Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What Good are Town Maps?

As I write this, I have 22 pages left to move from the old wiki to the new; with 1,136 pages moved.  Hard work accomplishes miracles.

These last nine weeks, I've had to put my creativity on hold.  I haven't created any new content for said wiki, I've made no maps, I've stopped running my on-line game (which will be the first thing I correct, if there are anything but crickets there) and I've been unable to write anything even remotely inventive.  I've pushed myself to write some posts for the blog; but these have been observational, not operative.  I've introduced no new concepts, no formulas, no functional apparatuses.  I miss having some new concept to describe.

But I'm feeling the pressure fall away.  For a long time, I worried about losing my focus before the wiki was even half moved.  I worried about becoming sick of the process.  I worried I wouldn't have enough time.  But the wiki will be done and finished tomorrow.  I will be deleting it the end of April, so that I don't have to pay my monthly fee to wikispaces again.

I feel an urge to be creative.

So before I spend the rest of my day fighting with the Audacity program and the next podcast, I'm going to write a post about city adventures.  And yes, as I write that, I can feel the wet blanket of ennui fall on the head and shoulders of the Gentle Reader.  Gawd, why even bother writing about such a loathsome and utterly useless subject.  Town encounters don't work, they're boring, we're sick to death of mystery runnings and please, can we just drop it before we start?

Believe me, O Reader, I agree with you.  But let's try, anyway.  I have some ideas.

Some many months ago, I came across this map generator, which will create random map images such as this one:

Which will get comments like, "Thanks for sharing it. It's awesome and super helpful," "You made at least one person happy" and "This will make a fine addition to my collection."

Seriously, what am I missing?  This map is useless.  Try hitting the generator a few times and it is soon evident that the map "generator" is capable of producing the most banal, useless, generic collection of blocks and grey squares imaginable.  Yeah, I know a town has streets and buildings ~ but how is something without labels, without context, without a scale, supposed to be helpful in the least way?

But I confess, what would it matter anyway?  If the map above had every building meticulously named, if we knew the exact scale of the main avenue running through the town, if we knew how many ships the wharf was capable of handling, what good would it do us for actually running a game?  Would it be helpful to tell the players, every time, that the apothecary, with name and all, was three blocks west and one block over?  Who cares ~ as long as I can go to an apothecary's.  What do I care what it's called?  Or who runs it?  Or any of the other unsupported meaningless information that a town might potentially offer to me, the user?

If you're a DM, you've run into this problem many times.  Perhaps you've tried to make a party negotiate a town; perhaps you've tried to fill the houses with interesting people for the party to talk to; perhaps you've tried giving nice names to the taverns and inns, the theatre, the keeps and castles, etcetera ... but I'm sure you've found the players don't care.  Players care about two things where it comes to a town: where is it; and can I shop there?

Realistically, you can't map every town in your world; and that is where the generator seems like a needed support tool.  But the generator is as uniform as a small black dot on your general map.  It doesn't help me adventure.

Cities are not dungeons.  We can't just smack down a bunch of roads and buildings and pretend that we've created the same formula that a dungeon creates.  Dungeons are designed to resist movement; and they're filled with death dealing dangers and vicious monsters.  Urban centers can't afford to stop the inhabitants from moving around freely and the absence of danger is the point.  None of the characteristics that make a dungeon work as a dungeon exist in a city.  So the map itself is useless.

A real map, for real people, matters because we can't handwave travel in the real world.  But we can in role-playing and it makes sense to do so.  Why in the hell would we want to force players to stumble over every curb, turn every corner, walk along every by-way?  It's fucking boring.

And so we ought to ask ourselves, do we need a map at all?  I can tell you honestly, no.  We don't.  I haven't had an urban map in decades and no player has ever requested one.  We force urban maps on players because we think they create a sense of space and relevance.  And they might, for a minute or two; but then the next time the players hit a town, or the time after, and there's no map, the game doesn't suffer.

To justify an urban map, we must first create a need for one.

