Saturday, April 16, 2011

Still A Slacker? Another Fast City Idea...

So here's an idea for generating a playable urban area in an hour or so. I have written it in white because it has some spoilers for our upcoming game in it and I don't want my players reading it. So players, go elsewhere. It may spoil the fun of getting to figure some stuff out...

Everybody else just use your mouse to highlight the text to read it, or hit the green "print friendly" button at the bottom--that'll give you a black-on-white version.

This method is best for weird/fantastic/evil/stylized cities with some sort of adventurey thing about them. City of Madness, City of Sorrow, City of Angels, et cetera. Cities that are kinda like dungeons. It could work well for the kind of stuff that's in D3: Vault of the Drow* and I1: Dwellers Forbidden City or China Mieville's The Scar...

Anyway, what you do is get yourself a pack of tarot cards, shuffle them, and randomly lay them out next to each other, edge-to-edge in roughly the shape of your city--then take a picture of it. Or you can do it all virtually by just googling up a whole deck of cards and cutting and pasting them around until you've got a semi-continuous shape.

So now you have picture of a bunch of cards on the ground. Each card represents a building or city block or neighborhood--which exactly is not that important for this method. The cards are a map.

Now interpret your "map" as follows:

-Coins/pentacles represent merchants and commercial establishments/neighborhoods
-Cups represent taverns and inns
-Swords represent (in a fortified city) military installations or guard towers, or (in a less bellicose city) ordinary areas where the key encounter will be with guards/soldiers/fighters. etc.
-Wands represent whatever kind of people or establishments are especially characteristic of the city. Like the one my PCs are in now is full of scholars and philosophers so that's wands.

The number on each card represents the status/level/priceyness of the establishment or encounter area and can (optionally) also be taken as, literally, the number of buildings in the cluster. So 9 of coins would be a fancy shop or 9 fancy shops or a cluster of 9 buildings with a fancy shop in it or an area of 9 buildings where there's an encounter with a high-level merchant, etc. Decide how you want to do these things when you start based on your idea of how big the city is.

Pages represent petty bureaucrats with dominion over the thing represented by their suit--commerce, food and drink, military/police/militia, and The City Specialty.

Knights represent knights or other high level fighters in the service of a faction that controls or is very important in that business in the city.

Kings and Queens represent the most important male and female people in each profession and/or the male and female heads of factions that dominate that business in the city.

Now that's the minor arcana. Here are the easiest of the Major Arcana to interpret:

-The Fool is the court jester or just an important entertainer, or maybe even just a big theater
-The Magician is, duh, the local crazy wizard
-The High Priestess is either the highest ranking female cleric in town or the church she is affiliated with
-The Hierophant is the highest ranking male cleric in town or the church he's affiliated with
-The Empress is the most politically powerful female
-The Emperor is the most politically powerful male
-Justice is where the court of law is
-The Wheel of Fortune is where the crazy gypsy lady or other local oracle is.
-The Hanged Man is where they execute or, alternately, torture people
-Death is where you have your graveyard and/or epidermally-challenged adversaries
-The Devil is where the most fearsome local demon or other villain is

The advantage of this system over the usual random city generator and even other tarot-card based location generators is all you have to do is remember what the suits stand for and you've got a whole city or city-like socio-architectural entity in less than a minute with 4 factions, a social hierarchy and a functioning infrastucture. If you use this method to generate a city you will not even need to look at this blog post to figure out what's what. because, of course, the pictures on tarot cards are already based on a fantastic-medieval social structure.

Once you've laid out your cards, take a look at what the city looks like--is the Queen of Cups next to the King of Wands? What's going on there? Is the 10 of cups surrounded by cheap merchants? What's up with that? Figure some things out about this place.

If you stopped there and just did the Minor Arcana and those 11 Major Arcana that you can probably interpret without referencing this blog post, then you'd have made a city with almost no work, which is neat. So if you want to do this shit fast with almost no thought, you don't even need the remaining 11 cards and might want to just leave them out of the deck entirely.

However, if you have some time to think, here are the others, and some associated ideas:

The Lovers:
Someone here will fall in love with a PC, or be desirable to them, or maybe it's a whorehouse...

An engine of war? A coliseum? Also, the card has a couple sphinxes on it, so there you go...

The Hermit
A monastery or someone unobtrusive who is secretly someone else.

A big monster. Perhaps chained up in someone's basement.

Some force which moderates the overall tone of the city. Maybe a dissenting voice? Like in the Vault of the Drow this might be the headquarters of the Hey Guys Let's Not Destroy All The Surface-Worlders League.

Local mysterious architectural feature. Perhaps a literal tower. Maybe an entrance to a megadungeon...

Unobtrusive but vastly important place/NPC/mcguffin.

Lunatics? Or one of these guys.

Friendly or helpful NPC.

Someone out for revenge on the PCs because of their actions in a previous adventure. Or, if The Hanged Man is a secret place of torture, Judgment could be the public execution grounds.

The World
Something here explains what's going on locally. Maybe there's a big map or just some talkative people, but this is where you put your not-in-this-city adventure hooks.

*Found out last night Satine used to be able to speak Drow. She learned it off the internet back in the day. No shit. Loser. Just kidding Satine you know I love you. Hey, why are you reading this?


mordicai said...

I have been using the Major Arcana-- "The Trumps"-- as the religion in my current campaign. I'm totally going to use this for the next "religious" town they go to.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

The Tower could also be some sort of major potential trigger for something that will completely change the face of the city, like a cache of harpy eggs, or an arcane ritual preventing some strange magical thing.

huth said...

