Small towns and villages dot the countryside. Each one bears its own story and locals to tell it, from the rebellion settlement to the congregation of acolytes at a temple’s steps. It is from these towns that adventurers often arise, seeking their glory and fortunes in the wider world. More established parties also find themselves passing through or returning to villages, either for shelter or work. Each settlement is unlike the last, and brimming with new faces to meet.
The art of creating small towns and settlements in a campaign’s world is often overlooked in favor of grandiose stories. On top of that, the prospect of crafting each town as distinct from its neighbors can be daunting for even experienced DMs. For this, we have a basic guide on ways to go about generating, populating, and running small towns. Whether they act as your campaign’s entry point or are just a stop along the road, each should be memorable for players while being easy to run on repeated visits.
The purpose of this article is to give you some inspiration and jumping-off points for filling your world map with smaller communities. We will cover several different steps in creating both the town’s layout and its population, with examples from our own campaigns. The purpose is not to give the one, definitive method, but rather to help in managing what can seem like a daunting number of details. We hope it can aid DMs of all experience levels in crafting worlds that feel immersive and alive.
Your small towns will most often begin with designing the town itself. This changes for towns related to or containing important characters, but we will get to that further down. There are a number of ways to construct a village but the focus should always be on making it feel organic and real. Its layout and purpose should make sense. And don’t worry, you don’t need a degree in city planning to make towns that feel real.
A Clear Purpose
One of your first questions when planning a small town should be asking what its purpose is in terms of your world. For a settlement to fit, its design should reflect its environment. Think about the resources that the location gives people and how a town might have grown from that. How does the town sustain itself? A settlement in open plains might favor farming crops and livestock, while a forested area could hunt for food and trade lumber to neighbors. Coastal towns have access to both fishing and trade via docks. Consider the nearby landscape and how that influences construction, as these industries are likely how the town began.
Similarly, towns with access to other settlements can trade easily for what they themselves lack, while secluded areas will need to be self-sustaining. If you have a larger map for your campaign or a good idea of the broader region, consider what else is nearby. Towns on main roads will generally gravitate to trading and will grow rapidly, particularly if they are close to a crossroads. These might have started as a single inn for weary travelers, with market stalls and eventually trade stores opening and expanding into a small town. Lonely towns will conversely need small farms to supplement their primary industry. You should likewise consider threats to the town. Perhaps gnolls stalk the foothills, creating the need for a militia force. These soldiers will need a barracks or central meeting point.
As with all things in Dungeons and Dragons, you should keep the meta-narrative in mind. We will expand on the interactions in the third section, but it should also influence the town’s physical design. If your party is likely to spend some time in the area, throw in the basic amenities and resources they might need. A small town is unlikely to have an enchanter, but a general store or hermit alchemist is not out of the question. Feel free to add in oddities but, most importantly, try to integrate them into the town’s ecosystem. A general store could be importing tools for lumberers or miners. An alchemist may simply live nearby due to local flora. Try to predict what your players might ask about and if you need to improvise one later, they might find what they desire in a neighboring village.
This is much simpler if the town is simply a respite for travel. Most towns along travel roads will have either an inn or bunkhouse and stores might exist to capitalize on adventurers passing through. The detail in a small town can be proportional to how long players will be there. In this case, it can more memorable for players to stay in an inn with a unique name rather than knowing that the town is built around a lumber mill. If they return later you can remind them of what they know and pepper in some additional details. Conversely, you should give particular care to a town that acts as the campaign’s introduction. Start off strong and put as much character and detail into the area as you can. But more on that later.
As in the real world, small towns tend to grow outward from a single point. This will most often come from a business that was established early on before others moved to join them. Examples of this are gold rush mining towns and coastal settlements. These establishments will react in different ways as the towns grow, as mining might dry up while trade ports will only grow richer. One way to plan this is to place the centerpiece and mentally extrapolate what happened to it. Successful businesses will grow larger and require more workers and warehouses, while those that fizzle out might still exist in noticeably older buildings. External companies might have moved in as competition or even abandoned outposts due to low profits. This works especially well for old, deserted mines.
