Location, Location, Location

by Steve Davies

Cities are one of the greatest environments for RPG adventuring.  In a tight space, players can reasonably encounter every type of roleplaying challenge and meet each with a dizzying array of strategies and tactics.  Cities can also be a gamemaster’s (GM) nightmare.  It’s difficult to know where players will go next, detailed preparation is almost impossible, and everything should be available.  To be successful, GMs need overall planning and a good city map.  This series will get you started on the map and support your planning.

This is the first of a short series of articles on mapping cities for fantasy roleplaying games.  I’ll show you the main considerations as you place, design, detail, and then play in the city.  When we’re done, you’ll be able to draw out a reasonable city with confidence and present your players with an experience they won’t forget.  I use ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer as my main mapping tool, and all of the maps are drawn with it.  There is no post-processing on any of the maps.

I recommend that as you build your own city, that you keep a notepad at your elbow to record your thoughts and designs.  Mapping is a creative process, and you will find that you generate many ideas for future adventures as you create your maps.  Write the ideas down, and transfer as many of them to the map itself as you can.  That way you can find them when you need them.  So if you’ve just mapped a narrow pass that would be perfect for an ambush, add that encounter idea as a “GM-only” hidden note.  If you don’t write them down in the moment, it’s often tough to remember or recreate the ideas later.  And it’s great to be preparing for a gaming session and pull up the notes as a way through creative blocks.  You will find that in city building, these notes are critical to make the city come alive later.

About Cities

Cities in the middle ages were rare.  Fewer than a dozen true metropolises existed before the modern era.  That is because a city needs the following things to grow and flourish:

  • Abundant food and water to feed the population
  • Water access:  Either a navigable river or seaport
  • Defense:  Hills, river bends, and offshore islands all protect the riches of the city.
  • Trade routes:  Trade is the lifeblood of the city and where routes meet or goods transfer, cities grow.

The first task for anyone mapping a city is to find a suitable site for the city.  On the map below, I’ve mapped the most likely places for a city to grow:

  1. Mouth of a Major River:  This is an ideal spot, and where we will put the largest city in the kingdom
  2. Trade Route Crossing:  There are major resources up both tributary rivers, as well as a quick route to the passes in the north.  Plus, the southern river provides clean water.
  3. Lowest Bridging Point:  This is the point closest to the ocean that a bridge can be built over the river
  4. Highest Navigation Point:  The point beyond which ships cannot travel.
  5. Passes:  Travelers often have to wait, and it’s natural for a city to form here.

I’ve chosen point 2 for Templeton, the second largest city in the kingdom.  It’s in the middle of farming country, has good water, access to trade, and a center of magical power.

Before leaving this map, I’m going to place a symbol for Templeton and put a little color around it to signify the farmlands around the city that directly serve it.  I often place a hyperlink in the map when I place the city symbol.  That allows me to go immediately from an area map to the specific map.

Now we’ll turn to working on the city itself.

Drawing the Locale

My country map, when magnified, looks like this to the right.  There’s not much detail!  We are so close to the area that the two rivers just look like lines.  And I haven’t put in much detail on the main map, so there is no other detail to show here.  So we’re going to work to detail it and we just need to make sure we respect the river routes.

The first task is to map the land on which the city sits.  If you want to make this easy on yourself, put the city on a flat piece of land.  My city grew on a small hill that rose above high flood marks on the river.  Over thousands of years of building and razing, the hill has grown to about 500 feet in height.  I like putting in the actual contours, as you can see on the map below, but you can just as easily just have the city sit on flat ground or denote where hills are.

Next, I’ll take the general lines of the rivers and draw rivers that look more like real rivers up close, and I get the following map:

Now we’re making good progress.  You can see that I added a lot more detail to the rivers, widened the top one, and added bends to the lower river as it crossed the plain.  I realized that the river at the top of the map should be wide enough that the far side no longer fits on the map.  That’s one advantage of making separate small and large-scale maps–you can add the detail that is appropriate.  I turned everything a little bit counter-clockwise as well to orient the city more squarely to my map.

Now before I go much further, I need to make sure that the scale that I’m working on is about right.  To do that, I need to know how much room the city will take up.

