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Freelance Advice: Settlement Design

Designing adventures, evil villains and cool new magic items is exciting, but a well-thought out settlement can be an immeasurable boost to a campaign or adventure.


(Art: Maciej Zagorski (The Forge Studios)

Whether the PCs are settling down or just passing through, a well-designed settlement gives them a believable place to rest, gather information, craft magic items and so on.

When designing a settlement, a freelancer should consider the following basic factors:

  • Reason For Existence: Every settlement has a reason to exist. Perhaps the village has sprung up around a small castle or a town sprawls either side of the only ford for dozens of miles in either direction. The settlement’s reason for existence often heavily influences its physical makeup and populace.

  • History: A settlement should have a defined, vibrant and relevant history. This should be evident both in the layout and condition of the place. It’s always cool if a settlement has one or more secrets in its past perceptive or diligent PCs can discover.

  • Flavour: Do the villagers have certain strange religious practises or do the townsfolk wildly celebrate certain festivals? Have the buildings been constructed in a certain style or does everyone dress in a particular fashion? Including local flavour helps differentiate a place from its neighbours.

  • Nearby Adventures: Have a nearby site of adventure which the PCs can explore if they wish. A ruin, a haunted forest or old burial mound (or whatever) are all excellent locales. Provide a brief overview so the GM can expand on it if he wants.

  • Conflict: The settlement should have both internal and external conflicts with which to deal. This doesn’t necessarily mean the populace is fighting in the streets; instead there might be tension or bad feeling between certain folk or segments of society. Some of these the PCs may come across and some they may not uncover, but their presence shapes both the village’s physical and social landscapes. Without conflict of some sort, a settlement is a pretty boring (and unrealistic) place for adventurers.

  • Industry: Above all, the trades folk, industries and shops present should make sense in the overall context of the village. For example, unless there is a good reason for their existence, there are no magic shops or highly skilled weaponsmiths there “just in case” adventurers should wander by.

  • NPCs: Describe the NPCs in evocative fashion, giving the GM enough to portray them easily and memorably. Just as importantly, many NPCs have their own goals, aspirations, foibles and relationships which further build on the feeling the village is a real place and that its folk are not just waiting for adventurers to turn up before springing into life.

Do you have any other hints and tips for designing settlements large or small? Share them in the comments below.

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I'd put all of the above and a few other things in the form of a question at least for smaller towns which are fun to design because they can be more complete. Like:
-Who leads the settlement?
-When a child is about to be born who is called on to deliver the baby?
-What is the most common occupation in the settlement?
-If someone visits from out of town what do the townsfolk direct them to as "must see" locations?

Local cusine is also always a nicer touch.

I like these flavoursome questions? They give a great snapshot of the settlement. I wonder if a list of such might be a good addition to my original article.

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