I love the stories that major cities have to offer in tabletop role-playing games. Centers of civilization are the one common thread across game settings. Whether you’re playing in a fantasy world, a sci-fi galaxy, or a wild west frontier, you’ll always be able to find a big city at some point. Cities offer the party a respite from travel, new opportunities, possible connections, and more.
However, so many stories at our tables take place on the open road, in the unexplored wilderness, at small settlements, or deep in dungeons. Because of this, it can be difficult for game masters to manage campaigns when adventuring parties reach big metropolitan cities. Putting together and running everything that goes on in a city setting is a daunting task, even if you’re working off a module. So I thought I’d put together a blog series on the topic!
In this four-part series, I’ll go over my tips for what I think are the most important areas of developing and running a big city in a TTRPG: Framework, Culture, Population, and Stories. While I’m focusing on these topics through the lens of big cities, most of these points can also be applied to general worldbuilding.
Let’s get started and explore how to set up the framework of a big city!
Establish The Overall Vibe
Like most things in life, you only get one first impression. Set the stage when introducing your players to a big city. What do they feel when they first see it? Is it overwhelming? Welcoming? Repulsive? Full of temptation? Dangerous? What are the first things that jump out at them at a glance? What smells or sounds do they pick up on first? Most importantly, how does it differ from the other locations they’ve encountered? Answering these questions is a great way to give players the vibe and also foreshadow what awaits them inside the city.
What Makes The City Successful?
When developing a metropolis, ask yourself: Why does this city exist? Settlements don’t grow strong without some form of profitability. You should loosely establish the economy of the city so you can understand how it works. What is the city’s main export? What does it have to import? How do the citizens get what they need or want? Alternatively, maybe your city isn’t successful. If so, what is lacking to hinder success? Understanding the economic climate of the city informs the society, power structures, stories, and key NPCs you create.
Define The Landscape & History
Once you’ve established the city’s economy, you can start to deduce the specifics of its location and origin story. Where was the settlement originally built, and why? How is the location advantageous to the industry? What geographical struggles face the city? How did it become a major city? Was it discovered and settled or taken through war? You don’t have to create historical accounts of everything that’s ever happened in the town. But it’s good to know the abridged version of where and how your city came into being.
How Does The City Function?
You’ve got the major industries, geographic location, and the basic history for your city. Now, think about the things that are needed to allow those industries to function. For example, let’s say your city is located in a fantasy forest and they produce the kingdom’s books. They’d need a logging industry, paper mills, an order of scholars to transcribe and bind books, and a distribution system. Even just these four city business sectors could create enough jobs to support the people living in the city. Not to mention, they provide interesting city factions, storylines, and conflict.
Dream Up Memorable Landmarks
Want an easy way to make a location memorable for your players? Include unforgettable landmarks in your city! Giant statues, historic bridges, breathtaking waterfalls, a ruined castle, an otherworldly glow, an ancient lighthouse, the skeleton of a celestial titan, an interdimensional marketplace… The possibilities are endless. Iconic landmarks stick in your players minds and enhance the flavor you’re trying to establish in your city. Bonus points if you include an NPC selling touristy merch depicting the landmark!
Who’s In Charge?
Figuring out how the city is governed is crucial. The command of the ruling power could be absolute, contested, split amongst factions, given to elected officials, or anything else you can imagine. But who wields the power? Nobility, elite merchants, crime bosses, warlords, or religious institutions are classic go-tos. How is public opinion about the city’s leadership? What laws govern the people and how are they enforced? Be sure to understand how the city is run, who has control, how control is maintained, and how the public perceives it.
Don’t Be Too Rigid
Huge cities represent endless opportunities for players to acquire previously unavailable goods, services, and information. Bear this in mind when they are searching for something that you didn’t plan for this city to have. Flexibility keeps your players interested in the location. Additionally, spontaneity sometimes makes for the best stories. What they’re looking for doesn’t have to be readily available or easily attained. But automatically denying their requests can feel like railroading to players.
What Will Interest The Party?
On that note, when you’re populating your city with story hooks and amenities, ask yourself the following question: What will interest the party? Above all else, you’re creating a location for the party to explore. You could write forever about everything that has ever happened in your city. However, if you aren’t including things that your players and their characters are looking for, you might end up disappointed when they don’t pursue your carefully laid story hooks or ignore the event meant to pique their interest.
You Don’t Need To Plan Everything
My number one tip for creating the framework of a city? You don’t need to plan every single aspect. It is inevitable that your players will throw you a curve ball that you aren’t prepared for. Instead of getting flustered, roll with it. If you’ve established your city’s framework, you can use cause and effect to deduce a logical outcome. Oftentimes these improvised story beats exceed what you had planned anyway. It’s always fun to tell a story together. Remember to keep a notepad behind your screen and jot down everything improvised so you don’t forget after the session!
Ghostlore’s next article will continue this series. It will cover how to create the culture of TTRPG cities. Until next time, stay creepy and happy gaming.