I love building and exploring weird worlds, and there is no medium better suited to this than tabletop RPGs. There is no limitation based on art, or programming, or computational power; the world can be anything and everything your imagination can bring to the table. Given how important worldbuilding is to me, and many others involved in the hobby, I’m surprised by how few tabletop RPGs have settlement building as a major conceit. As someone whose imagination runs at a mile a minute, I get the appeal of going on adventures, of new places and new things always around the corner. But I think there’s something to be said for depth in world building as well. If your city, or spaceport, or hub location of another kind isn’t deep enough and interesting enough to set a whole campaign in, then what does it amount to, other than a wondrous novelty? So let’s talk about how to do interesting things with settlements in tabletop RPGs.
1) An Argument For Settlement Building Mechanics
If you’re like me and prefer games with as few mechanics getting in the way as possible, you may question whether we even need mechanics for settlement building. Of course you don’t need them, but I do think that having at least a few mechanics is a good idea. For starters, it serves as a signal to your players. Having some mechanics for settlement building in your game tells the players “this is a thing you can do, and can be a priority in this game”. The fact that there aren’t codified mechanics for settlement building in D&D (or at least, they’re often supplemental) is I think part of why we don’t consider this to be a major trope of tabletop RPGs along with adventuring and dungeoneering. Mechanics for settlement building also facilitate the process, compared to a free-form approach. Players can often be aimless and indecisive, but having mechanics for how to build a settlement gives players the direction they need to keep the game moving and keep the players engaged. It also gives GMs a framework to integrate settlement building into a campaign.
2) A Framework For Settlement Building
I like to keep games rules-light, so this is a simple framework for settlement building intended to be translatable to various systems. I’ve recently been reading Numenera Destiny, which was a major inspiration for this post, so my ideas are loosely based on their mechanics, but streamlined. Building resources should be separated into two categories. Mundane resources are things that can be found or bought fairly easily, like wood or metal in most fantasy settings. These resources should be abstracted to some combination of regular currency value such as gold and/or time to get the resources (or pay someone to get them). The second currency should be resources that are precious, difficult to acquire, or in such high demand that they cannot easily be bought. This currency should be specific to building (or maybe crafting more generally) and should not normally be able to be purchased with regular currency. As an example of how this would work, we can imagine a fantasy setting where the party wants to build a magic lightning turret to protect a village plagued by undead fiends. The construction will be mostly wood and metal (some gold value), but the magic lightning will require some magically conductive materials (our secondary resource). Assuming they have the resources, they can either spend time to build the construct, hire laborers, engineers, and artificers to build it, or if the settlement has attracted a sufficient number of specialists already, the city budget may already account for labor costs. If they want to add additional features, like multiple magical lightning rods to target multiple enemies, or a longer rod for longer range, or some enhancer to give it an area of effect, this will increase the secondary resource cost, whereas just making it better fortified may be a simple gold cost increase. It may help to give the structures levels, where the level determines some range of gold cost and secondary resource cost (and possibly also the time cost). There are, however, other things we need to consider when it comes to adding settlement building into a campaign.
3) The Practicalities Of Settlement Building
As stated above, construction takes time, and managing downtime is always tricky in tabletop RPGs. One option is to hire builders, as suggested above. Another option is to roleplay out “vignettes” of various activities that the party gets up to periodically during the course of construction (a construction accident where somebody may be in danger, a necessary schematic has gone missing and is believed stolen, etc.). This “vignettes” idea could work as a general mechanic for dealing with downtime, but given that downtime may be more prominent in a settlement building campaign, it’s especially important to think about how to make it fun in this context. The mechanics for settlement building in Numenera Destiny require a series of rolls to determine how successful the building process is, where the failures may add time to the construction, or add a defect into the structure, but I’m not a fan of this approach. First, multiple rolls for a single outcome is cumbersome. Second, adding time to the project just delays the thing the outcome (and by extension game progression) without adding any value to the game. Third, given the time and cost of building, ending up with a defect seems unsatisfying. I think the building process should be treated more like a “take 20”, where it’s a guaranteed success unless it’s at some critical moment where it would create tension (the enemy army will be here in two days and we haven’t finished the wall!), or where a defect would make the game interesting (the teleporter accidentally sent the party to an alternate universe!), and then it can be reduced to a single roll like any other skill check.
