Despite many articles in development, today I’m choosing to scratch a pure fantasy-gaming itch that’s been growing for a while.
Specifically, I’m going to look at how I go about creating a village for an RPG.
There are some aspects of the process I employ that I’ve never seen written up anywhere else – whether that’s with good reason or not, I’ll leave to your own judgment.
Before I get started on the Village itself, there are a number of preliminary design considerations that I need to assess.
Context: The PCs
Why are the PCs going to be here? Are they just traveling, or does this have to tie into some larger adventure?
Who are they? This will dictate what institutions will “connect” with them, eg Clerics and Temples.
Is there anything that the PCs are going to want to do in town, and do I want them to be able to do it, partially or completely? This includes the obvious (replenish supplies) and the inobvious (sell loot, sell hot property to a fence, etc). What limits do I want to put on this activity,eg how much ready cash do I want in circulation?
I’ll be putting my example in quote boxes like this one. Let’s assume a typical PFRPG / D&D party – a fighter, cleric, rogue, and mage. The fighter is a former member of the army of another Kingdom who lost a war, The cleric is a follower of a sun god, the rogue is a pickpocket but makes most of his “on the side” money buying, transporting, and selling stolen property, and the mage has a passion for secrets and hidden lore. The fighter is a Dwarf, the Mage is an Elf, the others are Human. And, just to keep things simple, they are just traveling from place to place looking for adventure, so the Village can stand alone. They have a little loot to sell, mostly weapons, nothing important, except the Rogue, who has a fancy necklace he is trying to sell (value 500gp).
Context: The People
What do I already know about the national identity of the inhabitants? About their racial profile? About the general society and social profile within the Realm?
Again, just to keep the example simple, this is a generic fantasy kingdom. The villages are neither poor nor prosperous, neither oppressed nor rebellious. The inhabitants have the generic prejudices and reactions to other races.
Context: The Village
This includes anything I know about the place in general before I start, like the general geography, climate, etc.
Rolling green foothills and a river, northern temperate climate, some snow in winters, and located on a middle-grade thoroughfare between Capital and the southern outlying parts of the Kingdom, commonly used as a trade route.
It’s currently late spring, so it’s warm and the river has settled down to it’s average level after being swollen with melting snow earlier in the season.
Harvests in this Kingdom come in three phases – the winter harvest is used locally; the spring harvests are mostly paid to the Baron who owns the land around these parts; and the Summer Harvest is mostly paid as part of the Baron’s Tithe to the King. But I want to make this village a little different, so crop farming is not going to be the major economic activity locally – there will still be some barley, wheat, and vegetable cropping, but it’s a minor activity, locally.
How long do I want this place to be the center of attention? Ten minutes? An Hour? A game session? An adventure? Longer? This dictates both the level of detail and the level of complexity that I want to build into the place and the events that are possible there.
I want to set a shortish adventure here, between one and three game sessions, and then let the party move on. However, I want this place to become a regular stop for the PCs so that as the campaign evolves, they can see the village evolving with it, so I want to build in some inhabitants with whom the PCs will want to have regular contact.
The Axis Of Dissent
There is always one topic that is the focus of disagreement amongst the inhabitants of a community. This can be anything that has an opposite quality – individual independence vs law-and-order, wealth vs poverty, sociability vs intolerance, sloth vs activity, expansion vs consolidation, good vs evil, barley vs wheat, you name it.
No matter what opinions individuals might have on other subjects, these two points of view unite them into camps of strange bedfellows. Where one stands on the issue in question will define who your friends and acquaintances are – and who you are likely to have an argument with.
All other disputes tend to get resolved according to where you stand on these issues because they dictate who has power and who doesn’t, what favors you can call in, and so on.
Relations between the camps can be cordial, heated, fractious, or even violent. But they need to be close in numbers, so even if one is officially suppressed, it will have a number of adherents hiding behind a publicly-acceptable banner.
While it is sometimes possible to have 3-cornered disputes, I tend to reserve those for larger communities.