My rule of thumb is to have the cities be about 2% to 5% of the population of the land.  There are many good sourcebooks to determine population, but I’m going to use a feature of CC3, its ability to calculate an area, to determine the amount of farmland I have.  Using the Area command on the grassland of the regional map, I find that I have about 100,000 square miles of cultivated land.  If I use a figure of about 50 people per square mile, I get a total population of about 5 million souls for the kingdom.  Using a 2% city-dwellers figure, that gives me a total city population of about 100,000.  I want three cities, so I’ll put about 50,000 in the capital city on the coast, and split the rest between the two other cities.

Since this is the second city, I’ll make it about 30,000 people, a large city by medieval standards, and one where the population swells dramatically during festival weeks and important ceremonies.  So I’m going to pack the city densely, assuming that the permanent inhabitants will put in guest rooms and other buildings to take advantage of the wealth that visitors bring.

For the city itself, I usually use between about 80 and 150 city dwellers per acre, and 2-4 people per building.  Since this city gets an inswell of people during ceremonial days, I’m going to select 100 people per acre for the permanent population and put in as many buildings as possible.  So on ceremonial days, the city will have 200 people per acre, and be overcrowded.  The 30,000 people in this city need about 300 acres on which to live, which is a little less than ½ square mile.  And I’m going to pack more buildings in so it’s completely filled with buildings to house the periodic influx of visitors.

Outlining the City

Having the size and area of the city determined, I then draw a rough outline of the city.  Cities on ridges, like this one, tend to be linear, with anchor attractions at either end of the main road.  Cities on plains will expand along trade routes.  We’ll talk more about this as we detail the districts of the city.  For now, I’ll draw a lozenge shape on the city hill and check that it’s about the right size:

The area that I’ve shown is about ½ square mile, so it’s a good approximation for what I need.  Truth be told, when I first drew this area, it was about ½ the size I needed, but I liked the shape and where it was.  So I just scaled everything in the map by about 2x, and checked that the rivers mostly lined up (they did), and I had a map the size that I needed.  We’re gamers, so it’s important to have ways to get the results we need quickly from our tools.


Before leaving this phase of city design, we need to identify routes into the city, and any important details needed outside the city.  I also like to put in the city walls at this point.  By doing walls now, I often face the same constraints that city leaders probably face:  They put in the walls to contain expected growth and needs, but sometimes things don’t develop as planned.  When I find later that a wall is not where it would be most convenient, I can easily move it in the mapping tool.  At first, I try not to move the wall.  I try to find a different way to do what I need.  I find it often leads me to put in interesting features, such as the cattle market that only made sense if it were partly inside and outside a key city gatehouse.   That meant that while the market was going on, there was no way to close the gate, which gave characters some interesting tactical options.  Or the manor house that did not have enough room to expand, so they built up, and ultimate onto, the city wall, causing no end of problems and disputes.

The huge river north of the city periodically floods, so we’re going to put the main gate to the city at one of the higher points in the wall, to keep it out of floodwaters as much as possible.  That also keeps it away from the steeper patches at either end of the hills.

Once I’ve added in the walls, a few external features, and made a few text notes, the map looks like this:

Overall Feel

Before leaving the initial stages of city building, I like to step back a minute and look at the big picture.  If done right, this city will be a focal point for the campaign and many sessions.  It is worth thinking about the overall feel of the city, and about what will make it special.  Find some things that bring the city alive.  I’ve made cities full of flowing water and fountains.  The main city in this kingdom sits just above a huge waterfall.  Ptolus, Monte Cook’s beautiful city, has a waterfall and cliff in the middle.

For Templeton, the mythos of the world requires a set of strong temples on the high western hill.  In addition, I want to have a ‘city of the dead’ on the hills at the east of the town.  If the area around the city often floods, burying the dead above floodwaters might make sense.  Beyond these obvious things, I want the city to be very dense, with crooked streets and houses that encroach.  I envision a ruling body of priests who are more interested in otherworldly things than they are in keeping roads clear.  There should be lots of hawkers of religious trinkets and other wonders of the world.  So overall, this may look more like a romanticized eastern city than a quaint English town.

For now, that’s enough to go by.  Stay tuned for part II in which we will plan the districts of the city, place key points of interest and begin laying out roads and major buildings, taking into account the needs of glorious game play.

