GM Advice: How To Design A City

 Cities have captivated the minds of role-players for decades. From the splendors of Waterdeep to the impossibly tall towers of Sharn, to the metropolis of Absalom, cities have always been rich with a constant plethora of happenings and events. Anything a PC could ever want can be found in a big enough city if they are willing to pay the price (which isn't always calculated with coins). It is little wonder why Game Masters enjoy building them.

To the new GM, the idea of building an entire city can be daunting. With populations reaching into the high tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands, and a countless number of shops, sights, and locations, some might feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of such an undertaking.

Fear not, though. Your beneficent bard is here to show you exactly what you need to build your very own sweeping cityscape, with every little who, what where, when, why, and how.


When plotting out your city, the first thing you want to look at is where it is. The location you decide to place it in can tell you a lot about the city, its people, and how it operates. For instance, if you have a city built into the side of a mountain, there is a good chance that the largest industry in that city is either mining or stonemasonry. There will probably be a considerable dwarf population, only because words like mountain and stone attract dwarves the same way 5 Guys and fried chicken attract me. As such, the makeup of the city will likely be stone-based. Big stone towers, sturdy stone walls, and stone incorporated into a large amount of the architecture. All because you decided to build into that mountain.

It is also important to consider what else is near the site of your city. If you decide to place it in the middle of a vast grassland you had better make peace with the idea that there is going to be a lot of livestock, grain, and farming, but little in the way of building materials unless there is a convenient rock quarry or forest nearby.

If you take a gander at most real world maps, you will start to notice a couple of things. The largest population centers are usually situated near bodies of water. It makes sense. A clean, fresh water source is essential for survival. Rivers make for good drinking water, fishing, and travel, with lakes providing the same things to a lesser extent. Coastal settlements have the advantage of fishing as well as being in a convenient location to trade routes. Cities with ports usually have merchant vessels arriving and departing on a regular basis, and if it happens to be near a large trade road said merchants may base their operations out of that city.

Convenience is really the key. What makes that geographic location convenient? Is it because it is rich in natural resources or does it provide some natural defenses, like mountain ranges and the like? Is it a holy site that is important to a particular religion? Is it built on the ruins of an even older city? Maybe it just happened to be near a heavily traveled road, and it just builds itself around it out of necessity, relying entirely on travelers for its continued survival. Hell, some cities spring up because larger cities become overpopulated and spill-off needs a place to call home. Once you know why the location you've chosen is convenient you can move on to the next step.

What the hell is your city even for, anyway? A lot of folks have a hard time answering this one. Cities serve a variety of purposes, from being a simple port of call to a well-defended fortress. Your city is no different. To really understand what its purpose is you need to know what goes on there. Is there a lot of trading done? Are things built there or just shipped through? Is there a great deal of culture from long forgotten societies, like ruins and landmarks that beg to be studied by scholars?

Bare in mind, your city does not need to serve a singular purpose. The more reasons for it to be there, the larger it becomes, turning into a necessity rather than a convenience. In those cases a metropolis is often born, a city with a massive population that dabbles in a bit of everything. This opens your city up for a cornucopia of colorful NPCs from various walks of life, as well as the criminal element that comes along with such copious amounts of wealth and plenty.

Towns For Days
A lot of folks build their cities like big towns. Stop that. Don't do that. I'm not saying it's wrong, I am just saying it's not right. Cities are a totally different animal. While they may look like towns on steroids, they don't act in the same way. They are more vibrant. Things are bigger. Stakes are bigger. The major players are bigger. It's all so big it is almost like...

...a region.

Yeah. That. That sounds about right. When designing your city, you need to think on a larger scale. It is not a big town, it's several towns. Each town, or section, is different than the next, offering different services and experiences to your players, and each section has something that it offers the city. There are sections of that deal only with government related issues, which is a town in itself. Another section could be filled with wall to wall merchants. This is another town.

Towns for days!

While all these towns operate within the laws and guidelines set for the city as a whole, each section could be run radically different than another, with varying figureheads calling the shots. Sure, they answer to the large governing body of the city, but when the boss is in bed for the night, who rules barter town?

"Is it Master Blaster? I wanna say Master Blaster."

 "Come for our ancient broken bridge. Stay for the God awful things that live in it."

