Welcome back and welcome home to the Red Ragged Fiend, a website dedicated to the adventures of playing tabletop games, especially roleplaying games. This post about worldbuilding capital city profiles is another in the now long-running series of Worldbuilding Process Posts. Last time we dropped 159 landmark locations on our world map. And each of those locations needs a little development so we can find out what’s special about it.
Today, we’re just focusing on the capital cities, one of the six major types of landmarks we added to the atlas world map in the last article. We’re starting a crib of landmark locations to use in conjunction with the world map, and it just needs some straightforward, top-level information about our capital cities.
World Map Capital City Information
- Capital City’s Name & Nickname
- Capital City’s Population & Buying Power
- Who’s in Charge?
- What’s the Capital City Known For?
- Primary Industry
- Strategic Placement/Resources
- Trivia or Oddity
However, this article is also an excellent opportunity to get into the weeds a bit and focus on what it takes to flesh out a capital city for when you need to do that. This level of detail would be very overwhelming to try and do for each of the dozens of capital cities on the world map. The information above is all you need about the capital cities in your setting until they become important to the game/story.
I just want to reiterate, the rest of this article SHOULD NOT be followed for all capital cities upfront. You need only to expand on a capital city when it becomes vital to know that information concerning your D&D campaign, story writing, or whatever ends you’re worldbuilding.
I will also be doing some world building work on a capital city from the map to show a working example. My example capital city will be the farthest West capital city on my map, at the continent’s edge. So let’s get started with the capital city’s population and buying power.
Worldbuilding Capital City Population & Buying Power
Now I know what you’re thinking, “you missed the top bullet point,” well yes, but purposefully. A trick I’ve found very useful in world building is to name a location after doing all the other work once I have a better idea of the location. Sort of the old writing advice, wait until the end to write your introductory paragraph, so you already know what you need to introduce.
So, we discussed capital city populations a little bit in the previous post, introducing the concept of capital cities. Basically, for a Euro-medieval-esque large city, the population should start at around 60,000 people. That may not seem very large, but it’s already impressive for a group of people without running water, sanitation, much city planning, or modern food transportation.
To make it easy on myself, I roll for a capital city’s population, starting with a 1d100.
1d100 Capital City Population Roll Table
01-59, Roll again and add 40K to the result (repeatable)
60-00, Multiply the result by 10K
It’s a straightforward way to give yourself a capital city population. Rolling for my capital city example, I got a result of 15. I made a little tick mark to add 40K and rolled again. This time I rolled 79, 79 multiplied by 10K is 79,000. I’ll add the 40K for a total capital city population of 119,000 residents. That’s a sizable settlement at almost twice the minimum for a capital city.
Now we can determine the capital city’s buying power and what that means.
Capital City Buying Power
Buying Power is a derivative measurement from a settlement’s population that informs us how available certain goods and services are at a location. I call this a settlement’s Buying Power (BP), but it can be called an Economy Index, Purchase Availability, Buy/Sell Rate. Whatever the name, BP is a quick reference for the availability of off-the-rack items and services for purchase.
Buying Power in GP = Population x 10%
BP goes both ways as well. It measures what the adventuring party can purchase with their gold in a specific settlement and what they can sell in the location. Not a genuine concern in capital cities like we’re discussing here. Still, it’s handy shorthand when the adventuring group leaves the dungeon to try and offload treasure and make purchases in a small hamlet.
A small hamlet may only offer a handful of gold pieces worth of BP. If that adventuring party rolls into town trying to offload a golden idol worth 200 GP, they will not find a buyer. Maybe the mayor could scrape together 20 GP from their rainy day fund. It’s up to the players to decide whether they want to sell the idol for 10% of its value or lug it to the nearest settlement with 2,000+ residents.
Of course, you flash around an item worth half a year’s earnings, and someone might feel emboldened to try and take it from you.
As that example illustrates, even when adventurers are in the heart of civilization, a poor rural area is still a poor rural area. Buying Power helps make that readily apparent. But, in my example capital city has a BP of almost 12,000 GP. That’ll buy just about anything players could imagine. Even the services of a mercenary band, if they have the scratch.
One of the driving forces for Buying Power is to create a nice cycle of movement for adventuring parties in D&D games where they need to travel more. They may need to travel to a town or city with a decent population to pick up new weapons, get repairs, and offload their treasure.
Of course, the further the party must travel, the more often they will need to resupply with items like rations. It provides many opportunities for the party to get wrapped up in the affairs of the villagers and homesteaders they count on to provide points for them to rest and resupply along their circuit. It makes it very easy for you as a Dungeon Master to create sidequests and provide players an opportunity to get entrenched in the setting.
Now, we know how many there are in the capital city, but we don’t know who they are. We need to add some demographics to our capital cities.
Worldbuilding Capital City Demographics
What is the race/ancestry breakdown of the capital city, and why is it important? Well, let’s answer the latter first. There will be a big difference between a settlement built primarily for Halflings than Goliaths. Buildings in settlements are built to the average proportions of their common citizenry, or at least to the average size of the people in charge.
But, how do we determine what people should be living in our capital cities? Well, that’s really up to you. If you’re doing monoculture worldbuilding for a D&D game, it’s very easy. The elf city is primarily elves, dwarf halls are filled with dwarves, etc.
I decided to be a little more eclectic in my spread of races/ancestries across the world map. Luckily, I’ve already done the work of distributing the different core fantasy races across the world map by columns, similar to what we did previously with resources. I’ll also make a note that I need to make THAT post for the Worldbuilding Process catalog.
It’s nothing complicated. I take roll against the prevalent ancestries for the location area nine times, each result comprising 10% of the location’s population with a final 10% to comprise “Others.” Capital cities are big trade hubs and multicultural centers hosting travelers from all over. Any ancestry could show up in a capital city if I want.
Using this 10% breakdown is helpful because it makes rolling for NPC ancestries down the line a breeze; you just need a ten-sided die.
For the example capital city, my results came out as 30% Human, 30% Genasi, 20% Dragonborn, 10% Tiefling, and 10% Others. This breakdown is interesting because Elves and Dwarves are both common in this part of the world but aren’t represented significantly inside the capital.
Wonder what that’s about? It smells like worldbuilding to me.
Meanwhile, Genasi are quite rare in the world, especially in this part of the world, with Tieflings even more so. Genasi are widely avoided and disliked in my headcanon because they’re “Chaos-touched.” But, their inclusion may come down to geography. A coastal capital city makes for a good location for water and wind Genasi, who are likely naturally gifted sailors. The sort of people you may not like but would be wise to have on board if you plan to sail across the ocean.
Speaking of geography, that leads us into talking about the impact of the climate and the specific geographical location of our capital cities and other settlements.
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Climate & Impact on Capital Cities
This part is straightforward because we did the work mapping out our world map biomes a while ago. We just need to bring that information into this context. Climate is valuable information because it informs quite a bit about the capital city, from the general weather over the year to how buildings are constructed to make living in that environment more bearable. Not to mention what types of resources are readily available in the area.
For example, wood for arrows isn’t a problem in a dense woodland climate, but if the settlement happens to be in a desert clime, the cost of a wood-based resource should match its availability. But maybe it’s another way to stick it to the Ranger class. Like to shoot arrows from a distance? Well, now they’re 20x more expensive.
It even informs mundane things we take for granted, like access to water and arable land. Basics like food and water could be challenging to come by, certainly not easy to purchase in town.
Essentially, the overarching climate of the locations in your worldbuilding is a good thing to keep in mind. Use them to make it easier for you to imagine the location’s look, what they have in spades, what they struggle with, and how that place might look. Then you can more clearly communicate that to your players or readers.
What about the climate of our example capital city? Well, we know it’s on either a promontory or island off the cold water coast of the Western Continent. That’s not as important in this particular location as others because the latitude puts our example capital in the Taiga belt.
That means cold winters with plenty of snow and mild summers. As an Earth analog, its climate should be akin to Hokkaido, Japan, the coastal borderland of Russia and China, the West Coast of Canada, or the Gulf of Finland. There are likely wetlands in the lowland areas from snowmelt. It’s safe to assume the capital city is a port city, but it’s probably too far South to be an ice-free warm water port. That means the port freezes at least partially in the winter.
That’s an essential piece of worldbuilding for us. We can expect that the port gets very busy towards the end of Autumn as ships hurry to get in or out of the port for wintering. We also know that most buildings will be made of the biome’s abundant evergreen lumber and that buildings will feature high-pitched roofs to slough off the high amount of winter snow. Maybe even A-frame buildings, that would be interesting.
Capital City Geographic Locations
The basic climate/biome of a location already tells us a lot about it. Still, we also need to consider the specific geographic location of a landmark capital city and how that informs the world building. On Earth, the most prosperous pre-industrial cities share two common characteristics. They act as transportation breakpoints and access chokepoints.
A transportation breakpoint is a point along a trading route where the mode of transportation for goods and people must change. Ports are a natural example of transportation breakpoints. Goods enter the port from a ship and are then moved to a riverboat, wagon, or other means of overland travel to reach their final destination inland. These locations become influential cities because they are situated at critical points along trade routes.
