Every campaign could do with a good starting town (if you are setting a campaign in a larger city, strongly defining a locality like a neighborhood can have the same effect). For my current campaign, I wanted this to be a frontier town on the edges of the grasslands of the Great Expanse.
[I have a campaign journal running alongside my prep work for my new campaign, which this town will be used in. If you’re interested in following along you can find Part One here!]
I wanted to do this for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s easier to design a small town like this more intimately – you can really define every nook and cranny of such a tiny frontier settlement. This is nice when you’re first starting a game and you aren’t sure what direction the player party might go yet.
It’s also a good place to bring the themes I’m looking at to the forefront. This is a place on the edges of the spread of civilization, contending with the wilds beyond that wish to remain free. A place like this is probably run by a single rich individual or powerful family, which brings all kinds of complications along with it that should play nicely into the themes of oppression and subjugation.
I’ll be looking to making some plot hooks for the party soon, but I’m waiting on character creation to be done for everybody before taking that step. For now, I’m just going to be fleshing out the locations and people of the town.
Kolinville: Brief History
Let’s get to know this frontier town.
It’s probably very new. Some of the people living here are the original settlers. Let’s say it was founded 30 years ago by a man named Declan Kolin – predictably, he named his new settlement after himself.
A lot of people coming to this continent are chasing rumors of gold in the hills, Declan was no different. He gathered a group of settlers to start up a mine in this “new world” looking for gold. They didn’t find any, but the land proved fertile for farming so the town has thrived nonetheless.
Declan was a cunning individual. He was able to avoid major conflict from erupting with any of the nearby native populations through some unscrupulous maneuvering.
The land Kolinville is settled upon was acquired in a deal with a local tribe of plains Tabaxi. Their chief had been killed by an assassin from a nearby Centaur tribe, and Declan agreed to aid them in exchange for peaceful use of that land. Of course, Declan was the one that paid the Centaur that killed the Tabaxi chief – and the fellow wasn’t even a member of that neighboring tribe, Declan had dressed him so and instructed him to make sure he was seen.
Regardless of the means, the result has been a relatively tranquil 30 years for the people of Kolinville.
Kolinville: General Facts
This is a small town, so I’m setting the population quite low. Including nearby farms, the tabaxi living on the border of the town, and the population of warforged slaves there are not many more than 100 living in the town.
The current mayor is Samuel Kolin, the son of Declan. Declan, like many other people in the town, died in a sickness that swept through about ten years ago. That’s also going to tilt the population towards young adult, as the old and very young both largely died then.
The main industry of the town is agriculture. The local mine still runs and produces some stone and metals, but never any of the gold the original settlers hoped for. Lake Kolin is good for fish, so the people are not wanting for a varied diet.
Recently, Kolinville has seen an unexpected boom as a stopping off point for explorers and adventurers on their way into the Great Expanse. The printing press is new to this world, and the first book to see wide distribution and popularity is one written by a Kerthan merchant named Dellias Garry detailing his journeys across the plains. He described beautiful untamed scenery, mountains that pierced the clouds, expanses of grass waving like the sea, and all kinds of fantastical beasts and creatures. The full title, Across the Expanse: My Journies(sic) in the New World by Dellias Garry, was a bit of a mouthful but nonetheless captured the imagination of a new wave of settlers and explorers.
That seems like plenty to flesh out the background of the town. A big event from the past (the “sickness”), a big event happening now (the colonial boom), an inherent tension to pull on (the legacy of Kolin cheating the native tribes), and an idea of what the people that live around here depend on for their livelihoods (agriculture mostly, with some miners and fishers, maybe a handful of craftspeople). That gives me a lot to work with moving forward making NPCs to populate the town and, eventually, making plot hooks.
Locations and People
All the background that I’ve worked up serves as a good foundation for the next step. This is the most important one, because the people your players meet and the places your players go are what they will remember. All that lore is important to building context and immersion, but don’t expect anybody to remember it all.
I’ve drawn my map at this point. I’ll go ahead and post it again here so it’s fresh in our minds:
Now I move around the town defining these locations I’ve offered myself – the stores, tavern, and any locations players are likely to visit for any reason. You don’t have to flesh individual houses out the same way, but it pays to think about what an average dwelling looks like in a town or city so you can improvise one of those on the fly because you never know where those wily players will go.
In this case, these are very simple homes. Likely to be three rooms in many cases, with a living/cooking/eating area and two bedrooms, one for the parents and one for the children. Supplies such as cooking implements, utensils, and spices would be all over the walls as storage space would be sparse. There is always a fireplace in the living area to provide fire for cooking and warmth in the cold seasons.
I just need a basic idea of how houses look, so that will do fine. I don’t need to define and populate every house, and I can’t imagine having time to.
With that, I can move on to defining the key locations. I just name some key qualities about the location, any special notes I need to keep in mind, and fill it with NPCs as appropriate. I try to keep these notes concise so as not to overwhelm myself, because I prefer to improvise everything in session when it comes to descriptions, and because quite frankly about half of these people may not even get used.
Keep in mind when designing NPCs that you don’t have to define NPCs so concretely for every location this way. I like doing this, but a list of names will do just as well in most cases. If you think about it, only a handful of people even can come into contact with the party in a given session. If a session includes about 6-10 scenes, even being generous and saying the session was mostly social encounters that’s not many different NPCs you need to have fleshed out. Players are likely to only remember 2 or 3 of these people at the end of the day. I find fleshing out as much as I can helpful in creating immersion, but if you want to save time this is a good place to streamline your prep work a little.
The Kolin Estate
- Beautiful stone manor house, with a servant’s quarters, personal gardens, large dining and lounge rooms to entertain many guests.
