How to Design a Village in 5 Easy Steps

Most GMs, at some point in their illustrious careers, will have to design a village. What at first appears to be a ridiculously easy task will, on closer inspection, turn out to ‘be’ a ridiculously easy task. In case you’re designing your village at 2 a.m. and can’t think straight, there’s always this handy guide to help you remember if you missed something.

0. Reason for Existing

Thanks to @Hand of Evil for this fine idea.

First off, it would make great sense to figure out why someone would build a village here in the first place. Is it at a location of rich natural abundance? Is it near good farmland? Is there a mine or other interesting locale around?

Most villages aren't just built somewhere for no reason. Even if the reason is just that the village is along a trade route or houses the families of the men who man the wall. The reason the village exists can even help you to figure out a name for the village.

1. Name the Village


The most important part of creating a village is the name. If you’re too lazy to bother with naming the village, then you might as well do what the rest of us GMs do and just make everything up as you go along. If you have the skill to do this, you most definitely don’t need this article in the least. You can probably only use it as some mild amusement as to the crazy antics that lesser GMs get up to. “Ha, the guy needs a whole guide just to create one simple village? I can do that in ten seconds. It’s a village and it’s got a pub. There, took me two seconds.”

The first problem you’re run into when creating a name for a village is that your handy name generator just gives you character names and it would be really weird if the village were named “Bilbo” or “Bobby McGuire.” If you’re particularly creative, you might take the time to actually write down a secret page of village/location names. Then all you have to do is pick and choose or roll your dice. Rolling your dice is probably the better option as it will scare the pants off the players.

Regardless, you’ll still have to come up with some good village names sooner or later. If you actually coordinate the village names in your kingdoms, then you’re way ahead of the game. So far ahead, in fact, that the players probably won’t even notice your effort. No, what we’re aiming for here is a name that won’t immediately be ridiculed such as “Dell, Cheerios, or Hamburger.”

Designing this interesting, unique, and yet not-too-complicated name will require some effort. Probably about 5 seconds worth, actually. Try to think up something random sounding and vaguely foreign. Then try to pronounce it properly under your breath and see if it sounds completely ludicrous or inappropriate. If it passes this test, you have your village name.

Good village names: Castle-bar, Clover-down, Ixtiwickthick-o.

Bad village names: Jonathan, Nike, Free75, Google.

2. Determine the Location of the Village

The second most important thing is to figure out exactly where the village is in relation to everything else. The best way to do this is to create a map of the campaign. This is a single blank piece of paper. On this map, create a small dot or something better if you’re feeling artistic. I can usually handle a tiny picture of a house which looks like what an 8-year-old would draw in techni-color with crayons. In the map legend, or directly under this icon, place the name of the village in some kind of legible way. If you scrawl it too tiny, the village name might change all the time.

If you don’t have a map, or you don’t have time to add the village to the map, just use vagueness as your friend. “The village is somewhere to the east of the center of the world. That’s all you know.” Unless the party has complex magic or mapping tools at their disposal, you should be able to get away with this. After all, Google Maps hasn’t been invented yet, right? One more reason fantasy campaigns can be easier to run than sci-fi ones. However, “You’re lost in space,” is a great line, too.

Using vagueness, you can then later fill in an arbitrary location for the village when it suits you. Also, you can subtly reposition it to strand the party in the middle of an inescapable desert.

3. Points of Interest

Good villages will have at least one point of interest, and some will have several or more. Sometimes you can create an interesting village with no particular points of interest. Especially if you don’t want the party to waste 3 hours shopping around and talking to locales when they could be getting eaten by a bear in the wilderness or falling down deep pits in the dungeon.

Points of interest can be just about anything. So long as they’re interesting—they qualify. Usually, these points of interest are static locations, but they can also move around or be hidden. A thieves’ guild, a town hall, a local pub, a smithy, a stable, a general store, a healing temple, a wizard’s tower, a fortification, and more can all be points of interest. These locations all share one thing in common: they are places the players will be drawn to at some point. These are the places in the village where things happen. Even a haunted farm can be a point of interest.

Good points of interest often have a benefit to the players. If it’s where the power is, the players will want to discuss things with the village leaders. This could be missions, pay, problems, pleas, or anything else the players want to get done.

