GM Advice: Settlements

Today I’m going to talk to you GMs about Settlements.

The setting is a crucial part of any D&D campaign. What good are all your plot threads and monsters and stuff if you don’t have a place for things to happen? Too often, GMs use Settlements as the polar opposites of Dungeons, using them for shopping, sleeping, and that’s about it. Players come to see a city as little more than a random assembly of shops. But settlements can be so much more – in fact, you can run an entire adventure within a single city. For that to happen, though, you need to put a little more thought into its creation.

Here are some things to consider in order to build a vibrant settlement – whether it’s a humble one-man cottage in the middle of nowhere, or a bustling metropolis.


Size

The Dungeon Master’s Guide separates settlements by size, and provides some useful guidance as to the kind of services they should offer. If you somehow haven’t discovered it yet, donjon has a randomized medieval demographics generator (along with a whole bunch of other awesome resources) to make your life easier. Most sources suggest having a ratio involving a certain number of large cities per village or town or whatever, though they’re usually based on medieval statistics. I use these randomized tools for a starting line, then fiddle with the numbers or details until I’m pleased.

Every city (around 10,000 people or more) usually has to outsource its labor and resources from nearby towns (between 1000 and 9,000 people), which in turn are supplied by villages (less than 1000 people). That alone should limit the number of huge cities in your kingdom. I usually aim for around 3 truly large cities in any given kingdom, both for the aforementioned practical reasons, but also so that I don’t confuse my players (or fellow lore makers) with too many important names.


Purpose

People build settlements for many reasons. Why did people choose to settle here? Consider your settlement’s geographic placement, and decide what it has to offer.

Is it a breadbasket, gathering food from local farms and shipping it off to different parts of the kingdom? Or is it a foresting town, exporting lumber and feeding its townspeople with game from the woods? Or maybe it’s a metropolitan commercial hub – a huge port city that’s at the intersection of many trade routes. Perhaps it only offers an advantageous strategic location, serving as a well-fortified castle town but not much else.

Keep in mind that many cities and towns change their focus many times during their lifetimes. In the 5e Starter Set adventure Lost Mines of Phandelver, the town of Phandalin was a bustling and busy mining town nearly a century before, but after both the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Hotenow and an invasion of Orcs, the town was all but abandoned. Once the party goes there, the town has been somewhat re-settled, but it’s merely a shadow of its former glory. Consider putting a timeline and history on your settlement, even if it’s not very detailed.


Relationship Status

Figure out if this settlement is on good terms with its neighbors, as well as its position in its governing hierarchy. Is it a sovereign and independent city-state, or is it a part of a vast feudal hierarchy of lords and vassals? Does it lord its authority over its subordinates? Does it display its military might to bully the smaller hamlets nearby? Or is the opposite true? Does it appease a group of bandits who demand monthly payments of grain?

Recognizing any sources of conflict for the settlement will help you build out your campaign, as well as the people that make up your settlement. Once you figure out your initial situation, try and switch things up as time goes on. Perhaps there’s a famine that pushes the nearby orc tribes on a rampage through some nearby settlements, sending refugees into the players’ town. Showing off the effects of distant problems every once in a while will help your players feel like they’re not the only ones making waves in the world.

Keep in mind though, that not every single village in your world needs to be directly threatened – periods of peace and prosperity do exist.


Services

What can the players actually use in this settlement? To the party who has just spent a couple of weeks in the Wastes of Chua Katesh or spent a long night in the nearby Crypt of Noctus, settlements often serve as beacons of civilization where players get to relax, heal up, and spend some well-earned coin.

This is different from the town’s total purpose, though related. Players often come to settlements to replenish their resources – be they supplies, weapons, alchemical components or others. Sometimes they want to upgrade their equipment. Martial characters will usually take a trip to the local smith and look for some bigger or shinier weapons, but make sure you also provide some resources for your spellcasters, too. If the entire party has something to gain by going on a shopping run, then it mitigates the boredom around the tables.

Keep in mind, though, that some resources exist which can’t fit in your backpack. If a player has pull in the Church of Torm and there’s a large temple in a settlement nearby, then that certainly serves as a resource for the party, especially after a nasty run-in with some Knifetooth Goblins. 

Some players will only see value in settlements for the shops and services that they offer, and that can be okay. Sometimes, the party only needs to stop in a half-way travel town for some supplies and then go on their way. But if your party plans on spending a lot of time in or around the same settlement, see if you can surprise your players by adding or removing services every once in a while. Perhaps the shopkeeper’s away on business, or there’s a new visiting bishop in the temple who’s far more powerful than the rest. The reason for this is twofold: it spices things up, keeping your players from getting bored by every routine trip to the store, but more importantly, it reminds the players that they exist in a vibrant and changing world that will not simply bow to their whims. I may build something for this and share it later…


Atmosphere

What do you want the players to feel when they roll into town? Do you want a warm, rustic town full of kindly people? Or are the people miserably toiling away under their tyrannical mayor? Is the kingdom’s capital a shining example of the nation’s strength and prosperity? Or is it riddled with corruption and decaying from within?

Keep this choice at the forefront of your mind when guiding the party through the settlement for the first time. In order to communicate this theme to the party, be sure to use appropriate narration and encounters with the settlement’s inhabitants from the get-go. Have them swarmed by beggars in a starving city, or arrive at a farm village during preparations for a festival. Or an execution. First impressions are everything.

When done well, the memories of these experiences will be linked to the settlement far into the future. Plus, it leads to conversations like this: 

“Which village is Heathwood, again?”

“Um. You guys went there for the Harvest Festival last month.”

“Oh yeah! Quinn got super wasted and woke up in the stables!”

“…I don’t want to talk about that.”

And that’s about it! All that’s left is to set up the personalities that inhabit your town. But building NPCs is a topic for another time.

Anything I missed? Let me know what you think below.

Art Credit: Klaus Pillon

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