Hey nerds! Today I want to talk about a more ground-up, specific aspect of D&D worldbuilding. You get a lot of talk about cultures and countries, races and religions, but specific cities can be a wonderful way to set a particular session apart from others and that is where I want to turn your focus.
I’m sure most of us have been to Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate at one point or another over the course of the games we play. Cities can absolutely set the tone of an adventure, particularly a city the PCs are going to remember.
We’re going to start with Waterdeep as an example because I know how well known it is and it’ll serve as a good springboard for what to do when setting up your own. See, Waterdeep is a bit of a conundrum for me because when I first started playing the group I gamed with considered it a dark hole where bad things happen. Come to find out later it’s nicknamed the “City of Splendors”.
Let’s be real for a second. 16-year-old me cannot get over the first impression of getting mugged in an alley there. But it’s kind of led me to this perspective on Waterdeep where it’s two cities at once. Come in as a noble, and yes, everything is beautiful there. You can find whatever you want, it’s an amazing experience. Come in as a 2nd-level rogue from Caer Callidyrr who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, on the other hand, and it can be a real pain in the butt.
But that’s just the nature of place, right? No two Dungeon Masters are going to run it exactly the same way, but it’s still in the same place on the Sword Coast, and you still know what you picture when you hear its name. You know it’s a booming trade city. You know it has a massive cemetery district. You know that it’s a nest of intrigue and that there is a healthy religious presence there.
The point remains. Whether we’re talking about Sigil or King’s Landing or Dunwall or Camelot (wait you mean that refers to the castle and not the city around it too?) they are still big milestones in the worlds where they are set and each name evokes a sense of the place that we refer to when we speak of them.
So how do you make your own fictional cities shine like that? Here are some things to bear in mind.
In worldbuilding the name matters
You want it to roll off the tongue. You want your players to be able to say it. What do all of my aforementioned examples have in common before you even know anything about them? They have easy names. Anyone could pronounce them. I don’t see any player stumbling over the syllables; most of them comprise common words, in fact.
Waterdeep is a port city with layers upon layers to it. Sigil is a strange place full of doors. King’s Landing is a majestic locale where, surprise, kings live. Dunwall is a dark place full of blockades. Every one of them is exactly what it says on the tin, after a fashion.
When you go to name your cities, consider what they are first. Make a list of words to evoke the feel you’re going for. Play with the letters. Add words to the end like “Haven” or “Dell” or “Port” and remember that your players need to be able to pronounce it or they’ll never pick it up.
What is the basic vibe you’re going for?
What is the city like, at its core, to you? Is it an artsy gentrified place with creativity on every corner or a holdaway for criminals and the harsher element? Is it an academy town with a lot of scholars in it, or a booming trade hub where anything can be bought for the right price? Even if you’re dealing with an interior district that feels somewhat different from the rest of the city, these are things you want to keep in mind and they should permeate every aspect of the city.
Remember the language the NPCs use. Remember if the city is supposed to be large and sprawling to remind the player characters that they get lost now and then. If the city is supposed to be a crime den remember to let attempted muggings happen once in a while — and if the PCs handily whoop their muggers, so be it.
Don’t forget the architecture
What color is the stone most of the buildings are made of? What do the rooftops look like? Are the roads smoothly paved, made of brick or cobbles, or dirt? How many districts? What does it look like from the walls? What does it look like from a distance? Are there a lot of windows or are things built to be more defensible? These are all things you want to keep in mind when you make your cities.
The physical descriptions will stop at a certain point but you can still work little details in now and then. Where do they get water? Are they near a source of it or using aqueducts? Rain barrels? How tall are the buildings? That’s going to matter when PCs go running through town trying to escape the guards.
What do other cities have to say about it?
Your reputation can easily precede you, after all. When your PCs are travelling you can always slip it into dialogue.
“Yeah, I just came from Castiloth. That place is hard to stomach even without a drought but the people there will cut a throat for a drink of water right now, we just had to go.”
“Oh, you know, my Aunt from Seneca sent me this gown, it’s a little ostentatious for me, but still too fine to let it pass.”
“You’re heading for Neska? Make sure to bundle up, it’s cold up there this time of year!”
Remember you can always build a reputation before your players even get there.
What is the city famous for?
Does it have a prison known for being inescapable? A particularly brutal hard core city guard? A vineyard that spreads its wares far and wide? Important docks making it a well-marked trade hub?
Bear in mind what people go to cities for, and play that up a little bit. Particularly if what that city is about is different from other places in your world.
Do you have a favorite city to play in? One you worked particularly hard on in your world? Some insight I’ve missed? Please leave a comment below and let me know!
From the Nerditor’s desk
If you enjoy deep dives into worldbuilding and adventure creation, check out the Tome of Adventure Design from Frog God Games.
Useful for a multitude of game systems, this book contains tried-and-true random tables to spark your imagination, help Game Masters prepare and gives creative resources to make your adventures come alive. It also comes with a clever on-brand acronym totally free!
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Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.