You all meet in a tavern… You sally forth into the unknown… You slay the dragon, claim its hoard, and set off back to town.
While the exciting, adventurous bits of Dungeons & Dragons all happen in the wilderness or down in a dungeon where danger lurks around every corner, it’s the humble town that I’m increasingly convinced is the unsung hero of a successful campaign.
Sure, some campaigns take place in cities (I’m playing in one right now that’s basically CSI: Waterdeep), or hop from one dimension to another, or just take the one-shot approach and drop you right outside the dungeon with a pat on the head and a note that says, “THIS WAY TO THE TREASURE.”
But the majority of campaigns (and certainly, if you’re a new DM, this is the route I’d recommend) start out with the same core loop: leave town, find the dungeon, beat the dungeon, back to town to heal and rest.
In this guide, we’re going to give you everything you need to build, steal, and cobble together your very own starter town from which your bold adventurers can sally forth in search of monsters, dungeons, and some sweet, sweet loot.
The Starter Town vs. The Wilderness
A starter town can do an awful lot of legwork in your campaign beyond a place for the “heroes” to get into tavern brawls. Towns, by definition, exist in opposition to the wilderness.
At low levels, the wilderness is a scary place. It’s full of monsters, random encounters, dungeons, dragons – you get the idea.
Towns in D&D exist as little points of light in a dark and scary expanse. Over there, there be monsters, etc.
In many respects, a good starter town represents stasis or normality. It’s a slice of (usually) medieval Europe, perhaps only distinguishable from the real world by the presence of the occasional wizard or alchemist. It’s the everyday.
In opposition to the town is the wilderness, which represents danger and the unknown, a concept known in the OSR scene as “the mythic underworld” – a place where normal rules cease to apply.
Only the very brave (or very foolish) venture beyond the town, off the roads, into this wild unknown.
The “Middle Out” Approach to Worldbuilding
When you set out to run your own campaign, it’s very easy to become wrapped up in ancient lore, creating your own bizarre creatures and factions, and to generally get kind of overwhelmed by the prospect of creating a whole world from scratch.
I’m here to tell you that this needn’t be so. If you’re getting ready to run your first game of D&D 5e, you are going to be perfectly fine with making a town where the party begins, a dungeon where they can have an adventure, and maybe a random encounter to put in between.
After that, you can grow and tinker with the space around that town until you have a starting area.
Then, you can make the areas that border your starting area. Then, the lands beyond that.
Pretty soon, you’ll have a whole world for your players to run around in, but you’re going to be much less likely to “waste” prep time coming up with an economic system for an ancient kingdom of snake men three continents away while you should be planning encounters your players will have this session.
How To Build a Starter Town
There are two main approaches to putting a starter town into your campaign: build one from scratch or find some pre-written content you like and put it into your game.
Most DMs fall somewhere in between these extremes, grabbing bits and pieces they like from other modules and sourcebooks to combine with their own work.
Let’s talk about some classic options from the history of D&D as well as some great modern content from the community.
Source: Lost Mine of Phandelver (D&D 5e Starter Set)
This is probably the Starter Town most 5e players will be familiar with as it can be found in the boxed Starter Set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver – not to mention the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure from the D&D Essentials Kit.
Phandalin is a great starting town for first-time dungeon masters. Everything is already catered to 5e.
It’s clearly laid out and labeled with some basic amenities like a blacksmith, a provision shop (gotta stock up on torches and rope), and houses of some of the key NPCs.
Phandalin is definitely the archetypal frontier town, located at the edge of civilized lands with easy access to mountainous regions and moorland and pretty close to a sizable forest.
Source: N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God (AD&D)
Straight from the annals of D&D history, the village of Orlane is a dark and foreboding place.
As a potential home base for new players, it’s definitely more of a fixer-upper opportunity. There’s something weird going on – a cult with a base in a nearby swamp and some other disturbing shenanigans in the works.
This adventure was the first in the series of “novice” modules launched for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1982.
