City Features And Flavors

From Dariel Quiogue

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0146

City Features And Flavors

Re: RPT#0141 – City Services, Landmarks And Businesses In A Fantasy Setting

In issue #141, John Simcoe showed us how to add locations and institutions to a high-magic fantasy city. While thinking about how to use the article, visions of cities I’d been to or vicariously explored through the pages of National Geographic came to mind, and I started thinking of how to give my fantasy cities their own unique flavors.

Since I’m a very visual person, I rely a lot on visual descriptions. Thinking on Simcoe’s article produced list of features below I would try to describe when taking my players on a tour of a city that exists only in my head.


Where is the city built and why is it there? What kind of scenery surrounds it? How does one get there?

Some ideas:

  1. The city is built on the coast or beside a river. The main activity is trade. The city has many busy wharves, perhaps divided into some for merchantmen or cargo barges, another for fishermen, and another for military use.Vistas: forests of masts, noisy flocks of seabirds squabbling over floating garbage, bustling waterfronts, small fishing boats coming in at dawn with their catch.
  2. The city is built at a crossroads. The main activity is trade, borne by caravans. The city must have the means to resupply these caravans, especially in terms of food, water, and fodder for the pack animals, so in a desert country this means having access to wells or a river, and some nearby farmland.Vistas: exotic bazaars, strings of pack animals going in and out of the gates, caravansaries consisting of housing and yards for the animals, people of many different races and cultures mingling.
  3. The city is built at a holy site. The city and its non- priest populace exist to serve the main temple or shrine and its regular stream of visitors. The site may or may not be easily accessible. If the people believe the gods reside in the mountains, a holy city may be set in a remote highland valley.Vistas: awe-inspiring terrain, large and impressively built temples, men or women in the signature garb of priests or monks everywhere, streams of supplicants making prayers and offerings.
  4. The city is a military stronghold/border outpost guarding a major road, pass, or port. Often the city will look out over land where hostiles live, such as between farmland and nomad-haunted steppes, or on the edge of a forest where orcs or barbarians are known to dwell. The city is dominated by fortifications and garrisons, and the non-military populace live there to serve the needs of the garrison.Vistas: high walls, claustrophobic streets and interiors, armored or uniformed soldiery everywhere.


How is the city laid out? Are the streets straight or crooked? Would it be easy or difficult to navigate this city and find a given location even if you’ve never been there before? Does the city show evidence of planning, or did it grow haphazardly? City layout is largely determined by culture, terrain, and the purpose for which the city was built.Some ideas:

  1. The city is largely unplanned. Everybody builds just about anywhere they please. Streets are winding and narrow with many dead ends. Each district has limited access to things like water and sanitation. The city is often sharply divided into a “high” and “low” city, the high city being the centers of government, religion or commerce, while the low city is the residential district for the laborers and the poor. The low city is sometimes called the “foulburg”–and it is!
  2. The city is built in mountainous or hilly terrain. There are many zigzag or winding streets on the slopes, and perhaps stairs for pedestrians on the steepest slopes. The most important buildings will mostly cluster at the highest places, while the common folk live on the lower slopes.
  3. The city is a result of meticulous planning and follows a standard design set by the culture. For example, Chinese cities are always quadrangular, walled, with streets laid out in a gridwork pattern, and the main gate always faces south (following the rules of feng shui). The city may even be partitioned into wards by interior walls, which makes it easier to control and defend.
  4. The city is built for defense. It is surrounded by high, thick walls, and since a smaller area is easier to defend, the city is compressed into as narrow a space as possible. Streets tend to be narrow and buildings built tall to compensate. Well-planned city-fortresses also tend to be partitioned into wards.
  5. The city is built on a marsh or river delta, like Venice or Hangchow. Buildings are raised on small islands, often built up with earth and rubble, and canals often take the place of streets. The existing streets are joined with bridges.
  6. The city was expressly built to serve as the capital of a wealthy nation or region. The city is meant to be a showcase of its people’s taste and artistic ability, and a statement of the wealth, power and refinement of its ruler. The city has a formal layout, and has been beautified with grand buildings, carefully placed statuary, fountains, gardens, and venues for cultural activities such as theaters. The Greeks and Romans were especially conscious of this in building their cities.

Architectural Signatures

Every culture has its own “signature” architectural style. Often we can identify the culture to which a building belongs just by its appearance. These native styles are fast-vanishing art treasures, so remembering them and using them in our games may help, in our own little way, of keeping our heritage alive. And then there are the possibilities open to fantasy cultures.

