How Best to Represent the Scale of a Metropolis?


Advice


Evening everyone, I was just hoping to get some inspiration on how to play up the grand scale of a city with a massive (>1 million) population in comparison to just large cities. Most places adventurers go are fairly small hamlets to moderate villages with the occasional city thrown in there so there's a reasonable scale of small to biggish to work with, but for massive communities that span dozens of kilometers to a side how do you represent that kind of scale? I'm having a hard time figuring out a course of action for this so any advice is much appreciated.

Scarab Sages

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I believe the standard units of measurement you're looking for in this case are: Bird, Plane, and Superman.


The thing about a city that size in the 'ancient' world is that there's no car or train to get around, so it would feel like it went on forever. In the busier and/or more central districts the crowds would be not only crushingly huge (since people have to essentially walk/ride where they're going there's no efficient way to move them) but probably incredibly diverse.


I'd break the city into a number of distinct quarters; you have things like the merchant district, slums/red light district, docks, deity alley (religious district), and perhaps a few others depending on the setting (for example a mechanus district in steam-punk settings, or settings including a post-fall/post-technological culture); build all of these different 'chunks' up to city-size, and stitch them together so the party has to move around frequently. After that it's just a matter of building mystic by adding large travel times to get around (and perhaps some shifting passageways, because old forgotten magics make everything fun).

Make sure to play each part up, and give it a unique 'flair.'


Trekkie90909 wrote:

I'd break the city into a number of distinct quarters; you have things like the merchant district, slums/red light district, docks, deity alley (religious district), and perhaps a few others depending on the setting (for example a mechanus district in steam-punk settings, or settings including a post-fall/post-technological culture); build all of these different 'chunks' up to city-size, and stitch them together so the party has to move around frequently. After that it's just a matter of building mystic by adding large travel times to get around (and perhaps some shifting passageways, because old forgotten magics make everything fun).

Make sure to play each part up, and give it a unique 'flair.'

Actually, along these lines, a city that big would be more like multiple cities which each had their own districts, so you would have the northern market and the southern market and the western market and the east docks and the south docks and... so on.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Not only would the city be divided into districts, it would most likely have neighborhoods within those districts (whether formal or informal). Take a look at the historical spread of London or Paris for an example. Usually cities started from a single area, often by a river or other important resource, and then spread from there. The outlying districts of the city typically began as independent towns or suburbs and then were absorbed as the city grew.

A city like that will have a pretty distinct character for each of its districts and neighborhoods, in extreme cases often even feeling like different towns. And because it's a lot harder to get from Point A to Point B without modern transportation, people wouldn't venture too far from their own neighborhood unless they had a reason to. The concept of going to visit the next town over would have been pretty alien unless you were very wealthy or an adventurer. Obviously this depends on whether magical forms of transportation are available in your city and whether they're widely available or only for a select few elites. And keep in mind that it's going to take them longer to get anywhere within the city without some form of magical or technological transportation.

Such a large city would probably be a trading port or capital of some sort (or both). It would most likely be extremely diverse in terms of its inhabitants. If it's the only or one of the only cities of its size in the world, it will probably be extremely important both within the country and globally. Even the poor inhabitants of the city will probably view themselves as superior to the "rustic country folk."

It would probably also have either a farming district dedicated to producing food for its inhabitants, a surrounding countryside that did so, very good trade networks, or all of the above. Gotta feed all those people, after all.


London and Paris are actually pretty good examples. The difference between London's West End (say, Mayfair), and East End (Limehouse and Stepney) was huge, and all of the dozens of little boroughs were for all practical purposes their own cities. You could be born in Stepney and die in Stepney, surrounded by your grandchildren, and neither you nor anyone in the room would ever have set foot outside Stepney in their lives. You could find anything you liked -- well, anything you could afford to like -- in Stepney itself.


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So Absalom is a Metropolis with 300k+ listed population. You could use that as a starting guide.


Honestly, I have my parties get lost in town a lot, take hours to walk across the town, and give them cinematic intros to the cities that big when they come to them. My world's standard port city is on the million occupant side, while a couple cap at about 5 million (depending on the time of year).

There are also cues like not being able to see the edges of the city, or the port itself when on level ground. Smog, and frequent pick pockets aid the message. Then there are things like "what churches can I find here?" "All of them". Access to the extraplanar black market is a trope for my cities as well. When they go item shopping there is usually epic level equipment in plain view. And there may even be rumors of artifacts in the city. Locating individuals is practically impossible unless you know their place of residence and have a guide (unless the individual is extraordinarily rich). Military bases within the cities are common, as is a college of magic which often isn't merely one building and is often referred to in the plural.