4) Progression In A Settlement Building Campaign
The settlement can be thought of as a character. A level 1 settlement will have a small population (relative to the setting), access to few resources, at most one advanced structure (a structure that would require the secondary resource to build or repair), and would have only mundane shops. There would be few settlers (or travelers) of note, and the quest board or NPC quest-givers would be few and simple. The settlement may have some needs, like a wall or other defenses, a road, a grainery or some other resource-related structure. To advance from level 1 to level 2 will require a few mundane structures that cost a decent amount of gold, and one advanced structure that costs a secondary resource. If you also used a level-system for structures, you could have a cap like a level 1 settlement can only have level 1 structures, and a settlement levels up after some number of structures have been produced or upgraded. The resources (mundane or advanced) may be found in a nearby forest, or would be more available if they could cut a deal with the neighboring village, giving the players a justification to explore and go on quests and adventures. Once the settlement reaches level 2, new and more interesting NPCs move in, or old NPCs gain new skills or have resources that allow them to do more interesting things, like the blacksmith being able to make better weapons and armors, and higher level structures can be built. My OSR Weapon Hack, where a base weapon is given added qualities of different cost values, may be a good basis for filling out these shops as the settlement advances, and I may at some point design a similar generator for settlement building as part of a larger crafting system. In addition to new and improved shops and more or more interesting quest-givers, the settlers may be able to build certain mundane, lower-level structures at a lower cost, or without assistance from the party (besides resources). The players are rewarded for investing in the settlement, both in a quantitative sense, like leveling up their own character, but also because the settlement will grow and change, partially in ways they designed, but sometimes in interesting and unexpected ways.
5) Settlement Building Campaign Seeds
I wrote a settlement building campaign scenario for my current campaign in my Aquarian Dawn setting, but there are all sorts of possibilities:
After crash-landing on the planet, the crew of the starship must find a way to integrate into the nearby village while they work on their repairs. Normally they have strict rules about interfering with less advanced civilizations, but while they’re stuck here, how can they sit by while they watch people suffer due to inadequate knowledge, poor infrastructure, and external threats? Also, without processing facilities, how will they repair their ship?
In the near future, global warming and the subsequent series of wars and economic disasters has devastated the planet. A coalition of peoples from throughout the world have united to send a generation ship into space, to colonize a distant world and give humanity a second chance. The crew will have to maintain order on the ship for generations, maintain its systems, and eventually terraform and colonize the distant world. Very loosely based on my Antikythera Nova setting, which could also be used for a settlement building campaign.
A group of wandering warriors / adventurers find themselves resting in a small, peaceful village, far removed from the wars and plights of the kingdoms. However, no peace is everlasting, and various bandits and warlord “tax collectors” exploit the hard-working villagers, taking more of their crops than the village can sustain. The villagers beg the wanderers to help them, but the wanderers won’t be able to do it alone. They’ll need to train the villagers to defend themselves, and build traps and fortifications to defend against the marauders who vastly outnumber and would otherwise overpower them.
Settlement building as a mechanic and campaign premise deserves as much recognition as a core feature of tabletop RPGs as adventuring and dungeoneering, and I hope this framework inspires more people to try it out. As my current campaign progresses, I will likely flesh out this system in more depth, and I hope people will be interested to see how this develops. As a worldbuilder, this is a fun way to add depth and to bring a collaborative worldbuilding element to your campaign: by allowing the players to determine how the settlement progresses. If you have thoughts on how to add settlement building mechanics to tabletop RPGs, or how to run a settlement building campaign, please leave a comment!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/240655/Numenera-Destiny?affiliate_id=657321
Listen, I love D&D. Medieval fantasy is my main jam and no matter what other games I play, there is a spot in my heart that will always be kept for that game and that genre. But for the good of D&D, I want you to stop playing D&D.
