My Method for Creating Cities as a Dungeon Master for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons
It’s likely that, in the course of your campaign, the heroes are going to want to visit a major city. Creating an entire city for the party to explore is a tall order for a Dungeon Master running a homebrewed campaign. When I first started running games, I remember getting really detailed in my city building. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that – I had time on my hands at that point in my life, and I really enjoyed the process.
It isn’t necessary to do a ton of work to create a believable city, though.
If you don’t have endless hours to dedicate to building complex cities from the ground up, populated with shops and shopkeepers and citizens and other such details, it’s good to know that you can still have a city that feels real and alive to the players without too much footwork.
The City of Saltori
The city I’ll be using as an example to demonstrate my method for city-building is from the current arc of a campaign I’m running. It’s an island city, the capital of a federation of such cities that dot an archipelago west of the continent.
I wanted to play up the tropical element of the setting, since this was a stark departure from the kinds of places the party has been until this point in the campaign. It should feel exotic, which will only be complemented by the cultural blending I want to emphasize as well – a product of the city’s robust trade.
Saltori is huge but built wide, sprawling along a coastline on one side and protected by a mountain range on the other. I wanted the party to be a little taken aback by the scale of the city, a far larger and richer place than anywhere else they’ve been. Saltori maintained it’s independence through the height of the Sekkoran Empire, when that empire controlled almost the entire coastline of the mainland. I wanted the city to be reasonably rich and impressive enough to show why that was the case.
Context: Creating the Regional Culture and Knowing the Setting
My world takes a very classical approach to cities and their surrounding area rather than a medieval one as is usually the case in Dungeons and Dragons. What this means is that cities, especially large powerful cities, tend to be the main seats of government over a locality (city-states). These spheres of influence are more contained, with maybe a handful of towns under each city’s control.
If a city accumulates enough wealth or power to conquer others and hold on to them some empires can form, but these tend to be unstable. Wilderness is dangerous and largely unmapped. In a powerful enough empire (think ancient Rome), roads may exist and be well policed – these are exceptions rather than the rule. Travel between cities outside such places is hazardous and it is usually recommended you bring an armed escort.
I like this kind of setting for a few reasons. The first is a selfish, personal choice; I was a Classical Studies minor in college. That era of history has always been an interest of mine, so it’s what I know. Building a world in a setting inspired by gods and myths, populated by powerful city-states is right in my wheelhouse.
The other reason I like this sort of setting is it lends itself well to creating conflicts that drive campaigns. The classical era is filled with stories of legendary heroes and kings, and makes for an endless font of inspiration when world-building in Dungeons and Dragons. The rise or fall of an empire, for instance, serves as an excellent backdrop for a campaign. I can speak from experience on that, since my current campaign is taking place during the fall of the Sekkoran Empire in my world. There are also a wealth of possibilities in conflicts between city-states, or even less politically-focused games involving travelling as a group of heroes fighting legendary monsters and exploring the uncharted parts of the world.
When making your own worlds, I encourage you to similarly draw on your interests to flesh it out. You don’t have to build a large, politically complicated world. You could just make a single kingdom, and build inside that area. Even that big an area isn’t necessary; you could even just make one large city and a handful of surrounding towns. Working with small areas at a time is the key to not getting overwhelmed when making a campaign world. My world is the result of years of slowly adding pieces to it, one at a time.
Overview of the City
My first step, before I do anything concrete, is to start making a basic outline of the important details about my new city. This is when I decide things such as the primary industries of the city. In the case of Saltori, they are a wealthy port city. It makes sense for such a place to be built on merchants and traders, taking advantage of their naval power to control sea trade lanes.
To really make a city stand out from others in your world, you should consider what it brings to the table that is really unique. This could be local delicacies (Saltorian Blue Crab), special techniques for forging arms or armor only known by local smiths or artisans, unique precious stones or other commodities (Sea Sapphires, a unique blue pearl found only in the islands). Just a few of these well-placed details can make a city come alive in your players minds. In fact, I would argue that taking the time to define a small number of rich, quality details about a city will go much further than trying to design every nook and cranny.