An access chokepoint is a military and trade matter. It is a location used to control who and what can pass through an area. This could be a major river estuary, a mountain pass, or a strait/isthmus. It’s part taxation, and part hardened military point. These locations can be used to deter smuggling, enforce trade tariffs, and easily defend against attackers, even with inferior forces.
It should be no surprise considering those points that major river estuaries are home to some of the most thriving cities in Earth’s history. And why in the last article with a roll table for landmark locations, major river estuaries were the most heavily favored location for a landmark location to exist.
To help make this easy for myself and you, I have a 1d20 table for developing the key geographic location for a landmark location. Initially, I put together this table for generating a random city, which is something I often do when cooking up a standalone adventure or starting a new campaign. So, its usefulness is primarily for inland cities.
1d20 Key Geographic Locations for Cities
- Coastal Bay
- Coastal Harbor
- Coastal Island
- Coastal Peninsula
- Deep River (Accommodates sea vessels)
- Key Military Location (Borderlands)
- Large Lake/Inland Sea
- Mountain Pass
- Portage Site
- River Confluence
- River Delta/Estuary
- River Ford
- River Island
- River Meander
- River Navigation Head (Farthest upstream boats can go)
- Trade Crossroads
- Water Source for Travelers (Oasis/Spring)
Since, at this stage, we’re not creating a city from scratch, this is only somewhat useful. We know our example capital city is on an island or promontory and we’re pretty sure it’s a port. In fact, I’ll just say it now, the capital city is a port. So, we can run down our list of key geographic locations to see what might fit.
- Coastal Bay
- Coastal Harbor
- Coastal Island
- Coastal Peninsula
- Key Military Location
- Trade Crossroads
It is a trade crossroads, just for seaborne trade. I don’t want to nail down whether it’s attached to the mainland. I really want that decided by mapping the area later. This will be a common trend when you’re worldbuilding these significant locations that appear in coastal shallows hexes, right next to a big landmass. It could be a spit of land extending into this hex or an island.
We know there isn’t much overland travel happening here either way. Even if it’s part of the mainland, there’s a mountain range blocking off the peninsula from the rest of the mainland. A critical defensive feature that likely contributes to the location’s defenses. It’s also the farthest Western point on my map and the last stop for sea travel across the ocean (and the edge of the map) to the Eastern landmass. It can also easily control the N/S ship movements along the coast.
It’s becoming clear why this location flourished into a capital city. It can control North, South, and West travel (access chokepoint), and it’s the last/first significant port for intercontinental shipping. That may not qualify it as a transportation breakpoint, but it is one of the most important nodes for international trade because of its location.
World Building Locations: What It’s Known For
When it comes to world building, the landmark locations that scatter our world map, one of the thoughts we need to keep rattling around in the back of our head is, “what’s this place known for?”
In general, cities, especially large ones, are known for being major trade hubs. They may also be known as the center of authority or governance for the surrounding area, making them a literal capital city. But, we already know that because most prominent, successful cities act as transportation breakpoints and access chokepoints.
But, sometimes, a location becomes big or influential for some other reason outside of its existence and important and central geographic location—places like Swansea in Wales. Yes, Swansea occupied an important location. It was close to copper mines, so convenience was a factor. But, it was subjected to a boom because a new smelting method, high-quality copper ore, was developed there. And, at its height, Swansea was responsible for smelting and shipping a significant percentage of the world’s copper ore. And it was heavily involved in the success of the West African slave trade.
Of course, technology finally caught up with Swansea, and it is no longer the thriving city of industry it once was. Actually, in a very sad conclusion, much of the area around the smelting facilities is now wildly toxic and dangerous, making the land a casualty of its economic boom.
At its zenith, Swansea provides an example of a capital city known for a specific industry and strategic resource. It’s a good idea to consider what the primary industry of your capital cities would be and even if they have any large secondary industries. Because industry often determines how the settlement will grow, change, and where it places its priorities. Below I have a simple 1d20 roll table to generate primary and potential secondary industries for settlements.
1d20 Primary Industries
- Academia (Arcane, Collegio, Religion, etc.)
- Dead Animal Products (Glue, Hide, Horn, etc.)
- Live Animal Byproducts (Cheese, Beeswax, Lanolin, etc.)
- Arms & Armor
- Arts (Architecture, Performance, Visual, etc.)
- Commercial Resources (Lumber, Metallurgy, Peat, etc.)
- Cash Crops (Cotton, Flax, Jute, Modal)
- Exotic Luxury (Amber, Silk, Spices, etc.)
- Intoxicants (Alcohol, Opium, Tea, etc.)
- Livestock (Chicken, Cattle, Pig, etc.)
- Local Game or Fish
- Medicinal Arts
- Specific Crop (Cereal, Fruit, Legume, Oil-producing, Nuts, Veg)
- Uncommon Cultural/Religious Practice
- Warriors (Mercenaries/Training)
- Working Animals (Dogs, Horses, Oxen, etc.)
- The capital city contains a Roll 1d6
- City (Ethnic, Foreign, or Religious Enclave)
- Military Location (Citadel, Fortress, or Training Area)
- Religious Site (Shrine, Martyr’s Tomb, Miracle Site)
- Monster Lair (Thieves Guild, Vampire’s Estate, Yawning Portal to Undermountain below)
- Ruins (Around, under, or within the existing city)
- Wonder (Trevi Fountain, Whitestone’s Sun Tree, Astra Dreadnought Skull)
Well, let’s use this table to add another brick to the worldbuilding of our example capital city. At this point, we know it’s the west-most major city on the map, so I would expect its primary focus to be on sea trade. Still, let’s give the table a roll, and maybe we’ll find a suitable secondary industry.
In a true example of serendipity, I rolled a 14, so it’s known for trade. I don’t see much sense in fighting my first instinct and the dice, so sea trade is the primary industry of our capital city example. But let’s do a secondary roll just for fun. Very close, came in with a result of 13 this time: local game or fish. We know this city will either be on an island or a promontory, so fish seems like the likely candidate.
My first instinct was to go with whaling. As fun as that might be, I think I will save that for one of the landmark locations on our world map that ended up off by themselves in the deep ocean. A quick bit of Google searching tells me that cod, dungeness crab, herring, halibut, salmon, and shrimp and prime candidates for commercial coldwater sea fishing.
Awesome, that gives us a lot of room to work. So, because this is a capital city, I think it’s safe to go ahead and proclaim this as one of the best locations for coldwater sea fishing in the world. And it gives us some insight into the type of food they might eat and export. I’m imagining halibut steak, lox, lutefisk, pickled herring, salmon sashimi, etc. So, we know a good bit about the capital city’s exports, though it plays secondary importance to the capital’s role as an international trade hub.
We also now know that coldwater seafood will accompany sheep, rye, and miscellaneous cereals as the foundation of the city’s diet. Perhaps this will be one of those locations where crustaceans are common enough to be considered food for the poor, while it’s a luxury and delicacy in other parts of the world.
But, let’s turn from the pauper to the prince. Who’s in charge of this place?
Capital Cities, Who’s In Charge
Knowing who is in charge of a location, especially a capital city or other landmark location, can help to inform your world building. The hierarchy of our capital cities will tell us what the people, services, and organization of the capital are like and where priority is often placed.
For example, a city run by a merchant guild council will prioritize trade and different ways of muscling out non-guild traders. Somewhat like the border market between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, featured in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WvKeYuwifc. It provides a vital insight into how one group can prioritize the success of one group over another.
Below is a 1d20 government type roll table. This is a modified version of a table in the 5e DMG. Like always, the dice are used to help, not order you. If you’re building a pseudo-European-medieval setting, you may want to reroll results like bureaucratic council, townhall democracy, or populist demagogue. Or, maybe lean into the choice to show just how different this particular location is to others.
1d20 Government Type
- Anarchy! (Roll again for former leadership)
- Bureaucratic Council
- Council of Elders
- Council of Elected Representatives
- Council of Magic Users
- Council of Wealthiest People
- Foreign Governor
- Guild Council
- Hereditary Noble
- Revolt! (Roll again for new leadership and ousted leadership)
- Mayor (Appointed or Elected)
- Mercantile Council
- Military Leader
- Noble Council
- Organized Crime (Crime Family, Street Gang, Thieves Guild)
- Populist Demagogue
- Religious Council
- Religious Leader
- Town Hall Democracy
- Wealthiest Resident
Here’s an example of me needing to take my own medicine. Our example capital city roll resulted in organized crime. I might roll with this decision in another circumstance, but because it’s the first landmark location I’m building out for the world map, I’m not sure I want to start with organized crime. Furthermore, this is a vital port for intercontinental trade, and I’m not sure an organized crime syndicate would be able to retain long-term authority over such an important point. Let’s roll again.
This time around, we ended up on a six, a council of the capital city’s wealthiest people. Ironically, a plutocratic council is not that different from an organized crime family, but I think it fits the tone we’ve established for the location much better. I’ll take it!
All right, we have a major international trade hub, the west-most city of the world, overseen by a council of its wealthiest residents. Yeah, this is going to work out well. Rather than detail the council members now, I will save that until after I roll up some city districts/wards. I think it makes the most sense to use the types of wards to determine who would be the richest members of the city and, thus, who’s in charge. I feel we’re going to end up with some interesting characters.
