In addition to the Shadowrun campaign in which I am a co-GM, I'm supposed to be putting together a superhero campaign using the HERO System, 5th Revised Edition. [We never updated to 6th edition due to cost and the fact that 5th Rev. Ed. works fine for us.] The schedule for when the campaign was supposed to start went south when my laptop hard drive crashed last year. I've spent the intervening time reassembling my campaign note. Luckily I had a copy of the Illustrator file of my city map saved elsewhere.
One of the things I was having issues grappling with was what the city looked like. What does the topography mandate? What kind of and how many skyscrapers does the city have? How far can a non-flying hero cover on foot without having to run through crowds at street level?
I've lived most of my life in Houston, Texas, which is one of the most sprawling cities in North America. The city has no natural boundaries and has grown like an amoeba as a result. [The Greater Houston metropolitan area has a larger urban area than the state of Rhode Island has in total - 1295 sq. mi. to 1212 sq. mi., respectively.] It also has no zoning AND NEVER WILL, thank you very much. This makes it very unlike other major metropolitan centers.
The city I'm trying to create, Capital City, is in Maryland, on the US East Coast and has some history and some geographical constraints. It should feel like an East Coast city and I'm not really certain how that would look - so I'm making a model.
Out of LEGO.
I pulled down some free topological maps from the USGS for the area I'm using [the Port Tobacco and La Plata maps, in case you are interested] and imported them into Adobe Illustrator. I then ungrouped everything and started removing topo lines that were not a multiple of 50 feet (that is, I kept 0, 50, 100, 150, 200, etc.). [Did I mention the USGS puts out really good PDF maps? They do - they are layered and fairly easy to work with in Illustrator.] Oh, except for the La Plata, because those people have to be special and did their lines in 20-foot increments instead of 10-foot ones like all the other maps. Read up on the history of the area and you'll see what I mean. Freakin' arsonists.
That gave me a simplified topographical map of the area and I used the Illustrator Grid function to put a grid on the whole thing. I set the grid to four boxes per inch and now had the whole area squared off. I then looked at the topographical lines and stuck a number on each grid square it a "1" covering from 0-50 feet, a "2" for 51-100 feet, and so forth.
Then I took a huge grey baseplate [LEGO piece 10701] and stacked green 2x2 bricks on it, with one brick going in a grid square with a "1", and two bricks stacked in a grid square with a "2", and so forth. Until I ran out of green 2x2 bricks. I then went to the local LEGO store [Houston now has three of them and one of them is fairly close] and bought a tall cup of green 2x2s off the Pick-a-Brick wall. And then went back and bought another. And then another. AND THEN ANOTHER. I think in two more, I'll have finally covered the first plate. Only two more plates to go...
[NOTE: this is flat out the cheapest way to buy new LEGO bricks. For $16.00 I get over 100 bricks. I haven't counted exactly how many per tall cup, but I verified it was over 80 bricks, which puts it at lower than the $0.20 per brick cost of ordering them individually on line. I'm about ready to buy a box of them from the store, but buying them one tall cup at a time lets me get them as I have spare money and I get to add to the map more often. Budgets...]
This gave me a real visual as to what the terrain looked like. The vertical scale is exaggerated [by a little more than 10 to 1 it turns out], but it lets me see what I'm dealing with and sparks my imagination as to what kind of buildings would go where and how roads would properly flow (or not flow as the case may be). Then I built some micro-scale buildings to put on the map to start getting an idea of what the city might look like and it really clicked for me and the players I showed it to.
Then I checked the scale and realized that at this scale, a 1x1 spot on the map was 480 x 480 ft in size. City blocks in downtown Houston and Portland are 260 x 260 ft, meaning that the smallest buildings I had put on the map were about 4 city blocks in size.
So, for the moment, I am building just a topo map of part of Maryland, which will give me a good idea of what Capital City is built on. This is important as it turns out I think I put the airport either on some hills or the main runways facing hills and if so, I'll need to fix that. Plus the depth of the subway may need some adjustment in some areas. Later I can take it apart and build specific areas (like Downtown) at a scale where the microbuildings will be the right size. I'll have enough bricks by then.
I still have no idea how to handle zoning - it's so unnatural to me.