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A common situation is that the party is in a big city (maybe one you created yourself, maybe one from a published source) walking through the streets, just roaming around.

And then the question is asked: "What do I see?"

I always have trouble deciding what they see.

Most time I say a tavern, blacksmith or a clothes shop, but that feels very boring to me.

How can I get better at improvising shops and other facilities on the spot during city exploration, to increase the variety of description, and maybe open new possibilities for the party?

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14 Answers 14

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You don't have to improvise--just use the DMG's random tables.

The DMG (p. 112-116) has a "Settlements" and "Urban Encounters" section with tons of rolling tables to randomly generate buildings and encounters in civilized settings.

For example, the "Random Buildings" section has details for taverns, warehouses, and residences: you can roll a d20 for a residence and get "hidden slaver's den" or "front for a secret cult".

While you will probably still have to improvise a bit in order to fit these into your town, these tables will help inspire you in coming up with interesting encounters--it's always easier to come up with things if you have a prompt.

Generally, you should know the city or region very well, and it should be unique for some reason.

I have a bit of a bias for running urban campaigns, and so I've run a number of them in the past. The key aspect of running an interesting city or town is knowing what makes it unique, and then demonstrating that to the players.

If you're making your own city, you need to come up with its traits: is it a dwarven city? Is it a trader's city? How old is it? How rich is it? If your players are particularly inquisitive, it might be worth pre-generating a few demonstrative encounters. For example, in order to indicate that a particular city was high-magic, I created an encounter in which someone was being attacked by spontaneously animated objects. Stumbling onto this situation gave the impression that magic was common and unpredictable in the city.

If you're running a pre-written city, this work is probably done for you. Consider Sigil, a city described in the DMG (p. 68):

Sigil is a trader's paradise. Goods, merchandise, and information come here from across the planes. The city sustains a brisk trade in information about the planes, particularly the command words or items required for the operation of particular portals. Portal keys of all kinds are bought and sold here.

With this, you know that the city is very high-magic and full of commerce. When players ask you "What do I see?" you can respond with a brief description of traders carrying strange, obviously magical objects, or a market that doesn't seem to be selling physical objects (because it's information being traded).

Improvising adventures is hard

Some people might say that they only ever wing it, but I find this incredibly difficult (and you probably do too, if you're asking this question!). It's a lot easier to shift actual adventure creation to prep time. You can prepare a handful of adventures, and then give each one lots of hooks to make it seem more organic.

For example, if there is an evil slave trade going on that the players want to stop, there would be evidence of it in many places--people in chains, rumors flying around, a shopkeeper assuming that the party wants to see his "secret wares," and so on. Then, the players can happen upon one or more of these things, and end up in an adventure if they choose to pursue it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Supplement: "Improvisation is actually an ADVANCED GMing skill that, unfortunately, is required from the moment you start running games" - The Angry GM \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 Apr 22 '17 at 0:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with this answer. You might want to look at the answers at rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/1568/… where it discusses how to create unique cities. \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Ripley Apr 22 '17 at 8:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @markovchain for a second there, I thought theangrygm posted a comment. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 May 19 '17 at 0:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @daze413 That would have been awesome. Sadly, no luck. Sorry to get your hopes up! \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 May 19 '17 at 4:03
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Be More Specific

You're right, "Blacksmith" is boring after the tenth time you say it. But that's cause you're repeating yourself and we hate obvious repetition. Instead, let me talk about Blacksmith Row, a street I just made up to make this point.

Most places can't afford more than 1 blacksmith in town. Our city, though, we got four of em. Jim doesn't like doing weapons or armor after what happened to his son, so he sticks to horseshoes, cookware and farm tools mostly, but damn if he hasn't gotten good at it.

Then there's John. World famous, John is. Best armorer in Her Majesty's whole kingdom, if I do say so. Knights from the capital, those that can afford it, come here for their armor.

Dylan, on the other hand, he's obsessed with swords. Probably cause he loves entering the dueling tournaments whenever he can. Bit of a hot temper, but he earns his space.

