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As part of my "Closed Circle" campaign, I'm looking for ways to quickly put together a believable map of a college campus and surrounding area, complete with believable building placement. "Quickly" in this case is in the space of a few days, since I'll need to get this up and running relatively quickly. What are good techniques/methods/programs for putting together a map and making it feel cohesive in a few days?

Mostly I'm looking for tips on street design, building placement and shape, etc.

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There's definitely a lot of good answers here, and I'll most likely end up taking a bit from each of them. –  shatterspike1 Dec 27 '12 at 22:20
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4 Answers

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Steal a couple and mash them up

Colleges and universities are actually, in general, remarkably good about putting their plans online. To make a believable college campus quickly, steal a couple, and mash them up. Then use the building plans featured in the street map for your internal plans.

Internal plans: MSU, LaTrobe Library, Melbourne, Colorado State

External Plans: ... every university has a campus map. Choose a uni that you're taking internal plans from and mix and match. You can use the internal plans to get a sense of scale for the external.

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Agreed; making a new realistic one is horrendously hard; stealing one is super easy and no PC will ever know the difference. –  mxyzplk Dec 25 '12 at 1:28
    
Yeah. Never try to do in a hurry something that you've never done before, especially if "high quality" is a requirement. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 25 '12 at 3:06
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Hell, don't even bother to mash them up. –  okeefe Dec 25 '12 at 4:26
    
I could see some reasons to do mash-ups, to fit specific terrain desires. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 25 '12 at 4:31
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Don't even bother digging into their sites for the street map, if it's difficult to find. Check them out on Google Maps ;) –  Izkata Dec 25 '12 at 4:34
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The first thing to decide (which I suspect you already know) is to decide what kind of campus the college has. There's Rural, Urban, and Suburban.

Rural campuses tend to be all contained in a large plot of land with maybe 1 or 2 roads in/out of college. For example, my wife's college was on a mountain. There was 1 road that went downhill, and a footpath that went to the top of the mountain. They also tend to have lots of green-space and buildings tend to have some lawn around them. Unfortunately, if you want to get away from the campus for any reason, you either need a car or some really good walking shoes. As a result rural campuses tend to have more businesses/entertainment options that are run/endorsed by the school.

Urban campuses tend to be completely integrated into the city's grid of streets. There will be tons of ways on/off the campus. The buildings also tend to be very densely packed. They also tend to be taller buildings than on a rural campus. Fortunately, if you need a break from studies, you only need a bus-pass. As a result, the college will usually choose to not include restaurants/theaters/etc. that are run/endorsed by the college.

Suburban campuses are sort-of half-way between the two. Some will have lots of roads on/off the campus, others will have one or two roads in/out. Some will have greenspace, others will be densely packed. The local suburban university has 5 roads into it, and the "outer ring" is densely trafficked. You end up driving onto the campus and parking in the garage, then walking between classes. The central area is very similar to a rural campus, but the "outer" part is very urban. As for amenities? THere's a shopping mall across a major thoroughfare from the campus, so it's pretty urban in that regard.

Another major decision that you need to know is whether the college will be a residency style campus or a commuter campus. My local Suburban campus is about 80% commuter, so there aren't many dorms. Rural campuses tend to have a much higher percentage of residential students, but that is also partly because urban schools all have privately owned apartement buildings nearby (and expect students to rent apartments after their Freshman/Sophomore year).

As for building placement, I would start in the middle with a common area for students to hang out/play sports/study, then build out from there. As @CatLord said, some campuses are very haphazard. Others are very organized (residential halls on one side of the green, class buildings on the other). Others started out organized, then built outwards as they needed a new building.

Finally, if this is an NCAA (or foreign equivalent) school, don't forget areas where the sports teams can practice/train/play.

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Also, older urban universities may often have multiple campuses, or even just individual buildings, scattered around town. What typically happens is that the area around the original campus gets built up and property values rise until it becomes prohibitively expensive to expand the campus. But, since new facilities are still needed, they get built (or bought/rented) elsewhere. Then the city grows to engulf the new facilities too, and the cycle repeats. –  Ilmari Karonen Dec 26 '12 at 0:43
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Have you ever heard of Vornheim: The Complete City Kit?

It's a must-have if you find yourself GMing a lot in urban environments. It's a book about designing every aspect of a city on the fly, including streets, floor plans, rumors, NPCs, motivations, plot hooks, etc. It's focused on (a rather grim) medieval fantasy, but it's extremely hackable to suit almost every need.

To grasp the feeling of the book, I point you to the author's free urbancrawl rules.

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Upvoted for the "it's not there until it's explored" aspect of it. –  shatterspike1 Dec 27 '12 at 22:20
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A little longer than I felt comfortable with a comment is my answer.

Universities can have extremely haphazard setups. For example, the one I graduated from just bought up an old HS to use as a campus building a few years ago about a quarter mile from the campus proper. So as long as you're consistent you don't need to worry terribly about the exact setup on the fly. You can always say "Well that's on North Campus" or "There's an annex building you need to reach" or "they just refurbished a brand new building to be a more specialized subsection of major X".

My primary piece of advice is to take the core group of buildings and place them in a tighter cluster and if you need to expand, the laws of chaos are at your disposal.

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