How to flesh out a town from a skeleton Part 2
Welcome Back Gamemaster!
I would like to thank Shane Davis for the new and improved toolbox logo. Thanks alot, it looks much better than what I came up with. Okay, let’s pick up right where we left off. First off though I owe my readers an apology. Just as some of you are new to being a DM, I am new to being an advice writer and as I was perusing my last piece, I realize I left things a little confusing. So before I go into new concepts let me clear up some past ones. I will be using the terms GM, or Gamemaster, DM or Dungeon Master interchangeably and often. They are one in the same, DM being more of a Dungeons and Dragons term whereas Gamemaster is kind of RPG universal. I apologize if my nomenclature threw anyone off. I specifically referenced using pages 89-94 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide in order to flesh out your NPC’s. But I really did not explain why. So here is why!
The importance of good NPC’s to your game
The charts on page 89-94 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide specifically deal with NPC creation. They are a series of tables the GM can roll upon or just cherry pick from that tell he or she small little details that make role-playing these NPC’s much easier for the Gamemaster. Often times, especially for newer GM’s, NPC’s are an oft-neglected story telling device. You can use NPC’s (Nonplayer characters) to help your players invest in your world. If every NPC they encounter is flat and repetitive, it soon becomes boring and monotonous for folks to play in.
It also makes it hard for you as the fledgling GM. Heck, it makes it hard on old GM’s just to whip up an enjoyable NPC on the spot. The Gamemaster spell of “wingit” only works well if you WRITE DOWN what you make up on the spot. Fail to do so and that fun NPC you made up will lose something the next session when you forget what you did that made them so memorable. Taking 5 minutes to roll on a table and jot down a few notes will give you a fair idea how that NPC will respond to individual situations.
Think about your own life. Your employers, family members or friends may often ask you to do things. Some of these tasks are more odious than others. This entity must give you a compelling reason to take up the task, otherwise, you will say no. Now imagine them asking you to do this task in a flat, uninteresting manner, where it seems like they have no investment in the actual completion. The likelihood you are going to leap at the chance to help them is slim to none.
Story telling device or just another verbal decoration
Taking the time to write out a personality for your NPC’s is almost as important as writing down what monster will be in what room of your dungeon. Gamemasters have many jobs to accomplish. Being a master of the rules is probably the least of those. You are EVERY monster. You are every king, every prince, every wizard, every lowborn thief and every aloof Elven ranger. What keeps players coming back to the table is feeling like each session is a series of small victories. Maybe they are not slaying the dragon this time around, but they did get Walroth, the Blacksmith to come down 20% on his prices if they can clear out the goblins holed up in the local mine and stop forcing him to have to buy ingots from another locale.
This is one aspect of more recent game design that was overlooked in the original iterations of D&D. Sure every DM had the ability to run his adventures however they liked but you can tell from the original module design the idea was that the townsfolk were just improvised and never meant to be of much depth. You just accepted that you had to go into this dungeon because if you did not there would be no adventure. Truth be told, I am glad that way of thinking is gone. There is nothing wrong with tossing in a little acting to flavor things. I want my players to walk away from my table being sad it went so quickly and looking forward to the next session.
By the way Chris, you said we were making up locations but we never made maps or area descriptions!
Ah HAH! You caught me stalling….or did you??? Before I go into the mechanic’s portion (maps, location descriptions, possible loot etc) I like to just get my town persona’s done. Then I go to making my map and let the buildings that I select help to drive my interior descriptions of the buildings. I will be showcasing a different methods for making the town map, which means the buildings I choose might have irregular or odd shapes that would need to be mentioned in the descriptors. So never fear my intrepid readers, we will cover that part as well. For now, we are just getting our cast list prepared.
The General Store
In part 1, Rivin Nusk our town’s mayor also runs the General Store in town. First, we need a good name. Time to use my favorite name generating website. The Silver Spoon Outfitters! I will add in sometimes you have to click the randomizer a few dozen times till you get a name that sticks. So now to get The Silver Spoon Outfitters open for business! Rivin Nusk will spend the majority of her time here when she is not attending to town business. I give her two helpers, as she is the Mayor and might be called away it would be important for her to have someone else in place to run The Silver Spoon. Back to the dice and my fantasy name generator.
My D4 roll gives me another 2, so her first assistant is female. Madalynn Rudges is the name I choose, and Madalynn is helped by Falk Rudges which is her son. I will use the tables on 89-94 to breath some life into Madalynn and her son, but first I am going to take matters into my own hands and say that Madalynn is the sister of Rivin and a widower who lost her husband to the kobolds within the Sunless Citadel. Just like that, we have a connection, a plausible plot hook to the dungeon, and an emotional hook for the players to become invested in. Now let’s see what our table rolls give us to describe Madalynn & Falk.
