On Cities, Part I

There are established resources for crawling through dungeons. There are many different resources for handling Hexcrawls.

How is handling a city explored?

I've been thinking about this a lot, because I like to run games where the players drive the action.

We can explain away dungeons and wilderness away with ancient lands and magic. But cities are built and lived in by human like creatures. Someone you can talk to has to be there.

This is important, because it places certain guidelines on urban areas that don't exist for our other adventure options. We can ignore these guidelines for a large adventure site, like Waterdeep, because hey giant fantasy city. What we can't do is ignore it for dozens of cities or more across a campaign world.

These guidelines are that people have to eat.

Either a city must be entirely self-sustaining, or it must be near enough to a place that produces food. This means that city/hamlet placement is almost entirely dictated by the distance a family can travel in a full day. A larger city must be supported by a smaller network of cities at one-half that distance. This central city would support a market for hamlets who could not produce enough to feed themselves. In medieval times this distance was approximately 4 miles, and expanded as roads and transportation became better.

Another options is a non-agrarian society. Either one that is a hunter-gatherer or a nomadic people. Hunter-gathering societies can be static (although small) in very resource rich environments, such as jungles. The difference between the two population densities is pretty significant. Hunter-gatherer or dry-farming societies are going to range 2-.02 people per square mile.[2][3][4] Settled agrarian lands will be somewhere between 30 to 120 people per square mile. These are minimums and maximums, the upper extreme is rarely reached. Nearly all of these people will be located in population centers a few miles from each other.

This means in a civilized area, a single six mile hex, you will have:
  • Usually at least 1 fort or small castle
  • a large city
  • at least two smaller hamlets, up to 8, averaging about 4
In an uncivilized area, a single six mile hex, you will have:
  • Several ruins
  • one or two small population centers (up to about 50 people)
  • Up to 6 alpha predator monster lairs
Each of these has different requirements for adventurers and gameplay. What's more is that such areas must be civilized, meaning patrolled or primarily monster free.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the cities must be human. Nonhumans in resource rich societies might be considered (or have population levels of "agrarian") if there are enough natural resources. Fishing and hunting and natural edible foods could keep a bullywug village of a fairly large size fed, considering the reduced calorie requirements of 4 foot tall cold-blooded amphibians compared to humans. So the uncivilized hexes could support much larger populations if there was some trade or if some form of sustainable agriculture were practiced. Also, it's a fantasy world. Populations could be more dense for a lot of reasons. Although verisimilitude isn't the goal, there should be at least a nod to how everyone manages to live day to day.

I am not so much interested in matching some historical accuracy or real world verisimilitude, nor calculating minutia, such as trade tables and fluctuating costs of goods. There are several resources that automate that process along with providing insight into historical populations[1]. I'm not concerned with running a city or country, or any sort of domain management issues. I'm only interested in exploration and how a city works for players. Realism is not the goal here, players will usually kill half of anyone anyway and set the rest of the town on fire.

What I'm interested in are the procedures for interesting gameplay.


Only a few items have ever been published about exploring or developing cities. Vornheim (which is the best), along with the recent series of articles by Justin Alexander about Urbancrawling. That series provides a rather comprehensive overview of city design to date. Earlier resources are in general less useful providing only the vaguest outline of procedures, such as Lankhmar, City State, and Judge's Ready Ref Sheets.  


The core of this question is what is the in-game purpose of a civilization center. Full stop. The answer to this question is dependent on the context. The city outside Numenhalla is a menu—a literal menu of activities. That is its purpose. There's no adventure there, the adventure is in the dungeon. The purpose of a city like Plotus, City-State, Dresden, Vampire, et. al. is that the entire campaign takes place within it. Those cities themselves are designed in the products that allow you to adventure in them. 

I'm curious about the picaresque exploration of a fantasy landscape. My concerns are what is of interest to the players and the overhead of whatever is presented will continue to exist. This requires looking at what players are going to want to do inside a city that exists in a hexcrawl.

