How to Start a Campaign: City Building

City Map

How to Start a Campaign: City Building

So, you’ve had it with preprinted modules, you’re bored with the campaign worlds published by your RPG manufacturer, and you’re ready to create your own. Creating an entire campaign is a big job—how do you get started?

First, decide on the scale of the campaign. Do you want to run a campaign set in a unique city? In a unique realm? In a unique world? In a unique universe (or multiverse)? The larger the scale, the more work you’re going to have to put in up front. This week, I’ll discuss setting up a city campaign.


Many campaigns can be run entirely within one city … Western, fantasy, occult, cyberpunk, and similar genres work quite well within a relatively enclosed environment such as a large city where the characters gradually learn who’s who and how to “play the game.” Superspy, space-travel and time-travel games tend to involve country-, planet- or timeline-hopping and cannot usually be tied down to a single city for any length of time.

To start a city game, you need a city map. The campaign city should be relatively large; a small village or town will eventually cease to offer new challenges, whereas a large city can constantly bring new surprises. Real-world RPGs can be set in a real city (even if you change the name), and city maps can be purchased over the counter—in the U.S., try getting maps from the Automobile Association of America, which has a vast selection of national and international maps and sells the maps relatively inexpensively even to non-members. Popular RPG cities are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, Rome, Venice, Paris, London … but any city is fair game. Fantasy RPGs require a little more work. The GM can either use a real city map and change street names (historical city maps can be useful for this), buy a prepublished city map from any RPG system (maps, after all, are usually RPG-generic), or create an original map.

Remember that the type of city you choose will affect the mood of the campaign. If you want to run a gothic horror campaign, a European city or historical district (such as New Orlean’s French Quarter) is probably better than Chicago or Dallas. If you want to run a gritty, dark cyberpunk campaign, New York or Tokyo are probably better than Los Angeles or Malibu (too much sun!). A fantasy city might be more interesting if it has canals or catacombs than if it is stuck out in the middle of the desolate plains, whereas a Old West city really needs dust and tumbleweeds more than it needs gondolas or crypts. Be sensitive to genre expectations and city reputations as you select your city maps.

After you have a city map, divide the city into territories (try using an overlay of thin tracing paper so you don’t have to mark on your map; that way you can “stack” territories to see where the overlaps occur). A city is a miniature world, with each territory having its own language, customs, benefits and dangers. For example, try dividing the city by several of the following territories:

  • Income: Where do various income groups live? Poverty-level? Old money? Nouveau riche? Yuppie? Middle-class? Blue-collar?
  • Subcultures: Subcultural groups tend to gather in neighborhoods, affecting the language signs are in, the types of restaurants available, and so forth. Where do major subcultures groups tend to gather?
  • Gang Territories: What gangs rule what areas? Which areas are neutral or contested?
  • Crime Level: Which are the really bad parts of town that police don’t like to enter? Which parts will get you arrested if you walk in wearing the wrong clothes? Where do you go for street contacts? Where is the corporate or political crime most common?
  • Secret Societies: Does your RPG include covens, mages, vampires or the like? Which territories do the major players in these secret societies rule or influence?
  • Business: Where’s the white-collar business district? The blue-collar? Where are the fancy shopping areas? The discount mall zones? Are there streets for certain types of business? Do guilds cluster in certain areas?

Once you have several territories marked out, give them descriptive or slang names. For example, by street (“7th and Fig”), by business (“the Garment District”), by precinct (“the Rampart Division”), by socioeconomic level (Shadowrun’s “The Barrens”) and so forth. Be imaginative … naming city territories in an RPG should be like naming characters or countries, an exercise in finding the perfect name to be both mysterious and fascinating. Then have nonplayer characters use these names to demonstrate their familiarity with the city … and encourage player characters to learn and use the names, too. That will encourage them to feel like they belong to the city.

Now that you have territories, you also have a start on understanding the political players in the city. Describing these political players, in broad terms, is your next step. Sweeping generalizations are fine at this point; you’ll fine-tune the politics as needed.

  • Government Type: Is the city run by a mayor? A council? Who makes laws? Is the government mostly honest or corrupt?
  • Law-Enforcement Agencies: Is there a standing police force? Private security? Is the city lawless? Is law enforcement mostly honest or corrupt?
  • Criminal Groups: Are there major crime lords in the city? Evil occult societies? Who belongs to them? Are they open or secretive?
  • Major NPCs: Name at least five major NPCs who will help put a face on the city. For example, the city mayor; a notoriously tough but honest cop; a celebrity in theater or television or sports; a crime lord who keeps avoiding prosecution; an enormously rich man or woman from the oldest and most respected family in town.

