OSR: Building a City - First Section

There are dozens of easy ways to build a medieval city for your games. Here's my hard, difficult, and tedious way. If any of my players are reading this, take note. Your GM is an idiot.

The First Section: Corpathium
Go to Last Gasp's excellent city generator. It's been getting  rave reviews since 2014 for a very good reason. Don't worry if you don't really understand all the references to the Godless or the Vermintide. I don't. I'm here for flavour and mapping. In the next post, I'll use other PDFs and tricks to add details.

Step 1: Roll Stuff

I left out 1d20 because the city I'm generating isn't huge.
Step 2: Connect Stuff
What a mess. Only the yellow lines matter though.
Step 3: Name Districts
Ok... I'm not sure what most of these things are but I'm sure they're explained somewhere.
Step 4: Revise Naming and Add Mandatory Districts. I ignored the Emerald Pit mandatory location, as it's not really relevant for my ideas of this city.

Step 5: Find a map of a medieval city

Step 6: Crop, edit, and reduce the map until it fits your city. Don't worry if you do a terrible job.
Step 6 takes a while.
Anyway, this is what I ended up with. It's less weird than Corpathium. I've tried to root it in the early 15th century but there are bits and pieces from several eras of European history jumbled together. The city is a mix of Avignon and London, but it is a shadow of its former self.

Each district has a basic writeup below, just to get me started. You could totally stop here.

The city's name is Elderstone


There is a Mayor and a City Council. There are guilds. The city is large enough that no one noble owns it entirely, but important enough that it falls within the royal patrimony of the House of Crimson. "Crimson" is pronounced like "saison".

The city faces the sea. Down on the map is West. There is a channel and a mostly uninhabited island on the north side of the city. The channel controls trade. There's a muddy and unpleasant tidewater shore on the north side, along with high rocky cliffs. More cliffs to the south. The city is walled but it is not a fortress.

Starting on the bottom left and working upwards:
Hotel de Ville, 1583, Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer

The Fogwalk

Prosperity: MiddlingA borough of seaside views, commerce and depravity, as with all dockyards. Clustered near the northwest corner of the city, the Fogwalk also creeps along the waterfront. Purplish barnacles known as Halamus Siren grow over the docks, buildings, and side-walks. They'll attach to people if they stay still for long enough. If consumed, Save vs. Poison. Failure results in an overwhelming desire to walk into the sea which lasts for d8 days. Encounter tables here.

Sights, Smells, etc. Smells of salt, sweet fish, tarred wood and a lingering hangover. Fishblood on the cobbles. The creak of rigging and sails. Every morning, a cold mist clings to the docks.

Mostly wood, some stone. Piles sunk into the mud. Mixtures of stone and jettied wood the further you get from the sea. Some houses are sealed with pitch. Roofs slope upwards and away from the sea to deflect storms upwards.

Morning: Dockhands going to work, fish buyers with baskets, men with knotted arms and sharp knives removing barnacles from the docks. The fishlings sail out to sea before the sun rises.

Noon: Cargo unloaded, goods being shipped out and haggled for, soldiers waiting to embark, a crush of wagons in the streets.

Night: Workers leaving, others arriving to unload the night cargo, revelers thronging to the brothels and cellars, the fishlings return and unload their catch.

Landmarks: The Great Docks, the imported rarities of Cake Lane, the fishling houses painted blue and green, Redmaw's Alehouse, the King's Ships in the channel.
Cour des Miracles, ~1600, Jacques

The Rookery

Prosperity: Poor A slum.The most crowded district in Elderstone. The maimed, the lost, and the insane drift here. Halamus Siren barnacles are everywhere. If you're starving, you might  be tempted to eat one and fling yourself into the sea. Rats can't help themselves. The other districts herd infestations of all kinds into the Rookery. Encounter tables here.

Sights, Smells, etc. Cold and damp, smells of fish rot and stinging salt. The suck and slop of water. Nothing goes to waste in the Rookery. The city is picked clean by night. Barking dogs from the pits or the training grounds.

Buildings: Ramshackle hovels of worn stone and rotting wood built one on top of the other with walkways spider-webbed over the streets, a maze of basements that reach below sea level. Constantly floods. Open gutters in the middle of the street, draining towards the sea. Makeshift shelters crowd alleys and cul-de-sacs. No windows face the sea, and no windows  have glass.

Morning: Drunks waking in the street, the occasional fog-bloated corpse, beggars and waremongers drifting off to richer pickings. Someone is crying in the distance. A boot drifts down a gutter.

