That's Life In The Big City | Advice on creating authentic urban environments 

by Kevin Anderson and Kristine Thompson

"Cities, towns, and sometimes even large villages provide the setting for highly interesting, informative, and often hazardous affairs and incidents," says the Players Handbook. True enough. However, when it comes to creating a medieval town for a fantasy gaming campaign, many Dungeon Masters don't play the role of builders very well. Most people have a vague idea of what a typical town in the Middle Ages was like, but in order to create one for use in your game, you'll need more than a vague idea.

We've campaigned in one fantasy medieval town which had all the necessities: a town wall, complete with a gatekeeper just waiting to be bribed; plenty of inns and taverns scattered throughout the town; dark alleys; and suspicious folk - but it also had wide streets, huge warehouses and empty buildings where characters could meet in secret, a vast prison with large roomy cells for everyone (one person to a cell), and large, grassy parks. It was like a Minneapolis suburb in a time-warp.

Granted, the key in fantasy role-playing is fantasy, but it is fantasy based on historical fact. One of the major points of the game is to experience what your characters would have experienced if they had lived in the Middle Ages, had magic been possible, and had dragons roamed the land. With these guidelines, you should be able to visualize a medieval town more clearly and enjoy the experience of building one for your own game and playing within it.

The Dungeon Masters Guide offers the DM very little help with creating a town campaign. That makes the DM's job twice as difficult, because almost every party of adventurers encounters a town at one point or another. Most player characters buy their equipment in towns. Others search for followers there, and still others enter towns to seek directions. If characters have to visit a town, they may as well have an adventure there, too.

Before the players can enjoy a town campaign, the DM must create a town. Although the DMG recommends using a vague town map, a detailed map makes the campaign more interesting. A town adventure can be as exciting as a dungeon or wilderness adventure, with a little planning.

Community size and location

The difference between cities, towns, and villages lies in population size. The average medieval town held about 2,500 people, although a large town might contain as many as 20,000. A huge city such as London or Paris boasted 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants. A Russian village consisted of a family group of two to four generations clustering together, 40 to 100 people, with the clan head being the eldest member. When the population of a Russian village reached about 100 people, the village divided itself in half. One group of people remained where they were, and the other group left to seek a place to found a new village. (Imagine meeting them on the road!) Often the new village was established close to the original site, so the move wasn't a great hardship. The causes of such splits varied, but the usual reason was that the clan leadership of the village became ineffective after the population reached a certain size.

Other villages split for religious, economic, or political reasons. After Henry VIII's mandate made England a Protestant country, Catholics who refused to accept the change found the need to create their own communities - or lose their lives. Some of these pockets of Catholicism still exist in England today.

Cities grow out of towns, and towns grow out of villages. The French village of Bardou remained small because it could not support more than a handful of people at a time. But, London's population grew from 33,000 in 1500 to 400,000 in 1650. The reason for the increase was not London's beauty. (Medieval towns were filthy places.) London grew because of its geography. It became a viable commercial center for trade to Antwerp (the commercial center of medieval Europe), Italy, and France, and its central location made it easy for goods from other countries to reach remote portions of England. This made London the only important English city in the Middle Ages.

The location of a settlement was determined by a number of things. Peasants tended to cluster around a lord's castle for protection and to serve his needs according to their feudal obligations. Villages sprang up at a crossroads or at a shallow ford in a river, where some entrepreneur would set up a shop to sell ale to thirsty travelers. A blacksmith might then set up shop to shoe horses or repair carts, an innkeeper might come, and so on. Merchants tended to cluster around shrines and holy places, selling trinkets and holy relics to pilgrims. People also considered the defensibility of a potential village site, important in a time of marauding bandits, bloodthirsty wild men, and mercenary armies (not to mention orcish hordes or vicious demons). A group of builders would usually seek a strategic site, such as a hill near a river, and set up their village there.

Events in the outside world also influenced the development of villages. Bardou came into existence during the Roman era because of the site's proximity to iron mines. When the mines died in the 4th century, so did Bardou. But 1200 years later the village was resurrected when squatters, following the roads as they fled city life, decided it was an ideal site for a village. They built stone homes, scratched out gardens among the rocks, gathered chestnuts, and caught game in the surrounding forests. For three centuries, life in Bardou remained the same. Then the call to city life reached the inhabitants of the village. One by one, they left to make their fortunes elsewhere - and Bardou died again.


