City Supplements: The Good, The Bad, and the Fugly

Fenris-77

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So, City Supplements. We have have them, probably a lot of them. I have two things I wanted to discuss about these tomes of urban lore. First, the low hanging fruit, what are some of the best city supplements you own? What about those supplements make them your favorite? I've noticed that the actual functional content of city supplements varies pretty wildly. I know what I like, but I'm curious about what other people like.

The second bit is a little more specific. Many city supplements provide some random generators for some of the city features. Street encounters, for example. Personally, I appreciate this kind of content more than paragraphs of text telling me about the history. Here's the real question though, at what level do you want or like that random generation? I've seen everything from random building generation, to street scale, to neighborhood scale, to district scale. A corollary there is what kind of content do like to have random generators for? Buildings, NPCs, factions, scenes encounters, something else?

The city supplement I like the most for random playable content is DCC's Lankhmar book. It provides a nice mix of random events, NPCs, names and whatnot, specific to each district of the city.
 

xanther

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I love generator content, and especially if the author would do various flavors of how you want the setting.

As to history and setting specific stuff, it is near useless to me unless it is a nice summary of a licensed property. I get some want a pre-packaged setting with all the work done for them, but for me I want to be able to drop this city into my campaign/setting...so separating out the authors takes from the rest of the city is best.

What I really would like is an wonderfully thought out web of social-political-economic relationships amongst the inhabitants. Factions but explained in several ways/at a high level to best fit my setting. Frankly I'd like all the authors setting specifics to be in a separate book.

What would really be cool, to me, is the main city book describes things at a high level with generic names, like Warrior-focused faction...then in the author setting book a map between generic and specific. AND a "book" or section of with all the generic stuff listed with blanks and space for me to put in my own mapping from generic to specific.
 

Fenris-77

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Yeah, I've yet to see a supplement that does a faction web like you describe, despite it also being one of my wishlist items.
 

xanther

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My dream would be a lot of flow chart based stuff with call out points on various connections or nodes that reference a random table to the authors view on the setting. Something that could be a great aid to navigation in play...be it wandering the streets to social interactions.

Last but not least, I see a lot of mega city stuff, which is cool as it saves a lot of work but those are hard to fit in to anything existing. Now a setting book with like a dozen smaller "cities" or more villages (from 500-5000) would be good, to help one fill in the gaps...and can use as a campaign base.

I may be living in the past though where people have their own worlds/settings versus just buy them.
 

xanther

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Yeah, I've yet to see a supplement that does a faction web like you describe, despite it also being one of my wishlist items.
I do it for my own games....heck it is the key and first thing I do/did for G1-G3 and B2 (these of course required me to greatly expand/create relationships)...the flow chart makes it easy in play. These days it should be a fairly easy thing to do, back in the 80s when things were literally cut and paste in publishing not so much.

Perhaps I will post one of my flowcharts someday. The first one ever did explicitly I think was for Stranded on Arden.
 

Ravenswing

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Writing about the best city supplements I own -- Free City of Haven, The City of Carse, GURPS Worminghall, GURPS Abydos, Magical Industrial Revolution -- that'd take a bit, and I've got Thanksgiving dinner to cook.

Writing about the worst, though ... Well ... City-State of the Invincible Overlord was as good as a city book got in the seventies, so it's tough to blame it for being horribly dated, but you'd think that Judges' Guild would have learned how to write cities by the time Tarantis came out. Then there's the abortion that's the Mayfair rewrite of CS:O, which was a waste of space then, and a waste of time to discuss now.

However, I've got this review all typed out already:

The all time worst? GURPS Tredroy. The author admitted to wanting to build a city the size of Austin (population just under 500,000 in 1990, a year after the publication date), which might work fine for 20th century Texas, but is completely farcical for anything in the medieval line not the capital of a seafaring empire and the chief locus of trade in the world. Feeding it would require a deep water fleet that would be almost equal to the entire Mediterranean merchant fleet at any point in the 16th century ... presuming that the Blueshoal is navigable to the deep ocean going nefs a full five hundred miles inland – which can't be said of any Earth river other than the Mississippi – and tying up about three-quarters of the entire city's mapped wharfage, 24/7. (By the bye, the city’s in arid territory, and divided between three nations, so you don’t even have unified central government.)

Then you have that all the locations listed in the city are guild halls, civic buildings, streets, public squares, and inns. There are only twenty-one businesses listed in the city; twenty are inns, and the twenty-first is a brothel that doubles as an ... inn. My experience is that most players would rather have general merchants, armorers, alchemists and pawnbrokers listed in a town than belltowers and theatres.

Out of ninety some-odd NPCs named, only four are women – a spy, a journeyman merchant, an innkeeper's daughter and a prostitute ... and beyond that, many of the major NPCs listed are government officials and guildmasters, people with whom PCs are less than likely to have much contact, and for whom detailed combat information for each and every one is largely wasted. (And by the bye? Almost all the NPCs are political movers and shakers. Almost none of the content of the book involves politics or intrigue. WTF?)