As stated, I don’t think an organized crime family would be able to retain authority over a location like our example capital city. This makes me think it’s a good time to talk about city defenses. One thing that can spice up your worldbuilding is to remember that despite popular fiction, not all pre-industrial cities were ringed with walls or featured a glittering citadel in their skyline.
When it comes to the defenses of location, especially a settlement, they correlate to the external danger that threatens the location. So, if you have a safe, quiet tiny hamlet in the bosom of the heartland, its only walls will be those used to fence in animals or mark boundaries.
But a borderland town used to repelling raiders, you know it’s defensible and ready for a fight. This is partly because the construction of fortifications is expensive. They’re expensive in money, time, resources, and manpower. It’s not something you build unless they’re vital. Every day spent constructing fortifications is money spent from the location’s coffers, plus time and energy the locals could spend working the land or doing some other form of revenue generation.
Like before, I have an elementary roll table to help generate the defenses for a capital city or any type of location you want.
1d6 City Defenses
- No overt defensive structures
- A defensive/reinforced building (Basilica, Keep, Storehouse, or Temple)
- As above, plus a barrier with Gatehouse/Tower (Palisade, Wall, Boom)
- As above, plus a ditch or moat
- As above, plus defensive towers & hoardings
- As above, plus a full castle/citadel with an inner bailey
Nice and easy scaling defenses. For a capital city, you may want to adjust the rolling as it’s more likely to have some form of defense than a smaller settlement because of its size and the economic opportunity it presents.
For our example capital, I rolled a four. That’s a defensive building of some type, plus a barrier with defensive entryway(s). And, we’ll get some form of ditch or moat that complements the exterior fortifications. Let’s go ahead and interpret that a bit more.
Since this is a big trade hub ruled by plutocrats, I think the defensive building makes sense to be the city’s basilica. That’s a basilica in the Roman tradition, not a church basilica. It’s like a town hall, a central place for business dealings, contract signings, and other administration functions. It will also be where the ruling council’s chambers are located.
Given the Taiga region of this location, I think it’s a wooden palisade. I think the palisade also extends out into the water to end in a winch tower used to manipulate the harbor’s chain boom. Since this geographic location can control the N/S coastal shipping routes, it stands to reason they would have pretty stout harbor defenses.
Since this is a cold climate, I’ll opt for a defensive ditch over a moat. A moat that’s frozen solid wouldn’t be much of a deterrent. So, thanks to our rolls, we see this capital city isn’t fully-fortified with a citadel or wall towers. I suspect they do not weather many land-based threats. I think it also implies that most of our example capital city’s military power exists in the form of warships. They may have a very vigilant rotation of scout ships that patrol the nearby coastal sailing lanes.
That’s all we need to know, but I know some of you out there will want to know how many warriors the city has? How many warm bodies can they put into battle? Not a big concern for the average D&D campaign, but sure we can touch on it briefly.
How Many Defenders Does the City Have?
A useful rule of thumb is that a population can support about 1% of the population as professional fighters. This total includes full-time guards, resident nobles with their house guards, and any prime militia.
You can reliably bloom this number up to 10% of the population when you muster all non-essential, able-bodied fighters. But, this additional 9% of the population will be far inferior in training and equipment.
For our capital city example, that would be a standard warrior retinue of just under 1200 fighters. To that, we could add 10,700 fighters in full muster. Again, not that useful for playing D&D or any other tabletop RPG, but it might be helpful if you need to calculate opposing military strength on the fly.
World Building Crime & Justice
In the previous section, we discussed how a capital city might defend itself against external threats, but what about internal threats such as disorder and illegal activities? Civilized locations do that with some form of policing force.
Most settlements should have one person who serves as head of policing efforts. It could be a watch captain, bailiff, constable, or sheriff, and in small communities, you will be lucky to have even that one person. Often a tiny village would need to send a runner for the bailiff or shire reeve (sheriff) to come and address their issue. But, capital cities will have plenty of police forces.
For capital cities, assume one person in charge of the police force and one additional watchman/guard for approximately every 150 residents.
For our example capital city, there are just South of 800 guards. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re all professional city guards. It may be a mixture of professional soldiers and citizens who serve as watch on a rotating schedule. It would be fair to imagine that the professional guards take care of the exterior defenses, access points, and high-end and military areas of a city.
Hue & Cry
Here is an excellent place to touch on the idea of Hue and Cry. Under the legal doctrine, all people were responsible for alerting community members to illegal activity and apprehending offenders. However, they were not supposed to mete out mob justice. Simply to bring together all residents to apprehend and detain a ne’er-do-well until they can be transferred to official custody.
With that in mind, we can begin to see how the structure of policing changes and becomes more formal as settlements grow in size. Especially as the settlement passes through Dunbar’s Number and people no longer have relationships with everyone who lives in their immediate vicinity. Instead, you see those broken down into smaller groups, similar to today’s concept of neighborhood watch.
Worldbuilding City Laws
To start, we have to know a little about the structure of the laws and a reference for what is and is not illegal. The basis is collected and codified according to religious teachings or secular authority.
Another consideration is whether all people are subject to the same laws and their application. A fine historical example of this is the St. Scholastica Day Riot. In this bizarre event from history, university students and faculty got into a massive fight with the townspeople. This event is remembered chiefly for being started by some university students in a tavern complaining about the quality of the wine.
But, it’s less silly once you learn the context for its start. The primary issue is that the university students acted like they were above the town’s laws because they were. The students were only beholden to UNIVERSITY law, not the town’s law. So, when Spring Break Oxford rolled in and messed everything up, the townspeople would have to go and complain to the University.
Of course, Oxford University took care of its own and would give the offending students (whose relatives, you know, pay the university) a perfunctory slap on the wrist for their bad behavior. That’s a situation that’s going to hit a breaking point eventually, it did, and people died because of it.
So it’s worth considering if everyone follows the same set of laws or not, and if not, what’s the difference and what issues that causes. We can expand that out to consider religious-based law and how that applies to people of a different religious following. Are there laws that are discriminatory against those of other religions? What about those of different castes, such as sumptuary laws?
You may also want to consider if the laws are enforced by code or case law. This will get way into the weeds and is probably worth avoiding any additional investigation unless you want to run John Grisham D&D Law & Order. I mean, it seems like a fun game for the right DM and player group.
And then, we need to consider the enforcement of the laws by the policing body and judicial authority. Do they tend to leniency or adhere strictly to the law as written. For example, a red light district may operate in a lenient environment even if prostitution is technically illegal. Then there is a concern about corruption in the system.
We can spend a lot of time going around and thinking about this, but the truth is that in most D&D games and other worldbuilding treatments, it doesn’t come up very often. But, when it does, thanks to an overzealous rogue PC or maybe a plot that involves framing an innocent person for a crime, it’s nice to have some basics down. I have a 1d6 roll table for law structures to make things a little simpler.
1d6 Law Structure
- Religious and Lenient
- Religious and Strict
- Secular-based and Lenient
- Secular-based and Strict
- Law Enforcement is Corrupt
- Law Enforcement is Discriminatory
- Magic Users
- Religious Beliefs
For our example capital city, my roll resulted in a three. So it’s not a religious-based system of government, and it’s pretty lenient. I suspect the accused’s wealth is a big determining factor in the degree of leniency afforded. Pretty standard, not much to say about that at this point. Since we know the standard of the law, we can think about those who break the laws. Let’s talk crime.
Capital City Crime Rate
When it comes to crime, we want to just focus on a few key concerns at this level of top-down worldbuilding. The first of which is the volume of crime or crime rate. It should range somewhere from negligible to rampant.
We might also want to know how much organized crime exists in a location. Is it primarily independent thieves and thugs, or maybe street gangs, or smuggling rings? Or, it could be a higher level of organization like a widespread thieves guild or crime syndicate.
For example, a city with a low crime rate but a high level of organization might suggest that a crime syndicate holds dominance over illicit activities and may even act as a shadow police force. Whereas a city with a high crime rate but very little organization feels like a place that’s a few steps away from anarchy, a city where the policing force struggles. Maybe they only focus on keeping pockets of the city safe while allowing the rest to go to the dogs.
And, what do you know, we have another handy dandy roll table to help you out when thinking about your location’s crime rate. This time the table is 1d10, and entries include consideration for the volume of crime and its level of organization.
1d10 Crime Rate
- Low, Unorganized
- Low, Some Organized
- Low, Mostly Organized
- Average, Unorganized
- Average, Some Organized
- Average, Mostly Organized
- High, Unorganized
- High, Some Organized
- High, Mostly Organized
Capital City Justice & Punishment
The way justice is served and the guilty sentenced is pretty wide-ranging when it comes to fantasy. It may be done by whoever is in charge of the area, such as a minor noble or their representative (sheriff, bailiff, or constable). You may decide that there are legates, sort of like circuit judges, whose powers derive from the central authority of a region to hear and pass judgment.
And there’s always the widespread transmission of the modern court trial before a sitting judge or jury of the accused’s peers. You could dive into the appeals procedure for more detail, but that’s way beyond what we want to look at here. What we do want to look at is how the accused are punished.
