Bringing Your City to Life – Part 1 (A city building article by Ari Gilder)

The Town of AbbasiBringing Your City to Life – Part 1
By Ari Gilder

Recently, I completed a large-scale city map over the course of about three months. It is only my second map with City Designer 3, so I am by no means an expert, but between the two maps I’ve recently spent a lot of hours with the tools, learning some of the ins and outs of the how as well as the why.

Both of the cities (well, one city and one town) I’ve built have been quite large for their size. I’d specifically like to consider these kinds of settlements, as opposed to a quaint fishing village or a small farming hamlet. Because these are smaller settlements, by definition less time will go into them. Also, when I was doing my research on how to start mapping a large city or town, I found very few resources on how to tackle such an ambitious project.

City of New CassiaThere are actually plenty of resources on how to draw and plan a city, in general and specifically with CD3:
Clercon’s Making a City series
SteveDavie’s Mapping Cities series
The Tome of Ultimate Mapping (pp. 360-377)
Town Buildings List at Cartographer’s Guild
“Let’s Build a City” on r/DnDBehindTheScreen
Blog post with many more City Building links

They cover things like situation of a city (e.g. near water sources), defining the purpose of the city (trade, fishing, farming, etc.), effects of regional topography (a valley city versus a desert city versus even more fantastical locations) and higher level urban planning (what kinds of districts). These do a really great job of covering some of the anthropological motivations for cities. I will make mention of a bunch of these in this article series, but I will not cover them as deeply. If you’re planning to spend up to a few months building a city, it’s worth doing that pre-reading about how to go about planning out the most fundamental aspects of your city.

I’d like to go a bit deeper than these tutorials and cover some of the lessons I’ve learned about the process of building a large city/town, and how I envisioned bringing it to life. By that, I mean using mapmaking as a form of storytelling. When you build a large city, you are a grand architect – not just of buildings but of people and stories. If you’ve ever played city simulation video games, such as The Sims, CitiesXL, SimCity or similar titles, you probably already have a very good idea of what this entails.

Think about the closest large city to you. How many people can you imagine all running about their daily lives in parallel, each with different motivations? Probably a lot. But now if you group them by rough category of types of things they typically do – educating, manufacturing, selling, parenting, praying, entertaining, etc. – the scale becomes a lot smaller. We want to provide a backdrop for all of our city’s population to mill about and do those things. We’ll cover how in more detail.

As we go, you’ll see the main theme of this article series is: breaking down each bit of the city building process into many, many smaller, but manageable decisions, which make the process less overwhelming. This will then allow us to focus our creative energies on a few small pieces at a time, which can then let our imagination run wild on just those. We’ll write down our ideas and slowly build up a living, breathing city with a rich history in the very process of constructing it.

Goal of the Map

CA157 MiddlesboroughBefore we get too deep into planning out our city, we need to think about what our purpose is for our map. Maps can have many different functions including: demonstrating geography, assisting with navigation, showing political borders or city districts, showing the physical city layout, and many others. Depending on what your goal is, you may choose to portray the city in different ways. For example, in the recent Cartographer’s Annual January 2020 issue, we have the Watabou city generator style (see on the right).

This style of city map focuses on showing geography and physical layout; the details of the buildings or vegetation are not as important (just coarse shapes), though here the rivers are (they usually are). Contrast this with some other real-world maps:

Map of Major Streets of London
Map of NYC Subway

These are more geared towards navigation/wayfinding throughout the city.

The goal of my map was storytelling. I am in the process of preparing for a D&D urban campaign, so the city itself is at the core of the campaign. I’ve been taking lots of notes on worldbuilding outside of CC3+ for this, but I saw the main driver as being the map. I was inspired by Sue Daniel and Christina Trani’s City of Sanctuary map with its painstaking detail; a glance at the map up close gave me a sense of a beautiful, living, breathing city. That’s what I wanted to emulate. So my goal was to build something as realistic and as detailed as possible to simulate the goings-on in the city. But the city also needs to be unique so that it is memorable – and we’ll sprinkle this uniqueness throughout the entire city. I also wanted to use the shiny new SS5 Mike Schley city style.

