Designing a Frontier City for DnD 5e
The problem with a “land of opportunity” is that it tends to attract opportunists.
Welcome to Edge Town, a city for those who want to live without law. Divided into swaths of territory controlled by gangs or guilds, where only the strong and ruthless thrive; it is a constantly fluctuating microcosm of chaos.
This is a city I’m designing for my current campaign – Great Expanse: On the Edge of the War. I’m writing a journal alongside each session, outlining my prep work and comparing it to how the actual sessions play out. If you want check that out, or see other materials related to the campaign, I’m keeping an organized list on this page.
Laying the Groundwork
I started off my prep work for this city the same way I always begin: drawing up a map.
The process of drawing the layout gives me time to think about why the city is organized how it is, which gives me a head start when I start fleshing out locations within the city. There are great programs out there for making beautiful maps, but I enjoy hand-drawing these maps (even if I’m not amazing at it). Here’s the end product of the map I drew for Edge Town:
I made this map by first drawing what would be the main arteries through town, in this case Main St. and Market Row. Next, I fill in the connecting streets. Then I begin placing landmark locations, such as the Airship Docks or the Casino in the example here. I don’t always know much more than the name when I label these places, but I generally have a solid idea of what kinds of locations I’ll need.
For Edge Town, I want this to be a city ruled by a number of factions without a central governing entity. The city is populated by people that came to the new world seeking a place outside the influence of major governments. It is a fairly new city, less than 50 years old – the rapid expansion is due to the investment of guilds who saw this location as an opportunity to set up headquarters without paying taxes through the major powers.
Why does Edge Town occupy such a unique position? Why do the colonial superpowers allow it to maintain autonomy despite the lucrative trade lost by the guilds relocating there?
Edge Town is settled in the middle of a neutral territory set aside in a treaty between the two major powers in the area, Kerth and Saltori. The agreement is tenuous, and the peace looks fragile, but that hasn’t stopped settlers from flocking to these lands in an attempt to make their fortune. The presence of a wealthy city like Edge Town in this neutral zone is especially problematic for the maintenance of the treaty. When a new war between Kerth and Saltori inevitably comes, it is likely Edge Town will be on the front lines.
Until that war, Edge Town remains the domain of gangs and guilds. I’ll need to define who these factions are, who runs them, and their general goals to get a better idea of the internal politics of the city.
Factions of Edge Town
- Blue: Academy of the Expanse
- Brown: Shipwright’s Guild
- Cyan: Adventurer’s Guild
- Gold: Edge Town Press
- Green: West Fresonai Trade Co.
- Grey: Edge Town Guard
- Magenta: Tinker’s Guild
- Orange: Merchant’s Guild
- Purple: Purplegrass Gang
- Red: Red Heart Gang
- Yellow: Healer’s Guild
Laying out general faction territory was an enlightening process. This is something I did specifically for this city rather than a typical habit when I design locations, since the interplay between these factions is intended to be a major element in this arc of the campaign.
I thought about which factions held the most territory and why that might be. The three main powers in the city are the gangs: The Red Heart Gang, the Purplegrass Gang, and the Edge Town Guard (which, despite their official sounding title, are only a peg above a street gang). The guilds mostly control their surrounding area and not much more, with the exception of the extremely wealthy Merchant’s Guild. The Edge Town Press controls much of the flow of information in town, giving them much more power than this map suggests.
I can already think of a few fun tensions here: why does the Town Guard control the Airship Yard, and how does the Shipwright’s Guild feel about that? Why does the Merchant’s Guild control the Airship Docks? It stands to reason that various mutually beneficial relationships have developed between these factions, with each having allies and enemies in the city.
With the broad strokes filled in, I started fleshing out a few details for each faction. I don’t need to get too detailed here, but a few fast facts will be very helpful to have on hand once it becomes clear which parts of the city will be playing a larger role in the campaign.
I’ll post what I wrote up here, in its raw format, partly so you can see what my notes look like and partly because it would be a ton of information to filter through in-depth:
The Red Heart Gang
Leader: Garrick Tiller. A thin, tall-ish male half-elf sorcerer (illusionist) with a laissez-faire attitude…until you cross him.
Territory: Rat Market (Black Market), Red Heart Casino
Military: gangers, bards; large but disorganized, with many internal factions
Wealthy due to casino income and control of large portion of the city. Controls large black market. Clash with Town Guard, especially along Market Row. Chapter of a larger criminal organization – Red Heart Gang operates in many cities throughout the world on both continents (controlled by the mysterious “Mr. Spectacular”).
The Purplegrass Gang
Leader: Lespy Soon. Short, fierce old female human with savvy business sense and brutal capitalistic tendencies.
Territory: Lespy’s (department store), Arena bets (deal with Adventurer’s Guild)
Military: gangers, rogues
Tension with Red Heart Gang, but they keep out of each other’s ways for the most part. Provides security at the arena in exchange for control of betting pools.