One strength to fantasy towns is that they do not need to build around a standard business. Secluded towns, in particular, might have been born as a temple or wizard’s tower. Or perhaps a group of people sought an area known for its fey and erected their own settlement? Small towns that grew from interesting sources such as these should emphasize their centerpiece. They will tend to be built around or in the shadow of the focal building, which might have grown larger and more prominent over time. It could also have fallen to ruin and neglect. Try to make these details as interesting as possible as players will tend to gravitate toward them. Within the game’s world, just like ours, sights like these make for great tourist traps.
You might also wish to have shared or repeated centerpieces to link towns and make the world feel connected. One example that I use in my own campaign is a franchised chain of inns. An extremely wealthy businessman expanded his ‘Gilded Coffer’ inns all across the country like the fantasy equivalent of a motel chain. The players have encountered two so far, one of which was abandoned due to low profits. Locals had taken control and vandalized it with the new name, ‘The Sodden Coffer’. This serves to give me an easy landmark for towns that are otherwise ordinary. I don’t have to put as much time into creating unique buildings or layouts and can instead focus on the context of the town and its characters.
Rather than buildings or businesses, the town could also be centered around a faction. The simplest example of this is soldiers. Small towns placed near a border or in a region known for monsters may have started as military outposts before civilians joined. This would mean including a barracks and training area, likely walled off from the housing, along with watchtowers and other defenses. A thieves guild or its associates might alternatively be present, using the town’s secluded nature to smuggle contraband and trade between fences. This example will mostly impact the resident characters but could also mean having large warehouses, seemingly without connected storefronts. Centerpiece factions like these might not be immediately clear to players, particularly if they wouldn’t want visitors knowing.
The rest of your small town will most likely surround the centerpiece. In the town’s history, the first settlers would have clustered together around the initial establishment. As more people join, the town expands outwards. This means that the centerpiece will stand as the largest building or business, provided it is not in ruins. Those that surround it will have similarly survived the town’s growth and prospered. This leaves you with a central point of interest with important landmarks clustered together. Smaller, less desirable, or simply more niche storefronts will then spread further outward from that. In terms of housing, keep in mind that many store owners may live above or behind their shop. For other locals, include residential areas away from the main road, with houses denoting their financial state.
Keep in mind that small towns, like cities, are often divided into ‘districts’. The division becomes less obvious as a settlement’s size decreases, but the purpose remains the same. It not only tends to be more realistic but also makes navigation simpler for the party. They shouldn’t need an investigation check to find the town’s only blacksmith.
This layout changes slightly for towns that focus on a particular industry, depending on the industry. Try to plot accordingly. Fishing docks won’t have housing nearby due to the smell and activity at night. Lumber mills and mines will likewise exist just outside of town, with buildings formed around storefronts and taverns rather than the central workplace. Farms require open space, meaning the most expansive and thus most successful farms will actually exist on the town’s border. Inwards from them will be smaller plots. Their town center would likely focus on trade and taverns for those retiring after a long day. Smaller houses might exist near the largest farms for those they employ. The exact formation will vary depending on the town and surrounding terrain, of course.
Even the smallest of towns exist in a larger world and should reflect this. As mentioned above, the town will contain whatever it needs for the specific region and surroundings. Townspeople under threat by monsters, bandits, or other dangers will have erected watchtowers and walls. There may be visible damage from previous attacks, making the village feel more alive and independent from player action. More straightforward examples are things like bridges and watermills for rivers. Your campaign may also involve more substantial influences. If a war is currently raging, the town may have stepped up its defenses or become home to a camp of soldiers. The possibilities are unique to each narrative, but small towns are a great opportunity to show how larger issues affect general life.