A guard-station would be a source of aid to the players, or where they end up repeatedly for breaking the law. A healing temple would be frequented for obvious reasons. Magical aid is in high demand, so any kind of wizard’s academy or tower will be a point of interest. Shops and markets also make good points of interest because the players need to buy supplies and equipment. If there’s some place the players can compete in challenges or tournaments, this would also be a good point of interest.

You can even create more specialized points of interest with a little work. It could be that all major deals go down behind a certain bakery. Maybe the thieves control the town from the basements the town was built on. Perhaps a local monster holds the village elders under its power and lives in a pile of pig defecation. Your options are practically limitless. Just remember to make sure the point of interest has something of value to the players in it. Otherwise, they might never discover your cool creation, or might ignore it completely.

4. Key People


Very similar to points of interest, there can also be several key people in the village. These people will either hold a lot of power, be interesting personalities, or hold some agenda influencing the adventure.

Some examples of key people are: the mayor, the local baron, the guard captain, the wizard, the high priest, the witch, the merchant, or anyone else the players will have reason to deal with. Obviously, anyone who holds a great deal of power or a high position could potentially be of great interest to the players. The local judge might be physically and mentally weak, but if he controls the law of the land he can be a very important person to know.

Some people might not hold any power, influence, or goods—but could still be of great interest to the players. A mad hermit, a village fool, a beggar, a crazy man, a funny farmer, a wandering minstrel, or a lost knight. All of these people could be great NPCs.

On occasion you won’t have key people written up for your village. Other times, the players might gravitate towards someone you hadn’t planned to be special. Don’t let that stop you. Create a name and quick personality for that key person and develop him or her. The barkeeper could suddenly become a very important person to the players, as could a random peasant, or a little girl. Provided they want to role-play with this character, many bit characters can quickly gain much larger parts. Some players are also fond of recruiting NPCs even if those NPCs don’t seem to have any special skills or abilities to begin with. It’s up to the GM to further develop those characters.

5. Adventure

A good village also has several locations which might be the basis for adventures or interesting encounters. Not every village need be filled with intrigues and monsters, but some can certainly make for great adventures. Always remember that you don’t need to confine your adventures only to the dungeons and the wilderness. The amount of adventure you can pack into a small village is only limited by your creativity and imagination.

Sometimes the players just want to rest and heal in the village. That’s okay. You don’t need to have the inn constantly attacked by savage monsters.

It’s a good policy to know where the local dungeons are situated, strange magical wastelands, haunted forests, and so forth. You don’t have to have every landmark filled with monsters, but merely hinting at supposedly haunted castles will quickly put the players on edge.

5 ½. Add Your Own Elements


Any good village has a few elements all its own. You can’t really fill all your villages with key people and points of interest and then hope the players will enjoy them. Villages are part of living and breathing worlds. They trade with other villages, supply cities, support castles, and are a place to live. The locals will have opinions on the government and what’s happening in the world. Some people might have heard of the player’s characters, others might not. Always try to include a special element in your best villages.

What are your favorite elements from villages in your campaigns? Are there any especially memorable locales? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

 

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Derren

Hero
I would add; Reason for Being. Why is the village there? What is the chief means of income for the village? This can be things like the only river crossing, logging, mining, support for a fort, cross road, farming, live stock, shrine, location of an event, etc.

Agreed, even if the reason is pretty mundane like "there is (good?) farmland here".
 

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Challenger RPG

First Post
@Johnny3D3D : Ha ha, looks great! I know adventure ideas can be a bit tricky to come up with, especially when writing up villages. I think a few vague ideas is just what you're looking for.

@delericho : I think that's a fine idea. I guess, dealing with fantasy, I tend to come up with names first and purpose afterwards, but that's not really how it is in the real world. I guess it's just a liberty I take 'because I can'. I'm sure your way would make more sense.

@Hand of Evil : Excellent idea. I think it would be a good idea for anyone to add this step when designing a village. It would definitely add a ton of realism to what you're creating and give you even more ideas to go with. I'd also point out that this could be something really crazy or imaginative from fantasy like: "Because all single women over 22 were cursed to live here in the 12th age" etc.

Thanks for the link, too.

@Morrus : Yes, thanks. I really enjoy creating name generators myself (for various things) but I guess I was always too greedy/lazy to share them. I still have a dozen or so sitting around my hard drives and papers somewhere. Thanks for sharing!

@Jhaelen : Yes. What can I say, when I'm wrong, I'm wrong. :)

@Dwimmerlied : Thanks. You're most welcome.

@haakon1 : Very cool. Thanks. Kind of makes me wish I lived in England.