I brainstorm and write down a list of details about the city I’m creating. This gives me a resource to pull from later on, with details ranging from the unique foods and pearls I mentioned, to their primary industries, to a few details about their government. Any detail I think might be important is fair game, and I don’t worry about organizing those thoughts yet – that comes later on in the process.
Mapping the City
The next step I like to take once the idea of what kind of city I want to build has crystallized is drawing a rough map of the city.
You don’t have to be a great artist or drafter to do this, and you don’t need fancy tools or programs. I use a mechanical pencil and a sheet of blank white paper, sometimes with a ruler for a straight-edge.
My first cities, these maps were needlessly cluttered and complicated because I wanted to map out every little street and area and have it make sense. I was so impressed by professionally done maps I had seen online from others and I aspired to match that lovely detail.
That kind of detail is simply not needed, though. It looks really nice, and if you are more artistically inclined I’m sure it’s a great tool. For the rest of us, though, you’re never going to need to know the exact street lay-out of an area of your city, only the main roads. Moving the party from scene to scene in a city is a fluid affair, usually handled by one or two transition sentences. Too many details not only create extra work for you, they bog down your session. A gorgeous, detailed city map is better used for a frame on your wall than as a DM reference.
Here’s what my city maps look like now:
I’ve only noted the most important buildings and monuments on this map. Otherwise, I only draw the major roads through the city and name each district. All the open space allows me to define new important locations as they come up either during a play session, or in future preparation.
The act of making this map is actually time very well spent for me when creating the city, as I am forced to think about many aspects of the city as I lay it out.
What are the main industries of the city? In Saltori their silver mines and fishing industry were the clear answers. I made sure to feature those in the city.
How do they name their districts? This says a lot about a city and its people. In Saltori, the names are very descriptive, which might indicate these people prefer practicality with such things.
Where do the rich and poor people live? Rich people don’t like to live near poor people, so they almost certainly have their own part of the city – preferably away from the rabble. In this case, there are clear lines for where the classes reside. In the Fisher’s Village, Miner’s Village, and Sailor’s Rest districts the various working class folk live and work. Saltori boasts a larger than usual merchant class, with artisans included in that wealth tier – these folk can be found in the markets and the Silvestone district primarily, though they also make up much of the Whitecap district. Finally, your fancy folk largely live in the Founder’s Village.
I like to make an old town type area for cities like this, which is a feature you’ll commonly see in cities in the real world. This is the oldest part of the city, which was once a town before it boomed into a city. In Saltori, it is supposedly the site where hero-navigator Dorian the Starfinder settled to conclude his legendary journey bearing refugees from the fall of Old Alkadia to a new home.
When creating monuments, I thought about what sorts of values were important to Saltorian peoples and how their government operated. Their sea trade and naval power are the crown jewels of the Saltori Republic, and the reasons they are such a powerful political entity. Immediately I thought of the Pharos, the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria – Saltori has Selkor’s Beacon, a similarly monumental lighthouse structure to demonstrate their command of the seas. Taking ideas from history, books, movies, and other sources is a great way to fill your world with features and details. Again, build on what you know – just find ways to make the material your own!
Alongside the lighthouse, they honor their founder and show off their impressive craftsmanship with a statue of Dorian the Starfinder carved from a large rock.
There are two government buildings, the Limestone Palace and the Salt Court, because though Saltori was first founded as a monarchy the kingship was eventually disposed of in favor of a republic. The palace is a relic of that past, and the Salt Court a symbol of the present and future of the city.
At this point I might lay out a more detailed explanation of each district on yet another sheet of paper. In this case, I felt I had a pretty good lay of the land just from this map. I had a good idea of what each district contained, such that I didn’t feel the need to waste time, energy, and paper laying more groundwork.
I’m ready to start putting in the details, populating the city, and getting it ready to put in front of a party in a session.