Elves might be able to shape living trees while an aquatic race might fashion bubble-buildings by magic.Skyline: what does the city’s skyline look like? The tops of buildings often have a unique look from culture to culture, from their materials, their forms, and their design details.

For example:Mid and Near East: flat roofs, domes, slender spires, and minarets.Far East: steep-sided saddle-shaped roofs, porcelain tiles, peak and eave ornaments in the form of dragons or other mythical creatures for good fortune and protection vs. evil spirits, pagodas.

Other ideas:

  • The city is completely hidden from above by tall trees.
  • The city is made up of a single enormous building.
  • The city is made up of identical buildings.
  • The city is tropical and everything is made of light materials like bamboo and thatch.

Doorways: arched, square, tall or squat, wide or narrow, or oddly shaped?

Design motifs: recurrent design elements unique or representative of the culture. These motifs often come from the culture’s mythology.

For example:

Mid and Near East (Islamic): ornamental inscriptions, twining vine and flower designs (arabesques), use of precious and semiprecious stones in inlays, use of metal sheathing on domes and spires, intricate geometric designs.

Far Eastern: serpent-like dragons, odd beasts that combine features of several different creatures, moon arches, calligraphic inscriptions, use of loud colors, standard- sized buildings based on the number of tatami mats that fit inside.


The “feel” of a city can be expressed through visual details as well.Playing a dark fantasy game? Build up on things that elicit negative emotion. Visitors to the city may find the inhabitants to be furtive or apathetic. Streets and buildings are grimy, vermin are everywhere, walls are splattered with waste and graffiti, and no one seems to care.How about a mystical, otherworldly elven tree city? Cathedral-like spaces, surrounded by very tall and obviously very ancient trees, hauntingly beautiful art everywhere… (yep, I am describing Lothlorien!).


Street names and house numbers are mainly a modern, Western thing. You can make your cities more exotic by using different ways of giving an address. Without a formal system of addressing in place, it will probably be very easy to get lost in any city, and a traveller will have to rely a lot on the direction-giving abilities of the locals.Some ideas:British addresses.

There are still many holdovers in British urban place names from before the modern street name/building number system was adopted with references to courts, mews, -side, etc. These names come from building groups or from references to nearby landmarks. Districts might get nicknames that over time become widely recognized and used by everyone to refer to that place.Japanese addresses are based on the partitioning of a city into wards. Each ward has its own name (-machi).

Laws and Customs

The observance of unique laws and customs can also lend flavor to a city, making it feel more picturesque and exotic to your players.Some ideas:

  1. Certain kinds of animals are forbidden from being taken into the city. Perhaps horses, oxen, camels and the like are not allowed; people inside the city thus get around only by walking, or perhaps in palanquins borne by bearers-for- hire or slaves. There might be a religious edict against dogs, so no dogs are allowed inside the walls. People show respect to holy sites and buildings by making some sort of sign–crossing themselves, bowing, etc. This might be required, or it may be a voluntary expression of piety by a devout people.
  2. Everyone is required to bow or avert their eyes when an important personage passes. Remember the story of Aladdin and how he first saw the princess?
  3. Traffic may only flow in a certain direction; traffic that flows widdershins or in any unlucky direction is not allowed.

City Routine And Calendar

If your PCs are going to visit a city regularly, you can make it feel more authentic if you give it a believable routine.Daily Routine: what is typically happening in the city at various times of day? What kinds of people do you find on the street at a given time and place? For example, in a seaside city it is common to find fishermen coming in at or before dawn from night fishing.

This could have implications for what PCs can get away with and when.For example, your players decide to sneak an important personage out of a hostile city in a nightsoil cart, but they forget that nightsoil collectors are only allowed to ply the streets late at night when their malodorous cargoes will upset the least number of people.

Seasonal Routine: are there any seasonal festivals or fairs? When do they happen? What do they celebrate? What happens during these occasions? Maybe you could throw in a Mardi Gras-like festival for your players to whoop it up and hopefully get into some sort of trouble…

Tips Request: NPC Sub-Plots

Peter Whitley responded to a tips request many issues ago and sent in a chart of NPC sub-plots. I was thinking it would be cool to round it off at an even 100. So, if you have any sub-plots to add to this chart, send your ideas in to: [email protected]

I’ll republish the completed chart when it hits the magic 100 entry mark.