Then you have the one adventure listed -- eight pages, taking place mostly outside the city. And on and on ... there's the Street of Gadgeteers in technophobic Yrth, the philharmonic orchestra ...

Sure, there are cities that have sucked worse, but you EXPECT more from a SJ Games product than meandering and unrealistic drivel. There have been other SJ Games products I haven't used or with which I was dissatisfied, but not before or since one with which I was totally disgusted. The author never wrote another product for them, but what the hell was Creede Lambard's (the editor) excuse?
 

Ronnie Sanford

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My very, very, very favorite citybook is The Guidebook to New Orleans from Chaosium. It reads as a 1929’s tourist guide to New Orleans complete with a detailed description of both the quarter and bayou areas as well as a who’s who list of the famous personalities in the city at the time. Perhaps my favorite part of the book is how Chaosium introduces voodoo to the setting because New Orleans occult underpinnings (food and music) are truly what gives New Orleans character. Note the guidebook provides rules for player characters to be a voodoo priest (forget the word) or voodoo priestess (Mambo I think) and comes complete with both spells and rituals. These rituals and spells in general are not as powerful as mythos spells but are still greatly helpful to the players arsenals and definitely shape the game somewhat. I just note that because some CoC purist aren’t going to like that.

My other suggestion is Chaosium’s Cities book. It’s basically Mikedemia’s Cities book applied to RuneQuest but with a better layout.
 

David Johansen

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I think, most fantasy cities are pretty similar and will have inns and guildhalls and shops and tradesmen and storage houses. The secret then is to describe what makes the city interesting and different. NPCs locales. White Dwarf serialized Marienburg Sold Down the River in its pages. One of the cool features was a primitive stock exchange. Anyhow, I think that would be the best city I've seen a game detail.
 

TJS

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But...how can I run a city without a map which covers where all the taverns are and gives their names and the names of all NPCs who own them?

And what about weapons shop? If the map doesn't tell me exactly where the PCs can buy a sword then I might have to make something up on the spot instead of just making the players wait while I page through the book and look it up.
 

TJS

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I think two of my favourite city books would be the Thieves World set and the Blacksand book for Advanced Fighting Fantasy.

Both have the advantages that they're small cities. I think there's this weird obsession in fantasy gaming with absolutely massive cities which I think actually don't work as well for role-playing.

In a really big city you're always going to running into completely different people, there's going to be a huge range of criminal gangs, there's going to be dozens of different taverns you have visit if you want to spread rumours of gather information etc.

In a small city you will keep running into the same people. When you go asking for information you don't ask a random tavern keeper, you ask Fredo, the barkeep you've interacted with before, if a criminal gang is needed it's going to be one the PCs are likely familiar with, if there's a murder, the PCs are going to hear about it straight away because everyone will be talking about it. There's more concrete and less abstraction.

In Thieves World the elite Hellhound guard that are cleaning up the city consists of five guys! If you get in a fight and kill one of them it's a big deal.
 

Black Leaf

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Another vote for Blacksand here. It has everything I could want from a map to prominent organisations to a full crime and punishment system.

In terms of randomness, I want enough that I can just improvise if the players are walking down a street or go into a random shop. I'd rather things like factions were worked out without recourse to the dice.
 

Bunch

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I like the Cites, Carse, Tulan books so it follows I like the 80s Thieves World boxed set that takes those and adapts them a specific city setting.
 

Moonglum

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i think a proper city presents similar challenges as a proper megadungeon (i.e., a Moria, not just some place with a few dozen room). Two common responses to the challenge are to fall back on abstractions or use random tables to populate places on the go. I understand why people do these things, but I don't think either really works in the end, with the negative consequence that the players don't really have a sense that they are free to move around and do as they wish (because they know nothing around them is really defined), and the DM will feel like they're juggling chainsaws unless they steer the party toward some specific place or encounter that's been planned ahead. I think the only real solution is to just sack-up and create a detailed map with a full description of occupants, at least at the level of a sketch statement. Yes, it's a lot of work, but so is running an outdoor campaign with a detailed setting. The type examples might be the Wilderlands campaign for regional-scale outdoors, something like Rappan Athuk for dungeons and maybe CSIO for cities. The only realistic way to create something new along these lines is to be patient with yourself and chip away at it over months or (more likely) years. Which is fine; it is essential to know what players could reach in the next 2-3 sessions of play, but not beyond that.
 

Fenris-77

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I don't think you need a heavily keyed map at all. If you have districts and neighborhoods roughed out you also have a rough idea what kinds of people and places exist in any particular area. You could, and maybe should, set some things prior to play like important NPCs, likely recurring places, and that sort of thing, but you don't need a fully keyed map. That sort of prep is very much some people's thing, which is fine, but it is a ton of work, and not work that needs to be done IMO.

I do agree that you only need to be 2-3 sessions ahead (or less for some systems) but that actually runs somewhat counter to your previous statements. Cities are like sandboxes and there's no accounting for player decision making - they could decide to go anywhere. So, if you think you need substantive keyed locations you must also believe that you need them in some bulk which means extensive pre-prep. That said, if your group plays and enjoys linear adventures (which is fine) you might have a pretty firm idea where the players are likely to go, which would make you suggestion more possible.
 