These are those little towns I was talking about within the city. You can call them districts, boroughs,  precincts, wards, communities or whatever floats your boat. The important thing to take away here is that there is a definitive division between these sections. While everyone born in that city can call that city home, the district in which they are from could have major impacts in how they are treated and how they interact with other people from the city. Folks from Dockside might not like the moneyed merchants of The Rise. The nobles of Hilltop may think that everyone from Lowwall is a criminal, despite being of decent character.

Districts help shape the perceptions and attitudes of the population. They can instill a sense of pride, shame, disgust, and envy depending on where you're from, or where you're going. Every city has certain districts in it, from fantasy cities to their real world equivalents. These particular districts are essential to the makeup of the city, and the believability it brings to the table.

  • Merchant District: Economy is the lifeblood of any city, which would make the Merchant District a big o'le pounding heart. If deals are done and things are bought, it is done so in this district. Sure, every district has its own little shops and what not, but these cannot compare to the monument to commerce that is this district. It is often filled to capacity with merchants from various nations, races, and cultures peddling wares in open markets or bazaars (remember Aladdin?). Those who do well will often rent or buy themselves a fully functioning shop to sell from.

  • Government District: Stuff needs to get done, laws need to be written, judgment over prisoners needs to be passed, and the paperwork... so much paperwork. Thank the Gods there is a district that takes care of all that stuff. Welcome to the Government District, where everyone's favorite politicians do whatever it is politicians do. This is usually an architecturally appealing place, with large buildings dedicated to councils, kings, or whatever the ruling class consists of in your city. Palaces, courthouses, and offices are located here. The grander the city and the more dedicated it is to law and order, the more grandiose the government district becomes. Don't believe me? Just take a look at real life Washington D.C.

  • High-Class District: Rich people need to live somewhere, and odds are it is going to look really nice. But of one rich fella has a nice house/estate in a scenic section of the city, another equally rich person is going to want one too, and right near the first one. Thus, the rich neighborhood is born. This place is usually reserved for wealthy merchants, mid-ranking city officials, guild leaders, and lesser noble houses. As such, it is one of the safest and cleanest places in the city, with extra city resources like maintenance crews and members of the city watch being deployed regularly. Money can buy a lot in a city, up to and including piece of mind.

  • Noble District: But wait a minute. Didn't we just do the High-Class District? Yes, but nobles are not just high-class people. They are something more. Basically, lesser royalty, nobles tend to cluster together, avoiding the day-to-day rabble. They set themselves at a higher level than their high-class constituents, and because they wield considerably more power, this is almost never contested. While the Noble District may be guarded by the city watch, the actual houses are often kept safe by each house's personal guard; elite warriors of unquestioning loyalty. If anyone is foolish enough to trespass on a noble's land, the noble often has free reign to do what they like to the unfortunate intruder without worry of silly things like due process.

  • Middle-Class District: Folks that work hard need a nice place to call home, and that is just what the middle-class district is all about. This is where the mid-level merchants, shopkeepers, and middle-management of the city call home. These are the good, hard working folks that keep the city running. The homes might not be as fancy as those in the upper-crust districts, but they are at the very least comfortable and inviting. Depending on the amount of property of your city, this could be one of the most populated areas. In fact, it could encompass several districts.

  • Low-Class District/Slums: Every city has a bad side of town. Your's should be no different. This is where the poor, the desperate, and the unwanted reside. The dregs of society call this place home, but so do other nefarious elements. Crime is often rampant in these districts, mostly because it is the least policed of any of them. Many unsavory organizations base their operations out of these sections, what with the lack of authoritative presence. Any witnesses that have seen too much won't be missed by the larger portion of society when they "disappear". The slums are also where you will find races that most folks would write off in the first place, like tieflings and half-orcs.

  • Racial District: A city can be like a melting pot, but more often than not is a salad bowl. Races are not very likely to abandon their society and culture just to fit in with the larger social norms. Instead, they congregate in neighborhoods so that they can still engage in the ways of their people. These zones are districts divided up by race. The interesting things about these districts are that they can look and feel radically different from one another. A dwarven district will probably have a good number of smiths and stonemasons, with dwarven architecture and shops that appear to dwarf tastes. An elven district will probably have more vegetation that most other districts, with gardens and serene pools. They will no doubt focus more on art and philosophy, with some of the finest bowyers and fletchers around. These districts have distinct identities that are inspired by the people that live there. Not every race should have its own district, but the major ones in your world should be represented, especially if your players are particularly fond of a certain race.

