11 Town Design Tips
From Neil Faulkner
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #132
- How Big Is It?
- What Is It Called?
- Where Is It?
- Why Is It Here?
- What Is The Town Like?
- How Has History Shaped The Town?
- Who Lives Here?
- Are There Any Professional Bodies Of Note?
- Are There Any Buildings Of Note?
- Who’s In Charge?
- So, What’s This Street Called, Then?
- Correction To Last Week’s Flying Article
- HackMaster Module Winners
- Announcing A New Book Series: GM MasteryA Collection Of Game Master Help Books
- Figure Case Idea
- Another Good Figure Storage Idea
- What One GM Learned After A Stint As A Player
Towns can loom large in a fantasy roleplaying campaign. PCs might pass through a fair number of them in their wanderings. Many, perhaps most, characters will have been born in or near a town; and NPCs may likewise have a town in their background. Goods are available for purchase in a town that won’t be available in the villages, and it also provides a market for any goods that the PCs might wish to sell. A town is large enough to have a character of its own, but not so large that it can provide a background for a whole campaign, as a city might do.
A town, then, needs a certain amount of detail (just how much depends on its prominence within the game), that will hopefully help to individualise it and turn it into a significant and memorable backdrop for whatever the PCs do within its walls.
Here are some points to consider when building and detailing your towns.
How Big Is It?
As it happens, I don’t think this is a terribly important question. Unless the PCs must, for some reason, conduct a census or measure the boundary walls, you can be quite vague. A population of “several thousand” is sufficient to allow for one or two distinct minority communities (see Tip 7 below), cater to a variety of trades and professions, and provide a diversity of NPCs to interact with.
Medieval towns were generally quite small, though often varied in size. A town of about 10,000 people, with about 90 people per acre (a figure admittedly derived from Roman London) would – if roughly circular in outline – be less than half a mile in diameter. One could walk from any one point within its walls to any other in no more than fifteen minutes at the most, assuming no major obstacles or diversions.
So if the players need to know how long it takes them to get from A to B, and you have no idea, you can get away with rolling a few dice. 2d10 minutes perhaps, or 3d6 (less for a small town, more for a larger one).
What Is It Called?
Obviously, the town needs a name, and ideally the name should reflect something of the town’s character. If the players can identify the meaning of the name, that can help make the town memorable.
The name can reflect the local culture and language (as in the Slavonic grad, the German dorf, the Swiss wil, or the English ham or bury), and such recurrent elements, real or invented, can be used over and over for a number of towns. So Brigfurt might be “Bridgefort”, with nearby “Forest Fort” being Valdfurt, and the coastal fishing port being perhaps Coffurt (from “Cove Fort”).
Names might also reflect past historical events, especially those that led to the founding of the town, prominent economic activities, or the names of powerful local rulers in the past (whose descendants may or may not still be around). Towns founded within the colony of an empire may have names that refer to past emperors or empresses.
A town may have had one or more different names in the past, and obviously old documents, be they treasure maps or wills or whatever, will refer to the town by its old name. [Comment from Johnn: re-read that last paragraph because it’s a great idea for creating story clues, mystery bits, and player handouts.]
Where Is It?
Not “where on the map” (you should already know that), but where in relation to the local terrain. Does the town sit atop a brooding hill or stick out of a broad plain? There are many possibilities here that can make a town unique, this being fantasy after all.
A town might sprawl across a cluster of islands in the middle of a broad river, or march up a steep hillside with its main streets more like stairways. It might entirely encircle a small lake, with a palace or temple on an island, or control access to a narrow mountain pass. On the coast, it might cling to a precipitous headland, or lie nestled in a sandy bay. A town is not just its buildings and people, but part of the scenery.
Why Is It Here?
A town needs a reason for being where it is. Most towns will probably be little more than market centres for local agricultural produce, but there are plenty of other options. Trade on a wider scale is a good reason for a town to develop – where roads and rivers meet, there may well be a town.
- Defence. Frontier towns might spring up out of a need to defend the realm. Towns also need to defend themselves, so will be placed with that consideration in mind. Control of trade routes – whether overland, up or down rivers, or along the coast – is another impetus for a town to evolve.
- Mining. Rich mineral deposits need miners and miners need somewhere to live. Whilst gold and silver might be the first things that spring to mind, there are many others. Iron, tin, copper, and lead all have their markets. Good building stone needs to be quarried and may be exported over a considerable distance. Coal should not be overlooked – burning of it was widespread in the Middle Ages. In a fantasy world, the product mined might be some magical or semi-magical metal, stone, crystal, etc., unique to this one spot.
