How to flesh out a town from a skeleton Part 1
So in the first installment of The Gamemaster’s Tool box, I gave tips on how to take a published module and prepare for running it as a adventure. With this in mind, I am going to begin this installment by choosing a fairly new(ish) product. Tales from the Yawning Portal is produced and published by Wizards of the Coast. I chose this module for several reasons. First and foremost, because I grew up with a lot of the adventures present within its pages. Secondly, because the first adventure offering The Sunless Citadel gives the perfect opportunity to show new Gamemasters how to flesh out a small town off loose bones. With this in mind, let’s jump right in shall we?
The Bare Bones
The Sunless Citadel and many of the adventures within Tales from the Yawning Portal are not really meant to be a in a fixed location. All of the adventure offerings are one shots, easily able to be thrown in to any campaign. As I am currently writing a new campaign world specifically for this series of articles, I took one look at this and said “We have a winner!”. The Sunless Citadel starts us off with the town of Oakhurst. It does not go into much if any detail as to how Oakhurst is set up. We are given the following facts:
- There are around 900 citizens (this by medieval standards is a pretty decent size village: in comparison most of medieval England has fewer than 40 citizens for every square mile, making 900 of them in one spot a decent amount)
- We are given a Village Hall ran by a mayor
- A General Store
- an Inn
I am intentionally being vague as I do not wish to give out too much information that is actually copyright protected. I am still kind of new to the blogging world and do not know where review/fan material rights begin and end with fair use. Okay all legal fears aside let us press on! First we will cover the first rule of Gamemastering!
The world is what YOU make it!
A lot of starting Gamemaster’s get concerned on copying other worlds, or breaking from norms. This should NEVER be a concern, as this is not a real world. It does not have to comply with any rule of science or geography. You want a flat world? Build a flat world! You want a world that is a series of islands floating in the sky…make it islands. There are ZERO rules you have to worry about breaking when creating a world from scratch. Because it is yours and you can do with it as you like. With this in mind, I am going to show you how I broke from normal trends to create my own.
Remember in the first installment when I told you to make a list of NPC’s and important adventure points of interest? Those are the only barriers that you have to consider when building. They directly relate to the adventure you are planning to run. As long as you keep them in your mind while you are creating your adventure, it should fit seamlessly with the town you are going to create.
Initial concept of my Town
So first off, I went into this creation with a few concepts in mind. I am a big fan of Warhammer, the original setting from the mid 1980’s. Not the system itself (although I did like it) but the overall feel of the world. Dark, perilous and rife with visceral danger.
My second concept is taken from an author. Robert E Howard wrote many popular heroes. One of his more popular characters was Solomon Kane. I really like the idea of the flawed judge, jury and executioner, so I know I want to intermix a sort of 18th century inquisition feel to my religion. Remember the town example they give lists one shrine. So I have a rough idea what I want to do with that shrine.
Finally, I toss in the final touch, a hint of Poul Anderson. Poul Anderson kept his elves, dwarves etc very close to their fairy origins. Elves were aloof and unconcerned with the petty affairs of short lived bestial humans. I jot all these factors down on my notebook page or word document. If you cannot tell already, even though I am working on a town, I am also gathering concepts for my world that town will be a part of. By the time I am done, and hopefully you are as well, your concept like mine, will bear little resemblance to Oakhurst. You will be well on your way to your own setting.
Name, Name, What is in a name?
Now the name Oakhurst evokes imagery of a peaceful little town or village. The kind of place you would raise your kids and live in blissful contentment. As a Gamemaster I follow the “Point of Lights” theory. In the Points of Light ideology, every small village, hamlet or town is one small point of light in otherwise dark environment. This does not mean the world is rife with terror and evil. Far from it! It simply means that a vast portion of the world is unexplored by the masses. A peasant often was born, lived and died within the same 5 mile span. Little is known about the area outside the town, and even less that is believed to be true actually is.
So, for my first town I decide to go big. I am changing the name from Oakhurst, to Last Bastion, Sanctuary of Light! A name like that is memorable and virtually sells itself on being an adventure locale. Since I have the term Sanctuary of Light in the title, this gives me an idea about what the central focus of the town will be. Casting about for a good deity name, I use a random name generator (always a handy tool and tons to be found on the internet) and get the name Castiel. I dub him Castiel, Lord of the Purifying Light. So the shrine is now the Cathedral of Light.
So, being my town name conveys a sort of clear image, how does that fit in with the adventure the Sunless Citadel itself? Well from the title of the adventure alone we are given the impression of someplace dark and mysterious. We know from the description the sunless citadel is a series of ruins whose purpose has been lost to time. Not for long!
So since the town name clearly ties to the shrine, I am going to approach the shrine itself first. It is not necessary to build an entire mythos for one little town. It is necessary to make what you have believable however. As your game continues on players will invariably question and explore the world you give them, and yes your pantheon will have to increase with time. But for this first adventure, keep it simple. If we look back to classic adventures, like The Village of Hommlet, starting point for the Temple of Elemental Evil, we see simplicity. There was a druid in town that was the priest of the old faith for the people. The Blacksmith (I always found that ironic) was his second in priestly command. So as you can see, it does not even have to make perfect sense.
Momentary comedic interruption
I have always wondered at why the blacksmith was the druid in training for the Druid in the grove of Hommlet.
My players in high school had the same concern. Here is how I imagined it happened.
(Gary sitting behind the screen reading his flavor text.) “Beaten and bloody you arrive back from the moathouse to the safety of Hommlet. What do you do?”
Player 1: “Uh we look for a healer or someone who can help us!”
