Dec 102018
Sovereign Powers

Our settlement is either deep within a sovereign power, near the edge of its power (and therefore near another power’s border, most likely), or in a land without a power ruling it. Each scenario will have some impact on that settlement.

A settlement deep into a sovereign power won’t be reached by an invading army as quickly and therefore might enjoy more peace of mind. This depends partly on the relative strengths of the powers and invaders. A power may weaken due to famine, wars sapping its inhabitants and straining resources, or poor leadership. All of these invite conquests of our settlement, or inspire our settlement to conquer a neighboring power having those problems. This settlement might not always have been far from the current border, so it could still have substantial fortifications that may not be well manned or maintained anymore.

When a settlement has long been near a border, it has likely been attacked and even conquered more than once. It will have substantial and well-maintained defenses with an active garrison and some of the more elite fighters, some of whom may be legends. The military group might be famous too; an individual member might have esteem conferred just by association. This idea makes it easier to invent an intimidating character who has this in their background. This settlement is a likely first line of defense against invaders and may also be the source of attacks on others, even if the command came from another city within the sovereign power. This place may feel safe or perilous depending on the current state of hostilities.

While some cities are quite powerful, an independent settlement is more vulnerable even if it has a few allies. If it doesn’t belong to a power, a nearby power may decide to annex it. Such a place may have good defenses, but without a sovereign power to lend it aid, it may not have the best fortifications or soldiers. Decide how long this settlement has been in its current state. Who last conquered and ruled it, and for how long? How did this end? A rebellion? Or did someone manage to kill this ruler and oust his followers? What sort of abuses occurred? If he was benevolent, what sort of problems now abound?

If a settlement has been conquered, consider how long the occupation lasted. The longer this endured, the more a foreign culture will have imposed itself on life in the settlement or region to which it belongs. This is true even after occupation ends, though certain things will be eliminated while others last. Architecture typically remains, as do deeply ingrained cultural elements like widely accepted customs or even laws. It’s the elements that people chafe against that disappear sooner. Some residents might be of mixed descent and will continue to live here, whether accepted by others or not; they might also be rejected by the ousted conquerors if they try to go there.

Weaponry will also determine how much a settlement has to fear. A country with long range missiles can strike deep into a territory. Magic portals that transport people—or bombs—can render location less relevant. So can aircraft or spacecraft that move at tremendous speeds or have cloaking devices. This is one reason we might want to decide the boundaries of sovereign powers before we start placing settlements there or deciding what life is like for the residents.

Other Settlements

Virtually every settlement has friends and enemies.

Friends are easier to decide on if a sovereign power rules there, as cooperation between settlements under a sovereign power is part of the benefit of sovereignty. This sort of thing needs little explaining or working out for world builders partly because it’s assumed and is also not entertaining for readers. Few are interested in how cooperation is working out for everyone or the details of it, such as favorable trade prices, crop exchanges, and shared military might or training of each other’s soldiers. The latter is one of the few we could mention for a character, that they trained in so-and-so city known for its warriors. Decide which settlements have skilled warriors, healers, wizards, and more so you can leverage this when needed.

Despite all of this, some animosity can remain between settlements in one sovereign power even if that doesn’t lead to open warfare. Think of different cities within your own country and how stereotypes persist and strain relations. Individual cities might have good or bad reputations. Decide how yours might be viewed and why, and if it’s a fair criticism and observation or just inspired by jealousy, for example. What views have residents taken of other places, near or far? These will be generalizations, as not everyone will accept a stereotype, but one character being chastised for spouting slander helps characterize both the world and our cast.

Enemies offer richer conflict. Settlements of true enemies are unlikely to be part of the same nation. One exception is a settlement recently conquered by an enemy power, which is now expected to incorporate into its former enemy. This is a tough pill to swallow and can lead to openly acting like friends while secretly (or not so secretly) loathing their new sister cities. For more open hostility, the easiest way is to not have them be part of the same sovereign power. Isolated settlements could also mean many friends and enemies.

