by Mike Shea on 6 April 2015
Most of our fantasy RPGs, at some point, has us introducing our group of heroes to a new town. As common as it is, however, introducing a town can be tough to manage at the table. It's likely you might overwhelm the players with too much information. "Here's this town. It has seventeen buildings and twenty seven NPCs. What do you want to do?"
Today we're going to look at some tricks for introducing a town seamlessly into your story. You'll give your players some focus but give them a lot of freedom at the same time. Let's begin.
When the PCs first enter the town, describe first the characteristic that makes the town unique. Is it built over the remains of an ancient castle? Is it built on the edge of a sinkhole? Is there an eternally shining light hanging over it in the sky? What about this town sets it apart from every other town the PCs are likely to come across? This characteristic should be fantastic in the true definition of the word. We're playing a fantasy game afterall so the fact that the entire town is carved out of enormous petrified mushrooms is what your players will remember years from now. This single detail can do a lot to set it in the minds of your players and let it grow in their imaginations into something truely wonderful.
Page 17 of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide has a great section on this topic entitled "Atmosphere". This section is worth your time to review regularly before running an introduction to a town.
If you have a map, print it out and give it to them. Let them see the layout of the town rather than try to describe it. As you point out details, show them on the map where those details are located. Like the unique characteristic, a physical map will give them a much better idea of what the place actually looks like.
Before the PCs ever reach the town, clarify what reasons they have for going there. Are they there to collect a debt? Are they there to talk to a local archaeologist who knows all about the Skull Tomb? Are they trying to reach the local priest of Oghma to prevent her assassination? If the PCs have a quest before they ever reach the town, they're not likely to just wander off aimlessly wondering why chickens are so goddamn expensive in this joint. You also don't want to go overboard with this. Don't give them seventeen quests in the town. Stick to no more than three.
We can extend this idea further by directly tying the PCs to the town we're introducing, particularly if we're planning to use it as their home base at the beginning of a campaign. Here are some example backgrounds players might choose for their PCs that can tie them to a town. Special thanks to Joe Lastowski for inspiring these examples with his hooks for Princes of the Apocalypse.
Build your own custom list from the ideas above based on the town you plan to introduce. Let players choose their hook or roll randomly.
Page 79 of the Dungeon Master's Guide also has a fantastic table called "Framing Events". This is a great way to add another layer to the town. It gives context to the arrival of the PCs and breathes life into the place. Many times these events won't have any real effect on the adventure but it's quite possible that it will change the entire course of the adventure. This chart is a great lazy way to add some excitement to the introduction of a town.
Towns are wonderful sandboxes for fantasy RPGs but they could end up providing too many options. Stick to the rule of three when you bring them into the town. Describe three primary locations of interest and introduce them to three NPCs relevant to their interests. If the PCs need to dig deeper, they can learn about three more places or three more NPCs as they go. This branching network of people and places is a much easier way to digest a town than trying to figure out the purpose of every one of the 24 buildings in the town.
While most adventuring groups are used to going into an unknown town and heading straight for the bar or inn. It's a familiar situation and can get a bit stale. Instead, before the PCs ever get to the town, find out if any of them happen to know someone there. Maybe it's an uncle who runs the leatherworking shop or a half-brother who happens to be one of the town guard. Maybe it's an old war buddy who set up shop selling old weapons left behind after countless battles. Maybe the rogue knows an old smuggler who isn't quite as retired as she likes to admit.
If one or more of the PCs have someone they can go talk to it gives them some direction. It might even give them a place to stay or a trusted ally who can fill them up with a thick stew and some juicy rumors.
If you're about to introduce the PCs to a new town, here's a quick checklist of ideas to make their encounter with the town the most memorable and enjoyable. Answer these questions and jot them down on a 3x5 card before you run your game.
With these ideas in hand, your next introduction to a town will open up a great location for fantastic adventure and fun. Enjoy!