In all my years of playing D&D, I can remember a slew of fantastic dungeons, castles, and temples. What I have a harder time remembering are the little hamlets and villages my character stopped in along the way. Maybe there’s a memorable NPC or two within, but the towns themselves sort of blur together. There’s a smithy, a general store, and maybe a friendly church to buy potions from, but beyond that, I’m struggling to recall a single one that really stood out.
Granted there are some notable exceptions. The village of Hommlet and Saltmarsh come to mind, but if your players are just passing through on their way to their next deadly dungeon, what hope is there that they’d ever think of a place again?
Of course there’s always a balance to strike. You can’t make a village of 300 souls too interesting otherwise your players will waste time there instead of exploring the intriguing, deadly adventure you have planned. But you never want a paper-thin, filler location.
If you’re trying to build a world that feels alive and leaves your players immersed in a sense of wonder, perhaps consider the following elements to drop into any otherwise unremarkable township.
Lake Monster. The Monster Manual lists the stats for a plesiosaur on page 80, so boom you’ve got a quick Nessie to toss in. It’s important to note this monster shouldn’t be terrorizing anyone. The town should have a fondness for it. But maybe the players want to go catch a glimpse.
Infestation. The town is full of rats the size of cats. However, the residents like it this way. They keep them as pets and even train them to do simple tasks- not unlike dogs trained to herd sheep or fetch the morning paper. There’s an ancient shrine to a rat deity where the residents routinely leave tributes. Unfortunately, its name is long lost and nobody knows what it was the god of exactly.
Helpful Poltergeists. A few generations ago, a benevolent witch used their final spell to summon a swarm of invisible, semi-intelligent spirits. The only thing they’re interested in is being helpful and improving the lives of the residents. They pick up trash, pull weeds, and leave spare coins on people’s doorsteps.
Local Politics. After becoming frustrated with low-level municipal corruption, the town elected a dog as mayor in protest. Just entering its second term, most people approve of the situation.
Two-bit Town. Although the town has all necessary amenities, it only has two residents: a brother-sister pair. They bicker constantly but are eager to please any guests and earn their coin. They sprint in between the buildings to open them up for the players.
Trendsetters. The town is in the grip of a new fashion fad. All the denizens wear large, elaborate hats, shoes, and/or capes. They all try to peer-pressure the PCs into buying their ridiculous clothes.
Regional Dialect. As a result of a complicated mesh of folklore, superstition, and moral crusading, the town has come to view the letter E as somehow immoral and crass. The townsfolk avoid using words containing it at all costs when in public. However, they usually drop this strange affectation in private.
Chief Export. The village is known for the production of one thing and they’re not shy about it. They make the best maces in the region and refuse to sell swords, axes, or spears.
Rustic Charm. The town raises a domesticated variety of rust monsters. Through a complex process their meat can be pickled and made edible. It’s a local delicacy but an acquired taste to say the least.
Microclimate. The little village was founded by a wizard mourning their lost love. As a representation of their sorrow, it appears to rain every Monday. It’s just an illusion but it’s very convincing.
None of these quirky facets are intended to be a comprehensive town history or layout. Rather they’re intended to be quick flavor you can layer into your campaigns to give your players something to latch onto. Leave a comment and let me know what you think. Do you want more distinctive elements you can add into your games? Let me know and perhaps we’ll add to this list.