- Associated industry. If Westbury mines copper, and Eastdorf mines tin, then there’s a fair chance that Centreville will collect the two and make bronze. In other words, the economic activity of a town will be related to that of its neighbours. If the sheep flocks are up in the hills, then the textile factories will probably be down by the river. With a bit of planning, you can create networks of associated industries spreading through a series of towns. This can tell you exactly what is carried by those merchants the PCs are escorting, or lay the foundations of the regional politics that PCs might get sucked into.
- Religion. Manifestations of the gods or other miracles might lead to a town developing in an otherwise unlikely place. Some towns might subsist almost entirely on the pilgrim trade. Towns might exist as the legacy of a long- forgotten crusade, or develop through proximity to a monastic community.
- Spa towns might develop around mineral springs or the like. Expect much rumour, gossip, plotting and intrigue as the rich and powerful congregate to take advantage of the health-giving properties (real or supposed) of the waters. Such towns are most likely to develop in sophisticated, civilised regions.
What Is The Town Like?
A towns has character. In part this derives from its physical structure, which needs to be considered. What are the buildings made of? Are they tall or squat? Made of wood or stone? Are the streets wide and paved, or narrow channels of stinking refuse? Is the town laid out to a plan, or has it developed of its own accord? Not every part of the town need be the same.
What are the defences like – stone walls with many towers or a wooden earthwork with a stockade? Are there any defences at all? Wealth, strategic importance, and the availability of local building material will all contribute to the character of a town. So too will the prevailing economic and political climate. This might be a boom town still growing on a newly opened trade route or slowly decaying as the silver mines run dry. It might be a sleepy, conservative, market town, or the centre of political turmoil. It might be insular, parochial, suspicious of outsiders, or a melting pot of races and cultures.
The character of the town will be reflected in its citizens. Are they optimistic, enjoying the good times and looking forward to even better ones? Or trudging through each day with weary resignation? What is a typical citizen like – friendly, carefree, pious, apathetic, surly, sly or guarded? Obviously, not every citizen will be the same, but most will reflect the town’s character to a greater or lesser extent, and those that don’t will stand out (one way to make an NPC that little bit more notable).
The economic focus of the town will also play its part. The air might reek with the smoke of a thousand forges or hum with the smell of fresh fish. A busy market town might be vibrant with clamour and bustle, or seemingly asleep for eleven months of the year. Some towns appear to be alive, others can feel quite dead.
How Has History Shaped The Town?
Towns aren’t static. They are constantly evolving, some faster than others. History will have left its mark in some way. The fine old mansions around the main square may speak of the days when trade boomed. The temples of the old gods might have been taken over by the priests of the new gods. What used to be the imperial courthouse is now an indoor market. The north end of town looks younger than the rest because it is – the northern invaders burned it down barely a hundred years ago.
And that neatly scrubbed little court is where they massacred the Sons of the Temple. The oak tree was planted there to commemorate their martyrdom. Those pillars in the river, that was the old bridge that went down in the great earthquake. It cracked the west tower of the castle too – look closely and you can see where they patched it up. And if you don’t believe the legend of the Kingswell Worm, take a look in the Serpent Inn – they’ve still got its skull dangling from the ceiling.
Some towns attract more history than others, but the name of any town might be famous – or infamous – for something. It may have played a part on the grand stage of world history, as the site of a crucial battle, the former court of kings, the birthplace of a great religious or artistic movement or intellectual revolution.
One or more of the great names of the game world’s history might be associated with the town. Perhaps it was here that a great church reformer was born, or a king was sheltered in his flight from a lost battle, or an ousted tyrant made his last stand. Perhaps it was here that a great poet composed her masterwork during her twenty years in exile, or an illustrious general lived out his last days. As history turns into legend over time several towns might all make the same claim.
Perhaps of more interest to PCs is the lost artefact, the tracing of which can lead them to the town. The town might be the last known resting place of an enchanted sword, a holy relic, a valuable document, or just a plain simple treasure hoard. Of course, if it’s something famous then the PCs are unlikely to be the first to come looking for it. They might not even know it’s there to be found. Assuming, of course, that it really is there to be found.
Who Lives Here?
The citizens, naturally! In most cases, the majority of these will be local people who may have lived in or around the town for generations. But towns are liable to be ethnically more diverse than the surrounding countryside, offering more opportunities for foreigners to find a niche for themselves. Some of these will be individuals, the only one of their kind, but distinct communities may exist within the town.