Gary: “Well the druid, as you all know, is investigating your claims of corrupting forces on the local wildlife around the moathouse.”
Player 2: “Doesn’t he have like a helper or someone that can do something if he is gone?”
Gary: “Fair question fair question, hmm let me see here” <rolls dice behind screen on BS attempt to make it sound like he is consulting something>
Gary: <mutters something incoherent the players cannot quite hear>
Player 1: “Huh?”
Gary: “Its the town blacksmith, he is a druid in training”
Player 2: <condescending tone> “The Blacksmith…..really?”
Gary: “Yes, his toil with metal and man made tools has made him appreciate the natural state of unworked objects”
Player 2: “Uh-huh”
Gary: “Or there could be no healer”
Players in unison “BLACKSMITH SOUNDS GOOD!”
Back to the Shrine
So, I have my god name, Castiel. Now we need to figure out his domains of influence. This does not need to be hard. We simply need to think of two to three things we want our deity to be the patron of. Pages 10-13 of the Dungeons Master’s Guide give additional information on setting up your pantheon. I am using those guidelines as I set up mine. Since I envision Castiel as being sort of an uber paladin deity, I will choose the domains of Light, and War. So if one of my players decides to make a cleric, choosing spells for them is cake. This also gives me a guideline as to what services will be available at this church. All that is left is for me to put some flesh on the priest there.
Using my fantasy random name generator once again, I come up with Vicar Astinus Jennk. I will make him a 5th level cleric, and without going into huge amounts of detail, choose what spells he has on hand at any one time from the domains of Light and War. As Castiel is a deity of Lawful Neutral intent, I give his cleric the same alignment. I use the rules on page 89-94 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide to flesh him out. In the end this takes all the work out of deciding a personality for my priest. Time to move on. Don’t worry about a hard and fast map, we will be covering that in a later installment.
The Village Hall
The Village Hall for a small town does not have to be a mammoth structure. In fact, it should be nothing more than a longhouse with a big table inside and several chairs. It might have a back room that serves as the mayor’s office, it might also have a crude cell or two for when the local farmer gets to liquored up and needs to cool off. Either way, do not think large governmental building. These are simple folk who toil to survive every day. Things like town meetings are once in awhile affairs. In fact in our quest to keep things simple, I will impart another trick of the trade here. If we look back to our own history, often times the Mayor or Governor wore more than one hat. In Last Bastion my mayor is also going to be the owner of the General Store.
To tie on to this, the Jail is also going to be a side room of the village hall. This side room will host the local constable and a guard shack, and two crude prison cells. So now I go to my handy dandy random name generator. I choose the name Rivin Nusk from the list. This is my new mayor. I roll a D4 treating it as a D2, so a roll of 1-2 equals female, 3-4 equals male. I get a 2, So Rivin Nusk is my female mayor of Last Bastion. Once again I pull out the DMG and use the NPC generation matrix.
My example using the DMG guide: Rivin Nusk is:
- Formal and Wears Clean Clothes
- She is particularly Wise but seems to be suffering from a cold (poor constitution)
- Miss Nusk is an expert rock skipper (may not seem important but its one of those flavor things you can throw in, maybe at a town fair or something if you get creative)
- She enunciates overly clear
- Rivin is honest
- She believes in community and self sacrifice
- She is loyal to a benefactor, patron or employer (I decide to make her a loyal follower of Castiel)
- Enjoys decadent pleasures (I use this to insert a plot device, she was given a good fruit from the tree in the Sunless Citadel once. It cured a childhood ailment but she has craved it ever since)
The Jail and Constable’s Office
Since the jail and the constables office are in the same building, I am going to repeat the process for them. I use good old google to reference citizen to police ratios. I come up with an average of 17 per 10000 citizens. So with only 900 citizens around the area of Last Bastion, I can safely assume about 3-4 would suffice. Realistically 2 would probably be more likely, but I will go with 3 to 4. So 3 level 1 fighters, and one level 3 fighter to oversee them. Why did I choose level 3 for my Constable? Simple really, the adventures if for levels 1-3 so the threat level here has never reached to point to have truly gristled fighters. For the 3 guards I make them lawful neutral personalities, very little flesh. They will be yes sir no sir kind of guards. I assign them 10 hit points each. Every soldier has a short sword and leather armor and a buckler. They also have short bows/
For the Constable I treat him the same way I did the mayor. I use the random name generator and get Tyron. I figure out his background the same way I did Rivin Nusk, but unlike her I give him actual fighting statistics. That is another important tip. YOU DO NOT NEED STAT BLOCKS FOR EVERY NPC! If I could stomp on the floor and say this will be on the test…I would. A lot of starting Gamemasters try to flesh out every NPC. This gets pretty exhausting. You do not need all that. Frankly, if its joe blow nobody, hps, ac, and attack modifiers/weapon damage are about all you need. If you want to give names to all your guards, feel free too, but there is really no need. So with the Mayor and Constable fleshed out, it is time to move on.
In the next installment of the Gamemaster’s Toolbox
I will cover The Blacksmith, The Inn, and the General Store. I will also go over how to handle the incidental citizen. The incidental citizen is the farmer, stable boy, peasant woman or man stopped on the street. Invariably your players will tug at the edges of your sandbox and having a few go to side NPC’s can help maintain your sandbox illusion. See you in two weeks!
Until next time,
Keep rolling them bones!
- Mearls, Mike, and Jeremy Crawford. Dungeon masters guide. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2014.
- Crawford, Jeremy, Michele Carter, Kim Mohan, Bruce R. Cordell, and Gary Gygax. Tales from the yawning portal. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2017.