@Derren : Yep. :)

***

Regrettably, this will be my last column here on En World.

I would like to thank Mr. Morrus for giving me the opportunity to write for his fine website, and I'd like to thank all the great people who are my fellow columnists for being so supportive and writing their own great material. I've had a some chuckles reading a few of your pieces.

Thank you to everyone who read one or more of my columns. I really appreciate your time, and thank you for spending it with some of my writing. There are few things in life I enjoy more. Also, special thanks to anyone who commented. Good or bad, the feedback has been great. I've learned a few things and laughed pretty hard as well.

While I'd like to continue writing these articles (they're great fun) reasons of time and business have interfered. At present, I'm unable to continue meeting the high standards of quality for En World while maintaining a busy schedule. I've offered my willingness to continue with a reduced offering, but I believe it fails to meet the current criteria for articles.

All the Best,

David
 

howandwhy99

Adventurer
When I create a village I think of who created it. In my game, villages are settlements of (usually) overland constructions [broadly meaning: dungeons] created by creatures of a certain level of intelligence or higher.

The founders of a village typically created it for one or more reasons, based upon their alignment, if even only as a resting spot before further expected travel.
---Who and what were these founders?
---What were their reasons for settling?
---When did this event occur?

A village is roughly a collection of people in a place the size of which is determined demographically for the term. Take away the people or the place and there is no village. Items come into play too, but all could be lost and you'd still have a village IMO. Also, remember village is only a size category for a settlement. It could be a piece of an abandoned city or a boom town that sped right threw Thorp size.
---Based on who and what the settlers were, what did they need to create a long term settlement like a village to support themselves? This might include natural materials, crafted items, plants, animals, fortifications, and activities.
---Other goals for the creation of this settlement include their reasons for doing so beyond simple survival.
---Generated forward the creation of this village from its founding to the campaign starting time taking into account all of the above not mention the rest of the campaign world you are starting with.
---Generate your map of the village as it grows and changes over time. Include people and principle locations as they are born and are destroyed.
---Track this history so Players may explore it also. This encompasses the resulting (and previous) key locations as mentioned in the article above as well as Named NPCs, other monsters (like farmers :) ), treasure, NPC knowledge, monster goals and learned proficiencies. (These latter two projected forward into adventure scenarios will make up most of your adventure hooks and timeline.)
---Name everything on the map in your key and include the map on your larger starting campaign/world map.

Lastly, if the village doesn't need to last until the campaign starting time (all the people are gone for whatever reason), it then becomes a ruin possibly inhabited by monsters who will repurpose whatever is left behind depending upon those monsters. Unless the construction materials degrade very quickly it almost assuredly will still be relevant to your campaign world as a more traditional dungeon or a reclaimed city by other city builders.

And, of course, outside populations, new people, environmental catastrophes, disease, and so on over time will usually shift and change the behavior and design of a village, so be sure that when you are generating it you are doing along with the rest of the starting campaign world.
 

Challenger RPG

First Post
@howandwhy99 : Holy cow, that's awesome. Kind of makes me want to try out your campaign sometime. The creation of a new campaign for me is usually something along the lines of: "Okay guys, this world is called Korg, try not to powergame too much".

I really like the depth you get into when thinking about the founders of the village. I'm sure that would give a new GM plenty of material to work with and a ton of food for thought. Also, I arbitrarily chose 'village' for the name of the article. Really, you can use the information for cities, towns, or whichever.

I just like the word 'village' because it brings to mind the bulk of the locations in the campaigns from my early days as a gamer. It always seemed like there was another clone 'village' over the next hill and finding (or creating) a unique one is pretty cool.

Thanks for the great strategies. I use some already, but trying the others out would be pretty neat.
 

howandwhy99

Adventurer
In OD&D the literal Keep found in the Borderlands is the Lawful dungeon. You could run Chaos PCs through it starting them at the Caves of Chaos as their home base (lair). The game is balanced in part because the two opposing forces are balanced at campaign start. There are equal forces on the map, though both are outsized by the neutrals. Think of the caves as a collection levels in a 1st-4th level dungeon. Then travel through the wilderness map to the civilized areas and find 1st-4th level "dungeon levels" of Thorps, Villages, and the Keep.

