If you have been reading these pages on my rationale for gaming you will have begun to notice that I have a focus on realism and story telling. One most influence the other, I must be able to suspend your disbelief for the duration and that means what you have experienced must be used to inform how you as a player make your character behave and react. As part of the preparations for this I think that GMs should spend time on descriptions of people and places even when they are points to pass through.
The temptation is to describe every village or town in the same way. It has houses/hovels, an inn, a store, a herbalist and people live there. Occasionally, we might throw in a drunk or a thief but essentially the description becomes monotone and bland. Oh and the players try and take advantage.
- “I chat up the barmaid”
- “I start a bar fight,”
- ” I buy a +25 magic bastard sword”
So instead of moving your adventure on, or even starting one, you spend and evening fighting a rear guard improvisation to prevent the players gaining too much power. It is another aspect of engagement and involvement. Basically, what your players are saying is make it interesting or we will, often in ways that do not fit the profile of the character we created (if it is done well).
There are many levels of detail that I’m interested in creating. I want my players to feel that they are visiting places where people live. Gazetteers and adventure modules are all very well, but sometimes they sacrifice some of the detail that is needed to make a great description of a place. Reading these as a GM, means beginning to create that picture in your head ready for the telling in the game. You are at the time of the game wanting to create an atmosphere and it is the important or sometimes the trivial details that you will point out that will engage your players.
So what? There are plenty of GMs who can create a scene with some atmosphere. Yes and have you noticed that when you do your players are far more engaged? Sadly, we have tendency to do this only when we are in the middle of an adventure. At this point our players are pretty much involved in the shared story telling. However, when not in the adventure, during travel or rest and recuperation, GMs tend to be guilty of not doing this. Fine if you are moving quickly from one place to the next, and PC have no need to interact with the environment then fade out, fade in. Even then a sense of place helps anchor the player and their PC in the narrative.
Places of population should be about the daily lives of normal people as a complete contrast to the lives of an adventurer. People should listen with rapt awe or ignore the claims of our adventurers. Depending on your setting, travellers are rare, fully armed travellers without a caravan are rare, fully armed travellers with wizards could be very rare. There is going to be lots of gossip. They will be asked to sort out pig colic if they are magic users, sort out my sister’s brother’s Annie because they are a strong looking lad, or sing us a song bard! And this is nothing compared to the potential rumours and stories that can lead to short side adventurers or further hints and clues in a long running campaign. Even false rumours can be diverting, well for the GM as you watch and listen to your players follow a wild goose chase, but at least they aren’t pestering you with pointless barf fights to get more experience points.
Another reason, you should plan to have details of a settlement is that it stops good adventurers going bad. There is a tendency for players to forget their PCs traits and alignments. To treat the normal populace with a disregard that as people they wouldn’t dream of doing. Even if they are a little on the shady side, there is still the need to enforce social consequences. In the main, after one or two adverse encounters, players will realise that they need the social infrastructure of a village for general food and lodging if nothing else. Being wanted by the authorities of most states does make life generally difficult. Of course, if you were planning to be a Robin Hood that is fine, but even he in most literature seems to have kept in with the locals.
These then are the reasons why I think have details of villages and towns, even if they are not part of the adventure, should be thought through. You can accomplish this through a little bit of planning and thinking things through. If you plan it, then you probably don’t need to write as much down and will be more fluent. Sometimes there is material available from others, either source books or generic information which a quick web search should turn up. However, you will still need to put the time in to reading the material to know the basic settlement information to be able to improvise. A final option, and I would put this in the last resort category, is to create or buy a table that can populate a settlement. This does give you the chance of creating something on the fly, but I think it feels a bit superficial and there is a temptation just to read out the result in the table. Better to invest some time and be creative.