Laden with loot and bruises, the D&D party returns to town after a harrowing dungeon crawl in the abandoned mine to the north. They seek buyers for their haul, a capable wizard to identify the magic items they found, and a reward for defeating an unknown supernatural threat. They hope to spend some of that money on warm baths, delicious food and drink, and tools of the trade. What should you consider when designing a city?
When building a town, you need to have these things in order: Social, Political, Economic, Religious, and Military, also known as Dael Kingsmill’s SPERM principle. Once you have those in order, your town will fill itself out. Let’s take a look.
As you might guess, each goes like so:
- Social: What brings people together or sets them apart?
- Political: Who’s in charge? How? Why?
- Economic: What are the main trades, resources, or industries?
- Religious: Who provides spiritual guidance?
- Military: Who’s got a monopoly of “legitimate violence”?
If you’ve seen Dael Kingsmill’s video on the topic, you know I’m talking about the SPERM principle with some liberties. If that’s too immature for you, remember that making things weird is a great way to boost memorability.
Between forays into the dangerous unknown, adventurers usually spend their downtime in settlements, which are also where most adventure hooks await.
They can adventure within the confines of a settlement, as well; a sufficiently big city can be the stage of an entire campaign. Most of my ongoing homebrew campaign revolves around such a city.
Building believable settlements and populating them with interesting NPCs, fun things to do, and intriguing adventure hooks is a great way to keep immersion high.
In this article, we’ll cover what you can do as DM to create awesome settlements of any size!
Starting point: what makes this settlement special
Regardless of a settlement’s size or function in your game, creating one takes some time. You’re doing this for fun, so it has to have something about it that makes you excited to run it and spend your free time working on it. What is it?
It doesn’t need to be something outlandish and fancy like “the city-state of Thzarrangdûl is known for the widespread use of necromancy as a source of cheap labor for the industry,” although that does sound dope (and I’m keeping this idea for later).
Something as prosaic as a secluded logging hamlet whose inhabitants are wary of strangers and don’t do well with outside authority can be a lot of fun to make and run, too.
You can also leverage your real-world knowledge to build very believable towns or focus your efforts on a particular dimension. I’m a beer nerd, and my first campaign started in a brewing town; my single-player adventure module is set entirely in another brewing town. Others, like our editor Phil, prefer political intrigue and found this video useful for that.
Once you know what makes the settlement interesting, you can start working through questions that naturally come up about such a place, like the above SPERM stuff.
Some of these answers can be just enough to enable you to improvise if it comes up, while others should be well fleshed out depending on what sort of adventure hook you want to include. Regardless, there are a few nuts-and-bolts to keep in mind:
- Every settlement needs a source of water. A village can get away with people walking some distance to get it, but a strategic location that might have to withstand a siege needs it readily accessible for larger communities.
- A settlement contains options for downtime activities and opportunities to get into trouble.
- The environment shapes the settlement to a large degree. It’s not like players will give you a hard time over small incongruencies, but tuning the local trades (and, by extension, what sorts of buildings there are in town) to the natural landscape will make everything feel more real and alive.
- Commerce needs roads or something like them. A well-traveled river, a busy port (even a skyport if you have this type of stuff in your world). Perhaps ethereal portals that act like pneumatic tubes flavored however you like.
- The wealthier, the more defended a place is. A bunch of peasants living in thatched hovels amid tiny fields on a speck of urbanization is hardly defended at all. A wealthy city with centers of learning and affluent organizations has tall walls and a military. The peasants might have one surly huntsman who they lean on when something out of the ordinary happens.
As in the condensed bullet points from the beginning: what brings people together or sets them apart?
For instance, the pious folk of St. Orvar’s Rest are either members of Pelor’s church or make their living by providing for the temple built atop the Saint’s Mausoleum and catering to pilgrims.
They welcome strangers but quickly become weary if the visitors aren’t keen on the frequent prayers. At sunrise and sundown, before every meal, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, and in the morning service led by Father Ebben—who many believe is the Saint reincarnated.
Or maybe the settlers in the frontier town of Kallast up north are brought together by a culture of rugged practicality and a “fighters all, soldiers none” mentality. Every capable adult trains with the longbow or quarterstaff, and this gives the free people of Kallast a lot of pride.
Bandits leave them alone, and when another group of settlers (sponsored by a bank) tried to start their own town across the river, they were violently driven back. The north is freemen country; banks’ dogs and bootlickers can f***k off.
A big city marked by gross inequality and riddled with crime is an arrangement most of us are familiar with and can lean into, as well. You can demonstrate inequality with who gets to live and work where, what services are available in what part of town, and so on. It can have a de facto caste system or an outright one, too.
Additionally, consider where people gather and what they do together. The Kallasters have weapons practice at least twice a week to compete with each other and talk in between rounds of sparring, and their taverns are always lively after sundown.
