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Thread: Proper scale for mapping cities

  1. #1
    Guild Novice
    Join Date
    Dec 2008

    Default Proper scale for mapping cities

    Long time no see, Cartographer's Guild!

    So after a long hiatus from my map-making and game-making pursuits, I've been bitten by the campaign-bug and am knee deep in design of a town of 1000. I'd like to design this town as something fully fleshed out, that I can run numerous campaigns and one-shots in. I want to create a town that my players feel they can actively influence and see how it evolves as they play different storylines within it. Using services like the Medieval Demographics calculator and various D&D-related modifications of it (adding magic shops, calculating races and classes, etc), I've figured out the demographics of my city, and now I'm sitting here with my graph paper and mechanical pencils, ready to start sketching.

    Here lies the issue... I've always had problems with scale, and this time I'm hit with the double whammy.

    Problem #1: I don't know how many buildings I'll need. Sure, I can figure out the number of businesses easily, most of that has already been worked out... But when it comes to the homes of NPCs, I'm at a loss.

    Problem #2: The size of the buildings. I have a very difficult time figuring "okay, this house should be about this wide" without drawing the internals, the rooms, furniture, etc, then calculating how large it was when I was finished.

    I could probably sit down with scratch paper and a calculator and figure out on average how many houses there should be, with variables for larger and smaller families, and I'm sure I could diagram out a few 'sample' houses and buildings for size, but it seems like an awful lot of work, and I was curious if anyone has any tips or resources for figuring out something like that.

  2. #2
    Guild Applicant
    Join Date
    Oct 2012


    Medieval towns usually grew around a marketplace, and a wall was built around it as soon as possible, ie. when the town was big and wealthy enough. After this, all the buildings tended to be built inside the city walls because it was safer there. If your town has walls, you might get away with just drawing the "roofs" and to leaving the amount of stories ambiguous on the map. Alas, a town of 1000 inhabitants might not have walls if it resided on a fairly peaceful region. But if your town was on restless region small walls wouldn't be at all unrealistic almost on the contrary.

    If you are going to the full length, I'dd suggest doing three mock-up buildings, one for poor, other for middle class and the third for the wealthy. Or you could do one house, and just fill it with three families from the three different stratas. For example, poor family would have an apartment the size of a middle class living room, and a middle class apartment would the size of a wealty family's livingroom. You might want to adjust that according to your world's customs. According to the "Town" by Lisa Steele, a poor artisan might have an apartment only 4x4 meters in size!

    Most of medieval townhouses were residential homes, and they usually had a shop on the street level as towns were the centers of commerce. They usually faced the mainstreets to near the customers. This made the houses often really narrow on the streetside but stretch long inwards.

    I don't know if this helped at all, but I suggest you try to keep things simple and go to detail work only when you need to, ie. when your players come around

  3. #3
    Guild Master Gracious Donor Midgardsormr's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2007
    Los Angeles, CA


    Last time I did something of this sort, I added up the number of businesses and multiplied that by four. That was the number of city residents living in the same building as their shop, figuring an average household of four people. Subtracting that from the total population gives the approximate number of people who still need quarters. If your population includes military, you can also subtract those, as they'll be housed in a barracks.

    The number of buildings required to house the remaining population depends on average family size, number of families living in a single building, and number of generations living in a single household. Our modern Western idea of a nuclear family is relatively uncommon, so I usually figure on at least eight people per structure.

    Size of structures depends greatly on the cost of building materials and the amount of room the community has to spread out in. A walled town will be fairly dense because the wall is expensive to build, maintain and defend. Buildings made of stone will be small because they're expensive. A town near readily available forest with no external threats will have larger dwellings, and they may be spaced further apart, although not so far as to make walking across the town onerous.

    I generally base the size of a structure on the length of a bed for an average-sized inhabitant. I build out like you described: inside to outside, until I have a base line for the smallest residence I'd expect to see, then I make most of the buildings bigger than that. I don't know how accurate my end result really is, but it's usually good enough that nobody calls me on it. Unless I make a big measurement error, of course.

    And, of course, nothing beats reference. Look around for town and city maps drafted by John Speed. He mapped a great deal of early Renaissance England, and I've found him to be very useful for sanity checking.
    Last edited by Midgardsormr; 01-29-2013 at 09:03 PM.
    Bryan Ray, visual effects artist

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