As of late I've been playing in a campaign run by a first time DM, and I've been noticing that when it comes to fantasy settlements many new DMs assume that players will be able to pick up on the flavor she has assigned it in her mind. Unfortunately, when they aren't given anything to hook their visualization of the city on other than "there is a thieves guild here" or "the wizard we have been searching is for lives around this area", they default to RandomRPGTownsville, which is a drab place. All peasants become dirty faceless english commoners with featureless brown garb, and all buildings become boring english block structures.
When we look at our world, we forget that random villages around this world have their own cultural identities even if they aren't historically or sensationally important. South American villagers - even in this modern day - are drastically different than Irish villagers, even from the very first glance, and you should keep this in mind when describing towns that the players come across.
For those of you who are still stumped on exactly how to add flavor to your urban areas, here are a few questions to ask yourself
- Do the local inhabitants have any superstitions? Is this reflected in how they dress, decorate, or build?
- What is the main textile around the area? Do the local warriors raise displacer beasts to craft weapons/armor off of them? Are there nearby goblin clans that have established a mammoth hide trade with the village?
- What are the buildings made of? Does the local quarry tend to dye the granite blue? Are there incredibly strong, richly colored groves of trees nearby?
- What is the racial/ethnic makeup of the local populance? People tend to assume that everyone in a town is a human unless it is mentioned otherwise, but making interesting ethnic makeups can lead to a memorable town. For example, A city that has a strong human minority but it largely populated by dwarves and gnomes could lead to some inconsistent building sizes
- How does the climate affect the garb and architecture of the city? Mentioning the shawls and robes of a desert citizen paints a picture in the players' minds, as does the fact that everyone in a swamp shanty town carries a snake-killing shortspear.