Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

Months ago, I came across a fascinating design concept described in this post at Strolen’s Citadel for the creation of a town.

The concept is very similar to the “character connection” idea discussed at length in yesterday’s post, that of requiring that each hero have some sort of positive relationship to at least two other heroes. The approach to town design described at Strolen’s uses the “connection rule” as well, mandating that NPCs in the town be interconnected with each other, but it isn’t necessary for the relationships to be positive.

For my own campaign, I chose to require each NPC to be connected with two other characters, and decided to add judicious application of the Seven Deadly Sins (envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath) to the relationships, to ensure that there would be sufficient conflict to make the settlement believable and provide a basis for the heroes to gain an emotional understanding of the residents.

For example, the town where the heroes began in my current fourth edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons campaign began with three names on paper, and the sin of lust. The names were of a prominent, but underhanded merchant, his half-brother, and the baroness with whom the merchant had an extra-marital affair. The connection between the merchant and the half-brother was fairly obvious, and the connection with the merchant and baroness even more so. To connect the baroness with the half-brother, I decided that the merchant confessed his infidelity to his half-brother in a drunken stupor, so the half-brother knew the baroness’ secret. I decided to drop another sin in here – greed – and elected to have the half-brother blackmailing the merchant in exchange for keeping silent on the matter (this explains the merchant’s strict absinence from alcohol at game present).

Thus, the first three players were interconnected, and it was time to expand to the second “generation” of NPCs.

Cleraly, if there was a baroness, there should probably be a baron, who was connected to his wife and son – or, more honestly, the lad the baron believed to be his son, but who was actually the illegitimate issue of the baroness and merchant. The son, who doesn’t know his true parentage, is connected to both parents, but also to the local guard captain and church cleric, who together trained the lad to be a paladin in the way most sons of noble blood are groomed.

The guard captain and church cleric are brothers, and they are old adventuring companions of the rogue who now runs the town trading post. The rogue is slothful, and makes most of his money as a paid informant and racketeer for the merchant; this activity has made the rogue unpopular with the guard captain, who seeks to expose the rogue for who he really is, and so forth.

After extending this list to include about 30 NPCs, most of whom were described with no more than two sentences of text, a convoluted set of relationships developed that would be the envy (another deadly sin) of every soap opera writer in Hollywood. There were bandits, smugglers, harlots, corrupt tax men, prideful knights, wasteful spendthrifts, envious gossips, love triangles, assassination plots, political intrigue and religious fanaticism. There were even two children who were convinced that a particularly hairy friar was a werewolf, and they were constantly trying to expose him by throwing wolfsbane and waving raw meat at the copulent cleric. in all, there was more than enough material to make a town of 2,000 residents seem alive to the players, and not one building had yet been drawn on the town map.

In addition I discovered that, as dungeon master, I was suddenly equipped with information in the event that any heroes decided to idly chat with random passersby. For example, the party heard this little tidbit while celebrating at the local inn with a tipsy reveler:

“Heh, slayer, you look tough, but you’d never have survived the party at [the half-brother’s] house last night. I wonder how he keeps up that big, stone house and throws those parties on a woodcutter’s wage? I bet the baron’s market days cost less!”

Unless it is your intention to run an entire campaign within a single settlement, which can certainly happen in a large, cosmopolitan city, it is very unlikely that the players will discover each of the relationships you’ve created, which is why names and two sentences are all that is required at the start. When the heroes show interest in one or more of your NPCs, though, it is time to add more detail as necessary; in our campaign, I actually needed to generate combat statistics for one poor fellow.

While the creative process behind this approach is more time-consuming than dawing a map first and keying as necessary, it can be worth the effort if the heroes will be spending a great deal of time there. In fact, although their quest has taken them away from that first town, my players are already talking of returning there.

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