Do we need the Townies? Their stories usually don’t compare to the challenges you get going through dungeons and fighting monsters. Usually its page upon page of dialogue, possibly with voice acting, but it doesn’t really match the adrenaline surges you experience going through monster filled areas searching for Macguffins.
There is an article which talks about the way that towns have changed from in games like Wizardry and Akalabeth. In the early games, you would make your way to town, be given a mission, stop at the shop to supply and then head out to the dungeon. You fight the dungeon, come back to town and sell off what you don’t need for more money to restock up and do it all over again until you beat the game.
Nowadays, the town is more than just a stopover and supply point for your adventuring destinations and has since become a questing center all its own. This is quite easily seen, as the article write proposes by looking at games like Baldur’s Gate 2 where there is a huge city that you’re set in and while there are other stories taking place and you don’t have any real reason to leave for a while. The author does say, ‘It’s assumed that the player will feel free to leave, do some quests, then come back and explore some more. But a generation obsessively trained by games with one-way-doors and miss-able items is a generation trained towards compulsion.’ I look back at the games I’ve played with large towns and I see that he is pretty accurate in his description of that.
I remember the old Dragon Warrior Guidebook for the NES telling people to write down everything that was said so you could refer back to it since you would need it to solve quests later. That was when towns had maybe ten NPCs in them beyond the shopkeeper and innkeeper. Then you expand it to games like Earthbound, where the cities grew into sometimes like fifty or a hundred unique NPCs with some giving you directions and hints, and not being sure if or when you’ld be unable to return to an area because the storyline preventing you from going back. So many RPGs had trigger events that once crossed would restrict you from going back, be it load bearing bosses, dialogue choices that restrict areas, or just the storyline now sending you to the next zone. You may have missed an encounter that gives you a vital clue or some important key item that you can only get once, and so we check every hidey hole, we talk to everyone and only when we feel we clicked on everything then we move on, causing a change in the playstyle we encountered in the dungeon areas.
However, to go back to the original concept of whether the new development of towns is a good or bad thing, I think it is both. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otAkP5VjIv8 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ur6GQp5mCYs are the Quest Design videos that Extra Credits did, which you may not think fit well with the idea of city design, but they talk about ways to get out of thinking as quest giving in hubs with quest givers to talk to and instead develop the world into a quest rich environment where anything from a random ring found underwater to a note or an overturned vehicle could have a story for your players to explore. You want these cities to be rich, realistic places with their own sense of style. The NPCs have personalities and they interact with the world in real ways, thus making the story more fulfilling. That is the key element for some people when they play the games because they want to get lost into that fake world and its story, in this case told through the NPCs.
So, the way I see it, this change to towns was brought about because of many reasons. Expansive growth as a quest hub and storytelling environment, technological limits imcreasing of how much we can display on screen and even the one-up-manship of game designers wanting to make their game better than the last offerings. All of these are reasons cities moved from being a stopping point like the ‘town’ hub in Diablo which had your magic shop, blacksmith, identifier, and a few other things. You had a handful of NPCs to deal with as it was only a staging ground before moving out in the world. Some people liked that as you’re not spending time interacting with a lot of NPCs who may not do anything but be colorful background. This forum post sums up the attitude about why ‘large detailed towns’ are a problem for some players really well, mentioning some old school RPGs where they had, as the poster puts it, ‘a very minimalistic way of writing dialogue (one that converts as much information as possible in as few lines as possible)’.
Depending on the sort of game you choose to play, towns can be a good or bad thing to the flow of your game. If you don’t want towns to be a big feature, you can follow the idea of the MMO quest videos of Extra Credit where there was some mention of different ways of using towns for quest design, from it being hubs of NPC quest givers in WoW to having the whole environment becoming possible quest givers in the way of Secret World. So, you can add a merchant like Neko from Secret of Mana or Skyrim’s wandering Khajhit merchants to buy and sell and provide basic rumors without needing huge sprawling towns. This keeps the draw in your world as the dungeon(s) and its adventures. You can add a few other NPCs here and there to give hints and tips on where to go and what to do like the soldiers who appeared outside the Water Palace near the start of Secret of Mana and you can come back to them later in their success of failure. If you really want to throw things into the face of the PCs, like introducing a villain, put set pieces to set the stage like with Kefka in FF6 like at Castle Doma where he showed his true colors.
Of course, since we’re doing away with towns as story hubs, the rest of the story can be told in other ways, like making use of environment and lore in the Demon/Dark Souls games of late, or the Castlevanias and Metroids. There was little to no interaction with other NPCs in the early games of those series, leaving it to PCs to put together a story if they wanted. Add some books and letters, maybe some paintings or carvings and monuments and you’re turning the players into archeologists and anthropologist as they put meaning to the uncovered clues. If its a future setting, you can have androids, videos and even holographic records, while fantasy may have ghosts, familiars (of good and bad variety), and other magical style stuff.
I think, in the end, if video games want to use towns they need to make sure it fits their vision of the flow they want. I look at games like Fate, where you can send your pet to sell your items in town, and that’s one way to eliminate the need of towns. The big question is how you approach it in tabletop, and you’ll have to answer that for your own players. Just consider what you want your players to focus on, because they’re the important ones to your story.