Something I love to do with my gaming groups when I DM is to truly world build together. Every time we start up a new game they pick a spot on the map (or create one if there's not map already made), and design our hometowns!
They each take their time to craft a place that fits their backstories and more often than not, let's them develop their characters even further than before. By the time we sit down for our first session, they usually have a better understanding of who they're playing.
I like to sit down with them during character creation and really flesh out their towns with them. I start by asking them the basics of their characters: name, appearance, class, etc. and then lead them into a series of questions asking about where they are from. Here's a short list of how I start things off and though occasionally need to help a player decide more, this gets the ball rolling and soon they are building a fascinating home town filled with lots of NPCs, tales of their childhood, and lots of fun tidbits I get to make cannon in our world.
Close your eyes and picture yourself as your character. It's only a few years before you start your adventuring life...
- What sort of landscape do you see around you? Is it warm & tropical? Cold tundra? Rolling green meadows? Then base your next question about the type of people that live in that sort of environment:
- Example - Cold tundra: Oh, are they hardy people like Vikings or more settled and living off the land like shepherds?
- What do the majority of the people in your village/town/city do for a living? Fishing, textiles, merchants, farmers, pirates, etc.
- Tell me what the house you grew up in looks like.
- Where did you have your first: drink, kiss, fight, pickpocket, etc. based on their class and/or personality
- What one person was exceptionally kind to you?
- What one person was exceptionally mean to you?
So on and so forth. All these people and information becomes the NPCs of their town/city. Once you have focused on who they interacted with most as a child, you can then broaden that by asking about the other townfolk. It's at this point that I tell my players that they can answer any of these questions beyond their character's knowledge if they like:
- Who owns the local butcher shop (it could be any shop really as long as it isn't the local tavern because we want to expand upon their answers & see what we get)? Is that person married? With kids? If not married, why? If they have kids, are they working in the shop with them?
- What is the town called and why?
- Who has the most money in town?
- Who really rules/governs the town?
- What annual holidays/events do they celebrate?
- What unusual quirk does the town have (a weird frog-licking contest, or a townsperson who has a phenomenal memory and knows the exact time & date every person in that town was born, etc.)?
- What's some local folklore, myth, or legend?
The list goes on and on though I rarely need to do much further prompting. Once my players start building, it really takes off. And it doesn't have to end with just their hometown. If their town has a rivalry with another, or what about the place they went off to school, or the closest city they visited often? I love letting my players have fun and add their own truly personal touches to the story.
But it doesn't end there! In Part 2: Becoming a Temporary Co-DM I talk about how I let my players take the reigns during sessions where we visit their hometowns!