If your town exists in an otherwise uninteresting area, I find it best to include one of these details. It need only be small but can go a long way in having the settlement feel less generic and characterless. An example from my own campaign was Bryn, a town that the party passed through while traveling between cities. I had no interesting hooks prepared for it, so I instead gave it a unique layout. A ravine cut the town in half, with a river at the base and an enormous bridge spanning it. The southern half was closer to the main city and therefore held the more luxurious establishments, with the north being farming and residential. Gnolls hunted in packs to the east. They did not threaten Bryn, but did limit their farming space and meant that the hills held no other settlements for trade.
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An equally important step for creating towns small and large is filling them with characters. Just like the town itself, its people should be realistic and fitting, while hopefully being distinct and memorable for players. But this level of detail does not need to apply to everyone. You do not need to be carefully planning every single character in a village. There is an abundance of ways to fill a town with personalities without overflowing on notes, as well as keeping them updated as you go. It’s impossible to cover them all, but I will describe the methods I use.
A Role in the Community
Your small towns will often be born from the idea of a character, community, or town gimmick. Other times, the necessity for a settlement comes first. The characters that fill the town should all have a purpose as clear as the buildings. This is simple for towns that form around a single centerpiece, as you can assign a large number of them as workers, guards, etc. But what about the rest? You don’t want your players walking away and only remembering ‘Farmer #6’ or ‘Guard-Captain’. Consider what you want the townsfolk to accomplish in terms of the adventure and decide how to build them from there.
Handling large crowds and general townsfolk makes fine details almost impossible and, in many ways, a waste of time. There should always be a number of named, distinct personalities, but flooding players with them only dilutes the town and their memory of it. In saying that, a balance should be struck in depth of detail. Think about the different roles that the town requires and divide the people between them. Group these roles together and consider how they might think or react. Think of it like swarms acting as singular creatures. Guards will react differently to the party than miners, and each will have a different schedule. Each group can share similar personalities and opinions within itself and you only need to worry about expanding on it when players specifically approach them.
The clearest purpose of non-player characters is to be a resource for the party. Whether they tend to a store or are a source of information, the townfolk are there to be interacted with. Most of this will mean introducing names and descriptions, but there are times where a player will simply approach “the table of miners in the corner of the tavern”. In this case, each individual face only needs to be a slight variation on the last. I find it easiest to have one member act as the group’s ‘face’ and speaker. The rest might interject to emphasize the group setting, but the interaction becomes decidedly one-on-one. This makes it easier to assign them a single pool of knowledge while not having to juggle voices or different personalities.
A small town’s personality comes through the strongest with its characters. This means that there should always be a handful of them pre-designed with stories and unique traits. These are the characters that you will guide the party towards. It is, however, important to limit the number of these characters in order to maintain their distinction. I prefer making two to five depending on the size and relevance of the town. Naturally, areas with plot significance might have more, whereas a rest stop could only have one. These characters effectively serve as representatives of the townsfolk. Examples of this are Elle, Dina, and Svikar in our Banahogg Swamp Adventure.
These key characters will most often be those that are plot-relevant or the proprietors of major establishments. One detail to focus on is having them reflect the town itself. Think about how the area influences a personality and how different people might grow from it. In my town of Myrrholm, Elle was designed as someone that had migrated to the swamp, faced its hardship, and risen above it. It had made her strong and determined and defined her as a leader. She was the human side. Dina was conversely crass and rough, representing the swamp and the kind of person who integrates with it rather than overcoming it. By having the players meet both and even seeing the two speak to each other, you show a level of detail in the town’s character that simply describing the visuals cannot provide.
There are exceptions to this, such as those in seats of power. Characters with control or influence over the town and region should impose their character on the town rather than the other way around. Instead of having the town change the person, reverse it. Adjust details to reflect the person in charge and their interests. A clear example of this would be a small town built in the shadow of a snooty nobleman’s estate. An aristocrat might order buildings to be constructed in a certain way to give them a nice view, which would then contrast with the people living in them. This example also informs players of the situation by highlighting a conflict between the townsfolk and their ruler.
