Bones of the Young City

Even in fantasies that read like a travelogue and science fiction that spends most of its time moving out in the black, cities tend to stand out. And why wouldn’t they? One needs to go there at some point. That’s where the supplies are, where the interaction is, where the political powers meet. Some stories, some games, never go beyond the bounds of a city, save a few flashbacks; a really big city is the gameworld in miniature, all the clashes and secrets and crazy concepts without the obnoxious travel times. But to get to cities like that, we need to start with younger places. More recent ones. Every large, old city is just a young city that’s been built onto and changed hands a bit more often.

With a young city, the best thing to do is to start with the overall structure; the people can come later. Consider it the skeleton.

The first question to ask yourself, then, is what sorts of people built the city. Most cities tend to reflect the aesthetics of the people who build them, both in how the buildings are put together and how the city itself is structured—is it made from a plan? Patched together at seemingly random? Radiating outwards in a pattern from certain structures?

Where is the city? This is going to become important both because of how the surrounding area shapes the city (there is only so much you can do with a valley surrounded by sheer cliffs, after all) and because of the limitations the environment necessarily puts on the materials available.

What materials were available to them, and where did they get them? This is going to determine just as much about the structure of your city; it doesn’t matter how much a culture loves using wood if it’s out of range of any forest, or how much they like to build of stone when what they have close by is mostly sand.

What sorts of special techniques, magic or technology did they have available to them? Most of what this does is serve as a way to work around the limitations created by the earlier questions: a civilization with roads and strong wheeled transports can work around the matter of being far from the forests, and one with magic that can turn sand to larger sections of something glassy could make building materials even if all they had was miles and miles of granular silica.

How do they get the materials they need to fulfill the city’s purpose? Part of this is survival—any city will need food and water for its inhabitants. Then there’s what the city was built for, if its location was chosen for any reason other than “there’s farmland and water here”: whether it was built to exploit a certain resource, to block an enemy’s vector of attack, to serve as an economic rival to an existing city.

Figuring these out may not get you the feel of a younger city, but they’ll certainly get you what it looks like—then you can build on that.


  1. I would recommend anyone wanting to take a crack at this finding a decent medieval social history book. The following is the one I used when getting my degree and not only is it very useful, but it’s also a good read.

  2. Michael says:

    Thank you — a very useful post at a very appropriate time :)

  3. UZ says:

    Cities… think about that *smell*.

    Perfect sanitation, unless it’s magic, requires certain technologies which the locals may not have. So consider what the local solution is for garbage and sewage!

    - Laissez faire, not the best but the cheapest and the easiest. Throw it far enough away from the door that you can’t smell it much! Drawbacks include serious diseases, which is why even primitive farming villages have some kind of hole or something. Unfortunately urban density doesn’t usually allow for really effective hole-digging and people tend to return to this model for lack of better options. Everyone loves the rain in these cities.

    - Drainage tunnels, our modern solution. Keeps the smell away underground, but also creates a horrifying environment full of toxic gas underground, which may be a problem when we’re talking about fantasy creatures.

    - Gygaxian sanitation, which involves a creature with an incredibly generic description keyphrase like “dissolves all organic matter on contact.” Drawback – gelatinous cubes.

    Think about what kind of city it is, and this may tell you what kind of city it smells like.

  4. Shinali says:

    One thing that struck me is how many new cities are built on the ruins of old cities, or in dangerous areas like flanks of volcanoes, coastal areas prone to storms, and banks of rivers that flood annually. Mostly because these areas have something a safer place will lack – resources.

    You have to consider not only sewage but stormwater and other recurring natural hazards. Anyone can make a cart path through brush and convince people to use it, but cities are built on aqueducts and alcohol.

    The flip side of UZ’s sewage question for cities (or even remote villages) is how well is the system working for them, and what are its repercussions. Cholera and dysentery? A culture that always boils water or only drinks alcohol? Legends of giant alligators and fish in the sewers?
    Taking it to stormwater/irrigation you end up with mosquitoes, or things dying in your canals, etc.

  5. Ravyn says:

    Wow, didn’t think this one would do quite so well!

    Shorty: looks good! (Though my librarian would probably insist on something newer. Pity.)

    Michael: Thanks!

    UZ: I like the “Gygaxian sanitation” part!

    Shinali: Yeah, no kidding (and I’ll be getting to cities built on old ones). Aqueducts and alcohol… heh, now you’re giving me ideas.

  6. UZ says:

    Axebeard: Well, the trick was keeping the underground reservoir completely anaerobic while still being able to vent the pressure that builds up. But the volcano provides the heat, and diverting the underground river solves the water problem. So, as long as the mash golems keep feeding in grain at the top end, we have -

    (Ceremoniously turns on the tap, which emits a stream of amber liquid)

    Axebeard: Constantly flowing beer in every house in Derndelve.

    Pinesol (completely aghast): Amazing.

  7. Ravyn says:

    So what does a mash golem look like?

  8. UZ says:

    Ah, couldn’t tell you, I was never into the homebrew thing. I assume it involves a lot of cogs and lenses, dwarves are all steampunk these days. That is, unless beer is an element in your cosmology, then I’m not sure I want to think about it…

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Aging a City | Exchange of Realities
  2. Abandoning a City | Exchange of Realities
  3. Impractical Applications (Cities and Foundation) | Exchange of Realities

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