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Dot to Dot

By Michelle Bottorff
Ideas for interesting towns
Exciting Actropolis is where the vile underlord Morticus spins his cruel plots. The adventurers have discovered a message from him on the body of one of his hirelings and are heading toward the mighty city. Fewmar eagerly looks at his map. ‘Look here! If we travel across country we’ll cut weeks off the journey’.

The adventurers head out into the wilderness, make a few bad rolls during a river crossing, and finally, sick and tired of roughing it, they run across the road to... Poketon? The DM stares blankly at the dot on his map. The players are sick of random wilderness encounters and are ready for some real role-playing, but he knows absolutely nothing about this place!

Just because the DM is improvising doesn’t .t mean that all the small towns on the map need to end up generic and boring. The players may want a change of pace, or the characters may need a bit of nudging to get them back on the path of the planned adventure, or maybe the DM just wants to add some realism to his campaign.

Whatever the reason, here are some ideas for making improvised towns interesting, exciting, memorable and maybe even useful.

The personality of the place
One method is to give the town its own mood. The original edition of the AD&D® DUNGEON MASTER® Guide has many splendid lists of adjectives. (If you don’t have it, try a thesaurus.) These were originally intended for the fleshing out of NPCs but work equally well when determining the character of a town. Pessimistic, aloof, dreamy, soft-hearted, spendthrift; all these adjectives, and a host of others, can be used to describe towns as well as people. With practice a DM can generate a whole town from a randomly picked adjective.

DM: Tall fences line both sides of the road. Past them and to the left you can see a farmer working in his fields. Though he shouts no greetings, you seem to sense his head turning as he watches you go by. Soon you find yourself among the stone buildings of the little village. Stout oak doors with peep holes line the narrow street. A little boy playing with a cup and ball game stops to stare at you. Suddenly a door is flung open. A young woman runs out and grabs the boy, hauling him inside. The door crashes shut behind them.
Lady Ariadne: (Placing her hand on her rapier and frowning after the vanished child.) My friends, this town seems less than friendly.
Beran the Brave: Much less!
Fewmar: I wonder why so suspicious...
When creating a ‘mood town,’ most of the people in the community will share its dominate characteristic, but be careful not to overdo it. Even the most suspicious of towns probably has one or two friendly characters.

The inhabitants are not the only thing that affects the mood. Architecture is an important factor, and it is much more likely that the buildings fit the adjective better than the people. A friendly town for instance, might have thatched roofs and brightly painted cottages; an extravagant town would have peaked arches and impressive fa├žades. Other things to take into consideration are the town layout and the types of businesses. A town with numerous taverns built around a bustling town square conveys a totally different mood than one built on a grid, with one small tavern and no inn, with only a way-house at the nearby religious retreat.

Another more subtle indication of town personality is how quickly it accepts new ideas. Progressive towns are interested in news of other places and are delighted by anything that is innovative and new. Anti-progressive towns aren’t interested in the rest of the world and are scornful of any device (or fashion) they haven’t seen before. Some towns are mixed, with half the populace eager for change, while the other half clings desperately to the past. This alters not only the mood of the town but also its technology level. The technology levels that are possible depend largely on your campaign world, but don’t hesitate to go to extremes. Inventors do not always live in the city, so Poketon may well be a few years ahead of the rest of the country, while the neighboring town is centuries behind the times.

If the players are bored, the DM may decide not to take the time to build a mood but opt instead for quick action. The easiest way to do this is to have the town already involved in some kind of fight. A special dispute not only keeps the players happy but also serves to make the town stand out in their memory.

Feuds work well. Take, for example the story of Romeo and Juliet. It’s about two important families whose feud is so severe that they manage to involve a good part of the city. In a small town this sort of situation is even more deadly. It’s virtually impossible for anyone to remain neutral; even chance visitors need to take sides at least to the degree of deciding whose inn they will sleep in that night.
DM: You awake to the smell of smoke and the sound of shouting. Footsteps are clattering down the hall outside your door.
Beran: (Leaping to the door and throwing it open.) What’s going on here!?
DM: A peasant boy turns to face you, waving his dagger and shouting, ‘Death to all Saiger-lovers!’
Beran: (Picking the boy up and shaking him.) I love only Galyna, Lady of Hearthkeep, and I’ll kill anyone who says otherwise!
Fewmar: What’s a Saiger? Wasn’t that the name of the innkeeper?
Lady Ariadne: Never mind that; I think the inn is on fire!
Another interesting situation occurs when the town is divided politically. For instance, the last election was a tie, and both candidates now consider themselves mayor. If the situation is violent, the players will be called upon to choose sides, but there is always the possibility that there is no fighting, just two town sheriffs enforcing two sets of laws, two tax collectors, two places they must get their weapons licensed, etc.

