The Architect DM: Give Your Cities Some Character

As with nearly every topic I cover in this series, I’ve touched on the idea of adding character to settlements and cities before but now I’d like to put it in the spotlight. Let’s face it, your players will only remember select portions of the adventures you run even on the best of days. The elements that players seem to remember the most are specifically striking elements of a few NPCs, villains, encounters, and social interactions. Generally speaking, they will not remember a location very much unless a specific element of that location ties directly to one of those elements. They may not remember a location featuring a really sweet bridge if you describe it to them, but set a dramatic encounter on that bridge and they’re much more likely to remember the details of that location.

When it comes to settlements, whether it is a village, town, city, or capital, they were founded for very specific reasons and often their nature reflects those reasons inherently. If a city is built on the edge of the ocean, then it is most likely going to have thriving docks, abundant fish markets, and a bustling economy built on trade from abroad. When you present a new city to your players these are the aspects that you want to put the most effort into preparing and presenting to them to help solidify the character of the new location in their minds. As with most of my suggestions for designing based on realistic concepts, in the end thinking about these concepts can also help you develop more ideas for your game while you’re planning everything out.

There’s No Such Place as Default Town

I would be willing to bet that the large majority of places a D&D group visits come off as nothing more than ‘generic fantasy town’ with perhaps one or two interesting elements that feel tacked on and unincorporated into the overall life of the area. No matter where the city you’re designing is located, you can add a handful of interesting elements with relative ease. The key to making this work is presenting these elements to your players up front, and not always leaving them free to discover everything on their own. If a town is located in the middle of rolling grasslands, begin by telling the players that the town is easily twice the size of any other town they’ve visited due to the flat nature of the terrain and the availability of space. From there you can branch into a large variety of interesting elements, and I have found that the more specific and unique you can get the more the location will stand out. With our grassland town, you could emphasize that the only food readily available within the town is that of the grassland lions found in abundance nearby. Your average D&D characters (and players) are not going to expect a town to eat mostly lion meat, and small details like this can really make a location stand out in your game.

So far it might seem like I’m focusing on relatively small details, but I find it very helpful to approach things from different angles every now and then. If you’re looking for more large scale ideas, then you need not look much further than some of the published D&D content. Just in the base 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (and the early modules released for 4E) the town of Fallcrest was introduced which included a major river flowing through the town and a large cliff that split the town in two. Neither of these elements were presented as incredibly important to the location, but as a DM you can easily introduce the town of Fallcrest as a segmented populace divided by a large cliff that separates the upper class from the lower class in a very literal and physical way. The books mention this, but if you like the idea as a DM and decide to present it as a primary element to your players then this could become a defining feature that makes one specific location more memorable in your game.

In my own campaign I introduced a Fallcrest under assault and in a state of crisis, the lower part of town beneath the cliffs had already been overrun by gnolls and the half of the upper part across the river had been taken by hobgoblins. I’m not sure how memorable it was for my players, but I very much enjoyed running several encounters where my party aided the towns people in defending the bridge from hobgoblin assaults and defending the edge of the cliff against ravaging gnoll skirmishers.

Don’t be Afraid of the Big Picture

Seriously, don’t be overly afraid of taking one specific element of a location or a city and running with it to an extreme. If you want to do a town that survives along a line of cliffs, don’t be afraid to put the whole town into a cliffside with a series of tunnels and rope bridges tying it together. If you want to represent a town in turmoil and on the edge of a major body of water, don’t be afraid to have half of the town recently destroyed by a sinkhole into the water or invaded by a foreign force from across the seas. Of course as you should do with most large scale strokes in your campaign, don’t make every single element you ever introduce so grandiose that the status quo becomes completely skewed to the ridiculous (unless that’s what you want to happen, then go for it).

As with many of the world building concepts I discuss, the advice I am giving is to consider the environment into which you’re placing a city and consider the factors that may influence it. Age and human interaction are always considerations, but even just thinking about the prominent terrain and coming up with a handful of elements that come along with that terrain, and then tying those elements in to the city, can give you a vibrant and lively location where you might otherwise have just put another generic fantasy town.

Some Important Elements to Consider

When it comes to the location of a city, a list of elements and questions is almost the easiest way to brainstorm for world building. What is the prevalent terrain like? Is there some kind of unique terrain that is not prevalent, maybe it is rare, but its impact is large enough to be a factor (like earthquakes, quicksand, etc)? What is the weather like? What kinds of animals are native to this area? What kinds of people live in the area? Why was the settlement founded and why is the settlement important? What allows people to survive in this location for an extended period of time? What is the most readily available source of food and water? How long has the settlement been here and what might have happened to it over that time?

The real beauty of world building in this fashion is that everything tends to trickle down, and you should find that the more effort you put into this kind of thing the more that effort multiplies into helpful elements for later development. What I mean by this is that once you’ve answered a lot of these questions about a location and come up with an interesting city, it should become easier to populate that city with an interesting selection of characters. If you’ve built a city on the edge of a sea, then surely most of your NPCs can be pirates, sailors, and merchants that are more comfortable on water than they are on land. If you’ve determined why a settlement was founded, such as it being on a plain and always close to abundant hunting, then you can easily introduce groups of NPC hunters and the job of determining what professions those NPCs must have has pretty much been taken care of for you.