- The racial minority. Although the town might be in human territory, there may be a distinct community of elves, dwarves, halflings, or perhaps (if the game world allows it) orcs, trolls, giants or something even more outlandish. Likewise, there may be a human community in an elvish or orcish town.
- The religious minority. Most people in the town will probably follow the same religion, but a distinct minority might worship an alternative god or gods, or worship the same god but in a different way.
- The economic minority. Although of the same ethnic and religious background of the townsfolk, this community is not from the immediate area. They will have arrived, probably quite recently, for some particular purpose, such as working new mines. They might be soldiers billeted on the locals in time of war, or refugees from a war elsewhere in the realm. They have a better chance than other minorities of integrating with the townsfolk over time and finding widespread acceptance.
- The colonial minority. If the town is under the rule of a foreign power, then that power will make its presence felt. Members of a colonial minority will tend to fill the more important civic offices, own the most lucrative businesses, and control law and order. Even if they do a better job than their native predecessors, they will probably remain the focus of resentment. (“What have the Romans done for us?”)
- The transient minority. A town on a busy trade route will see a constant throughput of foreign merchants, some of whom will put down roots in the town. If the town attracts pilgrims, then there will usually be pilgrims present, even if few of them stay for long. A town with a college or academy will have a permanent student population, ever changing yet distinct in its own right. The nomads of the great plain might pass through every spring and autumn with their herds. There might be a distinct community of migrant workers in the region, moving with the seasons in a regular annual pattern.
Adding one or more minority communities to a town can certainly give it some flavour, but some questions need to be answered. Where does the minority live? Scattered about the town, or in their own distinct quarter, perhaps a ghetto? And if the latter, is this architecturally distinct, or otherwise possessing an atmosphere of its own? Is it a slum or the respectable quarter of the town?
How do the native townsfolk get along with the minority? Relations might be quite amicable, but sadly this is often not the case. Racial or religious prejudice might be rife on both sides, or concentrated in just one.
The majority might view the minority with anything from friendly tolerance, tacit acceptance, grudging resentment, or outright hatred. The minority might be trying to maintain its own distinct identity or integrate itself into the community (possibly both at the same time). If the PCs don’t know what the situation is, they might easily put their foot in it by saying the wrong things to the wrong people.
A further point regarding minorities: why are these people here? Their presence might be connected with the history of the town (or conversely, the town’s history implies the presence of a particular minority).
Are There Any Professional Bodies Of Note?
One way of making a town notable is to associate it with a particular professional body. This might be a particular corps of warriors, rangers, or paladins, a distinct guild of sorcerers, thieves, or assassins, or a unique religious community of monks or priests. Even more likely are professional bodies connected with the town’s economic mainstay – miners, quarriers, foresters, fur trappers, bronzesmiths, etc., or perhaps something a little more esoteric, such as pearl divers.
Such bodies might have a reputation (deserved or otherwise) for particular skills, a particular attitude or disposition, or some historical heritage (staging or quelling a rebellion, saving the town from barbarians, earning special royal favour, monopolising a particular trade etc). They can provide a template for NPCs (not necessarily encountered on their home ground), provide background for a PC, or give the town a focus for its identity.
Are There Any Buildings Of Note?
The town might be associated with a particular structure of greater or lesser fame. The castle might have the oldest, tallest, or strongest keep in the entire realm. The temple might be notably grand and/or ancient. If you have developed a distinct professional body for the town (see note above) then they will probably have their headquarters here.
Other possibilities include:
- A college, school or academy.
- A monastery.
- A notorious prison.
- A royal palace, possibly set in a walled park within the town.
- An ancient relic of a bygone age, origin perhaps unknown.
- A monument to a past monarch, conqueror, battle, divine manifestation, etc.
- An aqueduct or viaduct.
- A particularly long, tall, or otherwise notable bridge.
- A subterranean labyrinth, natural or otherwise.
- A blessed or enchanted spring, well, or fountain, which may have very real powers (healing, for example).
- A renowned inn where travellers and adventurers are known to gather (like the Prancing Pony of Bree).
Some of these landmarks may be of major historical importance (“This is the bridge where Emperor Offeldoff was killed in the Great Serf Uprising”), of purely local interest, or representative of nothing more than an opportunity to make potentially useful contacts (hence being, to the PCs, perhaps the most important of all).
Who’s In Charge?
