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How to Build a Simple Settlement for D&D

Mounted atop their elf-raised pegasi, an adventuring party flies above the walls of Merlint. Accustomed to flying guests, the dragonborn guards atop the battlements wave them down using dancing lights and friendly fireballs. They descend to the city proper, greeted by soaring towers, docked airships, and a quiet city night. Understanding of Asudem’s tricky politics, a group of outsiders rallies to meet with the desert town’s council. They know of a threat to the town that digs beneath its walls and aims to destroy it from within. In the depths below an esteemed port city, dungeoneers navigate sewers overrun with vermin: otyughs, massive rats, and fire beetles. They’re trying to find a discrete way into a lord’s palace, but what to do? Perhaps they can find where the cleanest water runs…

Cities, villages, and towns all fit under the broad term of settlement. They are seen as pockets of safety, locations where the party can rest, resupply, and find a new quest. There are hundreds of them scattered across the various D&D setting books, internet postings, and movies in the world, but what if we want to create our own? We are world-builders, after all.

If we are ready to build a settlement for our D&D campaign or world, we need to start small; we must build a simple settlement. It is easy to get lost in our world and design an enormous city filled with colorful characters, evocative locations, and compelling plots — that is a fact. However, I’ve found that, unless our campaign is set in an urban environment, our group will not be spending too long in a settlement. Thus, we only need a few simple aspects of it fleshed out for it to be a worthwhile location to visit in our world. 

At the least, we need three things:
  1. One reason it exists
  2. Two interesting factions
  3. Three points of interest
That’s it! If we define these three points, we will have a simple but interesting settlement for our group to explore. Let us complete each point, one at a time.

One Reason It Exists

Why does our settlement exist? Remember, we are thinking in the context of our world. Did it pop up as a stop between two great trading cities? Does it serve as a barrier between the wild orc tribes of the great forest and the simple farming communities of the great plain? Is it a melting pot of various cultures, a central location where diverse groups of people coalesce? Once we key aspect, the rest of the settlement will grow from there. Without it, our settlement is lost — directionless.

Let us say our settlement serves as a shield against the vast unknown. On one side — domesticated landscape, covered in gently rolling hills and tilled earth. On the other — terrifying, untamed wilderness, rife with outcasts from the civilized world, predatory beasts, and tribes of roaming gnolls. Armed with this knowledge, we can easily create the rest of the settlement and answer any questions our player characters might have. For example, a player might ask us, “Who lives here?” We could say the settlement is populated with warriors who defend civilization from gnolls, priests who detest Yeenoghu, miners and explorers ready to leap into the wilderness and domesticate it, and traders looking to profit off these defenders and thrill-seekers. So long as we have the settlement’s reason for being, questions like this are trivial.

Now that we have one reason the settlement exists, and we are able to answer basic questions about it, let’s populate it.

Two Interesting Factions

The reason our settlement exists will serve as the backdrop in the campaign or lore we are creating, and the characters and factions will be the driving forces. Remember, characters, both player and not, are the beating heart of all great D&D stories. Thus, our settlement will need to have at least two factions that operate in it. From them, we can draw a few characters.

Let us revisit our settlement from above, a settlement that serves as a shield against the vast unknown. What two factions could exist in such a place? Before we begin, let us ask what interests our players. If they are invested in the wilderness, perhaps a ranger society is based there. If they are all spell-casters, maybe a cabal of wizards conducts research in a towering academy there. If our players despise the local ruler, there just might be one of her supporting organizations stationed in our settlement. Really, we must let our minds run. What would make sense and be interesting in this settlement?

A paladin order named the Sating Swords bases all of its operations from this settlement. Their primary goal is to protect it from ravaging gnolls in the nearby area. Their secondary goal is killing the Fang of Yeenoghu who appears to be uniting the various gnoll tribes in a large horde. The Sating Swords’ propaganda fills the streets: posters asking volunteers to join their order and fight the gnolls and recruiters sitting on every corner. Everyone knows they are out to do good, but some people are growing tired of their ceaseless plea for assistance.

These opinions are growing thanks to the second interesting faction in our settlement, the Cult of the Fang. In their blind pursuit of the gnolls in the neighboring wilderness, the Sating Swords have been negligent in the poorer areas of this settlement. And there, the Cult of the Fang is growing. “The paladins take your coin, your food, your sons & daughters, but the Cult can give them back. They can sate your newfound hunger. All it takes is a sacrifice of someone you hate.” People in the slums are disappearing and the paladins are ignoring it, focused on the foreign threat, ignoring domestic turmoil.

Faction-Related NPCs

Before we move on, let us create two non-player characters — one for each faction. Ideally, our party will interact with them while in the settlement.

First up, we have a representative of the Sating Swords. Her name is Eyra Moonwright. She is a human paladin dedicated to smiting the gnolls from the nearby countryside. Although she once lived in the settlement’s slums, she quickly forgot them when she became a paladin and rose through the ranks of the Sating Swords. She is single minded but dedicated; if she were to be reminded of her origins, perhaps the Cult of the Fang could be challenged.