Each mayor could have his own distinct territory, but it is generally more fun to just have each mayor claim the whole town or to at least have the border line between sections irregular and indistinguishable so the players never know which set of laws they are subject to at any given moment.
Guard: Ho there!
Fewmar: Yes?
Guard: You just used magic!
Fewmar: Err, yes.
Beran: You got a problem with that?
Guard: It’s against the law to use magic in Poketon.

Lady Ariadne: Nonsense, my good man. That fellow in High street didn’t say anything!
Guard: High street is in Upper Poketon. You’re in Lower Poketon now. Come with me.

If Poketon has a close neighbor, then it would be quite likely for them to have developed a rivalry. This rivalry is most commonly expressed by strong competition in sporting events, with a number of towns going so far as inventing their own events. For instance there are two towns in England that annually compete over a side of ham. The ham starts at a midway point between the two towns, and the town that gets it into their own town square first gets to keep it. A fun variation could be to have a whole live pig, which would, of course, be doing its best to get away. Any type of contest will do: and there are many to choose from; team sports, wrestling, greased pole climbing, target shooting, seeing how high you can count before taking a breath. Try to pick something that will interest your player’s characters.

Whether there is a sporting event actually going on, there are many people in a rival town willing to bore the players to death by giving blow by blow accounts of every event that occurred during the last 10 years. It is important to remember that according to Poketon’s loyal citizens, Poketon is clearly superior. Anything Rivalburg does, Poketon does better. This attitude carries over from sporting events to industry and almost all other aspects of small town life; Poketon’s cows produce better milk than Rivalburg’s cows, their priest is more pious, their blacksmith better skilled.

In extreme circumstances a rivalry develops into a war,
DM: The small shifty-eyed man behind the bar leans towards you.
Bartender: Are you from Rivalburg?
Lady Ariadne: Use your eyes, my good man. Do I look like somebody from Rivalburg?
Beran: Never heard of the place.
Bartender: Then I’m glad you’re here. You two look like you’d be useful in a fight. The sheriff asked me to look out for anyone who might be willing to join our march on Rivalburg!
Fewmar: Why are you attacking Rivalburg?
Bartender: (Ignoring Fewmar.) What do you say?
Lady Ariadne: Hmmm. Why not?After all, a good fight is always amusing.
Bartender: Well, we’re not attacking them, precisely, you understand. It’s a protest march.
Beran: A what?
Fewmar: What are you protesting?
Bartender: Those scurvy knaves have been under-cutting our prices! We’re going to lay down the law to those dastards! Either they put their prices back to where they used to be or we retaliate! (The bartender shakes a fist in the direction of Rivalburg, then realizing he’s making a scene, looks back at the adventurers.)
Lady Ariadne: I’m sorry. I don’t do demonstrations.
Bartender: (Shrugging.) Sheriff wanted some heavy-weights around in case there was trouble. We’ll pay you, of course.

Poketon doesn’t need to be fighting another town; they could be fighting outlaws, a renegade magic user, an appropriate monster or some kind of spell effect gone wild.

Points of interest
Some ‘points of interest towns’ are considered so interesting that they expect people to come visit them. The PCs are not likely to turn tourist, but the townsfolk don’t know that and will expect them to be fascinated by the local points of interest. Some points of interest can even prove useful to the characters. Tourist towns are usually easy for the DM to invent, since he can ‘borrow’ a town that he has actually been to and alter it to fit his campaign world.

Buildings are common points of interest, though they rarely contribute directly to a campaign. Buildings are generally notable for their architecture, purpose, and historic association. Good choices for small towns are: the Deserted Tower of Joe the Ultra-magical, the tavern where Black Bart the famous Outlaw ate his last meal, or one of the Royal Hunting Lodges. Haunted buildings are also good, especially if the characters actually get to meet the ghost.

When inventing a notable building, keep in mind what people might be staying there. These people can often be useful to the characters. For instance, the country residence of a VIP will be populated by his dependents, who can act as a source of valuable introductions and provide an excuse for getting the players back on the road to Actropolis.

Lord John: You wouldn’t by any chance be heading to Actropolis?
Beran: Yes.
Fewmar: Why do you ask?
Lord John: I was hoping you could deliver a message to my brother, the Earl of Swaite.
Lady Ariadne: We’re entirely at your service, milord. Where is he staying?