Now, let me explain: I’ve been playing D&D since I was 12, using a battered Red Box with no polyhedral dice and less understanding of the rules. I started DMing right away, and have remained in that position for the majority of the time that I have been in this hobby. I played out of the Basic Rules Cyclopedia, I played out of Gygax’s AD&D books, I played out of the 2nd Edition books, and eventually was dragged kicking and screaming into 3.0 and 3.5, where I spent the next decade. I didn’t get to play (but read) the 4E books, and have been off and on playing 5E since the day that it came out. I have played Pathfinder and 13th Age and I like a lot of what they bring to the table, but let’s face it, they are still D&D. I would guess that something like 90% of the hours I have actually spent playing tabletop RPGs have been in D&D.
But I am not playing it right now. And I am doing that, partially, so I can get better at D&D.
A little over a year ago, I challenged my home group to take a one year break from D&D. It was mainly because I had continued to become more and more aware of all of these other games; a buddy of mine ran a FATE Core game for about a year, which we made into an actual play you can find here. I backed the second edition of APOCALYPSE WORLD because I had been hearing about it and devoured it. It read like a profane graduate thesis in rethinking how you run any game!
So at this stage I started to devour and take a chance to play any game I hadn’t played before, from Mouse Guard to Call of Cthulhu to Night’s Black Agents. I learned a tonne of stuff and eventually ended up running a Star Trek Adventures game on Roll20, a Numenera game with my regular group, and playing an amazing Savage Rifts group. This all led me to write this challenge.
You need to stop playing D&D. Play and read all the other games you can. Come back to D&D after a bit. It’ll change your life.
That being said, I know most of you won’t take that advice, so being the good sport that I am, I have a few things that I have learned based on the games that I have been reading and playing.
1) FATE Core - Zones
I have started to use zones when I am running more tactical games that typically can either require or heavily suggest a grid map. Now, I am no opponent to grid maps, but there is no replacing theatre of the mind for ensuring that you are really envisioning the most badass things your character can do. So, in FATE as opposed to things like D&D you don’t use grids or hexes, you have zones. With zones, you break up an encounter into sections of the space in which people are acting.
Let’s use a bar fight for example, you would take out some Post-It notes or index cards and on one, you would write, “Common Room,” on the next, “Behind the Bar,” and on the next, “The Back.” We decide where our players are given those cards and then we can even place markers representing them on those cards. Each zone card represents an area of the bar that PCs can be in, or move into our out of.
Now, players can do pretty much anything, make their attacks, move around, etc., within a single zone. The amount of feet moved doesn’t need to be tracked, but passing outside of a zone means you used your full movement to get there, assuming it is feasible to move between the zones. If the door to the “Back Room” is locked, you may have to be more creative to move from the “Common Room” to the “Back Room.” This helps decide if folks get hit by an area of effect, decides what enemies are where and seeing which PCs, but beyond that it takes all of the grid-tracking usually required.
Of course, if the fight takes them into zones that you haven’t put down at the beginning, simply add them. They head out the back door? Now give a quick description of it and add a card that says “The Alley.” Goes the other way? “The Street.” See?
I find this stuff a little less effective in large scale or longer distance battles, but it is really effective at managing indoors, and small, dirty, battles with lots of terrain types or changes.
2) Numenera - Less DM Dice Rolling
In Numenera, the Game Master doesn’t touch dice. If a player wants to say, make an attack, they roll against the rank of the thing they are attacking, and if that thing wants to attack them back, the player rolls to defend. It is a simple and elegant system, and no one at the table is unsure if the GM is taking it easy or going hard on the group. Everything is all out in the open. Now, I am personally (but your fun isn’t wrong, it’s just me) against fudging rolls from behind a DM Screen. If I know or suspect that my DM is doing that, I automatically have about 25% less fun according to my calculations. The main reason? I want to know that the spectacular thing I accomplish was accomplished by me, not because the DM took pity.