And then there's Thomas. New guy, believes in honest work, but he ain't that great. Stays in business because he does custom jobs. The kinds of shit swords Dylan would refuse to make cause they're more neat-looking than effective.

Details sell interest, and everything in that quote is just word-vomit I spewed to prove it. And I bet you found it far far more interesting than if I said "You see 4 blacksmiths in down the street".

It should be noted, additionally, that the kind of details help. You want a variety, ideally, to appeal to various base desires people have. Sensory information, achievement, preference, emotions, passion, tragedy, social-proof and limitations all help put people into a scene, in different ways.

But....

Really, your players are probably looking for plot hooks.

So let's talk about the kinds of plot hooks I half-put into that previous description:

  1. Jim's son was murdered by a former client of Jim's. Jim and the town have put out a huge reward for that man's capture, more if he's alive.

  2. John needs someone to deliver a dozen full-plate armors to the capitol, and the PCs might be heading that way.

  3. Dylan definitely knows where the next tournament is, but he's not going. Thing is rigged. The PCs might have a different approach, however.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is great, but I think it's 5 degrees off of OP: how did you get so good? I'm sure it's lots of practice, but do you have any tips on transitioning from "I don't improvise interesting cities" to "I can rock @godskook in an urban-improv slam." (+1, btw, because even just seeing work like this is helpful to OP, I'm sure.) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Apr 21 '17 at 17:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think @nitsua60 's objection is the example is the final, manufactured package, while the question is about "how do I manufacture such a package"? An analogy would be, if you're asked "how do I bake a cake?" and are shown a cake in response, it doesn't tell you how to bake it. \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 Apr 21 '17 at 17:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @markovchain eh, it's really more like being told "Mix up eggs, flour, and sugar, then bake it and decorate it." and then being shown a fancy wedding cake. There are instructions there, they're just a bit vague and thoroughly overshadowed by the finished product. \$\endgroup\$ – Tin Man Apr 21 '17 at 18:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ As long as I'm providing benfit, I'm not personally worried about my answer being -the- answer. \$\endgroup\$ – godskook Apr 21 '17 at 23:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just want to say that your "word-vomit" is incredible. +1 from me and thanks for the inspiration. \$\endgroup\$ – Secespitus Apr 24 '17 at 8:07
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Travel!

No, seriously, get off the GM's chair for a few hours and just explore the world we live in. You don't have to go very far, and you don't have to board a plane to a foreign country (but if you can, do it!), you can just walk around in your own town or nearest city. Chances are, something will strike you as interesting, take note of it. Then, start thinking "how can I use this in my game?"

I personally try to capture every detail that I can foresee giving life to the game; what ever that is, is up to you, but observing our own world and its neat little details is a guarantee that you will pick up at least one thing that you can add to your game.

A recent example, for me, so you can see the process, was when I took a business trip to our capital region. In the evenings, I spent some time walking around a bazaar with rows and rows of market stalls. One thing that piqued my interest was seeing a whole row of stalls all selling "real" jewelry like pearls, jade, and "gold"; and how they dangled the jewelry at head-height, while a bright LED light illuminated the jewelry- not in front, but from the back, silhouetting the pieces and giving it the illusion of brilliance. One stall would have 3 or 4 of these LED lights all positioned behind the items to give them all a colorful glow.

Now wanting to forget (slim as that may be), I take out my phone and type in the little detail as a reminder: "pretty lighting for fancy stores". It doesn't have to be really specific, it's just to jog your memory when you read it.

Then, I think "How can I use this in my game?" For this particular scenario, I decided to use it in magic shops, jewelry stores, and even alchemy shops with drift globes and Continual Flame-enchanted baubles behind the potions, bathing the room with colorful tints. This was an upgrade to what was once my vision of a plain shop with an eccentric owner, all because I went to a bazaar that sells "real" jewelry.

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TLDR: Do it over and over, many many times.

One thing I did to deal with that particular issue was to prepare a description of a town from afar. This gives the PCs an idea of interesting location.

Imagine the town from afar. What do you see? Where do people go to?

  • Town market/square
  • Water fountain/source
  • General stores
  • One location

Also note that not EVERY place you go is important. I would read into this that your players want to interact with some people, so add people who seek them out. Not necessarily for an adventure, but just to hear their stories.