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In terms of scale, I live in a city with ~400 000 people.
I picked up a guy who was hitchhiking recently, he'd walked from near the geographical centre of the city to somewhere near the border of the city by the time I picked him up (about 1/3 of the length of the city).
He'd been walking for 10 hours without stopping.

That means for a city of ~400 000 people you're looking at ~30 hours to cross the city by foot.
For a city over a million (let's say 3X as big) you're looking at 3 days travel at least to cross the city on foot.

Most people in your city are VERY unlikely to travel more than half a day's walk from their home unless something goes wrong (they have to leave and get home in the same day). This means that everything they'd need in their everyday lives has to be within half a day's walk for everyone.
If you have a map of the city, measure out 1/6 of it's length. That's the maximum distance anyone would have to walk to a trading hub (market area). Within that 1/6-city radius of the hub is basically going to be it's own little city with it's own customs. At a guess you're probably going to have 6-7 of these areas, and each one probably has all the standard districts you'd see in every city. So design 7 cities & mash them together & you've probably good to go.


Rome had 1million+ in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. A city that size wasn't matched until the 19th century. There are lots of maps and information available on Rome to help you get a feel for a city that size.


Make sure Batman or The Flash doesn't show up?

also...:
A large enough city will seem to be multiple towns and cities side by side. You can call them sections or quarters or burroughs or whatnot. Make sure each has its own flavor or identity.


There have been maps and such of Absalom and Waterdeep in Forgotten Realms that really show off the 'districts' idea. I'd be sure to have some kind of visual to describe exactly HOW big it is...

Also, remember 'time'. The bigger the city, the farther things are from each other. In a hamlet or town, someone can run in and say that there's a monster attacking the docks, and the heroes can run right out and fight it...

In a metropolis, if someone says they heard a monster was attacking the docks... it may take an hour to get there. If you want to see the mayor, a particular noble, and question a tavern owner at the docks... That will take you all day of running around the city. Any spells or effects are probably wearing off and it's really... just annoying to be out on those streets all day.


Cubic Prism wrote:
Rome had 1million+ in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. A city that size wasn't matched until the 19th century.

Medieval Baghdad is definitely a potential competitor until Mongols happened.


Actually, I just realised most of us are giving examples of large cities without really answering the question: How to represent the scale of a >1mil Metropolis? Or, how to represent that to the players at the table in a meaningful way?

I guess the best way would be to make the players travel within the city.
Actually have random encounters for every X-hours spent traveling within the city.
Maybe there are 2 rival magical guilds, each with it's own legally enforced monopoly on certain goods (One does potions/wands/etc, another does weapons/armour/etc) and it's impossible to get these items elsewhere within the city because the guilds have such a strong presence...
... Then they're set up on opposite sides of the city, meaning it's 3 days travel to get from one to another...
... Then the characters get summoned by the king, meaning they only have time to visit one guild, or split the party.

Maybe someone's trying to get a message to them, and the only way to reliably communicate is to have a meeting place. That means if they're off exploring the city, the person might miss them ... not by hours, but by days.

Essentially, treat travel within the city as you'd treat travel on an overland map in any other game. This includes things like having to find a place to sleep at night, random encounters, and survival checks to avoid becoming lost (probably more checks than normal because of the twisting streets).

Also, think about how the people in the middle of the city get food & water. Is there a river flowing through the city? Wells everywhere? Aqueducts? Something magic? Or has water become a more precious commodity in the heart of the city since there's no source nearby? Maybe the entire city is built within half a day's walk of the river, meaning instead of a circle/square shape, the city snakes along with the river. That would mean it's only 1 day to walk the width of the city, but more like a week to walk the length of it.
Maybe the city's built at the base of a mountain (or volcano)? The mountain itself is uninhabitable, but the city forms a ring around it, with the outlying settlements making the most of the fertile land and freshwater springs coming from the mountain...

I hope some of this is helpful, it's certainly fun to think about, and I look forward to more posts on the subject.

PS Oxylepy's post way back has some really solid advice, and it seems more play-tested than anything I've written, so (s)he's probably someone to talk to here.


BadBird wrote:
Cubic Prism wrote:
Rome had 1million+ in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. A city that size wasn't matched until the 19th century.
Medieval Baghdad is definitely a potential competitor until Mongols happened.

