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Thread: Building a Fantasy City with City Works

  1. #1

    Post Building a Fantasy City with City Works

    I’m a sucker for urban games. One of the elements I am really enjoying about the 3.0 game I’m in right now is that the entire game is basically urban – dealing with thieves’ guilds, the assassination of the king, building a temple to a new god and all the politics that go along with that (the urban basis for the game is in part because the DM of this particular game doesn’t have a Dungeon Master’s Guide or a Monster Manual or any modules – he’s built the game from scratch using just the 3.0 PHB).

    Of course, developing a functional and believable city as the backdrop for such a game is a fair chunk of work. And the believability can be a bit weak if you don’t have much experience in urban planning and organic social growth. The actual map of the city is a nice finishing touch, but is really just there as a prop because it is unlikely that you will ever be in an environment where it matters what street goes where – all that matters is knowing what each part of town is like and where the important places are.

    Since I’m in the process of remapping my B/X campaign setting, I figured I’d take the time to detail one of the many smaller cities on the Hill Islands (which occupy the same geosocial place in the campaign as the Purple Towns in the classic Elric saga, if you are familiar with it).

    Instead of creating the city from scratch by myself, I figured I’d pull down City Works – a d20 supplement written by Mike Mearls and published by Fantasy Flight Games. The book is broken up into 5 major sections – Characters, City Basics, City Construction, City Adventures and City Encounters. The City Construction chapter (chapter 3) is where we are going today – a full chapter on how to design a city built around a set of random tables. But a lot of this book is good for just about any game, not just this chapter. Chapter 2 (City Basics) is almost entirely system-neutral and provides a good foundation on city politics and systems, Chapters 4 & 5 are packed with tables for random names, interior floor plans, nature of business and peronality traits of NPCs to flesh out a city as well as a whole bunch of material on urban events (fire, plague, siege) and how to set up an urban campaign. Definitely a pretty decent book for someone looking at running an urban campaign.

    The first step in mapping out a city is to note the existing natural geographical features that exist in and around the city. Then we need to determine the city size, which in turn will determine the number of “city blocks” that we’ll need to place during the mapping stage.

    Since there are so many cities in fairly close proximity to each other on the Hill Islands, most are either very large towns (3,000 to 5,000 persons) or small cities (5,000 to 12,000 persons). Since I’m detailing one of the mid-range cities for my first time using the city building function of this book, I’ll go with 8,000 people (mid-range of the Small City category in the 3.5 DMG). The system used in the book creates a series of city “blocks”, each 500 feet on a side, that you set out in a grid, with one block per 100 residents. So this city will use 80 blocks total (so I have to make sure that there is at least a 9×9 area appropriate for the city when I draw out the terrain).

    And now it’s time to draw the terrain – unlike most of my maps, I’ll be using tracing paper set over graph paper, and use the scale of 250 feet per square on the graph paper (so a “block” in the City Works system will be a 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch square). This will be a detail map of the terrain at a natural bay on one of the Hill Islands.

    So here’s the map at the end of stage 1 – just the terrain and a rough idea of how big the city will be. Tomorrow I start rolling on the tables to determine how the city is set up.

  2. #2
    Professional Artist Facebook Connected Coyotemax's Avatar
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    Jul 2009


    This is quite fascinating, I look forward to seeing how this develops.

    My finished maps
    "...sometimes the most efficient way to make something look drawn by hand is to simply draw it by hand..."

  3. #3


    Now that I’ve determined how big the city is (8,000 population) we know that there will be 80 “blocks” in the city, each 500 feet on a side. For the map I’m drawing I’m using a scale of 1,000 feet to the inch, so each “block” will be a half-inch square. Using City Works, the next step would be to determine the divisions of blocks within the city.

    A roll of 99 makes Cruar’s Cove a “Fading City”. Business is poor for this city, as its reliable industries have hit a serious slump. Many laborers are unemployed, and those few families who can afford to have left for greener pastures. Normally this has 5% of the non-residential space as dock space, where a port city has 10%. What I’ll do here is turn Industrial down from 20% to 15%, and add 5% ruins to the city, and have the ruins as the old unreppaired and collapsing docks.