- Appearance – Unusual skin color, so her skin tone will be more olive in complexion than her sisters, perhaps a distant ancestor in their background from another place.
- Abilities – Madalynn is a strong woman, easily doing the labors the store requires, however she does not always make the best business decisions being a little dense.
- Talent – She is, however, particularly good at solving puzzles, some aspect of her intellect allowing her to overlook details that often confound others to find a solution.
- Mannerisms- She likes to twirl her hair a lot while she is talking, this has given her the reputation of being a flirt.
- Interacts with others – Madalynn is always very honest in her conversations, sometimes more than she should be.
- Ideals – Madalynn likes to remain neutral in most fights, but she will fight to protect life of those around her at all costs
- Bond – She is dedicated to figuring out if her husband is truly dead or a prisoner (She holds out hope for the latter)
- Flaw – Madalynn obsesses over chocolate and will gladly trade store goods for any she can find (even if she has to sneak it around Rivin).
- Appearance – Falk is missing a finger due to an accident with a wagon hitch
- Abilities – He would make a great student very quick learner, but he has trouble engaging people socially (He has a form of Asperger’s syndrome something near and dear to my own heart)
- Talent – Despite his missing finger he is gaining notice for his paintings, something his Aunt Rivin takes great pride in bragging about
- Mannerisms – His mom frequently scolds him for chewing his fingernails, which he does when he is around strangers or upset
- Interacts with others – Falk comes off as arrogant. He is not in the slightest but his Asperger’s makes his matter of fact logic driven statements come off as crass or know it all. He is only trying to make sure people have the right facts, but his mother often apologizes for him.
- Ideals – Tradition, especially following a daily ritual is very important to Falk. If something throws him off his daily duties he can become despondent
- Bond – Falk is extremely protective of his Mother and Aunt
- Flaw – Falk secretly has an apple from the sunless citadel, he keeps it in the icehouse in the back but little does he know it is soon to change into something different
With our personalities for the General Store fleshed out it is time to move on to the Blacksmith. By the way, if you are worried this process is taking forever, the actual mechanics time between rolls has been 23 minutes thus far. A small amount of time to get some power details for your little town.
Back to the name randomizer for some more name creation fun! I choose the name Metal Works from the list but that does not feel like it is enough. Perhaps figuring out the Blacksmiths name will add some flare to it. The Blacksmith name I choose is Hallgrimur Maronsson, so the business will be Maronsson Metal Works. I roll my d4 to see how many staff members might be at the smithy. It comes up 1. I guess Hallgrimur is a solo act. Why did I choose a D4? There is no hard fast rule, so I base my decision making upon what I have seen and know. This is fantasy based on a middle age European concept. A google search shows me historically most small town smithies had 1-3 folks running them. The Blacksmith and an apprentice or two.
In this case, however, Hallgrimmur runs the Metal Works by himself. This time instead of rolling I am going to cherry pick the traits I want my Blacksmith to evoke. Since he works by himself that makes me think he might be a bit of a curmudgeon. By the way, one thing as the Gamemaster you have to get over is, you ARE the adjudicator of rules, which means that you can also choose when to not use them. There is nothing saying you have to roll randomly on the chart to flesh out your NPCs. It just makes it easier to create them for newer GM’s. Once you use the tables a few times, you will probably be able to come up with these things yourself.
- Appearance – Hallgrimmur is missing teeth, and will probably have odious breath
- Abilities – He is brawny (cmon how many weak blacksmiths do you know of) but kind of absent-minded (forgets orders and then argues about how he did not forget)
- Talents – Despite his gruffness last celebration day the town found out Hallgrimmur has the voice of an angel when he sings
- Mannerisms – He speaks loudly due to being hard of hearing from working in a smithy
- Interacts with others – Blustering, Hallgrimmur likes to brag about his works
- Ideals – He is very independent and believes heavily in fairness for all peoples
- Bond – He is secretly smitten with a local villager named (random name generator time) Sisi Sigurhansdottir (I will use that name as one of my incidental citizens)
- Flaw – He was once a member of a bandit group but has long since renounced that life. He would not be happy however if folks found this out, even though he retains his old mask and leather armor from those days
It all looks good now it is time for the Inn!
Ahh, the Inn. The small building that acts as the crossroads between travelers and the townsfolk. The birthplace of many adventures and the pivotal location upon which legends arise. Inns play a key role in any Dungeons and Dragons game. Post adventures, Inns are a place of rest and information gathering. Adventurers often times form parties, take jobs from strangers (sometimes questionable), ply innkeepers and bartenders for information and setup transactions from business contacts. As you can see, the inn, ESPECIALLY in a small town can be crucial to the game.