Few settlements truly stand alone. Realistically, a city has towns nearby, and towns have villages, but we won’t typically draw all these on a map or even name them unless needed. Some may be considered almost part of the larger settlement’s domain and enjoy protection in exchange for something, like their agriculture or dairy, for example.

Regions & Land Features

We looked at how terrain can impact travel between settlements or even how they’re laid out, but we should also consider the impact nearby land features and regions will have. With a forest or mountain range, dangers lurking within will influence the number and type of fortifications our settlement has. This can trigger decisions on where the castle stands, if one exists, or where the strongest weapons and troops are located. This will affect the city layout, as well. The armed forces might also venture into those land features to reduce the threat. Maybe warriors from other places come here for practical experience and training in dealing with a local danger.

Aerial threats are another consideration. Does our settlement have a wire mesh or something similar strung above it from towers as protection? Are there armed forces who fly on giant birds or dragons as defense and offense, undertaking missions into the peaks to cut down on the population of threats or report on their movements? Think about the impact of these dangers on settlement life.

A desert is less likely to be home to enough dangerous creatures that our settlement needs fortifications against them, unless we invent our own animals. Unless a body of water contains life equally at home on land or in water, it will not pose a threat. A large sea creature is unlikely to threaten the settlement itself unless it has huge tentacles or something similar, but even then, the water is too shallow in most places for such a creature to do this without getting beached.

Dec 062018
Water Supply Type and Location

There must be water for our residents, which is one reason to place our settlements by water sources on maps. Our basic options are a river, lake, spring, or well; the size or number of these water sources will place limits on the size of community they can support. Remember that seawater doesn’t count; it can’t be consumed without making people sick. In an advanced society, desalinating large quantities of water (in treatment plants) is less of an issue than in medieval-like times; magic could change that.

The water supply is central to our settlement, whether it’s physically in the middle like a well might be, or adjacent like a river; we always have the option of having a city with a river running through it, but this is more likely when the city expanded to both sides in time, not at the start. One justification for that expansion is to guard a bridge on both ends, first with a guard tower, then a garrison, then an inn and stables, and the next thing they know, the city straddles the water.

Decide where the water is early on because “Old Town,” if it exists, will probably be closest to it.

Old Town Considerations

Cities and larger towns often have an “old town,” consisting of the settlement when it was just a town or village. This area often has a wall around it, one that’s sometimes just a few feet tall. It might be badly in need of repairs, partly because its stones might have been raided for nearby buildings when the town expanded and the wall wasn’t needed, thanks to a newer wall farther out. “Old towns” tend to be more crowded, with buildings in closer proximity to one another. This can become deadly in a fire that spreads between buildings.

Old town is the oldest and possibly most rundown area; in modern times, we’ve restored such places as tourist attractions, so this might not be the case in a more futuristic society. The streets will be narrow, the buildings in disrepair, and roads just spotty cobblestones or even mud. It might be poorer, with all manner of less desirable people here, from the innocently down-on-their-luck to scoundrels. It likely smells and will be the place where a plague takes hold. It might be a warren for thieves and worse. It’s the perfect place for someone to lead visitors into an ambush.

Not all of this may be true, however, as this could be a good market district and the center of life. If a religious site is at the center, for example, maybe this has always been well kept and preserved. We have leeway to create differing old towns and have a character from one place be surprised by how old town is in another community.

Dec 032018
Determine Location

A settlement’s location affects everything about the way it develops, from the reason it exists in that spot, to what it has to defend against, climate, species, culture, and more. Location is the first decision to make.


Weather is much more than how the air feels outside. Consistent weather patterns, known as climate, affect rainfall, temperature, and air quality. These all affect life in the area, from native plants to animals and the humanoids who live there, including their culture and customs. Some life forms (including crops) will develop there while other life must be transplanted, which is more likely in worlds with good transportation, such as in SF. Chapters two through four touched upon what climates exist in which latitudes and elevations. If we’ve drawn a continent, it can be helpful to have also drawn rough ovals to indicate climates in each area. This largely solves the problem of determining a settlement’s climate for us; we’ve already done the work. Just place the settlement in that zone. A high-level idea on climate is all that’s needed at first, such as whether it’s humid or dry, rainy or arid, hot or cold. Being more specific about when each of these variations occurs can be fleshed out later.


