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.
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