Settling Down And Making A Place Home

So we’ve spent two columns breathing life into Rethmar, which started as just another dot and name on the big, big map of the Realms. And, frankly, I did the bare minimum for anyone except flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants DMs.

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Yet the key to a great D&D campaign is player agency; through their Player Characters, they decide where the focus of play is put, and moved to, and what time around the gaming table gets spent on. As the DM enables that but also constantly (and deftly, in the background) places an endless array of shiny things here and there, like a skillful house stager, to catch player interest and both ward off boredom and give them umpteen new directions for play to head in. And even more importantly, imparts the feeling that, like a young child wide-eyed in a candy store, the world is not just their oyster, but a big bed full of all sorts of oysters and far more wonderful things to be had.

Or to put it another way, the world is a vast and wonderful place, so why doesn’t it feel that way to most of us, almost all of the time? (Well, lack of time, and money, and opportunities to look up and see the wonderful for all of the obstacles, worries, and frustrations of the moment that are in the way. But I digress into philosophizing again, when I should be worldbuilding…)

So let’s assume that the players have decided that their characters like it in Rethmar. (They and the gods alone know why, but for whatever reasons, they do.) And they want to stay in Rethmar for a bit, to explore the dungeons beneath it, or shake the town to its very foundations by reordering local society and perhaps even making themselves the rulers of the place, or just use the town as a base to rest and heal and make babies in, between forays out into the wider and even more dangerous Realms around.

That means Rethmar is going to have to be more than a set of false fronts with a few named NPCs at their stations to facilitate PC strutting about…it’s going to need more depth. (I’m always reminded at this point in my worldbuilding of the touching tale about The Missionary film, in which its crew built a street of homes as a set, in a bombed-out area of London, and an old woman was discovered there staring wonderstruck, murmuring, “My house came back.” Except, of course, it sadly hadn’t; only a façade had returned.)

So, as M might say, “Lots to be done.”

But what, specifically?

Back to our categories (Power Groups And Prominents, Current Clack, Recent Events and What’s Going On, and What’s Whispered About), to bolster them all. (This is going, I warn you right now, to take more than just this column.)

Right, let’s crack on.

For starters, the Walrus looks rather lonely, so let’s add a few more colourful local NPCs.

First, a homeless street-wanderer, a wrinkled old crone of foul mouth and dark humour, “Old Meg” (Megarathra Dulyn), inevitably called a “witch” by Rethmarren but no more than a rag-and-bone merchant, maker and seller of herbal balms and ointments against your aches, pains, and skin blemishes. She wanders the streets with some pet dogs who will defend her to their deaths if need be (and are quite street-smart enough to hamstring foes or leap to knock them down or jaw-snatch weapons out of hands), making most of her living covertly delivering messages and small items from one citizen to another. She sees all, will sell what she’s seen and heard for a copper or two, and knows a lot about what’s going on in Rethmar.

Second, a hopelessly optimistic and ambitious get-rich-quick fat and bustling little merchant, Owelind Pheffend, who’s trying to get backers for all sorts of mercantile schemes, everything from making local sherries and brandies for sale all over Faerûn using local wildcherries and bitter-root for flavouring, and pickling local ground-worms and wartback toads as a wealthy-tables delicacy, to using some doddering old retired mages who live in town to enchant flying ships, and building a local navy of skyfaring merchant vessels to connect the Sword Coast with Chessenta, Sembia, and the Moonsea lands. His days are spent rushing between one person to the next in Rethmar, talking up these notions so as to get backers.

And thirdly, a mysterious and presumably beautiful woman who goes about masked and cowl-robed, so most folk only ever get to see her eyes and hands. She calls herself “Loomen,” and says she’s “a widow, retired from life”—which seems odd, considering she can be found loitering in doorways and dark corners, or strolling along alleys, at all hours, anywhere in Rethmar. Alone, and not seeming to do anything but calmly watching her surroundings. (In the highsun hours, she shops for cheese and fruit and vegetables, to take home and dine on in her tiny but luxuriously-appointed rented rooms.) Everyone loves a mystery; what is she up to? And who is she, really?

(My answers: her real name is Nareera Danthar, and she’s the daughter of a disgraced Zhentarim wizard and is skilled only in pottery and bookkeeping; right now, she’s making her living as a decoy for the Zhentarim, attracting local attention to herself while the real undercover Zhent agents come and go in Rethmar and advance Zhent plans hopefully unnoticed by other factions. But I’m sure any DM can come up with better answers, more suited to their own unfolding campaign, in a trice.)

