Roleplaying Resources

Taken from Roleplaying Tips.

City Features and Flavors

A Guest Article By Dariel Quiogue

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In issue #141, John Simcoe showed us how to add locations and institutions to a high-magic fantasy city. While thinking about how to use the article, visions of cities I'd been to or vicariously explored through the pages of National Geographic came to mind, and I started thinking of how to give my fantasy cities their own unique flavors.

Since I'm a very visual person, I rely a lot on visual descriptions. Thinking on Simcoe's article produced list of features below I would try to describe when taking my players on a tour of a city that exists only in my head.

1. Location

Where is the city built and why is it there? What kind of scenery surrounds it? How does one get there?

Some ideas:

1) The city is built on the coast or beside a river. The main activity is trade. The city has many busy wharves, perhaps divided into some for merchantmen or cargo barges, another for fishermen, and another for military use.

Vistas: forests of masts, noisy flocks of seabirds squabbling over floating garbage, bustling waterfronts, small fishing boats coming in at dawn with their catch.

2) The city is built at a crossroads. The main activity is trade, borne by caravans. The city must have the means to resupply these caravans, especially in terms of food, water, and fodder for the pack animals, so in a desert country this means having access to wells or a river, and some nearby farmland.

Vistas: exotic bazaars, strings of pack animals going in and out of the gates, caravansaries consisting of housing and yards for the animals, people of many different races and cultures mingling.

3) The city is built at a holy site. The city and its non- priest populace exist to serve the main temple or shrine and its regular stream of visitors. The site may or may not be easily accessible. If the people believe the gods reside in the mountains, a holy city may be set in a remote highland valley.

Vistas: awe-inspiring terrain, large and impressively built temples, men or women in the signature garb of priests or monks everywhere, streams of supplicants making prayers and offerings.

4) The city is a military stronghold/border outpost guarding a major road, pass, or port. Often the city will look out over land where hostiles live, such as between farmland and nomad-haunted steppes, or on the edge of a forest where orcs or barbarians are known to dwell. The city is dominated by fortifications and garrisons, and the non-military populace live there to serve the needs of the garrison.

Vistas: high walls, claustrophobic streets and interiors, armored or uniformed soldiery everywhere.

2. Layout

How is the city laid out? Are the streets straight or crooked? Would it be easy or difficult to navigate this city and find a given location even if you've never been there before? Does the city show evidence of planning, or did it grow haphazardly? City layout is largely determined by culture, terrain, and the purpose for which the city was built.

Some ideas:

1) The city is largely unplanned. Everybody builds just about anywhere they please. Streets are winding and narrow with many dead ends. Each district has limited access to things like water and sanitation. The city is often sharply divided into a “high” and “low” city, the high city being the centers of government, religion or commerce, while the low city is the residential district for the laborers and the poor. The low city is sometimes called the “foulburg”–and it is!

2) The city is built in mountainous or hilly terrain. There are many zigzag or winding streets on the slopes, and perhaps stairs for pedestrians on the steepest slopes. The most important buildings will mostly cluster at the highest places, while the common folk live on the lower slopes.

3) The city is a result of meticulous planning and follows a standard design set by the culture. For example, Chinese cities are always quadrangular, walled, with streets laid out in a gridwork pattern, and the main gate always faces south (following the rules of feng shui). The city may even be partitioned into wards by interior walls, which makes it easier to control and defend.

4) The city is built for defense. It is surrounded by high, thick walls, and since a smaller area is easier to defend, the city is compressed into as narrow a space as possible. Streets tend to be narrow and buildings built tall to compensate. Well-planned city-fortresses also tend to be partitioned into wards.

5) The city is built on a marsh or river delta, like Venice or Hangchow. Buildings are raised on small islands, often built up with earth and rubble, and canals often take the place of streets. The existing streets are joined with bridges.

6) The city was expressly built to serve as the capital of a wealthy nation or region. The city is meant to be a showcase of its people's taste and artistic ability, and a statement of the wealth, power and refinement of its ruler. The city has a formal layout, and has been beautified with grand buildings, carefully placed statuary, fountains, gardens, and venues for cultural activities such as theaters. The Greeks and Romans were especially conscious of this in building their cities.

