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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #418

4 City Building Tips: Give cities flavour with districts



This Week's Tips Summarized 

4 City Building Tips: Give cities flavour with districts

  1. Divide Your City Into Chunks
  2. Give Each District A "Capital City"
  3. Give Each District Personality
  4. Create Distinct Encounter Tables For Each District
  5. Districts In My Campaign

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Style Counts With Bards
  2. Card-Based Homebrew System
  3. Dancing Plague Idea
  4. Online Sources Of Maps

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

Lose The Eraser With Turn Watcher

Turn Watcher(tm) is an easy to use Initiative and Effect Tracker for table-top RPG dungeon masters. It tracks spells and other effects, alerting you when those effects expire, automates temporary hit points and hit point boosts, tracks PCs, NPCs and monsters easily during combat rounds, and handles delayed and readied actions in a snap. Use it to perform secret Spot and Listen checks and even Will saves on your players without them being the wiser. Download your copy today!

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Get On The Guest Authors Topics List

I've put together an in-house mailing list of bloggers, writers, and RPG fans interested in writing for the Roleplaying Tips e-zine. I receive great topic requests from readers, but I'm sometimes too swamped to get to the topic right away. When this happens, I mail the opportunity to the guest authors list and anyone can scoop the article, first come first served. Deadlines are negotiable and I'm always just an e-mail away for support.

This is a great way to hone your writing skills, promote your website, and help thousands of game masters around the globe have more fun at every game.

If you are interested in being added to my guest authors list, send me an e-mail.

Reuse Mage Knight and HeroClix Minis For Your RPGs

I have a box of old Mage Knight minis that are too big for use on my 1" grid battlemats. The minis are excellent, and I've always thought it a shame they couldn't be used to scare PCs off the edge of the maps.

However, I stumbled across a neat tip and I think I might have my solution:

About halfway down the thread, Agent Oracle writes, "For best effect, snap them off their bases, and glue them to a bit of 1" posterboard." Voila! Awesome idea - one that I'm going to use.

Thanks again for your awesome community of helpful gamers.

Have a great week - try to fit a game session in it!


Johnn Four,


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4 City Building Tips: Give cities flavour with districts  

By Johnn Four

1. Divide Your City Into Chunks 

Cities are large beasts that can intimidate GMs trying to plan and design them. There are so many people, locations, and things to think about it makes a GM cry in his battlemat. However, a successful, time-tested approach is ye old divide and conquer. Break your city into digestible chunks and plan one chunk at a time.

The obvious city chunk is the district. Grab your city map and divide the area into sections. These will be your districts.

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This planning method also provides great session structure for your city adventure or campaign. If you are a typical game master who fleshes out the setting while the campaign is being played, then you will want to keep the PCs interested in sticking around the parts of the city you've detailed so far.

So, when you sit down to plan next game, what should you do? Answer: design hooks and encounters that play up the desired locations you want PCs to visit. Perfect planning guidance.

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If you're looking for a new angle on districts, try this list for inspiration:

  • Neighbourhoods
  • Wards
  • Burroughs
  • Cantons
  • Diocese
  • Precincts
  • Quarters
  • Sectors
  • Turf
  • Zones

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2. Give Each District A "Capital City" 

Many worlds are divided into countries, and each country has a capital city. This location is the administrative centre for its region. Laws, politics, budgets, policies, organization, and big decisions come out of this place.

A capital city is often a cultural and community epicentre as well. It will have a higher population density than other region locations, and leading trends, social issues, and ideas will emerge regularly to influence other parts of the country and the world.

Most important, at least for gaming purposes, is that capital cities are power bases. They are natural breeding grounds for the biggest conflicts, toughest villains, and neediest victims. They attract wealth, challengers, ambition, and struggle.

If you give each of your districts some kind of capital, your city will inherit all these benefits as well - and not just once, but for every district. This opens up all kinds of awesome plot and encounter possibilities, in addition to great city design guidance.

Here are some example ways you can give your districts a capital city-type location:

  • Multi-story building
  • Underground hanger or cavern
  • Huge warehouse
  • Palace or castle
  • Tower
  • Section of the sewers
  • An intersection (great example: Gangs of New York movie)
  • An open square between buildings (great example: The Wire TV show)
  • A park
  • A maze-like section
  • Large church
  • Guild hall of a powerful guild
  • A section of the docks
  • Cemetery
  • Hidden area
  • A special inn
  • A restaurant
  • Tavern

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3. Give Each District Personality 

While thumbing through The DM Campaign Record from Goodman Games this week (an excellent product, btw), I spotted an NPC personality table with 20 entries. Instantly, I thought this chart would make a great tool for assigning a basic personality to each district in the city I'm building for my current campaign.

This leads to the tip of applying the methods you use for crafting great NPCs to build interesting districts as well.

