GM Advice: 7 Village Design Tips for World-building GMs

Designing adventures, evil villains and cool new magic items is exciting, but a well-thought out settlement can be an immeasurable boost to a campaign or adventure.


Whether the PCs are settling down or just passing through, a well-designed settlement gives them a believable place to rest, gather information, craft magic items and so on. When I developed the concept of the Village Backdrop line for Raging Swan Press, I thought long and hard about settlement design. The advice below comprises the meat of the design brief I provide freelancers working on the line.

When designing a settlement, consider the following basic factors:

  1. Reason For Existence: Every settlement has a reason to exist. Perhaps the village has sprung up around a small castle or a town sprawls either side of the only ford for dozens of miles in either direction. The settlement’s reason for existence often heavily influences its physical makeup and populace.
  2. History: A settlement should have a defined, vibrant and relevant history. This should be evident both in the layout and condition of the place. It’s always cool if a settlement has one or more secrets in its past perceptive or diligent PCs can discover.
  3. Flavour: Do the villagers have certain strange religious practises or do the townsfolk wildly celebrate certain festivals? Have the buildings been constructed in a certain style or does everyone dress in a particular fashion? Including local flavour helps differentiate a place from its neighbours.
  4. Nearby Adventures: Have a nearby site of adventure which the PCs can explore if they wish. A ruin, a haunted forest or old burial mound (or whatever) are all excellent locales. Provide a brief overview so the GM can expand on it if he wants.
  5. Conflict: The settlement should have both internal and external conflicts with which to deal. This doesn’t necessarily mean the populace is fighting in the streets; instead there might be tension or bad feeling between certain folk or segments of society. Some of these the PCs may come across and some they may not uncover, but their presence shapes both the village’s physical and social landscapes. Without conflict of some sort, a settlement is a pretty boring (and unrealistic) place for adventurers.
  6. Industry: Above all, the trades folk, industries and shops present should make sense in the overall context of the village. For example, unless there is a good reason for their existence, there are no magic shops or highly skilled weaponsmiths there “just in case” adventurers should wander by.
  7. NPCs: Describe the NPCs in evocative fashion, giving the GM enough to portray them easily and memorably. Just as importantly, many NPCs have their own goals, aspirations, foibles and relationships which further build on the feeling the village is a real place and that its folk are not just waiting for adventurers to turn up before springing into life.


Help Fellow GMs!

Do you have any other hints and tips for designing settlements large or small? Share them in the comments below and help your fellow GMs build better campaigns.


Want More Advice?

This article–along with loads more advice appears in Be Awesome at Village Design, available at the Raging Swan Press store.

Want Free Villages?

Check out the free sample version of GM’s Miscellany: Village Backdrop for 12 richly detailed, flavoursome villages at a glance!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

3 thoughts on “GM Advice: 7 Village Design Tips for World-building GMs”

  1. One of the things I noted in B2 Keep on the borderlands is there is a road that literally goes nowhere (into the lands of chaos?). I find this extremely unbelievable. Medieval tech roads require maintenance (heck the national, state and local Departments of Transportation of today aren’t exactly thumb twiddling organizations either) which was part of the peasant to lordly duties (even the local church/abby!) and in the Mercedes Lackey Fiddler Fair series provides a clue to who the bad guys are in that part of the world.

    I suppose I am saying that the settlement is something to think about but so are the roads. If the road is well maintained or not it can give the players clues to the health of the next settlement and it can help give clues to changes in the health of the settlement (if the party cleared out the evil in a settlement seeing better roads would show some success as well as reasons for increased trade.)

    1. An excellent point. Hell, even the Moathouse from T1 had an overgrown track leading to it as I recall (which contributed to the sense of it being “abandoned.”) Even trails and paths – not proper roads – only come into existence when people use them. People use them for a reason and it would be good to know what that reason is/was.

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