Bringing Your City to Life – Part 3a (by Ari Gilder)

Welcome back to our series on city mapping as worldbuilding/storytelling. Last time we talked about some of the basic building blocks of a city – roads, terrains and textures. We also thought about building our first major landmark – the one that is most important in the city. This led us to consider the nature of what’s most important in the city – a government structure, a religious shrine, a war memorial or an imposing wizard’s tower. Along the way, we also started building questions to ask ourselves about each micro decision – and hopefully got some good, creative answers out of that, starting to flesh out the story of our city.

Let’s continue our exploration of the process of simultaneously building a city and a story. This time, we’ll consider how to use symbol sets, house styles, colors and roads to define unique styles for each district. Note: this will focus largely on the initial steps for when you’re starting out a district and seeking out its nature and unique character (and thinking about other shared elements across districts). The nuts and bolts of doing the construction will come in a future article.

Exploring your Symbol Catalog

There are a few different building shapes to choose from in SS5.

There are a few different building shapes to choose from in SS5.

Let’s begin with symbols. By now you have probably chosen a symbol set to start off your map file with. Take a few minutes and look through each symbol catalog within your chosen style (don’t forget to expand collections of symbols with the + sign in the upper-left corner!).

Ask yourself a few questions about the building symbols you see: do you like the default color of buildings? Is there a varicolor option for each symbol? Do the buildings stylistically match the nature of my town or city? If you are building a Middle-Eastern themed city, but you don’t like the buildings under the Middle East catalog, you may want to explore other symbol sets/styles. Is there enough variety in the buildings, or will you be placing the same 3 symbols? Note: this might be exactly what you want for a town – low variation in building style can convey a simpleness or a humdrum kind of daily life; this could make the recent Ogre raids all the more terrifying!
There are a few different building shapes to choose from in SS5.

SS5 has a few other useful city structures included

SS5 has a few other useful city structures included

Now, look through the non-house structures: guard towers, walls, bridges, fountains, statues, etc. Does this symbol set have the kinds of things you think you’ll need? If you’re building a port city, you will probably need docks. If there is no symbol for docks, not to worry! There’s a great tutorial in the Tome of Ultimate Mapping on how to hand-draw docks pretty easily. But it’s good to know what you have and what you’ll need to find in other sets or draw yourself.

Repeat for symbols of vehicles, creatures, symbols, etc. until you’ve gone through all the symbol catalogs in your chosen symbol set. By now, you will have a sense of what you do and don’t have (you may also not yet know what you need, that’s okay too! You can also figure it out as you go, but its helpful to start with an initial understanding of what you can expect). If you’ve identified any gaps, ask yourself: how important is it to stay artistically consistent in this map? The CD3A Bitmap style is very different artistically from the CD3C Vector style. Are you okay mixing styles? (It’s okay if your answer is yes! It’s just important to know what constraints you’re working with.)

Mixing Symbols Across Catalogs

CA63 (Jon Roberts Cities) has fewer unique building shapes, but more interesting color gradients/tones.

CA63 (Jon Roberts Cities) has fewer unique building shapes, but more interesting color gradients/tones.

If you are not as okay with crossing between Bitmap and Vector styles, try to find other symbol sets that are similar. You may be surprised to find that often Dungeon Designer symbols will work well with City Designer if rescaled. Occasionally CC3 Overland styles will also work, but the drawing perspective or level of detail often doesn’t match the rest of the map – but some things will work! You can/should also familiarize yourself with the many freely available symbol sets, e.g. Bogie’s Mapping Objects, Dundjinni Archives, CSUAC, etc.

An example: the town of Abbasi was mostly done using the “CD3 Bitmap A” style; however CD3A does not have great guard towers for some of the city walls. I explored a few symbol sets till I settled on mixing in the Jon Roberts’ Cities symbols in for that purpose. CD3A also doesn’t have an arena, though I discovered I needed one as I was mapping the commoner district. Both CD3B and the Mike Schley style in SS5 have one; I decided that the SS5 style was different enough from CD3A that I wouldn’t use that, and would rather use CD3B despite the more hand-drawn look (CD3A does not look hand-drawn/inked). I also used some symbols from the CSUAC for my funicular transportation system, and some trees from the Forlorn Cottage add-on. At wider zoom levels, it’s hard to even tell that they are stylistically different!

The town of Abbasi mixes symbols from several different styles, but they blend together.

The town of Abbasi mixes symbols from several different styles, but they blend together.

District and Road Planning

New CassiaNow we have gotten comfortable with our symbol sets. Let’s finally turn our attention to district planning. In Part 1, we zoned out our districts according to their primary function (e.g. residential, government, military, academic, etc.). In Part 2, we drew up our main thoroughfares throughout the city. Now these will become the backbone of each individual district. Find the district where you built your first landmark in Part 2; we will select that as our first working district (hopefully it’s not too large/overwhelming for starters!). In each district, aim to either have at least one unique landmark, or alternatively give the whole district a distinctive style from others.

For my first district in New Cassia, I selected the Mages’ Academy. I started with the major landmark, the Sapphire Citadel.

Now, we need to start drawing roads. Select a road drawing tool that is one increment smaller than your main thoroughfare (if you chose 20’ for the thoroughfare, pick 10’ roads; if you chose 10’ pick 5’ etc.) and draw a few branches off the main road. You can let these branches be quite long; they will become locally trafficked roads, probably where many commercial shops will be found. Then, go one increment smaller in road width and draw a few side streets where you’ll place the bulk of your buildings.

Deciding on a Road Network

As we discussed in Part 2, consider the type of road you are using and whether you want a strict, grid-like system (implying planned areas), a haphazard network of twists and turns, or something in between (e.g. straight-ish roads with non-right angles, roads that factor in terrain such as hills, rivers, ponds, etc.). This can vary district-to-district, so feel free to experiment! You may wish your seat of government or cultural hubs to have more planned structure, such as this image of the National Mall, in Washington, DC:
Washington DC
You do not need to plan out your entire district’s road structure in one shot – in fact, I personally recommend against it (though others prefer to do so). I like the flexibility of drawing up a small local area road network first, drawing some buildings/squares/etc. to fill it in, and then seeing where the next section I’ll draw will be. If it’s adjacent to what I just drew, maybe it’ll be similar. If it’s further away, I can vary it even further. Or maybe I want to juxtapose a grid-like section with slightly less rigid or even more free-form area; if I do this, maybe I can think of a reason why one section is the way it is and the other isn’t – and that’s a good question/answer to note down in my story notes (see Part 2). By not pre-planning the whole district, I allow for much more organic development of the road network, giving a more realistic feel. However if you want the more rigid structure, feel free to go ahead and draw a grid or radial-like network – this is the most common layout for most modern cities anyway.

A grid-like street network in Seattle

A grid-like street network in Seattle


A radial street network in Paris

A radial street network in Paris


For length reasons, i.e. to keep the blog post manageable and readable, Part 3 of Ari’s series has been split in two. The second half will follow shortly on this blog.

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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