In addition to altering a settlement’s climate if the land is very high or low in altitude, terrain impacts how challenging it is to reach, not to mention live in, a settlement.

Travel, Farming, and Products

Mountains inhibit travel to and from a settlement over land, whether those mountains stand between this place and another, or if the settlement is among the peaks. The steepness is relevant as well, as this can largely eliminate farmland, requiring pastures be located farther away from the actual settlement. With airborne travel, these issues are reduced, as food can be shipped in, though this does make a settlement vulnerable to shipment tampering. Stones from the mountains can be used for construction, while mines can produce gems, precious metals, and fuels like coal.

Deserts offer few farming opportunities unless modern irrigation or magic is at play. However, the settlement needn’t be surrounded by desert. An adjacent desert allows us to utilize it for our work while not causing too much hardship for characters. While travel over sand is difficult, many deserts are rocky, though this hard-packed earth is unkind on the feet (or hooves).

A forest can also be adjacent to but not surround our settlement, but if it does encircle it, the trees can be cleared to make way for farmland. Woods provide rich biodiversity and therefore greater food and medicine choices. The trees can also be used for the construction of buildings, furniture, weapons and siege engines, tools, ships, and household products.

An adjacent river or lake not only provides drinking water and abundant food, but a trade route that can bring travelers to the settlement, in addition to providing fishing opportunities. Ocean water cannot be consumed, but the ocean provides wide-ranging exploration opportunities and more danger from enemy vessels. The livelihood gained from the sea outweighs its dangers, but a strong navy can be a significant aspect of the settlement’s life. The sea provides for a multitude of products, from the fish themselves to items like the candle wax from whales. We can invent our own sea life and the resulting products gleaned from them.

Impact on Layout

Terrain can impact a settlement’s layout, especially rocky areas that prevent anything from being built upon them. In stony terrain, consider placing the occasional boulder in random places. Some can be as high as a house and offer lookout opportunities, or even the chance for youths to climb it; such a rock might be named, and a town square might be arranged to include it because it’s preventing anything from being built there. Rocky ground is harder to dig into for support beams for buildings, which may also result in open areas where only temporary, small structures are placed.

Higher areas are more easily defended, such as a castle location; they are also highly prized so that wealthier neighborhoods are typically there. A river or lake is also a highly sought area, but some industry will be located there, usually downriver from the settlement, due to pollution. Consider having the more luxurious homes farther upstream. Rivers, lakes, and ocean will cause progressively more room for docks, with the port dominating this region of town. This can bring out criminals, beggars, and other undesirable people, causing more touristy areas to be in a nicer section of port.

There are sometimes areas that offer natural protection, such as a rocky cliff or rock outcropping where a castle or other fortification can be built. A settlement will be planned around these and may be farther from a river precisely because a natural defense area is farther removed from it. A river can also serve as a one-sided moat.

Aside from these considerations, buildings need to be constructed on level ground or in such a way that uneven ground is taken into account. This can mean homes where the second floor is higher off the ground on one side, or leveling the ground prior to building.

Decide what terrain, if any, is impacting the layout and if it’s resulting in anything typical of the settlement, such as boulders, homes built into hills, or the town being divided up based on zones for commercial, residential, or industrial needs.

Nov 292018

If we’re using a sun unlike Earth’s yellow star, we’ll need to start there because this impacts much about our world, but otherwise little is dependent on another subject from a world building standpoint. Our biggest decision beside sun type is whether our world has a moon and how many. It’s recommended to have at least one unless we’re certain of what we’re doing without one, because the absence of a moon will cause more changes than we might be aware of. The world’s going to have an equator, prevailing winds, climates, constellations visible, and possibly other planets in the system, but none of these affect us until we start creating continents. Enjoy the rare privilege to embark on a world building subject in whichever order pleases you.