Give city sections:

  • Quirks
  • Goals, motives, and dreams
  • Alignments
  • Fears
  • Loyalties
  • Prejudices
  • Jealousies

In addition, you can add personality to districts with:

  • Terrain
  • Age, history
  • Weather
  • Population density
  • Architecture style
  • Leadership type
  • Conflict type(s)

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If you think weather might be a far-fetched way to make city districts interesting and distinct, do not worry. When I lived in Vancouver, various sections of the city would have "signature" weather and different weather all the time, even though Vancouver has much smaller land area than many other cities.

For example, the North Shore area receives about twice as much rain - as much as a rain forest some years - as any other part of the city, and far less sun. Also, fog would regularly creep up the channel, sometimes climbing higher than office buildings downtown, though it would be clear and sunny in other areas.

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Goodman Games DM Campaign Record

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4. Create Distinct Encounter Tables For Each District 

To further enhance and communicate the personality of your districts, craft custom random encounter tables for each.

Aim for a 7/2/1 ratio:

7 entries of regular folk who live and work in the area
2 entries of visitors from other districts
1 entry for something unusual

If the PCs see or meet the same types of folk over the course of a few sessions, the district's personality will soon take hold in players' minds. In addition, this becomes a handy tool players will use to orient themselves and envision each district better.

After awhile, these regular encounters can become pillars for your plots and encounters. For example, the unusual entries will stick out due to the high contrast - and you won't need to make a big deal of it to get the players to notice. The regular folk become the baseline and player expectation, giving you an opportunity to play with that as an encounter design or NPC design opportunity.

The DM Campaign Record mentioned earlier has a chart for NPC Social Class/Occupation that worked well for my campaign's district encounter charts.

A twist on this idea is to create typical encounters based not just on who the NPCs are, but on what the NPCs are doing.

For example, a business district will have a lot of merchants. So, you craft a chart with 14 different types of merchants the PCs will typically encounter, 4 visitor types from neighbouring districts, and 2 unusual NPCs (these entries actually point to a sub-chart of several unusual NPC options).

However, you realize you have three merchant areas in your city, and you decide that crafting three separate charts with 42 total merchant types is either unrealistic for your city, or a pain in the butt.

Instead, you design:

  • Merchant district 1: merchants do business in a shared, open area, are aggressive, and yell out advertisements and enticements.
  • Merchant district 2: merchants dwell in separate buildings and shops, and quiet window shopping is the norm.
  • Merchant district 3: merchants are living infomercials, offering free demonstrations, free samples, and operate out of demonstration booths in a trade show-like area.

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5. Districts In My Campaign 

The city I'm currently designing for my D&D campaign is called Carnus. It has 6 districts, each governed by a powerful warlord. Rather than dividing the city up according to function (i.e. merchants area, temples area, law and administration area, slums, etc.) I'm putting all the typical city elements into each district. Each district is sort of like a mini city and fairly self-sufficient. District 1 has merchants, rich, poor, barracks, the warlord's base, and so on, as do Districts 2-6.

Oddly enough, I'm using the Trivial Pursuit board game as inspiration for Carnus. The city is roughly round and districts are somewhat pie shaped. I'm using the board as a mapping of the political structure, but I haven't found a use yet for the player pie pieces (do you have any ideas?).

Each district's personality is based loosely on the categories of the Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition:

  • Geography: blue
  • Entertainment: pink
  • History: yellow
  • Art & Literature: brown
  • Knowledge and nature: green
  • Sport & Leisure: orange

I'm basing the "capital city" of each district on the flavour of the category:

  • Blue: Huge palace (multi-cultural)
  • Pink: Theatre
  • Yellow: Old, maze-like castle
  • Brown: University
  • Green: Park
  • Orange: Gladiatorial arena

In each of these locations are open or secret areas where the elite of each district conduct their (un)lawful business. For example, the theatre is a large building over 100 years old. It is the pride and joy of local residents and the focal point of the district's culture and social venues. However, in the back offices and in a secret area high above in the rafters (known as The Heavens) the rich and powerful conduct their business and engage in deadly political manoeuvres.

Carnus has only one official capitol, but each district's "capital city" serves as interesting, conflict-ridden, local power bases sure to spawn numerous plots that will entangle the PCs.

For encounter tables, I'm using the table straight out of The DM Campaign Record from Goodman Games, but tweaking results depending on what district the PCs are in:

  • District colours theme clothing and buildings.
  • District theme and leadership style tinges personality and interaction style/type.

Example: District 1 is nearly a police state, while District 2 has a strong code of honour. So, a lamplighter in District 1 will glare suspiciously at the PCs and report unusual behaviour unless discouraged.

A lamplighter in District 2 will perform his job with pride and skill, and if his honour is questioned or tarnished by a PC, he'll immediately head to The Hall of Champions and hire a champion for one hour to duel the offending PC.

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Style Counts With Bards 

From: BardicKnowledgeable

Hello Johnn,

I was looking back through the Roleplaying Tips archives, when the title of Issue #206 caught my eye: 6 Bard Tips. I wondered how in the world I missed that one, bard being my favored class, so I opened it up and savored every word of the article.

