Sunday, 18 February 2018

Akkat, Mother of the Sunrise: Part 2, City Builder

Last time I discussed the basics of this city build: what kind of place is it, what is it famous for, where (roughly) is it located? Now the time has come to go into a little more detail. What, exactly, is this city like?

When I've discussed character design before, it's always been in the form of question-and-answer.  Exactly the same process can be followed here, slightly altered. So where I might ask about the character's name, age, ethnicity and gender, I now ask about the city's name, age, ethnic makeup, and landmarks.

To give you some examples:

Name: Akkat, Mother of the Sunrise. The title Mother of the Sunrise derives in part from the city's most valuable find: the Sunrise star gem, currently held by the Lugal, or ruler, of Akkat.

Age: People have been living here for uncounted generations. However the current rule of the guilds is less than a century old; in the time of grandfather's father, Akkat was ruled by the Lugal, who in turn owed his fealty to the great Raj of the Northern Kingdoms. The Northern Kingdoms in their mountain fastness have ceased to be a concern ever since the great rebellions, and the Lugal hasn't been a serious force in local politics for many decades.

Ethnic Makeup: Akkat is majority human. There is a much higher proportion of Tieflings here than anywhere else in human lands; about a fifth of the city are Tieflings, including many of its most important guildsmen. Though there aren't many half-orc citizens, nearly all the guild guard are half-orcs, with human officers - though the officers are largely for show, the guard being commanded in practice by its non-coms. Halflings and Elves are uncommon but not unheard of; many of the riverboat captains and crew are members of these races. Dwarves, gnomes and dragonborn are among the least common, and dragonborn are especially distrusted, since the old Raj of the Northern Kingdoms was led by dragon-kin.

Three Landmarks:
  • The Thousand Window Palace, where the Lugal traditionally holds court, is an architectural wonder, and its stained glass windows are a superlative example of the glassblower's art. The scenes depicted there show the great moments of the Lugal, and the Raj. Though the Palace is meticulously preserved, no new windows have been added for a hundred years. The Palace Guard is headquartered here, and the Lugal's Court is open daily, so the Lugal can hear the concerns of his people. The Palace Guard, as distinct from the city guard, is entirely human, and ceremonial. In days long gone, it was often the case that a new Lugal achieved power thanks to the quick and stealthy blade of an influential Guardsman. As a result, these days the Guard aren't allowed anything sharper than a wooden staff. They even eat their food with wooden utensils.
  • Destiny Quarter, the ghetto where most of the Tieflings live, is alive morning, noon and night. When Tieflings began coming here, at first they were confined to a small section of the city that nobody else wanted. Over time, as more of them arrived, their political power increased. Now some of the richest citizens of Akkat live here, side by side with the finest merchant mansions, the most expensive and famous inns and eating houses. The one thing that hasn't changed in all that time is Destiny Gate, that used to mark the way in and out of the walled ghetto. The Tieflings prefer it that way, as a reminder; the ghetto walls may have come down, but if you seek your Destiny, you go through that gate. 
  • The Permit House is where you have to go if you want permission to build anything. Since the very rocks of Akkat are impregnated with magical materials, and since merely digging a foundation might uncover priceless wealth, building rights are very strictly controlled. There are only three licensed building contractors in the entire city, each of them richer than a king. Building without a license, or hiring yourself out as an independent contractor, is  brutally punished; the hands of those who try are cut off and nailed up above the Permit House door. Applications for new build, or to repair existing buildings, often vanish within the labyrinthine corridors of the Permit House, never to be seen again. Of course, grumble ordinary citizens, Tieflings never seem to have any trouble getting permission ...
Economy: Akkat's most famous, and lucrative, export, is the star gems from which it gets its name and reputation. These highly magical items are sought after by wizards, sorcerers, liches, kings and princes. There are only a handful of official mining operations, and unofficial diggings are harshly punished - hence the Permit House. This increases the scarcity of an already rare commodity. Moreover the wizards and Tiefling jewelers of Akkat are supposed to have an especial affinity for these gems; a magical device incorporating a star gem shaped and polished by their cunning hands is said to be especially powerful, and valuable.

