As game masters, we’re tasked with creating worlds. When developing the deep structure, lore and history of a world, it’s easy to forget the small-scale, rural aspects of life that permeate that world. We come back to that part every so often, when our players start engaging with a village or backwater town, and you notice that this town, just as the last one, and the one before that, exists only to satisfy the needs of your player’s characters. This is where the inn-blacksmith-governor loop usually happens, where the players go to get some sleep, visit a smith to get their swords and armors upgraded, and go fetch new quests at the local lords’ quarters. If you know what I’m talking about and feel like you want it changed, go watch some David Lynch! This week in Borrowing Character, we won’t be borrowing the likeness of David Lynch, (even though that would be interesting too!), but rather the innate ability of Lynch to construct mystery of the mundane. This is a story about Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks was a hit mystery TV show from the 90s, a wild creation of David Lynch and Mark Frost. It’s a show too strange to explain in a post, and honestly, an experience one should judge at face value. It’s a show that starts with a murder mystery, goes into drug trafficking, characters handling intense trauma, seamlessly passing into inter-dimensional travel, demonic entities, and sequences that go from warm family atmospheres to intense nightmare fuel in an instant.
My goal when trying to bring a small town to life in a game is to imagine it as Twin Peaks. I can’t recommend the show enough, and I don’t think I can explain it at all, both as a story and as an experience. Watch it at your own pace, and then after you have, come talk about the following points that we can borrow from it:
The Underbelly of the Suburban
Small towns have a way of being attractive to both people who have nothing to hide, and people who have everything to hide. Distinguishing one from the other is a game in and of itself. Lynch does a great job of writing quirky characters whose quirks have a life of their own. His suburban environments are the perfect place to forego uptight social norms so that everyone can be both a little weirder than you’d usually find, and quite accepted as-is.
All of this eccentricity is quite harmless in its own regard, but add a serious crime to the mix (and some serious business should always follow your players for one reason or another) and all of a sudden nothing is certain.
“I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable.”David Lynch
Make sure you actually lay some foundation to the happenings in the town beforehand. Twin Peaks follows several plots that, because of the small locality, peruse the same locations and people, but in different ways, giving them different dimensions. I suggest adding extra traits to NPCs that you put into your town, marking the fields that they have some insight in. If we take the plot threads from Twin Peaks as an example, we’d have traits like “spiritual”, “criminal”, “business” and “local”. These help identify topics that some characters might tell the players about, or not. A thug with the “criminal” trait has insight on what’s going on with at least some criminal activities around, even though the players can’t make them talk. They could learn about the thug’s existence by finding someone with the “local” trait and asking the right questions, as that person probably knows the ins and outs of everyone around.
Another aspect of suburbia that you should use is for local myths to flourish. No one else in the entire world might know about a cave, cabin, strange circle of trees in the woods, or other phenomena that might be instrumental in a wider scheme of things. There’s a rite of passage in being accepted, and this is a nice chance to allow for many social encounters to take the front stage. The myths might not pan out to anything, but they very well might!
“I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, but I couldn’t find the proof. It was just a kind of feeling. There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force–a wild pain and decay–also accompanies everything.”David Lynch
While on this topic, be sure to remember that you can freely play with established values: small communities don’t pay the same amount of respect to the same values as the outside world. Money might not be as important as a wheel of cheese or a goat, for the most banal example. If you are cooking some supernatural stew (and want to accept this small spoiler), Twin Peaks’ mythology a great example in garmonbozia — a currency (literally accumulated by causing pain and sorrow) used by the evil spirits in the show that resembled creamed corn. Revealing the true nature of garmonbozia to the players does two things: it deepens what they thought they knew about this world, and gives them nightmares now that they try to remember who mentioned/ate/was carrying creamed corn — a detail that they might have not noticed before. Lynch is pretty good at making awkward interactions turn ominous like this. Keeping the information from the players for a long time, and amping the stakes and the mystery of it is the kicker, though!
The Communal Safety Net
The residents of Twin Peaks (or your analog of Twin Peaks) are inherently networked: they’ve lived together through good and bad, they’ve all shared moments together and, even though they might plot the most horrible events behind each other’s backs, they will stand together when faced with a foreign threat. When portraying these characters and their interactions, they might speak to each other more through gestures and looks than words when the player characters are present. This is a good spot for some perception and insight checking. Remember that they also keep things from themselves — both from eachother, and sometimes, literally from themselves.
You could decide up-front about the relations between the citizens or you could make the connections on the fly, as you need them. Whatever you choose, try to make certain conversations awkward by default: maybe the sheriff will feel awkward talking to this certain shop’s clerk, for example. Your players will be vocal about what they think is going on — this will allow you to surprise them later on. If they think the sheriff likes the clerk but is too awkward of asking them out, the reveal of their longstanding but hidden relation later might explain how the clerk knew some details that only you and the sheriff shared. It’s the sense of communal safety together with the intimacy of their relation that makes the sheriff go against better judgement and include case details in their pillow talk.
Be aware that in environments such as this, the player characters are the adventure that’s come to the locals. The most daring of the locals might venture so far to establish not only contact, but short-term relations with the player characters, seeking to undull their monotone lives with a touch of that exotic spice that the outsiders bring. This might very well be romantic or sexual, but they also might want to become sidekicks, helping out in whatever way they can and gaining a great story to tell later on.
This should be a given for any kind of character writing, but fantasy has a lot of tropes associated with characters being morally black-or-white. What I try to do when thinking about NPCs (and what I try testing player characters against as much as I can) isn’t just how grey they are, but what their moral scales are like! This means that not everyone has the same moral range: some people can’t even imagine doing certain things — that’s how good or bad they are. They might go to church and confess to doing awful things, only for these deeds to be revealed as minor in the grand scheme of things. This doesn’t make them less wrong from the person’s perspective, and this opens up opportunities for red herrings and unrelated infodumps.
