From Hommlet to Phandalin, Villages Written as a List of Locations Seem Ready To Run. They Lie

Villages written with nothing more than a list of locations imply that DMs need nothing more to bring adventure. They lie and I’ve fallen for it. I should know better by now.

Many starting Dungeons & Dragons pair a village with a dungeon or wilderness. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax began the custom in 1979 with T1 The Village of Hommlet and the pattern endures because most players want more than dungeon crawls in an empty world. Starting characters need a place to stay, hear rumors, gather supplies, and so on.

My mistake comes when I read keyed locations for a village and think I’m ready to run. I imagine that my players will enter town and shop, mingle, gather rumors, and, say, suspect the cult activity that leads to adventure. After all, some DMs boast of players who will enter a strange town and happily spend an evening chatting with folks for just the fun of roleplaying. Such players are a treasure.

Maybe my in-game descriptions of bystanders never prove inviting enough. In my games, the party enters the tavern, dismisses the lovingly crafted cast of characters as mere color, and then waits expectantly for me to start the adventure. (See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.)

To avoid repeating my mistake, I know I can’t just study the locations and stop. I have work to do. That work includes checking a few boxes:

  • Consider the players’ goals at the location and how these goals could lead to interaction.
  • For any non-player characters the party should meet, contrive events that lead to the meeting.
  • For any clues, rumors, or hooks the party should uncover, imagine interactions that lead to the disclosure.

Not every DM needs so much preparation. Many DMs improvise interactions that engage players. Mike “Sly Florish” Shea favors making a list of secrets and clues, but improvising reveals. Nonetheless, almost every DM needs to spark engagement. If you don’t, thank your all-star players.

Most villages need more than keyed locations to engage players. Here are some methods that work.

Start players with a goal

Village of Hommlet starts with this introduction for players. “You are poorly mounted, badly equipped, and have no large sums of cash. In fact, all you have is what you wear and what you ride, plus the few coins that are hidden in purses and pockets. What you do possess in quantity, though, is daring and desire to become wealthy and famous.” Gary Gygax immediately frames a goal: Shop for equipment and find ways to earn enough for better gear. To succeed, players must meet the people of Hommlet. Along the way, players learn of the Temple of Elemental Evil. You may have heard of it.

N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God (1982) pairs the village or Orlane with adventure. This one starts players with rumors that hint of evil and a mystery. For example, “People in Orlane are being altered (true), and the ‘changeling’ can be recognized by fang marks in their throats. (false).” To uncover the truth, the players must seek interaction with the people of Orlane. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good.

Nowadays, most players create characters with individual goals, often in collaboration with the group. When players bring goals, think of ways they can lead to interaction with your supporting cast.

Add notices

Posted wanted notices make an instant adventure, but other notices can invite players to interact. How about a sale notice for a map, a magic trinket, or even something billed as a Slaad control gem? Want to buy a windmill cheap? (Must not fear ghosts.) Anything that lures players to seek folks out and ask questions works. If the players spot a “lost pet” poster showing a child’s sketch of an imp or an owlbear, the players will probably investigate. I love notice boards because they become menus of rumors and quests where players can select whatever strikes their fancy. If the players find the notices at the end of a session, you can prepare for the post they choose to investigate.

Bring non-player characters to the players

New arrivals make people curious. Townsfolk see visitors as a source of information or as an opportunity. I like having folks ask adventurers for news, usually with questions that reveal rumors. “Did you see the dragon blamed for the attacks on the High Road?” or “Did you travel past that strange storm near the standing stones?”

If the group brings a reputation, folks treat them as celebrities, buying drinks and asking for stories. People might suggest new adventures or inform on threats the party should investigate. Is the old timer really conducting diabolical experiments in his broken tower or just perfecting a recipe for the next baking contest?

A more subtle invitation can also prove potent. D&D freelancer Scott Fitzgerald Gray suggests, “In a tavern or restaurant, have one of the characters notice an NPC staring at them, as an invitation for the characters to make contact (often a stronger beat than having an NPC approach the characters). Why they’re staring depends on what hook you want to use them to reveal.”

Have someone offer to guide

People interested in learning about visitors and gaining a relationship might offer a village tour. They may even make introductions like a host circulating new guests to a party. This works especially well for guides with big personalities.

