If you’re a Dungeon Master who’s tired of killing your players with boredom or your friends are deserting you for a DM with better worldbuilding skills you’ve come to the right place. I have here for your viewing pleasure a multi-part post of some common problems with D&D settings.Today we’ll talk about the common problems found in D&D towns and cities, why they’re problems and what you can do fix them. Think you’re ready for this?
Strap on your battlegear, grab your weapons, grit your teeth, and put your warface on. We’re going to learn!
13 Reasons Why Your D&D Setting Sucks
You Didn’t Do Any Research
You think just because this is fantasy you don’t have to do research? By trying to make everything up you’ve lost all sense of validity in your setting. Nothing about it feels real. Even in a completely made up world, full of made up stuff you still need those little bits of reality to give it substance.
If you’d bothered to Google it, you’d know that swords aren’t made that way, that there were actually food preservation methods and that a crossbow doesn’t fire off bolts like a machine gun. Instead you’ve thrust your players into a world that has no backbone to it, it’s just floating globby translucent jellyfish fantasy.
Do your research, stop assuming you know stuff.
You Don’t Understand How Awful Medieval Cities Were
Stop making your cities these medieval cultural utopias complete with mary singing men and women spending their days at the tavern. Medieval Communes, especially larger ones, were absolutely disgusting. Cities were horrifically overcroweded, had rampant disease and had families who were lucky to have a hard moldy piece of bread to eat let alone a huge succulent boar.
These cities were rampant with air and water pollution to the point where people were literally living in their own filth and choking with the ever-present threat of death. Even if fantasy was at one time a romanticized version of medieval times, its your duty as a DM to make your cities as shitty as possible, both literally and metaphorically.
All the Towns and Cities are the Same but with Different Names
Every city your party passes through should feel different. Maybe it’s similar in certain ways, maybe the layout borrows from one another but it should feel unique from all the others. Philadelphia looks and feels like a completely different city than Los Angeles. Even small towns have their own distinct nature that can’t be replicated. Put some thought into each town they pass through, or each city they enter. Every city should have a personality and a life pulse all its own. Using the same damn town and pasting different names over it is not acceptable.
It Feels Like There are Only Six People in your Massive City
Your party enters what you’re calling a massive city, hell it might even be the kingdom’s capital. Even in medieval times these cities could house fifty, a hundred… even two hundred thousand people. I should feel claustrophobic from all the overpopulation. I should feel like there’s a hundred thousand people in this massive city not just the six that are somewhat relevant to the story.
A massive city is more than just the innkeeper, a blacksmith, a butcher, and the guy who works the docks. So please, take some time to populate your city otherwise stick to the small deserted towns on the outskirts of the kingdom and leave the urban areas to people who can plan it better.
There are Only Inkeepers, Blacksmiths, Butchers and Bakers in your City
And while your at it, populate it with some variety will ya. A bustling city is bound to have more than just those four professions, otherwise the entire place would crumble. Now these might be the only ones that are immediately relevant to the game but I’d better get the sense that your fantasy medieval city has jewelers, masons, ropemakers, fishmongers, woodcarvers, booksellers etc. etc.
And if you really wanted to go the extra mile you’d do some research into these professions during that time period. Learn how shoes were made, what jobs were done by the working class and what jobs were learned professions. Put yourself in the times, they didn’t know what you know and industries were often built around ignorance. Keep that in mind as you look through this list of medieval professions.
Person-Who-Knows-Thing-That-The-Party-Needs-to-Know is Always Conveniently at the Tavern Whenever the Party Visits
Need to locate a gem that’s been lost for thousands of years? There’s a guy at the Tavern who has a map to it. Is there an ancient dragon guarded by a mystical spell? There’s a guy at the Tavern who can make a weapon that will destroy the spell. Need an ancient tome that no mortal has ever lied eyes on? There’s a guy at the Tavern who has a copy of it. Need directions to a mad wizard’s cave? There’s a guy at the Tavern who knows the way there. Foot rub? Guy at the Tavern. Taxes? Guy at the Tavern. Marital problems? Guy at the Tavern.
