GM Tips: The Party Walks Into a Settlement
The title of this article may sound like the setup for a joke, but preparing a whole town for the party to encounter on game night is no laughing matter. Somehow, the idea of “worldbuilding” can be less intimidating than “village building.” There are so many things the party could do in a town and it’s impossible to prepare for them all. If you want some tips on cutting down on the game prep for when the party encounters a settlement, check out our guide for Naming NPCs and this one here on Prepping Your Nouns. After spending two years working on Organic Towns, I’m going share some of the best advice I have on making memorable settlements that will feel alive and that your party will love.
Act Zero - In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, Act Zero is everything that happens immediately before the story starts or, in our case, before the heroes ride into town. We don’t need to know that the town was founded 612 years ago when Lady Fenwick forged an unlikely pact with the barbarian hill tribes to fight off the ogre clans camped out at this bridge crossing. Maybe it will come up but probably not. Instead, make sure you know 2-3 important things that have happened in town in the last month or two. Having things happening in town makes it feel like a real place with a life of its own separate from the players. Act Zero events may include the seeds for possible adventure hooks or it might not. Maybe the lord’s daughter is ill. Perhaps a drought is threatening the summer harvest. Or there could be a priest in town that has divided the commoners. Whatever the events are, it’s probably what everyone is talking about in the tavern and, if nothing else, should lend itself to some good roleplaying.
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Evolving Tapestry - Now that you’ve come up with some interesting events in town, the trick is not o let up! Keep ‘em coming. Every few weeks, toss in another development into the town that the players may or may not hear about. These events need not be epic in scale, just so long as they are consequential to the residents of the town. Keeping these events coming every few weeks will further give the players the impression that the town is a truly dynamic place and they’ll be thrilled to go back to see what’s happened next.
Why Should I Care? - If the settlement plays an important part of your world, the party should care about it. How do you make them? That depends on the party. If your players are playing a game of political intrigue, drop some important nobles and a political guild into the settlement. If they want to feel like heroes, add a random encounter as soon as they get to the town where they can protect a resident from a thief, save a child from a runaway cart, or stop a band of bandits from robbing a shop. The players get an easy win and the towns people LOVE them for it. Whatever your players motivation is, use that to make them care about your town.
Verisimilitude - My last tip for running next-level tabletop roleplaying settlements is to think about the ways your settlement is unique and to make sure that uniqueness is fully realized. For instance, is your settlement a owned and run by merchant princes? How would that system of government affect the settlement's marketplace, tax rate, military, and culture? What if the town banished the worship of gods? What if they worshipped a bronze dragon that lived on an island within sight of the city? All of these things can - and should - have a ripple affect that would influence the rest of the settlement and considering what those ripples are and how they might be shown in game will do wonders to increase the verisimilitude of your world. This can be a time consuming process but of all the ways you could spend time preparing your game up front, this is the one that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
What's your best strategy for making great settlements in your campaign? Let me know in the comments below!