So now, when I DM for D&D, I try to make most if of my rolls out in the open, for everyone to see. It adds tension to the table, people are staring at the dice as it tumbles across the table, wondering if the big bad is going to smash down their character, and I think it is the ultimate in fairness.
3) Apocalypse World - Threat Clock
I haven’t personally used this one yet, but I am aching for an opportunity to try it. In Apocalypse World the basic use of the clock is to provide a visual of rising threats in the fiction of the world that you are playing in. There are several things that can raise the threat level and if it hits say, “midnight” then something happens. Something like this is used in the D&D 5E adventure Out of the Abyss wherein *SPOILERS* a crew of drow hunters are pursuing your party, and if you do certain things, like leave a trail, wait too long in one place, or if the dice gods hate you, they can get closer and just spring on you wherever in the story you are, regardless of whether you are ready for them. I think that is a very effective tactic in making situations in your world somewhat unpredictable and tense.
In D&D I would adapt the Threat Clock to be specific to whatever you are facing. Let’s say for example the threat that is designated in your world is that the cultists are trying to raise a forgotten dark god to destroy the world. Every time that your players do something that hinders that, move the hand on the clock back, and every time they do something that either takes too much time or fails to hinder, or even helps them, the clock moves forward. If it hits midnight, something terrible happens. At lower levels it could be that the cultists find out that the players are after them and start to dispatch assassins. Mid-level, maybe they can summon a couple of demons to hunt the players or even that they suddenly change their plans to befuddle the players’ plans. High Level? Announce that if the clock hits midnight one to three (depending on how often it is happening for your group) times, the dark god will be raised. Each time it does, something bad happens, until the end of all things is upon the world.
4) 13th Age - One Unique Thing
OK, this may be cheating a bit, as I stand by my assertion that 13th Age is still technically D&D. That being said, it’s fantastic designers (Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, the lead designers of D&D 3rd and 4th Editions) have done a few things that are elegantly simple and add a bunch to gameplay. The one that I keep coming back to us your One Unique Thing. The One Unique Thing is something about your character that is completely different from everyone else. It provides no mechanical benefit but should be something that helps to define your character and at its best, provides a springboard for stories involving that aspect of your character.
For example, if your One Unique Thing is that you are “The last in a long line of warriors sworn to protect a dying religion” that sparks a lot of questions that can be answered in gameplay. Why are you the last? Why is the religion dying? What is the religion? And so on. At best, these things are not fully defined previous to gameplay but are discovered organically during gameplay.
5) Night’s Black Agents - GUMSHOE Style Investigations
In Night’s Black Agents you play disavowed spies uncovering a supernatural conspiracy, it is a game about investigations. And you know what is super not fun about most D&D investigations? Binary pass/fail rolls. Let’s face it, rolling a d20 an then adding a bonus or two, especially at low levels, mean that skills are very swingy, giving a relatively high percentage that “expert” characters routinely fail to notice things or find clues, or see something out of the corner of their eye, etc. They either do or they don’t. The GUMSHOE rules system was designed to address that problem, by just making any clue that was imperative to move the plot along, automatic. And the more I thought about it the more that I realized that that is exactly how it should be. How fun is it to have your plot grind to a halt because of one bad roll? Zero! It is zero fun.
In GUMSHOE, the primary clue is automatic, but you can spend skill points to get additional detail or additional clues that help. This can be easily adapted into D&D by allowing the roll, but no matter what that roll is, they get the main clue, the rest is to see extra detail or additional clues that may provide more context or speed up the investigation. And yes, that means that if you are playing that a Nat 1 is a critical fumble of some type on skill rolls, they need to be able to both fumble and get the clue.
OK, so you probably don’t have to stop playing D&D to learn these things.
