RPG Design Journal #5: Starting a City…

Moreso than any other environment (with the possible exception of the dungeon) the city dominates all other locales as the prime spot to begin adventures. Whether the players meet in a seedy tavern, the hall of some nobleman, or outside the main gates, the city offers more possibilities – and therefore more adventure – than any other realm of the fantastic.

Of course, it is this variety that makes such cities so difficult to design. A city in an imaginary world is a city with an imaginary history, imaginary inhabitants, imaginary lives. The city is not built with the luxury of being new. Most cities begin with limited planning – settlers put their abodes wherever seems most convenient, though some may plan for the sake of putting up walls and fortresses. As populations increase, and engineers and architects move in, cities become a patchwork of impromptu and premeditated topographies.

The 1859 map depicting Ildefons Cerdá’s plans for Barcelona. Note the difference between the labyrinthine buildings of the  Old Town (in black) and the straight avenues of Cerdá’s extension.

For our world we will create the first settlement in the New Lands. We know that the New Lands are North of the Empire, and is across the ocean; naturally, it would make sense for the first Imperial settlement to be a port city. It would also make sense for it to have many defensive fortifications because of the Migrations. Because the first migration occurred thirty years after the founding of Saint Maluns, this might be an event that leads to division’s in the city’s layout. The docks would still grow, but inland parts of the city would develop more like a fortress town. This could also signify class differences: the poor would be more likely to live outside the city walls near the docks, the middle classes live inside the walls of the city, the upper classes inhabit an inner wall – really, a keep from medieval  cities – to be safe, not only from the migrations, but from the commons.

A map for Saint Maluns. Note the different areas that are outlined by the walls and the streets. The docks are kept out by the town walls, the nobility is cloistered in the upper-left corner of the town.

The name of the city (“Saint Maluns”) is also intended to help evoke the tone of the game world. It is reminiscent of the days of Papal Hegemony, the mixing of Religious Rule and Imperial Might. However, the setting’s (anachronstic) time period also suggests that this power may be falling apart. The Renaissance, the Baroque Era, and the Enlightenment all slowly picked apart these superpowers through schisms, technological advancements, and the rise of skepticism. Saint Maluns is a city that is caught in numerous struggles. The city’s aristocracy wants to maintain traditional power structures, the military wants to keep the city (and all of the colonies) in the palm of the Empire, anarchists and rebels want independence, criminals want a profit. In this town we can enact any number of conflicts on a (relatively) small scale; players can find factions to align with or destroy.

Let’s look at some of the factions that will inhabit this city:

Firs off we’ll look at the two political ideologies as embodied by the nobility and the rebels:

The Nobility: The Nobility of Saint Maluns is a hive of privilege, snobbery, and political intrigue. Most of the nobles have very little power compared to the courts of the Imperial Homeland, and try to make up for their political inadequacy through fanciful façades and by enacting their control over the city. The city (and the colony of Curelsed) is officially ruled by Duke Kalsius, who was sent by the Emperor himself to help suppress any dissent. Kalsius is less concerned with the squabbling of the local nobles and is eager to imprison the anarchists and insurgents that he is sure walk the city’s streets. Despite the elitism of the patricians, the Empire does offer the city’s inhabitants plenty of goods and military protection. Many of the inhabitants are content to live under the gaze of the Emperor, even if they don’t much care for the local aristocrats.

The Rebels: The “rebels” of Saint Maluns are not so much a unified force as a political ideology shared by some of the city’s inhabitants. Since Saint Maluns is so closely tied (economically, geographically, and politically) to the Empire there are fewer rebel cells compared to some of the other cities further inland.

Another couple themes of this world are Enlightenment vs. Romanticism and Harmony vs. Discipline. Inspired by the magicians of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as well as the rivalry of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz (especially as portrayed in Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle) I created two groups of magic-users with different philosophies.

The Cabal: An organization of magicians run by an individual known as The Artist. The Cabal believes that magic is powered by emotion and creativity; they mainly focus their energies on the arts, honing their magic through their creations. The Cabal’s headquarters is akin to a bohemian retreat – a cross between a club and Andy Warhol’s Factory – where magicians collaborate, debate, brag, and indulge in hedonistic pleasures.

The Magickal Society: An organization of magicians run by The Scientist. The Magickal Society believes that magic obeys certain natural laws that mortals cannot break. The Society uses a process (similar to the Scientific Method) to determine and catalogue magical discoveries. They work out of The Scientist’s Academy, an educational institution dedicated to the magical and scientific disciplines.

There are also a few other organizations that have their own conflicts, or serve as neutral parties.

Criminals: Saint Maluns is a port town in a land of monsters, its bound to attract some sketchy individuals. There are numerous small gangs and individual criminals, but everybody knows that the real king of the city’s underworld is Waldamar the Pleaser. Waldamar’s criminal network deals in everything from drugs, to magic, to slaves. Duke Kalsius sees Waldamar as his foremost adversary in his war to control Saint Maluns. Waldamar doesn’t seem too worried, so long as the profits keep rolling in.

Rangers: A paramilitary force shared among the colonies, the Rangers were formed after the first migration to protect the colonies from monsters. While Knights represent the force and morals of the Empire and civilization, the Rangers serve as the warriors of the wilderness. Simultaneously monster hunters, soldiers, and law enforcement, the Rangers serve as the penultimate guardian of the frontier. Saint Maluns doesn’t have many active Rangers – most are further North, near the Forest – but there is a Ranger’s Office where young hopefuls can sign up to join the ranks.

The Spirian Church: The official church of the Telurian Empire. The Spirian Church has strong ties to the Imperial military through their Order of Myr, which hosts knights and Paladins. These holy warriors serve the will of the Gods and the Emperor, which sometimes leads to conflicts when the Church and the State’s orders conflict.

The Imperial Military: Saint Maluns has its own military base for colonial soldiers, but sometimes the Imperial Mainland sends in troops directly. Recently, the Empire has been sending a great number of troops lead by the war hero Sir Arran, but nobody in the city (not even Duke Kalsius) knows what their mission is.

These different factions offer plenty of plot hooks; some of which are explicit, some of which can be built upon out of these descriptions. There is also the possibility for sub-factions to exist within these groups, providing additional opportunities for characters who join organizations. As we continue to build this city we can consider the influence of these organizations to determine how Saint Maluns has developed.

Next time we’ll look at specific locations within the city that players can visit.






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