The idea of sequestering a convict in a penitentiary is pretty modern. That’s because the basis of our contemporary system of punishments is focused (supposedly) on rehabilitation. It’s why places are called CORRECTIONAL facilities and PENITENTIARIES from the term, penitent. The convicted are placed in a facility where they can learn the error of their ways and rejoin the world as a productive member of society. Pre-modern punishment? Not so much.
Putting and keeping people in prison costs money, a lot of money. Successful administrators are looking for ways to avoid spending money and, if possible, make money. Jailing people was usually reserved for political prisoners and people who were important enough to potentially be ransomed. Even then, it was up to the prisoner or their sympathizers to pay the jailer to ensure the prisoner had nice accommodations. Pay well, and you could get a room with a view, books, mail service, nice furniture, even visitors.
Don’t pay, and you get the typical dungeon treatment of straw floors, cold cells with minimal light, and moldy bread. But usually, if you were important enough to lock up, you would be significant enough for someone to pay to see you were treated well.
Sometimes well-to-do convicts would be sentenced to house arrest instead. Sentencing nobles to stay upon their estates for some amount of time. Which just kept them from going to court and vacationing. They would be forced to throw soirees at their own country estates—such a tough life.
But, most people who ran astray of the law would receive a punishment. More often than not, it was fines. Fines provide compensation for the crime’s victims and usually a little extra to cover the administrative costs of justice. And it worked for all natures of crime, from simple misdemeanors to murder. Weregild was a statute that laid out the exact worth of a person in case they were killed. It is both depressing and terribly frightening to put a hard price tag on human life because it means some people are rich enough to literally pay off the murder of someone who became a nuisance to them.
Ah, but what about those poor people that can’t afford to pay fines, the man who steals bread to feed his family. Well, like our good friend Aladdin, someone chops off your hand. You might pay for your crimes with branding, scarring, mutilation, or lashing. You could be publicly humiliated or shamed for your trespasses. Sometimes a person’s goods and property would be seized to pay, much as it’s done today.
Sometimes breaking the law would end with banishment, excommunication, or outlawry. Of course, you could be executed, but executions were rarer than popular fiction would suggest. Generally, humans avoid killing each other in cold blood.
This is a worthwhile concept to sear into your brain regarding D&D. Most people and creatures don’t want to kill other creatures unless it’s for food or self-defense. I find it a valuable approach for both monsters who would prefer to ransom or scare away PCs rather than kill them. Plus, how most people would regard adventurers who have killed tens if not hundreds of creatures and are way too casual about snuffing out life.
There is also service/servitude, which can be an interesting approach to punishment. It could be community service like we have today, but it could also be slavery, such as what happened in Ancient Greece. Wily merchant types began speculating on agricultural futures. They would go to a farmer and tell them they would pay the day’s market rate right now to the farmer for X amount of their subsequent crop yield. Farmers loved it. They got a nice advance on payment which allowed them to make improvements to their land so they could produce even more than they promised the merchant until they couldn’t.
Weather is a fickle thing, and when there’s a little too much or too little sun, heat, or rain, it could spell disaster for the crop’s yield. Then the merchant swings by to collect their grain but uh oh, there’s not enough, and now the farmer has spent all the paid money and has a job that can’t pay the bill. Eventually, there was an epidemic in which people were getting into enormous debts and being forced to sell their children into servitude to pay off the debt.
Later land reforms would change the practice, but that could be a fantastic variant of the “dead parents” backstory for a player character.
We have another 1d10 table for Punishments, except on this roll table you should roll twice. You can assign the lesser punishment as the standard punishment for minor crimes and the more severe as the standard punishment for major crimes. These would be the standard degree of punishments people in the area would expect for crimes of the corresponding severity.
Roll twice. Assign the lesser punishment to minor crimes and the more severe punishment to major crimes
- Community Service/Indentured Servitude
- Corporal Punishment (Caning, Lashing, Stoning)
- Excommunication/Outlawing (Rights & Protection of Law Revoked)
- Incarceration or House Arrest
- Mutilation (Body Part Removal, Scarring)
- Public Humiliation & Shaming (Pillory, Scarlet Letter, Tar & Feather)
Going back to our example city, I rolled a seven and an eight. As noted above, fines are a widespread punishment with historical precedence. I think it definitely fits the tone of our example city run by a committee of wealthy residents as the go-to for minor crimes.
I ended up with incarceration or house arrest for major crimes, which I don’t love. At first, I was going to replace it with impressment, very common in port cities as a means of punishment or just something naval officers would do to fill out a ship’s crew. Swing by the dockside alehouses before departing and carry back some passed-out drunkards. By the time they come to, you’re already at sea.
But, I like to use the roll results if I can. After a short think, I remembered prison ships/hulks. A prison hulk floating in the harbor is very on-theme for our example capital city, plus they’re historically just one of the worst places to be confined, so we’re in for some cool world building.
I mean, if it was a good enough idea for the start of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, it should be good enough for our make-believe city, right?
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World Building Capital City Wards, Districts, and Arrondissements
Now we’re on the downhill swing, keeping up the pace and ready to finish it out strong. Let’s start the finish by talking about the different boroughs, neighborhoods, and subsections that make up a capital city.
Because capital cities are large, they’re carved into smaller districts for administration. That’s great for us because instead of making one massive city, we get to create a bunch of smaller settlements that neighbor each other and are intertwined. Imagine Ten Towns from Icewind Dale Rime of the Frostmaiden squished right next to each other.
Creating capital city wards (or whatever you want to call your subsections) is an absolute must if you want to run D&D adventures in a city or even an entire urban campaign. And, in the case of our example city, it will inform our wealthy council representatives.
World Building City Wards, How Many Should You Include?
That’s a great question without an easy answer. Modern capital cities have a lot of subsections. Paris has 20 arrondissements. It’s even more for megacities like Tokyo, which has 62 municipalities. This is one of those times where we need to lean on the practical side of using this location and running it for a D&D game. We just will not need that much detail.
MCDM’s Capital from The Chain of Acheron has 12 distinct districts split amongst eight controlling factions, with 34 locations of interest. That’s really on the high end of what you would want to include when worldbuilding a large city. Capital serves as the primary backdrop for the campaign, so it makes sense that Matt Colville would add so much detail to the city.
Personally, I find 3d4 to be a sound randomizer for the number of wards in a city. Three-to-12 wards averaging 7.5 are much more manageable while still being extensive and diverse enough to run an entire urban campaign in the city if you wanted.
So, I rolled nine different districts for our example capital city—a perfect number for our needs. Nine city council members is a solid council size, and it’s odd-numbered, which means that they shouldn’t have many voting stalemates.
The easiest way to distinguish districts is by giving them a focus. Below I’ve prepared a 1d12 roll table for city ward focuses. You can, of course, assign, add, or subtract wards as needed. But, with our cap of 12 potential subsections for a city, I don’t need a larger roll table.
1d12 City Ward Focus
- Residential, 1d10
- 1-4 Commoner*
- 5-7 Artisan
- 8-9 Merchant
- 10 Noble*
*Roll again, on confirmation
Commoner > Slum
Noble > Royal
You can roll the districts for a city straight from the table, but this is also a fun opportunity to do a dice drop.
What’s a Dice Drop?
A dice drop generator is a table or matrix where the location of the dice rolled is important and used to generate results, and the face of the dice rolled. These creative exercises allow you to gain more randomized results with fewer rolls.
Dice drops are a fun way to create a layout for your city. Take the appropriate number of twelve-sided dice and roll them simultaneously. Each dice now informs you of the type of city ward it is and its location compared to the other wards of the city. Then it’s effortless to create a point map with lines of how people can travel from one district to another.
For more info on city generators, check out this post at the Alexandrian.
There are some drawbacks to dice drop generators. In this instance, you need a handful of d12, the forgotten orphan of the 7-dice set. Not everyone has 12d12 laying about, and you may have to get creative in marking the spot with its result and rerolling the dice. Or, you can roll to create a list of districts and then roll more common dice like 12d6, assigning them from the list as you roll.
With dice drops, you can also end up with a weird or nonsensical city layout, such as a dock district surrounded by other city districts. It will force you while worldbuilding to either write off the result and swap it with a different district or wring your brain to make the arrangement make sense. For example, that central dock district could be a cool inner harbor, like a cothon, connected to the sea by a waterway that runs through the city.
Unfortunately, there is no random generator or roll table that will make up for good, honest imagination. These tools are to help you be more imaginative, not less. But again, you can create a list of the wards first and then assign them to the dice drop layout in a way that makes more sense.
All right, let’s see what district types I roll up for our example capital city.
- 1 Academic
- 1 Artisan
- 1 Docks
- 1 Entertainment
- 2 Government
- 1 Military
- 2 Warehouse
Great, now we know there’s some form of academic establishment in the capital city. It could be a place of learning for education, military, or religious training. I think we’ll stew on this for a little bit and see if any of the other results in this process informs us what would make the most sense.
We ended up with two government districts, which I like because it’s different. That’s the nice thing about random tables and generators is it forces us to use our minds to make the results make sense. So, with two government centers, I think one is the harbormaster/port authority since this is a big port city, and the other is the center for city administration.
And, with our city wards all focused up, we now have some information to start building our city council members. Based on our different district types, I think this is a reasonable assumption for the wealthy members that make up our city council.