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Caesar Slaad

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For further reading/reference:

To kind of restate what I said there: my favorite most functional references are:
Palladium RPG Book II: The Old Ones - doesn't really feature a single city but lots of them. What makes it so functional for me is that I don't care about the setting so I can rip off with glee and not worry about impacting future games I might have run in the setting.
City Quarters Books by the Game Mechanics (Thieves Quarter, Arcane Quarter, Temple Quarter) - super generic D20 fantasy stuff with no surrounding setting to worry about, making it easy to shove into my fantasy setting.
Emerald City - the one setting specific entry in this list. For supers, it does a good job of avoiding the "what about the Justice League" syndrome by explaining how this is a city without heroes in a world full of them, and setting me up with a load of things for the PC heroes to do.
 

Vile

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I used the MERP town & city maps extensively. The colour coded maps were pretty and gave you the building type at a glance. And, like all things, familiarity bred ease, thus with so many maps you quickly learned to read them at a glance.
 

Séadna

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Damnation City for Vampire the Requiem.

It has a district generator with tons of buildings for filling out each area, as well as a system for constructing the political relations within a city. The buildings come with several ideas for how they might be used by hidden organisations and so on, also an urban chase system. Most of the descriptions and content are actually presented generically enough that it could be used in any modern horror game (e.g. Delta Green etc) or with a little more work any game set in a modern city like GURPS: Cops.
 

Gringnr

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I love generator content, and especially if the author would do various flavors of how you want the setting.

As to history and setting specific stuff, it is near useless to me unless it is a nice summary of a licensed property. I get some want a pre-packaged setting with all the work done for them, but for me I want to be able to drop this city into my campaign/setting...so separating out the authors takes from the rest of the city is best.

What I really would like is an wonderfully thought out web of social-political-economic relationships amongst the inhabitants. Factions but explained in several ways/at a high level to best fit my setting. Frankly I'd like all the authors setting specifics to be in a separate book.

What would really be cool, to me, is the main city book describes things at a high level with generic names, like Warrior-focused faction...then in the author setting book a map between generic and specific. AND a "book" or section of with all the generic stuff listed with blanks and space for me to put in my own mapping from generic to specific.

Yeah, I've yet to see a supplement that does a faction web like you describe, despite it also being one of my wishlist items.
Over the Edge 2e, which may or may not be cheating because it's a rulebook and not *technically* a city supplement, has a two-page spread, almost like a spreadsheet, that details how each of the island's many factions feels toward/about each other. My only complaint about OtE 3e is that they didn't do this.
 

Ravenswing

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I've mentioned some of the city supplements I like, and here's what I look for in one.

What I need in a citybook is basic. Most city descriptions lavish attention on geopolitics, history, broad cultural strokes and the like, and in my experience, players care a lot less about those things than game companies and authors seem to believe. Players want NPCs with whom to interact, and businesses in which to shop.

So you need businesses, and a good many of them. We need to have an idea of the quality, breadth and price of the goods. Both Free City of Haven and the Harn cities have simple ratings for how good the services/items presented are, and how comparatively costly they are.

We need to know a few things about the person -- whether it be owner, counter person or salesman -- with whom the PCs will interact. It's nice to have a couple sentences of shop description. And this is where Midkemia’s cities shine: you’ve got a paragraph describing these things.

And that's it. I don't need loving descriptions of how many gold, silver and copper pieces are under a floorboard in the owner's third story living quarters; I can count the times that PCs have been in a proprietor's living quarters at all on one hand. I don't need illos, because the players will give them a second-and-a-half glance, shrug, murmur "That's nice," and forget about them a moment later. I don't need long stat blocks for the owners, because on the remote chance someone wants to throw down with the neighborhood candlemaker, I can pretty much just plug in my system's standard for Terrified Mook Shopkeeper Brandishing A Cudgel – what I need from a blacksmith is his skill level in blacksmithing, not his skill levels in cartography or writing poetry or village football. I don't need maps of the place, because people usually don't have melees when they've popped into the greengrocer's to stock up on tea and spices for the next overland trek.

Truth be told, I've stopped making maps at all for smaller cities: they're superfluous. All a GM needs to know – and only sometimes – is where Place A is, relative to the party, and how long does it take to get from Place A to Place B, roughly. A simple "These businesses are in the Old City, and these businesses are in the East Gate District, and these businesses are by the University, and these businesses are in Twilight Hill ..." will do.

Another mistake citybooks make are in the NPCs they choose to embellish. All too often it seems to be the ruler, the city council, key government officials, all with a column or more of description, combat stats, gear and the like. Sorry, but I've seldom known a group to interact at this level. Heck, I've been running parties out of a large capital city on and off since about 1979, and the first time any PC ever met the Queen was five years ago. No one ever met the chancellor until last year. No one's ever met the chief of the secret police. No one's ever met the chief justice. No one's ever met the High Admiral. No one's ever met the head of the criminal syndicate. Yet these are the NPCs on whom citybooks tend to focus, to the exclusion of people they are likely to meet: the beggar on the corner who sees everything, the smuggler who can get the party out of town unnoticed, the parish priestess, the friendly barkeep.
 