  • Is there a X shop?
  • Is the town bypassable, dangerous? How will our arrival be received?
  • Who of import lives in the town? 
  • What religions and languages are spoken in the town?
  • What do the townspeople have?
  • Where can I rest?
  • What does the town have in the way of supplies?
  • Are there any quests or adventure seeds?
  • What does the town have to offer me?
  • What's the punishment for a crime?
  • Why am I not bored? i.e. what is of interest, individual, or unique about the village?
This contains the core of what players are going to want to do in these picturesque villages, hamlets, and towns, that they find along the way. I've already devoted and am refining a way of presenting that information in a useful way in the population center series

What I'm concerned about at this point are the procedures that occur within various towns of various sizes when the players try to organically accomplish their goals. 


Because this is a designed game, we should have a ready procedure for any attempt to take action in a city. This falls back on very old advice. Say yes to player requests. 

In general, the answer to "can we. . ." should be yes, to focus more on the interesting parts of play. "Can I find a blacksmith to equip my henchmen?" "Can we find a place to sleep?" "Can I find a priest to bless us?"

This may seem totally trivial, but I wish to be explicit. Perhaps in a hamlet the answer will be no because their won't be a priest. But if the city can support whatever the players ask for, simply saying yes and moving the game forward is a good idea.

The reason is, we'd like to only focus on interactions or choices that are interesting or significant. Doing so increases the quality of play at the table. Exploring a dungeon is interesting. Role-playing out shopping for singular item after item is tedious. Maybe you enjoy portraying each shop-keeper and role-playing out each encounter. That's great, but it's not the purpose of Dungeons & Dragons, nor is it particularly interesting in the sense of a game choice. You don't need to be role playing to pretend to buy goods for an hour, just socially awkward.

What we do need, and what we'll be looking at in the later parts of this series are systems of procedures to cover the types of things players organically decide to do in cities. 

Organic is the key part. Nearly every book on "How to" make the fantasy city has long sections on the solo masturbatory game of how to create needless detail. If you think that's a slam, go masturbate and come back. I've spent more than one afternoon crafting fantasy worlds. Good can come out of it. 

But now we are busy adult and need to answer questions like: What mechanically differentiates going shopping in Baldur's gate from going shopping in Waterdeep if the players are just passing through? How does one find the right sage in a giant city like that? What if you want to hire new people? What's the procedure for that? Just like "On the Non-Player Character" of course you can wing these types of questions. You can wing combat results too. But since we are playing a game focused on agency, I'm concerned with developing concrete, objective, player facing procedures. I'd like the players to know what they are asking to do when they want something. 

The other factor is that these conditions are going to change. Thorps (population centers of less than 20 people) are best either ignored and narrated as you approach, or mapped out just like any small dungeon that the players can explore if their is interest. This isn't true at the village level, because having 140 different homes and houses renders choice meaningless. Picking from so many options when the majority will be uninteresting invalidates the meaningfulness of player choice. 

This also primarily concerns unknown cities. Known cities aren't crawled and have fewer procedures because they are known territory. You don't urbancrawl to the grocer, you walk there. Setting out looking for one in a strange or very large city is a different experience entirely. There is a shift where certain procedures disappear as players become more familiar with the terrain and setting. This mirrors the exact same developments in dungeons and megadungeons where players say "We go in, down through the stagnant halls, feed the irish deer tied to the post a hunk of meat and head into the labs of the demonists."

Hack & Slash 
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  1. One nice feature about the 6 mile hex scale is that if you have a reasonably large city in the center of the hex, its satellite market towns will all roughly be along the hex sides or vertices... and then the next towns will be near the center of the adjacent hexes.

    Tangent: IIRC my "Life in the Middle Ages" reading, as you note villages were within a 1/2 day travel of market towns which were also 1/2 day travel from the larger population centers... so even the outlying small villages were really not much further than a full day's travel from the nearest city. To avoid too much competition, market towns (in England at least) had to have a special charter from the king and could not be too close to the next market town over. Not every village was allowed to host their own market. I don't know why but I find those kinds of historic details really interesting... which means my players hate me. ;)

  2. So when I do cities the players are typically buying things from a list. If availability is uncertain I state a chance and roll a die. However, I find a map with the various districts and landmarks helps visualize the day's trip. You can also build in encounters or curiosities for the players to explore - "on the way back from the magic district you pass the Temple of the Platinum Dragon" etc.


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