- Academy Headmaster
- Artisan Guild Leader
- Entertainment Mogul
- High-ranking & Powerful Official (Master of Records, Judge, or Exchequer)
- Grand Admiral
- 2 Competing Shipping Tycoons
All the pieces are starting to fall into place. But, before we step away from the subsections of cities, we should talk about notable locations.
World Building Notable Locations in a City
Just like a sandbox hexcrawl needs points of interest, places for the players to encounter and seek out, we need notable locations in our settlements. It helps flesh out our capital city districts by giving each a little zest, some accompanying spice to capture player attention and keep them engaged as they move throughout the location, exploring it like tourists.
Now, this is most helpful for Dungeon Masters and other GMs, but there is a crossover for just leisurely worldbuilding for fun and for creative writers looking to inject more life into their cities. For notable locations in a city, I like to focus on the five key types of locations that are the most useful for player characters.
- Food & Drink Establishments
- Entertainment Venues
- Goods & Services (Markets, Shops, etc.)
- Centers of Worship
These are the most common locations that the archetypal D&D adventuring party will need or want to access in a settlement. Below is a little more detail about each notable location type and why they’re important to consider when worldbuilding cities.
Visitors to a city need a place to, well, lodge. Too often, as game masters, we just drop down an inn or two and call it a day. But, lodging serves an essential role in the city and your D&D games. The type of lodging your players choose determines the NPCs they meet, the quality of their rest, and how much attention they draw to themselves and from who.
I love worldbuilding through lodging because it’s rarely done. Why have an inn when you can have a room for rent, a flophouse, or a caravanserai? Also, historically in some cities, you were not allowed entry to the city unless you had someone who would vouch for you.
Often, the inn owner vouched for travelers, which means when you do something wrong, it’s the innkeeper the authorities throw the book at. So innkeepers would be nosy and demand to know what you were up to in the city because their butts are on the line if you act shady. Little variations and quirks like this add a lot to the world, much more than just slapping down a cheap inn and a pricey inn.
Inn Fun Facts
Traditionally inns were used to host lodgers. That means they catered to travelers looking for extended/semi-permanent stay with meals similar to a boarding house. So they usually weren’t public houses or food & drink establishments open to the public.
Food & Drink Establishments
We want to offer our players locations to visit, things to see, and people with which to interact. It’s prevalent in most D&D games for a Dungeon Master to just assume the party will be eating at the inn they’re staying at. It’s a fair assumption and easy to speed up the game.
Often though, inns only provide one meal a day to lodgers. Like a bed & breakfast, player characters may be able to grab breakfast or dinner (depends on the establishment) included with their room & board fare but are otherwise left to figure out all their other food plans for the day.
As humans, we love food. It’s a commonality that opens new cultures to us and is a great way to do world building with concepts people already understand. So add different food and drink establishments of various price ranges and potential quality (cheap but not-so-fresh seafood, anyone?).
Types of establishments could include markets, street vendors, alehouses, taverns, pubs, beer gardens, private dining clubs, bakeries, hawkers, even entertainment venues.
As a Dungeon Master, I struggled with time management/pacing in my games for a long time. You know, the D&D problem of three weeks in-world, a first-level party becomes fourth level. I would just push the group along at a breakneck pace through an adventure plot. Mainly because I experienced from both sides of the DM screen, not knowing what to do when a few hours or days of in-game “free time” appeared.
That’s because the locations I was playing in, and running, didn’t have anything for players to do with that free time. So I started thinking, “what do the people who live here do for fun?” Turns out, there’s a lot of entertainment you can include in your locations to help bring them to life. Here are 20 different types of entertainment venues to add to locations.
1d20 Entertainment Venues
- Athletic Competitions (Track & Field)
- Bathhouse or Gymnasium
- Buskers & Street Performers
- Circuses, Freakshows, Menageries, Zoos
- Combat Sports
- Companionship Houses (Brothel, Cabaret, Courtesan, Hostess Club)
- Dance Halls
- Drug Dens
- Gambling Dens
- Game Halls
- Gardens & Parks
- High Society Events (Luncheons, Galas, Parties, Poetry Readings, Salons)
- Performances (Comedy, Dances, Plays, Opera, Puppet Shows)
- Pits (Animal fights, gladiators, ratting)
- Public Punishment
- Public Debate/Speaking (Philosophy, Politics, Proselytizing, Readings, Storytelling)
- Race Tracks
- Team & Individual Sports
- Traveling Performers/Troupe
You may have the same thought I initially did; this seems like a lot of work that will go unseen by my players. True, it could, unless you make it an active part of your D&D game, and luckily it’s straightforward to do. Take an important NPC and put them at an entertainment venue or any of these locations.
Moving NPCs does two crucial things for your game. One, it nudges your players to explore and interact with the world, which is good. Help them get interested and invested by showing them it’s OK to waste a little time exploring the world and engage in some low-stakes roleplaying. Second, it makes your game world more believable because the NPCs don’t always stand idle in the same location when they’re not engaged with the player characters.
Sure, the local lord is in the great hall often, but sometimes he’s out riding horses, hunting with his falcon, or taking in a play. That’s better than a static quest giver standing in the great hall with an exclamation point hovering above his head.
Goods & Services
Players need some way to spend all that hard-earned GP. There is equipment to repair, upgrades to make, consumables to grab, and plenty of adventuring gear, ammunition, and rations to buy. You’re doing a disservice to yourself and your game world by having a catch-all General Store & Outfitters Emporium.
Not everything is available everywhere. We know that due to our capital city’s Buying Power and local resource availability to scale those prices. Now, I’m not saying to do an entire game session of in-character shopping unless your players are into that. But, pick one or two locations where they can have an in-character moment and haggle for some items.
Also, use it to keep track of time. Let your players know that to take care of all their shopping needs, they’ll have to crisscross the city, and it’s going to take a very long time if they all go together.
Efficiency encourages the group to split the party, and that’s a good thing in this case. It means you can create simple RP opportunities for 1-2 player characters at a time, and they can get into some hijinks if they want. Make them feel like it’s safe to split the party; even if they get into a tussle, it’ll be a small one, and you can have the unengaged players step in and play a couple of baddies for the fight as your DM lieutenants.
Another idea to lengthen the time between adventures is to extend the process of getting something made. Does a player want to upgrade to studded leather? No problem, they can have it custom made with the armorer up charging for the materials, or the PC can run around picking up leather from the tanner and iron from the smelter to bring down the price a little. Then of course, it will take some days for the armorer to make the custom piece.
Also, it’s fun to work in goods and services locations that are not of inherent use to the player characters. Examples that come to mind include the meaderies and lumber mills in Skyrim. They’re not of particular use for the Dragonborn but they are used as backdrops for finding and speaking to NPCs, and completing quests.
The types of goods and services you can include in a capital city are nearly endless, but to give you a nice jumping-off point, here are 50 common vendors of goods and services for your worldbuilding needs.
1d50 Goods & Services
- Baker or Confectioner (Wealthy)
- Barber Chirurgeon
- Bookbinder (Wealthy)
- Butcher (Fish, Fowl, Meat)
- Chandler & Soapmaker
- Charcoal Burner
- Cooper & Crate Maker
- Cutlery Maker
- Dye Maker
- Dry Goods
- Exotic Importer
- Fisher or Hunter
- Gemcutter & Jeweler (Wealthy)
- Leathermaker or Tanner
- Mason & Engraver
- Moneylender or Pawn Shop
- Optician/Glass Grinder
- Pellar or Crone (Magic Ingredients/Medicine/Soothsayer)
- Perfumery or Spice Merchant
- Saddle & Harness Maker
- Smithy (White, Red, Gold, Black, Weapon, Armor)
- Stable or Livery
- Tailor, Clothier, Haberdasher
- Traveling Peddler or Tinker
- Vehicle Maker (Cart, Boat, Ship, Wagon)
- Weaver, Net, or Sailmaker
Centers of Worship
Adding centers of worship to settlements, especially larger cities, is very important if you have a campaign with religious player characters in the party. Often that’s clerics and paladins, but that’s not always the case. In a world where divine magic exists and tangible forces in the universe, you can expect nearly everyone to be religious to some degree. They don’t necessarily need to be fervent worshippers, but they would do religious acts to try and curry favor with the divine beings for their assistance or at least to avoid their ire.
Your D&D games don’t have to be one extreme or the other with religion, either. It doesn’t have to resign clerics to being fundamentally wizards with a different spell list or mean that you have to beat the players over the head with every adventure and plot point tied to the machinations of the gods. You can strike a balance by showing rather than telling the religion in practice during your games.
One of the best ways is by focusing on what worship centers are in the location. Do church bells ring, calling the faithful to services? What about the construction of the location, what does it look like, are worship areas large and open for many people or small and private? Think of what goods and services the clergy and layman of the location offer to the locals. They could be skilled healers, brewers, or exceptionally skilled in animal husbandry.
Consider a location in your D&D game where locals would direct adventurers to the local temple rather than a livery to get horses for their next journey. Now, what if the party got a better deal because they had a cleric in their party? These world building niblets can add flavor to a capital city or other settlement in your games. To help you out, I have a centers of worship roll table you can use.