Ravenswing

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Finally, look. There are a lot of random generators out there. There are even generators like the one Chaotic Shiny sells for $5 that will generate shops. I can use them if I want. I don't need to drop $25 for a product that looks like it was put together with random generators.

What I do appreciate -- and what Midkemia did 40 years ago -- are products with two or three pages worth of random interesting NPCs. Because while a city book might need twenty taverns spread across their several districts, how many of them are the players ever going to visit? For my larger cities, I've filled in a number of districts in recent years with lists like this:

C10: Blacksmith
C11: Tavern
C12: Apothecary (follows, full description, because there are only two apothecaries in the city)
C13: Temple of Rinanni
C14: Bathhouse ...

... and etcetera. But I've got in effect plug-and-play shops/NPCs that I can throw in if the party just happens to be in that district and just happens to have a worshiper of Rinanni who wants to pay her respects, and then they want a refreshing soak followed by a mug and bowl at the local tavern. That way I can create, say, 20-30 shops that take the heat off of me to create a hundred.
 

Bunch

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I've mentioned some of the city supplements I like, and here's what I look for in one.

What I need in a citybook is basic. Most city descriptions lavish attention on geopolitics, history, broad cultural strokes and the like, and in my experience, players care a lot less about those things than game companies and authors seem to believe. Players want NPCs with whom to interact, and businesses in which to shop.

So you need businesses, and a good many of them. We need to have an idea of the quality, breadth and price of the goods. Both Free City of Haven and the Harn cities have simple ratings for how good the services/items presented are, and how comparatively costly they are.

We need to know a few things about the person -- whether it be owner, counter person or salesman -- with whom the PCs will interact. It's nice to have a couple sentences of shop description. And this is where Midkemia’s cities shine: you’ve got a paragraph describing these things.

And that's it. I don't need loving descriptions of how many gold, silver and copper pieces are under a floorboard in the owner's third story living quarters; I can count the times that PCs have been in a proprietor's living quarters at all on one hand. I don't need illos, because the players will give them a second-and-a-half glance, shrug, murmur "That's nice," and forget about them a moment later. I don't need long stat blocks for the owners, because on the remote chance someone wants to throw down with the neighborhood candlemaker, I can pretty much just plug in my system's standard for Terrified Mook Shopkeeper Brandishing A Cudgel – what I need from a blacksmith is his skill level in blacksmithing, not his skill levels in cartography or writing poetry or village football. I don't need maps of the place, because people usually don't have melees when they've popped into the greengrocer's to stock up on tea and spices for the next overland trek.

Truth be told, I've stopped making maps at all for smaller cities: they're superfluous. All a GM needs to know – and only sometimes – is where Place A is, relative to the party, and how long does it take to get from Place A to Place B, roughly. A simple "These businesses are in the Old City, and these businesses are in the East Gate District, and these businesses are by the University, and these businesses are in Twilight Hill ..." will do.

Another mistake citybooks make are in the NPCs they choose to embellish. All too often it seems to be the ruler, the city council, key government officials, all with a column or more of description, combat stats, gear and the like. Sorry, but I've seldom known a group to interact at this level. Heck, I've been running parties out of a large capital city on and off since about 1979, and the first time any PC ever met the Queen was five years ago. No one ever met the chancellor until last year. No one's ever met the chief of the secret police. No one's ever met the chief justice. No one's ever met the High Admiral. No one's ever met the head of the criminal syndicate. Yet these are the NPCs on whom citybooks tend to focus, to the exclusion of people they are likely to meet: the beggar on the corner who sees everything, the smuggler who can get the party out of town unnoticed, the parish priestess, the friendly barkeep.
Haven to be fair has that coins in the cupboards because these is an assumption you might be looting it. It is a setting for a game centered around thieves
 

SJB

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Pavis and Big Rubble: a living, breathing small city with an ancient ruined megalopolis attached. Atmospheric. Irilian: a small city with a clear and present danger. The designer cleverly skinned D&D tropes through the use of pseudo-OE. Plenty of reusability in both.
 

Fenris-77

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I think that my primary desire in random generators is for evocative or useful detail, by which I mean things that the players can immediately see and interact with. I always do a certain amount of prep in terms of banging out some locations, a handful in significant detail based on likelihood of use, and then a bunch more as sketches to have on hand should the need arise. I handle NPCs the same way, a few drawn in full colour, and and then a nice batch of useful sketches. This is all to the good except for those darn players, wankers that they are, who seem to delight in zigging when I thought they'd zag. They decide to cross the city when I thought they'd cross the street and, like a lot of us, I don't have the city fully prepped. So now I'm playing Whose Line is it Anyway, and like any good improv I need a handful of words or things to base the sketch on, which brings me back to evocative and/or useful randomly generated details.