Planning notes for these kinds of characters should be as simple and streamlined as you can make it. My method involves keeping text documents with lists of characters, separate from each session’s notes. I divide them into each character’s faction, association, or primary hangout. I assign them a name first, as well as a concise description of who they are to prevent confusion between characters. Under that is a brief summary of their visual appearance. I include age, hair, and basic facial structure, before describing their clothing or unique features. Their voice and demeanor are then noted in several keywords and a different font color, for speed of access. Under that, and again in a new color, I record brief notes of the interactions with them and how the character will then act between that moment and the next time the party meets them.
This process will hopefully become easier and easier with the advent of world-building programs. For now, it is simple enough to keep documents in a cloud folder. I find it easiest to divide the text files into regions, with main cities as their own entry. When a character moves, I cut and paste their entry to the new location. This makes it easier for me to remember where characters should be and who the party might run into in each area they travel to. I can also instantly know how to play and voice them without having to think back.
Filling the Crowd
Most small towns will obviously consist of more than five people, and players will interact with characters outside of your crafted list. So how do you prepare for those that are neither key characters or crowds? A common technique that you may have heard before is preparing character templates or unassigned personalities. Similar to the method above, design a basic character, maybe with their own voice and brief history, but without an assigned role. The idea is to have a list of several of them. When your players then ask to approach a specific character, such as the town blacksmith or innkeeper, you simply take one from the list and place them in that role. This means you are prepared without needing to predict or plan every movement, and can even leave you with leftover characters to use later.
As with almost everything in Dungeons and Dragons, you should always be ready to fall back on improvisation. Your notes might not fit, or you might run out, or any number of other obstacles might arise. The most straightforward way of accounting for this is to improvise the same notes you would make for prepared characters. It’s fine to simplify their appearance and just choose a voice or accent that is distinct from the last. Doing this quickly enough will mean your players won’t even notice the shift from prepared to improvisation, and doing it enough will lead to being able to do it more quickly. Don’t stress about creating incredible, unique characters on the fly. Think of a character that fits the role and disguise your brainstorming by describing the location if you need a few extra seconds.
One of the most important steps to remember is to update your notes. Even if a character is improvised, you want to be able to seamlessly return to them should the party come back. Try to jot down notes as you go to avoid forgetting details. Record where you assign the character, any changes you make to them, and key pieces of their interaction that might influence the character in the future. For improvised personalities, write down key details that you can translate into a description after the session. Doing this means that even small towns will feel alive and active outside of player intervention. If the party returns, you can quickly reference back to how you played the character the last time, while keeping their interactions consistent and evolving between meetings.
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Once your town is finished, the time will come for players to interact with it. As we mentioned, the foreseeable context of the interaction should have some bearing on the town’s design. You want to balance it accommodating the party’s presence, while still feeling like it exists outside of their intervention. It existed before they arrived, and will continue after they leave. The relationship between the town, its people, and the party will largely depend on their reason for being there.
Along the Road
Roadside respites are the simplest to run. Small towns situated along roads will generally be accustomed to visitors and travelers. These settlements will most often have a tavern and/or inn, stables, and markets, all ready to cater to adventurers and couriers on long journeys. The people providing these services will be well-versed in dealing with all sorts of faces. This type of town operates as a brief stop between more important locations and therefore should not deviate the party. Having the characters be friendly and accommodating means the encounters can run smoothly and the party won’t feel slowed down. They can stop and talk if they want, but are free to continue on to what the players want to be doing.
Adventure or Encounter
One step up from there are towns that the party will be staying in for some time. Whether they act as a base camp for an adventure or are themselves an encounter, their interaction requires more care. You will want to provide more amenities and resources than a rest stop, such as a blacksmith and equipment stores. You likewise have more freedom in the characters, planning the most prominent and context-relevant and with several backups. As the party has more time for interaction, the characters do not need to be uniformly friendly. Just remember that any hostility should be related to the town’s issue and not hinder the party in a frustrating way. You want them to have more depth and history, allowing them to be investigated and evolve as the adventure continues.
