I’ve been excited by a series of articles I read on The Alexandrian from way back in 2015 on building a city based campaign with a hexcrawl feel  (it was called an urbancrawl there). I’ve also been inspired by the way the Steve Jackson Sorcery! gamebook series , which was translated to video games back in 2013 , portrays a sort of old-school “anything goes” fantasy. So I thought I would try my hand at using the system roughed out at The Alexandrian to create an urbancrawl with the strange magic feel of yesteryear.
So to start, I need a concept. Let’s go with: There’s a place where several major rivers meet. It’s a low soft land, so rather than form a lake, it just makes the surrounding area mushy and swampy. In the past the inhabitants along the rivers would send boats to the point where they meet and trade. Eventually, a few buildings were erected, a few house boats permanently docked, and a city grew from there. The land isn’t ideal for building, so over time buildings were built on the sinking ruins of older buildings until they became relatively stable. Today the city has a sizable moat around it, and is filled with winding roads and canals and is still a sizable hub for travel and trade. Though well defended from outside attack by its geography, the city itself is in some places lawless and in all places strange, wet and overripe with plots and intrigue. We’ll call this city Juntial (from a sloppy Google translate of “river” and “together” and since the geography reminds me of Mexico city and I’ve got some ideas about how the land was stolen from the natives, we’ll bastardize Spanish instead of Nahuatl)
So the base of the Alexandrian Urbancrawl system is neighborhoods and layers (essentially types of points of interest you might find if you were looking). So I need a few things to get started:
- To know how many neighborhoods I need
- A set of districts to cluster them into
- A set of layers
So how many neighborhoods do I need? If you read The Alexandrian’s set of HEXcrawl articles (another good read), he mentions that his own hexcrawl is 16×16 and WAY too big . That at most you need 10×10 or 12×12. So that’s a good number to aim for. BUT, in the urbancrawl system, each layer is keyed for each neighborhood, so if you have 3 layers, you only need 1/3 the neighborhoods because each one holds 3 things depending on what you’re looking for. Taking another angle, what if we look at the number of actual neighborhoods in a modern large city and then normalize to the size of a large medieval city? That nets you a magic number of 20-30 neighborhoods. And if you have 4 to 7 layers, that will hit your target of 100-144. So that’s what we’re going for.
Next, what districts do we want to cluster into? I jotted down a list and asked another GM for their thoughts and came up with a sizable list that I pared down to a handful:
- A crafting district: While this is a trade city so shops are all over and tradesmen are all over, this will be a small district where craftsmen whose professions make them unpleasant to work or live near. Specifically tanners, papermakers, animal processors, alchemists, smelters, etc… since several crafts of this type require clean water, many produce polluted water, and many smell bad this district should be situated near an inflowing and an outflowing water source and should be on the edge of the city or surrounded by undesirable locations.
- Slums: There should be probably several slum districts with something to keep them distinctive, or one larger district. This will be a good location to give the city the lawless and dangerous feel we want it to have.
- Ruined/blasted/magic/university: I definitely want a section of the city that is mostly ruined and full of dangerous and weird things. While I don’t think I want a full district for mages or a university, it occurs to me that if a section of a city were to be destroyed and now populated with all sorts of danger and weirdness, that a district that HAD been devoted to wizardry and study would be a good bet. And having a ruined university is a good way to communicate a city in decline.
- Palace: This district houses the current monarch, a mummy whose will is interpreted by a circle of nobles. In addition it houses many government buildings and homes for some nobles and government officials, though other noble houses are scattered all over the city.
- Temple: While temples can be found throughout the city, there is also a temple district where the majority of large impressive temples are found.
- Bazaar: A large central district with a small lake surrounded by a large bazaar, this district holds many of the middle class citizens of the city and many of the tradesmen that are not relegated to the crafting district.
- Docks: Not a district proper, but instead a set of non-contiguous neighborhoods around the various docks in the city.
That gives us 7 districts to work with. If each one has 3-4 neighborhoods, that nets us our 20-30 neighborhood target.
Next, what layers do I want to work with? The Alexandrian articles give a few examples, from which I borrowed heavily and added a few of my own.
- Gazetteer/Landmarks: This is the base layer that just includes a description and a landmark of note.
- Gangs: Since this is a lawless city, gangs run unchecked in most of the city. Even in the more civilized areas, guards are little more than mercenary thugs plying the same strong-arm tactics as the rest of the city’s gangs.
- Heist: I have never played an urban game where at least one PC didn’t want to steal everything that wasn’t nailed down.
- Weirdness: Half of what this campaign is going to be about, so it has to end up here. Every neighborhood gets a weird little secret.
- Aboleth: What better weird high level challenge for a semi-sunken city than a couple of aboleths and their minions.
- Patrons/houses/politics: This is another good call from The Alexandrian list. Some players will want to just pick up a job rather than scare up their own work.
- Shops: While this is a trade city and most items should be readily available, I like the idea of each neighborhood having a shop with unique items you can’t get anywhere else.
- Ruins/undercity: The event that destroyed most of the university district also destroyed buildings all over the city. In addition, there are numerous entrances to the sunken levels underneath the current city.
- Bugs and fungus: These seem like common enough non-human enemies in a city built in a swamp.
- Cultists: I have this idea that the area was populated by some reclusive people before the city was built. They tried to stop further building before it got too big but were sent packing. Their descendants have infiltrated the city and work to bring it down or at least return it to their possession.
This gives us 12 layers, but we’re not going to count the landmark or shop layer because they’re not adventure sources. So that’s 10. For our target of 100-144 adventure sites, that means we really only need 10-15 neighborhoods, so I’ll aim for the lower end of our 20-30 estimate.
So now we have what we need to proceed, but before I can start laying out a basic map, I have one issue. What exactly IS a neighborhood? I mean I kind of get it, but how does one divide a city into neighborhoods? Well, turns out oddly enough that the modern concept of the neighborhood only dates back to the 1920s . But it’s still useful for our purposes. So the modern neighborhood has the following characteristics:
- Designed to combat dangers of heavy traffic. Treated Neighborhoods as “islands”: This is not really a concern in our city.
- Center the school in the neighborhood: Also not really a worry in our setup.
- Place main streets along the outside: This is really useful. It means that if we want 20-30 neighborhoods, we can essentially take a 5×5 grid map and call all the lines major roads or canals, walls, etc… and all the squares our neighborhood. It will be better to use a distorted grid rather than a perfect one, but the basic setup is the same.
- Make inside streets distinct and curved for privacy: This is of minor importance. We won’t really see them at any level of map I’ll be making, but it’s interesting to know. If nothing else it means that chases along main roads are very different than those inside neighborhoods.
- Shops go along the outside: Again a traffic concern. But it makes sense. Another detail that’s not terribly important for maps but interesting anyway.
- Use 10% for parks, open space, etc…: Obviously this will be very different depending on the district and not very important as far as birds eye maps go, but useful for description, etc…
So what are the next steps?
- Rough out a neighborhood map divided into districts.
- Make a few minor notes on districts.
- List out points of interest for each district for each layer.
- Detail those points of interest only as much as necessary.
In all of this, it seems like the best bet is to go light. If a line or two will do I don’t want to waste time with a full NPC list and tac map. This is already going to be a lot of work. But, I think it’s a very edible elephant. It naturally breaks down into bite sized chunks for digestion. As a reward for myself, if I actually make it to the finish line I may hire a cartographer to map out the whole thing. That will cost a pretty penny I’m sure. On the other hand, a project like this will be an investment for years to come. See you next time with a rough map.