We've been having a lot of discussion about "town" in my gaming group. Some of the players never played with Stericksburg as a base, and questions about what's there has ensued.
I hit upon what I think is a good, simple way to describe town vs. the dungeon in my game.
Town is results-driven. Descriptions are narrative.
The dungeon is description-driven. Results are narrative.
To put it in a more detailed way:
In town, you tell me the results you want, I decide (or set a roll to see) if you get the results, and based on that we describe what's there.
Examples: You tell me you want monster information, so you pay a sage and we roll. You ask for a magic item and we roll to see if it's for sale and I set the price. You say want to learn Orcish or Rohanese and I make up some guy in town who speaks Orcish or Rohanese. You want to get your Power Item recharged so you pay the fee and I say it's Dr. Nick Mako in town who charges them. You want to hire five spearmen, and we see if there are five spearmen or not available.
In the dungeon, I tell you what's there, you tell me what you want to do, and I decide (or set a die roll for) the results and we describe them.
Examples: I tell you there is a heavy ironbound door in front of you, and you tell me what you're going to do about it. I tell you there are five orcs, and you decide how you want to deal with them. I say there is a rumbling noise followed by a shuffle-stomp, shuffle-stomp, and you tell me how fast you run away. I describe the treasure and you decide how to pack it and get it home.
In a more typical game, I'd use the same approach for both - here is what's in town, what do you do? Here is what's in the dungeon, what do you do? The GM's description sets the basis and the players react. Detail might be fine or coarse, but it's there and the GM sets the world in motion. Players can use it, react to it, or expand on it, but it's GM-centered.
But for DF, I want "town" to be an explanation of why certain things can be done. The options available are generally GM-out, and the explanation is player-driven. Even when the GM gives the explanation, it's driven by the outcome first.
In a more typical game, I might say, "There is a mage's guild. They sell potions. They buy and sell magic items. You can join and buy Claim to Hospitality to crash in the guest tower." And thus, you can buy potions, hang out with wizards, buy and sell magic items, and join the group to justify Claim to Hospitality. I'd start with what's there and let the players figure out what they want to do with that.
In DF, I say, "You can buy potions, buy and sell magic items, and you can buy Claim to Hospitality." If the players or I want to say, "The mage's guild is the group buying all those +1 swords you don't want," that's what's happening. If a wizard buys Claim to Hospitality and says, "I've got guest rights at the Tower of Visiting Wizards at the mage's guild now!" Great, there you go, that's just the explanation for the results. If there wasn't a Tower of Visiting Wizards or a guild before, there is now. There must be, because you have Claim to Hospitality.
One upside of this for me is less specific prep. No shopping lists. No list of inns and their prices. Nothing of the sort. I just set the prices, costs, and rolls for gear and let the dice and the players do it. I get to save all of my specific prep for the dungeon. I don't need to worry about giving the players options in town, just adjudicating the rolls and results of their requests. It seems like a mirror image to me, but an easier one to manage for this type of game.