However it does not stop at gems. The forges of Akkat, incorporating that same magically potent stone, are supposed to be capable of producing the finest magical blades. The very best swordsmiths are, it is said, working on sentient items to rival the creations of mythic wonder-workers of times past. Whether or not this is true is besides the point; a magical blade from Akkat, with the mark of one of the Guild's swordsmiths, is worth twice as much as any other of its type, whether or not it has any kind of extra potency. 

Finally there are the glassblowers. This is a relatively recent innovation for Akkat; the first master glassblowers relocated here forty years ago. However in that brief time they have become renowned for their skill and delicate craftsmanship; alchemists and lovers of art alike swear by Akkat glass, which, so it is said, captures sunlight like nothing else on this earth. The thing that puzzles visitors to Akkat is, why do these glassblowers not add new windows to the Thousand Window Palace? Yet, to date, none have.

There is one other branch of the economy that the Guilds and the lords of Akkat prefer did not exist: poppies. Again, thanks to the magical qualities of the city, its people are themselves slightly magical. You can't live all your life surrounded by material from the far-flung stars, and not pick up a tiny amount of background radiation. Even the animals are a touch fey. What this means is, the night-soil of the city - excellent manure - is the perfect food for a particularly delicate flowering plant, commonly called the Sunset Poppy. The seeds of this plant, properly processed, produce an addictive narcotic, sold throughout the Southern lands as Sunset, Moonglow, or Journey's End. The Thieves' Guild makes a very tidy profit from cultivation of these poppies; most, if not all, of the night soil collectors of Akkat are on the payroll. It's safer that way. Those who resist meet unfortunate accidents. The fields, and processing facilities, are outside the city proper, high up in the hills; it makes it that much easier for the lords of Akkat to ignore a problem on its doorstep.


What I'm getting at is this: as a designer of worlds, you can create cities and characters in exactly the same way. If you want to design a character, you ask how old they are, how they make their money, what they look like, what they value, what they want, what they dream of, what their secrets are. For a city, you ask exactly the same questions. The difference is merely scale. A city needs more, makes more money, has grander vistas, and outlives even its oldest citizen. But the questions remain the same.

Don't think this just applies to fantasy cities. The same technique can be used to design your version of London, or Macau, or wherever it might be. Sure, a lot of that information can be found in Wikipedia, but you're after the stuff that's not in Wikipedia. Say you're building a version of London much like that Ben Aaronovitch uses for his Rivers of London series. It's very like the London of today - but not exactly like. For the bits that don't fit established modern London, you ask exactly those questions I've asked here - and design your version of London around that.

Which brings me to adventures. Once you design a city, the kind of adventures that happen there should flow from that design. Such as:

A swordsmith has crafted a particularly fine longsword, that he wishes to sell to a nobleman far away. However he needs someone to guard the weapon on its journey South. The swordsmith's rivals are very jealous of his work, and one of them will stop at nothing to prevent the sale - but which of them paid off the bandits that attacked the adventurers?

A Tiefling, on coming of age, or marking a particular life triumph, walks through the Destiny Gate as part of a ceremony that usually involves days, sometimes weeks of feasting, masquerade, and song. The masquerade balls are particularly famous; the grander the masquerade, the more important - and wealthy - the Tiefling host. However this particular Tiefling, on walking through the Destiny Gate, somehow opens up a small, personal connection to the Abyss. Nothing so dramatic as a flaming portal through which can be heard the wailing of the damned; rather, unexpected and swift corrosion, say of furnishings, clothing, or food, or a brief plague of Abyssal small fry, like Dretch, or Manes. Each time this happens, it's centered on the unfortunate Tiefling who walked through the Gate. Naturally this complicates the masquerade somewhat, but it also provokes a human backlash. Can the adventurers defuse the situation, before an angry mob tears through Destiny Quarter?

An innkeeper has, through accident or design, dug a very small pit in the cellar of her inn. Only the tiniest of scrapings, but if the authorities ever hear about it, her hand will be nailed up above the Permit House door. However, if she were somehow to obtain retroactive permission for her illegal excavation, all will be well. Can the adventurers forge, or otherwise obtain, that all-important permit?

That's enough for now. Next week, something completely different!

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