Fuck you blogger eating my long-ass comment.

Anyway, short version:

Chariots could mean transport hub, like a zeppelin port or canal-boat centre or dock or airport or railroad station or teleportation circle.

Moon could be something that changes depending on what time it is, like a district or street that's only there at night, or a library that's a brothel (or mandatory party zone) on certain festival days (or both, yuan-ti bookpeople?), or something to do with the passing of time (a magic clocktower?)

Tower could be a stronghold or prison, something kept away from the populace. Asylums, harems, quarantine zones, holy places.

Strength could be something that defends or makes the city resilient, an abode of protective genus locii or something they have that no one else does.

Similarly the Sun could be a thing that the city's nature revolves around, like a marketplace for a trading civilisation, or a mine for Deadwood. Or, like the Sun, it could go away sometimes, but with more totalizing effect than the moon–when the Sun flips over, the whole city is affected.

The World could indicate a sub-dimension, demiplane or some nested reality.

The Lovers are also a duality (cf gemini), so they might indicate something the PCs are in relation to, something that shares a quality with the PCs or someone they're co-orbiting.

Temperance, Judgement, et al could mean a place where these traits are called for or tested in a PC, places where they can be demonstrated in the PC for their benefit (time for some fairy tale challenges? Be nice to the old lady, and you'll get some magic help?).

Anonymous said...

improvisation through tarots rocks.
As for the interpretation, I usually stick to "traditional" meanings, as they are somewhat helped by illustrations (Rider-Waite decks are beautiful) as are chocked full of symbols. Yay symbolism!
Knowing the meaning of cards, both major and minor arcana, allow also to generate plots and events really, really fast (and 9nth of swords can both mean in this case a violent figure or profetic dreams of ill omen).
Tarot reading is quite easy and recommended for DMs: not only it's practice in framing a number of tropes and archetypes in a story, but also the actual reader-readee brainstorming/fortunetelling resembles in many ways a collaborative RPG :)

Zak Sabbath said...


yeah, tarot reading is itself very improvisational, but i am thinking the "obviousness" of most of these cards gives you a broad-brush level of detail even if you don't know the "right" way to do it.

And the 9 of swords is obviously a vampire, duh.

Blair said...

The Moon? Obviously the location where a bridge to the moon materializes when showered by moonlight...

I'm digging this and will try to try generating a starport with the method.

Anonymous said...

I'm too much of a slacker to go to all the trouble of making that readable...

Although, not so much of a slacker that I won't comment on it...

squidman said...

I need to get into tarot more. I've finished reading the scar two days ago and this presents me with a new perspective. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

@zak: vampire? why would a vampire sleep under a duvet embroidered with roses (or was it poppies) and zodiac signs? :)
But yeah, the symbols on the cards remain really powerful anyway, their original meaning being partly lost does not impact on the usefulness in any way as long as some kind of tension results from the reading.

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Different pictures. The 9 of Swords has a dragon of some sort on it in mine, most likely.

Zak Sabbath said...

i was thinking the 9 of cups


huth said...

Hey guys! Stuff! for anyone looking for the images, the Rider-Waite deck is public domain and if you type "free tarot reading rider-waite" or whatever in google it'll get you plenty of options.

The Tarot Bourgoise might let you do, uh, literalist versions of the above, while the Thoth deck might work for even more abstracted versions. The Visconti-Sforza just sounds cool.

Anonymous said...

I feel the itch to write a serie of articles about tarots, improv and RPGs... but I have just 8 exams to prepare in the next month :/

Zak Sabbath said...


my recent thing is tarot and Not-Improvisation--that is, finding ways to use card decks that give you complete, useful, fully-formed idea right out of the box.

Anonymous said...

@zak: oh, that's way more interesting.
By the way, I just finished my first Vornheim session. It ran smoothly except for:
1: I put a winery and attached hanging garden/vineyard on a tower. Which is kinda cool. Except it seems in Vornheim it snows all the damn time. Is the weather always snowy and cold? What's the deal with the gardens?
2: I missed a "random stuff going on on the street which is interesting and possibly interactive but less intense than the encounter table" table. So I just faffed with the npc table. It worked allright, especially after i followed the advice to keep on throwing stuff at the players :)
Am about to blog a mini-report as well.

Zak Sabbath said...


1: I believe I mention in the garden section that such flora as fluorish in Vornheims flora are bizarrely hearty hybrids.

2: that's the way i'd go--i think i recommend that actually. The encounters are for Unavoidables only. If you want to know just who's there, roll on the NPCs.

Anonymous said...

Have you read The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino? Recommendation of the day. Not exactly the same thing, but you could probably weaponize it for D&D as an adventure generator.

Anonymous said...

@ticktockman: While I had to study and read some Calvino in school (of all the mandatory reading it was sure the most enjoyable) I never heard of CoCC. Strangely enough his novels are split in two categories: famous in Italy and unheard of abroad, and the other way around. I reckon also Calvino's Invisible Cities (on my reading list) could be really useful for urban adventures. Anyway, a great fantasy author, The Nonexisting Knight a really good novel.

Peter Robbins said...

This is incredibly good work Zak. I've only recently been introduced to your blog as a whole, and I've got to say, bravo : across the board. I will be using this method. This is extremely practical. And thanks to others for posting the public domain deck images as well.

Unknown said...

Good use of the pack, Zak
I like a bit of Tarot for my Campaign Politics generation.
A few cards for each faction, depending on how powerful they are and BANG - got yourself a little history there.