Be prepared to fail. That's fine, look back at how you failed and fail better last time.

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Make yourself some random tables. The more specific the better! Big tables. Little tables. Tables that tell you to roll onto other tables! Tables tables tables!!!


In all seriousness, making random tables can take those moments of inspiration you have outside the game, and preserve them for inside the game.

If you don't have any, r/BehindTheTables is a great source of some community made ones that should serve you nicely.

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“What do I see?” means “What can I do now?”

Don’t worry about providing photographic detail or a specific answer.

When players ask what they see in town, what they mean is, “What do we do now?” Your job is to help them figure that out. Make open-ended responses, and let the players respond to narrow things down.

Example

Player: “What do I see?”

DM: “Well, it seems to be a nice, happy little town. There are a number of shops, and people going about their days, mostly humans.”

Choose whatever adjectives work — maybe the townspeople seem anxious, not happy. Just draw the broad strokes to set the mood.

You just bought yourself time

The players may ask about any of the tidbits you offered. They might ask what kind of shops there are, whether everyone seems happy, or what you meant by “mostly humans.” Since you’ve already mentioned those things, you’ve already “fed your brain” those ideas, and it will be much easier to answer those questions than the first “What do I see?” question.

Draw upon your player backgrounds

At character creation, your players chose a bunch of things about their characters’ experience. Make sure these things can come into play. It’s entirely reasonable familiar things would “pop out” at your players as they head through town.

Even if there is no church to your party’s cleric, she does find a little shrine, or a person wearing the holy symbol of her faith. Guild artisans find a shop from their guild, or maybe just some merchandise in a general store.

Give the city or town a little background

Before the party enters the town, come up with a very basic idea of the city’s geography, like “between a small river and wooded hills that are rumored to be haunted.”

Also, come up with maybe two “interesting facts” about the city. (Maybe more, if it’s a large city.)

Examples:

  • There’s a “Halfling Town” neighborhood, up on the hillside
  • An ancient abbey dominates the highest hill
  • A famous bard song is set in the city

Fall back on these traits whenever you get stumped for something to say.

Say “Yes”

Here’s a great article on improvising on stage/or the camera, which is also applicable for around-the-table.

In a town that’s in no imminent danger, there’s no reason to make the characters “crawl” the town seeking what they need. So if the party asks if one of the shops has potions, say “yes.”

If you’ve already decided the town has no magic, then the potion shop they find could be full of fake or useless potions. Settle the matter quickly that there are no potions for sale in town. After that, the shop-keeper can still provide guidance on what the party might do next.

Let any course of action the players take lead them somewhere, with something to do.

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Use actual town maps.

In fantasy settings we have comparatively small populations, megacities do not exist. This means that settlements we call "small city" or even "village" now would be a big city in D&D.

So use Google Maps, zoom in to Middle Europe (Many towns there are in fact medieval in origin and even have very old remaining houses still used!) and choose some towns for your quest. Replace all modern features like beauty shops with the medieval equivalents and voila, your town is ready.

It also guarantees internal logic: No missing ports at the coast, no missing bakeries or butcher shops (how do they eat), no missing city center.

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Make some lists of types of things ahead of time. In addition to generic taverns, blacksmiths, and clothing shops, there are specific types of each of those -- tavern is rowdy half-orc haven, elven wine bar, shady place to fence goods; blacksmith has a specialty; clothes might be fine or poor, serviceable or fancy, mens, womens, hats, shoes, etc. Lots of other types of shops and businesses also exist. In addition, religious buildings from chapels to cathedrals, government buildings, parks, town squares, bazaars, restaurants, and so on. Prepare a few choices ahead of time, or make a list of features to choose from.

