Building cities in D&D is a monumental task if you want to completely build a city. Luckily, there are much better ways to build a city, town, or village.
Building cities in D&D involves making things that your players will interact with. Start with small things, build-up, and don’t do too much.
This sounds like a simple concept but every DM out there ends up doing too much at some point. Building cities is generally where DMs have spent too much time on. At least once.
How to build a city
Build a city from the bottom up, not top-down. Do not think about the politics of the world and how they interact with your town, that is best suited for worldbuilding which is in our world creation article.
The worldbuilding article is all about saving you time when creating a world, and this article will do the same. The best time-saving tips are:
- Build what you need.
- Have a reason for what you are making.
- Follow the rule of 3 if you are lost.
- USe random generators to springboard ideas.
- Don’t treat a city like a dungeon.
- TAKE NOTES!!!!!
These 6 tips are all you need. They will help you save time and not waste effort. Spending most of your free time planning out a city will not go over well if your players do not visit most of the city! That is why we have these 6 tips to help you when building cities in D&D. Let’s dive into them!
Build what you need
Building what you need is what it sounds like. If you need a tavern, make a tavern. If you need a magic shop, build a magic shop. Don’t build any more than what your players will visit.
Why don’t you want to build more?
We will go over this a bit more in the section about treating a city like a dungeon, but in short, you will waste time. Building too much can be nice for your notes, but if your players don’t experience it then there is no point.
This is why you need to identify what you need.
Need isn’t what would be nice to have, or what the players might run into. Think about what you need to have in your adventure. The tavern might be important, so what is it like? Answer these questions for each location, place, and event.
- Why is it here?
- How does it function?
- Who is important?
- How prestigious is it?
The why is important for you and the players. They might want to know why this place is here, but you as a DM need to know why it exists.
How it functions is more for you as a DM. Knowing how a place works will make it easier on you, so make sure that you fully understand these core areas.
Who is important? You need to know who is in the location, place, or event that you are creating. If you go about building cities in D&D with no one in them, it won’t go over too well. Make sure that each NPC has some personality and a small background. Even a sentence for the background and 1 word for their personality will do.
Lastly, how big is this? If it is a small bar it won’t be well known, but could be a great base for your players. If the tavern is too big, it might be a great hub for information. The size of the place or event should also reflect your party. If your party is low level, it is probably best to spend the most time in a place of small influence. The opposite happens as you level.
Building what you need is great and all, but why are you building it?
Have a reason
Mapping out an area or place is very different from having a reason. The tavern exists to give drinks to adventurers, give out quests, and be a place that you planned out. Those are incidentals that anyone could figure out, but why did you make it?
When you are Building cities in D&D, each place that YOU plan out should have a reason. The tavern is an information hub to give quests to your players yes, but it has a different reason to exist. The tavern might be where you are having your players form the party AND will give them their first quest.
You have already planned out the quest or quest options for them, but the tavern is a catalyst to get your players to do something. If you are planning a magic shop you should first read our article on managing shopping, but after that figure out how that will affect the rest of your game.
Will the players gain a new friend and confidant that they will go to? Will the magic shop show a little of the corruption in the city? What does that magic shop do to your game, and will it make magic items more of a commodity than a special item?
You have to consider a lot when spending the time to create a place in D&D, so make sure you plan well before you start creating. There should be a bigger reason than what the players see upon first entry or it doesn’t need to be planned out.
Beyond this, you need to have a reason why the town exists. Does this city exist as a big hub of trade? Is it the crown jewel of an empire? Just having a single identifier will help you figure out what to make and what can happen in this area.
Cities are not the only thing that you will make. Villages and towns will also follow these same rules but will have a more specific purpose. They might be a small trade post, a city built around an inn to help weary travelers or just a small reason to settle here.
This is a lot to take in, so how do you know if something has a good enough reason to be placed?
The rule of 3
The rule of 3 is a guide to building cities in D&D. You can make it the rule of 2/1/5 if you wish, but it is there to give players options and you some ideas to start with.
The rule of 3 boils down to this: 3 interesting NPCs, locations, and events.
You can go beyond this rule of 3 and have 4 interesting NPCs, 3 interesting locations, and 6 interesting events. I wouldn’t go too much beyond this to start with since most players will take 1 real-life day (it seems) to explore an event and 1 second for the next.