Politics will form the backdrop for your game … your player characters may not be interested in politics at all, especially if they are part of the underground (e.g., occultists, vampires, cyberpunks) … but politics will eventually affect them. In a city-based campaign, the player characters will eventually need to call on — or will run afoul of — the law, or a gang, or some sort of mobster or secret society. At that point they begin to interact with people who have their eyes on larger goals … and they’re swept into politics, whether they like it or not.

As you run the campaign, from time to time be sure to mention the major NPCs you’ve named. The news can come from gossip around the tavern or bar, a television show, a newspaper or the like. The news doesn’t have to directly involve the player characters, but make it interesting. The mayor attends a new museum opening. The cop is on suspension. The celebrity’s daugher has been kidnapped. The crime lord is dating a rival’s spouse. The rich person has financial problems. This gossip sets the mood for the city. Is it all good? Is it all bad? Does it hint at high-level corruption? Does it foreshadow a future disaster or crime? The gossip can even eventually lead to an adventure; anything that the players seem interested in is fair game for elaboration into a plotline.

Now you have your city fleshed out; it’s mapped, you know where various resources and people can be found, and you even have a few individuals named and described. You have also started to establish the campaign mood through your city choice, territory description and political description. Now you need to do some detail work.

Choose one section of the city in which to start your campaign. The high-class district? The slums? An ethnic neighborhood? The business district? You might require all player characters to live in that area, or you could simply decide that it will be the focal point for the first few adventures. Requiring all player characters to live or have some sort of bond (family, business, etc.) to the area is best; city campaigns too often lend themselves to scattering the characters all over, so do as much as you can to keep the characters together.

Now create a few landmarks in that area—places people who live in the neighborhood will all recognize as points of reference. An old house with a reputation for being haunted, a high school, a rough bar, a mystic bookshop, a civic fountain, etc. Tailor these landmarks to the campaign you want to run, of course; they should be places where player characters will meet to talk about an adventure, find resources, or avoid like the plague. These will be recurring settings for the games in the campaign, places the characters will return to again and again. Mention them from time to time, especially if the characters aren’t actually going to them (e.g., “you walk by the fountain….” or “there are a lot of kids around because the high school across the street just got out…”).

These landmarks will also, at times, be settings for adventures; perhaps the high school gets raided by mobsters or monsters, or the fountain is a base for serial killings or an explosion. Do not actually endanger or destroy a landmark until it is acknowledged to be a landmark … the characters should come to expect the landmark’s existence before you threaten it. When they refer to the landmark on their own without prompting, they have accepted it as a point of reference. Now you can abuse it.

People, too, act as landmarks. Create five NPCs in the territory or neighborhood and give them names and descriptions. They should be people with whom you think the characters will be interacting on a regular basis: the grumpy bartender who wants to be an actor; the gossipy old man who sits on his porch watching everything that goes on around him; the nosy little girl who thinks the characters are neat; the forbidding secretary who keeps characters out of his boss’ office; the tough female cop who keeps running into the characters at inopportune times.

These NPCs should be given cameo appearances in every few adventures. Sometimes they’ll be helpful, more often they’ll just be there … and sometimes they will be a hindrance. Landmark NPCs give personality to the characters’ day-to-day world, especially at the beginning of the game before the characters have made many contacts elsewhere in the city. Protect these NPCs; if one of them seems likely to be killed by an annoyed player character, make sure the NPC suddenly has that piece of information the character really needs, or turns out to be a relative or a friend of a friend. As with physical landmarks, make sure the landmark NPCs aren’t endangered or destroyed until the player characters have developed some sort of emotional bond with them. Once the characters have accepted the NPCs as a part of their world, then you can make the NPC an adventure hook.

Before you run the first game, write up a brief description of the city that can be handed out to your players as they create their characters. Describe some of the major city divisions—the ones they’d logically be aware of (for example, the business district, the richest area, the poorest area). Use more detail to describe the territory they are going to start play in; if the game assumption is that they have been living in that area for some time before the campaign begins, name and describe some or all of the landmark NPCs you’ve developed. The idea is to give the characters enough background so that they feel like they belong to this area, if they’ve been living in it for a while. If the characters are brand-new to the area, tailor the description accordingly.

Now you have your campaign setting. Don’t worry about describing the entire city or knowing where every building is located; don’t worry about naming every family on the block or every shopkeeper the characters might visit. Don’t bother writing up the game statistics for every NPC you’ve created. That’s not important. You have enough now to get the characters started, and you’ll keep adding more as the game continues. As you play, keep a notebook beside you and use it to jot down shops, NPCs, laws and other creations that come up in the course of the game. That way you will avoid contradicting yourself later (“I thought you said the guy’s name was Bob?”) and you will continue to flesh out your campaign setting.

originally written March 24, 2000

Image Source: Liverpool city map, from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
Back To Top