Noon: Idle cutthroats, eager gamblers, strangers slinking between houses and alleys. Beggars, rag-pickers, bone-grinders, dustmen, but also seamstresses and tailors, students, and travelers.

Night: Highly questionable prostitutes in doorways, appealing only to the most miserly or drunk sailor. Drunks spilling from makeshift brewhouses, crumpled bodies thrown from fight dens, knives flashing in the dark. The splash of water.

Landmarks: Dead Wizard's Tower, a black stump that glows iridescent by the light of the moon. Occasionally, soldiers throw lines up the tower and hoist in barrels of burning pitch. The smoke can be seen for miles. The Shallow Square, where miracle plays are performed, beggars swarm, and demagogues are hanged. The Silent Fortress on the waterfront, though it belongs to no district.

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1416

Artisan Square

Prosperity: Middling
Glassblowers jostle with painters. Lead-tainted metalworkers debate with students of religion. Monks buy ink from alchemists. A whirl of activity, day and night, rain or snow. Money glitters in the sun.

Sights, Smells, etc. The smell of acid and fire, the whisper of silk, and everywhere, colour. Banners and tapestries on display. Houses painted like flowers. The square is small but unmistakable. Every race is present here, but birdlings own the greatest trade houses. Mad laughter or furious babble.

Buildings: Tenements near to the square, but the square itself is a fever dream of colour and sculpture. No churches lack stained glass windows.

Morning: The regretful face of excess, haggard students, day-traders, bundles of goods from the docks spread for display.

Noon: Quiet. Negotiations indoors. The main trade is in the Golden Square, to the east. Furious weaving, sewing, washing, painting, and scrivening.

Night: Bawdy plays on all topics. Displays of curiosities. Travelers find a corner, set up a table, and tell their tales over a long dinner.

Landmarks: The Church of Creation's First Light. Inkspill Alley. A very small greenhouse, where the rarest plants grow. The research hall of the Illusionists (thick walls, thin roof, and no windows).

A spider on its web, 1547

The Black Web

Prosperity: Rich
An entire borough strung with grey webs. This is the home of the spiderlings, rich weavers, patient hunters, a fortified ghetto of creatures with eight black-furred limbs and glass-bead eyes. The spiderlings are transplants from some warm and distant land. The coarse, sticky webs they use for building and defense are nothing compared to their most beautiful silks. They keep to themselves, traveling only in broad daylight, for a spiderling abroad at night will be hunted by the mob. It is said they eat poor children. They worship the Authority without the Church and are therefore distrusted.

Sights, Smells, etc. Webs, spiders. The spiderlings keep many pets, and not all of them are arachnids. The sun never reaches the center of the Black Web. It smells dusty and warm.

Morning: Sleeping in houses held together by silk and hope, or burrowed in cellars, chittering restlessly.

Noon: Socialising, trading with the rest of the city, plucking foolish creatures from webs and making a public show of letting them go.

Night: Feeding (on cattle...  of course). Repairing webs. Weaving. Hunting intruders.

Landmarks: the entire district is a landmark. Who can say what lives inside? The Cave of Jeweled Eyes? A tunnel to the centre of Creation? Rooms packed with desiccated corpses?

Bloodborne concept art

The Plague Ward

Prosperity: Destitute
Blocks of sealed houses and barricaded roads. Guards posted on every corner. Even the beggars stay away. The plague did not return in famous strength, but it advanced house by house until the Mayor and Council, survivors and children of survivors, took drastic action. The living and the dead were locked into their own homes. Every tenement became a tomb. That was a  year ago, and still, the guards say they hear scratching and screaming at night. Something still lives in the Plague Ward.

Sights, Smells, etc. From outside, smoke. Braziers are moved around the district, blowing scented smoke into the ward with the wind. Learned doctors perscribe different woods and herbs for different days or phases of the moon. This ritual is not for the infected or the dead, who are past hope, but to spare the living for another day. So far, the plague has not spread. If you wander inside the ward, breathe through cloth or choke on the scent of decay. Mold coats the walls. Bones litter the streets. But things still live in the sealed-off ward, and some of them are people.

Morning: Silence. No beggars, no criers, no church bells.

Noon: Shuffling in the corners. The creak old wood. A startled bird.

Night: Creeping footsteps. Music, sometimes. A laugh or a wail. Smugglers in black creeping in or out. The infected have no need to travel above ground.

