Bringing Your City to Life – Part 2 (by Ari Gilder)

Welcome back to this article series on mapping as worldbuilding for large cities and towns. In the last article in this series, we covered developing the geographical setting for your city, identifying the main purpose or economy of the city, dividing it into districts, deciding between functional and residential districts, and we even talked a little bit about transportation. Recall that by way of example, I’ve been mostly using the city of New Cassia which I recently mapped as a means of illustration of the ideas here.

In this article, I’d like to cover some more about ways to go about laying out the canvas for your city by exploring textures, terrains and landmarks. We’ll apply this to district building next, and in a later article we’ll go into some more of the technical pieces on how to actually construct each district in CC3+ but for now we’ll stick with planning as it relates to storytelling and worldbuilding.

The most important piece to start with: in general, work on your city one district at a time. Doing so provides cohesiveness in what you’re working on, and also gives you a concrete deliverable that you can complete and then take a break. I like to do a nice quality export of each district I finish as a milestone marker to record my progress over time, as well as share with the CC3 community for any feedback.

We last left New Cassia with some districts and main roads.

Road Types, Sizes and Materials

In the previous article, we ended with defining the major thoroughfares of our city. Let’s cover that in a bit more detail. Not all roads in a city are the same size in most cities you could probably think of, so thoroughfares are the largest of these roads. Depending on the scale of your city, these may be 10′ or 20′ wide (using Imperial measurements, but applicable with the equivalent metric sizes as well). New Cassia is a large city, so its main thoroughfares will be 20′ wide; this will visually stand out as well as define the routes the city’s inhabitants will take for most navigation.

Stepping stones in a Pompeii street

Stepping stones in a Pompeii street

We also need to decide the material of these main roads: are they wide, paved cobblestone walkways? Are they well-entrenched dirt roads? Are they waterways with sidewalks, such as in Pompeii? Or are they other textures like mud, grass, sand or even more exotic materials like lava, water, or sludge? This decision point can have an easy to miss but significant effect on the story and history of your city.

Exotic lava roads in WotC’s City of Brass

Exotic lava roads in WotC’s City of Brass

Also, keep in mind, not all roads in a city need to be the same; you can mix stone, dirt and exotic roads along with varying sizes (I like to swap out stone roads for dirt in poorer residential areas). You can also think about which areas will have no roads at all. Roads are all about access; poor quality or no roads will usually lead to less access to an area. Maybe this is to keep outsiders out (or undesirables in), or maybe the government can’t be bothered to pave an older, decrepit neighborhood.

Keeping a Microdecision Log for Inspiration

Think about the implications of each microdecision. If your main roads are sludge, that suggests a sewer-dwelling city, or perhaps the Underdark. Do people use boats or rafts to traverse them, or do they walk on foot? Each of these questions can lead to interesting story developments, like defining the daily experience of a resident (or visitor, which may differ) or leading to questions about why it is that way, or how commonplace non-walking modes of transportation are.

Each time you make one of these microdecisions, you can write down a question or two about it. For each mapping session, you’ll build up a short or medium list of questions. You can then ponder these in between mapping sessions. You don’t need to answer all or even most of them, but each answer will flesh out your world. You can come back to sticky questions that keep coming up, or discard them and move on.

So hopefully now we’ve at least decided on our main roads, and maybe even begun to ruminate on other road styles throughout the city. Great job! Now we can turn our attention to individual sections of the city.

Constructing our First Landmark

As a warm up exercise to district building, let’s do our first exercise in landmark construction. I recommend thinking about what the most defining building is going to be in your whole city. You figure out what “defining” means to you – it could be culturally, religiously, politically or economically. In some cases this might be a seat of government – a keep, a castle, a mayoral palace, a parliamentary house or any other such building. Sometimes a city may be oriented around this place; other times it might be at the city edge, and still others may have accidentally evolved the location of this building. These are all okay, but are microdecisions worth writing down and maybe asking yourself questions about.

Mages Academy

Sapphire Citadel, home of the Mages’ Academy, is one of the most notable landmarks in New Cassia.

Once you’ve identified this building and a suitable location, build it! Whether it is a symbol (we’ll talk more about symbols later) or some more custom construction, orienting around it will get you a feel for what characteristics you want to demonstrate. Don’t be shy about experimenting – place something, delete it, try again, change size and color…try things out until it seems right to you. And even if you need to settle for good enough, you can always come back to it and redo it easily.

Now you’ve built or placed one building. Think about what supporting buildings may surround it, and place those. A keep may have additional administrative offices around it. A military training facility may have barracks nearby. A mages’ academy may have a library nearby. Or, maybe you’ll decide this building is solitary: a grand wizard’s tower at the peak of a tall hill, with nothing else daring to surround it!

Sapphire Citadel

The Sapphire Citadel, with some supporting academic buildings and the Great Library of Ytron. Notice how the mix of grassy terrain gives more depth to the district. Also note the dirt path mixed with stone roads.

Terrain Surrounding the Landmark

Think about what terrain you expect to surround the main building. A castle may be built atop paved stone; a monument to a town’s founder may be in the heart of a central park, surrounded by grass and dirt roads; a demon’s spire may be surrounded by a lava most. Now place that.

As you’re placing the terrain and supporting buildings, ask yourself a question or two (not too many, we don’t want to rathole on this) about why they are there or what their nature is. If something (or even better, someone) interesting pops up, write that down somewhere.

Now, one finishing touch: label it! Just plop some text down on or near it with either a name (if you’ve got one; if not, you can punt on that till later) or a short description to remind you of what it is and why it’s there. Note: you do not have to do this on your main TEXT sheet; you can create another one such as TEXT ANNOTATIONS that you can use just for your own notes and labels about notable buildings. This sheet can be hidden during your final export if you don’t want to show them (we’ll talk about labeling towards the end of the series). But recalling the purpose and name of each place can help us build up stories in our city.

Congratulations! You’ve just constructed your first (and most important) landmark! We’ll be going through this process a bunch, but hopefully you’ve learned a few things from doing this:

  1. It’s okay to experiment, sometimes extensively. We’ll develop ways to keep this from ballooning too much all over the city.
  2. The process of building a landmark does not have to be scary, and can be as simple as a few local decisions.
  3. A landmark can help define the area around itself, such as the terrain and the nearby roads. We’ll need this as we build up our districts.
  4. Noting down random thoughts about why a building is where it is can lead to interesting story hooks.
  5. Textures, terrains and materials can define a lot of character, history and culture about an area.

Next time, I hope to cover planning each district, and discuss how to make each district unique stylistically and feature-wise (including landmarks!).

Ari Gilder is a software engineer, and has been interested in maps for a long time. He spent seven years working on Google Maps, working on features like local business search, Google Maps and Navigation on mobile, and studying the way users understand maps. He even proposed to his wife using maps. He often spends hours staring at maps in fantasy novels, and in 2013 starting putting together some of his own dungeon and battle maps for a D&D campaign. After a hiatus of several years, he recently dived back into cartography with CC3+, tackling more overland and city maps in preparation for a new D&D campaign. He is a father of two, and has recently introduced his older daughter to cartography, both hand-drawn and with CC3+ where she insists that black and purple varicolor trees must surround everything.

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