Creating smaller towns that have unique characteristics can be difficult but they can add so much to your game. Come check out one approach to creating unique towns in TTRP CORNER.
Often, I think smaller towns in games are overlooked. Games go from big city to big city and rarely pay attention to the smaller things. I think that many people don’t think the time it takes to create these smaller locations is worth it. And to be honest, it is more fun to create plot points and encounters then small town A in the desert. However, I think if done well it can add a new sense of immersion and provide some insights on the overall plot points.
I had a game master once who didn’t like the concept of fast travel. He wanted to map out every single hour of every day. During travel time, it would look something like this.
GM: “During the first two hours of travel, what do you want to do.”
Me: “I would like to walk, keeping an eye out for trouble.”
GM: “You travel through the hills, seeing an assortment of wildlife. For the next two hours, what do you want to do.”
Me: “I would like to walk, keeping an eye out for trouble.”
GM: “You encounter a small town. Four buildings, a nice lady comes out of a place called the Monkey Inn.”
Me: “I would like to talk to the lady and ask for rumors.”
Ten minutes of RP Later, the innkeeper doesn’t have any information.
Me: slightly annoyed, “I would like to move on.”
GM: “Great, what would you like to do for the next two hours.”
Now imagine that, but with four other players contributing to the conversation.
There is a balance between trying to show that the world is fleshed out without making it a huge waste of time. This is a tough balance, it is going to be better for a lot of people simply to skip out many of these details for the sake of narrative arc. However, there are some cool things you can do when you present a town with a different pace of life.
IMPORT AND EXPORT
I think the best way to handle small towns is to figure out how most people make their income. Perhaps most people here are hunters and tanners, they make their money by selling leathers to the bigger city to pay their taxes. Perhaps most people here are fishermen and provide seafood to the community. Maybe this town is known for its schooling, and people here come to learn a specific craft from a specific person. Importing and exporting goods allows you to connect the town to the larger kingdom and see where wealth exchanges hands.
Your environment is going to dictate what labor the town has. I once played a game where there was a town set near a large lake but most people were working in a quarry. To me as a player, I began to look around trying to figure out where the quarry was and when I couldn’t easily find it I thought there was something wrong. Little did I know, it was just simply an oversight by the GM. He described a place and didn’t think about how the environment would affect the town. Something that used the lake would have made more sense and plot lines can arise based on disputes or problems in the water. For this town, the lake would have been a necessary commodity and you can create a plot line that jeopardizes the lake for the party to explore.
Once you know what these small towns are doing for work, you can begin to incorporate information. People react differently in a town of 20 people as opposed to a city with tens of thousands. They are unaware of the politics but are more in tune with the problems on their front door. This gives the GM a chance to show the consequences of the plot. If you have a demon army invading; you can show the players how the fishing towns are reacting to this. The King has been overthrown? Show us how these people are reacting when they are far away from the kingdom capital.
For this, I would first figure out who is in charge. Even a small town has people they look up to. This could be a mayor, an employer, or just a guy that people seem to respect. You can lay out clues by showing where the crowd is going too and overhearing what people are talking about. These popular people are going to have opinions. They are going to act like big fish in a small pond in contrast to the party that has a different perception of the world. They are centered around doing their job, putting food on the table, and hoping that disaster isn’t around the corner.
PRESENTING THIS INFORMATION
Like my horror story, you need to find the balance of introducing a small town without feeling like it is a waste of time. The best way to use a small town resource is if 1) the game needs a change of pace from the usual status quo, 2) the campaign plot leads you to a small town, or 3) the players want to go this way. I struggle with this quite a bit, I tend to lead a very open world and always have these places of interest. At the beginning of my time as a game master, no one really noticed or cared about the small towns. They only entered the city to find a job board/quest and then move on.
So when you present a small town, here is my advice.
- Find a hook. What is something that is unique to the town that catches your players attention. The easiest answer is usually to have a threat invading the city but this is an overused trope. I tend to emphasize a building or location that sticks out. Perhaps the church has two different types of stone or the smell of the tavern doesn’t seem reminiscent of cuisine in the area. This adds immersion for the players but also signifies that there is something here.
- Introduce an outcast NPC. Find someone here that doesn’t fit the mold and use this character to shine a light on what life is like on the town. Perhaps you are in a religious town that serves the god/goddess of the harvest and then you have one kid who ignores that and is trying to create an irrigation system. He acts as a foil to emphasize the culture of the town itself.
- Make sure there is something to do here. If a party has interest in the city and it doesn’t progress the plot, sub-plot, or character story arcs then there is really no point in wasting game time exploring the town. This could be as simple as a courier delivering a letter or perhaps you can hear a relevant rumor. Make the time spent here worth something even if it is just a little.
Introducing these smaller cities can help deepen your players’ understanding of the world. With a few easy steps, you can easily create a small town with only a minimal amount of prep. Whether you use this or not, the import and export ideas can easily help you design your larger metropolis, a guild, or other subculture within a city.