Roleplaying Tips Issue #206

Toward the end, you requested some reader response in regard to our personal ideas on how to properly play and DM bards. The thing to remember about bards is they have a myriad of options available to them for dealing with any given situation, and often their unorthodox methodology can prove more effective than some of the standard actions that more focused classes specialize in.

A quick mind and a vast imagination are the most potent tools in any bard's shed. They do not need to be grand socialites or schmoozing charlatans to have a place in the party. An illusion that scares a fleeing thief off the roof of a three-story building is much more interesting and useful than simply peppering him with arrows.

A bard carries a whip not to damage enemies but to pull off stylish and devastating maneuvers, such as swinging across a chasm in egress, to pull down a top-heavy statue onto foes, to block an avenue of attack, to trip, to disarm, and to beguile his enemies in ways that damage more than their hit points.

A bard has the ability to know practically anything, at any time, and should avail himself of that resource. And, when it comes down to fisticuffs, a bard can always two-hand that longsword and come up swinging.

As a player, realize that the bard can be your best friend if played with panache. As a DM, realize that a single, cleverly played bard can add much to your games, so accommodate him accordingly without forgetting the other characters in the party.

Thanks for years of tips, Johnn.

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Card-Based Homebrew System 

From: Mark of the Pixie

re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #413

[Comment from Johnn: Mark hinted at his homebrew system that uses cards in issue #413. I asked him for details and he sent the information below. Mark hopes to post his game rules online someday, but for now, hopefully this info answers readers' questions I've received since publishing that issue.]

My homebrew card system basically works like this.

  • System uses a normal deck of cards marked from +3 to -3 (in a rough bell curve). Red Jokers are a +5 Critical success. The Black Joker is a -5 Critical fail.
  • Each round all the players draw two cards each. They then decide on their "Action" (punch, drive, cast spell, shoot, sneak, etc.) and choose which card they are putting on it. The other card is put on their "Reaction" (block, dodge, notice, etc). This gives the players a lot of choice (unless they get two kings, in which case they are just screwed). All of the randomness of the "to hit" and "damage" etc. are condensed into the one card draw: Attacker's Stat + Card Value - Defenders Stat = level of success = damage.
  • Players can chose to do a Dedicated Reaction (or Action) and put both cards on their Reaction (or Action), but they lose their Action (or Reaction). The most common example is forsaking attack to do a dedicated dodge (Dedicated Reactions get an extra +1). They can also spend Will to get +2 to an action or to halve damage.
  • Multiple actions are done just by dividing success. i.e. If you have 3 successes, you can split that into a success of 2 and a success of 1, or three successes of 1 each. For doing different things (i.e. shooting and driving) use the lowest stat. Groups get bonuses, so there is no penalty for defending against multiple attackers (this means a horde of 20 orcs can easily be treated as a single character or as four "5 orc" characters and swapped back and forth as needed).
  • Actions all happen at once, in order of lowest action to highest action. This means that each rounds ends with the most successful action, which really adds to the drama. It's all happening at once means that if your PC gets KO'd by the bad guy "before" your attack, the attack still goes off as you are going down.

One of the big advantages with this system is the GM never needs to draw a card. This leaves me to focus on story and description of events without having to stop and roll a "to hit" for each orc. I can just choose which PC to attack based on who has the lowest Reaction or as the story dictates. I find this runs faster, smoother, and has a lot less bookkeeping for the GM than the traditional "you roll your to hit, while I roll for all the monsters."

I have used the same system with very little variation to do classic high fantasy, kung fu action, cyberpunk, horror, superheroes, space mecha, etc. I have used it to run combats between fleets of starships and between monstrous armies as easily as between characters. A complex group combat between the PCs and several unique monsters would normally take about an hour.

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3. Dancing Plague Idea 

From: Bobby Nichols

I saw this article about a strange affliction and thought immediately about its use in RPGs.

In a high magic campaign it probably wouldn't be that exciting, but imagine its effects on a low-magic campaign? A campaign where a potion of healing is a big deal?

Perhaps it is some sort of magical plague? I can see PCs avoiding that area like, um, the plague if they didn't have curative magic, or at least divination magic, to determine what was going on.

And in a sci-fi campaign? The PCs come to a world to retrieve something (the mythical McGuffin) and there is an outbreak of a psychogenic plague. Tradition is that these outbreaks are sent by the computer/gods/evil overlords and thus not to be messed with. Of course, the McGuffin is in the plague's area somewhere.

In a superhero game, the heroes might be tasked to keep people from hurting themselves. And goodness forbid a villain be caught in the plague!

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4. Online Sources Of Maps 

From: Bryan Ray (via GMMastery Yahoo Group)

The Dundjinni User Creations forums are a very good source of objects.

RPGMapShare has hundreds of maps of varying quality. And even more objects to populate those maps.

The GM's Apprentice is the host of a massive, organized art collection called the CSUAC. I don't know what that acronym stands for, but it's almost 700 MB worth of art, free of charge.

And, the Cartographers' Guild, where most of the mapmakers are very free to share their work with GMs in need of a good map. Also note that there is a map requests forum there, in case you need something specific and don't mind either waiting a while or paying for it.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

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