Landmarks: Houses of retired mayors. The Scarlet Guildhall is now a shell, like a smashed beetle. The Penultimate Church.

Trakai Castle, ~1300, Basazole

The Red Castle

Prosperity: Rich
Also known as Castle Elderstone. Grey stone bricks with red wood and tile roofs. A castle grown fat and tumor-riddled with outbuildings, chapels, dormitories, monasteries, halls, and arenas. The castle is the oldest part of Elderstone, and no race now living laid its foundations, which stretch into the bowels of the earth. The king's third son Prince Enwig, a boy of six, lives here with his royal court and royal tutors. Most of the castle is occupied with maintaining the War in the east. Caravans leave weekly from its gates. Recruits train in the yard.

Sights, Smells, etc. Horses and smoke. Blacksmiths, surgeons, and petitioners. Soliders drilling at arms. Banners unfurled. Rarely, a tournament. Inside, cold rot and dust. The lower dungeons smell like death, but below them, below the sewer-stink, it smells like a lightning storm.

Morning: Dispatches to the War. Inspection of goods and gifts. Reception of nobles. Bickering among advisors. A hungover tutor in the yard, dunking his head in the water trough. Severe nuns.

Noon: An anthill overturned. Guards march, horses break free, tiles fall off, trumpets sound, the court adjourns, laws are publicized, the Mayor is chastised or praised. The kitchens roar.

Night: Food and drink and closed doors. Intermittent duels. Poetry and music and art.

Landmarks: the Chapel of the Nine Saints, the Crooked Tower, the Singing Stone, the crypts, the countercrypts, and, of course, the throne room, where the young prince plays at being a knight.

Village, Alex Tornbern

White Walls

Prosperity: Middling
The streets are paved with skulls. Not normal skulls. Those would crumble almost immediately. But some hard-headed race with three eyes and fangs, with bones as dense as granite, slaughtered and stacked by the city's original builders. The district is therefore ill-favoured by the superstitious. Wizards will not enter it after dark. The houses are low, plain, thatched, and crowded. Some have corner-posts made of much older stone. The Round Church is as old as the hills, people say. Below the streets, the old sewer system of Elderstone carries the city's waste into the sea. People in White Walls share tales of the stinking terrors just under their feet, and shudder in the dark.

Sights, Smells, etc.
Soap and lavender to cover the rot below. Bustling peasant prosperity. Small gardens. Loose sheep. A drunk being scolded. Young children following anything interesting, especially foreigners, and asking a thousand inane questions.

: Commerce, washing, driving geese, hymns, and travel. The district rises early. The dull bell of the Round Church. Froglings and toadlings bicker over ancient and almost forgotten wrongs. Houndlings follow their masters.

Noon: Every type of industry known to the city, and a few secret ones practiced in basements and attics. White Walls is no more virtuous than any other district, but it desires to appear so. They pay beggars to scrub the cobbles.

Night: The district retires early and carefully locks their doors. Once in a dozen years something terrible rises from beneath the streets, and the memory keeps their nights restless and worried.

Landmarks: The Round Church, grey and reconsecrated. The sea-walk. The close-packed houses, built to resist the wind by mutual support. The King's Statue, of some king long forgotten, believed to cure minor illnesses.

The College of Elderstone

Prosperity: Rich faculty, Poor students
The Grand College of Elementalist Wizards, otherwise known as the Grand Tower, dominates three of the four corners of the campus. They claim royal privilege and are widely respected and feared by the city's inhabitants. Their ancient tower, bent like an arthritic finger, points out to sea. From its summit, Grand Elementalists try to calm storms or floods and protect the city from invasion. They sometimes succeed. Novice elementalist study their difficult arts in the halls below, sleeping on straw, eating hard bread, and accumulating extraordinary debts. Service in the army will remove some of their debt, so King Elbect II is ensured a steady supply of battle wizards. Most perish.

Sights, Smells, etc
. Magic, if you're lucky. A wizard arguing with a stone block or a bucket of water. A dead wizard, burned by lightning, being examined in the open by a very stern lecturer. Dozing faculty and the smell of vellum. The occasional explosion.

Morning: Students stumble out of drinking halls and dormitories. Pickpockets avoid them - they have nothing of value, not even spellbooks. Pies and fruits are sold on street stalls.

Noon: Quiet. Dozing lecturers and dozing students. Alternatively, panic, as a fire elemental tries to devour something valuable. The college maintains a mandatory fire brigade. Other, stranger magical effects might occur, such as the testing of a new spell or the investigation of a strange artifact in a lecture hall.

