Tuesday, April 24, 2012


"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

"A great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life."
— Samuel Johnson

The city.  Urbs.  Civitas.  Polis.  There is something powerful about the packing of places and teeming of characters that make it rich for the imagination to inhabit.  Thus it is one of the settings that I love, even for fantasy adventure.  It's not because I eschew variety: the hamlet, the wilderness, and -- especially the Underworld -- all have their charms.  But a well-drawn city matches the well-done Underworld in my book.  Dickens' London (to choose one London), lives for me and it is one of the Londons that I love; Rutherford's is another.    McCullough's late Republican/early Imperial Rome likewise seems a real place with its own distinctive character.  I'd like to find fiction set in Venice and Florence that do the same for those cities in the Renaissance.  It's been a long time since I read much Ann Rice, but I think I'd probably say her New Orleans, and perhaps to a lesser extent her Paris, read well.  The Thieves World novels made Sanctuary breathe and roar and spit.  In game settings, the Free City of Greyhawk, Waterdeep, and Golarion's Absalom (for sale here) are intriguing cities that promise strong sense of place. 

What cities do you love?  What materials from fiction or gaming deliver a city in its stones and in its soul to your imagination?  What are the touches that make the city seem a unique, living place?  Are there equivalences of the double decker bus, the little black cab, the red phone box, and the red royal post box?  How do you go about city building in your secondary creations?  I would love to hear your thoughts, examples, and recommendations!


  1. Sanctuary, yes, as you say, and Pavis.

  2. Interesting. I never thought of cities as interesting. I'm a country kid! I'm trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs in April. My alphabet is at myqualityday.blogspot.com

  3. I'm fascinated with the Muslim city of Cairo from both the perspective of history and gaming. The Call of Cthulhu campaign _Masks of Nyarlathotep_ drew my attention there first, and later historic research for fiction and gaming only enhanced my appreciation.

    Both cities named "Memphis" (The Egyptian and Tennessean) have detailed, interesting histories and help convey a real sense of place.

    For entirely fictional places, Bordertown (from Windling's shared-setting fiction) is hard to beat. The Free City of Greyhawk might be Oerth's mega-city, but my group much seems to prefer Istivin (capital of the March of Sterich). I'll have to dig deeper into Absalom. I enjoy Golarion, but haven't gamed there much.


  4. Pavis remains awesome through several campaigns. I've been reading a modern take on Mumbai which has some cool ideas for play. There are some decent histories of Paris and London, but I wish I could find some other solid and more obscure city history books which a focus on the cultural side of things.

    My three favorite rpg city resources right now are:
    1. The Citybooks series from Flying Buffalo. Thirty years later and these resources remain awesome.
    2. City of Lies for its complete and amazing presentation of a samurai city. Beyond that, a unique city- completely unlike anything else in the setting.
    3. The Kaiin Player's Guide for a completely reversed approach to presenting a city. There's no GMs guide, only a guide for the players where they can learn about the city and pick out adventures and rumors they're interested in pursuing.

    There's also Middenheim and Bogenhafen from WHFRPG, both cities with great stories associated with them. Umbar and Bizoisha-Dar as presented in the MERP material were really well definied cities with a unique flavor. At one point I started a list of fantasy cities with sourcebooks, but that remains incomplete.

  5. I'm surprised no-one has mentioned Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, from Discworld. "When you're tired of Ankh-Morpork, you're tired of ankle-deep slurry!"

  6. Thanks for the comments, gang!

    I think I've read short stories by Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke in Bordertown. I need to hunt down some more.

    Ankh-Morpork! I have such an inexplicable relationship to comedic fantasy. Generally, I don't like it, but it's just impossible to not like Pratchett. I was so disappointed when the punch-out Ankh-Morpork wasn't scale-sized to my minis.

    I remember a while back they gave away some Glorantha e-books. Before that, I was totally unfamiliar with it. I should look through those and see if their were any city information in those. When it comes to maps and building diagrams, the old Iron Crown one's for Middle Earth are just lovely. The artist has a blog that I hope is in my Linkography.

    I've got a Part II up, which I hope everybody sees!

  7. I am a huge fan of city settings. Ptolus still ranks as my favorite so far, but just about any major city in the various fantasy settings I enjoy appeals to me. When it comes to planar cities, I still really enjoy Sigil, but I want to know more about Paizo's Axis.

  8. The one reason I regret that I was never much of a player of 2nd edition is because of Planescape: I wish I hadn't missed out on Sigil. As I was enjoying listening to a James Sutter piece on STARSHIPSOFA recently, I started to wonder how consistent I find Axis. I'm going to have to go back and reread! Great stuff...but I so knew you were going to say Ptolus!

    The planar city that calls to me across the editions, and that I will continue to develop, is the City of Brass. Of all the planar cities, that one will probably always be my favorite. It has a unique appeal for me, somehow.

  9. I had the opportunity to visit Vienna in March of last year. It wasn't until I'd been able to walk the streets of such an old, yet lively, city that I understood how a city like Absalom could actually work. There truly is no substitute for experience when it comes to understanding certain things.

    This was a great choice for a blog topic, Theo. Well done!