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Growing Your Home Base

249982_dinkelsbuehl_germany_1 [1]Many campaigns feature a small fort outpost or resource gathering town surrounded by largely unexplored wilderness. These small home bases make sense. Few people are willing to relocate into an unknown and likely dangerous area for dubious profits. Only as these outposts prove their value will settlers migrate to them. However, these particular settlements have a wildcard that encourages their growth: player characters and other adventuring types. These wild cards work actively to make the settlements a safer place, and bring much desired sources of economic prosperity. These increases in security and prosperity have a direct effect in the growth of the settlement. Thus it’s natural for these home bases to grow as a result of the PCs successful exploits. Though the below numbers and estimates are for a fantasy campaign (and rounded off from the amazing Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S. John Ross [2]) the concepts work just as well for any setting with a dangerous untamed wilderness, like many science fiction settings.

The first thing to consider is the origin of a settlement which informs it’s size, demographic composition and economic structure. Different reasons for the founding of an outpost create a different proportion of professions and available services.

Military Base
Many frontier outposts start as military bases, there to stake a claim, hold the peace or provide warning of – or a buffer against – hostile forces. Military bases obviously have above average defenses, usually in the form of a wall and a contingent of professional or semi-professional warriors. In addition, they usually have a blacksmith and other craftsmen who can perform at least repair work on weapons and gear, and a reasonably trained medic (both of which usually require a surprisingly large body of people to support), a mead house or feast hall to keep up morale, a general store, and a small house of worship. Furthermore, military bases are almost certainly a response to a threatening presence in an area, ensuring a ready supply of work for adventuring types.

Work Base
A frontier town could be a mining camp, lumber mill, or any other sort of settlement that exists to harvest a particular resource. Work bases always have a general store that stocks plenty of mundane equipment relevant to their income source, an entertainment venue of some sort to help the workers relax, a house of worship for their spiritual needs, and maybe even a blacksmith that is capable of repairing tools (but probably not able to make or repair weapons). Work bases also enjoy frequent trade that tags along with shipments of product out, and tools and supplies in. However, work bases can be dangerous places. Without as much focus on defense as a military base, work bases can be vulnerable to attack. They also collect and house valuable material, usually create obvious signs of work, and rely on shipping to move large volumes of valuable goods. This does, however provide lots of challenges for those with the mettle to face them.

Often, new areas are settled simply for the benefit of possessing more useable land, and governments will often cheaply sell or even give unused land to whoever will work it. These communities are mostly populated by farmers, but other professions may be found where the land supports it. Few specialized services are available. Even though a tavern or general store may exist, it’s often miles away, making it easier for neighbors to simply trade with one another. Assuming good land, a square mile (a little over a half mile radius) can be worked by ~100 people and provide food for ~200. Worse land can be worked by the same number of people, but produces less food. Thus, population density may drop as the population spreads out to work the choicest bits of land. These settlements are often the most poorly defended due to their sprawling nature, but they have little to tempt bandits or other hostiles aside from the occasional granary raid. While the lack of resources worth stealing would imply these settlements are quiet, the size of them means a lot of area to keep an eye on for would-be defenders.

Support Base
The next thing to consider is how the people of the settlement feed and supply themselves. Different support bases can make a large difference in the population and economic activity of an outpost.

Some bases are self-sustaining communities. Expansion settlements are almost always self-supporting, even if they get occasional help from outside sources. Self-supporting towns must contain their work force (military units or workers) plus the infrastructure necessary to support both the work force and the support itself. Agricultural support for ~200 people requires a square mile of good farmland (a bit more than a half mile radius), which itself must be tended by ~100 people, so even the smallest self-supporting bases need that much good farmland or a commensurately larger amount of poor farmland. Note that in poor farmlands, farmers must spread out to find choice land, making self-sustaining bases huge or untenable. However, if the land can support it, these bases need little outside support and have a ready supply of food, though it’s not always inexpensive or diverse.

Alternately, a base can be supported by regular supply trains from the government that sponsors them. These bases can be much smaller than self-supporting ones requiring only enough land to erect a few buildings. These bases have the advantage of constant commerce. A desired good is always a bit of gold and a few months wait away. This is a double edged sword however, because without this regular support the base has no hope of survival. In addition to dependence on outside forces, extra work is required to keep supply lines open.

With Origin and Support determined, population can be chosen. Since we want to grow our home base, we should select a fairly low population. In general, increments of ~500 are “magic numbers” up to about 2500, after which there are few milestones. Sponsored Military bases that aren’t expected to do much more than keep an eye on the surrounding countryside and send reports can be as small as a few dozen people. Sponsored work camps can have populations from a few hundred to 1000. Making these types of bases self-supporting at least doubles their population. Expansion settlements can be of nearly any size.

