Aging a City

Yesterday, I talked about getting an overall visual appearance for young cities. Let’s face it, though, everything ages—and cities have a lot of time to age and a lot of factors to age them with. Think about these things:

Has it been changing hands? I’m not just talking about another group of entirely different people riding in and taking over, or having to bring in new blood after losing most of the population to a disaster, but also the more gradual, more peaceful sorts of replacement. People move in, people move out, proportions change, people themselves change, and what the city began with may not necessarily be what it has now—but it still grows, new buildings are built, old ones replaced. Unless it’s a local imperative to keep things looking exactly as they were, the city is likely to become a blend of the old and the new.

Has it been staying clean? As UZ pointed out yesterday, sanitation matters—and what happens with sanitation can affect the look of a city. The mess may not always flow downhill—or at least not without a little encouragement—but it has to go somewhere. Often, any city divide along economic lines will tend to separate itself out in the reverse of the directions in which the mess travels—in short, the rich get cleaner, the poor get messier.

How are the materials holding out? Sure, there are cities that find a way to balance the city’s demands with the city’s resources. But as the people build up, and the resources get used up, the city has to look farther and farther afield. Sometimes they can find resources elsewhere, and manage to get a claim on them, and then you get aqueducts miles long, food shipped in from elsewhere—but if the materials can’t come, the city can’t grow, and generally can’t last.

How has knowledge been changing? New technology, new resources, new magic—any of these can change how a city looks, can raise it to new heights, can even destroy it entirely. Think about what was ubiquitous when it was founded, and what is ubiquitous now: does it have room for new infrastructure? Is it willing to make room, or adapt things that it already has? Are there things that it was doing that it’s cast aside in favor of better ideas—or just plain cast aside without a replacement solution?

And how’s the city itself been holding up? There are a lot of things that could bring it down: from man-made causes like invading armies to more natural issues like volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides or earthquakes, from forms of pollution to simple erosion to just reaching the natural lifespans of the materials. A city that’s been partially broken and patched back together isn’t going to look like one that’s never been patched at all; its history will be apparent in the roofs that don’t match their walls, in the oddly angled streets, in the places people prefer not to go because nobody found them worth saving and the ones that came back anyway.

Age gives a city color, and color makes it fascinating. The more you think about it, the more a city will be itself, and not just yet another created waypost on the path to a larger plot.


  1. UZ says:

    A popular fantasy trope is the “ruined quarter”, really the high fantasy version of the bad part of town. These places are usually populated with low-rent types like the undead and giant rats, who of course get along. (Why do the undead never have trouble with carrion eaters? But I digress.)

    I had one like that that I never used. It basically went something like:
    1) Carnivorous plant infests neighborhood
    2) Someone prayed to the Spirit of Winter to come fix it
    3) Their prayer was answered
    4) Now everyone in that neighborhood is undead, unfortunately including the plant

    So, the place was full of regular undead that behave normally, shambling, biting and so on, until someone makes a loud noise. Then they stop and start trying to motion everyone to silence. Too much noise and boom! Killer bloodsucking toothy undead vines from everywhere. And nobody understands why. The important part is to have a skeleton trying to shush the party, because they have probably never had this happen before and won’t react properly. Then, nagging doubts! You can probably get a skeleton to order the party around at least once after this experience.

    Oddly enough, never had an opportunity to use it.

  2. Ravyn says:

    That is so awesome! I’d love to see the looks on the faces of a bunch of players trying to figure out why their characters are getting shushed by a skeleton. (“Maybe it was a librarian?”)

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