While my players were wandering around my world, I began to notice that all my villages and city were the same. Sure, they had different names, but they all had the same races of people, the same shops, even the same basic description. Players weren’t excited to enter new villages because, well, they had seen it all before. If you find this to be a problem in your campaign, here is a guide I created to help give your villages and cities distinction and character.
How do you create realistic villages and cities in Dungeons & Dragons 5e? You will need to consider the following:
- Age of the city
- Dominant Race
- Deities of the Region/Race
- Primary Trade
- Crime Rate
- Building Style
- Political Atmosphere
All of these factors contribute to the everyday life and atmosphere of a village or city. Two cities may share a trait or two, but no two should be exactly alike. Just like in the real world, cities are defined by these traits. If you bring them to your campaign villages, they will feel much more lifelike.
The location of a city is, perhaps, its most defining feature. If you look at major city locations on a real map, you will notice one thing they all share in common, nearly all of them are built next to a major natural resource. Especially before quick and cheap transportation of goods was invented, cities needed a way to send and receive goods. This is why most major cities are built next to rivers, ports, and even large lakes.
Water is a hugely important resource. Not only does it supply the town with drinking water, but it can also be a source of food and industry as well. The first step to planning where you will put your towns, villages, and cities is to look at (or create) a map of your world and find all the water sources. These are prime locations for cities. Put major cities next to the best ports and north and south on major river systems. These will specialize primarily in receiving and transferring goods.
Next, put towns next to lakes and on major trade routes. These are slightly larger than villages mostly because they see more visitors (they are more accessible) and have more resources.
Finally, put villages in more remote locations, but still near some natural resources. All collections of people will continue to grow until they either, run out of resources to support more people, or are too difficult/inconvenient to get to. The villages you create should have limited resources or be in a location that is not easily found.
The age of a city, town, or village has a large impact on the overall “feel” of the place. Ancient villages nestled in at the foot of a little traversed mountain will have a proud population whose families have been there for centuries. The building style, pace of life, and economy may all be impacted by the age of the city. Choose one:
- Ancient: (over 3000 years old) These cities are marked by structures from another age. They may have residual magic effects or even systems people no longer understand. Ancient villages and towns need a reason to have survived so long. Either a sacred grove that has protected them, a deity that has watched over them or a magic source perhaps even the locals don’t know about. These are rare. Even in a world filled with Elves, ancient cities most often are destroyed by raiders or fall into disuse and become ancient ruins. To have one still in use is incredibly rare and you can bet it will be an ancient city will be filled with Elves and scholars.
- Old: (2000-1000 years) These cities and villages are very well established. They have been operating as hubs for trade for as long as anyone can remember. Though they are old, and the population will certainly be proud of that, they do not have the same “otherworldly” feel that ancient cities evoke. These cities are clearly within the present age and while they may have aspects of old technology or buildings, it is more in the background of life. These cities and towns have reached their peak population and are unlikely to grow more.
- Up and Coming: (1 century or a little less) A city that has reached 100 years is in its prime. This is long enough to be established, but not nearly long enough to be considered a fixture on the landscape. These cities will be growing and rapidly expanding because they are finally old enough to offer steady employment or a respectable school. Up and Coming cities may be a target for many folks looking to start a new life or seeking new opportunities (think New York City in the 1800s). These cities are marked by construction, new shops, new enterprises new everything! Business is booming in an Up and Coming city.
- Young: (Less than 100 years) Young cities are still getting their footing. They don’t yet have established businesses or schools (though many are trying) and they aren’t yet a destination for travelers. Young cities have newly constructed buildings, but are not building rapidly yet. There should be some reason or draw for a new city to pop up, such as a newly discovered resource (gold, gems, etc.) or a war that has displaced thousands of people.
- New/Temporary: (Less than 50 years) These can include refugee towns, shanties built just outside of major cities, and gypsy or Tortal moving towns. These have just popped up, and it is likely the locals are not happy about it. The towns or villages (they won’t have enough people to be considered a city) are filled with temporary or thrown together structures. Most often villages come out of necessity, not desire to build something new.
Population determines if a collection of people is a city, town, or village. But more than that, it also contributes to living conditions, available resources, and luxuries, and visitor accommodations.
City: (12,001 and 25,000) Here is everything your heart desires and more. Cities are likely to have large libraries holding ancient knowledge, shops containing magical and enchanted items, blacksmiths, armorers, stables, food and so much more. Inns will be plentiful and likely cheap, food and drink will abound in great variety and, given enough time, adventurers can find whatever it is they are looking for.
Large Town: (2,001-12,000) You won’t find all the luxuries of a city here, but they certainly aren’t lacking. Inns, shops, food, and drink will be plentiful still, though you may have a harder time finding magical or enchanted items.
Small Town: (901 and 2,000) Here is where we transition from a visitor mindset to an agricultural or resource-driven mindset. There are far fewer choices of Inns, maybe one or two, shops are mostly dedicated to daily needs and you likely won’t find a blacksmith who knows how to mend a blade (but he can fit your horse with new shoes!) Life is much more simple, though there are a few luxuries. You will still be able to buy some necessities and find a room to rent, but don’t expect the nightlife offered by the above-mentioned places.
Village: (401-900) You are looking at the bare bones to meet travelers’ needs. Likely the one Inn in town is delighted to have guests (though everything will be pricey). Few shops, other than a bakery, feed store, blacksmith for making tools and horseshoes, and a trading post of some kind for supplies. That’s it. You are getting off the beaten path now.
Hamlet: (81-400) There likely isn’t even an Inn here, though the Hamlet Elder would likely be happy to put up the guests (they haven’t had any in so long!) Same basic set up as a Village, just with fewer options. Where they might have been two bakeries to choose from in the village, there is just Edith who sells fresh loaves from her house here.