Written by Douglas Niles, the small village of Orlane is widely regarded as a classic starter town that comes pre-wrapped in an adventure as well as providing some potential higher-level NPCs to give your party a hand with things like healing potions and identifying magic items.
The biggest challenge for a 5e DM is going to be converting the module into the latest edition of the game, not to mention parsing some of the stranger conventions that were in use when D&D was just finding its way.
Luckily, however, reddit user u/smulroon has gone and done the heavy lifting for you. You can find the pdf copy of the original here for around $5, which is a whole lot of content for very little money.
For something a little more modern, try this fantastic starter town that’s freely available from Paths Peculiar – easily one of my favorite mapmakers working today.
Not only do you get a cool little town, the “last stop on the road into the wilderness” with a backstory, a great random table full of weird shopping opportunities, and some local NPCs, but some of the surrounding region has also been mapped out.
Seriously, I’m convinced this is some of the most new DM-friendly content (free or otherwise) out there right now.
You should feel free to steal, hack, chop and change these modules piecemeal into your own campaign. If you want to take more of a direct hand in creating your very own starter town, the first thing we’re going to need is a map.
Mapping Your Starter Town
The most straightforward approach, if you’re inclined, to mapping your starter town is to sit down with pen and paper and draw a map yourself. If you take this approach, think about all the things that tend to be true of towns in real life.
Where does it get its water? Is it next to a river? How about the ocean? Is it easily defensible? What protects it?
Are there natural barriers, good vantage points, or manmade fortifications? Where does the town get its food? How do people get here? Is the town a hub of trade or a half-forgotten backwater?
If you want some real-world inspiration, you can grab old medieval maps like this one straight from sources like Wikimedia Commons.
If you want something a little more directly catered to fantasy, try 2MinuteTabletop. Ross has been making tons of pay-what-you-want maps and assets for tabletop RPGs for years, and his towns are wicked easy to slot into your game.
Now, if you’re after a map that’s distinctly yours, I would also wholeheartedly recommend Watabou’s various generators.
You can tweak a few parameters like the map’s visual style, size, and the frequency that certain elements will occur. Then, just sit back and mash the refresh button until you have something you like.
I’m about to run a campaign where I need a virtually inexhaustible supply of small and medium tombs and crypts to populate a region full of burial mounds.
Twenty minutes on the dungeon generator, and I have about thirty maps ready to go.
Lastly, when you have your starter town map ready to go, it can be helpful to visually represent the different buildings, NPC locations, and other details on the map itself.
For running a campaign this way, I always use LegendKeeper, which lets you import high-res maps and use them as the basis for creating your very own Wiki for your town, region, or world.
It’s a simple matter to nest pages inside one another, seed it with links to other references, and generally feel like you’ve got the whole world at your fingertips.
If the subscription fee is a bit much for you (I don’t blame you – I got my paws on a free Beta key ages ago, and $10 a month is pretty steep), then using a basic image editor to drawn numbers on your map and then writing the corresponding information in a document is also perfectly serviceable.
What Does a Starter Town Need?
So, you’ve got a map. Let’s figure out what it depicts.
A good starter town can be many things, but what it is primarily is a base for your PCs to rest, recuperate, buy new equipment, and (perhaps most importantly) find reasons to leave town and head off in the direction of this week’s adventure.
Dungeon World (Building)
There’s a great Powered by the Apocalypse reimagining of D&D called Dungeon World.
I think one of the folks who created it may not be a good dude at all, but that doesn’t change the fact it contains some amazing procedural advice for creating towns and settlements, which it calls Steadings.
Dungeon World lets you apply little tags, like “prosperous” and “city watch,” which can quickly tell you what is or isn’t in a particular town.
Check out the page on worldbuilding in the free SRD here for some great advice that you could easily graft into your own starter town in D&D 5e.
Depending on its size, a starter town may have some, any, all, or multiple of the following.