Sidebar: The Ordering Of Dispute
A great way to achieve the required complexity of settlements of different sizes is to have multiple axes of dissent. Small villages have one; small towns have one, plus a minority contingent that straddles the fence or argues in favor of a middle ground; larger towns have two, or one three-cornered one; small cities have three; large cities have four.
Each additional cause of dissent subdivides the community into power blocks. If there are two axes, the community is divided into four major factions, each of which sometimes allies one way and sometimes another, and each of which has an opposed faction with which it disagrees on every one of these fundamental questions (though they may agree on other, unrelated, matters). Three axes divides a community at least eight ways, and almost certainly creates opportunities for additional factions who are neutral on one of the three issues, while being passionate about one or both of the other two; four, sixteen plus neutrals. Internal politics becomes more and more complex with each increase.
Axes of dissent aren’t permanent; they come and go over time as circumstances and societies change. They may last for generations, or be resolved more-or-less permanently after a period of months – or even weeks, if important enough. In general, they persist until supplanted by another, more pressing issue that divides the community – and then, only if growth doesn’t permit the additional axis of dissent to be accommodated alongside the new.
As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the community, the more it can be said that – in broad terms – everyone wants the same thing, but disagrees on how best to achieve it. The more a community grows, the more room there is for dissenting objectives and agendas that are completely unrelated to the first point of disagreement.
The reasons for that commonality are long and complicated and have a lot to do with power structures and authority. As a general rule of thumb, higher-ups will let communities decide things for themselves until it impacts on their bottom line, at which point one faction will be brutally brought to heel, settling the question with a fair degree of finality. Sometimes the faction suppressed will be the one not currently in charge, sometimes it will be the current leaders – that depends on the vagaries of individual personalities amongst the nobility doing the suppression.
Finally, it has to be said that these issues are rarely as important in the broad scheme of things as the locals feel them to be!
I want this village to be a little unusual, so I’ll choose an unusual but entirely acceptable axis of dissent: Wet Vs Dry. What exactly that means remains to be seen!
There are three ways of measuring the relative importance of an industry: the size of the workforce it employs, the economic value of the industry to the community, and social dependence. I deal with each of these separately.
The dominant industry in terms of workforce is the occupation that most of the people in these parts do for a living, including any secondary industries that derive from the first. Mess with this, and you’ll have unhappy people. The more civil authority the individuals have, the more official policy will reflect the attitudes, opinions, and aspirations of the employees of this industry. If civic leaders are popularly elected, for example, you either cater to this industry or you need something to counter the popular support that it has.
It is fundamentally important that the dominant industry – no matter how you measure it – is firmly connected to the axis of dissent. You want these people to have opinions, one way or the other. It’s very easy and quite normal to characterize allegiance to one faction of the dispute as “the dominant industry vs everyone else”. The alternative is for this industry to be divided on both sides of the central issue, with this workforce providing the numbers that make up each faction more or less evenly, allowing other social factors to be the deciding consideration.
“Wet vs Dry” – to me, at least – suggests that the point of dissent concerns water management. This makes sense, since we have the river running through the town, or at least along one side of it. Water Management, in turn, suggests agriculture of some sort as the dominant industry – and, since I have already ruled out crops as the dominant industry, that must mean livestock. In a medieval/fantasy economy, that means one of five things, generally: Fishing, Beef, Pork, Horses, or Sheep.
Given the geography, Cattle and Pork are less likely, though the former is not entirely out of the question. Fishing is going to be limited in a river setting as compared to a coastal setting, so that is unlikely to be the biggest employer of the workforce, though it may form a powerful minority faction amongst the “wet” contingent. Horses tend to generate more wealth than I really want the village to have. So that suggests that Sheep-farming is the dominant industry.
So, what are the products that derive from shepherding? These will provide the secondary industries that make this so important an occupation. Wool, both died and plain, tanned sheep-leather, mutton, and vellum/parchment. Some cultures reserved the term vellum for calfskin, and all other types of hide treated for writing was called parchment; others were more liberal in their definitions. Further confusing matters is an economic differentiation which uses “Vellum” to refer to the highest quality materials, regardless of source, while “Parchment” is used for the more common quality of material. I’ll reserve judgment on the issue of how the locals use these terms until I see how it all fits in.
One thing common to dying, tanning, and the manufacture of parchment/vellum is that they produce pollution as a byproduct. This is worse today than it was back then, because we use more severe and efficient chemicals, but even so, let’s assume that the actual herds are “dry” (because the water is only used to supply the animals) while the secondary industries use the water in such a way that it cannot be used for grazing afterwards.
If that’s our point of contention amongst the different factions, then it’s clear that what I said earlier about Fishing is no longer correct – any secondary Fishing industry would be amongst the “dry” faction, who want clean water for the livestock, including fish. Furthermore, the dominant industry is divided by the point of dispute. The shepherds and mutton factions are “dry”, while the tanning and parchment industries are “wet”. The wool secondary industry is divided into non-polluting dies (dry) and polluting dies (wet).
Since its the shepherds who are the primary suppliers, the dry faction is clearly dominant at the moment. To achieve balance between the factions, it is going to be necessary for one or more of the wet faction to be the dominant industry in some other scale of measurement. Fortunately, we have two. What’s more, at least one unrelated secondary industry, possibly two, are going to be firmly in the “dry” camp – fishing, as identified earlier, and crop agriculture in general. Both are going to be minor relative to the pastoral industry, according to what’s already been decided, but they add to the power of the “dry” faction, and show that whatever the other measure of dominance is, the secondary industry concerned will have to be substantially dominant for anything close to parity to be achieved.
Dominance: Economic Value
Whatever earns the most money for the community will therefore be elevated in power and prestige beyond any direct measure of workforce scale. This is the source of “the few”, “the social elite”, “the wealthy” – no matter how you want to describe them, this is where they come from. Money always brings power, in some form or another.
Anything that isn’t being produced locally either has to be brought in from the outside or the locals will have to do without. That requires money, or the equivalent in trade goods. Since large-scale centralization of agriculture is not something that happens until relatively modern times, it can be assumed that just because the locals have one dominant crop or agricultural pursuit, the neighbors won’t be doing the same thing. Diversity is better for all. Regional focus may be more efficient in that one form of agriculture, but it must be supported by surrounding diversity, in other words.
That means that whatever meat is left after the tithings can be divided into local consumption and that available for trade with surrounding villages and townships in return for other produce. This trade, combined with whatever is grown locally, providing adequate diversity of diet.
It follows that the dominant economic force is either going to be the primary industry, a secondary industry attached to it, or something from a completely unrelated field of endeavor. In a mining community, the suppliers of food and services hold the trump cards in terms of economic value.
We’ve already decided that the shepherds of our village can’t be the dominant force economically; they are already the most populous group, and this would give them a dominant position in local politics. That would be fine if that was what was wanted, but we want there to be some contention within the town for the PCs to get involved in, and to make the place more interesting and colorful.
That means our choices for economic dominance are either a secondary industry attached to the sheep herds, or the suppliers of essential services, or both. For reasons that will soon become clear, I’m going to set aside the essential services possibility and confine myself to the secondary industry possibility.
So, we have dying, tanning, and parchment/vellum as possible economically-dominant forces in the region. To bring in significant amounts of money – enough to make them the dominant force or forces in the economy – they will need some point of distinction, something they do better than everyone else in the same line of work. This would not be necessary if the product itself was rare and highly prized, but none of them have that up their sleeves.
- Dying: either the wool is a superior quality, or it takes and holds color better than others by virtue of some secret process, or the locals have some in-demand color that no-one else knows how to achieve, or some combination of these possibilities. Higher-quality wool begs the question of why it is of such quality and why no-one else can match it, and I don’t have good answers for those questions, so let’s rule that out and say that while the wool is premium quality, it’s not notably better than other high-quality wool providers. A secret process sounds good, but that can apply equally to either option. Choosing between them comes down to choosing something that’s better but common, or something that is unusual. So far, the community is fairly bucolic and mundane, so I’m leaning toward the latter. What’s an unusual color? Two thoughts come to mind: Purple – which used to be a very expensive and rare color, which is why it’s associated with royalty – and gold. I’m afraid that the thought of a town which makes “golden fleece” which can be spun, woven, and worn like ordinary wool, is irresistible.
- Tanning: the same arguments lead to the same choices – quality, or something unusual about the colors. But we’ve already used the latter, and quality (softness) is easily achieved by using lamb skin instead of sheep skin. Toughness, the other way of measuring quality in leather, is more commonly associated with leather from cattle. So this secondary industry is not suitable to be economically dominant.
- Parchment/Vellum: This used to be the dominant material for writing until paper became available in industrial quantities. I found the FAQ at www.Pergamena.com to be useful on more than one occasion, and have excerpted three paragraphs from that resource below for general reference; the only thing to dislike about the site is that it doesn’t show prices. Clearly, price is no object if you want to use this stuff!
Parchment and its subtype, Vellum, were clearly prized for their durability, but the production process was very slow. Using my preferred resource, “…and a ten-foot pole”, and converting the “middle ages” prices to standard 3.x using the process outlined in How Much Is That Warhorse In The Window? – Pricing Of Goods in D&D, I get 8.5sp per sheet, 6.5sp per sheet, and 8sp per sheet for paper, parchment, and vellum, respectively.
That’s not enough to justify economic dominance unless there’s something superior about the locally-produced product, which therefore fetches a premium price, or they have made some sort of breakthrough that boosts their production rate and cuts costs, so that the profits are inflated. Let’s assume that most such production has a profit margin of 2sp per sheet, and therefore costs 4.5sp per sheet to manufacture. Halving the cost per sheet while doubling production means that per man-hour, the costs are effectively quartered to about 1sp – call it 1.5 for convenience. That leaves 5sp per sheet profit vs 2sp profit for everyone else. This would enable a reduction in price to 5.5sp per sheet – undercutting everyone else in the market – while capturing twice as much profit. That is enough to create economic dominance, locally. In fact, to satisfy the demands of their production potential, they would probably have to import additional untreated or partially-treated hides from some other shepherding region.
But I have a better idea: Suppose the locally-produced parchment is of Vellum quality, costs twice as much, but halves the time required to transfer spells to it? This region would become the principle supplier of “Sheep Vellum” to mages and temples for scrolls and spellbooks. This lacks the complications of the “faster, cheaper, production” idea, and it gives one of the PCs a definite interest in the fortunes of one of the factions.
Selected excerpts from the FAQ of www.Pergamena.com
The first parchments were simply unrefined animal skins. But over time, parchment production practices became increasingly refined until parchment became a legitimate writing surface. By the 15th century, parchment had eclipsed papyrus as the more stable, available, and preferred writing material. After the invention of the printing press and before the wide adoption of paper, parchment was also seen as the preferred material for use in printing — a prime example of this is the Gutenberg Bible. The material’s durability also led to its widespread use in bookbinding.
Over the past millennium, the process of making parchment and leather shrunk months to a week or less. We have modern chemicals to thank for this much swifter production period. The process has gone from taking months to now being able to be done in a week or less.
Currently at Pergamena, we produce parchment on four different types of animal skin: goat, calf, deer, and sheep. The most telling difference between the parchments of these animals is the grain, or the outside surface which contains the hair follicles. Goat usually has a rough, almost crackly, pattern to it that resembles the surface of asphalt, and can have a lot of fairly noticeable scars and marks, due to the wear and tear the hide experiences during the animal’s life. Calf has a much smoother, flatter surface characterized by the broad pattern of thick fat wrinkles and finer veins that spiderweb across the skin. Deer, being wild animals, have the most prominent display of scars, punctures, scrapes, and bites of all our skin types. Sheep have a very similar granular pattern to goat, but can usually be recognized by the smaller size of the “pebbles” in the grain. Because of our manufacturing process, all of the animal types can be prepared with anything from smooth, flat finishes to none at all.
When the locals are Dependant on some commodity, the suppliers of said commodity have authority and power. This is often expressed by the prices being charged, and the profits being gouged, from the locals. This is why so few gold miners who actually found gold got rich in the California and Klondike gold rushes (they fared a little better in Ballarat, here in Australia, on average, but the general principle holds for the most part).
The secondary industries of our village – which still hasn’t been named – all depend on the shepherds. But the shepherds also depend on those secondary industries buying their hides and fleece for the coin needed to buy goods and services. For all that they are at odds over the axis of dissent, they need each other.
This leaves the service providers as the only other source of influence. The secondary industries are all urbanized occupations, and require a support infrastructure – markets and bakers and furniture makers and taverns and wagoners and the like. What’s more, the presence of two high-end industries – the dyers with the gold-spun wool and the “sheep vellum” makers, both of whom have a process to hide, and require chemicals for the treatment of their products, and have lots of ready cash, pretty much ensures that they have something to protect, and that demands a police force or watch of some sort. Because these are the people paying the bills, this force will tend to take the urban citizens’ side over that of the shepherds. This is exactly the sort of thing that can create resentments and conflict within a community.
What’s more, it will probably resonate with another of the PCs – the fighter, being an ex-army type, is likely to either be strongly pro-law-and-order, respectful of authority, or to blame authority for the defeat that he experienced within the army. Either way, he is likely to have a strong opinion.
Shops and Services
With a fair idea of the basis of the local economy, the next step is to list the shops and services that the locals need. Note that we have two distinct groups of locals at this point – the urban population employed by the secondary industries and the rural population that sell to those secondary industries. I’ll usually brainstorm for a reasonable period of time on these. The decisions so far have been important, but much quicker to make than it has taken to explain them; I will spend at least as long developing the list of shops and services as I have on the entire process thus far.
With each, there are two things that I will assess: relative economic profitability and where they stand on the wet-vs-dry question.
Economic profitability is done on a simple scale – but a scale that changes with the size of the population center.
- Villages are rated 0-3, with 3 being high and 0 indicating break-even or worse.
- Small Towns are rated 1-4.
- Larger Towns are rated 2-4. The assumption is that costs are higher and force any business dropping to a “1” to close or move. Some types of premises may have multiple representations, eg more than one tavern.
- Small Cities are rated 1-5, and will often have multiple instances of the same type of shop or service. The bottom-level profitability describes slum regions that cater to the poorest, but there is enough economic diversity in a small city to support most types of business, no matter how niche it may be.
- Large Cities are rated 1-6. Almost every trade will have rivals or competitors, and in some cases there may be dozens of them.
Note that I don’t care how much profit they actually make – this is a rough measure of their relative importance to the community.
I’m running out of time to get this article finished, so I’m not going to apply the full process. In fact, I’m only going to offer a couple of representative examples.
Temples – The two populations have very different needs, and are likely to have separate places of worship. Alternatively, the local pastor may be the man-in-the-middle trying to keep peace between the two factions. If the latter, he is likely to find an ally in the PC cleric; if the former, the PC may side with one or the other sides. Which approach I chose would depend on the affiliations of the other PCs – so far, the fighter is either strongly pro- or strongly anti- the townspeople (“wet” faction), and the mage is definitely aligned with the “wet” faction. The rogue is also likely to be “wet”, simply because it creates more opportunities for “his line of work”. My preference would be to arrange things so that the party are evenly divided in their sympathies, but without creating the PCs in more depth, I can’t make that decision. “Profitability” 1 (rural), 2 (compromise), 3 (urban).
Abattoir – Urban (centralized) but tied more directly with the “dry” faction (the shepherds). The middleman that makes it possible for the secondary industry to forget where their raw materials come from – “they come from the Abattoir”. Profitability 2.
Taverns – If the shepherds were in town all the time, there would be a lot more taverns devoted to servicing them than there were devoted to the townspeople, but they aren’t. Expect parity across both populations. And some of the more bucolically-oriented would only be busy once a week (usually a Friday or Saturday night), and would look for opportunities for other revenue streams mid-week in order to stay afloat. Profitability 2 (urban), 0-1 (rural). This creates an opportunity for restraint-of-trade by each side – zoning, crackdowns, fees – when they`are in power. The town watch will be more active near the rural taverns.
