Demographics and world building
It’s a lot of fun to consider demographics in the design of your game world. In this case, how many of the millions of nameless NPCs have some type of special ability versus being just another commoner. Of course, this has a huge impact in how you portray the world to your players.
Are they just another group of lowly adventurers surrounded by more powerful people? In this case, they live in a high-fantasy world like Eberron where there are many, many spellcasters and powerful NPCs. However, in a low-fantasy setting they could easily become the most powerful actors in a city or entire kingdom. You can take the opposite approach and make them unique, with a player class representing a wide-range of abilities that no other being possesses. Instead, all NPC’s make due with NPC stats or with a couple of abilities plucked from the Player’s Guide.
To get us started, there are a couple of great demographic generators out there to automate some of the creation process. Neither are directly applicable to 5E, so we’ll need to extrapolate the results. Both are a bit more towards the low-fantasy side, so you’ll need to modify the results based on the power level of your world.
The generators help us understand how many types of NPCs might exist in a fictional town. Donjon shows us the type of people and businesses that exist in your medieval city. So, now you know how many barbers operate in a city of 10,000. The Myth Weaver town generator lets you know how many people with class levels exist in town. This is based on older D&D rules with NPC class levels, so the best approximation is to compare the results against humanoid NPCs (CR) from the Monster Manual.
Not surprisingly, larger cities are home to more people with special abilities and higher levels. That unnamed thorp likely contains a single level three NPC as its local tough. If you were making an MMO, this would let you create zones, where you map difficulty level to the location. The larger cities would contain the highest concentration of powerful NPCs. High-leveled monsters prowl the hinterlands. Villages are for XP farming using pigs.
Now, while these generators are a great general guide to demographics, you must consider the type of story that you want to tell. I like low-magic settings, but I want more happening around the city itself and I want to raise the stakes. So, here’s what I’m thinking.
I used the two generators to build a city of approximately 15,000 people, let’s say a smallish walled settlement on the borderlands. I find that this results in only a handful of powerful NPCs including one high-level wizard, a tough paladin, a couple of clerics, and a few fighters. I decided that these individuals are the major power brokers in the city, each leading a faction in the city. Each one of these characters gets full player character levels, since if attacked, I want them to be a significant challenge and I want the player’s to see more powerful examples of themselves in the game world. Very rare though!
For the rest, I’ll use NPCs or abbreviated player levels. By abbreviated, I mean selecting a handful of class abilities that synchronize well. I drop the other abilities since I want to show off their signature moves in a fight and I won’t be using them often enough to need tons of flexibility. That’s the special sauce I leave to the players, because they are more important than the NPCs. I want them to have versatility and to quickly feel important in this town.
It’s a pretty limited selection of NPCs though, so I’m going to cheat a little bit and assume that there are an equal number of high-level NPCs in the lands immediately surrounding the city. An opposing wizard lives up in the hills in his citadel. Another cleric is building a power base to an opposing god in a nearby village. A druid circle is unhappy with recent civilized activity, because let’s face it, druids are always pissed about something. Strange considering their access to all of nature’s herb.
From a world building angle, I have a lot of interesting pieces to start playing with using demographics. I can place my player’s in the world at different power levels, whether noobs or experienced adventures. However, the world is consistent and I can have the NPCs react to them based on their actions and power. I also have a good handle on the resources of the NPCs, who are potential allies or foes. They get to divvy up the population, both in terms of lookouts, suppliers, tax payers, and the more combat orientated types.
If your players are like mine, they may want to take over. Now I have some idea of how much politicking or fighting that entails: size of the town guard, tough NPCs, and some of the factions. I can also use this information to stage realistic behind the scenes butchery for my player’s amusement. If two thieves guilds go to war then we know how many bodies in the alley way is a troubling sign.
You see, a city like Waterdeep dumps a pile of corpses every day. Nobody cares. In our town of 10,000, everyone is talking about the six thugs found, fleshless of course, in the market fountain.
I encourage you to build your next two with demographics in mind. Vary the numbers of powerful actors based on how you want to portray your world, whether high-fantasy or low-fantasy. Then, let your characters loose. They’ll want to see how tough they are against this sandbox you’ve created, so let that play out. If they think they can take the arch-wizard then go for it! Perhaps they can recruit less powerful NPCs to their side, building a new faction in the process. You have all the pieces you need to keep a running balance of the sides and their power levels.
Don’t forget to have fun as a GM and devise harsh consequences for your player’s actions. The high-level NPCs are watching their rivals and for potential threats. If they feel like the characters are building a power base, they will attempt to neutralize them with all available resources. Demographics will guide you on what resources are available in gold and bodies, so you can devise schemes and threats that mesh seamlessly with your world.
Then you can throw in a dragon for fun!