First Strike of Forging the City of Anvil for 5E D&D
“Where do I begin?” Often this is the biggest question any fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master asks themselves. An idea about a theme, a villain or a narrative conflict they imagine represent common starting points. But in reality where any 5E D&D campaign must begin is a place. This place determines the villain or villains, the environment and the space where characters will first be realized. This part of worldbuilding defines who or what those characters can plausibly be and shapes them as much as they shape the place. This location, no matter how large or small, define its citizens and initial plots. It is the anvil upon which players hammer out a story with the DM.
Great 5E D&D stories start with worldbuilding
This new series examines and documents the worldbuilding and creation of a place — a large town or small city where a group of characters can either start an adventure or longer campaign should the group so desire. Recurring locations, villains, possible encounters, organizations, events and festivals, NPCs and more can all emerge from this singular place. Follow along using the City of Anvil category as this series continues forward forging a location players can drop right into their own 5E D&D games.
The intent is manyfold. I hope the process becomes helpful to DMs struggling with these moments. Perhaps an event, villain or encounter inspires a DM to create a similar moment for their own world or community. Hopefully, in the end I’ll help alleviate the stress of creating such content for DMs who might not otherwise do their own worldbuilding. Who knows? Maybe I’ll inspire a current player to take up the mantle and reside for a time in the Big Chair, creating their own world for a table of hopeful and eager players.
To this end, inspired by the metaphor above, this is the first in a series for the City of Anvil.
All communities have an inspiration. They sprout from a few factors. These could be access to resources like a mining town or agricultural area. A community could spawn at a crossroads from frequent trade. The site of some supernatural event (or just the rumor of one) can lead to settling the location. The area might have been the designation of a higher power like the deed of a ruler, or caused by the influx of refugees. It could be the result of following animal migration patterns. The answer to this one question can spark an entire campaign, let alone a single community. This inspiration defines not only the start of the region in question but the basis of either the community’s initial factual story or the legend it perpetuates for the rest of its existence. Should such rumors be popular enough they may influence the news or actions of nearby communities.
In the case of the City of Anvil this inspiration surrounds an object — literally an anvil. Therefore our community’s origin begins steeped in mythology, rumor, superstition and magic. This gives Anvil a few advantages. For starters the origin story can be as real as a DM desires. This allows everyone in the group to infer all sorts of meaning into the origin and thereby create side stories. The creation of the town worms it’s way into the origin stories of the founding families and businesses and any number of NPCs, villains, heroes and documents can claim responsibility. The validity of these claims can be argued ad infinitum until the DM sees fit to reveal the truth. Even then “true believers” may dispute an incorrect claim. Claims by all concerned create plot hooks, story arcs, tension, conflict, allies and enemies.
To facilitate this the origin story goes as follows:
“Long ago, along a path through some twisted wood, wandering travelers discovered a clearing. This clearing stood out as the woods had been exceptionally thick until this spot. The anvil sat in the middle of the clearing on what looked like a flat and natural stone surface. Deer and other large game traveled the thin path, with no room for a wagon to traverse. The anvil showed no signs of rust, but did show signs of wear and use. No signs of encampment existed nearby, neither wagon tracks nor beasts of burden. The puzzled travelers wondered how such an item arrived here.
Yet here was this heavy fabricated object in the middle of nowhere. The curious travelers, not wishing to leave such a valuable object behind, tried to move the anvil. First attempts were merely brutish tests of strength. Frustration and determination then lead to visiting nearby villages for beasts of burden to extract the immovable item. None availed.
Rumors began to spread about the immovable anvil with each traveler or teller of the tale expanding on the event and attempts. Increased interest lead to more travel. More travel lead to the widening of this path to a more conducive conveyance as glory seekers made their attempts. Where glory seekers go, so too go entrepreneurs and the curious. Where go the curious go the faithful. Where go the faithful go the charlatans.
The road widened and more came to test their mettle, so to speak. A few tents became many. Many tents became a few small houses, using the natural resources of wood and game to become homes.
At the center remained the anvil. Immovable and immutable by the elements. It became a siren song for craftspeople and the religious, for curiosity seekers and those who prey on them and eventually those seeking a chance to start again.
The founding families of Anvil all argue who was the most significant in this tale. Years — indeed decades — of self-aggrandizing tales spawned from this origin story. None can definitively prove their first and best claim yet all hold some version of this tale and how their family were the first (or perpetuate lies about it). The first to discover. The first to establish. The first to try to remove. The first to tell the tale. The first.
By design or by desire this simple (yet complicated) tool informs the origin stories of Anvil’s most influential in one way or another.”