I am just going to suggest that you read and play as many other games as possible, even just to try them and learn from them, because let me tell you, the designers of D&D do, they always have, and it make them better. And a version of 6th Edition’s best and most innovative mechanic is already out there being used somewhere, and it’s awesome.
Quinn C. Moerike is the CEO and Managing Partner of High Level Games, and is continuously working on a million projects. Right now, he is working with a team here at High Level Games to develop a new setting featuring anthropomorphic heroes for Savage Worlds called Archons of Nikud. He is also the resident grognard here and deeply appreciates his childhood tactical play of moving ten feet and then checking for traps.
Picture Reference: https://www.amazon.com/Numenera-Corebook-Monte-Cook/dp/1939979005
My earliest RPG experiences were with Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, 4e, and Pathfinder. These are (each in their own right) wonderful games, full of arcane character options and high-powered tactical abilities that make it fun to build characters and fight monsters. However, while I have nothing against them personally, these are games I would have little to no interest in ever playing again and certainly never GMing again. This is in part because playing only those games gave me a narrow perception of what tabletop RPGs can be. Even D&D 5th edition, while more streamlined, is still far from my ideal game. I don’t mean to incite anyone to anger, again I have nothing against it personally, but for anyone with any interest in this artistic medium, it’s important to recognize that there are other kinds of games with other kinds of assumptions. With that knowledge, one can best leverage the strengths of a given system, or find the system best suited to a given game or to their preferred style, or bring aspects from one system to another. With that in mind, here are four games that changed how I think about tabletop RPGs.
1) Tenra Bansho Zero
This is a Japanese tabletop roleplaying game, one of the few that has been translated into English, and one of the first non-d20 games I ever read, although unfortunately I still have not played it. I would like to play it one day, but even if I never do, even just reading it opened up my mind to new ways to think about tabletop RPG mechanics. The setting is a science-fantasy alternate universe based heavily on Japanese culture, history, and mythology. It explores subjects such as the introduction of Buddhism into Japanese culture and its relationship with Shintoism, the conflict between the indigenous peoples of Japan and the ethnic Japanese, and the psychological impact of transhumanism through body horror. The biggest hook of the system, to me, was the karma mechanic. During character creation, you may accrue karma points to give your character stat boosts or special abilities, and karma can also be spent in-game to succeed when you would otherwise fail or do things that would normally be impossible, a sort of cinematic “anime-mode.” However, if you accrue enough karma, you become an asura, a demon, and your character is taken away from you to become an antagonistic NPC. Characters have a series of personal goals, and accruing these goals allows you to accrue points which can be converted to karma, but also resolving these goals allows you to relieve karma. While the mechanics in games like D&D 5e tend to focus on combat, the idea of using game mechanics to reflect a narrative or philosophical construct radically changed how I thought about what tabletop RPGs can be.
2) Narrative / Story Games (E.g. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, FATE)
Narrative or story games are generally defined as systems that are simple, flexible, and intended to facilitate a particular kind of narrative. There are some contentions around the usage and definitions of these terms, but for the purpose of this article I think this is a useful way of thinking of these games. FATE uses a simple and customizable skill pyramid as the skeleton of all of its mechanics. Characters can effectively do anything it would make sense for them to be able to do from a narrative perspective by rolling a relevant skill. They may spending FATE points on aspects, short descriptors that interact with the environment or narrative, to give themselves benefits to their rolls. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and other Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games are constructed for a very specific setting or genre. Actions are engaged with moves, meant to facilitate character interaction or interaction with the narrative. These actions are resolved with given degrees of success and failure on the roll that always keep the game moving forward. Both can be easily modified and are designed to be modified, but I like FATE Core for one-shots since it’s so simple and has a cinematic, fail-forward approach to gaming. I’m still wrapping my head around PbtA games, sometimes I feel like the mechanics in those games just get in the way of me doing what I would be doing anyway, but for someone with no experience with this style of play, these games can serve as good instructions for how to tell compelling narratives in a tabletop RPG.