  • National District: The National Districts are similar to Racial Districts, except instead of people from a particular race congregating in one place, it is a group of people from the same nation. The world is full of various nations, kingdoms, and continents. In large cities, it is not odd for these folks to seek each other out. Sort of a "safety in numbers" type of deal. After all, the city can be a scary place full of folks with strange accents and dialects you don't understand. It is comforting to know that at least a few folks from your homeland are right around the corner. Real life equivalents of this idea would be areas with a Little Italy or Chinatown.

 When plotting out your city, keep in mind what the major districts are, but do not feel compelled to plot out all of your districts at once. Create new districts as the need arises. If they want dwarves and all the glorious things dwarves make, add a dwarven district. If they come in contact with a noble, add a noble district. If they are tracking an assassin with a strange accent, they may want to check one of the national districts. Build it as you go, that way you don't spend excess time prepping things you don't need.


"It truly is a GUILDED age."

If there is a thing to get done in the city, you can bet there is a guild out there that can do it. Even seemingly mundane tasks can require a lot of manpower in a sizable city, and when it comes to wrangling that manpower, few organizations are as effective as a guild. Entry into one of the prestigious groups guarantees some level of job security and a small amount of clout in your chosen profession.

  • Merchant Guild: The movers and shakers. Merchant Guilds can take on many forms. They could govern particular industries such as lumber, textiles, or the import of various materials and goods. Larger guilds could encompass all of these, with smaller divisions governing each of these industries. Merchant Guilds have a lot of money, and therefore a lot of power. If they so chose, they could cease all imports and exports into a city and bleed it dry.

  • Artisan Guild: Things must be made, and the artisans are the ones to do it. Woodworkers, masons, smiths, carpenters, each has an invaluable service that any city requires to keep going. These are working-class guilds with working-class members. Like Merchant Guilds, they could be a series of individual guilds, or band together to comprise a larger blanket guild.

  • Service Guilds: These are more nuanced than the last two entries, but none the less important. These folks provide the city with a service, often one few others want to do. Examples would include a lamplighters' guild (cities have a lot of street lights), a grave diggers' guild (lots of people die), a sewer workers' guild (someone has to deal with the wererat population), and a maintenance guild (keeping that city pristine).

  • Thieves' Guild: The most official unofficial guild on our list. Thieves' Guilds are a staple in any city. Like other guilds, they cover a large amount of noble and time-honored industries, such as smuggling, burglary, pick-pocketing, protection, blackmail, racketeering, gambling, the sale of illicit goods including drugs, weapons, and people, and of course that old chestnut; murder (some thieves like to moonlight as assassins). With deep pockets and lawmakers that line those pockets, thieves' guilds often find themselves a permanent, if not shadow place in most cities.

Guilds serve a purpose for player characters too. They provide much-needed services, potential enemies or allies, and make for excellent patrons. With deep pockets, they are usually able and willing to pay well for errands they send the PCs on.

"Such powder. Much wigs."

 Ah, the upper crust. The folks that just aren't rich, they're powerful too. Nobles usually hail from old families with prominent names that carry a great deal of weight. They make political alliances with other families to secure more power and more money through arranged marriages and other less than savory methods. Nobility offers something to your players that is indispensable; a powerful ally. Nobles can open doors that are otherwise shut to other people, they have nearly endless resources, and they can be an excellent launching point for a story involving court intrigue. Always you have two or three noble houses attempting to sabotage or discredit one another, often through clandestine means.  However, when dealing with these near-royals, it is important to understand that there are two flavors.

  • Old Money Nobility:These guys are all about the name. They often hail from ancient bloodlines that they can trace back to someone noteworthy, They are usually very proper and well versed in the delicate and subtle game of court politics and intrigue. They know the etiquette to the point where it becomes second nature. These guys wield an absurd amount of power and are not prepared to give it up. They make great allies but terrifying enemies.

  • New Money Nobility: These folks are new to the nobility scene. They are perhaps recently raised to the rank of nobility by a powerful house or ruler or are direct relatives of someone who was at least a generation ago or at most two. They are not as well versed as the Old Money in the etiquette or plots of the great game, but  their fresh perspective makes them dangerous for no other reason than they are unpredictable.

"Where you can rest assured that nothing will be getting done."