Thorp: (20-80) Why are you here?? That’s what all the locals will be thinking when your party wanders up. This is a tiny community of close-knit people living on the outskirts of the civilized world. They work together and share everything they make. No shops here, just straight barter, and good luck finding someone with the room to put you up for the night. You had better just keep moving along.
Each race in Dungeons & Dragons has a different view of the world and different values they would bring to a city. A city of Dwarves, for example, might be more focused on metal and stonework. The buildings may be carved out of the side of a mountain and their craftsmen will likely specialize in heavy marshal armor and weapons. This city will have a rough-hewn feel to it.
On the contrary, a city primarily populated with Elves will focus more on aesthetic beauty and form. Buildings will be works of art in and of themselves and the craftsmen will bring exacting detail to the detail of light armor and bows.
To determine which race should be the dominant race in your city, town, or village, you need to look at the region and the history. What races are likely to inhabit this area? Were any races not originally from this area pushed here due to natural or man-made causes?
Once you have decided on the race, do some research on that culture. You don’t have to be an expert, but try to find the primary values, styles, and ambitions of whatever race you are using, then build these things into the city itself. What would a city primarily composed of Dragonborn look like compared to one dominated by Gnomes? How would their food differ? What about recreational activities? When considering how a race would influence a city or town, consider the following:
- Building design
- City layout
- Attitude to Visitors
- Recreational Activities
- Connection to Nature
- Primary materials used in craft (stone vs. wood vs. metal)
Deities of the Region/Race
The primary god or gods worshiped by the dominant race will have a major impact on the town or city you create. Is a temple the center of the city or is there no place of worship at all? Often times, temples are the places where clerics and other healers reside. The type of healing and care they provide to outsiders could largely depend on that god or goddess. Not all deities are kind and caring. Some demand acts in kind.
So if the party is looking to heal one member of a deadly disease (see this great post of 5 Deadly Diseases if you need some ideas) a cleric of Kord might demand the rest of the party complete an act of valor and kill a cockatrice first. The deities of the city will determine the general feel and willingness of villagers to help others in need.
Is it a feast or famine in the neighborhood? This has a large impact on shops, prices, and attitudes in your city or village. Cities that are seeing a huge decline in sales may try to squeeze every penny they can from wandering adventurers loaded with gold, or perhaps even steal it from them when they aren’t looking. Cities with bad economies will likely have many shops that have closed their doors and see many people leave seeking greener pastures or otherwise homeless and hungry, begging for spare coin. The overall tone is sad and gloomy.
On the other hand, cities, where the economy is booming, will be looking to expand. Likely merchants and shopkeepers will be fighting over territory as their businesses expand. These places will have plenty of work and be willing to pay for it. The feeling of this city is joyful, full of life, and hope for the future.
What is the city or town known for? Are they the Salmon Capital of the World? The Home of Healing Potions? Each city and town should have a primary export that defines the economy. A town on a lake will likely deal mostly in fish while a city on a huge port will import and export spices, textiles, and grains.
To decide what the export for your town is, look at the topography. If there are mountains nearby, perhaps they are a rock quarry or they specialize in collecting rare mountain herbs for medicines. If it is near an extensive forest, they might sell lumber or leather and meat. The primary trade will also determine the types of shops the town has and the majority of job types.
How safe is your city or village? Do people lock their doors at night, or is it a close-knit community of share-and-share-alike? This factor should determine how trusting the locals are of a new face and how friendly people are in general. A city controlled by a violent secret society will have a completely different feel from one run by an open and honest elder.
Not only does the crime rate determine interactions with locals, but it will also determine the kinds of goods and side quests available to the party. Perhaps that secret society forbids the selling of certain items, or come to collect a “membership due” from shopkeepers each month, limiting the amount they can spend on goods. This can also lead to side quests to either help the shopkeepers or join the underground criminal world (depending on your party).
We touched on this above, but the building style of the city does a lot to set it apart in the minds of your players. However, the building style will depend on many of the factors I have already listed, such as location, age, economy, and dominant race.
Now that you know all these things about your city, it is time to put it together. Your buildings should all have a design that weaves them together as part of a larger structure. Some design elements could be:
- Large stone pillars and columns
- Intricately carved wooden beams
- Trees or other nature elements
- Metal elements
- Open-air markets and structures
- Large, multi-level buildings
- Small, mostly thatch roof or lend-to type buildings
- Very organized or very chaotic
Choose your elements and then make sure to describe them and mention them often. Even if your players don’t remember the name of the city, they will remember what it looked like if you use this method.
The final element to consider is the political atmosphere of a location. How do the locals free about the ruling authority, current wars, or other affairs of state and how much do they talk about it? Large cities with political connections who rely on trade may be up in arms about a new embargo while a small fishing village could know nothing of what is happening outside their village.
The political temperature of a location will affect how that city’s citizens view certain members of the party, how much fame and clout the party holds in the area, and potential interactions.
Knowing the political connections of the upper echelon in your cities and town (sometimes even villages!) can also provide role-play opportunities, side quests, and connections for the party later. On the other hand, unknowingly committing a social faux pas to the city’s most influential noble could have dire consequences for the party in that city.
Keep It Simple
Although you can do deep into the history and lore of a city, most of the time it is best to keep it simple. If you consider each of these categories and come up with a simple answer for each, you will be able to create realistic and exciting villages and towns quickly and even on the spot!
Fill these realistic towns with realistic NPCs and your party will be scouring the landscape searching for them! If you aren’t sure how to do this, check out my post on Creating Unforgettable NPCs.
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!