Stop it. Stop conveniently placing NPCs that have exactly what the party needs. Leave convenience to the grocery stores and give your players a real challenge.
Everyone is a Template
You know the drill. The party goes to talk to “The Innkeeper” or they happen upon “The Blacksmith”. Seriously, they’re people too. The Innkeeper is more than just their job and I’m sure they’re offended by being called “The Innkeeper”. These are people who have unique interests, motivations, passions and personalities.
Trying to use template archetypes in place of real character development is just lazy. Want a better setting? Put some thought into every NPC the party comes across, no two blacksmiths are alike. Learn to appreciate the subtle differences and nuances that make your NPCs unique from all the others.
Your Small Towns and Massive Cities Function Exactly the Same
If you have a massive city it should feel fundamentally different than if the party is passing through a small town. People are going to behave different, layout is going to be different, available technology, protection, resources, and knowledge is going to be different. Pay attention to where you’re taking your party. If your million person floating elven city feels exactly the same as the five person town in the middle of WhoTheHellKnowsWhere then there’s some problems.
Everybody Sounds like an NPC
I get it, dialogue is hard. Improvised dialogue is extra hard. Seriously, though please put some more effort into how your NPCs sound. If they sound canned, rehearsed or pretty much like a group of first graders doing a play about thanksgiving then there’s just all kind of problems here. Also, stop being so blatantly obvious about the clues you give your party. Try to be a bit more natural with your speech.
Your Infrastructure Makes No Sense
This is a way more complex topic than I want to get into for this article but basically there should be some logic to the facilities that help run your towns and cities. How does the town get water? How do they grow crops? Basically how in the world does the city survive given the technology available to them? Speaking of which…
Your Technology is Inconsistent
By now you should realize that fantasy isn’t completely devoid of reality. Technology is a common problem especially with games that try to blur the line of different era’s technology. That saying, “pfft it’s fantasy and there’s magic I don’t need to explain anything” is childish and lazy on your part.
Think about how the introduction of different technologies completely change our way of life and how we’ve tended to adapt around them. Technological innovation has complex, and far reaching consequences. Think about that before you start mixing technology from completely different eras.
You Ignored How Climate and Geography Influence Industry
Since most D&D settings take place in a pseudo-medieval era it makes sense that your town or city is going to be limited to their locations geography and climate. If your climate is mountainous and frigid year-round your party isn’t going to be trying to stop the rampant strawberry thief. (Unless they’re magial berries or this is an especially awful strawberry thief in which case you should probably just pity him and at least pretend to try).
If I’m entering a small town nestled in midst of a massive forest I shouldn’t be seeing a fish Mongerer trying to sell me fish that only survive in the ocean. Chances are if a guy in the middle of the forest is trying to sell you great white shark meat he’s a con artist, has rancid great white shark meat or is magic. Your city’s geography and climate are going to influence what industries are going to flourish there, keep that in mind.
13. You Forgot that Europe Wasn’t The Only Place in the World
There are soooo many eurocentric fantasy settings out there and D&D is no exception. Everyone who is even remotely aware of the fantasy genre has seen, read, heard, written or played in a fantasy setting that was based heavily off of medieval europe. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) This may come as a shock to you but there are other places in the world. Learn history. Learn about the people, the lands, the changes and the mindsets that shaped different time periods and different places. Then gobble them up for inspiration.
When was the last time you played a D&D game where the setting was influenced by the Yuan empire? the Umayyad Caliphate? the early Ottoman Empire? the Mongol Empire? Hell you could even be especially innovative and draw inspiration for your setting from your own hometown. I’m just saying there are more inspirations for a setting than 12th century Europe. Expand your horizons goddammit.
So now you know some things that will make your D&D towns and cities really click with players. Your cities will have more substance to them, more authenticity and the fantastical aspects in turn will feel that much more fantastic because they’re grounded in a slightly more logical, and your game now has a sophisticated aspect to it. Go ahead and give these a try for your next D&D game and see if the setting doesn’t come alive for you.