Well, you learn something everyday. Pretty large city for 1200AD. Thanks for the info.


MrCharisma wrote:

In terms of scale, I live in a city with ~400 000 people.

I picked up a guy who was hitchhiking recently, he'd walked from near the geographical centre of the city to somewhere near the border of the city by the time I picked him up (about 1/3 of the length of the city).
He'd been walking for 10 hours without stopping.

That means for a city of ~400 000 people you're looking at ~30 hours to cross the city by foot.
For a city over a million (let's say 3X as big) you're looking at 3 days travel at least to cross the city on foot.

Okay, so while I understand how you came to your conclusion, I think there may be some extraneous factors that could be causing some of your math to be a bit off.

The reason I say this is that, according to google maps, which approximates a roughly 3mph walking speed (which is usually considered and average pace) gives a time of 29 hours to walk from downtown New York City to downtown Philadelphia, and assuming somewhere between 10-12 hours of walking per day, is around 2.5-3 days of walking. Therefore, approximating a city of 1000000 inhabitants as taking 3 days to cross would mean that, allowing for variations in walking pace and actual time spent walking, that city would be roughly 6165 square miles in area and have a population density of ~162.2 people per square mile, or roughly 30% as dense as the city of Minneapolis.
Ultimately, I think that a better estimate of the size of an ancient city is closer to between 3 and 6 hours of walking, assuming an average pace of ~3 miles per hour.


Here's a simple start: explain to them that the city is so big that they can't see the end from the entrance. This would likely be a first for their characters. The idea of a "village" so vast that one cannot see the entirety of it from any angle (save from far above) would be quite a shock.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Seconding that encounters on the city streets or on the way to doing things will give them a size of the scale. Good descriptions can definitely help too; describing the neighborhoods individually and having a unique character to each will alert them that the city is too big to be really homogeneous.

Orfamay Quest wrote:
London and Paris are actually pretty good examples. The difference between London's West End (say, Mayfair), and East End (Limehouse and Stepney) was huge, and all of the dozens of little boroughs were for all practical purposes their own cities. You could be born in Stepney and die in Stepney, surrounded by your grandchildren, and neither you nor anyone in the room would ever have set foot outside Stepney in their lives. You could find anything you liked -- well, anything you could afford to like -- in Stepney itself.

This wasn't unheard of (among the poorest people anyway) up until the mid-twentieth century. Even today, it's STILL very easy to go weeks without venturing out of your immediate neighborhood unless you have a particular event or something elsewhere. The game meaning of this is that while your PCs have reason to travel all over the city (they're adventurers after all), most other people won't. If the party is trying to gather information about a person/neighborhood/location on the other side of the city, most people will probably have no idea.


The map of Kalsgard in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings book is waaaayy too large a scale for the 75k people living there.

The city is almost 6 miles wide and 4 miles north-south. That's probably a better scale for 900k+ people. So, use that as a base for your city?


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FaceInTheSand wrote:

The map of Kalsgard in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings book is waaaayy too large a scale for the 75k people living there.

The city is almost 6 miles wide and 4 miles north-south. That's probably a better scale for 900k+ people. So, use that as a base for your city?

Actually, that's a perfectly fine size for a city that size, especially since apartment complexes and high rises aren't really a thing yet. There's about 85,000 people where I live and the city's basically a 6 mile diameter circle, so 6 by 4 is definitely not a stretch for 75,000 at all.

As for everyone who's commented on things like driving the concept of time home, random encounters, making it near impossible to find specific NPCs and other things that make metropoli notably different from normal cities you've been awesome. Keep up the good work!

For everyone who's been giving examples of large cities and their likelihood of being broken down into districts, not quite what I was looking for but I do appreciate the effort! There's still plenty that helps out indirectly from these comments.


johnnythexxxiv wrote:
FaceInTheSand wrote:

The map of Kalsgard in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings book is waaaayy too large a scale for the 75k people living there.

The city is almost 6 miles wide and 4 miles north-south. That's probably a better scale for 900k+ people. So, use that as a base for your city?

Actually, that's a perfectly fine size for a city that size, especially since apartment complexes and high rises aren't really a thing yet. There's about 85,000 people where I live and the city's basically a 6 mile diameter circle, so 6 by 4 is definitely not a stretch for 75,000 at all.

As for everyone who's commented on things like driving the concept of time home, random encounters, making it near impossible to find specific NPCs and other things that make metropoli notably different from normal cities you've been awesome. Keep up the good work!