1d10 Centers of Worship
- 1-4 Small Shrine/Chapel
- 5-7 Large Shrine/Chapel
- 8-9 Small Temple/Church
- 10 Large Temple/Church
Stocking Capital Cities with Notable Locations
Now that we have an overview of the five different types of notable locations and how they can be helpful to us as world builders and Dungeon Masters, it’s time to start stocking our capital city.
As a landmark capital city, the first thing I do is guarantee at least ONE of each type of notable location will be present in the city. It’s rare that I wouldn’t roll at least one occurrence of each notable location type for a capital city, but you never know.
Then I go down the list for each city district and roll 5d20, one for each type of notable location. On a result of 16 or better, I add an occurrence to the city district. For city wards with foci that align to a notable building type, I roll 1d4 occurrences of that type. That way we can avoid a temple district having one or even zero temples.
All right, let’s get rolling for our example capital city and see what we get!
Hmm, well, that was some abnormal rolling. On average I should have gotten about 2-3 of each type scattered across the districts, but instead I ended up rolling a lot of single-digit numbers. Looks like it’s time to switch out the dice before my next game.
As stated before, we’re not beholden to the dice results. They’re supposed to work for us, not the other way around. If you’re planning on running multiple urban adventures or a completely urban campaign, you’ll want to bump up your big city’s number of notable locations.
Example Capital City Stocking Results
- Center of Worship > Large Temple
- Lodging > Hospital (Hostel)
- Goods & Services > Glassblower
- Goods & Services > Painter
- Entertainment Venue > Drug Den
- Entertainment Venue > Circus
- Entertainment Venue > Gambling Hall
- Entertainment Venue > Wrestling Ring
- Lodging > Middle-scale Inn
- Government 1 (Port Authority)
- Government 2 (Basilica)
- Lodging > Upscale Apartment Suites
- Lodging > Dormitory (Converted Barracks)
- Warehouse 1
- Goods & Services > Physician
- Warehouse 2
- Food & Drink Establishment > Kitchen (Cafeteria)
Great, what do those results mean for our city, worldbuilding, and game? Let’s interpret and extrapolate from our results. Well, right off the bat, I feel like the large temple in the Academic district answered my question about the type of academy. We have a friendly, religious college or seminary school that anchors the district and is the primary center of worship for the city. It will host all the prominent religious observances and festivals. And, we now know one of our plutocrats is some form of influential priest, bishop, cardinal, etc.
I also turned the lodging here into a medieval-style hospital, like a religious-themed hostel for travelers and pilgrims. These places offer cheap lodging and aid to travelers while plying them with religious education and asking for donations to support the location and their efforts. If you’re playing D&D 5e with a player that has the Acolyte background, this is the place where they will be able to find lodging for free. They will likely be expected to lend a hand around the hostel to return the favor.
We ended up with a painter and a glassblower in our artisan district as notable locations. I suspect these two trades do a lot of work for the Academic ward with religious scenery and such. That helps reinforce that the Academy Headmaster has a lot of money to throw around and they are using it to make powerful testaments to their power through architecture and opulence. So, I think it makes sense for our Guild Leader to be from the glassblower and glazier guild. It also tells us that the city probably has quite a bit of glass decoration and bold painted buildings, like those in Lofoten, Norway.
Things are appropriately seedy down at the docks where the only notable location we have isn’t a dive bar, but a drug den. Now, there’s one issue with this result. When we did our resource distribution, no intoxicants are native to this specific capital city’s location. So, those are imported drugs, not a habit the common public can afford. I think to make this appropriate, this isn’t some corner crackhouse, it’s a well-to-do location, reminiscent of the Picture of Dorian Gray.
And, originally we had a shipwright and I think that I’ll keep that, but maybe our shipwright is also the proprietor of our dockside drug den where the upper class come to slum.
Our entertainment district is very busy with three types of entertainment venues and a lodging option. We ended up with a circus, a gambling hall, and a wrestling ring. I did reroll on one of these because it gave me a garden or park and I wasn’t feeling that result. Now, the entertainment feels a bit grimey. This isn’t a place full of opera houses, manicured topiary, and salons of the social elite, low-brow entertainment is the order of the day. I also wanted to include a middle-class lodging option so I dropped in a traditional fantasy inn that probably gets a little rowdy in the evenings.
Man, any of these locations would give us a colorful council member. And as much as it would tickle me to put a circus master of ceremonies on the council, I think a wrestling promoter and former star of the ring is the most fun.
Down at the Port Authority we have nothing going on, it’s all business. Maybe our harbormaster is making honest coin, or at least is pretty good at taking bribes when enforcing customs and tariffs. Let’s move on!
At the Basilica we have another lodging. This time I chose a row of upscale apartment suites targeted to high status visiting dignitaries and merchants. An adventuring party obtaining lodging in a place like this is a serious flex, a power move that tells movers and shakers in town they’re here to play. It’s the right kind of place for mid-level adventuring parties to seek out if they want to gain access to council members and their social circle.
I think I’ll still keep our council member here as a bureaucratic officeholder because I think a real estate owner is a bit too close in flavor to the council members representing the warehouse districts. This council member fits alongside our Harbormaster and High Admiral as council members with legitimate power.
Speaking of the High Admiral, the military ward has another lodging option. This time it’s an old military barracks building converted into a dormitory. A less expensive and less private lodging option, it’s still probably better than staying in the general hostel accommodations of the hospital. The secret of this location will be to play up how much it looks and operates like a functioning barracks. It should also give you some insight into the types of NPCs who would take this option for lodging.
I get the feeling the High Admiral pushed through a deal to build new housing and used a third-party handler to purchase and manage the location, but they’re still a silent, controlling partner. Partly I like this because it sets up the High Admiral as someone very interested in subcontracting out to private interests. I can imagine the city has a very lucrative privateering and merchant escort economy.
That leaves us with our two warehouse districts. The first has a notable location of a physician’s office, interesting. Given the location of this particular capital city it may be more difficult than elsewhere to get one’s hands on the specific pharmacological ingredients needed to make treatments. I think maybe that led the good doctor into a little speculation and trading, a nice windfall investment, and it built from there. I also like maybe a dubious nature for our physician and importer. Maybe they sell a miraculous panacea with a dark secret or they’ve gotten into the intoxicants and they’ve gone a bit J.S. Steinman from Bioshock. Both could be a lot of fun.
In our second warehouse district we have one notable location, the only notable food and beverage establishment in the area, a kitchen. A kitchen in this sense is like a takeaway cafeteria. These establishments often make two meal options per day for those working in the warehouse district to swing by and grab food to go. Most of it will be simple fare that’s easy to eat on the go. In many ways, it operates as an affixed food truck. I think I’ll stick with the original plan here and keep the council member from this district a paint-by-numbers greedy merchant. Sometimes it pays to stick with the classics.
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Worldbuilding Settlement History & Current Events
If you’ve been following along we can really see how our example city is coming together. We have an idea of what it looks like, some notable locations, and we can start to envision the ruling council’s personas. And this would be a good place to stop if we just wanted a sandbox to build and run adventures inside with ease. Especially if we wanted to make this capital city a setting agnostic location to be dropped into all sorts of campaigns.
However, this landmark capital city is for a specific world so I want to add some context, I want some historical and current event flavor to anchor it in our setting. We don’t need an exhaustive history of the location with many dates and dead people who aren’t important and useful to the current goings-on of the city and adventure.
Essentially I want to know three things about the location
- One piece of old lore or history about the location
- One defining, communal experience in the location for the oldest living generation
- One current event impacting the location or recent event it’s still recovering from
I choose to highlight these three types of information because they provide context for the location and the way people interact with it within the world. The first is a common piece of lore or history that many people know about the location even if they’re not from it. Something like, how New York used to be New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony before the English took it over.
The second piece would be something the older generations experienced firsthand and affected their lives but younger people didn’t. A communal, “back in my day” kind of story that probably influences the things they do, such as people who experienced hunger in their lives are very conscious about not being wasteful with food.
I want to include the third because it helps you set the atmosphere and tone for a location. A city that has just suffered an assault has a very different feeling from one experiencing famine, and one that has become the home to a new and powerful cult.
To help us out we have 20 fundamental history and current event ideas that you can roll and expand upon to inject tone and atmosphere into your location.
1d20 Current Events & History
- Assassination or Serial Killer
- Assault or War
- Avalanche or Sinkhole
- Bandits or Barbarian Raiders
- Cult or Religion
- Earthquake, Landslide, or Mudslide
- Extreme Precipitation, High or Low
- Extreme Temperature, High or Low
- Fire (Artificial or Natural)
- Foreign Occupation
- Meteor Impact or Volcanic Event
- New Magic or Technology
- Paranormal Wrath (Divine or other Outsider)
- Plague (Natural or Unnatural)
- Powerful Monster/NPC
- Rebellion, Riot, or Revolution
- Rival Location
- Smuggling or Slaving
- Violent Storm (Hail, Hurricane, Lightning, Tornado)
I went ahead and rolled for our example capital city and ended up with…
- Meteor Impact or Volcanic Event
- Assault or War
Hmm, if this city is on an island or not, it is still close to mountains so a volcanic event would make sense. But, I really like the meteor impact because it’s quite different. What if a meteor impact created the natural harbor or bay. The natural harbor being the resulting crater from the impact. That’s really cool.
