Tinderbox: The Zones of the City

Drawing up my map for the city of Placeholder, I knew that I wanted a larger number of zones than The Angry DM’s example area, but I only added approximately 50% more than his purposefully small example presented. Even sitting at a mere 14 zones I’m still intimidated by the prospect of statting everything up, and keep telling myself “It’s a sandbox, it’s a sandbox.” The dream is that after a tremendous amount of work up-front, I’ll be able to largely coast through encounters in these various areas. Of course, plot hooks popped into my head as soon as I started labeling and connecting the zones, and I very much look forward to sending players backtracking through dangerous areas to reach something important.

For instance, the players might find their path to the A Gate blocked by a barricade that requires them to travel back through the Merchant Quarter to reach the Engineering District and secure an explosive. However, the plans for that explosive require reagents that send them searching both the Merchant Quarter and the Arcanum. By the time all that’s done, they’ll have the explosive necessary to take down the barricade—but the various factions will have shifted and battled in the meantime. The barricade may have already been removed through the main strength of bugbears, or overrun by feral squirrelmen. Squirrelmen are absolutely a real thing in this campaign.

Since Zak S mentioned the 25-word campaign descriptions idea, I’m going to use that to briefly sketch out the nature of each zone and what the players can expect there…perhaps not in 25 words, but I’ll at least shoot for that many. That makes this a work in progress.


Small Jail

Cramped, understaffed, temporarily defensible, temporary allies, rock and a hard place (and a wet place), leaving the city is not an option.
One floor, 2-3 holding cells and some offices, single entrance.

The Small Jail only connects to the Docks, but the map might end up being used for other holding areas in other districts.


Dingy, slick, wooden structures in a city of stone, exotic goods floating just out of reach, threats from the sea.
The docks obviously have no wall contact, but they are relatively expansive; the water is to the south. Several ships are docked at any given time, mostly large multi-mast vessels used to trade with the dragon-dominated lands to the south. The buildings along the docks are all wooden, since they’re on the water; several large warehouses and a few taverns.

The Docks connect to the Small Jail, the Merchant Quarter, The Middle Class Area, and the Engineering District.

Gates (Western and Northern)

What everyone wants, obvious targets, the only weak points in a fortified city.
There are two gates into the city, a western gate and a north gate. North gate is larger. Both gates have fortified guard stations where they meet each wall, and an additional guard station that sits on the wall above where the gate opens. Obviously, both are bracketed by walls.

The Western Gate connects to the Arcanum (Mage District), the Slums, The Merchant Quarter, the Middle Class Area, and the Western Barracks.
The Northern Gate connects to the Western Barracks, the Middle Class Area, the Slums, and the Eastern Barracks.

Barracks (Western and Eastern)

This. Is. PLACEHOLDER! Target-rich environment. More sticks than you can shake a stick at. Chain of command, planning tents, source of answers, lion’s den.
Not just single buildings; entire compounds with multiple buildings, training areas, and fully stocked armories. The western barracks has no wall contact; the eastern barracks has wall contact along its entire northern edge.

The Western Barracks connect to the Western Gate, the Merchant District, and the Eastern Gate.
The Eastern Barracks connect to the Northern Gate, the Noble Quarter, the Middle Class Residential Area, and the Large Prison.

Merchant Quarter

Ridiculous wealth, and plenty of sundries, riots, starvation, petty banditry.
One of the largest areas, mix of shops and pillared plazas (have a roof, held up by pillars, but no walls. I’m not an architect but I’m sure this is a thing) where merchants can set up stalls during the day. Wall contact along its southern edge. Good mix of buildings and those open plazas, with some decorative elements…the party in the original Lockout started in part of the merchant quarter.

The Merchant Quarter connects to the Arcanum (Mage District), Western Barracks, Docks, Engineering District, Middle Class Area, and Western Gate.

Engineering District

Lots of things to go boom, lots of things to crush a man, a hammer for every nail, dangerous things left unattended.
Mostly large workshops and stalls, this is where the Tran manufacture their Steelscales and other constructs, alongside more mundane artifacts. Wall contact along southern edge.

