deserted?
  • Quality: The greatest city, cleanest, filthiest, I figure most cities in my world would be filthy so maybe clean streets would be something special, hah. But maybe this is about refinement, or class, a city only of nobles?  Who is going to do the work?  A city of nobles and slaves.
  • Relation: Twin cities, cities right across a river from each other, or a gorge, on two levels of a cliff, in a huge tower, a Babel sized tower with multiple cities (that sounds like one big city though).
  • Place: In the snow, in the desert, marsh or swampland, coastal, plains, stony badlands, giant forest, island or port.
  • Time: ?? Ruins, used-to-be-a-city, shanty town becoming a city.
  • Position: How would this be different than relation?  Upside down city, highest city, lowest city, flattest city, hilliest city.
  • State (shod, armed, etc.): city in revolt, drought, famine, plague-stricken city (ooh, I bet the players will want to go there haha)
  • Action: ?? A city expanding, a city conquering new lands because it's a city-state, city rebuilding, the Winchester city that can't stop building, Nidus fits here with the merchants constantly shifting.
  • Affection (actually affected by, affected in some way): This seems similar to state, but maybe conquered, a city with imperial forces stationed there, burnt city, just after a big fire, trade fairs, the influx of people changing the state of the city in different seasons.

  • Opinion/Judgement: The friendliest city (haha), accursed, slavers and torturers, a beautiful city, the ugliest city, a city of harsh laws (hand-choppers),slow-paced, lazy, corrupt, decadent
  • Dimension (size, length, width): biggest, smallest doesn't really work unless you put this on the map somewhere, tallest buildings, I think a lot of what I put for position up above fits here, maybe narrow streets, a city on water like Venice, a narrow city stretched along a canyon or ceremonial route.
  • Age: ancient or new, a city of where the old go to die, a city where the blemished young are exiled to.
  • Shape: ?? A city in a a religious pattern, checker board, concentric rings, in a pyramid interlocking rings around wells or shafts
  • Color: color of the building materials? of the inhabitants?  Color words can be clues because of connotations, the White City, the Black City, the Grey City.  Not sure what would make them literal, maybe the Blue city paints its walls, a sign of religion? of magical protections, they live near dragons or demons
  • Origin: City founded by slaves, pirates, rebels, religious exiles, built around a shrine, an oasis, a trade center, a natural feature, shipwreck, where an armies commander was killed
  • Material: I think substance covered this.
  • Purpose: trade, military, political center, royal leisure spot, research/libraries/archives, religious magnet, frontier, resources: mining, lumber, fishing, manufacture of: textiles, metalwork,
  • Appearance/Condition: Silent, jubilant, reverent, rotting, sinking, splitting (on faults), painted/murals, draped, gilded, whitewashed, stinking, vaporous
Okay, not worrying about category whatever comes to my mind: floating city, nomadic, nocturnal city, city of ambassadors from other cities, freed slaves, zealots, cannibals, city of bells, city of bridges, city of balconies (is that Vornheim), city of musicians, city of spices, city of towers or spires, city of abandoned temples, rediscovered city, temple city, city of pools, city of fountains, city of waterfalls, city of gates, city of stairs, the Hanging city. 

Okay, enough for now, got to get to work.  I'll make another post to try and pick ~5 to get ready for Friday.


  1. They don't "need" anything of the sort. Assuming you are playing a fairly standard world, they would only have access to maps if they bought them, and if the maps are correct. Dole out the maps, maybe in increasing scales, as your campaign grows. Don't overbuild things that they may never see, and you will never use. And don't give away all the good secrets you are putting together.

    Stepping off the soapbox, I look forward to seeing where these ideas lead you.

  2. I think that a rough map of the region can go a long way to helping the players connect with the game. I just quit a sandbox campaign because I was turned off by wandering along random roads that lead to god knows where. I had no sense of the regional politics, religions, etc. I felt very detached from the whole thing.

  3. Hey, thanks to both of you. As a Learning DM I'm trying to find a comfortable middle ground. This is helpful in bringing that to light.

    I want room to add stuff later depending on what the players are interested in and new ideas I have, but I've got to give them some sense of things now or it's all abstract and hazy.

    They're currently on an island, so an easy out is that these five cities I'll come up with will be the most famous within a reasonable distance and/or most closely connected. I'll try to make sure these cities will offer a player some idea of politics, religion, and magic in the world too.

  4. @ Christian: that is what taverns, and questions, are for. And passing merchant trains: where have you been? where are you going? why? It's cool to have a blank overland map that the players fill in/correct mistakes on as they travel and learn. And the questions help the DM too, because players will sometimes make weird conclusions or funny connections you never thought of, and that's what makes the campaign world feel lived in.

    Handing the players a continental map just gives away too much potential fun, unless of course they have a crystal ball or a flying carpet or something. Or they find a ruined wizard's tower which happens to HAVE a continental map (outdated, of course, but good for an overview). This way the characters gain information as they play, and that creates a feeling of advancement/improvement in addition to the experience point mechanic in the game.

    and @ telecanter: 5 choices might be too many. Maybe one is essentially unvisitable because it's controlled by the evil whatevers. One is interdicted by pirates, no ships won't take passengers there. Most information about those are rumors/legend, probably very wrong. Maybe one of the other 3 is a drastically different culture than the island, so "common knowledge" is skewed and biased and they'll be surprised when they visit.