Urban Planning

By Steve Davies

If you’ve read our previous article, Mapping Cities 1, welcome back.  If you just joined us, look at that first article, or just follow along from here.  So far, we’ve found a place for the city, determined its size and laid out the general geography and boundaries.

Next, we’re going to add details to work up to an overview map of the city.

Major City Features

First, we need to place the major features of the city:  Points of interest, major districts, entry points, roads, and other trade points.  I generally cycle through these one by one, and continue going through the list until I am out of ideas.  I’ll place these items on the map as labels or symbols to guide my further development.  Here are some design considerations:

  • Points of interest:  This includes major buildings like courthouses, temples, and markets.  Include government, business, religious, and entertainment points of interest.  Usually a city will have all four types.
  • Major Districts:  I usually put in roughly one district per 1,000 people in the city.  Wealthier districts take up more space (they are less dense).  Put in labels for the districts if you have ideas, or leave them blank.  The more affluent districts will be at the center of the city and along the major thoroughfares.
  • Walls:  Walls are expensive to build, but cities are valuable.  Put in walls if the city is threatened, and expand the city outside the walls if there has been a period of peace.
  • Entry Points:  There should be a gate in the wall, or other way of collecting tolls, for every major direction from which people will enter the city.
  • Roads:  Roads will tend to parallel rivers and natural harbors; they will follow contours and attempt to rise evenly.  Ridges will push the city into a longer form, often with a castle or temple at either end of the main street.  On round hills, buildings cluster on top and roads tend to ring the hill.
  • Trade:  The city will thrive on trade.  Make sure there are enough markets to cover everything for sale.  But, don’t mix the cattle market in with the flowers, or even worse, ceramics and glass.


I like to lay out the major roads early.  The main things to think about here are terrain, connecting major points of interest together, and the amount and type of traffic.  This latter is important to determine how wide the road should be.  And remember, the homeowners on either side of the road will tend to crowd into it unless there is a strong controlling power.  So only put in smooth, straight roads if city leaders can enforce and protect the road space.

Having major town roads that are 50’ wide is not unusual, and the streets could be wider if merchants drive cattle or other large beasts along them.  Commerce will take place in the street, with vendors setting up awnings and booths to attract the passers-by, so the street scene will be unlike most modern cities.

This city, Templeton, is predominantly a religious center.  So I wanted a processional way that led from the main gate up to the temple mount.  As I looked at that, I liked it so much I thought I’d add a similar one to go down to the docks.  I decided that I wanted to have strong encroachment on the roads.  Putting a single road along the top of the ridge completed the major processional planning:

I still need to put in the smaller roads, side streets, alleys, and all the places where interesting things happen.  But I will add these as I detail the districts.  For now we are just getting the overall structure of the city in place.

You can see below that I’ve put in some places of interest and colored the different districts.  I usually leave those colors in place for later – it makes it easier later to see where one ward starts and another leaves off.  Ideally, I want to know or have an idea where each of the major pieces of the city will go:

  • Political:  Courthouses, meeting halls, legislative bodies, and ruler’s palaces. (Blue).
  • Wealthy:  The powerful elite usually cluster in the best areas. (Orange)
  • Manufacturing:  If there are specialties of the city, it’s good to know where these will be at the start.  Dangerous or smelly trades, like fireworks production or tanning, will often be outside the walls, and never in the upper class parts of the city. (Dark Green)
  • Religion:  Temples, religious councils, shrines, and other holy places are critical for any city. (Yellow).  In Templeton, religious power is geographically concentrated in Temple Mount.
  • Artistic:  If there are street performers, they can appear in the market.  But more established arts need theaters, galleries, and museums. (Purple)
  • Military:  From the town guard to navy, army, and overall militia, military units need to live and train somewhere. (Red)
  • Education:  Most cities attract a university or other high-level place of learning. (Orange)
  • Commercial:  In addition to markets, place specific trades.  In medieval cities, often tradesmen band together in one specific part of the city. (Lt Green)
  • Entertainment:  Whether it’s chariot races, gladiator arenas, or parks for leisurely strolls, the people will need a way to relax and celebrate. (Pink)
  • Slums:  I usually include these as their own ward.  Almost every city has them, where people who are struggling to survive live.  Some will leave the slums to work elsewhere in the city, and others will earn a legitimate (or not) living in the slum. (Brown)

For other areas I use grey, and I leave white the areas that I haven’t decided on.  If there are two similar districts next to each other, I often combine them into a single larger ward.  Sometimes I will put a divider in the middle (to divide social levels).

