5e DMG: Every D&D city should be a metropolis

The 5e DMG has no size category for cities larger than 25,000 people: because cities require so much surplus food, such cities are “very rare”. Similarly the 3e DMg says that a 100k metropolis should be the exception, not the rule. This is bad advice. Every game world should be dotted with metropolises of mind boggling scale. Screw medieval demographics.

DNS basically has three adventure settings: dungeon, wilderness, and urban. D&D dungeons are not pokey prisons beneath a castle. They are unmapped mega-labyrinths and Mythic Underworlds. Who cares why the dungeon was built or where monsters’ food comes from? D&D wilderness is not a cozy Sherwood Forest where every encounter is with a jolly bandit in Lincoln green. It’s more like that Oregon trail game where you always die of cholera but instead of cholera it’s dragons. It’s the Mythic Wilderness. Similarly D&D urban adventuring shouldn’t be restricted to plausible little 25k cities – the same population as modern Port Chester, NY. The players don’t play D&D to explore fantasy Port Chester. The great D&D cities are Greyhawk, Waterdeep, Lanhkmar – all aspects of the Mythic City – filthy, vast, unmappable.

In practice I’ve found that the metropolis is the standard urban adventuring setting. When you settle down to an extended urban story arc, you do so in a city big enough to stretch your arms in. D&D is not a research paper or a movie. It doesn’t require historical plausibility and it doesn’t cost you anything to build sets. D&d should embrace that. Instead of advising prudent and conservative little settlements, it should recommend vast old sprawling cities containing stinking treasure-laden rivers, ancient forgotten palaces jutting between slum roofs, armies of beaurocrats in competing courts, entire neighborhoods which only appear under certain moons, and strange monstrous denizens who remember ancient days.

12 Responses to “5e DMG: Every D&D city should be a metropolis”

  1. Marc G says:

    I think it even works if you want to lean on historical accuracy, with the caveat that adventurers travel a lot more than would normally be expected.

    According to Wikipedia, from the time span of the Later Middle Ages: 1000-1399, there were 37 cities of over 100k at some point in that time period, so while it might not be that every city is that big, at least it is not so rare that characters should only encounter one in their adventuring lifetimes.

  2. Charles says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but why would I (as a GM) WANT to do huge cities? Creating a metropolis seems like a lot of work, and my players are only ever going to interact with a tiny fraction of it!

    When you haven’t got cell phones and Google Maps to help you navigate it, ten thousand people is a huge population center. Think about how many secrets there are in a real-world university campus of that size. Now add a few extra millenia of history, plus magic. Is that really not enough to keep your PCs busy?

  3. Grayson says:

    I agree with your main point here but I do think that “small towns” are still a major D&D environment. They’re common locations in printed modules and points of interest in campaign settings. (Dark Sun effectively does not even have metropolises – IIRC the major cities are still quite small.) They also provide opportunities for PCs to make sudden, dramatic changes to the world (particularly low level characters).

  4. I have mixed feelings about this. A certain amount of demographic and economic plausibility can make it easier to fill in gaps quickly and coherently, but D&D isn’t about historical recreation, and it gets weird quickly. I’ve been struggling with the balance between professionals and commoners in large-scale military actions (when you would use a brigade of militia versus a 5-person party of mid-level professionals)

    For cities, it’s important to remember two things, I think: Cities need a lot of support (food, building materials) but some of that can be mitigated by magic; the medieval “dark ages” ruralized model of society which seems to be at work in D&D5 isn’t the only historical scenario, e.g. China or Japan at similar times with much higher urbanization rates.

  5. Michael says:

    I agree with Jonathan. China, especially, had some very large urban complexes prior to any urbanization in Europe. Several new archaeological efforts are finding large settlements with populations in excess of 25,000. The Indus River Complex may have supported several urban areas over 100,000 more than two thousand years ago.

    Geography, the site and situation of an urban complex, should play some role in determining urban size. Obviously desolate, dry, or desert areas might not be able to support large populations. However, should the world include a complex river system like the Indus River in Pakistan, the Yellow, or the Long River in China, or the Missouri or Mississippi River systems in the U.S., then perhaps the rules should accommodate urban systems supporting vastly larger populations.

  6. Steve C says:

    I agree, to heck with realism. I’m all for mythic city.

    Although it does depend a great deal on the feel the GM & players are going for with the campaign. For example, “points of light” style D&D does easily lend itself to few large cities and lots of smaller towns and villages. Traditionally it’s only been a backwoods somewhat-fortified settlement that’s within a few days travel of the perilously-located dungeon for the PCs to re-supply and heal up. A mythic city and all its intrigue may distract from this play style a bit.

    The counter-point might be that if it’s just dungeoncrawling anyway, who cares how big the city is? If the PCs want to get involved with that city stuff, they can for a bit, and then get back to the dungeon. Ptolus, for example, does this mix well, I think.