A small town would have very few businesses, making the inn an integral part of its economic structure. At a minimum an inn would have a keeper, some form of a cook, and one or two additional staff, either for the stables or to wait on customers. Of course, not all inns would follow suit. A very small inn that is really just a converted house might only have a couple of folks to run it. For my town, however, I am going to make sure my inn can accommodate regular travelers.
The Mighty Peanut Inn (My daughter chose this name as it has her nickname in it)
So I will have an innkeeper, Tomas Gowdin, his wife Clarise Gowdin who ensures the kitchen runs like a well-oiled machine, their son Otto Gowdin who handles minor tasks like stables and feeding horses, firewood for the oven and fireplace and fetching fresh water.(I have always had an otto in every game somewhere..it is a Temple of Elemental Evil thing.)
In addition, Nasir Whatley is a “drunk” who comments on town gossip, and Berthana Coswold is the aging cook in the kitchen. It is not necessary to flesh out every detail for minor staff. Nasir likes to drink and gossip so his personality is pretty clear. Berthana may never interact with the players making her role more of window dressing but still it is good to have a name. Older more experienced players love to test for weak spots in your setting. So we will detail out Tomas, Clarise and Otto, as they are the mostly likely to be of interest with the players.
- Appearance – Balding, and slightly overweight. He has a nervous eye twitch (probably brought on by his teenage son)
- Abilities – He tends to be very persuasive about the quality of his rooms, but not the brightest candle on the candelabra
- Talent – He has an almost perfect memory for faces
- Mannerisms – He often will use colorful anecdotes to describe things (Example: “Why that makes about as much sense as a goblin becoming a grand wizard”)
- Interactions with others – He is suspicious but not hostile of most nonhumans
- Ideals – He is a firm believer in community and respect that one earns
- Bonds – Extremely protective of his employees
- Flaws – He is envious of the mayor, has tried to run for mayor himself but never succeeded!
So our innkeeper is a balding, but friendly human, who likes to make interesting cliches, looks sideways at non-humans and while he laments his loss at running for mayor is still very supportive of the town.
- Appearance – She is also a little plump, and she wears her hair in long braids
- Abilities – She is strong as an ox, she is however a little clumsy
- Talent – She was once an actor in a larger town, and still fancies herself the thespian
- Mannerisms – She does however stutter when she gets angry
- Interactions with others – She is very curious to the point of being a little nosey
- Ideals – She believes in charity though it is more for her sense of accomplishment than the act of giving
- Bonds – She is protective of her son
- Flaws – She is very susceptible to compliments being easily swayed by a silver tongue
Clarise is a slightly plump middle aged woman who at one point was part of an acting troupe. At some point Tomas swept her off her feet to this life of provincial tedium, something she never lets up about. She dotes on her son non stop, constantly henpecking him about his hair. A smooth silk tongued bard could get into her confidence rather easily.
- Appearance – He has straw colored hair and his eyes are both green and blue
- Abilities – He is very dextrous but tends to have a poor constitution for colds and ailments
- Talent – He is good at whittling and when not doing stable duties can often be found making little statues of horses
- Mannerisms – He is introverted and keeps to himself a lot but is happy overall
- Interactions with others – He is also curious like his mother but often it is for tales of far off places
- Ideals – He has a live or let live mentality towards things though he really would like a change of pace from the inn
- Bonds – He loves animals of all kinds and is general in trouble with his mother for bringing random strays home
- Flaws – He is deperately in love with Sisi Sigurhansdottir even though she is 6 years older than him
Otto is a 14 year old boy, who is mildly attractive in his way. He is quiet, keeping to himself a lot, but has a great affection for animals great and small. He often will listen intently to adventurers and travelers, specifically to seem more worldly in his knowledge for Sisi.
Supporting cast of NPC’s
So now that we have the central characters the players are most likely to interact with its a simple matter to jot down a few names with one or two facts down. This simply means that should random chance or plot hook require a name we have an NPC name with a few details ready to go. It is unlikely in some cases you will ever reach that far. Most folks who sit down to play D&D are already accepting of the fact that they are going to be diving into some dungeon and the town is more of a utility than a core part of the adventure. Still it never hurts to be ready!
So I usually prepare a side list with something like this
- Sisi Sigurhansdottir – pretty maid about town, wants desperately to leave for the big city
- Vindil Fergissson – Farmer, brown hair, grimy smells like dirt
- Illustrio the colorful – wandering salesman/bard that travels. Has a wonderful singing voice but not all that attractive…manages to weasel free meals out of Clarise. Possible source of adventure information
- Belgar Olaffsson – cantankerous old fart who holds knowledge about the apple and the purpose of the original sunless citadel .. flesh him out more later
Wrapping it all up
Well this concludes part 2 of our town building articles. Join me in two weeks where I will discuss the next phase which is creating a map of your town and the various free internet options as well as one or two commercial options that are available. See you in two weeks and happy gaming!
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.