Updated: Dec 12, 2022
One of the most overlooked aspects of city and town creation in TTRPGs are imports and exports. Most people ignore this aspect of cities or towns because it seems like more scope than is needed for casual adventuring, but honestly what a city or town imports or exports could have a huge impact on whether or not a character could sell an item that they've found in their last treasure cache. It could also have an effect on what they could sell the item for. Here's why you should always think about imports and exports, even for a throwaway adventure.
First off, I want to say that we made a pretty nifty town generator you can use on our site for free that lists the major import and export for each town in its description. You can find that here. If you use a generator like ours, that takes away half the battle. However, what do you do with that information? Well, let's say that Lilyrock is the town in question and its main import is coffee and main export is oil. That probably wouldn't have too much of an effect on what or for how much the players could sell their wares, but if the next town's main import was tanned leather and export was dye pigments - the players would be able to find lots of dyes for sale on the streets, and they'd be able to sell leather armor for likely a higher price than they would in the first town.
Knowing what your town or city has for exports and imports really can give life to the place and also opportunities for adventure. Maybe the heroes have to secure a shipment of coffee and spices on the way to Lilyrock after hearing reports of bandits on the road. Sure, you can just have a generic "guard the caravan" quest but guarding an actual investment of the town or city gives the players investment in the world in which their characters reside. On the surface it's all just flavor but we want our campaign worlds to be dripping with flavor to make it more immersive and believable.
If you don't want to use a generator, just make sure what you pick for imports and exports matches up with where the city or town is and what kind of agriculture it has. Lilyrock is along a vast river near a prairie, so you could easily change its main export to fish. And if it's on a prairie, wood might be scarce so that could be one of its main imports. There's really no "wrong" answer as long as you create a plausible scenario for your players.
Hopefully this post gets your noggins churning about how you should structure your imports and exports in your towns and cities. There are so many narrative opportunities just from knowing them that they shouldn't be ignored. Do you use imports and exports in your own game? If so, how has it impacted your campaigns or adventures? Let us know in the comments below! - Joe