Another great thing about this approach to current events and history for locations is that it works as fodder for creating adventure hooks. Maybe there’s some strange alien stuff in the bottom of the harbor. Or, even if we wanted to keep it mundane, maybe the bay is now the largest magnetic mass so compasses point to it. That would make it a popular and easy-to-find port for ships.
The older citizens of our city remember an assault. I don’t want it to be a formal war so I’m going to say it was a considerable confederation of sea raiders, more like a Viking invasion composed of disparate parties that were only lightly affiliated. Going through the city you can still see the scars from that assault. There is a mottled architecture of half-destroyed buildings rebuilt with newer or different materials. Maybe the harbor chain is also new because the original was destroyed in the assault.
There could be an old sea raider still alive in the prison hulk with some critical information for a quest. What about a lead on a symbolic treasure looted from the city during the assault but never found? Rumors say it never left the area, but it’s hidden or buried somewhere nearby.
Famine, definitely a common occurrence for pre-modern societies. I think it’s best to go with the famine being a recent event rather than a current event. I just don’t think starving player characters makes for a fun tabletop RPG experience. But, I still need to consider how this event has shaped the location. Maybe it’s common for people to hoard food and to ensure none of it goes to waste. Perhaps the traditional runs of local fish keep moving and people aren’t sure why. That seems like the sort of thing one might hire adventurers to investigate what’s disturbing the patterns of the local sea life.
Since this place is recovering from a famine, it provides us a pretty good reason why there’s only one notable food and drink establishment in a city of this size. Without anything to serve, most eateries went out of business. And even though the city is recovering from the famine, people are still cautious about going into food service business until the food supply stabilizes.
We can also have the famine affect the party in play. Maybe food in the city, from rations to males, is 2-5 times more expensive. Which could be a pretty cool worldbuilding moment where it’s pretty inexpensive to find lodging in the city, but a good meal costs more than the room. If we use the prices listed in the D&D 5e PHB (pg 158), a meal costs about 50% of an inn stay.
So with our multiplier, a meal could be almost three times as expensive as the room in an inn, plus you have to eat multiple meals in a day. Expenses like that work well to motivate players to seek out some adventure hooks to make some money.
It’s pretty easy to see how a few tidbits of history and current events help us world build the city’s atmosphere and provide some solid potential adventure ideas for our D&D campaigns. And it will be easy for our players to remember.
Even if they don’t remember the city’s name they’re going to remember the city with the harbor made from a meteor impact, where the food was REALLY expensive, and they went on that Treasure Island inspired adventure for buried war treasure after talking to the crusty old corsair in the floating prison. That sounds like a great campaign of Dungeons & Dragons to me.
VIP NPCs for Locations
Our city is really coming together, but one thing we haven’t really touched on yet are NPCs for the players to interact within the capital city. One of the more difficult things to learn as a Dungeon Master is what you need to prepare for your games and how much you need to prep. For a major capital city with 119k population, even prepping 1% of the population as NPCs is ridiculous. You certainly can’t be discussing every single resident like Village of Hommlet.
In my experience, a handful of standout or non-player characters is often all I need for most locations, even in a landmark capital city with tens of thousands of residents. Because most shopkeepers, waiters, and guards are dressed-up mannequins. Players don’t ask their name, investigate their relations, motivations, or even as for a physical description most of the time, they’re background.
And the NPCs I spend the time to focus on aren’t just random. They’re often the movers, shakers, and tastemakers of the location. Or at least so much as the party can actually interact with based on their tier of adventure. These VIP NPCs have influence and power, even if it’s not overt, forceful power. They can make of break reputations, lead public thought, and provide or deny adventuring parties access to places, people, and resources.
I don’t need to make a merchant prince VIP NPC for a group of first-level scrubs. He’s a tier-two level NPC at least. But, they could meet and grow a relationship with an NPC like a local midwife, who has access and connections to people and places above her station. The party could follow those breadcrumbs through some adventures and good deeds so the midwife introduces them to perhaps the merchant prince’s steward. The steward can then introduce them to the merchant prince once they have the right experience and notoriety to help someone of that station with their problems.
Creating NPCs for a location is an interactive process. You grow and expand the list of important NPCs over time as they become needed. Even if I planned to run an entire 1-20 campaign in our example city, I would still only prep a few low-level VIP NPCs to start. In the beginning, we just need a few NPCs fleshed out that we can throw at players as quest givers and people who can provide the players with knowledge, access, and other resources they could use if they spend the time and energy to build that relationship.
Creating VIP NPCs for a Location
In general, I follow the rule of three unless I have a specific reason to deviate. For our VIP NPCs, that’s one NPC that is in charge and two other VIPs with potential quests related to the local area. If you’re like me, making up random NPCs is difficult. I have a small stable of go-to NPCs when I’m improvising, so it’s helpful to have some inspirational assistance so I don’t keep making the same NPC repeatedly. For me, the easiest jumping off point for creating an NPC is their vocation. So here is a list of 100 NPC jobs you can use to get started.
1d100 NPC Vocations
- Scholar or Sage
- Librarian or Lore-keeper
- Teacher, Tutor, Instructor or Coach
- Scribe or Clerk
- Village Elder or Alderman
- Gong Farmer, Ratcatcher, Trashman
- Manual Laborer
- Brash, Headstrong Teen
- Area’s Oldest Living Person
- Quartermaster/Storehouse Overseer/Warehouse Manager
- Treasurer or Exchequer
- Mint Owner or Moneychanger
- Pawnbroker or Usurer
- Advisor, Butler, Council Member, Lieutenant, Majordomo, Vizier
- Courier or Messenger
- Tax Collector
- Busker, Performer, Player, Punch & Judy Puppeteer
- Artist or Sculptor
- Entertainment Venue Proprietor (Theater/Opera House/Amphitheater/Music Hall)
- Poet or Writer
- Bard/Skald/Minstrel in Residence
- Bathhouse or Gymnasium Owner
- Athlete or Gladiator
- Brothel Owner, Courtesan, Prostitute, Flesh Peddler
- Food/Drink Establishment Owner (Beerseller, Taphouse, Coffeehouse, Public House, Dining Club, Tavern, Pub, Brasserie, Food Cart, Kitchen)
- Bailiff, Reeve, Watch Captain
- Constable or Sheriff
- Noble (Lesser, Scheming, Family Relation)
- Executioner, Judge, or Solicitor
- Imprisoned/Jail Keeper
- Curios & Exotics Collector/Entrepreneur
- Jeweler, Gold or Silver Smith
- Guard or Watch Member
- Independent Artisan/Craftsman
- Guild Artisan/Craftsman or Guildmaster
- Farmer or Miller
- Shop or Market Stall Merchant
- Beggar, Homeless Person, or Peddler
- Smith or Farrier
- Cloister Member/Leader (Layman Brother/Sister, Monk/Nun/Abbot/Abbess/Prior/Prioress, etc.)
- Druid Circle Member
- Local Drunk, Addict, or Mad Person
- Fisher or Herder/Drover
- Butcher, Fishmonger, or Grocer
- Bather, Dyer, or Tanner
- Eccentric Artificer/Inventor/Tinker
- Isolated Spellcaster (Warlock, Witch, Wizard)
- Barber, Folk Healer, or Physician
- Apothecary, Chemist, or Herbalist
- Harbormaster or Gate Captain
- Restless Spirit
- Cult Leader/Member
- Slave (Freed, Indentured, Runaway)
- Secret Society Leader/Member
- Bounty Hunter
- Charismatic/Sympathetic Outlaw or Vigilante
- Freedom Fighter, Populist Demagogue, or Revolutionary
- Folk Hero, Veteran, or Warrior or Repute
- Street Gang/Organized Crime Leader/Member
- Bandit or Pirate
- Smuggler or Rumrunner
- Foreign Agent/Dignitary/Spy
- Pilgrim, Vagabond, Mysterious Wanderer
- Clergy Member (Temple Priest, Bishop, Cardinal, Inquisitor, Vicar)
- Fortune Teller, Diviner, Seer, Soothsayer, or Oracle
- Cloth & Clothing Owner Cobbler, Clothier, Draper, Haberdasher, Hatter, Mercer, or Tailor
- Ethnic Minority Leader
- Knight Errant, Lone Adventurer, Sellsword, Military Order Member
- Young Acolyte, Apprentice, Linkboy, Stablehand, Student, or Urchin
- Young Child or Orphan
- Burglar, Thief, or Fence
- Area’s Adventurers Guilder, Fixer, Infobroker
- Duelist or Area’s Toughest Person
- Traveling Group (Adventurers, Circus, Entertainers, Merchants, Noble-Court)
- Town Crier/Herald/Broadsheets Printer
- Tolerated Good/Neutral Monster
- Item as Questgiver (Item, Note, Map, Missing Person, Noticeboard Posting, etc.)
- Explorer, Guide, Ranger, Ship Captain, Treasure-Hunter
- Pioneer/Frontiersman (Hunter/Trapper/Prospector)
- Refugee or Sympathetic Member of Occupying Force
- Casanova-esque Lover, Dandy, Libertine, Socialite, or Tastemaker
- Lodging Establishment Owner/Patron (Inn/Flophouse/Dormitory/Boardinghouse/Roadhouse/Caravansary)
- Wealthy Landowner or Heir
- Construction/Mine/Plantation/Workcamp Overseer
- Charlatan or Traveling Impostor
- Magical Talking Animal or Item
- Extra-planar Visitor
- A Secret Lover, Family Member, or Lovechild (Roll Again for Who’s)
- Monster in Disguise! Roll Again for Disguise!