Other points of interest are a trifle harder to make useful. Natural features, for instance are mostly just boring for the players because most of them look interesting. Of course you can use boredom to convince the characters that they are in a hurry to get out of town. After hearing eight or nine people tell them how spectacular the local waterfall (mountain, rock formation, centuries-old tree, etc.) is they will be happy to climb right back on their horses.

Much more interesting is the town with historical associations. This is the town that has a real place in history and capitalizes on it. Some towns may invent a place in history, and, unless one of the characters has an education, it comes out to much the same thing. As a rule of thumb, half of the people in a ‘historic’ town have an encyclopedic knowledge of the historic event in question, and the other half thinks the whole thing is a great bore. At least half of those who know exactly what happened will know a vastly different version from the other half, and at least one person from each side likes nothing better than to argue about it.

Historic towns are a lot of fun but are easier to improvise if you already have a good grasp of the history of the campaign area. If the campaign area has no predetermined history and you are inventing it, remember to take notes. Absolute consistency, however, is unnecessary since most history tends to get distorted. In fact, it is more authentic to have several versions of a particular historical incident.
Miller: Don’t you sneer at me milady! I’ve a respectable trade. And it was a miller, after all, that hid King Connie when his brother Ed tried to usurp the throne.
Lady Ariadne: I sneer at whom I like.
Fewmar: Besides, it was a blacksmith who hid King Connie.
Miller: Nonsense, it had to be a miller. Who else would have such a large supply of grain sacks?
Fewmar: Grain sacks?
Miller: Didn’t you know that he was smuggled out of the country disguised as a sack of grain?
Fewmar: I thought he disguised himself as a serving maid.
Beran: The brewer told me he hid in a keg of ale.
Lady Ariadne: What? Not a cart load of cabbages?
Miller: It was a grain sack, I tell you! I know all about it.

It can be difficult making a historic town useful unless the town also contains a collection of historic artifacts. Often some historian or collector lives in a small town so he can pursue his hobby in peace, and many of these can provide genuine assistance to adventurers. He might lend them some special magical item, or they might be able to peruse ancient documents for clues to the location of this ancient ruins, or that powerful item.

Usually a collector demands yet another item to add to his collection as payment. This often leads to another adventure. If you do not wish to create another adventure (it does not have to happen immediately; the collector may be willing to wait) then another form of payment must be found.
Collector: I call it a collusion detector. It’s a very rare item, and not very useful in a fight, but invaluable for uncovering secret plots. It’s how King Connie finally discovered Prince Ed’s treachery.
Fewmar: It must be very valuable. You wouldn’t want to lend out something so unique!
Collector: Well, I offered it to his majesty when I first found it, but he preferred to rely on the services of the Royal Wizard. It’s terribly easy to counter, you see, so it’s really only useful if no one knows you have it.
Beran: What price? Collector: You wouldn’t happen to know where King Connie’s Crown has gotten too?
Fewmar: In the capital? Collector: Oh dear me, no! That one is quite fake. (Looks at adventurers and sighs.) Oh well, I could use some help about the place. There is a terrible manpower shortage here in Poketon. Inventory perhaps, and if you could help me move some of the larger pieces and do the dusting...
Lady Ariadne: Sir! I’ll have you know, I don’t dust!

Some collections are singularly useless; old theater props for example, and decorated chamber pots; but they still add immeasurably to the flavor of the town. In fact, useless items are often more distinctive than useful ones. Who could forget a giant hammer, a floating building, an illusionary organ grinder and monkey, or the statue of a moose? Things that are odd or out of place are noticed and remembered. You must use this technique sparingly, however, because if there is something peculiar in every town the players will come to expect it, and it will no longer be memorable.

Unforgettable Characters
Often a town is remembered not for itself, but because of someone who lives there. You don’t even have to make up a character; you can just steal one from another source. Just remember that when you are in a town, character is established not just by how the DM describes a character but by how the other townspeople talk about them. A character that is interesting to the players is also likely to be interesting to his fellow citizens.
DM: It’s a town, about average size. Only one street is paved, the one you are on, the rest are packed down dirt.
Players: Where’s the tavern?
DM: A sign showing a foaming mug hangs over a building ahead and to the right. As you approach you pass close to a young man. He wears tattered rags, and his bright red hair looks like it has never been combed. He is looking about vacantly, but when his eyes pass over Lady Ariadne he starts and rushes over to her, grasping her sleeve.
Lady Ariadne: Hands off, sirrah!
DM: One of his eyes stares earnestly into your face, while the other eye wanders about. ‘Who?’ he asks. ‘Who?’
Lady Ariadne: I am Lady Ariadne Wynn. Hands off knave!
Townswoman: Don’t mind him none, Milady, he’s just Moe, the town idiot.
DM: Moe releases your arm and wanders off to the side of the road. As you enter the tavern, the bartender, a tall man with a mop of improbable yellow curls addresses you.
Bartender: So already met the town idiot.
Beran: He seems harmless enough.
Bartender: Surely, but there is something about him. Normally he seems to have the wits of a rabbit, but then he says something so remarkably apt... (Shakes his head wonderingly.) And then there’s the way he arrived!
Fewmar: Oh? How was that?

