Town Creation

Fantasy Town Creation: Keeping your town on-Theme

This is just here to add some visual interest.  Nothing to read here!  Move along!

Hello world!  It’s been a  very long time since I posted anything here, but a kind reader just asked me an interesting question, and I thought it would be a good subject for a post.  So here I am.

Ash was making some towns using the fantasy town creation system, and after saying some very kind words about the system as a whole, he added:

… Whereas this is here to illustrate Ash’s phrase “classist nightmare”

There is one thing I’m having problems with, could you please give me some advice? I can’t seem to get the “general theme” incorporated consistently. For example, one of my “Haunted” towns ended up half thriving tourism/trade town and half poor hellhole, so it became some kind of classist nightmare. I couldn’t get the haunted theme to work for both sides, it all became a bit jumbled. Do you have some tricks to keep the theme consistent, perhaps?

(He asked it at the bottom of the comments section here, if you want to track that down)

So – the question is, how do you make sure that the rest of the settlement matches the Theme?

The Vague and General Answer

My first answer is really vague and general, but I’ll say it anyway: I find that it helps a lot if you keep the overall Theme of the town at the front of your mind throughout the whole town creation process.   If you interpret everything else in light of the main Theme, then the end result has more chance of seeming unified and comprehensible (hooray!), rather than a grab-back of random stuff (blech).

That seems to work OK for me, at any rate.  But do I ever try to communicate this to other people?  Possibly not – I probably should have been more explicit about this in the system write-up.

But let’s get a bit more specific.

The Slightly More Specific Answer

More concretely, I suppose there are three moments in the system where I try to prod the player into interpreting the rest of the results in light of the main Theme.

1 – Theme is the first Step!

Wolfkin 5
Why is this werewolf attacking the town?  Because the town’s Haunted, of course!  Or wait – maybe because it’s Rich…

The first is just the fact that Theme is Step 1.  First impressions count for a lot.  I guess I’m hoping that as soon as you determine that Theme, you’re already starting to think “ooh, Haunted!” and imagining abandoned houses and clanking chains, or “Ah, Rich!” and imagining huge mansions, people swanning around in fancy jewelry and big dresses – or whatever.   At any rate, I’m hoping that starting with this puts the player in a position to interpret everything that follows accordingly

2 – The second step (“Memorable Feature”) refers you straight back to the Theme

The second step is to create a big memorable feature for the settlement – a kind of shorthand to make it stand out from other settlements in the players’ minds.  And here I do prod people to keep the Theme in mind.  I say:

 It’s good practice to relate the Memorable Feature to the Theme.  For instance, if a “Militaristic” town has an “Impressive Building,” it may well be the town walls or citadel.

That’s not a hard rule – it’s just a guideline, a piece of advice.  But following this advice helps a bit, I find.  Maybe I should have put it up in lights more, since it’s easy to miss or forget.

3 – The fourth step (“Creating Districts”) mandates a reference to the Theme

My last example is a little rule (guideline?) that is tucked into Step 4.  The rule says “Each settlement must contain at least one District appropriate to its Theme,” and then provides the following table:

Settlement Theme  Required District
Beautiful Green
Cultured Culture
Dangerous Hazardous
Haunted Graveyard or Hazardous
Historical Historic, Academic, or Hazardous
Infernal Hazardous
Magical Academic
Militaristic Military or Law and Order
Oppressed Law and Order
Poor Poor
Religious Religious
Rich Rich, Money or Trade
Safe Green or Public Amenity
Underworld Underworld

I worry some users might overlook or forget this rule – I know I forget it myself from time to time.  The point of it is to ensure that there’s at least some match-up between the overall Theme of the town and its array of Districts.

Nyssa maybeSo if the Theme of the town is Underworld, then the system requires you to place at least one Underworld District, so as to give all that shady cloak-and-dagger Thieves’ Guild stuff a focal point.  Now, you could end up with more than one Underworld District, whether by rolling them up randomly, or by selecting them whenever the random roll indicates that it’s “Your choice.”  And in fact in a sense that’s a fourth way in which the system prods you – or at least gives you an opportunity – to keep things on-Theme: it sometimes offers you choices.  At those moments, my vague and general advice applies: try to keep the Theme in mind.

So those are three small ways in which the system tries to prod you to keep referring back to the overall Theme throughout the whole settlement creation process.

That’s all very well, Collaborative Guy, but does it really work?

