While this certainly isn’t true in all cases, I get this sinking feeling that villagers and the town guard can’t hack it in their daily lives. It’s as almost some of these places merely exist to get saved by dashing level 3 heroes. I don’t like it. I am a civil servant, and I lament the fact that heroes are constantly bailing out befuddled town guards.
I admit, if system worked, we wouldn’t have much of a story. When the town guard is properly equipped with magical crossbows (the D&D equivalent of MP5s), there is no reason to keep around unstable, fickle heroes. Imagine the kind of campaign that occurs when the local evil necromancer is apprehended by the town guard, and, due to minimum sentencing laws, spends the next 57 years animating corpses for local PSAs.
The heroes, murder hobos as they are, would have nothing to do. The world is a happier, healthier place but the campaign is over before it started. There is no story to tell when the system works.
In reality, towns have a plan
The standard fantasy setting includes a ridiculous number of things that want to kill you and animate your corpse. Any borderland town will plan for local threats. Sure most of the town population probably can’t write, but they aren’t stupid: they realized that building their homes near a place called the “Tombwood” required some additional planning.
Quick aside: back in the days of yore, King Edward the III basically required all able bodied men to learn how to use a longbow. The King wanted a population that could be drafted to die whenever he itched to fight wars in France. There was no need for the threat of monsters to spur this idea of a competently armed populace, killing one’s own species was enough.
Towns, especially those that experience trouble on the regular, should have some plan to deal with threats that they experience. Do zombies continue to march out of the Tombwood? There is going to be a watchtower on that side of town, maybe a wall even, and all able bodied people will know the drill. If they lived there their entire lives, they are probably even good at it.
There is tension here. If a town exists, it’s pretty good at taking care of itself, but invariably, to make the story epic, defenses have to be rendered sufficiently helpless or corrupt as to make the heroes existence a necessity. That’s the whole point.
So how do we balance the need to show the town and its officials as competent while still creating a campaign?
Well here are some of the tried and true traditional methods:
- Ignore it. Easy enough. There are lots of little things about the standard fantasy setting that we just accept. The townsfolk are weak as kittens, but somehow managed to survive out here all by themselves.
- Town as Safe Zone. It’s a point of light in the darkness, and anything outside the walls is fair game. This makes the town appear competent from time to time, and still allows plenty of low level adventure.
- Epic Evil. The town can normally handle 50 orcs, but now there are 200. Help. This is really useful when your players get higher in level.
Honestly? These can be employed effectively and will probably work wonders for your campaign. No one will question this. But to me, they seem hollow. I want something else.
Another way: Town guard as a faction.
If you are a good DM, you’ll have multiple hooks, objectives, or locations for the players to choose. Maybe, while the adventurers are out murdering the kobolds, the town guard takes care of the zombie problem all by themselves. All zombie loot would become property of the city due to a robust civil forfeiture law. After that, the local lord realizes that all of the tombs in the aptly named Tombwood are basically filled with treasure and it’s time to start mounting expeditions.
From there, the town guard becomes a character or faction in your campaign, functioning as a resource for your characters. They can help in times of need, provide hirelings, and gobs of supplies. The faction can also become a hindrance. What happens to Lord Dunnywit and the guard when they recover the Corrupting Obsidian Skull? They turn evil. This could be especially effective if characters are close friends with Lord Dunnywit. What if he is their patron? Total. Drama. Bomb.
This can take away from the feeling that the heroes are special, but treating the town (and its guard) as living breathing entity as opposed to ducklings that need to be saved can lead to a more vibrant experience.