HARP Folkways Preview Excerpt: Urban Ways

Copyright Jon Cassie and Guild Companion Publications Ltd © 2016

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

"Cities on alluvial plains or vast settlements like bee hives carved into immense glaciers are really looking for the same things - security, access to water and access to food."

From the earliest days of human history until today, one of the defining characteristics of civilization has been the settlements we build. Temporary villages made from materials that are easy to move are the response of some civilizations to the demands imposed on them from their environments. Small towns clustered near the banks of rivers feature in the origins of many national stories. The emergence of large cities and even larger urban areas is a quality not just of our industrial and post-industrial present but also something that the ancients achieved, with Rome as a particularly fitting example of city building on a grand scale two thousand years ago. When considering this essential question, give careful consideration to: permanence, configuration, aesthetics and stratification.


Building from your understanding of a culture’s Environment Ways, you have to decide whether the people of your culture resides in fixed villages and towns that, by design, are not meant to be moved or whether your culture’s villages are partially movable or fully movable. Any of these choices is reasonable in any potential environment. The important thing for you is to be sure you have an answer to this basic question, because it impacts many other realities that your people will deal with. A civilization with fully movable settlements is going to be accustomed to regular migration (following water or food sources) and will expect to move with the seasons. Attempts to not migrate would be seen as troubling deviations from the norm. Think about the kind of work people who have to pack up with limited notice might have to do. Think about the way they might think about the lifecycle. These are likely to be rather different from people living in settled communities. When your society is confident enough in its access to water and food, it might choose to build permanent settlements. The environment in which these settlements are built doesn’t much matter - any might do. Cities on alluvial plains or vast settlements like bee hives carved into immense glaciers are really looking for the same things - security, access to water and access to food. And don’t neglect those civilizations that build semi-permanent settlements. These have settlements that are meant to endure year-to-year, but are inhabited only part-time or by only part of the culture. Elements of these societies live in temporary structures they carry with them while away from the settlements and return to home when their business is concluded. Permanence also speaks to roadways, rivers and other forms of transportation. How do people get around in your city? Are there roads? Alleyways? Does everyone use the water to move about? Is there some kind of primitive (or indeed, sophisticated) railroad system, perhaps? The degree of permanence suggests the degree of care given to transportation. Last of all, notions of permanence speak to defensibility. Does your culture have enemies who covet what your civilization owns or makes? If so, that will have an impact on how your culture views its safety and the wisdom of building settlements. A mobile culture under threat can simply move. A settled community is going to need defenses, however. Walls or the like. Or indeed geography, as in the Acoma Pueblo Sky City, can provide much by way of defensibility.


This is the simple question of “what goes where” How did your culture organize the residential, commercial and industrial sectors of the city? Are these separated in some way? Do they overlap? How much land does your settlement take up? Settlements can be spread out over a wide area or clustered together very tightly, whether they have a lot of population or really not so much. It all depends on how the culture sees fit to organize the work of a city. So, again, where’s the water? If your culture doesn’t have access to post-industrial technology, it is very likely that what passes for an industrial sector in your civilization’s cities is going to be built where the water is…because that’s where the energy of the water is. What your culture’s industry is making will certainly shape how the commercial sector is configured. Does your culture’s industry make objects that are sold in the city to the civilization’s residents? That would tend to a commercial sector near the industrial sector. If your city is cosmopolitan in nature and there are foreigners, the commercial sector might be near the city’s gates (if it has walls) or indeed outside of those walls. It could be partially up the river with barges carrying goods in from the city, if your city’s residents wanted strangers’ money without having to deal with the strangers themselves. Last of all is the consideration you need to give to where people live. Is your culture’s social order the sort that creates demand for single-family dwellings or multi-family dwellings? How many people who consider themselves linked are going to be sheltered in one dwelling? What is your culture’s tolerance of single people? Do you have apartments for that kind of household?


Architecture is a subject that divides people. Where one might find the English country cottage or quaint Provencal village charming and beautiful, another might find it cloying and old-fashioned, preferring the stark concrete and glass of a modern city. This question is asking you to think about building materials and beauty. What do your culture’s people find charming and beautiful? From a role-playing perspective, there’s nothing quite like being able to describe a new place in vivid enough detail that it resonates with your players’ characters’ sense of the sublime. There is much that a civilized people’s ingenuity can do with wood, stone and brick. Indeed even with adobe, concrete and other composite materials. And this is to say nothing of civilizations that build their settlements inside of ice or hills or mountains. In these places, architecture becomes more akin to sculpture, the deliberate and careful manipulation of the environment, rather than the fabrication of it.


The last point for your consideration in Urban Ways is how the settlement is divided socially. How do people use the village’s places on a daily basis? What parts of the city are reserved for the upper classes? Is there a middle class? What makes it so and where does it live as a result of what made it middle class? Is there a sector for the lower classes? Well-reasoned answers to questions here will help you down the road when you are considering social factors at play in your society. Keep in mind that it is entirely customary to set aside very large portions of a settlement for the private use of members of a royal class or a priestly class. Take a careful look at the footprint of the Forbidden City in Beijing or the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to get a sense of what I mean here. Do upper class people get a special aesthetic that they reserve for their buildings? Do they reside near the royal/priestly quarter or separately? This probably depends on their relationship with the royal than anything else. Do they care for or want access to the countryside? Every settlement has some degree of social stratification, no matter how small. Give serious thought to how it is divided.