The town’s interesting character may not live there any longer. This is potentially very useful. If he is a personage of importance in your planned campaign, this is a great way to let the players dig up some back-ground information on him. Not only do the townspeople know all about his childhood, but they likely have a very good idea of what he is up to now.

Establishing the legal limits
A small town may have developed its own set of laws and rules. Though most of these rules had a very good reason behind them when they were made, not all reasons last as long as the rule does. Not knowing the reason for the rule, (which may indeed no longer exist,) the players are likely to find some of the villagers‘rules ridiculous in the extreme, such as: anyone walking down main street must wear a hat; no lighting fires out of doors; no talking in the town square; or anyone who sleeps in town overnight must first introduce himself to the priest.

Other rules are obvious as to the reasoning but irksome to the players: one way bridge, no wearing of unregistered weapons, no mounts allowed in the village proper, no killing the local wildlife without a license, taxes.
Sheriff: Have you got a license for that there creature?
Fewmar: Shasta is a marmot. She’s my familiar.
Sheriff: Doesn’t matter. All domesticated animals require a license if you want to bring them into Poketon. You also need licenses for your horses.
Lady Ariadne: Don’t be ridiculous, my good man!
Sheriff: Oh, you needn’t worry, horse licenses are easy to get. Just walk into town, take a left at the Mermaid, and pretty soon you’ll find Jasper’s stables. Jasper will come out here and inspect your beasts for a reasonable fee, and then I write out your license. Simple! I don’t know about that marmot creature though. Never done a license for a marmot!

Getting any kind of a license requires finding the person with the proper authority. This is not necessarily any easier to do in a small town than in a big city. A common problem is that no one is sure who the proper person is. The landlord sends you to the mayor, who sends you to the sheriff, who sends you to the priest, who thinks that really Lord So-and-such ought to be the one to sign it, only he’s off hunting or something and no one knows when he’ll be back. By having the locals waffle back and forth you can keep the characters running around for some time. This is not a good idea if you are trying to hurry the players off to Actropolis, but it works fine if you just thought of a neat adventure they could have right here if only you have enough time to work out the details.

Another important thing to remember is the powerful effect that organizations can have on a town. At some points in history, the guilds were more powerful than the monarch. A guild (or local equivalent) flexing its muscles is a good way to make a town memorable. Merriment and cheer are in short supply at the tavern if the brewers are on strike; the players may have to brave the picket-lines in order to buy supplies at a non-union grocer, or the Tanner’s Guild may have picked this very town for their annual conference, and the stench is making the place uninhabitable. Even lesser organizations can have quite an impact. Never underestimate the power of the PTA or the Civic Improvement Association; the local busybodies may well decide that adventurers make rotten role-models for their children and attempt to run them out of town.
Townsman: Are you a member of the Magistar and Wonderworkers. Union?
Fewmar: No, I can’t say that I am.
Townsman: In that case we would really rather you moved on, this being a union town and all.
Fewmar: Can’t I just promise not to use my magic?
Townsman: If I just say a few words to my fellow citizens this town would become less than comfortable: ridiculously high prices, full inn, that sort of thing.
Lady Ariadne: We will not be threatened!
Beran: We are trying to get to Actropolis. We only stopped here to get some more supplies.
Townsman: Oh? Well in that case I would be happy to direct you. Our grocer is on High Street, he carries hardtack guaranteed to survive flood, spell, and hard journeying. Our armorer is just there, across the square, and...

Yes, Poketon is certainly an interesting place. It will be long remembered by your players, who are now back on the road to Actropolis. At least they were back on the road to Actropolis until a random encounter with some horse thieves somehow put them on the road to Sameville. Sameville is another dot on the map, but there is no problem making it distinctive. The dots themselves may look identical, but by using one of these ideas you can guarantee that Sameville won’t be the same at all!

Things to remember:
1. Pick an adjective, any adjective
2. Technology level
3. Feuds
4. A Town Divided
5. Sporting Rivals
6. Other battles
Points of interest
7. Buildings
8. Natural features
9. Historical
10. Collections
11. Oddities
12. The Character
13. He used to live here
Legal Limits
14. Ridiculous rules
15. Bureaucracy
16. Guilds
17. Other organizations


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