What Does an Old-School Village Need?

It’s no secret, I like the old-school style of play. It’s what I grew up with (a long time ago) and it suits my insane desire to roll my characters’ stats and manage my resources. I am that cool.


A couple of years ago, I blogged about What Old-School Means to Me, but the article was almost wholly focused on dungeon delving. Dungeon delving isn’t the be-all and end-all of old-school play, though. Think of some of the classic adventures of yesteryear such as T1 Village of Hommlet and N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God. Both featured richly detailed villages rife with flavour and possibility. Hell, to a certain extent, the keep from B2 Keep on the Borderlands is little more than a glorified village (albeit a well defended village).

This got me thinking: what does an old-school village need?

The Obvious

I’ve blogged about good village design before and all the points therein hold true for old-school village design.

(I’ve also written a book—Be Awesome at Village Design—on the subject of village design if you are interested in a “deeper dive” into the subject.)

Neither the article or the book, though, look at village design through the old-school design prism.


In brief, an old-school village needs various services and locations conducive to the needs of adventurers (and a decent reason for these services to exist in the village). These services and locations include:

  • At least one inn where the adventurers can stay
  • A general village store (but, beware—see “Cult” below)
  • A jeweller and/or moneychanger
  • A temple
  • Various services include a blacksmith, weaver, carpenter, miller and the like

The latter requirement feeds into the need for verisimilitude in old-school villages; “proper” old-school villages need to make sense both in regards their location and the wide campaign while balancing the likely needs of the visiting adventurers.

More than One Religion

Both Hommlet and Orlane had more than one organised religion. For Hommlet it was the Old Faith and St. Cuthbert. In Orlane, the villagers worshipped Merikka or (secretly) were members of the Cult of the Reptile God. These differing belief systems created tension and conflict of varying degrees (see “Internal Conflict” below).

(Retired) Adventurers

Both Hommlet and Orlane have retired adventurers among the populace. In some cases, the retired adventurers were pursuing their own interests and goals while in other cases they could end up allied with the party, if it suited their purpose.

Both villages also hosted other adventurers, either visiting or resident who could help or hinder the party. In short, the PCs are not the only adventurers on the block.

A Cult!

Both Hommlet and Orlane had members of a secret cult dwelling in their midst. This cult was far more influential and widespread in Orlane than Hommlet, but in both cases it lurked among the populace.

(As an aside, players if you are in an old-school village never trust the general trader/shopkeeper; they always seem to be members of the local cult.)

A Grove

Both Orlane and Hommlet feature a grove within their bounds; in both settlements, a powerful spellcaster lurked in the grove, and in both cases the spellcaster was likely too strong for low-level PCs to overcome through force of arms. Luckily, in both villages the spellcaster was not a member of the aforementioned cult which opens up the possibility of the party making a powerful ally to aid them in their adventures.

Internal Conflict

Fuelled by religion, both villages suffered internal dissent and conflict. In Hommlet, the conflict between villagers remaining true to the Old Faith and those worshipping St. Cuthbert is unlikely to boil forth into violence, while in Orlane violence is virtually guaranteed as the so-called reptile god extends her fell grip over the community. Combat is far less likely in Hommlet, but could break out if the traders move against the party. Thus, neither village was completely safe for the party.

Nearby Adventure

Both villages have adventure sites nearby ripe for exploration. Hommlet (of course) has the legendary Moathouse while the reptile god’s headquarters lie only three days away or so from Orlane. In short, there’s got to be something for the adventures to do near to an old-school village.

No Nobles

Neither Hommlet or Orlane had any noble residents. Instead, the village was administered by the lord’s representative. In Hommlet, of course, this was Rufus and Burne while Orlane had its own mayor. This means that, to a certain extent, the village is on its own and the adventurers may have to step up to help when no other help is available.


Old-school villages are far more than a mere stopover on the road to adventure.

While an old-school village may, or may not, be relatively safe, adventure and conflict do not lurk far away. They are small, often highly detailed, locales rooted in the history and geography of the world. “Proper” old-school villages do not exist in their own little bubbles; they make sense both in regards their location and the wider campaign. They can also serve as a vehicle (perhaps) for the GM to introduce the wider world along with its history, themes, threats and opportunities to the PCs.

What Do You Think?

Did I miss anything? Does an old-school village need something else? Let me know, in the comments below.

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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.

10 thoughts on “What Does an Old-School Village Need?”

  1. Excilent. The only other thing i can think of is to make sure a village is fully fleshed out like a dungeon. My favoret villige is the keep on the borderlands. Yes its a keep, but realy the castle part of it is the walled off north half. The southern half is everything else you describe above. Another is Bone Hills town of restenford.

  2. One of the things I think about in village design is the water situation. Does the village have a central well? Does the wealthiest family or two have a private well? Do villagers fetch water from a nearby river, creek, or lake? What do they do with their refuse? I tend to think of “old school” as having fewer cases of “magic replaces technology”…I remember looking at a Pathfinder-compatible adventure several years ago and seeing the hamlet with a dozen homes in the middle of the wilderness, all with indoor plumbing (complete with flushing loos and baths with hot and cold taps) and thinking it was about as un-old-school as you could get.

    1. Yikes! That village is certainly not an old-school village!

      (But you are spot on–all settlements need a decent supply of water; it’s one of the things the Keep on the Borderland almost falls down on as it’s only got one well IIRC for the entire garrison).

  3. I found consulting a couple different lists of medieval occupations helped me flesh out the different skilled craftsmen available in a given village. There are a few that everyone thinks about – blacksmith, miller, etc. But what about the cobbler (shoes wear out a lot faster when you don’t have rubber soles and you are walking 20+ miles a day behind a plow animal or weeding the crops)?

    1. Great point. Thank you! I think we are all so used to buying what we want on line virtually instantly that we forget the importance of local crafters when no one ever really goes that far from home.

  4. This is great stuff, thanks. I am building out my take on Restonford now, so this is timely and useful.

    Is there awesome at village design the same material in the village backdrop #1? I have that, and the section on village design is great. Just curious if the village design book has additional content.

    1. Be Awesome at Village Design comprises some of the same information as found in Village Backdrop #1, but has additional materials. Of course, if you think it’s not worth the cover price, we do offer a 30-day money back guarantee on our PDFs

  5. I always enjoyed the villages in the “Ultima 3 Exodus”. Each “village” seemed to have a weapons shop, an armor shop, a pub (which sometimes sold potions), and an Inn (for rest). Sometimes there was a special like a stable, bank, or thieves guild. However, the first four covered all you really needed as an adventurer.

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