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A suggestion taken from my wanderings:

When I lived in Asia, I noticed that the country I lived in went into the concept of "local specialties" in a big way. Each city, each town, had some sort of unique local specialty, often an edible delicacy or marketable item, that they took pride in. One town specialized in making silverware, another town had a certain food item where every restaurant had their own variant of it, and yet a third town was the capitol of a certain sport for the whole country. A fourth town was the "science city", a certain mountain that was covered with frogs had a 'miracle' tonic made from frog sweat that was sold in the nearby towns and temples, one region was famous for strawberries, and a certain other region was famous for having the best-tasting of a native grown grain (and beautiful women oddly, perhaps from eating said grain?) and so on and so forth. Each location had something that they claimed they were the center for, or the best at, in the entire country.

Natives (and visitors) would tour different towns sampling the various specialties, which also helped the various transportation networks' incomes; not sure if that was a deliberate plan or not.

In any case, applying such a simple concept can give a unique "look and feel" to your cities, towns, regions, and if played right, even countries in your campaign.

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Outsource

Instead of trying to come up with what is there, ask your players what they're looking for. If it's a big city they can probably find most reasonable things. Just let them, and come up with what the particular city has.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's true. But I like to provide some opportunities which didn't came to the players mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Fabic May 16 '17 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice. Think of a few unique elements ahead of time and plop those when the PCs start looking for something. Too bad I can only upvote this once... a lot of wisdom here... \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau May 26 '17 at 13:34
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There may be a bit of repetition in my answer, but bear with me.

Invent a proto-city

Think of what the city looks like at a bird's-eye view. Does it have sections - north side/south side, or the "good" side and the shady side? Does it have a main road, or docks, or some "downtown" area? Jot those ideas down. Pick something the city has a lot of, and something the city has very little of. Make a few cities, with descriptions like this:

  • large city, lots of animals, very little armor, 4 sections: markets, industrial, docks, upper-class
  • medium city, lots of weapons, very little magic, 3 sections: guilds, markets, housing
  • huge city, lots of food, very few animals, 5 sections: palace, docks, high class housing, slums maze, downtown shops

As you make these proto-cities, they'll stick in your head. The more you think about a given city, the easier it will be to invent one based on it.

Invent Scenes

As icyfire mentioned, the DMG has a section (pages 112-116) for cities to randomly generate stuff. Read through these lists. Carefully. After you've read through every single option, open up your favorite spreadsheet and copy all the bits of tables you like, leaving out the bits you don't like. If you know how, make the table generate random number itself, so you can create a random scene at the click of a button. If you don't know how, roll dice - it's the same effect, it just takes a few seconds longer.

Then imagine that scene. Think of the sounds, smells, etc. - paint a picture in your head. Write it down. Then, randomly generate another scene, and follow the same process.

After you've done that a dozen times, you'll have a bunch of locations stuck in your head.

Populate a city

Finally, think of three memorable characters for a city - don't worry about stats, just come up with a person. It could be the mayor, or the captain of the city guard, or just a regular guardsman, or a street urchin. Pick a city you invented earlier and make up three characters for it, then do it again for the rest of the dozen.

Put it all together

During the game, as your players enter a city, take a look at the cities you invented, and pick one out - or squash a few together. Remember the cities, scenes, and characters you invented, and use them! The more you use your imagination to create cities, the easier it gets, so practice before you play.

Personally, I use a random generator spreadsheet; I can hit a key, and create a new city instantly. I've created all manner of on-the-fly cities with the following command (which should work in Excel or Google Sheets):

=INDEX(A1:A10, RANDBETWEEN(1,10))

Just columns of city size, trading goods (food, animals, weapons, etc.), sections (slums, markets, etc.), and so foth; then use that command to randomly choose city size, goods it has a lot of, goods it has very little of, what sections it has, and whatever else you choose. Read through it, and let your imagination run wild! Don't like the results? No problem, just refresh it and get a new one! Don't use a computer to game? No problem; randomly generate a city, copy and paste it to a new spreadsheet, and repeat. Print off that spreadsheet when you have enough.

The key is practice, and having a tool to skip the boring generation stuff so you can get to the real flavor!

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Leaf through some epic fantasy books in a book store, enough of them have maps, and get some ideas!

Then start drawing up your own cities, and think about how everything is an ecosystem. People who grow the things that get processed and sold into bigger things as ingredients for other stuff, and people who transport and guard the people involved. Other people could mine raw materials.