Exactly what kind of detail I want depends, obviously, on the genre and goals of the campaign in question. For NPCs I probably want two or three memorable details to riff off of, for a street I want a business or two and some local colour. Same goes for encounters, I want a memorable detail or two and some basics (I don't even care about stat blocks really). What I don't want is to be rolling six dice on a series of nested tables mind you, that's too much me rolling and the players waiting. So let me amend my list if desired features to include accessible in addition to evocative and useful.
 

Fenris-77

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When I'm designing my own city environments I tend to follow a particular structure to get to where I want to be as detailed above. I like to work at the district level to start, or maybe bits of big districts, depending on the city. First I'll decide about wealth level and what sorts of businesses and other 'establishments' are present in the area, which may or may not need some random generators (usually yes). That info helps me design encounter tables that accurately reflect the who would be there part, so the Avenue of Temples has a bunch of different priest and worshipper encounters on it, while the slums of the Reek have beggars, urchins and assorted villains. The kinds of places and people helps get me to street level evocative detail - sights sounds and smells. So for the Avenue of temples there will be smells like that of incense or sacrificial pyres, perhaps with a hint of blood if it's that kind of religion, while the crooked streets of the Reek smell like garbage, shit, and desperation.

The goal, for me, is a rational set of evocative details that all help paint the same picture for the given neighborhood or whatever. I want all my details pulling in the same direction, so to speak.
 

AsenRG

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My favourites:
1) Old Shanghai - a systemless description of Shanghai in the 30ies. No dice included, but the description is just good enough I wouldn't need the generators...besides, the question "what can you find in Shanghai in the 30ies" is usually "yes":shade:.

2) Fates Worse Than Death - most of the corebook is a description of New York 2080. Generators? It uses d1000/d10000 to fit al the results. Despite that, the generators are only for basic stuff like "who do you meet now". Most of it is actual description of places, technology, the kind of people you're likely to meet in various parts of the city, and gangs, more gangs, and even more gangs...:devil:

3) Night City. Seriously, do I need to explain?

4) Hong Kong as presented in Feng Shui 1&2. See the part about Shanghai, except with the Feng Shui system and setting additions...and much less detail (which explains the different spots).

5) Future Tokyo as presented in Zaibatsu and Kuro RPG. Those are actually quite different places...but the descriptions complement each other.

My dream would be a lot of flow chart based stuff with call out points on various connections or nodes that reference a random table to the authors view on the setting. Something that could be a great aid to navigation in play...be it wandering the streets to social interactions.
Reminds me of how Tekumel was presented in Bethorm. The only reason it's not in the list above is the brevity.

Last but not least, I see a lot of mega city stuff, which is cool as it saves a lot of work but those are hard to fit in to anything existing. Now a setting book with like a dozen smaller "cities" or more villages (from 500-5000) would be good, to help one fill in the gaps...and can use as a campaign base.
+1

Another mistake citybooks make are in the NPCs they choose to embellish. All too often it seems to be the ruler, the city council, key government officials, all with a column or more of description, combat stats, gear and the like. Sorry, but I've seldom known a group to interact at this level. Heck, I've been running parties out of a large capital city on and off since about 1979, and the first time any PC ever met the Queen was five years ago. No one ever met the chancellor until last year.
...seems like missed opportunities:devil:!
No one's ever met the chief of the secret police. No one's ever met the chief justice. No one's ever met the High Admiral. No one's ever met the head of the criminal syndicate. Yet these are the NPCs on whom citybooks tend to focus, to the exclusion of people they are likely to meet: the beggar on the corner who sees everything, the smuggler who can get the party out of town unnoticed, the parish priestess, the friendly barkeep.
*scribbles notes about Patrons*

Also, I suspect you might like this supplement, although the title, abreviated, is "FFS"...which might make it harder to discuss on fora. OTOH, after reading the description, I came up with the title was reverse-engineered from the author's reaction to some setting supplements...:gunslinger:
 
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Picaroon Jack

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I love random generators for towns and cities, especially fantasy ones or ones where accuracy doesn't apply.

The only time I don't use them is in modern settings that take place in real cities and then I just use google maps and internet searches. LOL
 

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Writing about the best city supplements I own -- Free City of Haven, The City of Carse, GURPS Worminghall, GURPS Abydos, Magical Industrial Revolution -- that'd take a bit, and I've got Thanksgiving dinner to cook.

Writing about the worst, though ... Well ... City-State of the Invincible Overlord was as good as a city book got in the seventies, so it's tough to blame it for being horribly dated, but you'd think that Judges' Guild would have learned how to write cities by the time Tarantis came out. Then there's the abortion that's the Mayfair rewrite of CS:O, which was a waste of space then, and a waste of time to discuss now.

However, I've got this review all typed out already:

The all time worst? GURPS Tredroy. The author admitted to wanting to build a city the size of Austin (population just under 500,000 in 1990, a year after the publication date), which might work fine for 20th century Texas, but is completely farcical for anything in the medieval line not the capital of a seafaring empire and the chief locus of trade in the world. Feeding it would require a deep water fleet that would be almost equal to the entire Mediterranean merchant fleet at any point in the 16th century ... presuming that the Blueshoal is navigable to the deep ocean going nefs a full five hundred miles inland – which can't be said of any Earth river other than the Mississippi – and tying up about three-quarters of the entire city's mapped wharfage, 24/7. (By the bye, the city’s in arid territory, and divided between three nations, so you don’t even have unified central government.)

