Monday, 22 December 2014

[RPG] Using Hive-cities in RPGs

Hive Cities in RPGs

In this blog entry I want to talk a little bit about a concept that I have used in numerous roleplaying games and that seems to be very popular with my players (it's going to be used in my forthcoming Jadepunk game 'The Skyless City' - you can see the video of our character and setting creation here), the concept of the hive city.

What do I mean by hive city?

A hive city is a city that is built upwards instead of outwards and in many different layers, different layers normally have different characters.

I think that I probably first came across the concept of a hive city in the Games Workshop skirmish wargame Necromunda (, in it gangs from various houses via for supremacy on a world that has been utterly polluted by industry; the hive citys or hives are huge man-made structures reminiscent of massive artificial termite mounds, each producing a stagger amount of manufactured goods and housing many millions of people. In general the uppermost spire of the hive world serves as the domains of the rich and privilieged, rising above the polluted atmosphere of the planet and touching the edge of space itself, the waste productions and pollution of the hives flow downwards forming a poisonous lake or sump at the very base of the hive; life on the lower levels become increasing unpleasant as the denizens are forced to drink water, eat food rations and even breathe air that has been recycled many times, the radioactive waste at the bottom of the hives also gives rise to horrendous mutants and monstrosities.

Here is a picture of a Necromunda style hive found on Yaktribe Gaming ( posted by Malika.

Using this concept in RPGs

Although the concept (well at least my initial encounter with it) came from a dark, nihilistic science-fiction genre it can be used in almost any RPG, where the technology exists to create tall structures with multiple levels; for example Jadepunk is an amalgamation of steampunk ideas, wuxia and westerns, using enchanted jade in the place of more traditional steam based technology. Whilst designing our setting, one of the things that I was very keen to do (as I am in all of my games) is to get the players involved as much as possible in helping to design the setting where the game takes place; my general philosophy when using a published setting is that I start with the published material as a baseline, but that player and GM choices supersede anything written in the published setting. For example: In our Jadepunk game one of the players asked whether the game featured mythological creatures since he wanted to have a background that involved a Djinn-like creature, although the canon setting is largely focussed on humans, I see no reason why I would want to stifle a players creativity by refusing to incorporate something that could add a lot to the game and even take it in interesting new directions.

Why use a hive-city type structure in an RPG

One of the benefits of hive structure is that it enables you to present a (literally) multi-layered setting that illustrtates the contrasts and differences between the different layers without having to have a monumentally huge area. As you climb higher out of the pollution the people become more refined and the surroundings more opulent, whereas in the darker layers shut away from the sky and the clean air you have poisonous fogs, pollution where people live and die in abject poverty.

A hive-city is also a way of making class differences very obvious and present in a physical way, the rich and poor are not only divided by wealth and lifestyle but literally they exist on different levels of the game world; a poor person can only dream of climbing to the upper echelons and feeling the sun upon their face whereas the exceptionally wealthy live in luxury at the top of the hive or perhaps even floating above it (depending on the setting and technology available). Hive-cities also mark the PCs in your game as being something special, since they will be one of the few groups capable (or compelled to) move between the different levels whereas most of the poor will be forbidden from the upper levels and most high level dwellers would not sully themselves by descending into the depths.

In the modern world tall structures are quite prevalent and imply a certain level of civilisation, you only need to look at the modern high-rise skyscrapers of a city to see this, and this implied civilisation can give an interesting contrast in a game where you might otherwise not see it (such as a fantasy game for instance), especially when it is contrasted with some of the barbaric acts that often occur in many different RPGs; the veneer of civilisation can be quite thin and can hide a great deal of horror and darkness when it is peeled back, like a fine carpet covering a rotting and decaying floor.

Things to keep in mind when using a hive-city structure in your game

1. Decide roughly how large your hive is going to be: This doesn't have to be an exact measurement but you should know whether your city is going to touch the stars or whether it's just a few levels in height.

2. Decide on the character of the different levels: Each floor of your hive does not have to be different, you can group several of them together to create an area with a certain theme (a poor district or manufacturing levels for instance), but you should have a rough idea of the different levels that exist in your hive city.

3. Create some evocative details for the different levels: Once you've created the level grouping think about how they look or feel different from each other and the differences in the people that inhabit each level.

4. Consider how difficult it is to move between levels: A world with a lot of social mobility and movement between levels will feel very different to one where the boundary between rich and poor is guarded by troops wielding shotguns, also your PCs will inevitably want to move between levels at some point so give some thought to how this might be accomplished, whether there are any secret ways to do it and who else may move between the different levels.

5. Think about how the different levels affect and rely on each other: Different levels exist in a sort of eco-system where they affect each other and sometimes rely on each other, you don't have to detail out a full ecological model but it's definitely something worth thinking about before your game starts.

Getting the main aspects of your hive game down is far more important than having a perfectly detailed and rendering map of all the levels, i'd actually recommend against too much detailed mapping since it may not leave you much room for expansion and incorporation of later ideas.

A txt version of the rough concept for our Jadepunk hive city can be found here:

Next time you want to give your game a bit of a different flavour or you fancy highlighting societal levels and differences in a very physical and obvious way, give hive-cities a go they're great fun and can add a lot of depth to games.

Edit: My friend John Miles has just reminded me of another excellent fantasy version of a hive-city, the city of Sharn from the D&D Eberron setting, you can find more details about it here: