DnD: how to infuse a city at home

Many new DMs find homebrewing an entire town in Dungeons & Dragons a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

From Neverwinter to Baldur’s Gate to the metropolis of Waterdeep, the Forgotten Realms boasts some of the most recognizable cities in all Dungeons & Dragons. The incredible amount of lore and history for the various base towns J&D can be daunting for a new DM, so how do you prepare a city for its own world? Part of the magic of D&D is that things can be built on the fly and still look like they were part of the scenery to begin with. The DM can work entirely on the spot, but it is better to be partially prepared.

Online resources exist to homebrew everything from towns and characters to entire world maps, but creating a fleshed-out town is another story. Just naming a tavern can be difficult, let alone crafting the history of a completely new town. Names are a good place to start, but the best thing to remember is that J&D is a game, and the design of the world should be appropriate to what the game expects. A simple, functional design is a great foundation and provides the perfect framework for DMs and gamers, but finding that framework can be the hardest part. Keeping a few basic guidelines in mind, the task is much simpler than it might seem at first glance.

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Start with the basics

The most important thing to remember is to start with the basics of what is required in the city. If players are coming to town to turn in a quest, meet someone at a tavern, or visit a particular location, start there. Starting with the key areas allows the DM to focus on what’s essential to the story.

Think about key places the group needs to visit, especially if they don’t plan to spend a lot of time in that city. It can be helpful to have a few named and fleshed out locations. If the party only visits a local lord to turn in a quest, then a tavern to rest for a long time, there’s no need to name every street or decide what each store has in stock. It might be possible to get by just by naming the lord, offering some basic descriptors of the house he’s in, then just saying “you find a tavern to rest at night” and move the story forward. .

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World build

If players start spending more time in the city, they will naturally ask questions. Questions can be a great guide to what needs to be fleshed out and what leads the group might start to follow. It can even lead to completely unexpected questlines simply due to players’ interest in the city. If players start asking about the location of the city, it can lead to a story about investigating the ancient ruins of a civilization that once stood there. If players ask about the lore of different gangs they might see on the streets, slowly bring them into conflict or contact with one or more of those gangs. As powerful as worldbuilding is as an environment design tool, never underestimate the power of worldbuilding to lead players on a series of quests.

Another important thing to remember about worldbuilding, especially for newer DMs, is that it’s totally okay to invent something on the spot. If the adventure takes place in an entirely home-brewed world, it’s even simpler. The DM’s word is law at the table, especially regarding the world in which players play. If players are asking who owns the old lighthouse overlooking the city and the DM hasn’t planned that NPC ahead of time, it’s entirely viable for the DM to find an NPC there. It can also be used to their advantage in storytelling. If there is no planned NPC for the lighthouse, perhaps no one knows who runs it, and players can investigate how it continues to function or why the lighthouse keeper disappeared.

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Connect to the city

The town of Baldurs Gate at sunset.

Other players are another powerful world-building tool. If a homebrew campaign starts in a tavern, as they so often do, that tavern will likely also be in a homebrewed town. The DM can use this to their advantage, taking parts of different characters’ stories and inserting them into the town. If the thief is in debt to a thieves guild, the guild can come and call to collect. If the paladin is sworn to a particular temple, make sure that temple exists in the city. These types of scenarios always hit players harder because they had a hand in crafting them, and all of the NPCs and organizations mentioned in their stories can be used to bolster a homebrew town.

The most important thing to remember when creating a homebrew city, or when creating any content for J&D, it’s a make-believe game. Not all roads, towns and taverns have to have a name with deep meaning and symbolism. Not every NPC has to have a full family history, and not everything has to be planned in advance. On-the-fly storytelling is one of the strengths of Fifth Edition and can be one of a DM’s most powerful tools for maintaining the illusion of a real, breathing world without the need for a mountain of paperwork.

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