To these NPCs, let’s add two power groups a-brewing (that is, not yet risen to public attention locally, or to any real power, but vying to get it). For interest, make one of them a group of adventurers slightly more powerful than the PCs, and with better connections; the Zhentarim have hired them to “arrange matters” in Rethmar to establish a secret safehouse and a warehouse for the faction, and pave the way for the Zhents to quietly subvert—or replace with their own—the local rulership. Let’s call them Branathra’s Blades, and make them all female, of a variety of races from all over Faerûn, and give them either some of the more unique class features, or some ‘wild talents’ (psionic or natural magical immunities or abilities) so they can surprise the PCs a time or two, in encounters.

The other power group? Very different: some of the caravan merchants who often pass through Rethmar on their runs have been eying it as a possible base, and to that end, are willing to sponsor some local shopkeepers to oversee and share the benefits of an inn-stables-wagon-repair-shop-resupply haven to be built in an old, decaying warehouse surrounded by their existing shops. They’ve formed a little cabal they call The Haven, and as non-violent businessmen, want to hire adventurers (the PCs, perhaps, but some outlander adventurers to begin with) to guard their operations and construction of the haven. Their attitude towards both the PCs and Branthra’s Blades, at the outset, is “a plague on both your houses.” Adventurers are always trouble, so Rethmar would be better off without any. Except us, of course.

Next column, we’ll continue with our initial stab at adding depth to Rethmar.

Do the detailed floorplans of some of the town’s buildings while you wait (after all, the PCs are going to need a home, or will feel the need to burst into someone else’s, as adventurers inevitably do, so…)

Oh, and where do wastes (human and kitchen and otherwise) go? We’ll need a comic-relief gruff pair of father-and-son or mother-and-daughter nightsoil wagon operators, I’m thinking…

Ah. My thinking. That’s where all the problems usually start.
 
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Ed Greenwood

Comments

Derren

Adventurer
Creating a town that way does not create a home but only a theme park where everything has been placed to entertain the guests but is ultimately fake. Abquest giver here, a spy there and some entertainers for comic relieve while you wait in the queue.
Good for the weekend, but you do not want to live there.

Imo to really create something where the players feel at home you need to detail the things that are not relevant to adventuring. The beggar who really is just a beggar, the potter two streets down in his unhappy second marriage after his first wife passed away or the guy who lost his nose in a war has taken up tanning on the outskirts of the town.
Its trivial details like this that create a home.

Yes, that also includes the power structure of that place but again the nit really adventuring relevant things are the important ones. How many taxes are paid and to whom, which lokal holidays exists and why or what was the last catastroph that hit the place?
 

EthanSental

Adventurer
I think at some point, that world building is fun for the DM for stretching the imagination and confidence in their world building BUT the players tend to find out only about a 10th of what’s been created but having what Ed mentions in place covers the off the rails possibilities while still allowing the players to feel like it was planned out. That side jaunt the players spring but your not flipping through notes just for a npc name, street location or business name means more than knowing that their grandfather was a carpenter that died in a family dispute. Think of it from the players view and it’s not a theme park.

You can get to far in the weeds and only the DM who spent 10 hours creating back story for a town to creat a living breathing town just to have the players stroll throughand never find anything out since they did t ask any question to open up the dialogue, leaving the DM to try and force things in since they spent so much time on it.
 

dave2008

Legend
Creating a town that way does not create a home but only a theme park where everything has been placed to entertain the guests but is ultimately fake. Abquest giver here, a spy there and some entertainers for comic relieve while you wait in the queue.
Good for the weekend, but you do not want to live there.

Imo to really create something where the players feel at home you need to detail the things that are not relevant to adventuring. The beggar who really is just a beggar, the potter two streets down in his unhappy second marriage after his first wife passed away or the guy who lost his nose in a war has taken up tanning on the outskirts of the town.
Its trivial details like this that create a home.

Yes, that also includes the power structure of that place but again the nit really adventuring relevant things are the important ones. How many taxes are paid and to whom, which lokal holidays exists and why or what was the last catastroph that hit the place?
yes and no. You don't need a backstory for a beggar that is just a beggar. We all know what that looks like. However, you did need to be prepared for the beggar that is not just a beggar. IMO, detailing the minutia you are describing is a waste of time, and worse, distracts from goal of having fun actually playing. Of course, YMMV.
 

Derren

Adventurer
yes and no. You don't need a backstory for a beggar that is just a beggar. We all know what that looks like. However, you did need to be prepared for the beggar that is not just a beggar. IMO, detailing the minutia you are describing is a waste of time, and worse, distracts from goal of having fun actually playing. Of course, YMMV.
I disagree

When you only have backstories for adventuring relevant NPCs the "fakeness" of the town (theme park feeling) becomes apparent. If you really want the PCs to stay in that town and the players to feel at home then you need this non adventuring detail to really set the mood.
 

dave2008

Legend
I disagree

When you only have backstories for adventuring relevant NPCs the "fakeness" of the town (theme park feeling) becomes apparent. If you really want the PCs to stay in that town and the players to feel at home then you need this non adventuring detail to really set the mood.
I disagree.

