Once a month, I publish a newsletter of quick tips for busy GMs called Beg, Borrow & Steal. Some require advanced preparation to use, but most are designed to be last-minute tips you can add to your very next game session — even if that session is tonight. Below is a sample from Beg, Borrow & Steal #2. If you’d like to see more last-minute GM tips, please sign up for the newsletter in the left sidebar.
Tired of bar fights and pick-pocketing musicians? Do your players find city encounters boringly routine? Here’s 20 unusual (more or less) encounters to help liven up your city trips. Some of these could be played for humor — others are deadly serious and may make your players uncomfortable. All are designed to be used in any genre, though some may need tweaking for a good fit. Roll randomly from the list below or pick one that appeals to you. And, as always, twist, distort, fold, spindle and mutilate these ideas to fit your group and your campaign.
Sometimes creating a believable city or town is one of the hardest parts of building an adventure or campaign. You don’t want all your towns to look the same and you definitely don’t want to get stuck in the generic “fantasy town”, consisting of a tavern/bar, inn or other lodgings, magic shoppe, etc.
Below I’ve gathered a list of web resources to help provide city building know-how and inspiration. Enjoy!
Here’s some listing of world-building sites who’s information can be adapted for city creation:
Since the PCs aren’t likely to interact with Meadowbrook’s blacksmiths other than to have items repaired or commission new ones, I’m not going to spend much time detailing them.
Most Meadowbrook’s blacksmiths focus on creating practical items — horseshoes, plows and farming implements, iron nails and building tools, etc. Kael Pathfinder Stoutpoppy is the exception to the rule: he’s only swordsmith in Meadowbrook. While he can and does do other types of blacksmithing to pay the bills, his primary love is creating strong, beautiful blades.
Kael is a former ranger who settled down in Meadowbrook. While his home and shop are actually outside of the city proper, he and his wife, Janna, are frequent faces in town, especially at The Butter Churn tavern. While adventuring, Kael met and fell in love with Janna Stoutpoppy, a skilled fighter in the group he traveled with. When the two of them decided to retire and settle down, they chose Meadowbrook — Janna’s home town.
While Kael and Janna aren’t the only human-halfling couple Meadowbrook’s history, the match is unusual enough to raise eyebrows and start gossip tongues wagging. The Stoutpoppys had some difficulty accepting an human son-in-law, but Kael’s friendly, outgoing personality finally won over Janna’s parents. The rest of the Stoutpoppy clan, including Janna’s two sisters and her brother aren’t so generous of spirit and the divide has split appart the clan. Janna’s siblings have not spoken to her for the last three years. The couple are very much in love, but the situation has put a strain on their marriage; currently, the two of them are discussing plans to move to a larger city where they won’t stand out so much.
A skilled storyteller, Kael can frequently be found at The Butter Churn when not working. He’s frequently pressed to tell stories of his and Janna’s younger, wilder days.
Janna herself is much quieter than her husband. She’s friendly enough, but much more reserved and usually content to let her more outgoing half speak for both of them.
Her split with her family weighs heavily on her, though she does her best not to show it. She’s glad her parents have come around about Kael, but the fact that her siblings and most of her clan refuse to speak to her saddens her greatly. She also experiences some discrimination in the town; a few of the merchants, both human and halfling, refuse to serve her or Kael. She loves Kael deeply, but the situation is putting a lot of strain on her. She and Kael have begun to talk about moving to an area where there are more couples like them, something she’s not sure she wants to do. She feels torn by her love for Kael and her love for her family.
For her own part, Janna is an excellent fighter, extremely skilled at taking down opponents several times her size. She’s agile and intelligent, though very shy without a sword in her hand. Her shyness can come off as cold or haughty to those meeting her for the first time.
Note about halfling names in Meadowbrook’s world: Among halflings, property is passed down matriliniarly, from mother to daughter. Consequently, most husbands take their wife’s surname after marriage, adding it after their own. Kael and Janna followed this tradition, hoping that would help them gain more acceptence in Janna’s home town. Unfortunately, this hasn’t had the effect they’d desired.
Let’s start with our inns.
The most obvious choice would be to place one inn in Littletun and one in Bigtun. But since inns generally aren’t used by locals, and the river docks are in Bigtun, it makes sense that both inns would be located near the trade route. And rather than having one in cater to “littles” (halflings, gnomes, dwarves, etc.) and other to “bigs” (humans, elves, etc.), lets make both inns cater to both types of clientele equally. Instead, we can have each of the inns cater to different income levels. So, our two inns are:
Catering to the working classes, Marketstreet Inn is run by Ellie Haymaker, a widow with two grown children — a son and a daughter — both of whom help run the inn. Marketstreet offers clean rooms for a fair price. The rooms are small and washrooms are limited to one per floor, but the beds are clean, if not the most comfortable. Ellie’s capable daughter, Maree, heads up the kitchen. The food choices are limited — stew, brown bread and cheese — but it’s warm, tasty, and there’s usually plenty of it. Ellie is the daughter of a traveling tinkerer, so she knows the kind of place working folk need when they’re away from home. She has an equal number of rooms for “bigs” and “littles”. Prices are by the bed, rather than the room, so frequently guests end up bunking with people they don’t know.
Ellie also employs a couple of housekeepers, a stableboy and a cook, all of them “bigs”.
The Golden Slipper caters to more monied class of travelers than Marketstreet Inn. Run by an ex-paladin/knight named Piers Caldwell, The Golden Slipper offers quality service, rooms, meals — and charges accordingly. Much smaller than Marketstreet Inn, The Golden Slipper charges by the room and offers one washroom for every two sleeping rooms. Meals are cooked to order and often contain imported delicacies.