The reason why there are 3 of each (at least) is because any less might lead to a lack of content. If your players don’t want to do 2 events for personal reasons, you are out of luck. If you have 3, you generally should be fine. When you go to 6 like we just showed in our example, that is a bit much.
We covered why this is a good rule for players, but why is it for you? The last sentence in the previous paragraph hinted at why limiting your self to 3 of each is a good idea. It is a bit much for you to prepare more than 3 of each.
It takes time to create anything, and you don’t want to waste your time with things that your players will not interact with. That is the golden rule to building cities in D&D.
To save even more time you can have all 3 of these things combined into 1 place. You have O’Riley’s bar (place) and it is run by O’Riley (NPC). O’Riley has a job for any adventurer who will take it, and needs the rats cleared from the basement (event).
The rule of 3 is a simple tool to help you have a start in your creations and save time, but wouldn’t you want to save even more time?
If you just need a city layout, here is a tool that randomly generates a city/town and will save you time in creating the layout.
If you are struggling to come up with ideas for the rule of 3 or places of importance, here is a random word generator to give you ideas to springboard off of.
Honestly, those are the 2 random generators that you need most. You can find others, but these generators will save you time when creating a layout for the players to see and give you words to help spark creativity. I cannot give you a finished product. That is up to you. I just hope that these tools help you when you are building cities in D&D, and save you a bit of time.
Even though there is a layout, there is something important that we need to cover.
Do not treat cities like dungeons
Dungeons are all planned out. Or at least, they should be. We go over all of the things that you need to keep in mind when creating a dungeon here, and as you can already see there are a lot of differences.
We came up with the rule of 3 to save time. You only build what you need to save time, and should have a reason for everything that you make. Beyond this, you do not need to plan much for a city.
The reason for a city coming into place might dictate some of the general laws that the players need to know and might even influence how well they can respond to greater threats like magic users. Beyond these general ideas, you do not need to plan anything more.
Most players will not care about the government (although if your party is very inquisitive you should at least have an idea of the government) or who Sally works for. They will not care what is in 1a, and will not visit most of the city.
Most cities in D&D are too vast to explore. That is why when building cities in D&D you should just ignore everything else that we haven’t talked about unless your party will explore something. Plan for that, but don’t do anymore.
The reason why we do this is because players will just say where they want to go instead of going left, right, straight, etc. They will ask to find a magic shop, a butcher, the guard, etc.
In these cases just make up a name and possibly 1 personality trait if you wish, but you don’t have to. Save the personality for NPCs who the players will visit more often and leave the other NPCs as just a shopkeep who is doing business and doesn’t care about their customers.
If you are bad with names, you can use this name generator for ideas. If you realize that your players will visit an NPC they asked for regularly and they should have some personality traits, use the random word generator to get some ideas.
Don’t work too hard, and save yourself some time. Players will come up with things that you cannot fathom in your planning. That is why it is important to take notes.
This is the most obvious tip when building cities in D&D, but also the most ignored. We have a whole section on this because even experienced DMs don’t take notes and have had panic attacks because of it. Myself included.
If you give a name, place, personality, or ANYTHING that you did not previously plan for to your players, write it down. Don’t just write it down! Write it down in a place where you will not lose. A scrap piece of paper is terrible for taking notes in. Have a notebook or something that has a way to keep itself together. A computer works too, but take notes.
You do not want your players going to an NPC that they really liked only to have you give a blank expression since you have no idea who they are talking about. Taking notes will solve this problem, and can help you when planning your quest, campaign, or plot ideas.
This is a simple concept, but 1 that we miss all the time. Please please please please please take notes! This will save you from a lot of pain in the future and can help you expand upon the city. You might find out that the players want to know if the city has a noble’s quarter, marketplace, or whatever. Make a note of this and use it to help expand your city based on your players’ interests.
Building cities in D&D is a monumental task that will take a lot of time. We have given you 6 tips to help save time when building your city, and have gone into detail with every step to help you execute them as smoothly as possible.
There are time-saving tools, random generators, and a few rules to follow. Always build from the bottom up and only build what you need. Do not take the dungeon approach or you will spend hours making a city when it should only take half an hour. An hour at most.
Lastly, DON’T FORGET TO TAKE NOTES!!! It is the last tip, but possibly the most important the for future of your game after the city has been built.
I hope that these tips helped you out and that you have an easier time building cities in D&D.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!