In my town, Llowaya, there’s a range of taverns catering to all manner of clientele, but the Surly Treant is where you go for a good story.
It’s well known as a hub of adventurers, and every week the owner—former adventurer Dvari—holds a story contest where the winner gets his signature drink (Wyrm’s Spit) for free. Dvari even pays for his favorite bards to perform there on a regular schedule.
And finally, make sure to create cool NPCs who can be a topic of conversation or an attraction, of sorts, in a settlement. It’s nice to tie them with the other SPERM dimensions, but they don’t have to be plot drivers or adventure hook dispensers. A mad preacher can simply be mad, after all.
Sometimes just having an interesting interaction with an NPC can be a session highlight. There wasn’t a player in my Llowaya group who wasn’t affected by their visit to the blind seer, Aessun, who told their characters things about themselves after sampling tea she had them make for her.
Politics are inescapable.
Where there’s a conflict of interest, there’s politics. Where there are people, there’re conflicts of interest. It takes different shapes based on scale and a variety of other factors. For our purposes, politics means who’s in charge, how/why, and what they have to deal with.
That’s where a lot of nobility comes in, but also people in city councils and other positions of power. An exceedingly wealthy merchant is also a political actor of consequence, regardless of whether they hold public office or not.
Politics are also tiered. The bigger the settlement, the more layers of politics. Most people in positions of power answer to someone else until it caps at the highest level. These relationships can be explored (and exploited) in a political game.
Suppose you’re mapping out a wealthy town. Buildings directly related to politics are the city hall, the major guild halls, main military/city guard buildings, and churches. A prestigious university also makes the cut if present. For inspiration, consider the districts from Civilization 6; each could be a powerful influence if it’s well-established enough.
As you can see, the SPERM dimensions do not exist in isolation.
Let’s put all of this into practice, shall we?
Example: Necromantic City-State Politics
A consortium of guild representatives governs Thzarrangdûl. There are a total of 200 such representatives elected internally within the guilds, then appointed. How many appointees each guild gets is proportional to their spending on city infrastructure, in relation to each other, for the past term. (Once again, review the mechanics of real-world politics here).
Another factor is whether a guild made any major discovery in technology or arcana and made it freely available to other Thzarrangdûl concerns: this earns a guild more representatives, too.
Thzarrangdûl is divided into districts under the tutelage of various guilds (or groups of smaller guilds). Each district has its own police force and special rules that occasionally supersede city-wide laws, depending on what arrangements were made.
The biggest political player is the guild of necromancers, as they provide the cheap labor upon which most local industry relies.
There are hardly any capable necromancers, and they keep their secrets well; in fact, many guild members are not necromancers but shrewd bureaucrats and bankers who the guild appoints to the consortium as their puppets.
The major sources of tension in Thzarrangdûl:
- Skilled laborers from other guilds push for laws against research by the necromancers into preserving fine skills in their undead to take over their other jobs as they did for grunt work.
- Neighboring lands object to the use of their dead (illegally acquired via smugglers or from recent wars) on religious grounds—threats of holy war.
- Artificers developing constructs to take over necromancer markets, covertly operating with foreign interests.
Looking to challenge your players?
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Thzarrangdûl has a dead-people-powered industrial revolution. Breowburh has its famous breweries. Kallast has logging, hunting, and mining. What does your settlement have?
A clear beating heart for the local economy can make a lot of the settlement’s characterization super easy! It also helps with regional adventure hooks. A problem that threatens a settlement’s livelihood is a problem the locals (or local authorities) are willing to pay handsomely to get fixed.
Also, the economy’s movers, shakers, or challengers are the people more likely to hire adventurers to deal with their personal problems. It can quickly devolve into political territory.
Another thing affected by the settlement’s economy: what options can Player Characters (PCs) spend time and money on? Unless it’s a high-magic world, one’s unlikely to find a magic store in some small rural community. Maybe a hag.
Similarly, training in a particular skill requires an expert, and somewhere big and affluent is where these are more easily found. Again, if you’re feeling generous, you can have a random hermit who was a former adventurer, but I recommend putting these curiosities sparingly.
Religion has always been a major factor in world history. In a world where magic and miracles abound, it’d be even more so.
Temples are the intermediary between regular everyday people and the spiritual, which makes them influential and frequently rich. You’ll not find a village without some representative of religion, even if it’s too poor to have a temple.
There are, of course, many shades of religion. Maybe your tribal goliaths practice a sort of animism, guided by their matriarchs, who have similar political standing to their best warriors.
Or, maybe, your city is a theocracy ruled by interconnected churches who control their districts and work together when necessary for the good of all (Critical Role’s Vasselheim is like this).