Edge Town Guard
Leader: Talia Porter. Stout female human with short, unstyled dark hair. Strong arm, strong will, uncompromising.
Territory: Guard HQ, Gardens, Airship Yard
Military: disciplined, organized – strongest in the city
Motto: “Light in the Dark”
Largely financed by “tax” income from Airship Yard, shops, markets (protection money). Really a glorified gang with delusions of grandeur; still, they effectively control nearly half the city. Provides security forces for Airship Docks as well as the Main and Lower Markets for the Merchant’s Guild.
Guildmaster: Bonner Coppertop. Erratic male gnome with wild hair and wide eyes.
Territory: Guild House and surroundings
Military: purely for self-defense. Artificers.
Motto: “An Eye to the Future”
More interested in internal development than expansion. Deals often with the Merchant’s Guild for supplies, tension with the Academy (they’re not a fan of the way artificers make magic more accessible)
Guildmaster: Phoebe Scot. Tall female half-elf with a no nonsense attitude and obsession with accumulating wealth. Would sell her own child if the profit margins were good enough.
Territory: Docks, Markets, Guild House
Military: deal with Edge Town Guard to protect markets and docks in exchange for cut of revenue; private security force at HQ – small, but well-trained and equipped.
Motto: “Gold Speaks”
Most powerful guild in the city, often clashes with gangs for control of commercial areas. They want it all, won’t be happy without a total monopoly. Control of airship docks is controversial (they funded the construction). First and largest investors in Edge Town, see themselves as unofficial rulers and act like it to chagrin of other factions.
Guildmaster: Samantha Connor. Stout muscular female human with long red hair pulled over shoulder in a tight braid. Loves a good brawl, whether watching or participating.
Territory: Arena, Guild Hall
Military: mercenary adventurers, little “standing army”
Motto: “Towards the Unknown”
Operate more outside city, others enjoy benefits of safer wilderness. Uses arena to recruit new members, deal with Purplegrass Gang to provide fight security.
Guildmaster: Carter Wrightson. Man of few words, prefers work to politics
Territory: Guild Hall and surroundings
Motto: “Strong and Resilient”
Under protection of Edge Town Guard, though not pleased about their control of the shipyard.
Guildmaster: Morgan Staffer. Kindly old male human with a gentle voice, flowing robes, and long grey hair.
Territory: Guild Hall and surroundings
Motto: “Open Doors, Gentle Hearts”
Nobody fucks with them – they take in any and all from other factions. Sacred ground in the faction-related conflicts.
Academy of the Expanse
Headmaster: Martin Freid. Male human, average height, mousy face, very smart but bad at socialization.
Territory: Academy and surroundings
Military: powerful wizards, but few in number
Motto: “Knowledge Above All”
Pre-eminent academy in Fresonai (the “new world”). Many come here to escape regulation, so plenty of “amoral scientist” energy. Stays mostly out of local politics, as long as ability to continue their work is unhindered.
Edge Town Press
Newsmaster: Daniel Ricky. Fast talking male human with thinning grey hair combed back, fancy tailored suits adorned with ornate stopwatches (yes, plural)
Territory: Press Building, some surrounding area
Military: private security force; don’t trust their security to outside forces, news must remain impartial
Motto: “Facts Conquer All”
Small presence but significant power – everyone reads the Press, influence on public opinion very strong.
West Fresonai Trade Co. (WFTC)
This is not, strictly speaking, a local faction, so I don’t have an entry for them in this section of my notes. I’ll fill you in, of course; I just felt the need to explain why this entry looks different!
The WFTC was founded in Kerthan lands and is strongly associated with them. The true leader of Kerth, a mysterious figure known as “The Spymaster” who rules Kerth through a figurehead emperor, formed the company as a way to exploit a loophole in the Treaty of Northern Fresonai. Since the WFTC is not officially a part of the Kerthan government, its presence in neutral territory is technically not a violation.
Of course, they absolutely are an arm of the Kerthan government, secretly run from the shadows by The Spymaster. Officially, the President of the organization is a man named Thomas Leyten, but nobody has ever directly met with him – because he isn’t real. Local chapters are run by governors who report directly to this “President”; all trusted lieutenants of The Spymaster.
In Edge Town, the presence of the WFTC is tolerated but not appreciated. Many there see it as sowing the seeds of a future invasion by Kerth (smart folks!), though there is no definitive proof of any such effort.
Chapter Governor: Berkley Huitt. A male human chosen for his hard edge and business acumen; he is critical to The Spymaster’s machinations. He has short, well-kept blonde hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He likes to dress in garish outfits, which are just barely subdued enough to still look professional.
All of this information gives me plenty to work with when I’m cooking up possible plot threads, but it doesn’t populate a city for my players.
Like anywhere else in a DnD game, a city is going to be largely defined by a few token locations the party visits in discrete scenes. Much like moving through wilderness, I may create an encounter table to have situations arise moving from one central location to another through the city, but it’s best to keep the focus tight so as not to overwhelm your players or yourself.
What locations do you define?
In my case, I focus first on creating stores and taverns – places that the party is sure to visit, which provide numerous opportunities to give the players a feel for the culture of the city. I like to have at least 3 strongly defined taverns; one that is top-dollar, one low-class dive, and one somewhere in between. I also like to flesh out shops and shopkeepers, since a lot of fun role-playing interactions can arise in these places. I don’t feel the need to place these specifically on the map, since shops tend to cluster together in commercial areas like the markets.
As with the factions section, I’ll be copying my raw notes for these locations. I may come back and flesh some of these places out more if they become central, but usually short guiding descriptions is enough for me to improvise from in session.
- Edge Town Inn (t1): largest, touristy ($$$)
- Owned by Merchant’s Guild, under protection of Town Guard
- Servers: Alisha Summers (female human), Danforth Skinner (male human)
- Many well-furnished but tightly packed rooms, 5 floors
- The Apprentice’s Cauldron (t2): small, quiet ($$)
- Overseen by Academy but privately owned
- Proprietor: Extak Gluum, an elderly female half-orc with a sweet matronly demeanor; works bar personally to meet and talk to people
- No rooms, tavern only
- The Rusty Cog (t3): loud, pub-like ($)
- Under protection of Edge Town Guard, privately owned
- Proprietor: Aloysius Scattercog, a boisterous male gnome and wannabe tinker (no talent)
- Servers: Stanley Keller (male human), Snitch (male goblin),
- Favorite hangout of Tinker’s Guild, who get discounts and freebies
- Main Market: tourist trap; vendors pushing useless trinkets – avoided by locals
- “Honest Jack” (male human), Tommen Smith (male human), Karla’s Fine Goods (run by Karla Burningstar, female gnome)
- Lower Market: where locals go; food and general goods mostly, little for adventurers here
- Market Row: main commercial strip, contested ground between Edge Town Guard and Red Heart Gang
- Augusto’s Marvelous Marketplace: magical goods and wonderous items, scrolls (Augusto Bolarrio, male gnome)
- The Savvy Gearsmith: tinker shop with eclectic collection of oddities (Safi, female half-elf)
- The Practical Adventurer: weapons and armor, some magical goods (Fenny Connor, female human, sister of the Adventurer’s Guild GM)
- Boiling Point: potions and reagents (Rell’en’tora, a male jungle tabaxi)
- Rat Market: large black market, run by the Red Heart Gang – illicit goods, slave trade
- Lespy’s: multi-level department store with variety of goods, both magical and mundane. Top floor is an exclusive access club where members of the Purplegrass Gang hang out.
Other Points of Interest
- Red Heart Casino: huge structure, all kinds of gambling – cards, slots, roulette, etc.
- Run by Red Heart Gang, common hang out spot for members
- Bartender: Sten (silent male Goliath, an exile from his tribe)
- Dealers: Sharona (jolly old female human), Markus (very “professional”, likes to show off his card skills)
- Often live music, will give free drinks to encourage reckless gambling – smoky interior
- Arena: built in Sekkoran style (side note: Sekkora is an old continent empire based heavily on real-world Rome; they’re past their prime and have no presence on the new continent – they were a major part of my last campaign). Fights are banned in Kerth and Saltori, so this is the only major arena in the region – deaths not common but also not unheard of
- bets run by Purplegrass Gang, who also provide security
- Bookie: Kelnora (female half-elf, tall and slim with long blonde hair)
- Fighters: Grok (female half-orc barbarian), Tenson (male human fighter)
- Champion: Ukt the Clanless (male hobgoblin hexblade warlock)
- Airship Docks: run by Merchant’s Guild, who collect port fees (cut in the Edge Town Guard in exchange for security)
- Collectors: Mike Tofte (greasy male human), Fola (dour male half-elf)
All of this information is more than enough of a start for me to feel comfortable sending the party anywhere in the city. Much of it is loosely defined, but that’s fine for this point in the process – as the party engages with the content and the story progresses, it will become clear which areas and factions need to be fleshed out more.
I won’t bog you down with list after list, but I also took some time to stock the main shops with items and a little more detail during a more recent prep session – so those are already more fleshed out than the small blurbs listed above. I expect the party will be visiting these shops as one of their first stops; in my experience, when a party reaches a city they first seek a tavern to get a room and then head to the shops if there isn’t a specific direction for them to go.
My last remaining task, the most important, is to stock this area with plot hooks and story potential. All this setting information is the mise-en-place for that part of my prep – you have to do the work first, but it doesn’t make a story unless you start stirring it together.
I’ll talk more about what story hooks I concoct in my campaign journal posts before the Edge Town sessions – I already have a few kicking around I’m interested in pursuing, but everything depends on what the party latches on to. For now, this is a strong foundation to build upon moving forward.