NPC Sub-Plots d100

  1. Is feuding with neighbor over grazing rights.
  2. Has an unhealthy obsession with another person.
  3. Is a failed adventurer with much emotional baggage, who seeks to sabotage other adventurers.
  4. Is a shrewd negotiator, but offers extremely valuable information in trade for new information.
  5. Is quiet, brooding, and short tempered due to medical problems.
  6. Is a pacifist who tries to convert the party to the ways of nonviolence.
  7. Has a racial enemy.
  8. Fears being alone because of a recent incident.
  9. Is collecting parlor games from across the lands.
  10. Tries to recruit the PCs for some incredibly mundane task (i.e. labourer) regardless of PC objections.
  11. Knows of “lots of great adventures” that are, unfortunately, all dead ends.
  12. Is a historian, but all the facts are invented (compulsive liar).
  13. Is a travelling madam with company, seeking new employees and better (richer) company.
  14. Is recruiting for the military or special guild.
  15. Is an outcast for forgotten crimes.
  16. Is collecting donations for a charitable fund.
  17. Is looking for a particular person with critical spell information.
  18. Is on a secret military mission.
  19. Is in disguise (for reasons real or imaginary).
  20. Imagines he/she is a ghost in spite of attempts to contradict.
  21. Believes (loudly) that wealth should be spread among all the citizens and tries to redistribute the PCs’ wealth.
  22. Is paranoid and protective of his/her town.
  23. Is tracking down a villain and vows to kill him/her/it.
  24. Is a wandering amateur chef looking for new recipes and ingredients.
  25. Is good-aligned and has recently run away from evil parents.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Better Game Climaxes

From Todd Landrum

[Comment from Johnn: Todd and I were batting around ideas for finishing campaigns and stories on an exciting, tension- filled note. Here are some of the ideas we came up with– maybe you have a few tips of your own?]

I’m having trouble with the grande-finale battles in my game. The PCs spend multiple gaming sessions working their way through the dungeon, they finally find that priest of Orcus, we have the big battle, the players are victorious, and then…”Yawn. OK, what’s next.”

No hoorays. No celebration.

Or even worse, the players are paying half-attention during the big battle. This should be exciting, edge of your seat, finally-my-goal-is-in-sight type stuff but I can’t seem to pull it off.

I talked this over with my gaming buddies and we had the following ideas, and would enjoy hearing more:

Physically, The GM Has To Make It Different

If you want this climax to be different, then it is up to the GM to differentiate this battle from other battles. The GM can put on special music, dim the lights, use a special battle map, have special figures, or use other ideas. All of these will physically make this climactic battle different than the others.

The GM Has To Pull Out All The Tricks In His Bag

The GM wants this big battle to be memorable so it’s up to the GM to make it memorable. You’ll want to use your best NPC voice, your best maniacal laugh, get out of your chair and strut around, be intense.

Or think of it this way: you want the PCs to take this battle as something special. To make that happen, the GM will have to do something special. The climactic battle requires the GM to be at the very top of his game.

Be Blunt

Make absolutely sure your players know this is the climactic battle. Don’t hint at it, be blunt and come right out and say it:

“After fighting your way through the dungeon, battling nefarious monsters, the priest of Orcus finally stands in front of you. Your chance to end his evil reign is finally at hand. Will you be up to the challenge? Can your Good overcome his Evil? With a maniacal laugh the priest shouts out, ‘You’ll never defeat me. Your god is weak!’ and he begins casting a spell…”

Graphic of section divider

Tips from Johnn

Reveal A Bigger Threat

If the PCs yawn, have the villain’s boss make his presence known so the PCs learn things aren’t over yet. This might make them pause, celebrate their current victory a bit, and then start the next stage.

Create A Series Of Challenges Instead Of One Big Finale

Instead of creating a single, final battle, consider instead a series of battles. Hollywood does this. The villain is finally overcome but then the hero must still swim through the shark pool to reach the off-switch in time before the Big Bad Event happens. This approach is effective because it draws the tension out. Hollywood has also been known to bring the villain back again and again during the final parts of a movie though, so sometimes this idea backfires.

There are a couple of possible approaches with this tip:

  1. Defeat the villain and then clean up all the remaining threats in a series of encounters.
  2. Clean up a series of threats and then finally confront the villain.

Create Twists & Surprises

Players enjoy surprises. i.e. the villain suddenly reveals his Ultimate Golem(tm) as a barrier the PCs must deal with first, or perhaps reveals a surprise hostage.

