World Building 101 - We Built This City

Eventually, every adventuring group will want or need to spend some time in environs more civilized than the wilderness or dungeons that are their bread and butter. From the smallest of hamlets to the largest of bustling capitals, your players will appreciate towns and cities with a bit more personality than a generic, nameless place that exists only to give them a place to shop and bunk down for the night.

There are a number of facets to consider when you design your settlements. One of the first you should consider is the reason the original inhabitants chose to settle that location. Towns are rarely built for no reason. It might have formed around a crossroads on a trade route, or a river landing. Perhaps it grew from a small fishing village into a major harbour, or from a mining town into an important fortification. More fantastic possibilities exist as well, such as wellsprings of magical power or the fiat of deities determining the location of a town. Knowing where the town was built, and why, can assist in visualizing the place and answering other questions.

Another thing to think about is how the town defends itself. The basic assumption of most settings is that the cities and towns are, if not completely safe, at least safer than camping out in the wilderness. How do the citizens keep safe from the various dangers of the wild lands? They may rely on mundane methods of defence such as city walls, from wooden stockades to thick stone walls. Perhaps they reside on an island, cut off from the mainland. More fantastic defences are possible as well—floating cities, or cities built on treetops, or within the center of a labyrinth carved out of a mountain, navigable only with the aid of a guide.

The amenities the town or city has to offer are important as well, of course. An inn or alehouse is generally a key location for adventures, and should be given full attention. The local places of worship—temples or churches—should also be considered, especially if they are the source of ritual magics to cure diseases or raise dead adventurers to life. Shops or forges may round out the immediate player character needs, especially in a roleplay-light campaign, but should not represent the entirety of the consideration you give to the town’s facilities. Local sages or experts, gambling houses, trading concerns, wealthy citizens who may act as patrons, and internal threats should also be considered.

Points of interest can add a lot to a town, as well. Perhaps there is a local haunted house, or a magical site of great power to visit. Local shrines to powerful beings or spirits could also make interesting places to visit, or possible adventure hooks. They also do a lot to give the town or city a more defined personality, to make it feel like more than just a dot on the map. In some cases, the point of interest may be the entire reason the city exists—whether or not the inhabitants know the original purpose, an ancient abandoned city built into the side of a cliff may be a tempting place to settle to be safe from wild beasts, even if the mysterious labyrinth deeper in the rock lead to chambers of unknown purpose where echoes of the original builders still sound endlessly.

The citizens of the town are of course essential to bringing it to life. Detailing some of the important townsfolk, both within the town’s hierarchy and those that the adventurers are likely to interact with directly in their daily business, can give you room to insert adventure hooks or potential interesting interactions. Nobles, sages, religious leaders, and local militia captains may be out of reach for beginning adventurers in the big city, but in smaller frontier towns they are likely to be the best paying source of employment for the kinds of work adventurers do best. Other key characters include innkeepers, shop owners, and anyone likely to come to the attention of your players, such as rival adventurers or instigators and agitators for whatever factions may be hoping to cause trouble in town.

A final point to consider is what threats are faced by the settlement. External threats are likely to be obvious. Bandits, marauding beasts, encroaching armies or dark powers stirring in nearby ruins are all likely points for your players to explore. Less evident but no less important are internal threats, from within the settlement itself. Smugglers, kidnappers, or cultists, or anyone else who may be trying to bring the settlement down from within, either intentionally or with the mistaken belief that they are helping. Don’t automatically assume that such characters will immediately confront the player characters in a combat situation, either—while this can be fun, it can also be entertaining to let the players meet several potential suspects and let them work out which one is the real troublemaker.

How much time and effort you spend on designing your cities and towns depends entirely on your personal preference, and the needs of your campaign. Don’t be discouraged if you spend time developing a town and your players never see half of the ideas you put into a town, either. In the worst case scenario, you will have a better idea for next time how much time to put into developing towns for that player group, at the very least. In the best case, you may be able to move the ideas or reuse them at a later point. Regardless, the effort of preparation can definitely make the difference between a cardboard-cutout city and one that feels more exciting and interesting to spend time in.

Comments (5)

T-mac (June 3rd, 2010)

Reminds me of a song… We built this city on rock and roll…

Grendelwulf (June 3rd, 2010)

I appreciate the timeliness of your post. It is quite useful to me for keeping my focus as I am currently building a city for use in my campaigns.

Dale Norman (June 3rd, 2010)

T-mac, I was singing that song before I read past the title, lol.

Brandan Landgraff (June 3rd, 2010)

Song reference intentional :)

David Devine (June 4th, 2010)

In AD&D 2nd ED.’s “Forgotten Realms: Adventures” they have a nice series of city descriptions, 2 pages per, including a small map and key. The areas they cover:

Who Rules:
Who Really Rules:
Population: (total, and various races)
Major Products:
Armed Forces: (level and gear)
Notable Mages:
Notable Churches:
Notable Rogues’ and Thieves’ Guilds:
Equipment Shops:
Adventurers’ Quarters: (inns and such)
Important Characters:
Important Features in Town:
Local Lore:

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