Honestly, I’m not sure.   There’s a fair bit of… well… randomness in this random system, and so sometimes you end up with pretty gonzo results – things that just don’t seem to fit the overall Theme of the town at all.

When that happens, I first try to force myself to think it through again, just in case I can get the random result to fit in a creative or surprising way.  Sometimes that’s when the best ideas arrive – forcing myself to imagine a bit harder, under constraints, can help to break me out of my habitual ways of thinking/imagining, which can be good.   But sometimes that doesn’t work, and then I need to give myself the freedom to re-roll, or even choose.

Personally I think that what most dissatisfies me in the Town Creation system at present is not the fact that it’s hard to work in the Theme (I haven’t really found that too hard, myself, for whatever that’s worth).  What dissatisfies me is how short the list of Themes is – there are only 14 different Themes to go around.

I think it would be nice to have more, and I’d be very open to suggestions!



6 thoughts on “Fantasy Town Creation: Keeping your town on-Theme

  1. First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to write a whole post about my question 🙂
    You’re absolutely right, maybe I’ll have to pull off the blinkers and look at the themes in a more creative way. I’ll see if I can give “classist nightmare” a more haunted looking paintjob, haha.

    I’ve been thinking about the themes a bit, and may have some suggestions:

    1) Tourism/Attraction.
    The place is famous for a unique feature or event, and people make their living off this. Maybe it’s the place with the hot springs that King Whatever IV made famous, or a god’s avatar ascended here and followers of the god flock to it. Maybe this is the place where millions of butterflies land on their journey to warmer climates, or a strange phenomenon turns the sea incredible colours, or ballads say a legendary hero sleeps here. Or less safe: the place where a grueling battle or massacre took place, and tourists flock to it for the history or horror (think how Salem ran with the witch theme).
    The type of Attraction would be determined by what other districts and memorable features there are. For example:
    Military and historic district? A great battle, possibly a siege on a fortress -> attraction for military/history fans and the hopeful who want to join the famous group.
    Ruling and Foreign district? Perhaps the signing of a peace treaty between the locals and a foreign group -> historic and political significance, and a focal point for that foreign group.
    Required Districts could be Portage (need to transport the tourists somehow) or possibly culture in the Tavern sense? The theme could work with a combination of near all other districts, with some creativity.

    2) Material.
    I don’t have quite the right title for this theme, it’s meant like this: the place is famous for a material good they provide. Maybe it has the famous dwarven silver mines, or the local lord breeds rare animals for their fur. Perhaps wood from the surrounding forests is especially good for shipbuilding, or a local type of bird has beautiful feathers for rich ladies clothes, or it’s the place where all the sheep have black wool. Maybe it’s that one little village for miles around where you can get those healing herbs or delicious honey.
    A Required District could be Craft, Trade/Market or Rich (though I expect there would probably be an Underworld district as well). Could have quite a few adventure hooks with jealous rivals, sabotage or general protection duties (or like some in my group would insist: building your own trade empire).

    Feel free to use, change or discard whatever you want, of course 🙂
    I do have some more ideas, but they’re not nearly as thought out as these two. Would you still want to hear them?


    1. Thanks for those suggestions, Ash! They give me much food for thought.

      It might be worth pointing out that if we keep thinking inside the boxes that the existing system gives us, your two fine suggestions would probably be better thought of as “Memorable Features” rather than “Themes.” In fact, I think your second suggestion (“Material”) is pretty close to what I mean by “Valuable Goods”, which is the 5-6, 6 result on the “Memorable Features” table. Your first suggestion, “Tourism/Attraction,” is a really nice one – I guess I have *something* a *little* bit like this on the Memorable Features table, since it’s kind of similar to “3-4, 6: Special Event”, though your way of phrasing it includes such real medieval standards as saints’ relics, healing springs, etc etc, which is really great. So that’s definitely worth thinking about, maybe as a way to expand or revise “Special Event.”

      I still think that a Theme is a different thing, though – it needs to be bigger and broader; a kind of keynote that sets the tone for the rest of the city in a single word.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!


    2. For some reason, I can’t find / see the original post full of questions. But oh well.

      I like the “Tourism/Attraction” theme option. Back when I was into the Iron Kingdoms Campaign Setting, there was a city that had an annual supernatural event, in which spectres (oblivious to the living and completely harmless) filled the streets in a grim procession, and the city made a big Día de Muertos sort of party out of it, with civilians dressing up as ghosts/skeletons/spookiness and hanging out in the streets getting drunk amidst the *actual* ghosts. The event was a big draw for tourists each year, too. Whenever I think “Spooky Fantasy Tourism Attraction,” that’s what I think of—it would be perfect for a Tourism-themed settlement in a Haunted region (or a Haunted settlement in a Tourism-themed region?)

