World-building, cities and necessities

One of the things that frequently causes me to stumble in fantasy worlds is too much reliance on “because magic”.

I can hand wave difficult to access locations, set aside a city that’s disproportionately full of magic weapon makers. But water and sewage cause me to wince and shudder.

Let’s start at the end. If you’re not fastidious and just let the waste run off down-hill, your city smells like a sewer. You have to deal with a bit less than 3/4 pound of solids per person (yes, really) and a bit less than half a gallon of urine per day. I promise that the urine is not enough to carry the solid, so you need some sort of movement system (whether flowing water in sewers, flowing water in canals, people who come and sweep it up – something).

Look, we all “know” that medieval Europe was filthy. People tossed the chamberpot into the open dirt street. ‘Better’ cities built platforms – sidewalks or boardwalks – in the better parts of town to keep feet out of the muck. Because these weren’t everywhere, women walked next to the building (pots were tossed, not dumped, so the effluvia didn’t hit the wall) and most men wore hats with brims. Lots of cultures developed the habit of ‘street shoes’ and slippers.

That’s really easy to do, actually. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Minoans had flush toilets in the 1500s BC. Yes, really. The Greeks had ewer and basin systems – the basin drains into the trough that runs under the toilet seat, and “who forgot to fill the ewer” wasn’t quite as plaintive as “who forgot to change the toilet paper”. The Roman sewer system, with public toilets and indoor plumbing, was something to envy hundreds of years later. Jerusalem in the time of Jesus had a sewage system, and all you have to do is read the Bible to know how important cleanliness was. And so on and so forth.

So that’s the end, what of the beginning?

You have to have water – a minimum of 3-5 gallons per person per day (average) for not just drinking but cooking and washing (plus a little for the animals). If you’ve got it the amount goes up to 30-50 gallons per day; it gets used for waste disposal and washing the house and a lot of other things. By the way, Rome at its height was doing this with water provided by aqueducts.

Well and streams and aqueducts are all possibilities to solve this beginning.

So I mention all this because far too many fantasy cities don’t have them. Oh, those on rivers are no problem. But dreamers have a habit of putting cities on mountainsides and in deserts, in far-away and exotic locales. If the story’s carrying me well enough I don’t care, but every so often I’ll get slapped out of the dream, and then that sort of thing makes it harder to get back in.

Weirdly enough, thinking about this sort of thing will help your city come alive even if nobody mentions going to the bathroom or washing their clothes. Because it’ll make it real in your mind, and you will carry that to your players.

Or such has been my experience.

Have fun.

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~ by Kirk on March 6, 2014.

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