For me, the majority of the game is the players engaging with the game board behind the screen. The maps and tracked items are there so the players can game the situation. If I was improvising everything, this wouldn't be possible. Most people still do track position, conditions, and other stuff for combat, but it's limited Encounters. Consequences tend not to carry over except by GM fiat. So Players track their equipment and take notes about their adventures just as I track everything behind the screen. Of course, I begin with the whole map (which grows throughout the campaign), so it's not difficult as it appears during running the game.

All of the stuff I wrote previously is just as valid for creating a standard monster dungeon too. It's simply Chaos aligned creatures aren't builders. They prefer to steal, pillage, use up, or just flat out destroy. So you typically find them in natural caves, abandoned ruins, conquered cities, and similar kinds of places. You don't need a lot of NPC classes for them IOW :)
 

Challenger RPG

First Post
Ha ha, I've played that adventure a few times and never realized that. You learn something new every day. :p

I guess I always had it in the back of my mind that the lawful stats were there in case the players went completely AWOL, but I never considered that you could actually run it as a balanced fight with the PCs starting off in the Caves of Chaos.

That said, most of my players over the years have played good characters by alignment and whatever the heck they wanted by action. Several times I've had 'good' characters attacking lawful villages and castles for strange reasons.

I really like your way of keeping track of everything on a map 'behind the screen'. I think this would actually make for a far different style of game than I usually run and it'd definitely be worth trying out. I know a few GMs who use a similar system, but I don't know if any are quite as organized or proficient at it as you.

Also, I've made a few attempts over the years to get the players to keep track of their equipment, but they tend to just conveniently forget things like encumbrance or the usage of expendable items like potions or arrows. I don't think they're trying to be nasty, it's just not a priority. :p

Chaos aligned creatures aren't builders? Ah well, so much for all those evil castles and floating citadels I had planned. Seriously though, that's a good point. How most Chaotic creatures are laid out it would make sense that they take over abandoned areas (or live in dungeons) rather than building their own structures. Otherwise you would have all these Kobold villages and Orc cities lying around.

Ha ha, yeah, I would probably work great for building dungeons, too. Thanks.

I know I'm not in the majority, but I tend to improvise a lot of my games nowadays. I used to keep really good track of maps, NPCs, equipment, spells, campaign notes, and sometimes positions of miniatures.

Nowadays I tend to bring a blank piece of paper to the table and say, "You guys ready for adventure?" and then whip up some kind of quest on the spot. Also, when I get on a good roll I can tend to memorize everyone's conditions and so forth between encounters and adventures.

As for consequences, there are so many of them in some adventures I've run...ditto on the GM Fiat, although not necessarily at the same time. :p

I've probably set new records with GM Fiat by wholly creating my own RPG system and then running a game of it with no prep-work resulting in a totally Fiat-ed experience. Heck, I've even broken rules in my own game system on occasion. I'm worse as a player, of course. I either totally abuse the rules of the system (I had a game-breaking 4e character, a game-breaking 3e character, etc.), or I ignore all the rules and do whatever I want which tends to annoy the GM.
 

Mishihari Lord

First Post
Very nice article. A step I would add is "who visits?" Is it just the occasional peddler and bard? Does the main road to a mine go through town? Do produce wagons or river barges pass? How about troops? This will say a lot about hwom the PCs might encounter and what kind of activities go on.

If you want an adventure-village, there are a couple of formal methods that are worth swiping. Dogs in the Vineyard is one, and Dread character generation could be modified to work as well.
 

howandwhy99

Adventurer
Also, I've made a few attempts over the years to get the players to keep track of their equipment, but they tend to just conveniently forget things like encumbrance or the usage of expendable items like potions or arrows. I don't think they're trying to be nasty, it's just not a priority. :p
You want to keep it simple. It used to be that was all the players need to track on their sheets as well as knowing a handful of stats. Now there are dozens (hundreds?) of game powers that get the focus and make everything else seem like a bother instead of the point.

As a DM you would track that stuff even though the players do too. They don't have to. Not doing so is a game strategy for them, though a poor one if they have hopes of accomplishing many goals. (Imagine not bothering to know how many HP you have). As DM, it would be your list which needs to be as accurate as possible, not the players'. But they should tell you if they traded items with each other when your attention was elsewhere.

In the end, running the game shouldn't be that hard. It should start small and slowly and incrementally get bigger through each session. It may look like a lot of work after 100 sessions, but break up by 100 and running a whole campaign setting is vastly more feasible.