Up next is a member of the Cult of the Fang. His name is Pip Riverchain. He is a halfling street urchin who joined the Cult of the Fang to make some quick coin, but quickly fell into its evil but engaging religion. He preys on anyone who looks weak, lost, or furious with the world around them. He is able to push people to do terrible things, promising them exactly what they want while knowing they most likely will not get it. At any time, he can summon two Abyssal gnolls to his side.

We now have two factions in our frontier settlement: the Sating Swords and the Cult of the Fang. They oppose each other and can create an interesting encounter or two while our group is inside the settlement. We also have two non-player characters who the party might meet. But where might they meet them?

Three Points of Interest

We have a reason our settlement exists, and two factions and characters the party might meet; now it is time to build three points of interest our group can explore. We must ask ourselves, where would our group want to go in a place like this? And then, would that location exist in a place like this? Our group may want to visit a royal palace, but it probably does not exist in our settlement.

Points of interest should be dissimilar. We should try not to create duplicates, unless it is necessary or we think it will enhance the experience. For example, building three temples as our three points of interest would usually be a horrible idea, but if the party is on a religious journey or made up of clerics, it might be a fantastic thought. Note, this rule disappears when we need to make shops. Usually, there is not an “all-in-one” shop in our settlements, so if we plan on the party visiting merchants, we need to do some extra work. Thus, shops do not count against our three points of interest. In fact, shops will be their own article in the future. We will discuss them briefly later on in this segment.

Let us continue with our example of a settlement on the edge of civilization. What cool points of interest could be there? We could relate these points of interest back to our factions, create entirely unique locations, or mix the two angles together.
  1. The Spire of Justice rises into the sky from the settlement’s center, serving as a headquarters for the Sating Blade.
  2. The Thieves’ Corridor hides in the eastern corner of the settlement, surrounded by low-roofed houses and tiny huts for the homeless.
  3. Melora’s Tree sits a short distance from the settlement’s southern gate, reminding folks that not all wilderness is dark and terrifying.
Those are our three points of interest. Each of them could be visited by our party with a little bait & hook from us. As stated before, adventurers usually stop in settlements to stock up and head out — maybe find a new quest. If we prod them a little bit, they could find a new quest in one of these areas while restocking on important items like food, drink, potions, and adventuring gear.

Maybe Melora’s Tree is between the front-gate and the general goods store, and the Spire of Justice is next door to the magic shop. Once our group is near the point of interest, lure them in. Melora’s Tree bestows druids nearby with a strange inner light. What’s up with that? Three gnolls are being dragged into the Spire of Justice by fully-armored knights. Oh, interesting! These points of interest make our settlement feel alive and unique, not just another stop en route to the lair of the big bad villain or the Macguffin deep below the ground.

We now have three points of interesting our party can visit inside our settlement: the Spire of Justice, the Thieves’ Corridor, and Melora’s Tree. Each of them can provide a side-quest opportunity for our group or just add flavor to our world.

On Shops

Shops in D&D are interesting. Some groups prefer to treat them as online stores, simply buying items from the Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide without interacting with the shop owner who runs the place. Other groups thoroughly enjoy speaking with the owner, bargaining with them, and establishing a relationship that might last the entire campaign. We will learn about shops at a later date, but we must understand one thing: what our group prefers. Do they enjoy talking to the smith about her latest creations? Do they despise bartering with the potion brewery about the price of healing potions? Find out what they enjoy, and stick with it. As a side note to this side note, this might be different with magic shops, since magic items do not typically have values. This means the players will need to speak in-character to ascertain the price of a magic item, whether it is in coins, services, or other magic items!

Extra Knowledge

Congratulations! We have built a simple settlement for our D&D campaign or world. However, if we would like to expand on it some more, here are a few elements we can add:
  1. Create a leader of the settlement
  2. Establish the most important person in the settlement
  3. Sketch out a map of the settlement
  4. Decide which deity or deities the people of the settlement worship
  5. Flesh out the settlement’s primary enemy
  6. Find out what laws the settlement follows
  7. Decide whether or not magic is allowed inside the settlement
  8. Create a brief 100-year history of the settlement
  9. Decide what the last major conflict in or near the settlement was
  10. Create ten secrets hidden within the settlement
Again, there is no requirement to establish any of these extra elements. We can do so if we feel it will assist us during the game or we simply want to flesh out our world.

In Summary

When we build settlements, unless we expect the party to stay there awhile (and listen), they should be simple. If we do not limit ourselves, they can rapidly grow into vast cities and sprawling metropolises. Building a simple settlement is a great first step; if we have time to expand it later, we can do so. However, we must remember most adventurers use settlements as a slingshot to the next. Since that is the case, we should create our settlements using these three steps:
  1. Create one reason the settlement exists. This reason answers a plethora of questions about our settlement.
  2. Create two interesting factions who operate in the settlement. They become the actors within the settlement, fountains from which we draw characters.
  3. Create three points of interest within the settlement. They make our world feel alive and give our groups places to explore.
I hope you enjoyed this article! I tried out a few new things this week, let me know if you thought they were an improvement. In addition, I’ve been active on my YouTube channel, spewing all sorts of D&D stuff onto it. I mostly read my articles for those who don’t like to read, but there are other goodies on there such as session preparation ramblings.

Next week, we’ll be talking about Matt Colville’s action-oriented monsters. It’s a provocative concept and something I’m excited to write about.

Farewell, creators, and happy world-building!

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