If you want to get random about it (an approach which can be good to have in your back pocket if your players wear out their welcome in your first town quicker than you expected), I’ve included an X-in-6 chance that each element is present in a town.
Fort (3-in-6): A town’s primary source of defense and authority. Forts are usually constructed on a hill or in some other way that controls access to the town, a road, or a river.
Any town with a fort (or even a castle) is usually a seat of power in the area, and (much like a dungeon is an invitation to goblins and the undead) castles invite the presence of the aristocracy.
Adventurers can usually try to find an audience or at least someone in charge with a local lord or lady at a Fort. This can be a good source of patronage or quests.
Tavern (5-in-6, 2-in-6 chance of two taverns): Inns, drinking dens, godowns – fantasy towns are very rarely complete without a good tavern or two. Try this generator for some excellent premade options.
Taverns are the archetypal place for adventurers to find leads on new quests as well as recruit some hired help.
Market (3-in-6): People have things to sell, and other people need to buy stuff. Farmers, traders, and all manner of entertainers and strange folk can be found in a market.
It’s a hub that probably serves as both a point of social gathering for the locals to catch up on gossip and the town’s main point of contact with the outside world.
Also, markets can present opportunities for adventurers to buy stranger stuff than they can find in the local store.
Trading Post/General Store (5-in-6): Every good town needs a place for adventurers to resupply and buy rope, torches, and everything they need for their next quest.
Temple (3-in-6): A hub of religion for the townsfolk and a potential source of cheap healing for the PCs. Just make sure they don’t piss off whoever’s in charge.
Farm (6-in-6): Basically, assume most buildings that aren’t another entry on this list are farms.
Whether they’re home to important NPCs or not, farms are likely a town’s main source of food, and tilled fields probably extend for about half a mile on all available sides of the settlement.
Mill (2-in-6): If your town is built on a river, a mill provides flour for baking bread and other supplies.
Bakery (3-in-6, only present if Mill is present): A bakery is a good source of cheaper, better bread than if adventurers try to buy it elsewhere.
Blacksmith/Armorer (4-in-6): Hugely important if your PCs need armor repairing or weapons forging or to find somebody (anybody) who’s willing to buy the half ton of platinum bars they just lugged back into town.
Most blacksmiths’ repertoire probably extends about as far as horseshoes and mending the occasional broken tool. A blacksmith who can tackle more challenging jobs is a worthwhile friend to have.
Stables/Farrier (3-in-6): A place for PCs to rent, buy, or stable their mounts overnight and get them re-shod if need be.
Apiary (1-in-6): A collection of beehives used to produce honey and possibly to ritually sacrifice Nicholas Cage.
Bowyer/Fletcher (1-in-6): Someone skilled enough to make bows for hunting and war and can probably sell the PCs better arrows than the general store.
Manor House (1-in-6): A grand(ish) dwelling occupied by whoever’s in charge of the town. They could be a respected elder, the richest merchant, a cruel warlord, or some other source of authority.
Black Market (1-in-6): Either hiding in plain sight (perhaps as a reputable merchant or exclusive, members-only drinking establishment) or not, this is your PCs’ best shot at gaining access to the criminal underworld, even all the way out here.
Buy strange potions and poisons, and fence cursed or stolen loot.
Wizard’s Tower (1-in-6): Whether they’re a local eccentric with delusions of grandeur or a retired archmage working on finally finishing their novel, any local wizard is going to be a great way for PCs to get their magic items identified, buy potions, and maybe even find themselves a patron.
Wizards are always in need of new spell components, after all.
Note that these are just a few examples of things you might find in even a medium-sized medieval town. Feel free to invent your own.
You should note down a few NPCs (a name, a few physical descriptors, and maybe something they want is usually good enough) that live in the various locations around town.
Most NPCs will likely live adjacent to their place of work, but the wealthier citizens could have a separate home somewhere else.
You can populate your town with NPCs however you choose, either taking the time to come up with a whole community of three-dimensional people or just opening a random generator like this one and mashing buttons until you have enough.