Nov 232018

These climates have an average temperature above 10° C (50° F) in their warmest months, and a coldest month average below −3° C (−26° F). These usually occur in the interiors of continents and on their east coasts, normally poleward of 40°. Precipitation (with thunderstorms) is evenly distributed throughout the year, snow cover often being deep. Summers are warm to hot, and often humid. Winters are cold, sometimes severely. Forests thrive in this climate, including evergreen and conifers, as do grasslands. Oak, fir, spruce, and pine do well in wetter areas and the fall foliage is noteworthy.

From a world building standpoint, the subtypes below offer little in the way of things we need to consider. That a summer is hot in one latitude vs warm in another is of little importance, but they are mentioned for reference.

Hot Summer Continental

This usually occurs in the high 40° and low 50° latitudes, with an average temperature in the warmest month of greater than 22° C/72° F. This includes southeast Canada, some parts of the western United States (such as Utah, Montana, and Wyoming), and Serbia.

Warm Summer Continental

This climate is immediately north of hot summer continental climates, generally between 45° and 58° latitude in North America and Asia, and in central and eastern Europe and Russia, between the maritime temperate and continental subarctic climates, where it extends up to 65° latitude.

Continental Subarctic

Climates occur poleward of the other continental climates, mostly in the 50° and low 60° latitude, although it might occur as far as 70°.

Continental Subarctic Climates with Extremely Severe Winters

Places with this climate have the temperature in their coldest month lower than −38° C (−36° F). These climates occur only in eastern Siberia. The names of some of the places with this climate have become veritable synonyms for extreme, severe winter.

Nov 192018

Temperate climates are where most of Earth’s population lives, though that’s partly because much of our land is there. These climates have an average monthly temperature above 10° C (50° F) in their warmest months and an average monthly temperature above −3° C (27° F) in their coldest months. Some have dry winters, dry summers, or significant precipitation throughout the year.

There are several versions of temperate climates, discussed next.

Dry Summer

Dry summer climates, also known as a Mediterranean climate on Earth, usually occur on the western sides of continents between the latitudes of 30° and 50°. Summers are hot and dry except in coastal areas, where summers are milder due to nearby cold ocean currents that may bring fog but prevent rain. Winters are mild with rainy weather. Most rain is during winter, hence the name “dry summer.” This climate is found around the Mediterranean and much of California.

Warm Temperate

Warm temperate climates usually occur on the eastern coasts and sides of continents, from 25° to 45° latitude, such as the southeastern United States. Moisture from the tropics causes air to be warm and wet. More rainfall occurs in summer than in winter. The air flow out of the tropics brings warm, moist air to the southeast of continents. This flow is often what brings the frequent but short-lived summer thundershowers typical of subtropical east-coast climates.

Maritime Temperate/Oceanic

These climates usually occur on the western sides of continents between the latitudes of 45° and 60° and immediately poleward of dry summer climates (such as north of them in the northern hemisphere). This includes the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand. They have changeable, often overcast weather. Summers are cool due to cool ocean currents, but winters are milder than other climates in similar latitudes, and very cloudy. This climate can also be found at higher elevations in latitudes that would otherwise be subtropical or temperate. These high-altitude climates are called oceanic even if they’re not near an ocean.

Temperate Highland Tropical with Dry Winters

This is characteristic of the highlands in the tropics. Winters are dry, unlike other tropical areas. Summers can be very rainy.

Maritime Subarctic or Subpolar Oceanic

These climates occur poleward of the maritime temperate climates, such as Iceland. They happen on narrow coastal strips of land on the western poleward margins of the continents or to islands off such coasts. There is very little precipitation and temperature variations are extreme between winter, at -40° C (-40° F), and summer, up to 30° C (86° F). The ground is frozen in winter to depths of several feet.

Dry Summer Maritime Subalpine

This climate is very rare and only exists at very high elevations where the ocean influence keeps the temperature from going below -3 C° (26° F). As a world builder, we can largely ignore this unless we need it.

Nov 152018

Dry climates produce less than ten inches of rain a year. Some areas may receive more but lose it all due to evaporation. These desert climates can be hot, cold, or mild and are generally low in humidity.