Once the DM has decided on location and population, the next item concerns local fortifications. In early times, people built settlements close together but fortified them poorly. In the 9th and 10th centuries, villagers began to build walls around their settlements, which then became towns. The townspeople took pride in their walls, since a wall made them better off in many ways than the sprawling, unprotected country villages were. Most European towns had walls made of stone; those of the northern barbarians in Russia had wooden fortifications, making their towns look much like the stockades of old forts in the American west. The Russians had no need for heavy stone walls, because of the absence of large siege machines at the time, and wood was far more plentiful in the dense northern forests than stone could ever be. Enemy arrows - the only real threat from invading armies - could be stopped by wood as easily as by stone.
Sometimes towns were surrounded by a circular moat, possibly with guarded bridges or a drawbridge. (In 1150, a tax collector in Belgorad, Russia, went out for an evening walk and discovered an army of invaders approaching for a surprise night attack on his city. He raised the drawbridge himself, shouting the alarm, and saved the town.)

Townspeople kept themselves proficient in arms and fought valiantly to protect their town. They considered it their duty to fortify the town, for which they received payment and a food allowance usually of meat, fish, malt for beer, millet, and oats for their horses.

Although walls protected a town, they also created problems of their own. Conditions became more and more crowded inside the walls as the population grew, and soon formed around the town proper. Powerful aristocratic families remained within the well-protected areas, but the craftsmen spread out and around the wall where water (vital to much of their work) was easily available.

Outside a town wall, characters might pass through such suburbs, with their orchards and garden patches. They may also pass by the lazaret, the leper's hospital which stands outside the town walls. A leper's hospital doesn't really need the protection of the walls anyway: What army would be foolish enough to attack a leper colony? But the leper colony and its relative, the insane asylum, could add another dimension to the town adventure.

If the characters don't get to the gates by nightfall, they're going to have to sleep outside until sunrise - or else do something spectacular to get over the walls. But that's only one problem which the town gates may hold. There may be rules that must be met before entering the town. Or worse yet, in most players' opinions, the gatekeeper may make characters pay a toll. Unless your party is very suspicious-looking, the gatekeeper won't pay much attention to you - remember, he's bored silly from seeing an endless stream of dirty merchants, peasants, tradesmen, and craftsmen who pass by him all day long. He might be in a bad mood, too.

Something to remember at this point is that people traveled a lot in the Middle Ages. Some were on crusades or religious pilgrimages, and the rest were traveling to find their fortunes. The gatekeeper might be a valuable source of information, especially if your party is searching for a specific person. Although a gatekeeper wouldn't pay much attention to most of the stream of humanity flooding through his gates, he might notice anything out of the ordinary - and, for a small fee, might tell you what ht? saw.

Inside the walls

If the town is relatively new, one may see orchards, small fields and gardens, granaries, and perhaps some marshland or ponds inside the city walls. In older towns and cities, all such places would be crowded with houses instead. The upper stories of houses crowded together in the late Middle Ages lean out over the streets on either side, making the streets seem like dim, stuffy tunnels.

Towns are noisy places. Bells toll constantly from countless towers, to tell the time of day, to rejoice, to mourn, to announce war or peace, to announce the installation of a new leader, to call the people to church , or to warn of danger. Street vendors roam the streets singing their wares (as they did in the musical Olive!), and screaming crowds gather around entertainments, such as cock fights or jugglers.

In addition, town criers shout important messages, the time, or local gossip. These criers were often the town ale-testers, too, since their throats got so parched from shouting. Paris had six master criers appointed by the provost, each with a number of assistants who were sent out to the crossroads and squares of various quarters to announce official decrees, taxes, fairs, and ceremonies, houses for sale, missing children, marriages, funerals, births, and baptisms. When the King's vintage was ready for sale, all the taverns had to close while public criers twice a day cried the virtues of the royal wine.

The town's narrow streets are usually crowded with people going in all different directions. Chances are, inside the gate, one may encounter a traffic accident. Carriages often sailed through the streets without regard for anyone in their way. That led to many carriage collisions, as well as the deaths of hapless pedestrians. Traffic jams were also common, especially when pack mules laden with baskets met street vendors carrying their trays or porters bent under loads of wood and charcoal.

If you manage to get past the street hazards, you will probably see a great many miserable people, some who have suffered real tragedies and some who are simply fakers. The fakers know ingenious ways to make it appear that they have large, festering wounds on their arms and legs, using these fake miseries to make money from almsgivers. Lepers may wander the streets, ringing their bells and asking for mercy from the gods and from those who have been luckier than they. Lepers aren't turned away from most towns, but they are required to buy anything they touch.

Towns are good places to encounter wererats, as well as wights, shadows, and ghasts. The wererats will be human by day, of course, and could easily join an adventuring party. The wights, shadows and ghasts will probably be encountered at night, near charnel houses and graveyards. Charnel houses will be found either just inside the town wall or well away from the wall on the outside.

