GM Tips: Questions to ask about Settlements
One of the most important things a GM can do when designing a campaign is to ask themselves questions, by doing so you ensure consistency and might also through up some important elements of your setting that can be woven into compelling stories.Beyond the usual considerations of how many people there are, do guilds exist and what types of building there are, here are some questions that you might not normally consider but that can add interest to a campaign:
- What do people eat and where does it come from?
Everyone needs to eat and it’s worth giving some consideration to where that food comes from, here are some suggestions:
- Farming: If standard agriculture is the way that food is provided then space is required to grow crops or rear animals, either the outskirts of your settlement will be surrounded by farmland, or perhaps there are nearby villages who bring produce to trade in your settlement. If farmers make a long trek to your settlement to trade and bring in that oh so important food then how safe is the route and are their any guardhouses or forces along the route to protect them from bandits, goblins and the like?
- Intensive/space saving farming: Even without magic there are cultures that have used terraced farming and other methods to maximise their yield using minimal space, does your settlement have the infrastructure and skill base necessary to do this? If so then perhaps parts of your city are given over to these great green terraces or perhaps larger buildings are obligated to house roof terraces where food can be grown.
- Grain stores: Some cities may have huge grain warehouses or other facilities where they store food and seeds, perhaps a small portion of a farmers goods traded in the city are taken as a tax, in lean times the city could loan these seeds to impoverised farmers for a later return or even use it to feed hungry citizens (in the event of a lean year or a siege). If a settlement has food stores then the food inside may become a secondary currency.
- Fantastic method: Perhaps your setting is more magical in nature, if that’s true then your options are virtually limitless, perhaps the city maintains the services of a group of druids or priests of a nature deity who can use their abilities to make food grow regardless of the climate and conditions. This method also has consequences, if all the food is grown by druids then what happened to the people who previously worked as farmers, did they find themselves out of a job? Are there huge crowds of people reliant on the government stores for their survival and what happens if this supply is suddenly cut off?
- Where does the waste go?
Almost as important as the question of food is where does the trash and the waste go? We’re all accustomed to medieval documentaries and TV programs showing waste buckets being tipped into the streets or sluiced into rivers, in the real world waste accumulation is a serious issue and by at least thinking about it in your campaign you give your setting some verisimilitude:
- Tipped out into the street: Although an easy method, this is only a temporary solution, after all if a never-ending stream of waster is being poured into the streets it will accumulate and eventually start posing a health hazard, what happens to it then? Are they regular patrols that clear up the waste and take it to a dump site or does the city periodically hold great bonfires where the combustible waste is burned?
- Poured into streams and rivers: This method has the advantage that waste is swiftly taken away from the settlement by the flow of the water, however great volumes of waste will pollute the water, damaging the environment and killing fish into the waterway, this will not be a popular choice with any druids or local tribes of elves. Although waste is taken away from your settlement, any villages or towns further down-river will notice the effect as waste adheres to the banks and collects in shallows.
- Buried in pits or burnt in great bonfires: Even though these solutions might seem like a good idea, they still have their own problems, the waste still needs to be collected, any pit built to hold it will eventually fill up and the land may not be suitable to build on afterwards (not to mention pollution leaking into the surrounding soil). Burning rubbish does solve some of these problems but not everything will burn and also great clouds of billowing foul smoke will make the immediate area fairly unpleasant.
- Fantastic: There are a number of dungeon denizens built in the worlds most popular roleplaying game specifically to handle the matter of waste management in dungeons and catacombs, perhaps the government has trained teams of rust monsters that devour metal waste and poop out fertiliser that can be used on farms or maybe they have a metal lined pit with a gelatinous cube at the bottom of it that biological waster is dumped into.
- Do most people who work in the settlement live there?
This may seem like an odd question to ask but if most people live in or near the place where they work then there will need to be all the various services available within easy reach that they rely on, taverns, shops, etc. In the real world towns often grew up around places where workers had migrated to precisely because there was a demand for these sort of services.If most people in the settlement do not live there but commute, then you have to consider why this is the case, are property prices too expensive in the settlement allowing only the richest to actually reside there? What is the lure for people to travel there, perhaps there are more opportunities for employment or the wages there are sufficiently higher?If people are commuting then, in a similar manner to farmers travelling to the settlement to trade you need to give some thought to how far these people have to travel and how dangerous the route is, after all the more dangerous the travel is then the greater the potential reward must be at the end of it or people wouldn’t commute. Perhaps organisations seek to profit off this by running shuttle services from outlying villages to your settlement, providing protection and expediting travel for a small cost.
- Who do the inhabitants pay their bills to?
Most settlement governments will need to raise money of some kind in order to keep their streets clean, pay public servants and provide other services, how do they acquire this money?
- Paying regular taxes: The government of the city takes a regular cut of money or produce from the citizens, this is a fairly standard way of handling this and does allow for some interesting stories. Perhaps a villainous regent raises the tactics and starts squeezing the populace leading to rebellion or maybe a natural disaster than damages the city requires more money to repair?
- Citizens are expected to do a certain amount of community service: In this scenario people who live and work in the city are expected to donate their time and talent rather than money on services to help the city, perhaps a blacksmith gives one day a week to reforging damaged weapons for the city guard or a carpenter works on repairing damaged buildings? If this is the case in your settlement then there is normally an option for people to pay a higher cost instead of public service, so those who are very rich or who have few useful skills can still contribute to the settlement’s upkeep.
- Paying produce to a local lord: Residents in smaller settlements may pay a portion of their produce or money to a local lord who in return passes a portion of this up the chain to his superiors and so on. In this method the average person has no direct contact with officials beyond their local lord, this can work well assuming the lord is honest and supports his superiors, however it can lead to rebellion when citizens support for their local lord opposes the King or other superior.
- Who does the settlement trade with and what for?
Beyond the questions of how a settlement secures food and money for and from it’s inhabitants there is also the possibility for trade with other settlements or kingdoms, this normally happens because one settlement has a surplus of materials that another needs and therefore a basis on which to make a deal.
- What is the other settlement/kingdom bringing to the table?
In order for trade to occur the other settlement must have something that yours want, deciding what this is in advance (whether lumber, grain or something more fantastic like adamantium) can help determine what form the relationship between the two takes and how strong it is.
- How does trade occur between the two?
How are the deals actually conducted, do the two settlements send merchantile emissaries to visit each other or do regular caravans wind between the two settlements? What is to stop one party deciding that it doesn’t want to play anymore and just trying to take the resources they desire by force?
- What is the other settlement/kingdom bringing to the table?
- What and who provide “law and order” in the settlement?
Does the settlement have a standing guard, if so who pays for that and what are their duties? Are the guards corrupt or incompetent?
Does the settlement have a militia type of arrangement where everyone is assumed to do a weeks guard duty once in a while? If so, does the local lord provide them with armor and weapons or are they armed with whatever they happen to have at home? How many guards does the settlement have on duty at any given time?
This additional great question was suggested by Dennis Bach Larsen in the RPG Brigade facebook group.
Picture is part of a Doré wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy labeled for reuse on Google Image Search, the original image can be found here.
Village graphic is taken from Pixabay, classified CC0 Public Domain.
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