Then as you get bigger cities, who owns things and gets wealthy? You could answer this question and different cities could be in different stages of growth or generations of power. If there's no external threat, people tend to start feuds and stuff, or a city could be lead by an important church guild or monarch. Play this through your mind for a couple hundred years of progress, and then decide which time period could be the most fun for your adventurers to be in and help decide where the power struggles go.

DMG page 10-34 has some specifics for you to think about and even some tables to roll for if you want to add some randomness to things.

If you have deities that are important to races/cities, you can even think about how you want your different planes to be laid out.

Does your world have seasons? What are the relations between the races? What warring factions are there?

Even think outside of the box, was there a catastrophe in your world that has killed off a large portion of the population? Have some races been unable to adapt? How civilized or wild are different areas? What source of magic does your world have, is it widespread or rare?

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As somebody who doesn’t play all that much, I hope I can offer a little nugget of info that I’ve gathered thus far, and it’s already been said. “What do I see?” is the same as “What can I do?”

If your game is lacking focus, then big cities can get players lost. If you are in a big city for no reason, it just feels like a shop and a couple taverns. What’s important is to hook story into stuff. If the game is sandbox have a bunch of quests with different ranking difficulties, and seed them in town. If your game is more linear, take whistle-stop tours around the map. What’s most likely is that you are somewhere in between the two. It could be that you introduce players into the town by showing them a small part of it - say, the sewers, which are the entrance to a crime gang where they will fight up the ranks to become a crime family (or they are escorted to the palace immediately to speak with the king for an incoming quest, but they get lost in a massive castle with abandoned sections), then opening the city at large up when they have a quest in hand. Once they’re out there, they get to see all the cool stuff you’ve picked up in this old thread.

If you are merely looking for cool centrepieces, for towns, just add an adjective to a normal building and it becomes cool. Frozen Fountains. Glittering Park. The Temperate Cathedral.

Also have verticality; having to climb stairs to access certain parts of the city can make it feel separated easier. Have fun and happy questing!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 20 at 0:04
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I recently decided to DM a campaign in Forgotten Realms: Cormyr, and there are about 100 towns I want to detail. After adding content from references I found in various source material, I didn't feel it was enough to make my towns unique. The following are some template elements I've created for structuring some basics of each town (and some of it repeats what others here have stated):

Town name, best known for, economy, ruler, local problems/dangers, town locations, shop item lists/prices, nearby dungeon locations, a list of NPCs (three to five), and related quests. I also try to include a picture of the town and I add a map for each place. I started a group of documents with this template for each base and have expanded on them greatly over time.

I try to give each village 3 plus or minus specifics that make it stand out. For example, Eagle Peak is one of the four Elemental Villages, with the Temple (and Dungeon) of Elemental Air. There is It has the kingdom's only Griffon Mounted Purple Dragons. The wizards here setup an Arcane School of Elemental Air. Air Elementals guard the city gates. This remote city hangs off the edge of a cliff next to a huge descent down into the swamps. Spell scrolls, potions, and items related to air, flying, and invisibility are sold by merchants and temples here.

Another style option for architecture, art, music, etc., is to add flavor from the various world cultures from throughout time. Islands of 1500s Polynesian, 900 Norse, 1200s Japanese, Mayan buildings, Village with all thick Russian accents, Greek Islands, Cockney speak coastal town, Kung Fu Monastery town, West Virginia Merchant town, old school Egyptian, Native American nomads, Huns, Celtic Stonehenge town, Mongols, Aztec, Arabian, Zulu, Roman Republic style, etc.

As far as town details, I've gotten a lot of ideas from games like Civilization V and Heroes of Might and Magic V: specific buildings/structures in town, unique and/or standard: stables, gallery, theater, circus, quarry, jeweler, observatory, library, university, specialty school of magic, various temple levels (shrine > temple > cathedral), aqueducts, gardens, etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question is asking about getting better at improvising. This answer is talking about planning everything ahead of time. Is your answer trying to say “don’t improvise, plan the details beforehand instead”? If so, it should say that up-front. This seems off topic the way it is written now. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 7 at 15:22
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