This changes if the town itself is the encounter. The details will vary wildly depending on the encounter’s context, unfortunately. With that said, there are several points to keep in mind. The town should still appear functional and complete from the outside, with stores and landmarks existing, albeit possibly damaged. Characters related to these points of interest will likewise exist. The encounter’s planning should also take into account the town’s design and vice versa. If the settlement is often under attack by gnolls, for instance, they would have defenses against them. What does the town look like post-encounter? Which buildings were most heavily targeted? How are the people reacting, and how do they react to the party? Keep in mind the key characters and groups and try to extrapolate what they would think.
A Starting Point
The most complicated small town is the campaign introduction. This is where you should give the most planning, to put your best foot forward. Be sure to include every resource and store players might need in their first few levels, either in town or nearby. An alchemist or magical store can also be added, to open the possibility for bartering for an item or seeing something that motivates them to return later and purchase. These can be secondary to the primary narrative, or you might wish to double-up by having the characters and locations also hold significance in the introductory story. Doing so helps them feel more integrated and less like a vending machine with a voice. It also allows you to give them greater depth in their history and interactions without bloating the town’s roster of characters.
Using a small town as the campaign’s beginning requires putting effort into the characters. You want your key figures to be distinct, as they will most likely be a part of the story you are telling. They will be motivating the party in their first adventure and helping to catalyze the player characters as a group. Who you choose to fulfill these roles will depend on the introductory story. Consider the situation your party is starting in, what they will be doing in the town, and who would be most likely to deal with adventurers.
The rest of the town’s faces will also need some expansion, but balance is key. You don’t want to flood your players’ brains and notes right off the bat, so start by focusing on those that are plot-relevant. Any others that they encounter within the opening sessions can reveal surface-level details. As your players become familiar with the initial faces, you can slowly show more of the depth in the others. This allows you to pace the introduction of characters, meaning your players don’t feel overwhelmed and are able to better track what they learn. It also frees you from having to write pages and pages of character details and instead allows you to focus on the story and players. The conclusion of the first adventure, especially if it results in helping the town, is a great time for minor characters to show their appreciation and openness.
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Part of having an open sandbox for players to adventure in is the possibility of them returning to previous locations. This might seem like a minor point but it emphasizes the importance of keeping updated notes. While cities are expansive and rarely feel the influence of a few adventurers, small towns can be drastically changed. Keep track of your players’ actions and interactions in the places they visit. They only need to include the major points that would cause a difference for characters or the location, with as much detail as you need so that you can read back later and remember it.
The reason for doing this is two-fold: to make your players feel important, and to make your world feel alive. Having characters remember what the party said or did, even just minor details, gives the impression that the party is impactful. One of the most satisfying feelings as a player is being recognized as having made a difference. It’s a small gesture, but a rewarding one. This can inversely act as a way to show a real consequence for player actions, with townsfolk remembering when a party member slighted them. An example of this is when my party trespassed while investigating a kidnapping. They had acted on very little evidence and made incorrect assumptions. As a result, the owner of the property and the local lord are well aware of who the party is and do not consider them friends.
You likewise want to show progression in the world. People and locations will change between player visits, often depending on the effects of the party’s actions. If you know your players will be returning to a town, give some thought as to how it has developed. It might be repairs after a battle, or extra defenses, or even the village expanding with more buildings. Give the same treatment to characters. Doing this makes your world come across as more organic and moving, rather than having towns freeze like a Weeping Angel every time the party isn’t looking. Use your notes from when the party was there, extrapolating effects over the time they have been away. Try to keep these updates in the back of your mind at all times. After all, you never know when they might return or when a small town might become a player favorite.
That’s it for our tutorial for creating and maintaining small towns in your campaign world. We hope it helped you bring life to your countryside and manage the lists and details of characters. We’d like to continue with similar articles for dealing with cities, factions, and possibly even specific characters. Likewise, we may expand some of our specific town maps with some of the details we’ve talked about. Altogether, our aim is to assist in making even the most inexperienced DMs feel more confident in creating and running their own worlds.
Let us know any feedback you have in a comment. We’d love to hear what you think, or any other methods you use for your own games. And if you have an idea for another tutorial or topic for us to cover, let us know!
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