Medieval urban government was complex and quite varied, both from town to town and over the course of time in any one town. If the PCs are merely passing through, or deliberately trying to stay out of urban politics, an unelaborated reference to a “town council” is more than sufficient. If, however, they get the urge to make contact with those in power, some or all of the following might be considered:
- Royal officials. Officers (such as reeves or bailiffs) acting on behalf of the throne, or imperial governors where appropriate, might be the sole people in charge, in which case they may or may not have considerable freedom to draft and enforce laws in the name of the power they represent. On the other hand, they may be forced to share power with other bodies, with whom they might well be at loggerheads.
- Appointed burgesses. Senior officers of the most important guilds in town (probably those concerned with the town’s primary economic activities) and/or members of prominent local families (likewise) are primarily interested in advancing their own interests (and hence those of the town itself) rather than that of a distant ruler. Exactly who gets to appoint these people is open to question – the town might have a charter specifying who can hold office, though it might well be that they appoint themselves! And if they can appoint their own successors, they will probably select someone from their own guild or family.
- Religious bodies. The local church or temple may exert a great deal of influence or none at all. It might be formally represented on the town council, or lurk behind the scenes. The general piety or religious fervour of the townsfolk might indicate how much power the priesthood wields in government as does the general tendency of the religion to take a hand in worldly matters.
- The nobility. Noble families might exert some measure of power, perhaps a lot, either in their own interests or on behalf of the crown. This might be directly through the titles they hold, or indirectly through other assets. This might depend on whether tradition allows nobles to sully their hands with industry.
- Peoples’ representatives. Some or all of the townsfolk might be permitted to elect one or more of their own to represent them. The whole town council might be elected in this way. Distinct minority communities may or may not be represented.
- Military commanders. If the town is in an unstable border region, or prone to revolt, military leaders might wield some measure of power. If they have total power, the town is effectively under martial law.
- The nature of civic government might well have an impact on the character of the town and the attitude of the populace. Foreign governors tend to be unpopular, though they might be welcomed as saviours from the nepotist tyranny of the guildmasters or the stifling fundamentalism of the church. Conflict between rival factions tends to generate freedom, whilst a single person or body monopolising power has more opportunity, given the means, to impose a firm grip.
Basically, there are many possibilities, and the wider political landscape beyond the town should be considered if more than a rudimentary outline of government is needed. (For details on the real world complexities of medieval administration, try taking a look at: The Structure of Borough Government )
So, What’s This Street Called, Then?
One potential headache for the GM when the PCs are strolling around town is thinking up names for the streets. Unless you’ve got a map drawn up ready, you’re going to have to improvise. Fortunately this isn’t too difficult.
‘Street’, ‘Lane’, ‘Way’, ‘Walk’ and ‘Alley’ are reliable standbys, as is ‘Hill’ if the immediate terrain allows. ‘Wharf’ and ‘Quay’ have some potential in ports. ‘Crescent’, ‘Avenue’, ‘Boulevard’ and the like are probably too modern for a standard fantasy game, though I haven’t researched this.
Your street/lane/way/hill can be named after:
- A particular trade or profession (Butchers Lane, Bakers Street).
- A notable building that the street leads to, or used to lead to (Castle Hill, Temple Way, Oldgate Lane).
- A minority community that lives along it, or used to (Dwarf Alley, Poets Walk, Garrison Wharf).
- A celebrated historical personage, especially one associated with the town. This might be one of the more illustrious rulers of the past, a legendary hero, or just about anyone.
- A particular landmark or other distinguishing feature, not necessarily still there (Flaxfield Street, Blackcobble Hill, Greenoak Lane).
As ever with names, they can change over time, and their ancestry becomes obscure or ambiguous. Wives Lane may have started out as Weavers Lane, Wolfpack Street might once have been the more prosaic Woolpack Street (despite the local legend that says otherwise), whilst Fairy Bridge might refer to the time before there was a bridge and the river had to be crossed by ferry.
If you are using foreign languages to add flavour to the town then such puns are difficult to substantiate (unless you can pun in a language other than your own). Resorting to foreign language dictionaries in the course of play is liable to disrupt the flow, so it’s probably better to assume that you’re giving the players translations. However, ‘Calle de Carniceros’ does have a sense of atmosphere that ‘Butchers Street’ lacks.
According to the general flavour of the town, you might go for French (rue), German (Strasse), Russian (ulitsa) or some other language (which, for non- English speaking gamers might well be English, of course).
Many street names are sufficiently generic to be used in more than one town. All of the towns in a region might have their own Empire Street, for example.
