So ... with the first post in this series, I ended with some discussion about how urban settlements are time sinks, and how many smaller places might not have the things you're looking for ... without quite making the point that you could spend time looking for something in a town or city that doesn't actually exist.
With the second post, I wrote about how settlements accumulate organically rather than by decision ~ and in certain geographical locations, dictated by access, happenstance of the terrain and necessity. With the third post, I wrote that settlements accumulate inside the boundaries of the settlement as well, as labor and the need for survival causes poorer people to gravitate to parts of the city where they have the potential to earn money, while money that has been accumulated is collected into places that isolate themselves from the poor. This can be plainly seen on the map above, in the way that Very Rich People and Super Rich People exist apart from Grime, Sludge, Irony and Old People.
Finally, with the fourth post, I wrote about how the substructure of the urban environment needs to be reconstructed so that adventures can happen without fear of dogpiling by half the population. The question remains, how do we make an urban adventure fit into a structure that can behave in a proper functional manner, like the wilderness does with its open spaces, or the dungeon does with its dystopian claustrophobia?
Ah, that's where I'm heading.
Remember that I said a town has an open framework; as an entity within its boundaries, you can move through most of it without infringement. Yes, there are private places, inside buildings, behind locked doors, built behind high walls with guards, nasty pets and magical glyphs. But if we consider the map above, if you want to walk among the rich people, or if you want to see the dead people, or if you want to wander among the ducks, you're free to do so. Some neighborhoods will be risky; others will judge your clothing and disdain your presence. There are lots of places where you won't make friends. But you can go there.
Suppose, however, that you did not have the map above to help you. Imagine that you did not have a lifetime of hearing or reading stuff about New York, or seeing movies filmed there, or having it explained to you by urban designers or historians. Suppose you did not know one damn thing about New York ... just as a 15th century resident of Yorkshire would not have known one damn thing about London.
Suppose you enter from the top center of the map, where it reads "Canada." What does Jazz, Great Southern Food and the appearance of smart kids on the street tell you about what you might find in the rest of the city? Could you guess?
Now imagine that there are no cars, no trains, no modern services of any kind ... and that only the very wealthy have access to horses. This is the 15th century, so even a coach service doesn't exist. Like people in the country who would live their whole lives within seven miles from where they were born, people in the city could live their whole lives within seven blocks. Thus, none of these people you meet on the edge of the city would be able to tell you what the rest of the city contained.
Now remove the street signs. And most of the business signs. The bakers would tend to congregate on one street, the leather workers on another ... and in a given part of the city, that street would be known as Baker Street ~ but there would be no sign. In a city as big as New York above or London (and nothing really was, but if we remove most of the high rises, it's arguable that Beijing, Lahore, London or Paris sprawled as much as the above example), there might be a dozen or more "Baker Streets" ... known locally as that by the nearby inhabitants. Don't laugh. How often does "High Street" appear in America? Or "Garden Street", or "Lakeside" whatever?
Everyone knows where the butcher lives and where the cobbler lives. There's no need for big, showy signs designed to attract attention. Everyone has as much work as they can manage anyway, as everything is hand made. More customers does not make more time in the day, nyet? [sorry; using Russian is probably not desired just now, is it?] So a particular kind of shop might have a little sign next to the door, something the size of a hand-span, reading something like, "J.M. Dodd, Esquire." But what is that? A solicitor? A jeweler? You'd need to poke your head in the door to find out.
An Inn or a Tavern might have a bigger sign, but signs cost money; and after a few years, the paint wears with the rain and is bleached by the sun, until it can barely be read from the street. Most of the people there know it's "The Aged Keg," but you, dear stranger to this place, might walk past the building three or four times before realizing it's the place where you're supposed to meet your contact.
Of course, you're thinking you'd recognize it by the bright lights, and the shouting and laughter, and probably the music. Perhaps on a warm night in the summer time, but likely not if the weather is foul. And candles cost money too, except when Hollywood can use electric light to fake them. Nor are the locals likely to sing much, as they're working fourteen hour days. They only want to drink to deaden the feeling in their muscles, just as people now choose to do.
So you shouldn't count on the fellow passing by on the street to give you much information about the city beyond his small piece of it. He's busy, anyway, hauling something for his master, or collecting rents, or heading off to meet his mistress, or whatever he's doing that's keeping him from his rooms, his duties or his master's service.
When I think of strangers coming into a town, I think of this:
[feel free to ignore the music]
Given time, the locals will come around (which is played up in order to make the musical work), but for the most part they don't like strangers. This, too, is a barrier to knowing how a city or town is put together.
If it hasn't occurred to the reader yet, what I'm saying is this: like a dungeon, cities require exploring. Really big cities are filled with open areas, gutted neighborhoods (from fires or disasters, see "oil spill"), strange isolated cultures, forces for good or evil, etcetera ... but isolated by distance and the obscurity that comes from really a lot of buildings and roadways, not from stuck doors or difficult descents.
Players should have it explained that walking straight through the middle of a city along the busiest avenue won't yield much information. Without signs, without the features we recognize in our day and age, which wouldn't be recognized by a stranger of its own time, cities are huge baffling maelstroms of people. The busier the avenue, the more people have to do, the less time people have to talk. The loafers with time to chat are out of sight, in back lanes, seated around small flophouses, bitterly resenting strangers who have the money to walk around in armor while they carry weapons. Cities and towns aren't friendly, in either the congenial or the interfacing sense. They're complicated, cluttered, deceptive, hard to know ... and must be explored one block at a time, diligently, if they're to give up their secrets.
If we want a map, we want one that will emphasize THAT.