After a few passes through, here are two views of the city:

This is just an early view.  Before I finish, I put in known inns and taverns, famous merchants, mad fortunetellers, and anything else that strikes my fancy.  Often the map becomes crowded with text.  I use Campaign Cartographer’s ability to zoom and hide to keep everything orderly.

One thing to keep in mind is that cities rarely grow following an overall plan.  We will talk more about this when we detail the districts.  For now, it’s just useful to think a little about the character of each district and what it might be like.

Here is what we have so far:

As you can see, my layout of the roads interacts pretty strongly with my drawings of the districts.   That’s not unusual for me.  I’ll usually do a couple of passes through the map, adjusting roads, adding new places of interest, and adjusting the wards, until I have something that works.  With Campaign Cartographer, it’s easy to adjust things as I go.

I’m almost done with my planning.  I’ve placed the major roads, and also included a few side roads where I thought they should be.  I haven’t included every alley and building yet, but that will come in the next version of the map.

I’ve also put notes into the map to remind myself of key points for later.  For instance, there is one place that the major processional road narrows and goes around a tight turn as it heads uphill.  Everyone will have to slow at this corner, and I can imagine processions piling up and crowding at the point.  So I labeled it “Blasphemy Turn” as the name by which the locals know it.  In a future article, we’ll show you how to convert all these text labels into a table of links that will take you directly to that part of the map.

If You Can’t Decide

Relax.  City building is rarely clean.  There is usually a kind of logic to a city, but for every logical rule for laying out a city, one can readily find exceptions.  Here are a few of my rules-of-thumb:

  • Markets generate lots of traffic and taxes for the city.  If there is space, markets should be inside the city.  If space is at a premium (as in Templeton), put markets outside, starting with the livestock market, which needs space and is messy.
  • Put political buildings in the power center of the city.
  • Low-value manufacturing will flourish where living is cheap (outside the walls and in lower parts of the city); high value manufacturing that is clean (like jewelry production) will flourish in nicer areas.  Locate smelly manufacturing (like tanning) as far away as practical.
  • Religions that are in power will be in the center of the town.  Religions out of favor will be on the outskirts or banned completely.
  • Arts & entertainment can go anywhere, with their character matching their surroundings.
  • Military buildings might be in the center of the city, but more likely tied to fortification or other points of strategic importance.
  • Commerce happens throughout the city, with merchants often living above their stores.

If none of this helps, wait to determine where most things are.  Put in a couple of monuments, or a key building or two, and stop.  You’ll have many chances to come back to add detail later.

Gaming Check Point

You now have a high-level map of the city.  It has all of the major attractions, it has the major districts of the city, and it has the major roads.  It makes it easy for you to answer questions like, “Where’s the Senate building?”, or “Which road do I take to the castle?” You could give this map to players whose characters are new to the city.  This is also a map you can use when characters ask someone to describe the city or tell them what it’s like.

In short, the information on the map so far should be common knowledge for anyone who’s been in the city for more than a few days.

So take a minute and look at the map.  Does it have the things that players will ask for?  Is it clear?

If you haven’t put names of points of interest (and maybe even if you have), it’s probably worthwhile to put a legend on the map.  That will give you an easy reference when someone asks about a place of interest.

Final Planning

At this point, the city is starting to take shape.  We have most of the major points of interest placed.  We know where the walls, roads, and districts are.  We know the lay of the land and what we need to map.

It is worth thinking a little bit now about the character of the city and what will make it unique.

The beliefs and culture of the inhabitants of a city determine its character.  If the people are inwardly or family-focused, city blocks will shut out the outside world and face inward toward courtyards and family areas.  If the people are group-focused and outwardly focused, family houses and blocks will provide ample access and visibility to passersby.

The strength of the city’s government will also determine the form and structure of its streets.  Every property-owner has an interest in expanding his property, and one tempting way to do this is to expand into the street or over the street.  If city government is not strong, streets will become increasingly narrow and overhung with second floors that extend over the street.

If you’re following along, you probably have a good-looking map already.  Hopefully, you also have a file full of adventure ideas.  In the next article, we will begin detailing a district, to put your great ideas on the map.

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