Typically I would just make the three starter VIP NPCs for a location, but this capital city is a little different. Instead of one person in charge, we have nine and each is in charge of a district in our capital city. If I were running a low-level game in our capital city I’d dial in on one city ward as a starting area. Something like The Docks, as they’re usually low-rent and a seedy location that’s very useful for running low-level D&D adventures.
So, let’s put it into practice for our example capital city’s dock district. Since we’re focusing on low-level play, I’m not going to waste time fleshing out the council representative for the docks because my party won’t be influential enough to get an audience with the Shipwright. So, let’s roll on the table and see what we get.
We ended up with a slaver, a tailor, and a… magical talking animal. Wow, I love it already.
In the punishment section we touched briefly on impressment and I think that’s a good angle for our slaver. They could be crimping people and there could be a fun adventure searching through the tunnels under the city. Or, perhaps the slaver has lost some merchandise and hire the player characters to bring it back under false pretenses. Since we know the Shipwright is involved in the drug den activities, I think it’s natural to build a factional relationship between the slaver and our Shipwright. Maybe the slaver helps make nuisances to the Shipwright disappear.
A tailor could have very mundane problems such as someone refusing to pay for a costly bit of clothing that has as a consequence put the tailor in debt with an unsavory loan shark. Or, we could do something more whimsical, like ne’er-do-well faerie sprites that are wrecking the tailor shop every time. Every time the tailor tries to stay away to catch the faeries they put the tailor to sleep magically. D&D is at its best when it stacks mundane issues and adventures next to wild and weird of a magical world and treats both as being very real and normal.
When I saw a magical talking animal, my mind immediately jumped to cat sith. I like this NPC as more of a quest giver than an antagonist. Given its feline and fey nature, I’m not sure that it would ever be friends with the party, more mercurial and mischievous. It could even develop into a party patron, but still has the many faerie quirks, demands, and adventures around fey-and-cat-centric concerns. Maybe it demands cream milked under the light of a full moon and other bizarre tasks.
But, that’s enough stalling. Since this is an exercise about fleshing out a capital city, It’s time to draft up our city council members. Since I already know their occupations, I simply need to flesh them out a bit. I’m going to want to know these basic facts about my VIP NPCs. I’ll want to know their name, their physical description, some basic personality information, and a distinctive visual element or mannerism to help make them memorable.
There are so many resources for names that it would be redundant for me to create another one. I use one of three avenues when I’m coming up with character names. I’ll use something from the local language if it has an Earth analog. I’ll use a name from the tables in the back of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Or, I’ll use this 1d100 table for creating random names. The only thing I change on the table is name length so not every name is the same.
NPC Physical Description
First is to determine ancestry and heritage, which is simple since I have that 1d10 table from the city’s population breakdown at the beginning of this guide. Once I have that, I’ll choose a presenting gender of female, male, or androgynous. Then I use a simple 1d6 to determine basic body shape and 2d6 for their height
1d6 Body Type
- Curvy or Pot Belly (Thin/Thick)
- Brawny (Thick/Muscled)
- Toned (Thin/Muscled)
- 2 Very Short
- 3-4 Short
- 5-9 Average
- 10-11 Tall
- 12 Very Tall
NPC Basic Personality
I want to answer two fundamental questions about my NPC to determine the foundation for their personality. Are their actions and decisions made primarily due to their emotions or their logical analysis of a situation? And two, are they more talkative or reserved in conversation?
The answers to these questions help me as a DM determine how they will likely react to a situation.
Memorable Visual Element or Mannerism
What distinctive visual element, mannerism, or quirk will help make the NPC memorable for players? Players generally don’t remember the names of NPCs, but they will often remember a key detail about an NPC, and that’s how they’ll reference the NPC.
Players will say something like, “the ochre Dragonborn that wears all the clinking bracelets.” They will remember the VIP NPC and you will too. Perfect if you need to reference an NPC the players haven’t interacted with in a few sessions.
Without further ado, here are the plutocratic councilmembers for our example capital city.
Irakell, Academy Headmaster
- Air Genasi
- Beer Belly, Average Height
- Logical, Chatty
- Distant, Often Lost in Thought
Jaf, Glazier Guild Leader
- Heavy-set, Tall
- Logical, Reserved
- Swears Heavily
Ur, Shipwright & Drug Kingpin
- Toned, Average Height
- Emotional, Reserved
- Hums Notably
Wynnris, Entertainment Mogul & Former Wrestler
- Dragonborn, Purple
- Curvy, Short
- Emotional, Chatty
- Dragonborn, Silver
- Brawny, Average Height
- Emotional, Reserved
- Highly Attractive
Ovina, Master of Records
- Thin, Tall
- Emotional, Chatty
- Wears Gaudy Rings
Jaxi, Grand Admiral
- Dragonborn, Black
- Brawny, Tall
- Emotional, Chatty
Quintive, Physician & Shipping Tycoon 1
- Toned, Short
- Logical, Chatty
Secarr, Shipping Tycoon 2
- Muscular, Average Height
- Emotional, Chatty
- Purple-dyed hair
Location Naming Conventions for World Building
Coming up with names for NPCs is hard enough, but location names are even worse. Luckily, there are a ton of name generators out there and you should definitely use them if you feel stuck or uninspired when naming things when you’re worldbuilding. Because having a bland or weird name is still better than having no name at all for a location.
Case in point, Thedas, from the Dragon Age series. If you didn’t know, Thedas is an acronym that stands for “The Dragon Age Setting.” They never came up with a name for the game setting, so they kept the shortened form of the working title.
For my own world building uses I’ve researched naming conventions for places in our world so that I can give names to locations that feel realistic. Most location names can deconstructed into three types of building blocks.
- Identifiers: Basic, descriptive words for the location from colors to names of important people
- Function: Straightforward, what is the function of the location, such as a crossing, farm, or city
- Feature: A Natural feature or landform or the area, valley, mountain, or spring
1d8 Naming Conventions
- Identifier + Function + Feature
- Identifier + Function
- Existing Name + Function
- Function + Feature
- Identifier + Feature
- Existing Name + Feature
- Existing Name
- Basic Adjective (Size, Color, Temperature)
- The People Who Live Here (France, Land of Franks, Paris is the home of the Parisii)
- Directional (West, Upper, Lower)
- Prevalent Industry/Trade (Mechanicsville)
- Prolific Flora
- Prolific Fauna
- Prolific Mineral/Rock/Sediment
- Encompassing District (New York City)
- Sentiment (Providence)
- Explorer (Cook Islands)
- Founder/Settler (Huntsville, ON)
- Leader (Washington DC)
- Magic User (Halaster)
- Military Hero (Cincinnati)
- Noble (Jamestown)
- Philosopher (Berkeley)
- Religious Paragon (Los Angeles)
If you’re really interested in how to use this to the fullest I suggest checking out the Place Name Origins Wikipedia Page.
Place names also get weird as they pass through different languages, cultures, and just through time. These things happen to places with existing names that mutate over time to be mistranslated, nonsensical, or repetitive.
A good tautological example of this is the Mekong River, which is essentially River, River, River. Mae is river in Thai, Khong is river in Austroasiatic, and River is English. Other strange examples include Hill Mountain in Wales, which is not even lost in translation since both words are English.
Another silly example is El Puente de Alcántara, in Toledo, Spain, meaning it’s The Bridge of (Spanish) Bridge (Arabic). So, this is a pervasive thing that happens when two or more cultures or language groups overlap. Check out the Wikipedia page of tautological place names for more examples and inspiration.
Again, we don’t want to spend too much time and energy on naming places. The truth is that most places on Earth have really basic, boring names and so including these kinds of names in your world building will make it feel natural.
So, if you come up with a great idea for a name that you like right off the bat, go with it. Or, you can save it for a capital city’s nickname. I quite like “The Blast” for our example capital city, but I feel like that’s definitely more a nickname than an official name. Plus, I still want to show an example of using the tables, so let’s roll.
The results of my roll was a three, Identifier + Function, and for the identifier I rolled a sentiment. Hmm, let’s see. I think something referring to preparations for the grueling cross-ocean journey and perhaps something to do with its inhospitable climate seems fitting. Resilience seems like a good choice to me, especially after surviving its assault. I’m going to switch around the positions and use the name, Port Resilient.
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Capital City Worldbuilding Wrap Up
Thanks for hanging in there and reading this one all the way through. I knew it would be a long one and whether you read the whole thing or just some key sections, thanks, and I hope you found something to help make your world building and tabletop RPG games a little more fun.
My intent is to put up the full city bones for Port Resilient on DriveThruRPG, as a Pay-What-You-Want resource. So check to see if it’s up on the RRF DrivethruRPG Storefront and don’t forget to check out some of the other PWYW titles there! If you like what you find, give it a 5-star rating, review, or send a few dollars my way. Every little bit helps. Until next time, stay safe and play well!