Rattling Around Town

One of the most fascinating parts of gaming for me is the places that players call home. I’m always drawn to the cities, towns, and villages that populate our game worlds. Some of these cities are famous in their own right – just look at how Waterdeep has taken on central importance in the Forgotten Realms of modern D&D.

The Keep on the Borderlands – probably the first module for many of us old-timers – was also probably the first settlement we interacted with. It was exceedingly small but there were these little apartments in the keep, occupied by various inhabitants of the outer bailey – but also by visitors such as a jewel merchant and a priest. The “Trader” was also an vaguely-defined general store for adventuring supplies. There was even a loan bank.

The keep was supposed to function as a full-service settlement in a tiny space.

But the keep was also quite static. It was clear from the Common Warehouse and other clues that, despite its location on the edge of civilization, the keep did see trade pass through it.

But much like the dungeons of old that sat still until players kicked the hornet’s nest – so too did most of the settlements remain static. And player characters would often pour vast sums of wealth into those settlements. Many of these places would have the potential to become quite prosperous (or collapse under the strain).

Back to the KotB. When I ran the Keep, I had the place become quite active. I had those two apartments occupied by the Jeweler and the Priest exist in flux – with visitors to the Keep moving in and moving out. Players could meet with these various NPCs to find new ways to offload their treasure (or find a new quest) while also learning more about the world outside the keep. I had the owner of the loan bank run off and leave her decrepit uncle in charge – changing the whole dynamic of dealing with the bank. Small changes that gave the keep a little bit more life and also created a convenient excuse why much of the local treasure wandered away from the keep instead of staying in it.

But this led me to thinking about the life of settlements in game. There are a lot of rule sets out there for domain building, holdings, organizations, etc. They are largely built and themed around the idea of players taking on those responsibilities.

What I haven’t seen much of is rules for the passive growth and change of settlements that players interact with heavily but that they don’t actually want to be in charge of.  I know that many of the important changes can be accomplished via role playing. If the miller dies, then in a few sessions, someone else is in charge of the mill. But the mill still keeps turning and the town stays the same.

I’m thinking more about players spending a few weeks out in the wilderness and coming home to fresh construction on the edge of town… Or merchant stalls set up along the roads, or even more presence from the local rulers. Because this place has started to be important.

In many campaigns this would amount to little more than background noise and maybe its not important enough to demand resources to be expended on it… In most modern D&D style games, your player character levels up so fast that the settlement is way less important.

But in games where significant time passes, where players adopt a true “home base” or even a regular route, it could make a lot of difference to see your community grow and change around you – even if you aren’t the local lord making it happen.

Anyone else have experience with this? Know of any good “passive” domain style rules? I’d love to hear about it/them.

As always, thanks for reading.


One thought on “Rattling Around Town

  1. David West

    Dungeon World has some mechanics regarding settlement evolution that should be helpful to you. This chapter is system agnostic enough to be useful in any game ruleset.


    Basically, it streamlines every settlement down to a series of tags describing it’s population, defenses, prosperity, resources, and any other interesting feature (like guilds, holy sites, etc). But what makes it really interesting is that settlements can have tags pointing at other settlements, like “oath”- showing how warriors might have to muster to join their Lord’s army, “enmity” -showing an ongoing feud, or “need” -showing how the settlement is dependent on trade from another that has that resource. These tags are useful prompts in creativity, inspiring creation of NPCs and setting content on the fly. DW encourages the GM to ask the players for details too, so everyone gets to participate in worldbuilding.

    These rules include a relatively straightforward framework for how and when these tags should be updated, which should be done either between sessions (after something dramatic has changed, like when monsters destroyed a nearby fishing village, etc), or when the PCs spend time relaxing there after an adventure (and thus may have new perspective). Maybe your town suffered a loss of it’s mine, and now the local Lord is stationing troops there to guard the frontier against further invasion? This barebones approach is great, because it gives the GM and players plenty of room to explore what these changes will mean for the campaign world they are revealing through play. Maybe the added troops are getting bored and harassing a favorite local NPC? Maybe the local workers that used to work at the now conquered mine resettle their families in a nearby town, leading to some strife there, like begging, crime, or xenophobia.

    In my experience, the more detailed a setting is at the start, the more static it will appear to everyone. It can be especially hard to run a game in a well established world because maintaining continuity might force you to litigate every single detail, even if just with yourself.



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