The decisions made so far make it fairly easy to work out what will be for sale in the weekly or fortnightly markets, and what the townspeople eat. It also enables a lot of additional color to be introduced – “Barley train from Fenwicke’s overdue again,” in response to a complaint when the only menu item in the tavern is turnip stew with sheep’s-tongue.
Knowing what the most important businesses in town are, it becomes a lot easier to work out who the most important people are.
Next, I make sure that each PC has a point of connection with a local who has a strong stance on the central issue, trying – as I suggested earlier – to balance the viewpoints across the party. If there’s anyone the PCs are likely to interact with who wasn’t detailed in the previous step, this is when it happens. I try to make sure there are some interesting people on hand for the PCs to interact with.
Again, a couple of quick examples:
Renfrew – Renfrew is a buyer from a somewhat elitist mage’s academy located somewhere else, here to try and negotiate greater access to the “sheep vellum” – which needs a better name. Affable and persuasive, this creates a conflict for the mage who is not from that academy and whose supply of “sheep vellum” would be lost if Renfrew succeeds. Pro-Wet, but attempting to obtain favor and leverage over the Wets by supporting the Dry faction. He doesn’t care if there is less “Sheep’s Vellum” produced as a result – so long as he gets most or all of it.
Kneelisworth – A wanted Fence who is hiding out in the village in the guise of a tavern owner. While he claims to have won the tavern in a card game from the former owner, he has in fact killed the man and his family and buried them in the earthen basement. Trying hard not to be discovered, he eschews his former trade and is vocally pro law-and-order. The rogue will recognize him as resembling the Fence, and can eventually discover the truth – then either turn him in or blackmail him into using his contacts to on-sell the goodies the rogue “acquires”. The latter is more likely, and gives one reason for the PCs to return here.
Points Of Conflict
These are the vocal and public surface of the underlying axis of conflict, the issues of the day.
- The Fishermen want more access to the river. The businesses want to build more docks for their own use so that they can freight their products downriver, avoiding the expensive fees charged by the wagoners.
- A brutal murder has been committed near one of the (rural) taverns. The victim is the son of one of the more outspoken locals who opposes the unfair treatment of the local farmers.
- The town council has just raised duties on wine and strong spirits. This doesn’t affect the rural taverns but the urban ones have had to raise their prices, creating unrest.
…and so on.
Town Layout & Name
Knowing what the major businesses are, and who needs what in terms of access, I can “zone” the city into poor districts, industry, retail, wealthy, and so on, creating a rough layout. This is also the point at which I name the town if I haven’t already done so.
Finally, I decide what the adventure or the adventures available to the PCs in the local district are going to be.
Several ideas have occurred to me in the course of writing this article. I would probably make them all available and let the PCs decide what to look into first and what to ignore.
- You have money moving in and valuables moving out of town, and a rural population, some of whom don’t think they are getting their fair share. This is an open temptation to banditry – which would explain why the wagoners have raised their fees to the point where local businesses are looking for alternative transportation solutions. Things get more complicated when the rural population really are being short-changed and hence have a legitimate grievance.
- The murder mentioned above. Perhaps it has nothing to do with who the victim was, and everything to do with a cult that has secretly taken over a local farm.
- A side effect of one of the unique industrial processes is turning some of the sheep who drink the water downstream into monsters. This in turn has caused the loss of several trade caravans and a couple of bandit raiding parties – all of which is being blamed on drunken townsmen.
- The other industrial process does something to the minds of some of the monsters, making them perfect hosts for some other form of nasty. This could be anything from Cthulhoid greeblies to Demons, but these won’t start showing up right away.
The great thing about this setup is that the PCs are buying into the argument, taking sides, simply by choosing where to stay. It doesn’t matter whether they choose the rural-oriented budget accommodation or the expensive urban-population-oriented accommodation that’s available, either choice places them front-and-center for an interesting stay.
….and that’s how I create a Village for a fantasy RPG!