Night: Drinking, knife-fighting, gambling. Faculty dinners. Theological debates. Strange lights from locked buildings.

Landmarks: The Octangle (like a quadrangle, but octangular), the Grand Tower (much older than the rest of the College), the Exhibit Halls, the Wizard Skulls (bleached heads on poles of long-forgotten apostates and/or debtors).
Adoration of the Lamb (detail), 1432, Jan van Eyck


Prosperity: Rich
Lilacs ward off the plague. Everyone knows that. The district is purple with them. The mansions of the rich, built on the ancient mansions of the even-more rich, built on stumps of who-knows-what. Intermittent columns. Temples turned into grand halls. And everywhere, flowerboxes of lilacs, hastily bolted onto windows two generations ago. Dried lilac bundles supplement mass over the winter. Inside the grand houses, the rich knights (few) and rising merchants (many) of Elderston, plus Bishop Blackburn. 

Sights, Smells, etc. Crushed lilacs, obviously. You can barely smell your own sweat. But beneath the lilacs, a militant order of knights (who spend more time dancing and learning poetry than learning anything of warfare), and close cadres of merchants (who spend every waking hour attempting to appear noble). Fashion changes to follow the Prince and the distant Court. If you have to ask, you can't afford it.

Morning: Quiet, with a few guards and servants completing the morning's tasks. Sometimes, church.

Noon: The day's business. Messengers running to and from the Red Castle or the Golden Fields. Petitioners arriving from distant lands. Nobles proceed to court or to a late service.

Night: Poetry, songs, tales from distant lands, lies, and lassitude. There is no sign that the War or the Plague have reached the inside of the great homes. The more unusual nobles (the Owllings, the Moon Ambassadors) come out. Guards in the streets and occasional assassinations.

Landmarks: the Diagonal Towers, the Bathchesbit Home, the Foundling Walk, and, should you be invited inside, the opulent interiors. Should you be invited to the cellars, and the deeper cellars below, you may never see the surface again.

Cimetière des Innocents, 1550, Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer

The Golden Fields

Prosperity: Rich
The centre of trade in Elderstone. A square of merchant houses and trade halls surrounding fields of packed earth, tile, and straw. Grey stone walls painted with signs, symbols, and animals. Caravans grown into tent cities, shanty stalls grown into palaces.
Sights, Smells, etc. Animals, sweat, spices, and crushed straw. Chatter in half a dozen languages. The sound of gold dropped into a waiting palm. Morning: The largest merchant houses open at sunrise. Once every two weeks there is a larger market, where peasants from nearby villages are permitted to sell their goods in the square. Some arrive the night before and stake out their allotted squares.

Noon: You can buy meat in the Butcher's Corner and fish along the Fogwalk. Everything else, from milk to bread to trinkets from the far side of the world, is on sale here. The world-weary traveler might scoff at Elderstone's market, but most people, even merchant princes, find something to impress them each day. The spiderling processions enter and sell their silks.
Night: Candlelit stalls that never close sell items no one would purchase by daylight. Thieves are punished publicly.

Landmarks: The Morning Church, privileged to be the first to ring in the dawn. The House of Furs. Lurm the Enchanter (too expensive, always too expensive).


Butcher's Corner

Prosperity: Poor
The unfashionable corner of Elderstone. The tide washes away a multitude of sins, but brings back stinking mud and white bones. Three types of people live here. Mudrakers sift the tidal flats for valuables, pick bones, sneak aboard ships, and die young. Butchers slice meat, carve flesh, trade in smuggled goods, and die gouty and fat. Pickers, carters, tallow-makers, tanners, and gutsmen all fall under the heading  of "Scrapers", and die unnoticed.

Sights, Smells, etc. Smells worse than you'd expect. Drying sea-mud, rotting flesh, spilled blood. A lot of blood, on a good day. It runs in the gutters. Dogs and rats everywhere. Butchers screaming at apprentices. Apprentices screaming at rats. Urchins, covered head to toe in muck, present you with shiny items for sale.

Morning: The mudrakers march out. The animals march in. Pandemonium.

Noon: Most of the day's butchering is done, but sales are just beginning. A herd of geese gets stuck behind a cart.

Night: The mudrakers return with their bundles of treasure. Butchers retire to taverns to plot and swear.

Landmarks: The Tide Gate, the Leather Tavern, and the knife-sharpener's alley,  where you can buy the services of bodyguards or assassins.

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