Return As Heroes

Celebration and praise are important. The PCs should have some way to return to the world and bask in the glory of victory. This is a mythical step ripped straight from Joseph Campbell, and it works. Before the final villain confrontation, sow a bunch of seeds that the PCs could reap after they’ve killed the bad guy.

  • Winning a bet and collecting on it.
  • The guy gets the girl.
  • The PCs turn in all the villain’s gold to finally buy their castle.
  • The town throws a celebration bash.
  • Rivals step forward and admit their respect.

These things can help create tension and/or closure. ]

Graphic of section divider

Player Meta-Gaming Tricks

From Joeri T.

Reading the anti-player meta-game tips, I was appalled at the underhandedness of some GMs to suppress such behaviour. As a GM and player I think meta-game thinking is a great tool. I often give NPCs tale-telling names and I relish the fact when my players have figured out the scores of their opponent. It all depends on the way one looks at it.

For players, I have the following tips if they like to use meta-game information:

  • Keep the information to yourself and use it to your greatest advantage. If you know a monster’s weakness, first “try out” some fighting techniques that DON’T work, then “find out” what its weakness is and use game time to convey it to your comrades.
  • GMs like help, so convey only to him that you know what is REALLY going on and DON’T use it until it is nearly too late for your comrades and “save” the day…
  • Many maps are symmetrical: use it to help you discover what lies ahead, but don’t blurt it out, simply deduce what you can and only use the info at critical times. Things like traps, secret doors and strong points (guard rooms and the like) have their own place in every setting.
  • Names of NPCs often tell the story for you, especially in games where there’s a foreign language involved (LotR games for instance). The ultimate bad guy isn’t going to be called “Reeks of Daffodils,” and the King’s first knight that the GM planned to have around as a Deus Ex Machina will not be called: “Dark Destroyer”.
  • Most GMs handle things with the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. Although a plot might be complicated, every shackle in the chain towards the goal will be simple. Figure it out using the following technique:
    1. Go to every place that’s usually important: the temple, the fort, the bar, the shop, the leader and the rumour monger.
    2. Collect what clues you can and write them down.
    3. Visit all the places the standard clue providers have pointed out.
    4. Go to step one and do it all over again until you get what you came for.Never forget to think ahead and find any shortcuts!
Graphic of section divider

Creating Character Depth

From Travis B.

re: RPT#0145 – 10 PBEM Etiquette Tips For Beginner Players

In response to Jason W’s tips, I would love to add a little tip I use for character depth. I try not to force my players to think up their character’s personality at creation time as they often play the PC differently anyway and it slows things down too much. I believe players learn about their characters as they play them. They see an event, respond to it, and then learn from what happens.

I ask one question before each game to give them some insight but not drain their creativity for the rest of the evening.

Some of the questions are:

  1. What does your character do on his birthday?
  2. What does your character consider his hobbies to be?
  3. What does your character enjoy most?
  4. What dreams does your character have for the future?
  5. What’s your characters favourite colour and why?

Almost any kind of small talk question is suitable. Even when a player does not have an answer they’ll think about it over the next couple of days or for the rest of the evening. Quite often that helps identify the ego of their PC for them and they start to enjoy the creative process of building up their character.

Graphic of section divider

PBeMs: Write In Third Person, Present Tense

From Brandon B.

re: RPT#0145 – 10 PBEM Etiquette Tips For Beginner Players

I have been playing in PBEMs for some years now, and I’ve also GM’ed a few. Although I have experimented with other points of view, third person *present* tense is almost universal in the games I have seen.

“John goes”, not “John went”. [Jeff W. also wrote in with the same tip–thanks Jeff!]

Graphic of section divider

Think About Magic During Fantasy Culture Design

From Russell G.

A lot has been written recently about designing cultures. I have skimmed it, so I may have already missed this, but here goes anyway:

When designing a culture where magic is present, think about how magic will affect it. If more than a powerful few at the top have access to magic the world may be greatly affected by it. Think about how the fabric of the society may be altered. After all, not all magicians will necessarily be adventurers–they may put their talents to more mundane uses. They may be the engineers of their time–underpaid, under-used, and misunderstood.

For example:

  • Extra long bridges strengthened by magic.
  • Telephone style communication (allowing larger kingdoms and more centralisation of power).
  • More potential for long distance travel (what if everyone with a bit of cash owned giant’s step boots?).
  • Maybe large numbers of low-level mind readers work as the police?
  • Perhaps there is even a broadcasting network, just like TV?

Finally, does technology work with, or against magic? Or is technology suppressed, a la the Darksword trilogy.