No teeming mass of humanity would be complete without thieves and pickpockets. Some such encounters will be with relatively high-level thieves - after all, with so many travelers, thieves would gets lots of practice. Vagabonds wander here and there, along with merchants, pilgrims, friars, and peddlers. Traveling shows of minstrels, tumblers, magicians, dancing bears, or actors performing bawdy plays compete with the old standbys of bull-baiting and cockfighting for the crowd's attention. An occasional out-of-work bard may be standing on a street corner strumming his melodies.

As if the crowd isn't enough, the average traveler may also encounter several religious processions. Such processions are common occurrences, becoming more frequent when times are worse than usual. Churches celebrated saints' days, feast days, and holidays.

The chance of encountering a festival, procession, or other celebration is even greater in a village. Village life was tied to both the seasons and the local religion. Every village had its parish feast day, as well as special fairs and festivals centered on church-reformed pagan traditions. Other standard holidays in medieval times included Christmas, Twelfth Day, Shrove Tuesday, Easter (a week-long celebration, often more pagan than Christian in nature), May Day, Whitsun, and special harvest observances. Northamptonshire in England celebrated 82 wakes (festivals centering on a saint's day or special parish holiday) between late September and early November.

All of these people, carriages, and carts must fit on a main street which is only eight to ten feet wide. An alley is only a yard wide. Principal streets usually run straight toward the center of town, where the marketplace is usually located, but the alleys form a haphazard, aimless maze. Alleys are often paved and well-traveled near the streets, but as you go farther, the paths become dusty and aimless, sometimes leading to the middle of a field or dead-ending at a blank wall for no apparent reason. It's easy to see that a town could make as interesting a labyrinth as a dungeon does.

The town's streets are usually paved with cobblestones, if they are paved at all. In northern lands in our own world, townsmen paved their streets with wood. They laid three or four wooden poles lengthwise along the street and notched split logs of pine, laying them across the new street so that poles fit tightly into the notches to make a "boardwalk" type of street. This pavement provided protection from freezing and thawing, and from the muddy muck that occurred every spring. In wintertime, people traveled along these roads with sleds.

Adventuring parties may wish they had a protection from stench spell, due to the filthiness of the streets. Pigs, dogs, and chickens run loose through the town. Piles of refuse lie in the streets; the people know of no other places to throw their garbage. French cities were better ordered; there, the side streets had gutters running down their middles.
Sticking to the sides of the streets may not help either. Somebody might carelessly dump a filled chamberpot (the medieval version of an indoor toilet) on the party's heads. King Louis IX (later canonized as Saint Louis) took a walk alone one night and received the contents of a chamberpot down his back - the man above neglected to call out the customary warning, since it was late at night and the streets were supposed to be empty. The king went inside the home, in control of his temper (he was a saintly king, remember), and discovered that the perpetrator was merely a hardworking student, up late studying his Latin. The King granted him a scholarship.

Each city had a different method for dealing with their garbage problem. In principle, every person had the duty to clean the street daily in front of his home, but few people complied. Decay, rats, and rain slowly took care of the garbage, but not quickly enough to keep it from accumulating. If all else failed, a man would shovel all the garbage off into his neighbor's gutter, who would then curse and shovel it all into his neighbor's gutter, and so on. It's not surprising that many brawls, quarrels, and lawsuits arose during an annual street cleaning. By 1564, London passed an act that every householder had to wash the street in front of his home with ten buckets of water every day before 6 a.m., and then sweep it again after 6 p.m. Few people bothered to carry this order out.

The filth of the average medieval city makes disease all the more likely. Many DMs ignore the disease tables in the DMG, which is a pity. In a town adventure, disease is as great a threat as the pickpockets. A DM should roll daily for a chance of infection for each party member, if local conditions require it. If a character gets a chamberpot spilled on him or falls in the sewer, his chance of catching a disease will increase. If the weather is warm, then the very air is dangerous to breathe, and the only way to stay healthy is to leave the town walls.

In most European countries, the only buildings using stone were churches and castles; most people, both rich and poor, lived in fire traps. In old Russia, carpenters spoke of cutting a town rather than building one, since all the homes were made of logs. The northern people found wooden homes easier to heat than stone ones throughout their cold winters and long, wet springs and autumns. These log homes were built with interlocking timbers, using few nails or metal parts at all. Wooden furniture, utensils, and toys filled these homes - the vast amount of timber in the thick Russian forests seemed undaunted by whatever new uses men found for it. Northerners covered their roofs with a layer of dirt for insulation.

Since the danger of fire was so great, all activity stopped at sunset, as most towns forbade artificial lighting. Still, London had four major fires in the 12th century, and the city of Rouen in France burned six times in the first quarter of the 13th century. Adventurers who are ignorant of the law may find themselves fined for lighting a torch inside their home. One of your party could also start a major fire simply by letting a hearth fire get out of hand.