The hot deserts have perpetually sunny, clear skies year-round and extremely high temperatures, though these can drop to freezing at night due to the same clear skies that permit heat dissipation. They are almost always in the tropics. Assign this climate to tropical deserts.

The cold deserts have similar hot summers, but the winter can be far below freezing. They occur at higher altitudes, are drier, and are in temperate zones (north of the tropics in the northern hemisphere, south of them in the southern). They are also usually in the rain shadow of a mountain range.

The mild desert climates are mild throughout the year and are usually found along the western edges of continents or at high altitudes (plateaus or steppe deserts). They are caused by cold ocean currents offshore. Deserts by the coast often have fog and low clouds.

Tropical Climates

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Nov 122018

Located in the tropics (nearest the equator), tropical climates have year-round high temperatures at low elevations, and average temperatures of 18° C (64° F) or higher. Of the three below, we’ll most often use the tropical rainforest climate, as the differences between the others are too subtle to matter to most of us; they amount to less uniform rainfall throughout the year.

Tropical Rainforest

In this climate, each month has average rainfall of 60 mm (2.4 in), and this climate is usually found within 5-10° of the equator but can sometimes extend up to 25° away. There is little seasonal change here, because the temperatures stay the same year-round, as do the number of daylight hours (changes are small). Many places are uniformly wet unless a rain shadow causes less rain there. Land at a higher altitude will have a milder climate and, due to a rain shadow, might even be relatively dry. Assign this climate to most areas near the equator, such as Brazil and Peru.

Tropical Monsoon

This climate is rare enough that we may want to ignore it during world building. Monsoon winds are those that change direction with the season and last several months. These winds cause this climate, which has a driest month just after the winter solstice. The wet season is months long. Some areas alternate between being arid, like a desert, to lush with green vegetation in the wet season, the stark contrast happening within weeks. The trade winds can bring enough moisture to cause rain in the winter months, preventing an area from having our next climate. Miami has this climate.

Tropical Wet/Dry or Savannah

This climate has a more pronounced dry season of very little rain and is usually in the outer edges of the tropical region, farther from the equator. Some of the wettest places on Earth have this climate, with incredible rainfalls during the wet season, sometimes in a single day. Examples include areas of Africa, Brazil, and India.

The Impact of Climate

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Nov 082018

Climate impacts all life and is important for understanding how much rainfall occurs in various areas and the resulting vegetation, or lack thereof. It’s an easy way to distinguish one location from another in stories. A humid region will impact the style of clothes and even customs of inhabitants. Maybe it’s so hot and humid in midday that people work in the morning and late afternoon but take a long noon break. Those in northern climates might make the most of noon heat.

Climate is a long-term weather pattern, rather than day to day changes. Many factors influence climate and can be daunting to consider. Terrain, altitude, nearby bodies of water and their current, and latitude (distance from the equator) all impact climate. The ratio of land to water, how distant that water is, and the location of mountain ranges also have an impact. Another factor is the density and type of vegetation, which increase heat retention and rainfall. How far inland we are also changes things.

These variables cause the changes in rainfall amounts, temperature, and humidity. This might seem trivial, but areas can be well known for their climate. Examples include India’s monsoon season, the humidity of the southeastern United States, and the dryness of the southwestern United States. As the latter two demonstrate, we can’t rely on latitude to explain climate, as both areas are equidistant from the equator but one is hot and dry and the other is hot and wet. The prevailing winds and rain shadows from mountain ranges will be partly responsible for where forests and deserts lie.

There are different climate rating systems, but the Köppen climate classification is the one we’re familiar with (even if we’ve never heard of it) because it has terms like subtropical and rainforest, so we’ll use that one. In this system, climates are divided into five main groups, each with subtypes or subgroups. Much of the information in this section comes from Wikipedia’s Köppen Classification Summary at

Some excellent color images online can give a quick peek into just how variable climate is on even one continent. One is below, but the rest of Earth can be viewed online at this link:

Figure 18 Köppen Classification Map, Africa

Figure 18 Köppen Classification Map, Africa