    The distribution of blocks goes as follows (80 blocks total – 40 residential, 40 industrial)

    Industrial Blocks (40 total)

    * 5% Ruins (2 blocks)
    * 5% Docks (2 blocks)
    * 10% Entertainment (4 blocks)
    * 10% Government (4 blocks)
    * 15% Industrial (6 blocks)
    * 15% Markets (6 blocks)
    * 5% Military (2 blocks)
    * 5% Parks (2 blocks)
    * 5% Temples (2 blocks)
    * 10% Travel (4 blocks)
    * 5% University (2 blocks)
    * 10% Warehouses (4 blocks)

    Residential Blocks (40 total)

    * 5% Upper Class (2 blocks)
    * 10% Middle Class (4 blocks)
    * 65% Lower Class (26 blocks)
    * 20% Slums (8 blocks)

    Now it’s time to draw the basic environment for the city – keeping in mind that it needs room for 80 blocks (so roughly 4.5 inches by 4.5 inches on my map). A roll on Table 3 (City Shape and Layout) sticks to the standard Radial layout. It has 1d3 walls (one of which is an outer wall, and any remaining walls being ones the city outgrew). In this case we get two walls, the outer walls and an inner wall. 20% of the city is within the inner wall, 60% within the outer wall, and the remaining 20% will be outside of the walls. 2d4 major roads run into the city (from the farms and fishing villages scattered across the Hill Islands). I roll 5 roads. Half run directly from the outer wall through the inner walls to the center of town.

    Time to break out the tracing paper and the terrain map from yesterday and lay down the grid I’ll be using for the city. I lay out an area roughly the size I need and then draw in the city walls (in pencil for now – I’ll add them as a new layer in pen once the blocks have been assigned). I also haven’t put the major roads in yet in this scan – we’ll see them once I start assigning blocks.

  4. #4
    Community Leader Facebook Connected Steel General's Avatar
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    This will be very interesting to watch develop.
    My Finished Maps | My Challenge Maps | Ghoraja Juun, my largely stagnated campaign setting.

    Unless otherwise stated by me in the post, all work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

  5. #5


    For the roads, I place the two that head straight into the core of the city and will place the other 3 using the random tables after the blocks have been assigned. I do, however, place their gates around town where I think they would look good.

    And we’re on to the blocks.

    The first thing we have to place are the ruined blocks. In this case, because of the theme of the city, they are docks and therefore I put them on the bay but far from the city core (which is on the Eastern hill).

    Next up are the Government blocks. I take the point that I’ve indicated as the middle of the city (not the geographical middle, but the middle when it first started, in the old city up on the East side), and I put them in the inner wall, up against the Eastern wall, where there is a gate for the main road into town. With only two upper class blocks to place next, one goes up against the government blocks (randomly rolled to be to the South), and the other goes somewhere pretty… (Slightly SouthEast of the other Upper Class block, against the city walls).

    The Docks get placed against the water, as needed. In this case, half are in the old city, and half right beside the ruined docks.

    The six market blocks are next. I break them up into 3 2-block markets. There should be a market attached to each dock, so I put one between the inner city docks and upper class districts, another adjoining to both the new docks and the ruined docks, and the last market goes on a major road. The road market gets placed 1d6-1×10% of the way between the city walls and the centre of town along the road. I roll a 3, so it’s 20% of the way (on a roll of a 1, the market is at the city walls and half of the market sits outside the city gates – I like the feel of that, maybe next time).

    The Travel and entertainment blocks are placed like the market blocks, but placed adjacent to markets instead of docks. Half are placed with the docks, the other half are placed with the roads. With only 4 travel blocks, that’s one block at each dock, and the other two will be at the city gate closest to the non-dock market. The ones by the docks specialize in boating and so on, while the one at the gates is for horses and trade caravans and farmers.

    Warehousing is also based around the docks and markets. In this case, the largest section of warehouses are adjacent to the ruined docks as well as the market there (and are probably quite run down and rat-infested, with some even being used by squatters now), with smaller warehouse areas in the old city and along the South road.

    So here’s what the city looks like now:

    If you want to see a larger version (where my handwriting is somewhat more legible), I've got one posted on my blog.

    Tomorrow I’ll place the rest of the residential areas, the military blocks, temples, university, parks, and industries before laying down the remaining three major roads through town.

  6. #6
    Community Leader Gandwarf's Avatar
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    Jun 2008


    This is certainly very interesting. Can't wait to see what you come up with in the end. This is entirely another way to do a city...
    Check out my City Designer 3 tutorials. See my fantasy (city) maps in this thread.

    Gandwarf has fallen into shadow...

  7. #7


    From yesterday’s rough outline we have the city structure with some of the major economic blocks already in place (government, upper class residential, docks, markets, warehousing, travel and entertainment).