Then you have that all the locations listed in the city are guild halls, civic buildings, streets, public squares, and inns. There are only twenty-one businesses listed in the city; twenty are inns, and the twenty-first is a brothel that doubles as an ... inn. My experience is that most players would rather have general merchants, armorers, alchemists and pawnbrokers listed in a town than belltowers and theatres.

Out of ninety some-odd NPCs named, only four are women – a spy, a journeyman merchant, an innkeeper's daughter and a prostitute ... and beyond that, many of the major NPCs listed are government officials and guildmasters, people with whom PCs are less than likely to have much contact, and for whom detailed combat information for each and every one is largely wasted. (And by the bye? Almost all the NPCs are political movers and shakers. Almost none of the content of the book involves politics or intrigue. WTF?)

Then you have the one adventure listed -- eight pages, taking place mostly outside the city. And on and on ... there's the Street of Gadgeteers in technophobic Yrth, the philharmonic orchestra ...

Sure, there are cities that have sucked worse, but you EXPECT more from a SJ Games product than meandering and unrealistic drivel. There have been other SJ Games products I haven't used or with which I was dissatisfied, but not before or since one with which I was totally disgusted. The author never wrote another product for them, but what the hell was Creede Lambard's (the editor) excuse?
LOL! Amen Bob. Tredroy the city of three laws was terrible. Shockingly bad. hehe. When SJG dropped the ball they did it big time. heh. Also agree with you on Mayfair Games re-write of CSoIO, wow. If I recall they put it on an island? It lacked a lot of substance too, where as the original had a ton of stuff, though badly orgnanized of often not making a lot of sense and filled with typos etc. It was still a much better setting than Tredroy or the Mayfair Games revamp of CSoIO.

Personally my favorites were the Cities book by Midkemia Press, Thieves' World and the original City Book by Flying Buffalo. After that you end up just building your own stuff, but mostly I took what those other products did to build my own stuff at the time. Good foundational information and guidance on how it could be done and improved upon for your own game.


Edit: Great later posts as well BTW. Now a days i'd say just sketch out a general layout and bullet points then fill in only as needed.
 
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Acmegamer

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I think two of my favourite city books would be the Thieves World set and the Blacksand book for Advanced Fighting Fantasy.

Both have the advantages that they're small cities. I think there's this weird obsession in fantasy gaming with absolutely massive cities which I think actually don't work as well for role-playing.

In a really big city you're always going to running into completely different people, there's going to be a huge range of criminal gangs, there's going to be dozens of different taverns you have visit if you want to spread rumours of gather information etc.

In a small city you will keep running into the same people. When you go asking for information you don't ask a random tavern keeper, you ask Fredo, the barkeep you've interacted with before, if a criminal gang is needed it's going to be one the PCs are likely familiar with, if there's a murder, the PCs are going to hear about it straight away because everyone will be talking about it. There's more concrete and less abstraction.

In Thieves World the elite Hellhound guard that are cleaning up the city consists of five guys! If you get in a fight and kill one of them it's a big deal.

::cough:: Zalibar (or at least you wouldn't call him a Hellhound within his hearing) would correct you on that. Elite Imperial Guard and personal bodyguards of Prince Kadakithis, half brother to the Ranken Emperor. :grin:
 

Moonglum

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Pavis and Big Rubble: a living, breathing small city with an ancient ruined megalopolis attached. Atmospheric. Irilian: a small city with a clear and present danger. The designer cleverly skinned D&D tropes through the use of pseudo-OE. Plenty of reusability in both.
Maybe my favorite old-school setting. God, we played the hell out of Pavis/Big Rubble, over many years. If you are looking for a recent product with a similar kind of feel, check out Ardonirane for TFT, which is near the ruined megopolis of Quercim, which has a kind of Rubble vibe. The city is very well described, but everyone's Quercim will be different, as it is just a sketch of an idea (though mine is already quite well fleshed out)
 

Ravenswing

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The key questions are “What is of use to the GM?” and “What will the players care about?” Any element that meets either of the first two questions is useful. Anything that meets neither is just empty padding. Me, I don’t want to pay $ for empty padding.

NOT USEFUL

* Pages and pages of the city’s history, unless it’s of the very recent (<5 years) past. A page about the city’s foundation, eight hundred years ago, is useless. There’s no part of gameplay it informs, and no part of the city’s contemporary zeitgeist it affects. The most you’re going to get out of it is:

PC: “Nice statue. Who’s it of?”
Local tomato seller: “Oh, that’s Queen Wendelin. She led us when the Yrahh besieged the city for two years, half a thousand years ago.”
PC: “Huh. Okay.”

Elapsed time of conversation, 12 seconds. Boy howdy, aren't we all glad for the work that went into THOSE pages.

