Today I’m taking my Fantasy Settlement Creation System for another spin.
Last time, I created a tiny village – the haunted hamlet of Grimwych. This time I’m going to create a teeming metropolis, to show how the system works at the other end of the scale.
Other than that, I’ve got no idea at all what this city is going to be like – let the dice decide!
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Theme
First, I roll for a theme.
(Rolling…) 3,3: “Oppressed.” Fair enough!
Step 2: Memorable Features
Now I roll to see what’s most memorable about the city as a whole.
(Rolling…) 2,2: “Impressive Structure.” The flavor text reads:
The settlement is home to a very impressive structure of some kind: perhaps a manor-house, college of mages, plaza, bridge, barracks, town walls, library, garden, asylum, citadel, fountain, slave market, tavern, statue, mausoleum.…
Given that this city is “Oppressed,” I’m tempted to declare, right away, that this “Impressive Structure” is either a slave market (as suggested in the flavor text) or the imposing palace of the cruel tyrants who rule here. But there’s no reason to decide now, since things are bound to change as we go along – I’ll just keep both ideas in mind as I proceed.
Step 3: Determining the Layout of the Settlement
Since I used a generic town plan in my previous example, the little hamlet of Grimych, I think I’ll use a town plan with a confluence of rivers this time.
(Rolling…) 3, 1.
Ok, so the town plan looks like this:
That’s interesting. We have a city seemingly divided into two parts – a long left bank (as it were) and a slightly smaller triangle wedged in between the two rivers. I wonder what’s going to develop out of this…
Step 4: Creating Districts
Let’s start in the top left hex, and then work our way down the left bank of the river.
What sort of district is in the top left hex?
(Rolling…) “Historic.” ok – so maybe this is the “old city,” the part of the city that was built in a previous age, before it expanded to its present size. Perhaps it has its own ancient town walls? We’ll see.
What about the district just a little farther down the riverbank from the old city?
(Rolling..) 5,3: “Thematic.” The city theme is “Oppressed,” which makes this a “Law and Order” district. Is it a prison? A gallows? A workhouse for prisoners or slaves?
Let’s move more quickly now. What are the other two districts on the left bank of the river? (Rolling, rolling…) “Public Amenity” and “Money”.
What about the three districts in that little triangle between the rivers? (Rolling, rolling…) “Money,” “Hazardous,” and then, since we don’t yet have a governing district, the final district has to be either “Ruling,” “Religious,” “Law and Order,” or “Military.” I think “Ruling” might be the clearest thing here.
Our city plan now looks like this:
There are a few striking things about this arrangement.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this layout is that it contains two “Money” districts – areas that are chiefly interesting for their ties with something like jewelry, banking, the actual production of currency via minting, or similar. We already know that the people of this city are “Oppressed,” but this tells us a lot about the particular flavor of that oppression: these people are oppressed by financiers. Given that these two “Money” Districts are situated on opposite sides of the river, and at opposite ends of the city, it would seem that they’re in some way opposed- perhaps enemies, or at least rivals. My first thought here is that these are two rival banks – big “Guilds” or “Houses” who lend money, finance things, issue promissory notes, and so on, while profiting from the misery of others. They could both be evil oppressors, but in different ways. Why have these two rival banking Houses both come to do business in the same city? Is there something about this city that makes it particularly lucrative for them? We shall see.
Another striking thing about this layout: the “Ruling” area is right in the heart of the city, but the heart of the city today is quite distant from the old heart of the city – the “Historic” district way up on the top of the left bank. This teaches us something about our city’s history: at some point in the past, something happened to shift its center of gravity. Perhaps the current rulers haven’t always been the ones in charge? Notice that the new “Ruling” district is perfectly placed to control the point where the two rivers meet. Maybe trade along the second of those rivers suddenly became much more important, and so the city had to shift its location in order to levy tariffs on both? If these two rivers are both important trade routes, and both are controlled by the rulers of this city, then suddenly we start to see why it’s such an attractive place for predatory banks…
Lastly, I really wonder what that “Hazardous” district is. Why is it so dangerous? Do those dangers have anything to do with the fact that trade along this second river – the river on which the “Hazardous” district is located – suddenly became more important? Food for thought….
Step 5: Memorable Features for Districts
Now it’s time to give each district its own memorable feature. This is where we really start to get the feel of the place.
Let’s start with the two “Money” districts, since they seem central to the little story I’ve been telling myself about this city so far.
The “Money” Districts
What’s memorable about the “Money” district at the top of the map? (Rolling…) 1,4 : “Historic Change” Ha! Interesting. This area is still visibly defined by some important event that transformed it in the past. Given the “Oppressed” theme, maybe this area used to be a nice little town of its own, until the Big Evil House of Nasty came and screwed it up. Perhaps the House of Nasty came to power in some very dramatic manner that still leaves traces today: maybe they blew up the whole area with magic, or maybe they burned down the town hall and forbade anyone to build anything there ever again, leaving a gaping absence in the heart of town. Hmmm….