    The first thing I get to add today is the middle class residential areas. They are placed adjacent to the upper class blocks and spread out in a radial manner. Since one of the upper class blocks is already completely surrounded with city structures, the decision on placement is very simple and requires no randomization – the middle class area completely surrounds the upper class hilltop part of Cruar’s Cove. (By luck, there are 4 available blocks around the upper class block, and there are 4 middle class blocks in town). It also has the benefit of being on the hilltop, making it pretty, less smelly and generally high demand land to build on.

    Next up are the military areas (of which we have 2 blocks). Now, according to the book, they are there to defend the government, ports and gates in that order. I’m supposed to break up the number of blocks into 3 groups, and place one near the seat of government, one near the docks, and the rest scattered at the gates or at roads leading to the gates. With only two blocks we end up with only the Government and Docks military areas. I put a military citadel on the very north end of the old city area (which was begging for a fortress), and the second one right beside the docks, on the other side of the gate to the old city (this will be a naval base – so more docks!) This leaves Cruar’s Cove without any major military presence near 4 of the 5 gates into town, but with a lot of presence right around the two of the three gates into the old city. We know who’s important, and it’s not the townsfolk.

    The Temple, University and Park are allocated in the same way: Roll 1d3 to determine how many clusters to break each into (in my case I’ll roll a d2, since I only have 2 blocks of each in this small city) (2 for temple, 1 each for park and university). Now we scatter them using the random distance and direction tables from the Upper Class districts. The Park ends up South West of the Old City district (and sits very nicely along the South road – like it was designed to be a sight to be looked at as people enter the town and head for the old city). The University is South West of the Upper Class hillside district. The temples end up South of the hillside district and due South of the Old City district. This puts one set of temples on the hilltop behind the university and the other set of temples on the main South road, across from the park and just on the other side of the Old City walls on the side of the hill so even the back temples are visible from the main road (for those temples trying to attract new worshipers, this is a key location).

    The Industrial area is then jammed in as far from the prosperous, comfortable areas of town as possible while still being within the city walls. We break the industrial area (6 blocks) into 1d3 groups of blocks and spread them around. In this case I roll a 1, so all 6 blocks go together and are adjoining the ruins and warehouses in the rough West end of the Cove. This is where they process fish from the docks, lumber brought in from outside of town, and make cheese and sausages and so on. One section is up against the waterfront again, so that area will be boat-builders and repair docks.

    The slums get the worst area of town. We start by surrounding ruins and industrial areas with slums. In this case, since the ruins are already completely surrounded, this means surrounding the industrial area. That fills up the remaining West end of the city and even overflows beyond the city walls a bit.

    And then everything that’s left? That’s the lower class residential areas that make up the majority of the South end of town and the area to the south of the walls.

    So, here’s what the map looks like now (again, a larger version is available on my blog if you want to read my handwriting)

    The last things on that map that we haven’t discussed are the other major roads.I had determined yesterday that there are 5 roads into town, and 2 of which lead straight to the town centre. The remainder I roll on Table 5 to determine where they go. The first one, at the Western gate in the South wall, rolls a 98 – it runs through town from one gate to another without going through the city centre or heading for any other points of interest. That leaves only one gate left. A roll of 63 has it connect to the city’s centre and then connect to a street that leads to a random gate. I determine that it connects to the road to the South gate, so we have a slight rerouting of the road around the city centre area (that is a lot more visible in the final map, below).

    This map overlay is honestly everything I need to run the city in my game. We now know what areas of town are interesting (the entire East End basically) and what areas to avoid (the West End) and what’s just boring residential (the middle and South).

    But I love to map, and it is Friday, that day when I promised myself to post a new map every week. So here’s a revised version of Cruar’s Cove, with the city overlaid on the terrain and everything. Again, my blog has a larger version.

  8. #8


    This has been very fun to follow. I may have to look for that supplement, because my wife doesn't think I'm enough of a geek yet.

  9. #9


    Fascinating! I think this is a great approach to city mapping. It's almost like rolling up a character and allocating points to various attribItutes. The system has a utility, economy and elegance to it which I really like. Have some rep!


  10. #10


    Fascinating. This CityWorks sounds good. However, my main interest is modern/futuristic cities - I wonder if the same rules apply to modern city creation? If so, it might be worth an investment, OTOH it may need too much house-ruling.
    I suspect that walls will be less important and roads more frequent. What other changes might there be? Will ground area per head of population differ with use of high-rise buildings, will 'docks' include rail, air and space ports, etc?
    Mapping a Traveller ATU.

    See my (fantasy-based) apprenticeship blog at:

    Look for Chit Chat, Sandmann's blog. Enjoy.

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