That is the beauty of RPGs, there is no one correct way to do it.

Your claim is undoubtedly false for my group, but it may be 100% true for you and your group. Doesn't make a lick of difference if we are all having fun. I know we are, I assume you are as well.
 
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dave2008

Legend
I disagree

When you only have backstories for adventuring relevant NPCs the "fakeness" of the town (theme park feeling) becomes apparent. If you really want the PCs to stay in that town and the players to feel at home then you need this non adventuring detail to really set the mood.
@Derren if this is your viewpoint, where and how do you choose to stop this process. In a village of 1,000 do you need a backstory for every villager, every building, every well, every monument? What about a city of 10,000 or 100,000? Where do stop?

The town/home appears "fake" only if you turn the corner and see it is just a facade. I personally want to spend my time mostly where the PCs are looking, not on the infinite number of things they will never see.
 
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Mercador

Explorer
When I was young(er), my main fun as a DM was creating content from a map, creating a world in my head (and then on paper), it really sparked my imagination skill. But at the gaming table, obviously, not every material was "used" and I didn't try to forced it down to players; I just felt sad sometimes that a nice piece of adventure was not "used".

I wonder sometimes if I should do some one-page cheat sheet just to try to wake up my imagination back again. But I guess getting older does that.
 

Curmudjinn

Explorer
I would do something similar with a map, but I like to leave some wiggle room so I can move a hook or npc where ever I need, or move an entire village. The great part of DMing is everything is malleable.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
The town/home appears "fake" only if you turn the corner and see it is just a facade. I personally want to spend my time mostly where the PCs are looking, not on the infinite number of things they will never see.
That’s in fact part of what Ed’s article points out, that the focus needs to be on the parts at which the PCs are looking to ”hide the facade”, because no matter how much work you put in, it’s still going to be a facade. If the DM does get enjoyment out of fleshing out every NPC in their setting, that’s fine - but for those who don‘t, or don’t have the time or experience to do so, it’s not required in order to make a functional setting to which the players still have buy-in.
 

naturaltwenty

Explorer
Ed - outstanding as always! I love the fact that the map used as the header of the article includes The Border Kingdoms. The Polyhedron issues where you detail some of them still stick in my mind as some of the best jumping off points for great campaigns, which is exactly where I'll start my new Village of Chatham (a map for a game I made years ago but will start detailing it more).
chatham_inside.gif
 

Ilbranteloth

Explorer
@Derren if this is your viewpoint, where and how do you choose to stop this process. In a village of 1,000 do you need a backstory for every villager, every building, every well, every monument? What about a city of 10,000 or 100,000? Where do stop?

The town/home appears "fake" only if you turn the corner and see it is just a facade. I personally want to spend my time mostly where the PCs are looking, not on the infinite number of things they will never see.
My approach to this is to have lots of ready-made backgrounds and goals that I can grab at a moment's notice. The same way you should always have a list of names. That is, you don't have to name everybody in the village, but should the PCs find themselves crashing through the window of the building next door, be prepared with names and whatever else might be needed.

These snippets of ideas, most just a sentence or two, are all that is needed to stimulate the improvisation that is often required when you give the PCs free reign to explore their world in the way real people would. Because the one thing I've learned in 40+ years of DMing is that the PCs will rarely do what I expect.
 

Ilbranteloth

Explorer
I think at some point, that world building is fun for the DM for stretching the imagination and confidence in their world building BUT the players tend to find out only about a 10th of what’s been created but having what Ed mentions in place covers the off the rails possibilities while still allowing the players to feel like it was planned out. That side jaunt the players spring but your not flipping through notes just for a npc name, street location or business name means more than knowing that their grandfather was a carpenter that died in a family dispute. Think of it from the players view and it’s not a theme park.

You can get to far in the weeds and only the DM who spent 10 hours creating back story for a town to creat a living breathing town just to have the players stroll throughand never find anything out since they did t ask any question to open up the dialogue, leaving the DM to try and force things in since they spent so much time on it.
For many of us, the world-building aspect is part of the fun. While I tend to write short snippets of ideas, sometimes they grow into something significant with a number of hours of work. And yes, the PCs often don't engage or intersect some of those things. Although the process of writing benefits me in other ways, such as improving my skills, not to mention puts more things in the back of my mind to suddenly appear in the heat of improvisation, they also frequently come into play later. They may morph and change (as does everything I write, because nothing is really final until it actually enters the game), but more often than not they do show up. I've had things I've written come up literally decades after I originally wrote them.

I guess the trick is partially in learning over time which weeds to get lost in.
 

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