Include something useful in these moments, but allowing for this to happen will make your players know that the characters aren’t all made of the same cloth. I’ve noticed that the absence of moral grayness in NPCs makes players become murderhobos fast: the NPCs look and feel generic enough to expose their inner mechanical workings through simple interactions, and once this is obvious, the player characters will certainly use it to their advantage.
“In a Town like Twin Peaks noone is innocent”David Lynch
Building the Locale
So, you’re still here and have decided to lay down the foundation of your own small town. I’ll use Twin Peaks from the show as an example, with many of its trademark locations. Here’s Twin Hills, a town east and inland of the Sword Coast:
A small town has to live off of something, and in the case of Twin Hills, this something is tourism (as the Great Northern Lodge attracts many people from across Faerun for its wonderful lookout onto the Black Lake), and Packard’s Mill that employs half the town for its various purposes. The town is well-connected, with a wide road going through and beyond it. Let’s have a closer look at the most prominent locations in this town:
- Great Northern Lodge: the first building the party sees if coming from the north, the Great Northern Lodge is a great place to rest and meet people. As a place of transit, many people that would consider the town itself too beneath their standards stay here. It is very expensive, but mostly described in superlatives. Everyone who works here should be overly joyful to serve, but always with a tick of nervousness behind their facade.
- Packard’s Mill: a mill where most of the industry of the town takes place, it can be a good place for some great hook: if the Mill is out of business on a work day, that means that many people are at home when they wouldn’t be — this means many people the player characters can meet and talk to that would be unavailable otherwise. The mill might also be a bit too loud for the Great Northern Lodge, whose higher-ups might want to take it out of business for good. This might be a job for the party, with very fun consequences if they take it…
- Town Hall: notice that this small town is divided by a river. You might use that to your advantage when dealing with the function of the Town Hall. In most situations, you’d think the Warden’s Office would be close by to the Town Hall, so why isn’t it? One reason might be a difference in class: the mayor is obviously pushing to separate the political “elite” from the men policing the street. This would mean that the northeastern part of town is the rich part — explaining why each of the two houses shown next to the Town Hall has their own field! This is also a part of town further away from the communal hub: rumors could spread around these people more easily than you might think! The inciting incident (a murder, disappearance, strange occurence) could be related to these people who, in their time of need, turn to the common man on the other side of the river.
- The Giant Log: every small town tries to be special in its own right. My hometown has a pumpkin day once a year when everything (and not just lattes) are pumpkin-related. People dress in pumpkins, competitions to choose the biggest, longest, sweetest pumpkins are held, and everything is orange! In Twin Peaks, the theme seems to be log related, and the Big Log is actually shown in the show (picture above). It’s… quite a log. Make a story around it. Interleave the specialty of your little town into this one monumental thing. Change it from a log if you have nothing log-related. Remember: it could be anything. The citizens are used to it. They like it. Don’t let anyone question that. Plan on having the NPCs explain geography in terms of landmarks like this one. Sometimes, funnily enough, the landmarks themselves are even removed and people still refer to them!
- Warden’s Office: the warden of the small town is pivotal. Their relation to the party will decide whether the party will be a helpful influence or not, most probably. I suggest making the warden open to suggestions, a helping hand when possible, and a guide to the locale. The warden will be a gauge for how well-liked the party is in the town: if the warden whispers a quiet “they’re alright” to the barkeep, the bar all of a sudden springs to life and the party is accepted. Grim looks attract grim looks, on the other hand…
- The Double Ram Inn: a polar opposite to the Great Northern Lodge, the double ram inn is a very natural place, albeit with a distinct smell of fresh milk and stale bread. The people here are wonderfully open and will give you the best rumors this town can offer. They’re not even after your money — you’re outsiders, stories of spending time with you go on for a generation or two! You can expect this to be the soul of the town, and quite close to the warden, so word spreads quickly. Remember that many people passing through here might have heard about the party here, so try and balance the people in the inn between regulars, those who have come not expecting the party, and those who have come only to see the party. Use this to have an absolute blast.
- Cabin: a secluded location that you want to leave uncharted for now. When describing the town, the cabin should never be mentioned. The cabin is there for someone on the map to hide in, hide something in, or as a final location where some mystery resolves. If more than one person knows about the cabin, it should be the hub of a secret community — a cult, hidden relationship or hiding spot for some leader the world is not ready to meet yet. For all you know, Voldemort is back and he’s in this cabin.
Other places around the map are thrown in very loose reference to some locations in the actual Twin Peaks show, but use them how ever you see fit. Your players might decide to just go through this town and leave it behind. This is alright! Don’t go exploring the town beforehand, rather saving the process we used to build it up later. Remember that the world exists even when your players aren’t paying attention to it, and if you establish a locale, find a way to reuse it later. The people they meet here might just coincidentally share some of the traits the player characters need later, such as someone who is “spiritual” and knows about the “local” mythology. The same way we left the “Cabin” vague when designing this town, leave the small town’s purposes vague when designing your world. Suburban areas often have a need for sticking out, even if only by not having any prominent features to stick out by. Most of all, don’t worry about it and take it at a pace that you can follow. Have fun with it, and if it doesn’t pan out — it’s fine! It’s just a weird, boring old town in the middle of nowhere. Let’s spend our dragons elsewhere!
“It’s so freeing, it’s beautiful in a way, to have a great failure, there’s nowhere to go but up.”David Lynch