Let’s check out the other “Money” district. (Rolling…) 2,1 : “Communal Desire.” Many of the people of this area want the same thing. Are they just really keen for freedom from their oppressors? That would match the city’s Theme. Or are they really keen to destroy the other House? I think maybe the first of these. Every good “Oppressed” city needs some rebels – otherwise, what drives the “Oppression” plot? For whatever reason, it looks like this is the area from which the Rebels come. Maybe the House of Wicked down here has just squeezed these people too hard, but hasn’t managed to utterly defeat and demoralize them, as the House of Nasty up north did?
The Triangle Between the Rivers
Ok, now let’s head up and complete the triangular bit of land between the two rivers. What’s memorable about the city’s “Ruling” district? (Rolling…) 4,4 : “Local Pastime”. Wow, I wasn’t expecting that- the whole “Oppressed” theme, in combination with the “Money” districts, was taking us down some fairly dark roads, whereas having an area known for its distinctive “local pastime” seems quite frivolous and light. But that works well: darkness always seems darkest when it’s used as a contrasting color; the presence of something light and lovely might make the Oppression feel more real and harsh.
Ok, if we’re going for light and lovely, let’s really go for it. Let’s say that the people of this district have an old folk custom of writing down their wishes for a better life, and then making paper boats out of them, with candles inside, and floating them down the river. It’s not a festival – it happens every night. Naturally, the authorities have forbidden it, but it still goes on – and every little paper boat that floats, glowing, down the river is a tiny, fragile symbol of hope… until, inevitably, it sinks into the dark water and is snuffed out.
That’s memorable, and it definitely emphasizes our “Oppressed” theme.
What about the “Hazardous” district here? (Rolling…) 2, 4: “Historic Change”. Ahah – again! Perfect. This just confirms what we suspected earlier: the “Money” district right next door (which is also memorable for having experienced a “Historic change”) was destroyed in some very dramatic way when the House of Nasty took over. It seems clear that, whatever the House of Nasty did, it destroyed this area, too, and left it in tatters – now the whole district is a dangerous place to live. What did they do? Well, whatever it is, it’s bound to be considered a defining feature of the whole city – so maybe I should name the city first, and then use that as inspiration?
Naming the City Itself
Great – let’s name this city! To the Naming Tables! Let’s start with an Evil Proper Name, and then head over to the Thematic modifiers to roll for a few options relating to the “Oppressed” theme. Here goes.
After a few rolls on the Evil proper names table, I get “Nar Xevor,” which I quite like.
Now for an “Oppressed” modifier. (Rolling, Rolling…)
“Cruel/ Of Cruelty,” “Pitiless / Without Pity,” “Fettered/of Fetters,” “Voiceless / of the Voiceless.” Does any of that help? I think the last one does.
Welcome to Nar Xevor, the Voiceless City!
Why is it called the “Voiceless City”? Well, obviously, at a metagame level, this is really just a way to make it sound oppressive – but one of the great things about fantasy as a genre is that it allows you to dramatize feelings, atmospheres, etc, by taking the relevant metaphors very literally. So let’s say that the House of Nasty (which we have to find a better name for soon!) literally took away the voices of everyone who used to live in the districts it now controls. And not just by cutting out people’s tongues, either – that would be too simple. No, they used dark sorcery to take everyone’s voices, in the most literal sense, and then locked them away where they can’t be used. Now the people of that part of the city genuinely cannot speak, except when directly addressed by one of the people in power.
How does this make the “Hazardous” district so hazardous? Well, that part of the city is where the voices of the voiceless are trapped. As such, it’s a terrible area to spend much time in – people who live here are always hearing things – strange mutterings, odd rasping half-voices, even sometimes very faint screams that sound as if they’re coming from a long way off. In GURPS terms, the disadvantages Voices and Nightmares are both very common here (though if you’re planning to spend your life in this part of town, then Voices will probably count as a quirk rather than a full-blown disadvantage, since it’s so common that there’s no real stigma attached) For this reason, the whole ungodly neighborhood is called the Ambit of Whispers.
Nasty. Now I’m starting to get a feel for this city.
Let’s head over to the left bank to see what’s memorable in the districts there.
The “Historic” District
What’s memorable in the Historic district, which we said was the “old city”? (Rolling…)
2, 6: “Impressive Structure” Ok -interesting. So maybe one of the oldest buildings in town is also one of the most impressive? Hmmm…. what should we make it?