I know I'm not in the majority, but I tend to improvise a lot of my games nowadays. I used to keep really good track of maps, NPCs, equipment, spells, campaign notes, and sometimes positions of miniatures.
I would say improvising everything and tracking nothing is pretty much where the majority is headed now. Most people I talk to don't have any idea why people tracked things early in the game ...or why players actually wanted to do so too.

As for consequences, there are so many of them in some adventures I've run...ditto on the GM Fiat, although not necessarily at the same time. :p
Yeah, and that's really why I prepare the maps and lists of items, NPCs, and everything as a scenario beforehand. I'd get completely lost tracking that stuff with nothing behind the screen. But I feel I'm enabling players to engage in game play, as how poker players play when calculating the odds, or Bridge players, or eurogame boardgamers, or Magic the Gathering fanatics, and so on. It's to enable strategy. The massively interconnected web of experiences is a happy accident.

Plus, there is nothing wrong with GM fiat. But you probably want a game where the rules specifically state that is what will go on. Or, you could simply tell the players as a kind of house rule that's what you are doing. I've had players totally stunned that I tracked their characters (and everything else) behind the screen. Without being able to see the maps or what I'm tracking exactly it's kind of mind blowing for them. ...but in a totally awesome way. Of course, I've seen people totally turned off by early D&D too saying "it's not a role playing game" and had nothing to do with acting. But I've had other players who went red hot like they'd never been in a game before where everything they did had traction under their feet.
 

dd.stevenson

Super KY
I prefer this method for throwing together a village.

I use kanji instead of roman letters, because they have nuanced meanings and are therefore great idea generators.

I also use my iPad to do all the heavy lifting, so the raw output looks a little like this. This town was made using the sunshine kanji (陽) as an inspiration for road layout, and, after it is cleaned up, will be a village built up around an old temple to Pelor.

View attachment 59221
 

Challenger RPG

First Post
@Mishihari Lord : Thanks. I think that's a good idea. If brigands constantly wander through the town it's a lot different that soldiers marching through all the time. Also, it would give some indication of what modes of transport are available (boats, carriages, etc.).

@howandwhy99 : Ha ha, yes, that's probably true. Breaking things up is definitely doable. I've also seen some GMs who waste a lot of time with minor details when they could be interacting with the players. Use correctly, I know what you mean, and it could be really effective for a great game.

If the GM was keeping track, I'm sure it would be highly effective in getting players to start keeping track of basic supplies like torches and arrows. I might just have to try that out sometime. Usually I just ask "Did you bring torches?" and the players all look kind of miffed and say, "No." It's pretty funny, actually.

I guess I should say that "I do" run games where I plan almost everything out beforehand. All of my best adventures I tend to do a heck of a lot of prep work. Maps, NPCs, strategies, locations, treasures, room descriptions, etc. It's a style of game I really enjoy and the players like the challenge of going up against something static and well-planned.

I've even been known to write down all the characters names and vital statistics on occasion.

Other times, I just wing everything and have fun anyway. I think it's just part of my life getting more busy. For big games, I still tend to do a lot of planning and prep work. I think I just intrinsically sense that it makes the game that much better and more polished. If you put more work and thought in, the game tends to run that much smoother.

I haven't truly tracked my players all that well for a while. I used to do it a lot more, but nowadays I'm just as liable to say something like, "You want all basic equipment, okay, you've got it, mark off 20 gold."

For the record, some of the absolute best adventures I've ever played were original D&D. I still think it's classic and awesome. The simplicity and power are great. I even think a few of the elements in the rules work better than the modern RPGs out there.

While I've powergamed a number of 'newer' characters, I don't recall ever having a truly game-breaking 1e character. I think it probably had to do with the fact that I spent most of my time 1st level and never got anywhere near high level enough to be truly powerful.

Your character also tended to be a lot weaker so you had to play that much better as a player. Even Fighters couldn't be kill-maniacs if they intended to live that long. One chance sword blow could kill just about any 1st level character.

Even as far as 3rd and 4th edition, I was still running basic D&D games, and one of them is still one of my favorites. There must have been about ten characters and only 1 survived the adventure and he lost an arm. That adventure was so fun, everyone still recalls it fondly. That sort of thing just doesn't seem to happen that much anymore. Not saying I'm over-fond of wiping out parties, but how it happened, everyone thought it was pretty hilarious and the one guy who survived was tickled pink.

@dd.stevenson : Cool, thanks for sharing the links! That's pretty neat. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that before.
 

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