* Detailed stats, skills, items, spells, arms and armor for mook shopkeepers. If my players are a bunch of thugs who beat down innocent tomato sellers, then I know my system’s stats for a mook: 10s across the board for attributes, guy’s not wearing armor, he’s got Speed of 5.5 and Move of 5, and does 1d6 crushing damage with that cudgel (using Shortsword-10 for skill, presuming he's actually practiced with it, failing which he's got skill of -5) he’s hastily grabbed from behind the counter. I took far less time remembering all of that than it did for me to type it out. What’s the guy got for cash on hand? Hrm. Well. A street vendor is a low-paying job in my world, so the guy brings in about six-seven silver a day. So, okay, I roll a d10. (You never know, if I roll a 10, the poor bastard might have his week’s savings in his pocket, and was planning on a nice dinner tonight before going home to the farm.) How long do you figure it took me to figure that out? So ... do I really need to do those details up for every one of the twenty shopkeepers in this neighborhood, and the twenty-two in the next neighborhood over, and the ...

USEFUL

* I’ll take a few paragraphs on the city’s standard architecture and cuisine, the area’s flora, the musical instruments the street musicians play. These are all local color bits I can describe to help make a place interesting and real, and for which I can even trot out clipart or music clips from YouTube.

How about the city my wife’s wizard visited yesterday, first time any PC ever was there. I wrote some elements up from scratch for it, and included that much of the city’s made from greyish-white brick, that they’ve got an unusual number of leatherworkers (a shtick of her character is that she likes collecting interesting cups for her children, so she duly bought a set of locally made tooled boiled leather tankards), that a standard street food is skewers of the local fish, fried up with onions and green peppers and served in flatbread.

* I’ll also happily take a few local customs and a few offbeat tidbits about the city. Check out these two blogposts of mine to give an idea of what I mean: History Nuggets of the City - ...... Spicier Cities. Locals looking with shock and dismay at PCs wearing the color blue, and that those who do are presumed to belong to a particular militant faction, I can work with things like that.

* Things I can describe: listing the colors and badges of the various noble and mercantile houses? If these are commonly displayed, great, I can work with that.
 
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AsenRG

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The key questions are “What is of use to the GM?” and “What will the players care about?” Any element that meets either of the first two questions is useful. Anything that meets neither is just empty padding. Me, I don’t want to pay $ for empty padding.

NOT USEFUL

* Pages and pages of the city’s history, unless it’s of the very recent (<5 years) past. A page about the city’s foundation, eight hundred years ago, is useless. There’s no part of gameplay it informs, and no part of the city’s contemporary zeitgeist it affects. The most you’re going to get out of it is:

PC: “Nice statue. Who’s it of?”
Local tomato seller: “Oh, that’s Queen Wendelin. She led us when the Yrahh besieged the city for two years, half a thousand years ago.”
PC: “Huh. Okay.”

Elapsed time of conversation, 12 seconds. Boy howdy, aren't we all glad for the work that went into THOSE pages.

* Detailed stats, skills, items, spells, arms and armor for mook shopkeepers. If my players are a bunch of thugs who beat down innocent tomato sellers, then I know my system’s stats for a mook: 10s across the board for attributes, guy’s not wearing armor, he’s got Speed of 5.5 and Move of 5, and does 1d6 crushing damage with that cudgel (using Shortsword-10 for skill, presuming he's actually practiced with it, failing which he's got skill of -5) he’s hastily grabbed from behind the counter. I took far less time remembering all of that than it did for me to type it out. What’s the guy got for cash on hand? Hrm. Well. A street vendor is a low-paying job in my world, so the guy brings in about six-seven silver a day. So, okay, I roll a d10. (You never know, if I roll a 10, the poor bastard might have his week’s savings in his pocket, and was planning on a nice dinner tonight before going home to the farm.) How long do you figure it took me to figure that out?

USEFUL

* I’ll take a few paragraphs on the city’s standard architecture and cuisine, the area’s flora, the musical instruments the street musicians play. These are all local color bits I can describe to help make a place interesting and real, and for which I can even trot out clipart or music clips from YouTube.

How about the city my wife’s wizard visited yesterday, first time any PC ever was there. I wrote some elements up from scratch for it, and included that much of the city’s made from greyish-white brick, that they’ve got an unusual number of leatherworkers (a shtick of her character is that she likes collecting interesting cups for her children, so she duly bought a set of locally made tooled boiled leather tankards), that a standard street food is skewers of the local fish, fried up with onions and green peppers and served in flatbread.

* I’ll also happily take a few local customs and a few offbeat tidbits about the city. Check out these two blogposts of mine to give an idea of what I mean: History Nuggets of the City - ...... Spicier Cities. Locals looking with shock and dismay at PCs wearing the color blue, and that those who do are presumed to belong to a particular militant faction, I can work with things like that.

* Things I can describe: listing the colors and badges of the various noble and mercantile houses? If these are commonly displayed, great, I can work with that.
And that, man, is how I've been running my games (I called it Lazy GMing) for years now:grin:! I've been accused of it being illusionism as well...a charge that I don't condone:skeleton:.

