Towns, cities, and villages all appear heavily in Dungeons and Dragons adventures, but have you ever really stopped to think about why? We use them in our games frequently, but without properly thinking about them they can feel flat, uninviting, and lifeless. Let’s talk about how to make your DnD towns feel alive.
Why DnD Towns Exist
Towns themselves serve a lot of purposes. They have mechanical purposes like providing players shops, rest spots, and locations to pick up quests. They have roleplay purposes as they are populated by NPCs and likely a handful of noteworthy characters. Towns even serve a meta purpose in that getting to a town is a great place to wrap up a session.
With all of these game features centered around towns, it can be hard to take a step back and think about why towns exist in game.
Without the adventurers or the main story, without the world being on the brink of chaos, and without mysterious dungeons being unearthed nearby, towns are simply where people live their lives.
There are butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. There are farmers going about their day and families busy making up their houses.
So often as DMs we look at building things mechanically and functionally. Towns are often built for the purposes of the game and we can easily forget that the town doesn’t exist solely for the purpose of the players.
Well… It does exist solely for the purpose of the players, but it shouldn’t feel that way. The adventurers are guests in a town where they are inserting themselves into other people’s lives.
When a group of adventurers visits a tavern, they’re not the locals. The locals all know each other and have their own tables or spaces at the bar. The adventurers may be friendly or good at working their way into a conversation, but at the end of the day we don’t want the experience of the tavern to feel like everyone there was just WAITING for the player characters to show up.
When designing a town, this is where the real magic happens. You obviously don’t want to simulate every minor detail about the town that is happening day to day, but you want to think enough about the town to give it the impression that even without the players being there the people would just be going about their lives.
D&D Town Locations & Interactions
So how do we accomplish this? Well, we start by thinking about the locations that players can go to and interact with.
Each location that a player character might walk into is a chance for them to witness some activity or sign of life the town has before the player walked in.
When the party walks into the guard tower to ask some questions about a quest, they aren’t just going to find guards waiting to be interacted with. Instead they might find some guards on break playing cards and shouting about their game. Others might be coming in and changing shifts, or maybe they’re polishing armor or maintaining their gear. These are little details to describe, but they give your players the sense that the world is alive around them.
So, the easiest way to give your players the sense that a town has a life of its own is through these initial active descriptions, but what makes these good or bad?
A good description that gives life to an area will describe people doing work. Everywhere you go in a town someone is doing something. We can’t even begin to tell you how many villages and towns we’ve been in where it’s a “sleepy” town and everyone is essentially idle. It’s weird and unnatural. So make your initial area descriptions about the bustling nature of the area.
When it comes to dodging bad descriptions, you should avoid describing architecture beyond initial notable styles. Another thing we’ve all been subject to as players are lengthy descriptions about masonry and timber that don’t give players anything useful to interact with or learn about.
The worst descriptions are the ones that describe no action, give only set dressings, and contain nothing for a character to interact with or examine as a next step. Don’t push your players into a situation where they just blankly stare at you because they don’t know what to do next.
D&D Town Jobs & Keeping Busy
Now that we know we want to make more lively descriptions that show the action of the people who live there, how do we know what those descriptions should be?
This is where you need to think more about what jobs are there to be done. It can be hard to describe to someone what a farmer is doing if you have no concept of what goes into farming. This is true of any skill. You might know that a candle maker makes candles, but if you don’t know what that process entails, your descriptive potential will be limited when your players enter the candle maker’s shop.
Here we recommend doing a bit of reading. Learn about pre-industrial skills and life a bit. You don’t need to go overboard, but if you find you really don’t understand how something is done, reading the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article can often give you more than enough knowledge to give a passable description to your players that shows action and life in your town.
Alternatively, if you are unprepared during a session, you will just have to fake it. The easiest way to fake it is to have vague descriptions based on the fact that the characters don’t know what the people in town are doing. If your half-orc barbarian walks into the candle makers shop, you can just say that they are working with instruments that the barbarian is unfamiliar with and they assume are used in the process of making candles.
This is the lazy way to couch something vague in the perspective of the character. This doesn’t always work, as you might have a highly knowledgeable character, or even worse, a player who has a PhD in medieval history.
In those rare cases, the fall back description is that people are cleaning. You won’t have to use this all the time, as you have tons of easy wins in most shops, homes, offices, and so on. You usually will know something that those town folk should be doing, but if you really can’t come up with something, they can be cleaning. There is always something that needs to be cleaned.
The one major downside to making a town active is that you’ll be describing a lot of unnoteworthy NPCs. These NPCs may be background characters, but your players could talk to any one of them. It helps to have a name generator ready, as well as different ways to brush off the adventurers if that NPC is “busy” or standard lines on who they should be talking to instead. This doesn’t always deflect your players, so just be ready for some improv.
Better Towns Come From More Thoughtful Descriptions
So there you have it. You can build better towns in your game with these very simple suggestions. Making the town populated by busy people going about their day may seem like a minor thing, but it gives the world you’re playing in so much more life.
If you want to see how to make a specific building in a town more life-like, check out our article on making better taverns.