As a long time Table Top role-player, I have a bunch of top secret techniques for creating a fully fleshed0out world rather quickly. Especially when you need to give your players a place to explore on short notice.
Here is an easy way to turn a small town that is basically just a quest-giving-tavern attached to a inn, into a rich, thriving civilization. The trick is:
Ask yourself, what does this place make, what does this place need?
Establishing the economic landscape of the village and how it relates to the area around it can work miracles for world building.
Does the town have a community of hunters? Once the meat is smoked how is it distributed/sold? Do they harvest lumber? If so how do they keep that industry sustainable without chopping down every single tree? Are there druids who calm the animal and regrow the fallen trees?
Does it have any specific artisanal goods? Who trains the next generation of craftsmen? Is this village the only one in the area that can craft this specific item? Does that make them a target for competitors who want their secret techniques?
What local animals could be tamed to assist in transporting the exports? How does the local wildlife treat the villagers? Is there issues from monster/animal attacks and how does the village defend itself?
What goods are important enough that the village will invest in protection from bandits while transporting it? If they easily produce tons of wheat, but it takes a lot of effort to grow sugar cane, who do they trade that sugar cane to in order to get a return on investment?
Once trade is complete, who gets the profits? Is there a merchants guild or union that makes sure the profits are fairly split? Or does a mafia control the flow of money? Is this town a branch of a larger trade union so there are hostilities between the locals and the out of town guild members?
What resource does the town lack? What resource would cripple the town if it was suddenly cut off or their trade partner couldn’t produce enough of?
Once you are able to answer a few of these questions quickly, you can establish a locations unique identity with only a few of these points.
When you combine two of more of these question you can start to build a narrative that can facilitate stories.
The Old Lor-Ahmek Parish:
Produces: Gold, Iron, Stone, Jewelry, Well Trained Archers
Requires: Labour, Produce, Transportation, Fabrics.
The abandoned castle once belonged to a vassal of the old King. The bitterly cold lands were given to a young lord as a show of good faith during a treaty signing. The lands turned out to be un-farmable since it was so far North that the harvest season was too sort to turn a profit. The lord sunk most of his fortune in building his massive castle and died in poverty. The land was returned to the king and was then gifted to a small sect of monks and turned into a Parish for study and meditation.
It was a costly slice of land since it had no exports, until an excavation intended to expand a catacomb revealed rich deposits of iron and gold underneath the mountain.
The parish was not equipped to become a full smithery so the iron and gold needs to be transported through the treacherous badlands to a warmer village in the South, where they have enough coal and lumber to keep their furnaces lit.
The monks of Lor-Ahmek study alchemy and various sciences, so while they can’t work with the materials on a large scale, they do craft jewelry and delicate accessories while they experiment on new metalworking techniques.
In order to dig the monks brought in prisoners from the central kingdom to work off their crimes in the mine, and they spend their nights trying to convert lost souls. Because of the long stretches of cold badlands, Lor-Ahmek makes for a very functional prison. No one can escape without enough food and clothes to survive the blizzards. Many prisoners become monks themselves once their sentence is paid off, since it is easier than trying to escape. Not to mention day after day of the monks persistent conversion attempts tends to wear them down.
Due to the large amount of ex-prisoner converts, the monks of Lor-Ahmek are hardened and trained in various forms of combat. The wide variety of prisoners brought from all across the world means that Lor-Ahmek is a melting pot of diversity. The sharing of cultures has created a unique cuisine of hardy stews and spiced meats. The delicious warm foodstuffs attracts travelers that plan on heading further North and the upper layers function as one large tourist trap.
The stone brought up from the mine in search of more ore has been used to build wind-resistant walls the dot the desolate landscape. Guard patrols run from wall to wall and have to train their archers to fire with the curvature of the wind. The central kingdom sends their elite archers here to train them in cover based combat, as the conditions of Lor-Ahmek result in archers who can curve their long ranged arrows and hit enemies behind cover.
Food is often scarce and large cave dwelling bat-creatures are raised for their meat and milk. The archers hunt the rabbit-creatures and elk-creatures for meat, and when the massive rhino-moose migrate, it is almost a rite of passage to hunt one of the enormous creatures down as a team. The rough hides of the local fauna are useful, but Lor-Ahmek often trades for finer furs from the South to line their clothes for warmth. Vegetables and fruit are expensive delicacies, since only root-tubers and mushrooms grown in insulated mine shafts.
The King often has to pay mercenaries and merchant caravans to move dangerous prisoners to Lor-Ahmek in exchange for the precious minerals, so a strict royal merchants guild controls the parishes finances. The Monks have taken a vow of poverty and the prisoners make no money so nearly all of the profits go to the King, covering the cost of transportation by the profits made off the gold and iron.
The monks and prisoners have to maintain the ancient crumbling estate and since profits go to the King, very little is provided for upkeep. Grey handmade clay mortar (dug up from the mine) is used for repairs, giving the buildings a cold, unsettling aesthetic.
The mine itself goes deep into the earth and uses a massive network of pulleys and elevators to move stones and ore. Cave-ins happen as the mine-shafts dig outwards under the surrounding tundra, and sometimes they run into warrens that belong to dangerous burrowing monsters. When this happens the tunnel is intentionally collapsed and the prisoners within are often left for dead.
Already this location provides for many quests and plot threads, such as:
A bounty is placed on one of the Monks: A violent prisoner has paid off their debt and found peace at the parish, but the family of the victim still wants blood. The other monks refuse to let their new brother go since they consider his past sins forgiven, and the target has to be convinced to give himself up, taken by force or allowed to escape his bounty.
A gang of criminals wants you to go into the mines and rescue their trapped comrades: A cave-in trapped some prisoners that were members of a gang. The leader of the gang knows the monks and guards will not spare the men to rescue the prisoners. The gang can’t pay you much but you will earn the favor of the gang if you save their friends in time.
A caravan was lost in the blizzard: The yearly trade caravan of ore was run off the road by a blizzard and the monks worry they will be found by bandits before they get back on the road. A lot of survival and tracking skills are needed to brave the harsh climate and find the lost merchants in time, if they are not rescued the Parish is in great financial danger.
Transport a valuable reliquary: The monks have been using gold to craft a powerful alchemic reliquary and need to hire couriers to move it South undetected. However, this reliquary contains powerful magic and there are shady individuals willing to pay you more to NOT complete your quest.
Ghosts in the Mine: So many prisoners have died untimely deaths in the hungry mines that ghosts are appearing, and hindering the mining operations. Adventurers who can banish the dark spirits will be well rewarded to cover up the indifference of the monk overseers.
Master Archery Challenge: An elderly guard has valuable information for the adventurers current main quest, but he won’t share his secrets until a member of the party proves themselves on the ice fields. A high level ranger or rouge might be able to compete against the Master Archer and victory might result in learning the secret techniques of the Lor-Ahmek. (Basic Ranged Attacks now ignore cover bonuses.)
There are lots of other techniques for fast world building but building stories through what they need/have is one of my favorites.
Let me know if you want to see more guides to World-Building/Character Building.