Temples have jobs for adventurers, may offer magical healing services, and also work as social hubs. Depending on the settlement, a temple might also perform crucial tasks to keep the settlement going, like making bread and beer. It usually pays off to have at least one well-developed clergy NPC (more on how here).
Finally, religion influences culture and the arts a great deal, and vice versa. The temple to Moradin in a town known for its metalworks is likely the biggest, most popular one. Common phrases can be used to give some color to your NPCs and might be related to the dominant religion, and so on.
I’m an atheist, but growing up in Brazil means I occasionally use god stuff for exclamations. Same applies to the odd wizard who doesn’t give the gods much thought but still swears “by the hammer and the anvil” because he’s lived most of his life in Smithston.
Frighten Your Players
In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.
Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
“Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.
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Some amount of people in a settlement must be the wielders of “legitimate violence”.
We’re lumping law enforcement and the army together here, fully aware that merging the two tends to be disastrous in the real world, just because this is a useful simplification, and that’s usually how it goes in most fantasy.
City guards are usually straight-up soldiers or soldiers-lite with cudgels, nets, and whatnot.
In a place like our Kallast, police can take the form of a voluntary militia that answers to an elected chief. In a tiny village, there may not be a proper institution, but people count on the surly hunter to gather capable people to do what needs doing.
You can always try to come up with an arrangement that’s truer to what you think law enforcement should be if this doesn’t sit right. If this excludes the use of force, then “military” as in the SPERM principle is just the actual military.
The military can be your allies and your enemies. Maybe different factions within it relate to you differently. The military can be a great job-dispenser for adventurers or a possible source of training in skills a PC might want. It’s also easy to make it part of a campaign’s plot.
Military-related buildings are barracks, guard posts, stables, administrative buildings, warehouses, even facilities that produce their equipment (large-scale blacksmith workshops, for instance). These might all be a single compound depending on the settlement’s size.
Key military buildings tend to be in easily defensible positions (like hilltops) and may be cut off from the rest of the city by additional defenses such as wrought iron fences, walls, and moats.
People who run D&D, in my experience, tend to be the same people who obsess with creating fine-tuned histories for things and thinking a lot about The Big Picture. I’m here to liberate you from The Big Picture of history.
The truth is, you need very little history to generate a good time with your players. When creating your settlement, all the history you need is:
- History related to plot hooks you want to deploy.
- History related to PC interests (by all means, check with the players).
- On that note, invite players to make canonical statements about the settlement in their areas of expertise when the opportunity arises. My DMs let me say things about alcoholic beverages and related customs wherever my characters go and have it be true because I’m the resident booze-nerd.
- History that shaped the settlement’s physical landscape.
- Why is that majestic spire broken and charred? Dragons!
- History related to overarching themes of the campaign or plot events.
Ideally, you’ll write all of this as short, info-dense snippets, then you can improvise fine details as needed. Take note of what you come up with during the sessions, incorporate it into your recorded history.
How to Map Out Your Settlement
Short and sweet, folks. Let’s recap types of buildings related to the SPERM principle and some other useful bits and bobs:
- A water source is always a good addition—river, lake, nearby creek.
- Most settlements are surrounded by farms, unless magic solves this. People need to eat.
- City walls need turrets.
- Social hubs can be things like taverns, churches, squares, markets.
- Social divides can be displayed on a map. Shantytowns of tiny houses crowding outside city walls. Poorer neighborhoods downstream (while the rich folk live upstream) if the town is cut by a river. Magic shops and other places where fine goods are sold disproportionately near the richer neighborhoods.
- You don’t have to map out tanneries and butcher shops, but take note that these don’t exist near fancy-people houses.
- Key military buildings tend to be clustered in higher, easier-to-defend positions and might have additional defenses.
- Some of the biggest buildings will be temples and government facilities or the home of the local bigwig in a smaller settlement.
- Evocative names make a place feel alive. In the brewing town of Brewoburh, people call the district north of the Mellow river “the Krausen” because that’s the foam that forms on top of fermenting beer.
If you’re artsy like that and know your way around a map, you may draw your map. The rest of us mortals probably need some sort of tool to simplify the task. My DMs swear by Inkarnate.
I myself am partial to Watabou’s medieval fantasy city generator. Just set your parameters and generate a couple times. You’ll have something you like in minutes, which you can then scribble on elsewhere.
I also like to throw these on roll20 and let the players make their own version of it, scribbling their findings on top of it. It’s fun and makes them feel like explorers, which they are.
Watabou also has a village generator.
As previously stated, adventuring takes place in the city, too.
This means urban encounters. These can be handcrafted to fulfill specific beats and advance the overall plot, but they also work well as a way to make the place feel alive.
Here’s a quick summary of what I mean by “encounter”:
A situation played out in real-time that breaks the narrative flow, presenting PCs with an opportunity to act. Sometimes they’re forced to act by something like an ambush; other times, they’re presented with an intriguing scenario that invites curiosity.