Well, except for one thing: there might be NPCs that care about the history of Wendelin and the Yrahh, especially if the Yrahh are still seen as a threat. They would be...how do you call "city nationalists", anyway? Polisalists:tongue:?
So you might get something out of knowing that history, if you're meeting a polisalist, and if the party doesn't have any Yrahh PCs (though you might turn even THAT to your advantage, but that would require a bit of creativity on the side of the Yrahh PC..."no, I'm here because you're right - some Yrahh want another war - but I'm here to stop them, because I'm making money from the interpolis trade, and that would ruin me!":devil:).
 

Séadna

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You and me both.
I just hope they'd do a similar city supplement for the Witcher RPG.
Novigrad would not only be useful for the RPG but there's certain aspects of the Witcher world that I'd like to see a bit more of an explanation on, like more about the Church of the Eternal Fire. It's something I ran into in a recent game.
 
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Acmegamer

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Ravenswing Ravenswing Great two posts above and I agree. One thing I differ on is the history part, or I disagree somewhat I would say. As a GM even if it's my own stuff that I've written up. A couple paragraphs or even a page of history and events helps me the GM with the feel and tone of the city, town or village.

I might never share any of that information but helps me greatly with setting the immersion, tone, and consistency. The city of Sanctuary would have a different feel if I didn't already know the events and history of this backwater town. It's there for me as a GM to lean on and to keep consistent from the city of Ranke or Ilsig. Which then helps me sell it to the players.

Why I said I only somewhat disagree is because many published game material leans on that information waaay to hard. Pages and pages and in small font type to boot. Just overkill and it starts to feel like useless, mindless page filler. Ugh! Jo thank you, please don't write with a page count in mind developers. You'll only come off as if that's exactly what your doing.

So yeah, depending on what the city is, a couple paragraphs to a page of detailed historical events written for me the GM is a good thing. Having lived around the world in a few countries and many states across the US, you do feel the differences between these various places.
 
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Nobby-W

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Ravenswing Ravenswing Great two posts above and I agree. One thing I differ on is the history part, or I disagree somewhat I would say. As a GM even if it's my own stuff that I've written up. A couple paragraphs or even a page of history and events helps me the GM with the feel and tone of the city, town or village.

I might never share any of that information but helps me greatly with setting the immersion, tone, and consistency. The city of Sanctuary would have a different feel if I didn't already know the events and history of this backwater town. It's there for me as a GM to lean on and to keep consistent from the city of Ranke or Ilsig. Which then helps me sell it to the players.

Why I said I only somewhat disagree is because many published game material leans on that information waaay to hard. Pages and pages and in small font type to boot. Just overkill and it starts to feel like useless, mindless page filler. Ugh! Jo thank you, please don't write with a page count in mind developers. You'll only come off as if that's exactly what your doing.

So yeah, depending on what the city is, a couple paragraphs to a page of detailed historical events written for me the GM is a good thing. Having lived around the world in a few counties and many states across the US, you do feel the differences between these various places.

Some big picture is useful to hang the details together but it's best not to overdo it. If the history is pertinent to explaining the world as-is then it can be useful. For example, I have a space opera 'verse in which there are a dozen or so key events in the history that explain significant aspects of the setting. There are a few notes and notions I've got in the back of my mind but I've deliberately avoided fleshing out a detailed history beyond the key events. I feel it's best to keep this sort of work to things that inform the gameplay itself.

Allowing the setting structure to overflow into a load of mid-level canon gets into diminishing returns quickly. This material tends to be a few steps removed from anything that informs play and most players will glaze over at it. Even with willing players, it's not easy to make it useful; if you require your players to understand complex setting conceits in order to know what to do it will make them unconfident and hesitant to take actions.

I'll also argue that overdone setting canon can actually be counterproductive. There several franchises where excessive setting canon has become an attractive nuisance, promoting gatekeeping and fanboyism in its player communities, which often spills over online to the extent that it has become the public face of several major franchises. Gods forbid that you actually wind up with a trufan at your table.
 
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xanther

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I think two of my favourite city books would be the Thieves World set and the Blacksand book for Advanced Fighting Fantasy.

Both have the advantages that they're small cities. I think there's this weird obsession in fantasy gaming with absolutely massive cities which I think actually don't work as well for role-playing.
....
I agree. One of my favorite touch points is Sienna (before the plague) a thriving republic with a city of 15K and total pop with country side of 85K (pop figures from the internet). Just big enough for some complexity, with their contrade (17) which one could spin into the medieval equivalent of Judge Dredd block wars :smile: Just kidding but it gives you an idea of the number of good sized factions a city that size can support. Also, IIRC, Sienna claims to have invented banking as we know it. :smile:
 
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Acmegamer

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Nobby-W Nobby-W Isn't that what I was saying basically while being critical of those books that have pages and page and pages of background information that feels like word count filler? Maybe I just wasn't clear enough? <shrugs> I need to get off my lazy ass and onto the desktop computer versus the finger typing tablet I guess. lol.
 
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