3. Architectural Signatures

Every culture has its own “signature” architectural style. Often we can identify the culture to which a building belongs just by its appearance. These native styles are fast-vanishing art treasures, so remembering them and using them in our games may help, in our own little way, of keeping our heritage alive. And then there are the possibilities open to fantasy cultures. Elves might be able to shape living trees while an aquatic race might fashion bubble-buildings by magic.

Skyline: what does the city's skyline look like? The tops of buildings often have a unique look from culture to culture, from their materials, their forms, and their design details.

For example:

Mid and Near East: flat roofs, domes, slender spires, and minarets.

Far East: steep-sided saddle-shaped roofs, porcelain tiles, peak and eave ornaments in the form of dragons or other mythical creatures for good fortune and protection vs. evil spirits, pagodas.

Other ideas: * The city is completely hidden from above by tall trees. * The city is made up of a single enormous building. * The city is made up of identical buildings. * The city is tropical and everything is made of light materials like bamboo and thatch.

Doorways: arched, square, tall or squat, wide or narrow, or oddly shaped?

Design motifs: recurrent design elements unique or representative of the culture. These motifs often come from the culture's mythology.

For example:

Mid and Near East (Islamic): ornamental inscriptions, twining vine and flower designs (arabesques), use of precious and semiprecious stones in inlays, use of metal sheathing on domes and spires, intricate geometric designs.

Far Eastern: serpent-like dragons, odd beasts that combine features of several different creatures, moon arches, calligraphic inscriptions, use of loud colors, standard- sized buildings based on the number of tatami mats that fit inside.

4. Atmosphere

The “feel” of a city can be expressed through visual details as well.

Playing a dark fantasy game? Build up on things that elicit negative emotion. Visitors to the city may find the inhabitants to be furtive or apathetic. Streets and buildings are grimy, vermin are everywhere, walls are splattered with waste and graffiti, and no one seems to care.

How about a mystical, otherworldly elven tree city? Cathedral-like spaces, surrounded by very tall and obviously very ancient trees, hauntingly beautiful art everywhere… (yep, I am describing Lothlorien!).

5. Addresses

Street names and house numbers are mainly a modern, Western thing. You can make your cities more exotic by using different ways of giving an address. Without a formal system of addressing in place, it will probably be very easy to get lost in any city, and a traveller will have to rely a lot on the direction-giving abilities of the locals.

Some ideas:

British addresses. There are still many holdovers in British urban place names from before the modern street name/building number system was adopted with references to courts, mews, -side, etc. These names come from building groups or from references to nearby landmarks. Districts might get nicknames that over time become widely recognized and used by everyone to refer to that place.

Japanese addresses are based on the partitioning of a city into wards. Each ward has its own name (-machi).

6. Laws and Customs

The observance of unique laws and customs can also lend flavor to a city, making it feel more picturesque and exotic to your players.

Some ideas:

1) Certain kinds of animals are forbidden from being taken into the city. Perhaps horses, oxen, camels and the like are not allowed; people inside the city thus get around only by walking, or perhaps in palanquins borne by bearers-for- hire or slaves. There might be a religious edict against dogs, so no dogs are allowed inside the walls. People show respect to holy sites and buildings by making some sort of sign–crossing themselves, bowing, etc. This might be required, or it may be a voluntary expression of piety by a devout people.

2) Everyone is required to bow or avert their eyes when an important personage passes. Remember the story of Aladdin and how he first saw the princess?

3) Traffic may only flow in a certain direction; traffic that flows widdershins or in any unlucky direction is not allowed.

7. City Routine And Calendar

If your PCs are going to visit a city regularly, you can make it feel more authentic if you give it a believable routine.

Daily Routine: what is typically happening in the city at various times of day? What kinds of people do you find on the street at a given time and place? For example, in a seaside city it is common to find fishermen coming in at or before dawn from night fishing. This could have implications for what PCs can get away with and when.

For example, your players decide to sneak an important personage out of a hostile city in a nightsoil cart, but they forget that nightsoil collectors are only allowed to ply the streets late at night when their malodorous cargoes will upset the least number of people.

Seasonal Routine: are there any seasonal festivals or fairs? When do they happen? What do they celebrate? What happens during these occasions? Maybe you could throw in a Mardi Gras-like festival for your players to whoop it up and hopefully get into some sort of trouble…