For everyone who's been giving examples of large cities and their likelihood of being broken down into districts, not quite what I was looking for but I do appreciate the effort! There's still plenty that helps out indirectly from these comments.

I'd recommend having a look at this: Medieval Demographics Made Easy

Generally you'd expect somewhere between 20-40 thousand people per square mile in medieval cities, as they were extremely crowded, and neither had nor needed to cater to modern transport. Modern cities sprawl because they can due to modern transportation. Old European cities and towns tend to be extremely compact, which is closer to the historical norm for the period Pathdfinder is aiming at.

For 75K you'd expect about 2 square miles. 3-4 tops. I haven't checked the source, but if it is 6 x 4, that's 24 square miles and... yes... unreasonably huge :)


johnnythexxxiv wrote:
FaceInTheSand wrote:

The map of Kalsgard in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings book is waaaayy too large a scale for the 75k people living there.

The city is almost 6 miles wide and 4 miles north-south. That's probably a better scale for 900k+ people. So, use that as a base for your city?

Actually, that's a perfectly fine size for a city that size, especially since apartment complexes and high rises aren't really a thing yet. There's about 85,000 people where I live and the city's basically a 6 mile diameter circle, so 6 by 4 is definitely not a stretch for 75,000 at all.

Yeah population density was a lot lower until the invention of the elevator. According to Wikipedia, residential areas wouldn't go above about 7 stories since you had to walk all those stairs.

Edit:Well the person before me completely disagrees with me ... I'm really not an expert, but compared to the metropolis' of today, they'd be tiny. Compared to smaller cities of today, they may have been a lot more crowded. I really don't know. =P

2nd Edit: Current day Manhattan has a population density of 71,671.8/sq mi (27,672.6/km2). There are only 3 cities in the world with a higher population density than that (Manhattan isn't a city so it's not on that list).

I'm not trying to start a fight, but saying 37,500 people per square mile in a medieval city seems like a bit of a stretch.


Have you been to a modern city of 1 million inhabitants? They're not exactly uncommon ... Have you seen all of it? Probably not, even if it's your home town. There's many suburbs in the city I live in that I've never visited, or at least only past through.

But I have been to the city centre and the other "important" areas. The city administration, military functions, largest temples and such would be concentrated in one or a few districts, whether it's a modern or fantasy city.

Main export industries might have their own districts. Other industries used by the city's own inhabitants wouldn't. A bakery district doesn’t make sense, everyone needs a baker just around the corner. You can't have "the docks". You'd have several, most of them concerned with everyday goods for the general population. There's a lot of grain going in every single day. Then you could have a few docks for specialised goods.

I'd have the player characters early on - when or before they arrive to the city - to pick up a rumour about the city’s size. Like that there's supposedly a thousand temples (not unreasonable) and that one guy once counted them all. That set the mood - the city is so large none actually knows what's in there.


johnnythexxxiv wrote:
FaceInTheSand wrote:

The map of Kalsgard in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings book is waaaayy too large a scale for the 75k people living there.

The city is almost 6 miles wide and 4 miles north-south. That's probably a better scale for 900k+ people. So, use that as a base for your city?

Actually, that's a perfectly fine size for a city that size, especially since apartment complexes and high rises aren't really a thing yet. There's about 85,000 people where I live and the city's basically a 6 mile diameter circle, so 6 by 4 is definitely not a stretch for 75,000 at all.

As for everyone who's commented on things like driving the concept of time home, random encounters, making it near impossible to find specific NPCs and other things that make metropoli notably different from normal cities you've been awesome. Keep up the good work!

For everyone who's been giving examples of large cities and their likelihood of being broken down into districts, not quite what I was looking for but I do appreciate the effort! There's still plenty that helps out indirectly from these comments.

My city (Nottingham) is 10 times more populous than Kalsgard, but smaller. It's not high rises either, mostly 2-storey Victorian terraced houses. These actually have lower density than when first constructed, as mostly these have families of 4-5 instead of 10-15. Cities founded in medieval times tend to be super dense.


It really depends on the topography as to how dense the city population can get. Take Cusco for example, it's got a population of about 400,000 but it spans an area of around 150 square miles putting it at a lower population density than Kalsgard. It hasn't actually expanded much since the Inca Empire collapsed in the 1500s and its population was slightly lower back then (about 250,000 in the city and 100,000 in the surrounding rural area) so while it's a hair too young for the middle ages (being only an 800 year old city although the area was inhabited for thousands of years by other groups first, but that's mostly irrelevant to my point) it does give a good example of an old city that has a lower population density.