In general, without governmental edicts or economic profit (profit over that required to cover costs) medieval population growth takes forever. It’s the job of adventurers then to spark that economic profit. If they can also spur some governmental edicts, more the better. In general, adventurers create economic profit by reducing outside threats, and thus reducing the money and effort spent on security, by increasing the money supply, and by paying a premium for imported goods.

The effects of PC activities on home base growth has to be determined on a per-game per system basis. As a GM, you may feel comfortable simply winging it, or you may want to design a system that takes various factors into account. Factors you may want to consider are: experience or levels gained, significant threats removed, gold spent at base, gold spent importing goods, or attentiveness to the needs of the settlement itself. However you handle it, don’t make it too complicated. It’s tempting to want to write down a long formula and update it constantly, but too much complexity adds bookkeeping that probably isn’t worth it.

However you decide to handle it, as the PCs act, the town grows. You can make this obvious to your players by adding new faces to town “At the bar is a young man you’ve never seen before.”, by describing public buildings or streets as crowded, by describing new construction projects adding buildings and the like.

The Effects of Growth
One of the most impressive effects of the population growth of your home base is the introduction of new types of craftsmen and professionals. Butchers, for example, require a population of 1200 or more. Before that threshold is reached people have to butcher their own animals. There simply isn’t enough demand for a butcher to support themselves. For a list of population thresholds, scroll down to the Merchants and Services section in the aforementioned Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S. John Ross [2]. Mr. Ross also notes in his article, that if a settlement is short of a population threshold, you can convert it’s current population to a percentage of the requirement, and roll for the presence of a type of professional. For example, our town of 600 people has a 50% chance to have a butcher. But since this butcher is trying to live off of 50% of his normal income he may cut corners, he may not be particularly skilled, or he may have another job on the side limiting his available hours. In these cases, you may wish to modify the percent chance of a professional being found, taking into consideration how many times the PCs have imported an appropriate good. If adventurers make it a habit of sponsoring feasts after major victories, complete with imported elven wine, chances are much better than normal that a wine seller will set up shop in our tiny village.

Just like population growth, the effect of this is mainly fluff. One week a player will be ordering new gear from the traveling peddler (with an attendant waiting period), the next he’ll be strolling into his local blacksmith’s shop. But the number of goods and services on the list of professionals a player character is likely to use is fairly small, so that transition won’t happen very often. Instead, when the village hits 700 people and a chandler, mercer and cooper move in, the next trip to the tavern might include a bit of fluff about the new ale kegs the barkeep has had installed, several of the well to do ladies in town will likely be wearing new dresses of imported cloth, and an ambitious young man carrying a basket of honeycombs might bump into the characters on his way to the chandlers new shop.

These new people in town can be a source of hooks and adventures all their own, too. Maybe that chandler has heard there’s a giant bee hive near town, and is willing to pay for enough wax to make a set of candles. Maybe the townsfolk don’t trust the shifty new magic shop owner and hire the PCs to see where he goes when he sets off alone into the nearby forest.

Mainly though, the purpose of this kind of setup is to give the settlement a “living” feel as it grows and changes, and to give your players an additional form of advancement that they can work towards and derive a sense of accomplishment from.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Growing Your Home Base"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On July 27, 2012 @ 8:43 am

I had a great idea for an outpost like this in a game. A scary place in the middle of nowhere to be stranded with few remaining survivors of the settlement and a horde at the walls. It took me longer to work out exactly what they were doing there and how they survived so far from civilization than it did to write the rest of the campaign combined. I just couldn’t drop it though, as it was such a cool idea. My tactic for creating a whole bunch of quick and easy NPCs came in very useful too. [3]

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On July 27, 2012 @ 9:29 am

But what does a population that includes Clerics who can Create Food do to the model? I love to do reality modeling like this but it kindasorta breaks down when using some rulebooks as written. (If anyone wants to point me at references which discuss this intelligently I’d be happy to read ’em, by the way).

Telas may remember the awful row I precipitated by suggesting in another forum some years ago a way to make adventurers prefer a night in an inn to another night in a ditch with the cleric’s created food (I suggested that a rule saying magical food was perfectly nutritious but bland might show the players the point of having inns in a world where no-one need go hungry or even cook).

You’d have thought I’d just enacted Soda Control laws or enforced mandatory membership in the Church of Jesus Christ Joker by the slew of invective this produced.