    In my forthcoming campaign, which is a more gonzo swords & sorcery setting than I’ve done in the past, I’m definitely going the mythic city route. The largest city-state has over 1 million inhabitants, although only about 400,000 technically live within the city. And this will be the PCs’ home base.

    I think I got a lot of work ahead of me. lol

  7. Jack Colby says:

    Charles, you as DM need only deal with a tiny fraction of the massive city, too. You certainly don’t need to map the whole thing or decide who lives in every building. A rough overview with random tables (perhaps tailored to different sections or neighborhoods) to determine things on the fly would suffice.

  8. Marty says:

    Some of your content is being appropriated at this site: https://criticalgrumble.wordpress.com/

    It appears he is sucking down your RSS feed (among others) and reposting the content. I don’t know you want to change your feed settings, but you could set the feed to only include partial article rather than the whole thing.

  9. 25,000?

    25,000 is a staggeringly small major city for a D&D world.

    Medieval demographics reveal a series of cities with populations *well* over 100k; in 400 AD Rome had around a million. various chinese cities, baghdad, and a couple of others are also estimated in the ballpark 1 million range. Lots of large medieval capital cities were in the 200-500k range at various times in their history.

    And frankly a D&D world has a lot of advantages; magically grown crops and temples full of priests to keep the plagues down.

    Granted, their are also a variety of drawbacks such as plague of zombie or sudden dragonswarm, but a D&D world can easily support a dozen cities in the 100k plus range because *earth did*

  10. Xaos says:

    The Alexandrian has a series on “urbancrawls”, basically as the “hexcrawl” is to the Mythic Wilderness, and the “dungeoncrawl” is to the Mythic Underworld, urbancrawls are to the “Mythic city.”

    He recently quoted the Vornheim system’s rules about Moving vs. Crawling, which I think is about the most illuminating example of “urbancrawling” in the series (although I get the feeling that he’s building up to something else)-
    “Crawling” occurs when:

    • The PCs are being chased.
    • The PCs are in a hurry.
    • A large number of elements in the city are actively hostile to the PCs (such as during an invasion or plague of madness).
    • The PCs are systematically searching a small area of the city for something.
    • The PCs are trying to avoid running into someone or something.
    • It’s night.
    • The city is transformed in some way such that it ceases to function like a city (post-nuclear bomb, etc.).
    • The PCs don’t really know where they’re going.
    • There’s urgency attached to the PC’s decisions about how to proceed for any reason.}

    Now, these situations make sense to roll on random encounter. Rather like how you should employ common sense to avoid “bad rules” for random encounter checks in the wilderness or dungeon, they shouldn’t roll to run into serial killers or pissed off police officers if they are just leaving their homes to go get a beer.

    But maybe they should when they are running home, on foot, back from the Shadowrun that just went bad. “Avoid the cops, avoid the cops, ooh! The Blessed Amulet of St. Olaf is going to be presented at that Museum all week long, I should totally come back and steal that! …..Once I’m done avoiding the cops!”

    And of course, the Zombie Apocalypse genre is almost entirely set in the urban environment, because all of a sudden the location of secure buildings and canned food just became very, very important.

    And the point I’m getting at is that having a bigger city justifies a lot of random crap hidden in its abandonned, forgotten neighborhoods, as well as the backalleys, rooftops, graveyards, private residences of….interesting individuals, and massive sewer complexes.

  11. Ben says:

    The problem is uniformity. A City beyond 25K people can’t be listed on an index card. A metropolis is made up of dozens of cities, collected into districts, and managed from an Urban Center. You have a stack of cards, one for each neighborhood, and a map and urban center holding it all together. For example:

    I live in Charlotte, NC. 1.6 million people. The Urban Center is mostly business, housing tens but not hundreds of thousands of people. Surrounding the urban center are seven districts, all of which are made up of 10-12 neighborhoods of up to 25K people. Each neighborhood has its own unique character, its own businesses, its own internal struggles. Its own fire/police presence, its own leaders, etc. The districts have elected officials which sit on the City Council, which influences governance of the whole. There are your nobles.

    In this fashion, a Metropolis in the D&D world is created: an urban center with leadership and a population, and districts and neighborhoods more in line with the settlements guidelines. You can build up one neighborhood at a time as you need them, or start with the city center and work your way out.

    Happy GM’ing!

  12. Jeremy says:

    Don’t forget that, D&D (5e at least) takes place between the fall of one great era and the rise of another. Cities over 25,000 sure, but in a situation where adventuring is a career option, and Nobles fight for control of anything, (including limited resources) it’s just not likely. I love the idea of a few great cities (maybe 1 or 2 in each of the former great kingdoms) but would expect a more rural setting quite often. I would expect a few of the Races Elves, for their long lifespan, and Gnomes for their wizardry to abilities to have a few large (almost kingdoms) cities. There will not be a great Dragonborn empire with blossoming metropolitans everywhere, and halflings are rural by nature.

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