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
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