Also, Greater Nottingham has an area of 61 square miles. That's more than double that of Kalsgard (assuming Kalsgard is 6x4 for 24 square miles), not less. Still makes Nottingham 4x as dense as Kalsgard, but 4x is a whole lot closer than the 10x+ you were claiming.


Pathfinder Companion, Maps, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber
MrCharisma wrote:

Actually, I just realised most of us are giving examples of large cities without really answering the question: How to represent the scale of a >1mil Metropolis? Or, how to represent that to the players at the table in a meaningful way?

An idea I've considered but never yet tried when reffing.

Assuming you have miniatures and a battle-mat available.

1) Draw out the city on the mat (or hell just a piece of paper) just in terms of the big districts.
e.g. at the level of 'the docks', 'baron's castle & smart part of town', 'merchants' district', 'slums') - just draw big blocks on the map

2) Mark known locations on the mat within the blocks as smaller circles as they start to discover them -
e.g. the inn they stay at, the temple they go to for healing, the home of the wizard they want to buy a magic item off, the tavern where the barbarian starts a fight

More locations get added as the party discover the plot - e.g. the place in the slums where someone was murdered, the suspicious ship moored at the docks

3) Spell out how long it takes on average to get from one location in district to another location and from one district to another.

4) Have the party put minis down on the locations and move them around the 'map' - think like a board game instead of a tactical combat map.

That should really help establish a feeling of space and also add to the tension at times - when one PC finds two cultists rummaging through the baggage at the inn, its really clear that the guys across town haggling with the wizard can't just come running to his aid, because we can all see they are an hour's walk away


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Also, if you haven't yet drawn up a map of your city, I'd suggest doing so. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, but a simple sketch of what general areas are where can help keep things consistent and ground the city as a real place. Having the mayor's house be on one side of the city one session and another side the next can really pull people out of the realism of the setting.

This only indirectly relates to your original question, but it's a good way to help you keep track of your city as the GM. You don't even need to draw it all out at once, necessarily, just add to it as you add locations.


johnnythexxxiv wrote:

It really depends on the topography as to how dense the city population can get. Take Cusco for example, it's got a population of about 400,000 but it spans an area of around 150 square miles putting it at a lower population density than Kalsgard. It hasn't actually expanded much since the Inca Empire collapsed in the 1500s and its population was slightly lower back then (about 250,000 in the city and 100,000 in the surrounding rural area) so while it's a hair too young for the middle ages (being only an 800 year old city although the area was inhabited for thousands of years by other groups first, but that's mostly irrelevant to my point) it does give a good example of an old city that has a lower population density.

Also, Greater Nottingham has an area of 61 square miles. That's more than double that of Kalsgard (assuming Kalsgard is 6x4 for 24 square miles), not less. Still makes Nottingham 4x as dense as Kalsgard, but 4x is a whole lot closer than the 10x+ you were claiming.

It really depends on the type of city you're looking at, but in medival Europe the buildings where typically 2 storey, jammed together and very crowded.

Paris and London are popular reference points, and they were tiny for their population. A map example for inspiration from 1593

The big thing to keep in mind is that people need to get to and from work and home in a reasonable time, and cities are built upon trade and artifice - and transport time is a big impediment to the function of the city.

Medieval cities were extremely dense because almost all of the population were limited to walking, which is extremely slow. Modern cities can sprawl because of modern transport.

Manhattan is an interesting case. Yes, a lot of it is highrise (though not all) and that wasn't done in the middle ages. But it's streets are still very wide compared to medieval times, and the actual apartments where people live are massive compared to the norm for a medieval city. You also need to consider that while only 1.6 million people live it services a 3.9 million during business days, indicating that a massive proportion (the majority) is dedicated to workplaces and stores beyond the population of the region - were it a self-contained city without the workforce living off the island, it need to be 50-60% larger to utilize the same business spaces.... in essence, it makes for a poor comparison as it isn't representative of a city, but only a city center.

For big cities (1 million plus) I'd recommend focusing on plotting out the major landmarks and geographic features, where the founding settlement (aka City Center) was placed, figuring out where the various key industries are, then dividing it up into districts accordingly. A street-and-block map is about the highest level of detail you can go to without an immense amount of time spent, and even then I'd suggest only doing one for key districts as separate maps.

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