Cities are big places. Not sure of I've mentioned that yet. They are massive. Absolutely huge, and it takes a lot to keep a place like that under control. That's where the government steps in. The governing body of a city can be as unique and diverse as the city itself. Some are ruled by a singular entity such as a Monarch or Lord, others are ruled by a collection of officials, be they elected or appointed, who see over the day to day running of the city. This would be more akin to a senate, council, or parliament.  Then you have governments run bu religious organizations like a church, by mages, or by a shadow council that uses figureheads as distractions while they pull the strings like invisible puppet masters. As you can see, it can get a little complicated.

The government you create should allow the players enough freedom to act, but still have enough restrictions to keep them from murder hoboing everyone in a 10-mile radius. You don't want to make a city where magic is forbidden when 3/4 of the party consists of spellcasters, though it might be fun to try a mage-run city whee those without magical talent are considered second-class citizens.

Politicians, judges, the city watch, the city guard, and all the prisons fall under the purview of the government.

 "The city health plan now includes arrow removal from knees."

  Religions are important in any campaign. In worlds where the Gods are tangible beings that are constantly meddling in the affairs of mortal races, it kind of has to be. In large cities, there are sure to be a number of different faiths, and so there will no doubt be a cavalcade of temples throughout the city.  But what religions do you allow in?

It stands to reason that any super evil religion based on death, destruction, or conquest is usually a bad idea if the overall alignment of the city is good (which it isn't always). The easy way to decide this is to make temples for each of the major religions that cover good and neutral deities. The bad guys will find ways to worship with secret temples and shrines hidden throughout the city, so don't worry about them. You should also pay close attention to the Gods your player characters follow, especially those of faith-oriented classes like paladins and clerics. Cater to them by making some of the larger temples dedicated to their deities. This will give your players a place to retreat to, get advice, and maybe find an adventure or two. Also, should they have an evil artifact, it is nice to have an in at the church.

Tourist Destinations
 "The smell of progress."

Big markets and seedy slums are fun and all, but there has to be more to a city than just hustle and bustle. There have to be interesting locations to draw in the tourism if the tourists were all adventuring parties and mercenary bands, and the interesting locations were dungeons.

Places to adventure can make or break a city in your world. It gives your players something to do while in or around the city, which in turn keeps them near the city. This is even more important if you are running an urban adventure. Dungeons in a city can take many shapes. They could be a labyrinth of rat-infested sewers, a secret temple to an evil God, a guild house, or even the manor house of a shady noble. Really any large structure can serve as a suitable dungeon.

But if you are looking for something with a more classic feel, you can always plop a dungeon somewhere just outside the city. The city of Waterdeep has Undermountain literally connected to it through a series of secret (and often monster-ridden) tunnels. Ancient tombs, old ruins, mysterious standing stones, anything of the like just adds more flavor to the city, especially if they haven't been plundered yet. Does anyone know they're there? If so, did they survive?

"Looks safe to me."

Enemies Of The City
  "Oh, hi there. We're gonna need you to vacate that city. Thank you kindly."

If you have a bunch of people in one place, you better believe that someone is going to take offense to that. Maybe they were wronged by the city, or maybe the society just won't except their love for eating babies and kicking puppies. Whatever the case may be. you can rest assured that every city has enemies.

These could be rival cities, deadly cults, conniving nobles, sinister criminal organizations, or just a crazy wizard. These guys would like nothing better than to subvert, sabotage, take over, or outright destroy the city and everyone living in it. A lot of times these dastardly plots are stopped in the nick of time by stalwart adventurers (hint, hint).

Enemies of the city can open up fun  and new antagonists for the PCs. These villains might not even have any personal beef with the characters, just a nasty grudge against the city or one of the important officials that help to run the thing. Your players might just find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, literally the only thing standing between the fiendish foe and their fully realized goal.

 How To Actually Use A City

 A city is a fantastic and sweeping location full of diversity and countless plots. It should serve as a major destination for the PCs to either complete a quest, find leads, seek passage to a different land, set up a base of operations, or find goods and services not available in smaller communities. There are literally hundreds of reasons to get your players into one of these massive population centers. So what are you waiting for?


Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard 

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Levi Davis

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  1. This helped me so much! I'm building my first big city in D&D, and had no clue where to start. Thank you so much !

    1. I'm glad it helped out! Let us know how your city turned out.


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