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Do the maps of cities in the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Books accurately reflect the statistics of those cities?

I recently decided to use the city of Everlund from the Forgotten Realms campaign setting as a model for a location in a one-shot scenario - the setting was not exactly the same as Faerun, but it was a similar generic setting of my own creation with a similar version of the city as the focus of the story. Upon comparing both the map and the statistics provided in the book (the information of which is also available online), however, I found that the numbers did not seem to line up to me:

Map of Everlund

Population: 21,388

The population seems far too large, and the physical city and number of possible residences far too small, for them to match relative to each other. I have not counted the exact number of buildings, but estimate a couple hundred - a number that would suggest around 100 people per house. Even with the expectation that people live in larger families and with a higher density-per-house than our modern real-world, this seems like an absurd number. I might expect it to be something more like an order of magnitude smaller. Making sure that this was not just an isolated case, I found that most other cities with drawn maps seemed to have a similar situation.

I've considered that the creators might have intended these maps to not be taken literally, but rather abstractly - each square not representing a literal single building, but rather the general shape of areas being taken as general districts. This does not really seem to make sense, though, when you consider what they have detailed - individual bridges, roads, larger key buildings, and an important river, all drawn to scale and with an appropriate measuring ruler in the bottom corner. If this is meant to be taken abstractly, it is certainly hard to wrap my head around.

Are the maps simply too small for their statistics? Are they actually reasonable, contrary to my beliefs? Are they meant to be literally accurate or interpreted more broadly?

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Taking some measurements, the scale is clearly wrong. Looking at the castle-shaped building in the section labelled 12 with a true-distance measuring tool (I'm using GIMP's Measure Tool), I find that its central block is about 12 pixels from river-side front to back. Measuring the scale using the same tool, 15 pixels is 20 feet, making the castle sans towers a mere 16 feet deep. That castle's footprint is smaller than my livingroom! And I doubt the intention was to model that castle after this one:

A figure stands beside Broadway Tower, a folly in the English county of Worcestershire, that is only 65 feet tall.
A view of Broadway Tower” by Newton2, licensed under CC BY 2.5

All the other buildings have similar problems, with the smallest being 4′×4′. That's unbelievably tiny even by shack or shed standards, and I doubt they are supposed to be sheds anyway.

Clearly the scale is wrong, by an order of magnitude.

The trouble with many maps in big-name books is that there are many maps to produce, and typically these are handled by the art director as art rather than as true cartography. Drawing each bridge and building produces a particular map style that is labour-intensive and carries prestige, and is therefore sought after by art directors at big-name publishers. Rarely do the end readers actually try to orient on these maps in any but the most hand-wavey way anyway, and they do make the book extremely pretty. And, possibly more to the point, they make the book look how the buyer expects a campaign setting to look, with the text broken up by many maps.

Producing quality cartography is hard. So, quite probably there was no coherent intention of the kind you're trying to divine analytically from the map's properties, since any usability intentions were probably far behind business requirements like meeting production schedules and short-turnaround art orders, if usability was even a contender in that competition for business attention. Most likely, the maps are simply incoherent when looked at more than cursorily, and there is no intent — only the question of what you should do with them. And the easiest is to just use them abstractly, as a guide to layout and civic character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Heh, and the whole city is about 400 feet long East-West. OK, so typical population density changes with time, but the city I live in (Oxford) has population 150k and is about 5-6 miles across, more populated in some wedges than in others. The medieval resident population was probably never a lot more than 5000, and the old walls (13th century) were about 2 miles in circumference according to one source, making the walled part of the city roughly 3000 feet across. Not that it was actually round, but the distance from what we now call "westgate" to "eastgate" is in that ballpark. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Apr 16 '15 at 11:21
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I believe it is mostly to be taken abstractly, but specified when your story needs it. I know when I make cities for my games, I usually leave whole neighborhoods as amorphous collections of boxes that I can fill in when need arises.

Most of the creators of the Forgotten Realms are basing their city creations on Late Medieval, Early Renaissance Europe - from England to Constantinople. This time period had increased urbanization and massive overcrowding as small villages were absorbed into larger municipalities. The population would still be on the high side for this equivalency, but there are some factors that can make the number more believable:

1. Farms - The population of the city (in this case, Everlund) would need a massive supply of food from the surrounding areas. The city lands themselves would extend well beyond the town walls and into the surrounding farmland (usually owned by urban nobility). So I'd say at least 40% of the population is living in tiny hamlets and villages orbiting the major metropolis... not to mention providing wonderful places for low-level adventurers to start!

2. Population Density - People lived very much like burrowing animals during this equivalent time period. Buildings would house 1-2 extended families, all sharing the same space for the poor. The nobles would have their family (5-7 people on average) and their service retinue (10-15 for lower nobles, 15-20 for higher ranks). These people would live above, under and in smaller places in the house (cooks even slept in the kitchen to watch the bread - plus it was warmer). So you could translate that into your game, having every major house a hive of activity... and intrigue, mayhaps?

3. Gaming View - The maps may seem out of sorts with the population, as the creators made an average sized town, but only fleshed out the parts that the characters would be really interested in. Very few adventurers would need to know where the cattle markets were, or other sundry places (though that could be a fun hook). Therefore, I'd say feel free to flesh out whatever small neighborhood you need to make it more real to you and your group.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Another factor to consider is: does the population estimate include the homeless? \$\endgroup\$ – ghoppe Apr 15 '15 at 23:19
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The scale is off in several important ways:

  1. That is a pretty tiny city. Just eye-balling it, that city seems to fit comfortably in a 400 ft x 300 ft patch with room left over. Let's be generous and call it 400 ft x 400 ft. That is still less area than a Manhattan city block. Manhattan can't fit that many people in that space, and neither can the Forgotten Realms, without serious magic support.
  2. Also eyeballing it, those roads look like they're 10 feet wide at the widest. That seems awfully narrow. Typical city streets in modern United States are on the order of 40 to 50 feet, curb to curb, plus additional lot space between the curbs and buildings. The few European cities that have been preserved that I've wandered around in are narrower than modern (downright cramped feeling) but not that cramped. You have to get people and goods, meaning also wagons and animals, down those main thoroughfares, even if you don't have the modern American obsession with motor cars.
  3. Likewise, the buildings are tiny. They look, at scale, like someone dropped a bunch of single nuclear-family hovels down in place and called it a city. But cities would have much larger buildings, like long low (three, maybe four story) tenements tens of feet wide and possibly hundreds of feet long. The names and style change through the ages, but Rome had tenements for housing as did many European cities in later but still pre-modern times. You couldn't fit more than a handful of such structures in that map.

To be charitable, that map is off proper scale by an order of magnitude.

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