Towns, like NPCs, need only be as detailed as the plot demands. If the PCs are passing through several towns a day on a long overland journey, you won’t want to give copious details about every one of them (and they probably wouldn’t thank you if you did). A brief description of generalities is sufficient. If, however, the PCs have reason to visit a particular town, or find something to do in a town you haven’t even given a name yet, then more detail is needed.
Fleshing out a town can provide scenario hooks, offer the PCs a chance to make contacts that might prove useful in the future, or simply offer the players a bit of background detail. Hopefully the list above will prove useful either in the pre-game planning stage or inventing a town on the fly.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Correction To Last Week’s Flying Article
Last week I credited a new article about Flying And D&D to the wrong person. The true author of the work is Simon Woodside. My apologies Simon.
HackMaster Module Winners
The winners of the HackMaster module have been selected and contacted. Congratulations to the following:
Ed W, Miguel V, Gareth H, Arjen L, Mark M, Jim B, Michael B, Leif A, Michael M, Dave F, Adam F, Jamie S, Jay N, Jens P, Kyre R, Andres R, Kate M, Dave N, Chris S, [email protected]…com
Stay tuned for another Kenzer & Co. HackMaster contest in next week’s issue.
RedMist Castle — Online Roleplaying Campaigns
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[Comment from Johnn: Wow, what a beautiful site! Be sure to click the “Visit the website for more information ->” link at the bottom of the entry page. If only my campaign web site was this cool. A highly recommended visit!]
Announcing A New Book Series: GM Mastery
A Collection Of Game Master Help Books
Our first book: NPC Essentials is a collection of tips, techniques, and aids designed to help game masters inject detailed NPCs into any role-playing campaign. Inside, readers will find advice on designing, role-playing, and managing NPCs during the entire lifetime of their campaigns. Also included are NPC archetypes, charts, and an example NPC-centric adventure. Written by that hack writer Johnn Four. Release date is August 8.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Figure Case Idea
From Kevin M.
I realize that it’s about two years too late, but I thought I would go ahead & respond to your request in issue #19 (Never Forget Your Dice Again) for a safe way to transport painted mini’s within your plastic tote.
I was at a sporting goods store recently and they had Doskocil Single Pistol cases for $5. These cases are constructed of a hard plastic case filled with “egg crate foam”. For this price you get a case that will hold about 15-20 mini’s (more or less depending on their size, of course). Since the foam interlocks the mini can NOT move once the case is closed.
Case dimensions: Outer Dim. 12? x 8.62? x 2.62?,
Inner Dim. 11.25? x 7.25? x 2.25?
They are available online as well. There are companies other than Doskocil, some cheaper, some not.
Another Good Figure Storage Idea
From Jeffrey J.
I just finished perusing the latest issue (#131) and was reading Sakura’s tips on figurine storage. I have another approach to storage that I think many people may have overlooked. I take the empty clear boxes that you get new dice sets in and use them for storage for my miniatures.
I have found that all but the largest miniatures will fit in these boxes with no problems, and I simply wrap them in bubble wrap prior to slipping them into the box. I then pack the little boxes into a larger one, with the uniform size making it much easier to pack them securely, and head out to wherever I need to go with them.
What One GM Learned After A Stint As A Player
From Dave G.
One of the greatest lessons I learned about GMing came at a time when I was playing instead of running the game. When I got started in the hobby I was the first one to own the books, and for most of my early gaming career, I was always the one running the games. The few exceptions didn’t really give me a chance for character development or progression. So I groomed a replacement and switched sides of the screen for a while.
Once I got to play I started thinking about what it was that I wanted from the game as a player. This was a fundamental shift in my thinking that changed the way I run games as a GM. By listening to the things I responded most to, and those things that excited the other players, I got a much better sense of how to put adventures and campaigns together.
When I started GMing again, the first thing I changed was to talk less and listen more. The characters (players) can give you a lot of fuel for ideas and the things they want to see in a game. In my current campaign, there are almost entire sessions of great role-playing between players, where I just sit back, take notes, and give them my best devilish grin. This is the kind of role-playing that GMs dream about.
The second thing I changed was my thinking about rewards for the characters. Money is not necessarily the ideal motivator. In order to do this, I needed (through role- playing) to find out what the characters wanted out of their careers and then find ways of giving them the opportunity to go after those goals.
This was another key. Don’t necessarily give the players what they want for their characters, rather, give them ways to work for the goals and dreams. It’s much more realistic and it makes the ‘getting’ at least as important as the ‘having’
It’s easy for some GMs to lose sight of the characters within the twists and turns of the plot, but keeping them in mind while the plot is under construction makes the game more satisfying for everyone.