The Engineering District connects to the Docks, the Merchant Quarter, and the Middle Class Area.


Rich wizards who don’t give a shit, all those experiments you read about in Monstrous Manuals, expensive and breakable things, expensive and broken things, mounds of residuum.
Mix of homes for the wizards and shops, which may overlay each other in some but not all cases. No wall contact.

The Arcanum connects to the Western Gate and the Merchant Quarter.

Middle Class Residential

People actually LIVE here, desperate citizens, roving bands of bullies, food shortages, the worst of inhuman nature.
Extremely large, but again- most houses belong to dwarves, so they’re relatively modest above-ground structures with several subterranean rooms. The middle class area comprises perhaps 20% of the city, and has wall contact along its western edge. Homes in the district tend to be spaced closely on the surface…4-8 adjacent homes touching. However, beneath the surface they spread out like the petals of a flower, so that while adjacent homes touch one another, they each have space to expand.

The Middle Class Residential area connects to Docks, the Merchant Quarter, the Engineering District, the Western Gate, the Northern Gate, and the Eastern Barracks.

The Slums

What’s different? Desperate people with nothing to lose, violence is a way of life, no one noticed us before, this is our chance, what’s a doctor?
Fairly sprawling, homes of shoddy stone and occasionally wooden construction; narrow streets and alleys. Wall contact only along the north-western corner of the district.

The Slums only connect to the Western and Northern Gates.

Noble Quarter

The secrets behind the golden gates, the possibility of answers, a way into the underground? Rich people and their toys, and their secrets, and their contingency plans.
Lots of mansions, most of which have more below ground than above it in the fashion of the middle class, but with multiple floors. Instead of stairs, they tend to use curling, gently sloped ramps between floors. Multiple mansions may interlock like pieces in a Jenga game, with the floors from one home filling the space that the ramp of another home leaves empty. Hidden doors, vaults, and other passages abound in these homes.

The Noble Quarter only connects with the Western Barracks, and it’s a very direct connection; the purpose of the barracks is largely to protect and serve the Tran and other nobles in that quarter.

Large Prison

No one left to guard us, we’ve been forgotten, political prisoners, we were right about this society.
At least 3 subterranean floors and one additional floor above the ground floor.

The Large Prison is only connected to the Western Barracks; the Barracks keep the Jail apart from the rest of the city and provide an immediate and direct bulwark between the criminals and the Noble Quarter.


All the OTHER stuff you see in those Monstrous Manuals, residuum runoff, cramped spaces and things that love them, a door to anywhere, pray it doesn’t rain, others already had this idea.
The sewers are extremely cramped throughout most of the city; small enough that a human sized creature would need to crawl on their stomachs, and anything smaller usually has to crab-walk- squeezing and slowed, respectively. Although the streets are grated, which allows water to reach these small tunnels, all actual sewer entrances lead to rooms uniformly 20 x 30 feet and 15 feet high. Tunnels enter at the top of the walls into these rooms, and larger tunnels (8 x 6) lead between these rooms.

Don’t currently have specific connections; I’m thinking, instead, that they’ll be connected to nearly any other zone with the right Dungeoneering rolls.

4 thoughts on “Tinderbox: The Zones of the City

  1. >I hate to take that away from you, but they won't be for the initial build at least. Once the system is set up I think I'd very much enjoy sliding the players around and running one-shots as members of various factions (a la Gears of War 3's new version of Horde mode, for instance, or Left 4 Dead's similar approach to multiplayer); during these games players would each have a choice of certain optimized members of that faction, so you might play a Squirrelman Noose-Hurler, or a Despot Goblin Slyblade. I'm working up to the post about what races/classes will be available for the main campaign, but the focus will tend to be on either members of the Empire (dwarves, goblins, orcs) or visitors from the other two continents (eladrin, dragonborn, gith, genasi, etc).Sorry to break your heart!

  2. >It's funny you say that: for some reason when I read this last post I started to get a very Mordheim feel about it… the idea of running small warband-based faction squabbles in the city, carving out territory block by block, seems a natural fit! Some day, some day…

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