What does this map suggest?

This is Millau, in the south of France.  I've chosen it because it's old and because, like much of the rest of Europe, it has not seen modern war in any sense.  Thus, the old town, identifiable from all the red roofed buildings, is intact.  Likely, the layout of this town has not changed in a millennium.

The width of the map is all of 1300 meters, from the left side to the right.  From that, I deduce the first important thing from this map: at a good pace, taking into account the lack of a straight and easy route, to cross the map from left to right would probably cost about 20 to 25 minutes.  To walk the tree-lined, pear-shaped route in the map's middle, about 1600 meters, would take about the same amount of time.  And easily triple that if we take into account the other passersby, the need to look at shop windows, taking a rest on a bench, staring at a statue or two, having an appetite and so on.  In fact, if we were to go to Millau today, and start in the morning, we'd probably still be at it by dinner time.  Without even covering all the side streets inside the loup.

So the first thing we can get from the above it how much time does it take to explore?  It doesn't matter that the characters can move throughout the town freely ... that doesn't mean they have the will to walk that far or the wherewithal to know what lane to walk down to find that really important thing they have to buy.  If you or I wanted to locate the critical bookbinder in the town, we need to know how long that would take?

The other question the map above answers is "What's there?"  Not in the sense of where is it, but rather denoting that it does exist.  Most of the above consists of residences ~ useless for play.  We're not kicking our way into those unless we're pillaging the town or robbing a place ... and we don't need a map for the latter.

There's are restaurants, a pharmacy, plenty of hotels, a museum, a government office, even a dentist; but there's no waterpark (it's about twenty miles away, up the valley), or fountains, or airports.  At a glance, we can see that there are places where the party can't go ... it doesn't matter how free their movement is. The things themselves don't exist.

That may not seem relevant; or necessary to map.  But when we think about towns, we need to have it clearly in mind that although they offer services, they don't offer ALL the services that might exist.  Nor is it a matter of saying that bigger places have more services; that waterpark is near a small village called Compeyre.  Yes, the bigger places have a better chance of having more ... but that doesn't mean that something crucial, like a gourmet winery, a precision tool maker or the greatest sword-maker in the world won't be in some terrifically obscure place.

Rather than making a map, then, we're better off knowing how much actual space a town covers, and what's actually there, than we are in drawing meaningless streets, plazas and back roads.  We can run those things on the fly; hell, we have more than enough examples in our memories.  Just picture the players walking down a set of roads in some remembered resort town once visited in Mexico, Tasmania, Colorado or Maine.  It's even easier for European and Asian players.


  1. Does this mean that some other online generator, that produces a listing of available locales, shops, important figures, etc ~ is a better resource?

    How might we go about defining the parameters for such a resource? I'm thinking your development levels might be a place to start...

  2. Juvenis will be glad to rumble through Stavanger for the purposes of such an idea.

  3. I would very much like to see more posts continuing this line of thought

  4. I would as well - the way to successfully parameterize a town is something I've struggled with for a while.

  5. I've seen one or two generators that will give you every shop type and name as well as the level breakdowns of every inhabitant of a city of any given population. The problem is the same as map generators. As an example, I just pulled up a village of 433 adults, and it has 17 "taverns" in it. 17? That's 1 tavern for every 25 people in town. That number also does not include the number of inns, either, of which there are 12. Now I'm not an expert in medieval economics, but this seems suspect to me. Especially since there are apparently only 16 servers in town, and 1 tavern keeper. This town also has an architect, an engineer, a jeweler, a goldsmith, a silversmith. And only 4 domestic servants.

    Random lists without any kind of meaningful thought put into designing them to be usable.

  6. I'm definitely interested in pursuing this line of inquiry further. You've sparked my interest.

  7. Count me in, I'd be very interested !

  8. I'm thinking of messing around with some tables based on the dev levels and Alexis's trade system. Thing os, the trade system isn't meant to be a hard-and-fast representation of a fully functioning economy, so there could be a tie-in somewhere, but how and in what capacity?