- Samuel Kolin: Human M. Mayor of the town, everything bad about his father. Resents deals made with native peoples, who he views as inferior and wants gone. A real dick.
- Rebecca Kolin: Human F. Keeps quiet for the most part, obviously cowed by Samuel.
- Declan Kolin: Human M. Named for his grandfather, hates it. Resents his family legacy, sympathizes with the indigenous people. Lots of tension between him and Samuel. In love with a Tabaxi (“Seri Ford“), not officially married as Samuel won’t allow it.
- Wilson: the groundskeeper; stand-offish Tabaxi M., real name “Listens to the Breeze”
- Spoon: the chef, a cheery Warforged
- Small town, so no fancy name or sign – just a sign of an anvil hanging outside. Run by a gay couple, both are smiths and take turns running the storefront.
- This is where players will be able to buy weapons and armor. They will be able to commission special weapons or armor if needed, but no magical equipment here – Viktor and Nathan are conventional smiths, not artificers. That’s saved for a higher level location.
- Viktor Harris: Human M. Tall, built, blonde. Shy but not a pushover by any means.
- Nathan Harris: Human M. Stocky, short, brown haired. Gregarious – definitely just based on Nathan Lane. He took Viktor’s surname when they married, was Nathan Stone.
Goldengrass Inn and Tavern
- Somewhat new compared to the rest of the town, large wood building second in size only to the Town Hall. High windows on the first floor, which is the tavern – rooms are upstairs.
- Owned and run by a family. One of the children in the family died in the sickness ten years ago.
- Clayton Tanner: Human M. Average height, slight gut, brown eyes and long brown hair tied into ponytail. Long waxed moustache. Gruff, but absolutely wrapped around his wife’s little finger.
- Deborah Tanner: Human F. Tall and somewhat lanky, severe look but a kind voice. Very protective of her family.
- Clayton Jr: 15 years old, he’s the calm and “mature” one
- Ernest: 13 years old, he’s the wild child
- Mitchell: deceased at 2 years old
- Joy: 8 years old, eerily wise for her age.
- Small shop, very cluttered with vials and supplies in rather disorganized fashion spewed across shelves along the walls. Narrow stairs tucked in the back go up to a second-story living space.
- I’ll probably have this place carry some healing potions and a random assortment of other low level potions that rotates periodically.
- Marish Blakely: Human M. Oddball with wild eyes, long hair, unkempt beard, and surprisingly nice clothes that don’t quite match or fit.
- A large, single story building with large windows and very organized displays. Everything an adventurer heading out to trek across the Expanse could need.
- This is where players can go to offload sell-able loot or buy basic gear and supplies.
- Benji Blakely: Human M. Very laced-up, short cropped hair and plain clothes, clean shaven.
- The oldest and largest building in town, topped by a spired bell tower. Mostly stone construction with some wood framing, clearly well maintained.
- Large courtroom style hall, with place for Mayor to sit front and center at the far end and preside, podiums for people to stand and make cases to him, and rows of seating for spectators from the town.
The Garner Estate
- Closed gates, overgrown, clearly not maintained
- Owner, Kenneth Garner, moved to ranch house outside town 10 years ago after the sickness took his wife.
- Rumors surround the estate now, it’s the local “haunted house”
- Stone structure near edge of town. Capacity to keep 12 guards housed and outfitted, but only 4 currently enlisted here.
- Cpt. Henry Stone: Tall, square-jawed, broad shoulders, long greying hair. Tough, zero tolerance, huge justice boner at all times even when nobody asked for him to be butting in. Wife died ten years ago from sickness.
- Coleman Stone: very strong fellow, but not the brightest. Mucks things up when not supervised well. Means well.
- Granite: a free Warforged. Silent, keeps to themselves. Carries a huge greatclub across their back and a pistol on their hip.
- Aimee Stone: Human F. Sharp a whip, though a bit of a weak fighter. She sticks to her collection of firearms and her wits for protection. Maiden name “Croft”, married to Coleman.
- Bethany Croft: Human F. Aimee’s twin sister, a skillful fighter with the spear.
The Tabaxi Village
- A collection of huts in the corner of town, tucked into the high grass. A few dozen tabaxi live here, providing the primary source of labor for the mines.
- The tabaxi that end up here are either exiles or refugees from nearby plains tribes. They were brought here by Lexton Ford, seeking some measure of security.
- Lexton Ford: original name “Stands Against the Storm”, an aging grey-haired Tabaxi usually dressed in loose robes (he plays up being old and feeble, uses his dress to help obscure his strength). From the Agoncek tribe, one day he had an altercation with a man that ended in an accidental death. The man killed was the son of the chief, so it ended in Lexton’s exile from the tribe. Following that, he gathered up others exiled like him into a band to ensure their mutual survival and came to view them as his new tribe – and they viewed him as their chief. He struck a deal with the founder of Kolinville allowing his people to settle there peacefully in exchange for supplying labor in the mines, where few wanted to work.
- “Leaps from the Brush”: Tabaxi F. Golden fur, spotted black, long ears that always seem on alert, fierce golden eyes. Refuses to change her name to conform to this new society, disagrees with the direction Lexton took them in. She respects him but argues actively for leaving Kolinville and returning their people to the plains.
With that, the town is populated and feeling more and more alive. I’m not completely done, because a town in DnD is no good without some plot hooks, but there are many strong offers floating around in these locations and people when I get to that stage.
Always make strong offers at this point, it’s a huge favor to yourself in the future when you are looking for something to grab at to keep the story momentum. Once you have a collection of strong offers, it’s an easy matter to boil that down to a palatable story thread. It’s much harder to work the other way around.