Piers is an honest, trustworthy and reliable man, who found the conduct code of a holy warrior too restrictive — wealth and the opposite sex proved to be too much temptation for him. After a highly lucrative career as a sword for hire (i.e., adventurer), he decided to retire to quieter surroundings. The Golden Slipper doesn’t bring in enough money to cover all of its expenses; Piers hopes this will change as Meadowbrook’s trade continues to expand. Meanwhile, he’s supporting the inn out of his own savings, which don’t look as if they’re going to run short anytime in the next couple of decades. He employs a large staff, including a “companion service” and a couple of low-level spellcasters; Piers uses magical cleaning methods to make sure the Slipper is spotless at all times.
Piers and Ellie’s mutual dislike of each other is well-known and frequently causes conflict within their guild.
Meadowbrook’s ten eateries aren’t as differentiated as modern ones. They’re a cross between a pub/tavern and a modern restaurant. Six of the establishments are in Bigtun, with four (including The Butter Churn) in Littletun. Most cater to travelers and locals alike, but three remain local hot spots and two focus on the trader business. I’m only going to detail the most popular places.
The Butter Churn is the favorite spot for local residents. Located in Littletun, it’s run by Kari Tallfellow who inherited the business from her father. It’s been in her family for seven generations and she’s training her own son, Martin, to take over when she retires. It’s widely recognized as having the best food in all of Meadowbrook and the surrounding villages. It’s a family-friendly atmosphere and many of the locals gather here when they’re not working. On Saturday nights, the Churn (as its known locally) hosts music and dancing.
In contrast to The Butter Churn, Wind on the Docks caters to an older, more transient crowd. Wind on the Docks is the front face for Madam Lillington’s brothel. Though it draws mostly from traders and other travelers just passing through, Madam Lillington’s is also a time-honored tradition for local adolescents seeking their first sexual experience. [I had originally stated that Meadowbrook didn't have an actual brothel, just independent streetwalkers. I changed my mind because I wanted to set up the contrast between The Butter Churn's wholesome, family focus and a more "adult" and less reputable establishment].
Madam Lillington employs both humans and halflings, though she does insist they be over the age of majority, which in this area is 14. Compared to some establishments in larger cities, the Docks (as the locals call it) is quite tame in the pleasures it offers. Most of her “staff” are out-of-towners escaping bad situations in their home ports, but some are locals. She employs both “bigs” and “littles”, mostly humans and halflings.
Not all traders and travelers are lone adults who might seek companionship for a night. Sometimes whole families work the trade routes and there are always a few devoted clerics, paladins, and other travelers who really are just looking for a hot meal. The best location for that is Gorseberry Blue, which serves good food at reasonable prices. What it lacks in menu diversity, it makes up for in both quality and quantity. Of all the food places in Meadowbrook, Gorseberry offers the best combination good food, quiet atmosphere, and friendly staff and is the most popular spot for those just passing through Meadowbrook.
Not actually an inn at all, the Grapeleaf Inn (known locally as the Rats’ Nest) has only one thing going for it — the food is cheap. Frequented by those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, locals and out-of-towners alike, the Rats’s Nest definitely lives down to its very poor reputation. Still, if you’ve only go a few coppers to your name, you can get a hot meal here, as long as you’re not too picky about its contents.
The next entry on our list of Notable People is “Clerics of the local shrines”. While these would, indeed, be notable people (the head priest/ess of the largest shrines would likely have considerable influence), religions differ greatly from one game system to the next and one campaign to the next. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to leave it up to individual GMs to create the details for their own games.
However, religion gives us an opportunity to bring our theme (new growth vs. stagnation) into play again. Before becoming a trade center, Meadowbrook was primarily a farming town, so gods of planting and harvest would’ve played a very important role in town life. The new focus on trade and commerce would have brought with more followers of gods favoring those aspects. This could cause friction between the clergy of the established temples and the clergy of the newer temples. Because the growth has been so recent, many of the newer temples are likely still in construction and competition for the best building locations could be very “hot”. Plus, there could be friction between the halfling temples (most likely among the established temples) and human temples (most of new temples would fall into this category).
In a more historically-based game, such as Ars Magica, you’re going to have the influence of Christianity. Depending on when in the medieval era you base your game, you could have the new Christian religion coming into conflict with the older pagan gods. Or you could set up Meadowbrook as a rare town with a large Jewish population and explore prejudice medievel Christians had for Judism. If you wanted to base Meadowbrook in a Middle Eastern-inspired setting, you could play up the conflict between the established Christian and the “new” Islamic faiths. And there’s always the antagonism between the Western, Roman, Chuch and the Easter, Greek, Church.
For traditional fantasy settings, Meadowbrook’s most influential temples will be dedicated to gods of harvest and trade, as well as those pertaining to the home and family. Gods of healing and prosperity would also have a large following among both “old-timers” and newcomers. Halfling gods would also be popular and could potentially even have many human followers, especially since there may be some families in Meadowbrook comprised of both halfling and human members, bonded by marriage.
Gods of lesser importance would be those pertaining to travel (popular among the traders passing through) and luck. Gods dedicated to magic would likely have few followers in the town, but certainly there would be some small shrines set up here and there, especially among the fix-it guild. Tammi Ravenswing and other guilds would have a small shrine dedicated to trickster or thieving gods hidden away.
The least influential gods would be those related to war and evil, as well as those related to other demi-humans. Darius, the town’s only resident with elven blood, would have a small shrine dedicated to the elven gods in his home and/or shop. The few gnomish residents would also have small shrines dedicated their gods, though they are also likely to follow some of the halfling gods, as well.
Next time: Kari Tallfellow, the Butter Churn, and places of hospitality.