Good inns aren't hard to find. On a main road, one can spot many of them with large signs sticking so far out into the street as to block traffic. In many inns, guests will be forced to sleep three to a bed, but the more wealthy guests will receive a room of their own, complete with bed linen "fresh from the washerwoman." Freshly washed linen doesn't help all that much, though, since all the lice, fleas, and ticks are hiding within the straw or feather mattress and not in the linens at all. Bugs carry disease; if the party spends a night in an inn, the chance for catching a disease increases again.

But, a handful of travelers will be privy to certain home remedies for fleas, ticks, and lice. Knowledgeable people will carry a small container of fox or hedgehog grease, since it is commonly supposed that vermin can't resist the smell of the grease. Smear some grease on a stick, and all the nasty critters will flock to it from all corners of the room, making it easy to for you to smash them. Innkeepers were certain that if they placed a coarsely woven piece of white cloth under the bed in the morning, all the pests would drop out of the mattress on their daily prowls and become tangled in the rough nap of the cloth; servants then killed the easily visible vermin on the white cloth.

Innkeepers guaranteed the safety of a traveler's possessions in the security of his room. A traveler kept the key to his room throughout his stay, even though the locks were simple and easily picked. No matter how closely innkeepers watched the rooms, they couldn't always prevent a traveler's bedmate from stealing the traveler's possessions. Other innkeepers developed a system to take part of the loot themselves. A wealthy adventurer who displayed his wealth in the inn might find himself accosted on the road by bandits, the innkeeper having reported the traveler's wealth to local thieves. In return for the tip, the innkeeper would receive a cut of the profits.

Constables patrol the towns by day, but at night groups of citizens are forced to form the night watch. The night watch isn't paid, and the people usually resent having to perform this civic duty. People on night watch walk together, laughing and talking so loudly that any self-respecting criminal with a modicum of common sense won't be anywhere nearby when the night watch comes around the corner.

During its stay in the town, the party may venture to the town's marketplace in search of a good deal on new weapons, armor, or magical items. The party won't need to shop around much, for powerful trade guilds usually control almost all crafts - fixing prices, setting standards of quality, and generally using strong-arm tactics to enforce their rules.

Merchants can be vicious and dishonest, to the customer and to the competition. During a salt shortage in Kiev, the merchants sold their salt for a high price and shared their profits with the prince. One friar sold his salt for less, and naturally the customers flocked to him. The merchants complained to the prince, claiming the friar was selling ashes instead of salt. The prince decided to have the friar seized. In the meantime, the merchants filled the friar's bucket with ashes and pointed to it as evidence of his wrongdoing. The friar was convicted, and the merchants and the prince started turning a profit again.

No consumer protection agency will be able to help if (make that when) characters get ripped off by shoddy goods. Craftsmen had a standard practice of showing the customer one type of cloth, then making the ordered garment out of far cheaper material. Bakers often made loaves of bread with stones in the middle so that they would make the required weight without using so much flour. Sacks of grain were often sold half-filled with rocks. One baker used the sales gimmick in which he would knead bread dough for a customer only if it brought it to his shop; as he was doing the laborious job of kneading on his special counter, his apprentice would open a small trapdoor beneath the counter and steal small bits of dough to add to his master's own supply.

In medieval Paris, each trade occupied its own quarter. Butchers and tanners were gathered around the Chatelet; moneychangers, goldsmiths, and drapers were found on Grand Pont; scribes, illuminators, and parchment- and ink-sellers were centered on the Left Bank around the university. In a town, however, you might well pass dozens of specialized shops in the same area - potters, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, woodworkers, masons, locksmiths, bridgebuilders, armorers, jewelers, etc. Getting some items may not be a simple task, though. To get armor, you might have to go to one shop to buy armor for the neck, another shop for breast armor, another shop for leg armor, another for helmets, and another for shields. You have to find a swordsmith to buy a blade, a bowyer to buy a bow, and a fletcher to buy arrows. Luckily, most of these craftsmen clustered together, rather like an armory shopping mall.

Medieval towns resemble modern ones in many ways. Street crime, overcrowding, poverty, and traffic accidents were as common then as they are now. The differences rest in the level of knowledge and technology possessed by the town's inhabitants. For example, we know a lot more about disease and fire prevention than medieval citizens ever imagined. Remember those differences, and building a town campaign will be much easier.

Town campaigns can be some of the most interesting and exciting in your game. But, like any other adventures, they require careful planning and mapping. Following the guidelines in this article won't ensure the success of player characters, but it will guarantee that you will have interesting, informative, and hazardous adventures -just like the Players Handbook promises.

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built by unclefester | sternzwischen | updated 14-05-29 23:15:25