Basic City Geography & Population

Next, I decided about how big the city will be. Using a few guides (Medieval Demographics Made Easy, Notes on Medieval Population Geography) I knew roughly that a medieval fantasy city would range in population between about 12,000-25,000. Initially I planned for it to be closer to 15,000. I used the estimation technique from p. 362 of the Tome of Ultimate Mapping and came up with a rough area for my city.

So now let’s decide where our city is physically located and its main purpose(s), following some of the guides linked above. My main city, New Cassia, is located at the edge of a vast sea, the Ever Mere. I have an idea of its geography already because I’ve already drawn overland and regional maps. Its main economic driver is trade, both sea and land based. It is located near a large military fort, and surrounded by a vast amount of farmland.

Now that I have my basic geography down, I’ve sketched out my city. I measured the city area using the Area tool and it was way, way bigger than my original estimates. So I changed my assumptions about family size, families per housing unit to give a bit more breathing room, reverse engineered the calculation from the Tome, and settled on a revised population of 20,000.

Divide Into Districts

My next step was to divide the city into districts. In the town of Abbasi I previously mapped I used construction lines to divide the districts initially. This was useful because when I later added walls and color borders, I was able to use the Trace command in the drawing tools to trace over the construction lines. In that town, some of the districts blur the borders a little bit more, i.e. some house styles from the neighboring district appear near the border. For New Cassia, I wanted something a little more unique Using construction lines and colored borders for district designation in Abbasi.

To capitalize on the maritime character of the city I chose to use the Stream drawing tool from SS5. I plopped down a few large streams to get a semblance of what it might look like. Then I realized these look an awful lot like the canals of Venice!

Having been to Venice before, I know that boat-based transportation is the main mode of traveling medium distances. So I knew that would be a major aspect of the culture of my city. So just by plopping something down on a map, I’ve created a story about transportation in the city. As I branched the canals further, it became clearer on where does and does not have easy access to the canals which enhanced that story. More on that later. I also used the canals to visually define the seat of government, an oval isle near the center.

Now that I’ve got my districts mostly defined geographically, I need to designate the purpose of each district. Based on the above urban planning guides and what I already knew about the city, I had a vague idea of what I needed. My takeaway from the background reading was: for each district, decide if it is a residential or “functional” district (i.e. serves some primary purpose or concentration of industry or other function). Not every building in a functional district needs to be dedicated to that purpose, so it need not be limiting; it is quite common to mix residential and functional especially in medieval style cities.

Identifying Each District’s Purpose

Since trade is the major economy in the city, the harbor and mercantile districts will need to be fairly significant in size. Additionally, the city is particularly proud of its military prowess, so some section of the city will need to be dedicated to that. Other aspects of the city are its cultural backdrop, including a storied religious history (none of which I knew before mapping it) and mages’ academy. I figured there also needed to be several distinct residential areas for different socioeconomic classes. I had a few districts that still needed to be filled in so I decided on a government/services type district and an entertainment district. I ended up splitting a few physical regions into two sub-districts to accommodate everything.

Where We’re Going, We…Need Roads!

Now with a vague idea of what goes where, I could draw the major thoroughfares and bridges crossing and connecting the city. Placement of thoroughfares can be telling; more access in a district may mean it’s more important, and less access may mean lower governmental priority on transportation to/from that area. We’ll cover this in more detail next time.

So now we’ve defined our districts and sketched out the story-milieu of our city. In the next part we’ll cover roads and terrain in more depth, as well as unique features and landmarks, and we’ll go into a little bit more on urban planning. Until then, Happy Mapping!

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.

2 Responses to “Bringing Your City to Life – Part 1 (A city building article by Ari Gilder)”

  1. Ari,

    Great article! I’m happy to see you pick up the mantle of City Building — I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t able to finish my foray. I look forward to seeing this progress.


  2. Thanks, Steve! I hope this demystifies it a bit and inspires you to pick it back up. It’s arduous work to be sure, but it’s not difficult once you get the hang of it – and can even be a bit zen!