3) Cypher System (Particularly Numenera)
Cypher system, initially created for the game Numenera, was designed by Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3rd edition. He is a somewhat controversial figure in tabletop, but regardless of what you think of him as a person or businessperson, he is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in tabletop. Cypher is hands-down my favorite system, and while it seems to have carved a niche for itself, I think it’s a shame that it’s not more popular. Monte has stated that he designed the system as a way to correct for some of what he perceives as mistakes he made with D&D 3rd edition, and it feels as a result like a blend of the aforementioned narrativist games and traditional D&D, with some unique mechanics I have not seen anywhere else. It is super easy to run as a GM, with most obstacles or enemies being reducible to a single number. It also finds a strong balance between a wide variety of relatively deep character options that make character building fun, but does not pigeon-hole you into specific builds or become so deep or complex as to stifle storytelling. Many people seem to struggle with its three stat-pool system, which acts effectively as HP and ability points which can be spent to lower the difficulty of tasks as resolved by a d20 roll, but I think if you can wrap your head around it, it’s one of the most distinct and flexible mechanics of any RPG (although that may require a post unto itself).
The Numenera setting is also excellent. The book is packed full of beautiful art, the system is embedded within the game so the Cypher core book is not required, and the setting itself is flexible and open to interpretation. It’s a post-post-apocalyptic, far-future science fantasy setting, one where ancient and advanced technologies indistinguishable from magic are utilized by a medieval world that has sprung up in this glorious refuse. Besides being a perfectly weird setting in itself, it also explains how to build a weird world and tell stories within such a setting in a way that really changed how I thought about worldbuilding. Despite having read so many science fantasy novels, I don’t think I really understood what makes weird worlds work until reading Numenera.
4) OSR (e.g. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells)
OSR, or old school renaissance (some people prefer to say revival), refers to retro-clones of old school (pre-3rd edition) D&D or games derived from those systems. OSR is defined by a complex and highly debated set of properties and sensibilities, but is usually associated with player skill over character skill, intentional lack of game balance, high challenge, low heroics, high mortality, randomization, and GM “rulings” over rules. While once narrow in scope, this term has more recently been associated with games that share these sensibilities but are not strictly tied to old school D&D. Popular examples of OSR games include the weird 17th century-esque Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the slightly more mechanically deep Dungeon Crawl Classics, and more recent games like Into the Odd, Maze Rats, and Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, which are novel systems in their own right. Honestly, OSR is not my preferred style of play, but it is certainly an interesting way to think about tabletop gaming. It is distinct from the crunchier, more tactical games like D&D 3.X, Pathfinder, and D&D 5e, and also from the narrative games. It is worthwhile to understand the history of the medium, and also to explore this new branch of an old style of game, and if nothing else, it has attracted a scene of writers and artists doing really weird, avant garde, novel worldbuilding and game designing. Quite frankly I think it’s the most interesting work in tabletop gaming at the moment.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every game you should play (or read), but these are a handful of games or game-types that have informed how I think about tabletop RPGs. I know I spend a lot of time in my articles talking about worldbuilding, and I consider myself a worldbuilder first and foremost, but game mechanics can inform a setting. Two games set in Forgotten Realms or some other traditional fantasy setting can feel completely different depending on whether you’re playing the heroic, tactical D&D 5e, or playing the deadly OSR games which encourage roguish behavior. A karma system like Tenra Bansho Zero allows you to explore philosophical conceits within the game itself. Narrative games allow you to tell a collaborative genre story without the game mechanics getting in the way of the story. Systems like Cypher may give you the best of all worlds, and a setting book like Numenera may make you a better worldbuilder and GM. No need to trash your D&D 5e or Pathfinder books, but if you’ve ever thought, “I wonder what else I can do?”, give some of these games a look!
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2016/07/07/16/46/roll-the-dice-1502706_1280.jpg
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