    Make them ask questions, visit sages, talk to travelers and sailors, and so on. It's clear you want to have a game with more than dungeon-crawling, so get some of this interactive investigation going among your players. Sprinkle plenty of "red herrings" around and you'll be surprised how many of them turn into adventures you never even thought about.

  5. @Barrataria:

    Why is five "too many"?


    As you seem to be having problems with building the cities due to time constraints from work:

    Halcronin (The City of Necromancers, The Ebony City, The City of Tombs):

    Built entirely from magically preserved bones, which are blackened by the magic that strengthens them, this city is ruled by the most powerful mage. Anyone can challenge his or her right to this title at any time. Halcronin is built above an ancient crypt system. Their army is made up of 5000-1000 skeletons, zombies etc. with the more powerful sorts, such as mummies, wights, and vampires, but excluding ghouls except in the case of a very few units due to their bestial nature, serving as officers. Necromancers are the highest ranking, being the generals and their support staff, as well as the direct commanders of the most important units. It is peaceful for the most part, but will destroy anyone who attacks it or its citizens.

  6. While I agree barrataria's approach might work for some groups, there are other for whom visiting sages, talking to travellers and hunting down sailors sounds so iffy on the funometer that they would prefer to just go to wherever they know there's treasures and monsters.

    I suggest making a purposefully crappy map with several appealing destinations. i.e. "This map may or may not represent a real map, but it represents what your provinciial little characters think the world is like". You can put any stuff on there anywhere you want, and re-name it at will until the PCs actually get there.

    A sandbox isn't just "hey you can go anywhere", it's when the PCs believe "anywhere" will be fun.

  7. @ C'nor: Because most players I have run games for react to that many options with stupefaction. And because, unless our harried DM has unlimited time to prepare cities that will never be used, 3 will give plenty of choice without guaranteeing 40% of his/her work will go unused in the near future.

    @Zak: agreed with the first paragraph, but I understood the post to be about adding non loot-and-pillage aspects to a game. If players don't want that kind of detail, or to ferret it out as part of the game, cut scene to the next dungeon. When they start asking the DM questions about "where's this" and "who are those people", let them find the answers.

  8. I remember receiving a map that had the nest of vampire gods on it and deciding to go there on a whim. That short-cut a whole campaign right there. Be careful what you put on maps.

    You've seen Korad, right? For all your half-formed city needs. Otherwise I advocate opening Calvino's Invisible Cities at random and seeing what it gives you.

    The best reason for going anywhere is if you already have an idea of what you're looking for when you get there. The worst way to do this is having Patron say "go get me the rod of 7 parts." A better way might be: "your character might get a buff if he can only work out how to use that neat object he picked up. Where do they make those, anyway?"

  9. I'm still learning the sandbox approach, but I've found a couple things that work. One is they need a map or they will not explore beyond the hooks given (unless you bore them completely and they just go bandit hunting).
    Two, nothing technically exists until it happens or is mentioned IN GAME. Everything else is conjecture, and if a town is on the map, there is no promise it isn't a smoking ruin.

  10. Thanks all.

    @barrataria: I don't see it as a problem of giving my players info outright or having them discover it, the problem is the info doesn't exist. Whatever they ask a sage I'll have to improv.

    @C'nor: thanks, one thing I realized in doing this is that I don't really want super-fantastic locations because that will blunt the strangeness of the underworld, so no necromancer cities for now.

    @Zak: thanks, the idea of an incorrect is very helpful. It opens up the possibility of thinking of what miscperceptions people tend to have about places/geography and make use of some of the most interesting.

    @richardthinks: never seen Korad before thanks. Do you mean you were killed at the Nest, or that you achieved something the DM considered a campaign goal?

    @Dreyrugr: thanks for sharing that, it's comforting to know that if I decide my idea of cliffside city is lame, by the time the players get there I can have it razed.

  11. you were killed at the Nest, or that you achieved something the DM considered a campaign goal?

    It was the worst of all possible outcomes: we won by blind luck and stupidity.

  12. @ telecanter: of course, I just meant you shouldn't share everything you create with your players, at least not immediately. Like Dreyrugr suggested, among other things it lets you trash ideas that seemed good at 3AM five months ago but now seem terrible. Or ideas that are similar to something you DO share with your players that they hate or find boring.

  13. Hey! I'm over a year late, and you'll probably never see or care about this, but your brief mention of a "night city" made me think of Toll from the book Fly Trap. Essentially it's two cities in one: half the population lives in Toll-by-Day, then at dusk the walls are slid back and the streets rearranged and the nocturnal (and much poorer and/or shadier) citizens of Toll-by-Night come out. While each city is out, the denizens of the other must pretend to not exist. Which city you live in is determined by the patron saint you were born under. The entire operation is run by the ominous Locksmiths Guild, who take over cities via protection rackets, then lock them up forever. The Locksmiths already control Toll-by-Night, and are angling for a chance to take over Toll-by-Day.

  14. Thanks, anon. That's a cool example I hadn't heard of and makes me think of seasonal cities. Maybe they are on mountain passes and only come to life with the thaw, or near bays that have year long tides.