From this origin story a DM can start extrapolating plot points, NPCs and even a map if so desired. All that is needed is a central point. This point could be a monument, garden, park or even a temple. The anvil sits on the flat stone within this region and could either reside in a private location like a temple dedicated to a relating faith or a public temple intended to draw the faithful. It might be housed in a massively public place drawing public view and thus more traffic. To be honest I feel such a location would be more public than private. Both religious or faithful residents would likely want to spread their faith through the sharing of such a miracle and entrepreneurial types would likely want to do the same with for more foot traffic. Foot traffic means more contact with local businesses and prime businesses closer to the anvil than others. As a DM this is good — it creates a center of conflict arising from the drama of having businesses vie for control of the dialogue. Any faith based organizations would very much do the same.
Now there’s not only conflict between multiple businesses (and thus criminal organizations because profit), but also religions (and thus cults too, because why not?). You have political figures trying to control the conversation about power.
Hammering out the eponymous City of Anvil
One actual decision remains. The anvil. How powerful is the object? This is not a decision a DM needs to fully define right off the bat but they need to make a decision at some point for sure. Does the anvil possess any real demonstrable power in the immediate future? In other words, aside from being stuck in place and not rusting, does it do anything special? This answer is important. It defines the control over the object by whoever has the will and means to do so.
If the object, anvil or otherwise, possesses no current and demonstrable power other than being resistant to the elements and being moved, it will be a curiosity others place or infuse meaning into. They may try to control access to the object to control the dialogue but they are just as likely not to for the above mentioned reasons.
If the object has any unusual properties even in the short term then powerful individuals and organizations will covet it. For example if it possesses the power to infuse weapons with magic then you can expect warlords, crime bosses, kings and other powerful figures might rise up and try to take the object by force. This is likely more conflict than a starting campaign desires, as it’s likely a community wouldn’t arise from an object at the center of a constant war. Even if they cannot move it, controlling it becomes fundamental.
If the object only possesses a special property during a special time such as infusing unusual properties during a special time like eclipses, full moons, midwinter, the death of a royal and so forth you can expect those most affected by to vie for control. The object likely transitions to controlled access by the most powerful political or religious entity in the area. Public access becomes restricted to viewing through bars glass or not at all.
If the object has yet to display a property beyond it’s original curiosity then the options are endless. Now the object can exist in a public forum as the subject of stories, cults or even the central focus of one story in the far future. The mystery remains untold and therefore left up to the DM and players to unravel at a convenient point in the future.
I have to be honest. The last option seems the best from a DM’s point of view. It means the story has yet to be told. It foretells of some future event or events with potential to lead to any number of possibilities. From a starting point of view a low level campaign can infer whatever meaning they want and allow adventurers and NPCs alike to tell their tales with or without the object as part of their history. The other options can tell captivating stories too, of this I have no doubt. But they start by painting the object and those around it into an immutable point of view. The bane of any starting campaign is painting oneself into a corner too quickly.
Backstories have long been the property for player characters. Such tales are by no means solely their property. A region or community can share in this privilege as well. The City of Anvil is no different. Such an origin story feeds the stories of its denizens and struggles. For now, imagine this:
“The noise is nearly constant at this time of day. Many feet — booted, bare and hooved — travel over a cobblestone central plaza. On a slightly raised earthen mound in the middle lay a simple granite boulder, flat like a miniature plateau. Upon it sits a simple anvil of black iron, beaten and smooth but free of rust. A tall wrought iron fence stands erected around this simple everyday ordinary object. Long ago painted with simple black paint, the painted fence now shows cracking and wear, allowing exposed areas to show rust. A bored guard in mail leans against this fence, an anvil emblazoned upon their tabard. Small urchins who unsuccessfully attempt to tie the guards bootlaces together briefly break their malaise, resulting in shouts and threats to their incarceration and the like.
Around this tiny drama few notice or seem to care. The central plaza is too busy for such things. The outer ring is ringed by businesses who bark at the passing travel for patronage. A small startup stall may have limited success before being strong armed by thugs or business owners. The former for likely a few coins furtively dropped into a palm.
Stretching out from this central plaza and it’s cobblestone circle, streets run like veins from a heart. The central inns, taverns, shops and political and spiritual mainstream concerns drift to twisting alleys and streets — passages leading to the dark and powerful. Along these streets and twisting corridors exist private concerns. Black markets, brothels, cults, thieves guilds, wererat warrens and bounty hunters mix with powerful families of noble and not-so-noble birth. Churches vie for control of the dialogue against the interest of political factions and criminal masterminds. The inspired, ambitious and desperate intertwine with those just trying to survive.
Anvil tests all of them. Those who rise will be stronger and tempered. The rest will be shattered.”
Welcome to the City of Anvil.