Populating the City: Taverns
This is the first thing most parties are going to seek out when they enter a new city. Alcoholism issues among adventuring parties aside, it makes sense – taverns are usually attached to inns, which means lodging, which you’re going to need to set up at some point if you don’t want to sleep in the streets. “Sleeping in the streets of a city without modern plumbing” should be pretty low on your to-do list. Some smells never wash out no matter how many times you try.
For each step of this part of the process, I move by district. I have a good idea now of what class of people live in each district, and thus the kind of establishment you are likely to find there. You can assume there are dozens of taverns in a city this size, but I only prepared three: a seedy dive, a typical traveler’s inn by the market, and a luxurious rich inn and tavern complete with live music. I feel that this about covers the kinds of places the party is likely to seek out. If I need to come up with another tavern on the fly for story purposes, I lean on my improvisational skills. If you don’t want to have to do that, you could always just spend a little time in your prep work writing a list of tavern names to quickly grab from in a pinch. You can do the same for NPCs, by the way – a list of names behind the screen for each race can be extremely useful. Just cross off names as you use them!
For each tavern, I include only what I’ll need to run them in a game. I leave myself some key words to spark my imagination in the moment, and give myself a few NPCs to work with. The NPCs are each only given one or two basic traits for the most part, unless they will be central to the story. What I’m doing here, and with all my prep from this point on, is giving myself a series of launching points for scenes with props and characters to use as needed.
- The Weary Sailor (Fisher’s Village)
- Exterior: Run-down, small, weathered.
- Sign: Silhouette of a man, slumped, with a sea bag over his shoulder.
- Proprietor: Jellen “One-Eye”, a cheery female Half-Orc. She has an Ersatz eye (yellow) to replace one she lost in a battle during the last Saltori-Fonasia War. She’s an ex-sailor, this is inn is her retirement plan.
- Workers: Axonn, a moody male Half-Orc and the adopted son of Jellen. Elner, a dimwitted but sweet male Human.
- Low-class. No hearth, no stage, a few single rooms upstairs for cheap.
- The Ravenous Whale (The Fish Market)
- Exterior: Loud, tacky, busy
- Sign: Image of a man being swallowed by a whale
- Proprietor: Franz Freckerhopper, a boisterous male Gnome. He loves to talk, but hasn’t figured out listening.
- Workers: Ressa, a jaded female Half-Elf. Tommen, an excitable male human.
- Performer: Xeryon the Soujourner, a male Lizardfolk bard that uses a 3-stringed instrument native to his lands to deliver spoken-word style stories.
- Mid-class, single rooms and a couple suites, small stage
- Jewel of the Sea (Gemstone Village)
- Exterior: Clean, sparkling, beautiful, rich
- Sign: A vibrantly colored blue pearl rising above an oceanscape. Pigments are expensive, so the fact that these look fresh is a statement of wealth that they can maintain the sign.
- Proprietor: Noeenia Stottart, a proper female Human. She keeps to herself for the most part, but rumors often speak of her eccentric interests.
- Workers: Sable Turner, a polite female human. Timothy Turner, a too-friendly male human.
- Performer: Songbird, a tiefling bard. This is somebody the party had encountered before, as an enemy a very long time ago working with a local bandit gang. I put her here as a possible story hook in the city, if they chose to investigate her presence.
Populating the City: Shops
The next most likely place your party will beeline for is the shopping district. You would do well to spend some time thinking about and creating details for a commercial area in your city.
In Saltori especially, trade is a centerpiece of the city’s wealth and power, so you can expect a very large market. I handled this by creating a touristy fish market, inspired by Pike Place in Seattle, that the party could visit and walk around in as a self-contained scene. This worked well in session, if by well you mean the party took hard drugs and almost didn’t make it safely home to an inn – but that’s Dungeons and Dragons, isn’t it?
That area would be considered the bulk of the market district, but the part I spent more time designing was the shops that adventurers are likely to find more interesting. Specifically, cities are one of the only places you can find a heavy concentration of magic items, so you’re going to need a couple magic item stores. These are all going to be clustered together most likely, which makes your life easier as a Dungeon Master. In this case, such stores are found in the Gemstone Village district of the city. Here are the shops I prepared for Saltori:
- Lucky’s House of Wonders
- A reasonably sized storefront, with large windows obscured by thick black curtains. The sign above announcing the name is brightly colored, though the paint is somewhat faded.