There’s usually a goal with the uncertainty of success and a likelihood of it affecting play that comes after. But not always. Sometimes it’s all an excuse to roleplay and be part of the city.
Here’s a list of things that lend themselves well to urban encounters:
- Conflicts between factions: crime, law enforcement, religious groups, etc.
- Monsters on the loose: here, clever monsters work best, tricksy things that can disguise themselves or blend in with the scenario. They can also be pests, but these are two very different types of encounters.
- On the one hand, phase spiders in the sewers ate up some of the kobolds the city employs for infrastructure maintenance. They try to eat you too if you go there.
- On the other, an oni disguised as a kindly priest who takes care of the downtrodden is having a grand time picking off and eating some of said downtrodden when no one’s looking, then making a show of being sad about their absence later. Especially tasty, tasty orphans.
- Remember that the city is its own type of environment, and a lot of things that thrive in it won’t be in the nearby wilderness. Still, this isn’t an excuse to go crazy and have an arctic monster in your fantasy Baghdad without an in-world explanation, like that they burrowed up from the Underdark. The local geography and ecology are still relevant.
- You can make your own monsters to fit exactly what you have in mind!
- Mysteries: Did you just witness a clandestine meeting of an illegal religion? A dead drop? A creepy thing crawling out of a rich house’s second-story window? Might as well look into it!
- A subcategory of this that’s perfect for urban settings: conspiracies! This also serves as an excuse to get the party a group patron who’s interested in figuring out what’s happening and is overall great to get the plot going.
- Local culture: you can get some damn good roleplay from providing opportunities for the PCs to interface with the settlement’s culture and people. What are the famous spots in the city? Where would the PCs go to mingle with other adventuring types? Get a good drink? Attend a concert or have their fortunes told? You can make fun roleplay encounters out of any of these.
Here are three semi-fleshed-out examples:
Example: Drunkard’s Blood
The PCs are drunk and stumbling home after a pub crawl. A gaggle of vampire spawn lurking nearby takes notice. It’s not often that they’re let out by their master to feed, and some of them have acquired a taste from drunken blood. They descend upon the party.
Example: Dead Drop
This one is from my solo PC adventure, The Yeast Heist Fiasco Getaway:
“A green dragonborn (apprentice wizard, see Volo’s Guide to Monsters) in modest but well-cut clothes hurriedly jams a small packet in a space between two bricks on the wall of a smithy, proceeds to cast a spell on it, and leaves quickly with his head down. He cast Silent Image on the packet to make it look like a brick. The packet contains illicit substances (for details, grab the module)! Roll 1d4 to determine which :
- Powder of Extremes
- Party Juice
- Ghost Mushrooms
- Dream Resin.”
An easy Intelligence (Investigation) Investigation check (DC13) is all it takes to find the dead drop. The drugs work as buffs and can be traded with some characters in the adventure.
Example: Ashen Knight
In the city of Llowaya (much of my homebrew campaign is centered on), a fellow is standing on the bridge, covered in ash, clad in plate armor, and leaning heavily on a greatsword whose tip is firmly jammed on a rock. He’s a human statue posing as a historical hero, Kerdic the Ashen, and if you throw some money into the woven basket next to him, he touches the sword to your shoulders and ordains you an Ashen Knight.
My PCs tried hard to get him to lose composure, but he passed all the saves, and they were so impressed they all gave the guy gold. The bardbarian also gave coppers to all the street kids nearby so they could go get knighted. What a guy!
And that should do it. You are now equipped with the knowledge to easily create interesting settlements of all sizes.
- Every settlement has the following dimensions to it:
- Social, Political, Economic, Religious, Military. The emphasis each gets depends on what you want the settlement to be.
- The social dimension deals with what brings people together or sets them apart and where they gather to do what.
- The political dimension deals with who’s in charge, how/why, and what they do.
- The economic dimension deals with what the settlement’s signature trades are and how it stays afloat.
- The religious dimension is about who people go to for spiritual guidance and what faiths are present.
- The military dimension is about who is allowed to use force—usually directed by the actors of the political dimension—be it to defend the settlement from outside threats or to keep order within.
- Social, Political, Economic, Religious, Military. The emphasis each gets depends on what you want the settlement to be.
- The dimensions are interconnected, naturally. How much crossover there is, is a set of dials you can tweak. You can have an arrangement where the same people or institution represents two dimensions; you can have stronger boundaries between each sphere of influence, and so on.
- Don’t go crazy trying to create expansive histories for everything; let PC interests and the SPERM principle guide you.
- When mapping a settlement, make sure to include buildings related to each letter of the SPERM principle.
- Important actors related to any of a settlement’s dimensions can be formidable allies or terrible foes, as well as potential employers for adventurers.