      On the other hand, this sort of thing might just be captured by “Haunted Theme Settlement, Special Event feature,” so I dunno. The city from the Iron Kingdoms had lots of other salient characteristics (it was built in a marsh, so it was sinking; it’s on the frontier against the Dangerous Wastelands; it’s a significant industrial and trade hub; etc.) Maybe a Beautiful settlement theme with a “Trade” or even “Historic” district indicates the possibility of tourism? On the other hand, not all tourist destinations are necessarily beautiful (see Spoopy Parade, above). On the other other hand, how many people in a medieval fantasy world are really taking destination vacation trips in the first place? Does it even matter?

      At first, I had similar reservations about “Material” as a settlement theme… There’s already the “Valuable Goods” memorable feature. Of course, a “Material” theme doesn’t necessarily need to mean the material is valuable or noteworthy—it might just mean that the settlement (or region) is particularly dominated by a given industry. I might even go so far as to rename the theme idea “Industrial.” An Industrial town might be dominated by its coal mining operations… but an Industrial town with “Valuable Goods” might be dominated by its silver or adamantium mining operations… Required districts might include Craft, Trade (if they export the industrial product instead of refine it locally), or Portage.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. You’re right, there’s a lot of overlap between the themes and possible memorable features. I think the Tourism/Attraction thing would really work as a type of secondary theme, but that might be making things too complicated. Could work well, though, if you ever want to revamp the Features table.

      What do you think of a theme like “Rebellious”? It could be the counterpart to Oppressed. Think “fiercely independent”, unwilling to follow other people’s laws and leaders, or maybe even outright anarchic? They’re the type who go out on the street burning carriages in protest, or officially doing something completely different from the norm, just so they can define themselves by it. That rebellious spirit that means they’ll always stand out as different to the rest of the surrounding area. As a theme that makes people think of a specific type of energy, I could see this working. A kind of free-spirited wild side, but always with the need to define itself against The Other. Could be positive (“we don’t need that lord telling us where to buy our stuff. He’s hatin’ on elves? Well, we won’t!”) or negative (city turns into a Town Of Thugs or incites violent retaliation), as long as it’s defining itself as different from the surroundings.

      @Walker Mathews: I really like that Iron Kingdom city, sounds like lots of fun. True, the Tourism thing could work well when it’s seen as a kind of spin on another theme, since it’s really versatile. As for real medieval travel: pilgrimages were pretty common, or travel to join famous groups and guilds, so there is some precedent. And fantasy likes to turn pitiful things like logic on its head anyway, haha.

      I like your Industrial rename. At first I wanted to call it agricultural, but that was too specific. Industrial still is a little bit (immediately makes me think of mining and machinery rather than all possible material goods), but it still works.
      Admittedly, I didn’t show it enough in the first post, but there was supposed to be a distinction between “Material”/Industrial and “valuable goods”, in that one focuses on the material itself and the other on the things you make out of it. Like… there’d be a difference between the lumbermill town that produces the wood and the town with the docks and shipwrights that build the ships. It’s a bit too specific, though, if the themes are supposed to be broader.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a bit late in responding here, but I quite like “rebellious” as a theme – nice suggestion. I guess I’ve tended to assume that if your theme is “Oppressed”, then there are probably going to be some rebellion-style plots happening anyway, but that might just be me, and I can definitely see a case for breaking it out as its own Theme.

        I’ve been thinking of adding something like “Mercantile”, “Trade”, or similar.

        It might be worth pointing out that adding a few new Themes to the system would take a little bit more work than one might think (which is probably partly why I haven’t got around to doing it!) Of course, the *easy* way to do it would be just to go to the Town system and add a few more entries to the Theme table, so there’s no real work there. But doing it *right* would mean adding the same new Themes into the World creation system, and also come up with a whole bunch of good Theme-related *name modifiers* for use in the “Fantasy Location Names by Theme” part of the naming system. (I’ve found it helps to use the same, or at least a very similar, list of Themes throughout the system; that ensures that the different sub-systems to hook into each other nicely, allowing the whole thing to run more smoothly.) Anyway, I just thought I’d point that out – not for any particular reason; just to chat, really.


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