- Proprietor: Lucky, a male Goblin artificer. He clearly earned his name, with various missing fingers and body parts replaced with metal and gadgetry.
- Stock: Specialty Magic Items, Wondrous Items. I pull a list of items curated from the Dungeon Master’s guide for this, and price them how I feel is appropriate. How I decide prices is a separate beast that I’m not tackling here.
- Cool Stuff: There’s a discounted Iron Flask here that Lucky up-front tells the party is cheap because it contains an unknown soul, probably of somebody or something dangerous. This could be a fun adventure hook for a curious party.
- The Silversmith
- A modest store, less overstated than others sharing its block. The interior is filled with finely crafted silvered weapons, as well as a few special items.
- Proprietor: Orma Haines, a to-the-point female human. She was once on the crew of somebody the party was seeking in this adventure, giving them an extra motivation to come here.
- Stock: Weapons and armor, with a focus on silvered weapons. She also has a couple powerful, rare, and expensive magical items. I like to put items like this in stores to give players tempting things to want to save up gold for.
- Kelonius’s Spell Nook
- A long, narrow store tucked into the corner of a block. Large windows so you can see in as you pass by, shelves of organized spell scrolls and other materials needed for spell-casting.
- Proprietor: Kelonius, a cheerful male human. He’s a bit odd.
- Stock: Spell scrolls and magical materials for the party wizard. Wizards need places like this to restock their ingredients and seek out new spells, so you should look to include them if you have a wizard in your group.
Populating the City: Encounters
Another way to spice up a party’s time in your city and add another layer of life is to create encounters for the city. These can be as simple as a beggar asking them for some coin to pay for passage home, or they can be more involved encounters with consequences like coming across a man being mugged and having to protect him.
I prepared a few possible scenarios like this for Saltori, mostly to use as material if the party didn’t seem to know what to do next. I only ended up using one of them, but making material like this encourages you to think about what life is like on the street level of your city and what kind of things the party might run into. You can, of course, also recycle any content you don’t use in game for future sessions!
Here’s a few of the encounters I cooked up for the streets of Saltori:
- A man is being mugged in a side alley by a group of 4-5 thugs. The thugs try to get the party to keep walking.
- Man: Sven Walker, a down-on-his-luck merchant captain
- Muggers: Len, Stirge, Jinn, Soe, Alann
- Some people invite you to sit for a game of dice, high stakes. The dice are loaded, magical dice that always roll what the owner wants them to – it’s a con. They’ll try to win some money off the party.
- Lead Con: “Ollie”, a young-looking male Gnome. He isn’t young, but uses his youthful appearance to his advantage.
- Others: Drenner, Jeck, Klorra
- A man in tattered apparel approaches you asking for coin. He says he only needs 10g for passage home after losing his ship; he just wants to get back to his family
- Man: Leon Clove. The story is half true, he did lose his ship. He doesn’t have a family, though, and he is home. The gold is for rum.
Encounters like these can be a good way to add flavor to your city and up the immersion for your players. You can also drop adventure hooks in here if you like. Maybe the merchant they save from the mugging has information that can lead them to nearby treasure.
With the city looking more and more fleshed out, I can now start folding it into my larger campaign world. Looking at what is going on elsewhere in the world, I think about how these events might have an impact on the city.
For Saltori, I realized that I have a few interesting options I could explore being offered to me by the events elsewhere in my world. A nearby city was recently conquered so there has been an influx of refugees. There is also a sea monster (Kraken) threatening their trade routes, which the government of the city has been trying to deal with quietly.
Ongoing events elsewhere in your world should reasonably be having effects everywhere; the world tends to be interconnected in that way. This both informs what people in the city might be talking about and gives you a well of inspiration to build upon, with a wealth of possible adventure hooks. Everything you prepare can be a foundation for a future story!