Well, ok – after taking another look at the town layout, and remembering what we’ve said so far about the city’s history, I’ve decided that this is a huge, long, wide, ancient bridge crossing the river. And now I’ll head over to to find a “Historic” thematic modifier with which to name that bridge. (Rolling…) “Sunken”! Nice. That’s very interesting.
Let’s call the bridge The Sunken Causeway – to the locals, just “the causeway.” It’s a very strange bridge, obviously built by ancient people with skills in advance of anything people can do nowadays. It’s a bit like a bridge, but it’s also a bit like a dam or sluice gate. The bridge is a solid wall, like a dam, and the river water laps right up to the top of the handrail. Meanwhile, the stones on which you walk are actually below the waterline, though they’re dry because they’re protected by the dam-like rails. It’s as if the bridge had been dropped down into the water (“Sunken“, if you will), to form a kind of dam – but a dam with very large gaps at the bottom, underwater, so the river can keep running through it. It’s not clear exactly why anyone would build a bridge in this manner – it’s incredibly difficult, for little gain. But it does allow you to stop all water traffic, which is a good way to force people to pay your tolls.
All in all, the Sunken Causeway is an extremely impressive ancient structure, and in many way it defines this area of town. (Sometimes this area is called the “Old City,” but when speaking casually people sometimes refer to the whole historic district just as “Causeway”).
The “Law and Order” District
What’s memorable about the “Law and Order” district?
1,1: “Communal Desire”. It looks like many people in this district want the same thing. Well, that makes things easy: the southern “Money” district is also memorable for its “Communal Desire”, and we said that the desire there was for rebellion. That makes perfect sense here too – the Law and Order District might be tough, but that kind of of toughness breeds revolutionaries, committed to a better order.
Building on what we imagined earlier, let’s say that this “Law and Order” district is a huge forced labor camp, with a range of manufactories, craft halls, and so on. Here, the enslaved enemies of the regime are forced to toil endlessly for their brutal masters. The underground resistance is known to have its secret headquarters somewhere in the southern “Money” district, but of course it has a strong presence here too, since so many of its agents get captured and sent to the labor camp. Almost everyone here has felt the tyranny of the regime in a very personal way; not all of them are willing to risk their lives to do something about it, but some do fight back.
The “Public Amenity” District
This is an interesting one – what kind of public amenity could possible be available around here? Referring to the entry for “Public Amenity,” I recall that my listed examples include “Well, common, leech, orphanage, public baths, surgeon, hospice,” so it seems I’ve given myself a pretty wide range of options – the district is defined by its role in performing an important service of pretty much any kind.
Before deciding, let’s see what memorable here.
4, 2: “Idiosyncratic Government”. Ok – I have an idea. Let’s say that one of the striking features of this city is that it is has a history of attracting advanced practitioners in the medical arts. Partly this is a remnant of an earlier history -before the dark times came, this place was known particularly as a place of healing. When the new regime came to power, this tradition continued, but acquired some darker strains: many of the more recent advances in medicine developed here rely mostly on the ready availability of fresh cadavers from the labor camps…. Today, the College of Chirurgeons is still renowned, but it’s a very mixed bag politically and morally – it does house some people sympathetic to the resistance, but that kind of political stance is kept within very strict limits, and some very, very dark things go on here too. Importantly, to date the College has managed to defend its traditional right to administrate its own affairs, which means that the laws in the district are much less restrictive than those of other districts, if you can claim the protection of the College. (That’s the”Idiosyncratic Government”).
Obviously, the existence of this slightly more free-thinking district here explains why resistance to the regime is concentrated at this southern end of town.
We’ve already named the city Nar Xevor, the Voiceless City – and we could easily stop here. But somehow I’m very much enjoying imagining this very unenjoyable city, and I’d like to keep coloring in a little . So I’m going to name some of the districts, landmarks, and so on, using the naming tables for inspiration.
But I won’t take you through that step by step – instead, let’s skip to the results:
What do you think?
If I were using this in a game, I’d probably go on to determine where the other main bridges are, and also flesh out some of the key players by naming the rulers, the heads of the two evil banking houses, the main rebel organizations, and so on. But for now, that’s easily enough to go on with.
Without wanting to toot my own horn, I’ll say that I’m fairly happy with the way this town generation system is working. Creating Nar Xervor has really been a very quick process (it would have been even quicker if I hadn’t been typing it up for the blog!), and already we have a brand-new city, complete with a basic city map, a rough sketch of the city’s history, and a bunch of interesting areas, conflicts, and adventure hooks. Plus everything ties quite nicely into a simple and memorable theme, which is important in an improv narrative form like tabletop roleplaying: Nar Xevos is a cruel and tyrannical place, but one in which a slender ray of light sometimes shines through.