DM Rebecca introduced players to Bryn Shander by having them meet sheriff’s deputy Augrek Brighthelm, a character patterned after spitfire southern belle who volunteered to guide the group through the town. “It immediately gave the players a recognizable character they could interface with.”

Some guides might ask for coins for the service. Perhaps the party offers a few silver or perhaps they spurn the guide and he grumbles, “I wouldn’t leave your horses unattended if I were you.” How the players react reveals character.

(See Don’t Make a Pet NPC, But Sometimes You Can Play a Guide.)

Create events that foster interaction

In the Acquisitions Incorporated hardcover adventure, a visit to the town of Luskan triggers events that offer a choice of actions. “Just ahead of you, a wagon has broken down in front of a tavern. The elderly human driver calls out for help, but passersby ignore her. As she calls out once more, the tavern door behind her opens and two guards toss a young male human in bright clothing out into the street. He tumbles into the old woman, sending both of them sprawling to the ground. The door closes, then opens once more as a mandolin comes flying out of the tavern.”

I love the flying mandolin. Everything about that scene invites interaction.

Some favorite events include a fire that the villagers need to organize to quench, a panicked horse dragging someone, an argument overheard, and a child seeking a lost pet. Rescue the cat and gain a guide. Almost anything works. The thatcher might be caught on a roof after his ladder slipped down. Two women might ask the bard to judge a singing contest; neither carries a tune.

Alexander Davis offers scenes that reveal character. “Someone’s been caught stealing. The local laws against thieving are serious, and the criminal looks pathetic. Does the party intervene to save them, fetch the militia themselves, or try to talk everyone into some sort of deal?

“The local cleric approaches the party, asking for alms for the poor. He looks untrustworthy, but there are also people visibly within the nearby temple who are receiving help. Does the party donate, help directly, or even investigate the suspicious cleric?”

Some events can come from events like festivals or fairs. These can offer contests for characters to join or reveal backstory about local history.

Add visual aids

A map handout encourages players to explore. They remember the locations that raised interest even after the hunt for the cat. Sometimes, I also show pictures of important NPCs. The pictures help players notice and remember key cast members.

Artist Brandon Darrah gives extra effort. “I use over-world tokens for my maps where I draw all my PCs and NPCs. I usually draw unique/weird/cool/cute NPCs to draw in my players and that usually does it.” I’m impressed.

Related: What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing

6 thoughts on “From Hommlet to Phandalin, Villages Written as a List of Locations Seem Ready To Run. They Lie

  1. alphastream

    I love these tips and examples, David! I am ever-thankful that we have evolved the game. I enjoyed playing Hommlet back then, but we stumbled around town and committed too many felonies. Neither our DM nor we players knew what to do with all the seemingly disconnected options… especially when the first few houses offer no real information. Just as we demand more from our movies and TV shows, our adventures need to hit a higher mark these days.

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  2. Mattwandcow

    I love the idea of the Notice Boards. I’ve never had success with job boards, but a place where anyone can post a written note, whether its a quest listing or just an anonymous note reminding Janice about the HOA rules for how pets need to be on a leash, or an old flyer for the witchlight carnival.

    My favorite part of it is that you don’t have to fill it with quests, which was always hard for me. Being able to fill the board with bits of color, advertisements, official notices, invitations to join society’s and religious groups, it sounds like an amazing resource for running a town that I need to add to my repitoire

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  3. Another David DM

    I really love nearly all of your ideas here, though I think each is more effective under certain circumstances than others. Still, most of it is great, next-level DM stuff. The one I can’t get behind is the notice board, because it just seems so out of place in a village. With a small poorly educated population where everyone knows everyone else, why would there be be a place where people post written notices of their problems in the hope that a random group of strangers wandering through one day will try to solve them? I know its convenient for the DM and lets players choose what to follow up on, but its a much cruder instrument than the rest of your ideas.

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  5. Talaraskan

    Good stuff! I feel like breathing some life into the towns and villages where the PCs spend their down time really adds to the longevity of a campaign.

    I try to take some time to think about what would be happening in the town regardless of whether the PCs arrive. Maybe a funeral is taking place or perhaps a cutpurse is fleeing from the docks. Sprinkling in those little bits along with the regular description gives the players the chance to nibble on story threads that they might find interesting. Often I don’t even know where these events will lead but they provide me with a springboard to improvise.

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