    For example: if the town is close to a market with a reference for hide (cow, deer, etc), does this improve the likelihood that that town has a tannery? And if it does, what chances do we assign to staffing that business? Because the tannery needs people to be functional, but what if there's a gap in labor ~ for whatever reason?

    I love these things because of the opportunity they afford the DM, to create sense out of randomness.

  9. I've played with this idea for a few years now; I'm definitely down with this line of investigation. Put things in town that the players want to interact with; everything else is essentially fluff.

    Actually, to plug myself (shamefully), I've got a GitHub repository containing a very unfinished settlement generator that tried to go down that path. I haven't touched it in several months and imagine I would cut it down in a couple respects, but broadly the idea was to set a founding date for the town and then move forward through time and have random events occur to create a history for the place.

    I won't go into all the details here and derail the post, but perhaps to lead back, what do you think are the critical elements to establishing a town's unique character for the party, and what kinds of mechanical approaches can we take to develop that character on the fly?
    Services would obviously be one element, which are related to trade and geography (availability of grapes, presence of hot springs, etc.) but does (or perhaps, should) towns function beyond simply built-up dungeon-crawler gas stations? Players may want to visit the sights (tying in your bard experience work) or perhaps establish themselves in the community by purchasing property (which is priced by the economy system, but not described in great detail). I've often wanted a way to see if the players might come to a town which is battling a plague (now they have to decide how much further they're willing to go for a bed), or dealing with some political upheaval or some other form of "event".

    Typical "generators" for these sorts of systems seem to almost always be way too generous, filling the city with taverns (as Lothar mentioned) or shoemakers or other details that don't really affect the players much. Undoubtedly, for towns to be interesting they need to experience the same scarcity problems in their services as they do in their economies -- that almost makes me wonder if you would want to add buildings to the economy simulator (e.g., have X marble references, Y incense references and Z lumber references to add a church to the settlement).

  10. I have 2 wiki pages left to move. Both were created by Tim, who just commented; I want to alter them slightly before copying them, and make the tables friendlier. I'm going to take a break from that and write a post.

    Tim, Ozymandias,

    You're both touching on subjects that I mean to talk about and, yes, the development tables are set to solve. The 250 hours [estimated] that I spent on the wiki were meant to be used to put up development tables 5 through 9 this Spring ... but wikispaces closing down their platform fucked that plan. If it hadn't, you wouldn't have needed to write your comment, Oz; my tables regarding that would already be up.

    It is very clear that people who make city generators for role-playing games haven't done jack for research; but that's standard, isn't it? It is made worse that considerable research has gone into medieval town design in the last half century, through archeology in particular, blowing apart most of the preconceptions upon which the generator above is based. I'll be getting into that with the next post.

    The problem with a generator that creates plague or political upheaval is two-fold: first because a full-blown example of either is far too rare to make a die roll meaningful; and second, because on some level both can be counted as continually existing. We have a tendency in this century to think of a plague as something that appears and goes away ... where in fact plagues lingered in most port cities for decades, steadily drifting from neighborhood to neighborhood, as victims both ran out and presented themselves. At any given time in London, for instance, it was possible to find streets where plague was unavoidable. However, because city wide events were rare, we tend to think the plague only occurred in that form.

    The same with political upheaval. Politics played out through the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance much like gang fights occur in the present era, in large cities. Small riots of a few dozen on both sides might break out every few days, depending on the measure of honor killing, poverty or threat of war. Most of these confrontations would not have produced deaths; but they were inconveniences for the residents and well avoided.

  11. Another thing to consider where services are concerned is that, just because a service exists in some form, doesn't mean it'll be available to the players. A blacksmith or weaponsmith may be in the employ of a local mayor or lord, but the PCs, being outsiders, are going to have a hard time securing his services for anything they need.

  12. So glad I'm not the only person who avoids producing "town maps" (and for similar reasons).


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