Another time I innocently pondered what the ramifications of a particular game’s fanciful AFV designs might suggest if one were to care about such things and was mauled by crowds of slavering fluff-loons. When I pointed out that the most popular tank would force the army fielding them to cut the legs off each driver (given the external features of said vehicle) I was shown the yellow card by the forum moderator.

Gotta love the internet.

ANYWAY. Worth mentioning that whenever possible remote settlements have historically been sited near large rivers with accessible wharfage (or places where such might be constructed) since a river is nature’s own superhighway. After all, whatever resource you are going to exploit at this frontier outpost will need to be moved to market somehow, and Troy is busy monopolizing all the caravans. 8o)

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 27, 2012 @ 9:56 am

In my mind, the cleric thing isn’t an issue because for the most part, Create food/water isn’t a 1st level spell (in every edition of DnD except 4e for example, it’s a 3rd level spell) , so it takes a “mid-level” caster to cast it. While we know that there’s one clergyman for every 40 people or so, and one priest per 25-30 clergy (so says S. John Ross, anyway) those aren’t all casters. Most are just normal people.

Even if you have access to a caster able to cast create food/water, the spell doesn’t feed hundreds, or usually even dozens of people (again, DnD, at most feeds 3 people per caster level sometimes less), so it’s more of a supplementary food source than a primary one. Then you have to consider the value of a caster having create food/water ready at a moment’s notice vs having say, a cure spell, a remove disease spell or the like ready at a moment’s notice.

So I personally don’t worry about it.

BUT if you posit a much more magic-rich world in which your frontier town has enough high-level casters to feed it’s populace, then the effect is that you no longer have to worry about having enough farmers to feed everyone (at least until the population growth outstrips the ability of your casters to provide food) which isn’t that big a deal. You just start at a lower population.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 1, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

Oh, yes… How dare you interfere with the party’s carefully laid plans to be untouchable loners, never knowing the companionship of a tavern, or the risk of hanging out with people you haven’t cast “Detect Evil” on.

I have no idea how such cautious individuals ever became adventurers, or learned to trust each other…

BTW, this is an excellent article. I’ve always hand-waved the development of frontier villages, but the backdrop can easily become the foreground with a bit of work…

#5 Comment By deadlytoque On July 27, 2012 @ 11:09 am

Great article! I am a big fan of verisimilitude in my fantasy worlds, and this really fits the bill!

#6 Comment By Knight of Roses On July 27, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

In one of our Pathfinder games, the first game was us clearing out the zombie infestation that had completely wiped out a small village. To which my character promptly said, “So, what are we naming our new town?” The GM was entirely flummoxed, having not expected that at all.

For the rest of the campaign, my character was all about freeing Kobolds from their tribal slavery and recruiting people to come and live (and work) in Draxesburg. For me, it became the central aspect of the campaign but our GM was never quite sure what to do with it.

#7 Comment By Razjah On July 27, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

This is a great article. Inspires some cool campaign ideas, great reference point later, printable for any time outposts are needed. The advice even works for non-fantasy worlds. Sure some difference exist, but the premise is the same. I will most certainly be referencing this article in the future.

#8 Comment By BryanB On July 31, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

The Pathfinder adventure path Kingmaker could put the information in this article to good use. What happens when a trading post becomes a hamlet and that hamlet becomes a village, which then becomes a town or even a city? Good stuff.

#9 Comment By EricG On August 8, 2012 @ 8:23 am

I’d love to get more articles along the lines of growing and/or managing a settlement, this article is an excellent primer, do you intend to write more about this topic Matthew ?

#10 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 8, 2012 @ 9:57 am

Eric: I hadn’t planned on it, but I (and the rest of the gnomes) are always open to ideas. What sort of things are you thinking about/looking for?

#11 Comment By EricG On August 8, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

I’m preparing something along the lines of what @Knight of Roses said in his comment for my party, more precisely establishing a colony in the New world in my low-fantasy setting.

I looked at PC games (Civ IV Colonization, Age of Empires 3 and Empire : Total War) for inspiration but it still feels kind of empty. I’d like ideas on things like “trouble in townhall” and guidelines to consider for my party to feel compelled about these people and their problems in establishing a new life (be it raising a barn, getting the gold to build a church, losing a trinket along the way or internal politics).

And definitely an expansion of your last part about the effects of growth, fluff that players could feel good about. Just enough so they will want to do something about the Empire barging-in and taking away their hard work by naming a new governor in their place (American Revolution anyone?)

Is there also published material about this topic that you know about ?