In a lot of the early D&D I played back in the 80s and 90s, setting was never a big concern. NPC interaction was largely handwaved, stores were stocked with every weapon and piece of equipment we wanted, and I don’t ever recall hearing names of the places we moved through nor the people who lived there. Unless we truly went rogue and had to be slapped down by the hand of authority, a trip to town was just downtime between dungeon crawls.
I call this type of setting ‘D&D Disneyland,’ it being a small world, after all. Although I understand that a DM’s job requires such preparation and concentration that sometimes detailing the adventure leaves the world with a slapdash paintjob, my wanderings in the prefab world of Stormbringer always had a realer, more unforgettable feel to them.
As the Young Kingdoms showed me, settings in roleplaying games are really immersive and interesting when their description gives the impression of interacting with a reality obeying its own internal logic, when despite the player characters having the opportunity to become major players in the world, it simultaneously seems to roll on fine without them, and does not stop existing the moment they leave the town and delve into a dank dungeon.
How does the harried DM create a memorable setting that calls the players back every week, makes a trip to town as exciting as a trip to a tomb, all without overburdening his already bursting plate?
One way is to introduce quests for equipment. A quickly resolvable sidequest for something the PCs need, especially when tied intimately to the goings on in the gameworld, can breathe life into an otherwise dull session in town. Sidequests can be overused, taking attention away from the main adventure path if there is one, so choosing one thing the adventurers need as a quest seed and having the explanation come from a denizen of the world should provide just enough adventure and setting colour to enhance the gaming experience.
Here are some examples from the mouth of Lena, chatty landlady at any small inn.
“Want some steel pegs, horseshoes or a new sword? Sven can do it, but the last shipment of iron was stolen by goblins. You could go hunt them down and bring back what you can find. Or you could cut out the middleman and go straight to the mines. Maybe the gnomes are still bringing iron up, but last I heard they met something nasty down deep and the lower levels were abandoned.”
“Armor is a whole nuther thing. You need fine craftsmanship, you’ll have to find some dwarves if you want to find anything better than a leather jerkin in these parts. Dwarvish make’ll cost you, but it’ll never rust and fit you like a glove. The elves muck around with chainmail a bit, but for real suits you’ll need dwarves. Humans in the city come close, but the dwarves in the mountains are your best bet.”
“Healing potions are tough. The druid gives out poultices and herbal remedies to folk of his persuasion, but don’t expect anything if you don’t follow the old religion. If you’re paying coin, the witch can whip up a few batches of simple stuff. It’s a bit iffy, and a bad potion could turn you into a frog or whatnot.”
“Staffs and magic rings? Nobody sells that kind of stuff openly. An old noble knight family might have a destitute member willing to part with some trinkets taken by an ancestor, but you’ll have to take what you can get. And get what you pay for. Course there’s always stealing…”
If you do try any of these, drop us a line and tell us how it went. Also, if you have any sidequest ideas yourself, feel free to drop them into the comments section.
Until next week!