Don’t be Afraid of World Building

This is your world, you’re creating it, so don’t be afraid and most importantly don’t let fear or apprehension stop you from using good ideas in your game. I’ve been there, I know that it can seem impossible and incredibly daunting to think about creating a whole living and breathing world from scratch. The reality is that all you need to do is start in one place, like with one settlement, and begin introducing more and more ideas into the world and things will naturally start to fall into place. One of the keys to this style of world building is to take a critical eye to your work and realize when you’ve started to put too many ideas in one place, that’s when you can start saving ideas for later or move on to the next area of your world and see how those ideas fit there. As you move about your world, you will undoubtedly come up with some new idea that just feels right for a place you’ve already designed, and you’re perfectly free to go back and add that in and improve each location as you do so.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.

Comments

  1. Excellent advise! Much to think about. Goes directly to my DM folder :)

    Cheers, Marcus

  2. Michelle says:

    Meteora! Awesome — an amazing place to visit.

    Cities should indeed be memorable. They should also be rich enough in plot hooks that the party spends enough time in them to really get the flavor — at least in the city that the party treats as “home”.

  3. Very nice points, particularly about no such place as a default town. In many ways I would say cities are one of my favorite things to develop as a game designer. It also brings great rewards to the GM as the players explore the workings of the GMs imagination.

  4. Another great article. The point about making the features of a city important in an encounter if you want the players to remember the details of the city is so true, and yet easily overlooked. Not only is there so much information for the players to process anyway, but this is compounded by the fact that campaigns take place over such a long period of time (in the real world), that players just naturally focus on the important details. I’m definitely keeping the bridge example in mind for when my players get to the capitol city for the big fight at the end of Paragon tier. I’ve previously described the city as being on a series of islands on a lake, connected by bridges, but I’m pretty sure they only have a very vague notion of what the city looks like. Making the bridges central to the battle(s) will definitely reinforce the features of the city in their minds.

    Additionally I really like the idea of the thinking about why a town exists in the first place. This is particularly true if the town is located in a particularly inhospitable area. Why is there a town in the middle of the desert? Probably because there’s a key oasis or natural resource supply nearby. This is even more relevant if you present a town or area as something that is often fought over (why continuously fight over a town that has no inherent value)?

  5. @Gargs454 – how true! I was only talking to Jack (my partner in the tornworld.com project) about the importance of PURPOSE in a settlement. Historically if you look at pretty much any village, town or city, it was always settled for a reason; plentiful water, nearby resources, perhaps as an offshoot to a defensive garrison. In fact, my home town of Chester in England was settled by the Romans as a defensive fort against the Welsh!

    Jack and I were actually talking about the purpose of a desert town he has in his Topec region, and why it would be there; in the end the reason we came up with – part watering hole, part local resources – defined a unique monster in the area (form which the resources are harvested), hunting practices, the type of townsfolk found there, and a rare silk that is exported out of the region … suddenly we have the fine “Topecian Silk” from a simple question: why does this town exist?

    I find that when you ask these questions, the very best results come from it.

  6. Fantastic article man!

    Having memorable non-player characters in your city, or having an encounter that utilizes a certain part of the location you are wanting to make memorable (such as the bridge referenced) if definitely definitely definitely key!

    I can say from experience that including things like this can make those “generic fantasy towns” not seem to drab. When running my campaign, I know that I am not the best at overing a memorable description for the towns i have made, but when it comes to the people that inhabit it, I am a pro!
    All of my players overlook the fact that the town hasn’t been fully developed or is lacking in memorable locals, but they remember the npcs they encountered, what they talked about, what they fought over.

    Great stuff man! I will definitely point to this article when people are asking about how to make their game more enjoyable! :)

  7. Uh – sorry for the double posting from TornWorld writers – apparently we both love this article so much that we both post in it at the same time, even when in completely different parts of the city. 0.o So, yeah, look at that, two thumbs up from the TW team within the same 3 minutes of the day.

    Now, excuse me, gotta go stand in a room on my own and go WHOAH

  8. I think this is a big issue in D&D design, particularly as we move forward into new generations and new editions of play. Default Town has existed for 30+ years. Players are only going to get more sick of it as time goes on.

    One of the things I’ve been trying to do recently is set up the introduction of a new location. When I expect the story to turn toward a neighboring city, for example, I try to introduce NPCs and rumors from that place while the PCs are still in their present location, so that the players begin to form an awareness of the new city’s existence before they go there. Any time you can help players have expectations and goals before they even enter a location, you have them engaged from the get go.

  9. Gargs454 says:

    @Darkplane: Excellent idea! This is something I’ve started to do myself. Another thought is to take advantage of modern technology. Campaign wiki’s are a great way to provide information on locations to the players and they can get around the problem of “remembering to tell the players everything”. Additionally, you can add new cities and locales as the game progresses and allow the players to start focusing on and learning about the new cities before they come into play while providing them a resource for remembering the details of the previous cities they’ve visited.

  10. @Gargs: I’m definitely going to do that. I have a wiki, but I haven’t been actively using it to update. That’s fantastic.

  11. This is an entertaining series of articles, kudos. Thought-provoking stuff.

    You’re obviously familiar with Fallcrest, which I’m going to try and spice up for my own players, as I feel reprehensible after forcing that horrible, lifeless town of Winterhaven on my players. They hate it, I hate it, I should raze it to the ground and never mention it again. I really should have done something, *anything*, to make that town more interesting than what was presented, but instead I just ran with generic fantasy town with a wizard’s tower… ho hum.

    I can absolutely improve on my technique when it comes to describing and creating fantasy settlements. I’ll read and re-read this article before my next prep session.

    Thanks!

  12. Excellent post! I specially like this lines “The reality is that all you need to do is start in one place, like with one settlement, and begin introducing more and more ideas into the world and things will naturally start to fall into place.” Thanks man!