Jan 172019

In this section, we’ll look at castles that have no village surrounding them.

Unless abandoned, castles are populated year-round and will be much like a village in which the residents live within the castle walls; there may be buildings scattered outside the walls, such as stabling for animals or guard houses, which are easily replaced if destroyed in a siege. The land around the castle offers farming and hunting opportunities, while the water source is typically protected (such as a well inside the walls). The castle is self-sufficient due to its defensive nature, and in times of peril, food may be stocked for a significant amount of time, but bear in mind that the ability to preserve foods is somewhat lacking in eras during which castles are widely used. Due to their self-sufficiency, castles typically have everyone they need, such as a healer or blacksmith.

Castles can be placed along important trade routes, at the opening to dangerous territory such as a mountain pass, or near valuable resources. They might take advantage of a natural fortification that is easily defended and be a general defensive/offensive location within a sovereign power. They can also protect borders, though these borders can and likely have changed at times, often with the castle being conquered and finding itself part of another kingdom. Decide if each castle is currently in the hands of those who built it (or their descendants). Changing possession can mean that two opposing kingdoms have each occupied it at times, both knowing its secrets; this is seldom discussed or utilized in fictional work, as occupants are typically portrayed as knowing the castle’s secrets while their enemy has no idea.

Jan 072019

The difference between settlement types is largely physical, determined by population size, defenses, and the availability of resources. Magnitude affects everything, including the amount of territory covered to how much of it can be farmed or protected and how often the settlement is visited. Those with a lot of traffic, something to offer residents, or both, are likely expanding. Conversely, those with less to offer may be shrinking. Most of this chapter will apply equally to all settlement types, but here we’ll look at specific considerations.


These are structures or groups of them where the population is too small (or not perpetually present) to qualify as a village. Whether we call them outposts or something else, the smallest permanent dwellings are anything from a single building that might not be perpetually manned, like a tower, up to a larger fort more like a castle. An outpost might only be needed during certain seasons or conditions, getting overgrown during the absence of people, or just minimally staffed. It could be a refueling station or scientific observation post, particularly in SF.

This has practical consequences. Farming is unlikely if no one is there year-round, requiring residents to either bring food with them, hunt for it, or be supplied from elsewhere, which is believable if the outpost is associated with a larger settlement that built or maintains it. We take for granted food and water supply or the presence of doctors/healers, repairmen (such as blacksmiths or mechanics), or police, but many of these may be missing from the outpost’s staff. Decide which absences make sense or propel your story forward; wounded characters with no healers around adds tension, but a missing blacksmith is harder to make interesting or worth commenting on; in SF, those who can repair equipment are seemingly needed more often.

While it’s typically known who built a larger settlement, an outpost might have been long abandoned and possibly used by someone other than its builder. This can offer mystery, such as hidden rooms or ones with disturbing contents and purposes. There’s also the possibility that whoever (or whatever) normally occupies it will return and catch our characters making themselves at home. It’s important to decide who, if anyone, has been using this place lately, its condition, and what we intend to happen to our characters while here. Do they know about this place and think it’s abandoned, or do they know something bad is here but they need it for shelter anyway and come prepared for battle? Unknown outposts that are stumbled upon are the most nerve-racking if something seems “off” about the place, as though danger lurks.

Our less civilized species are likely unable to create buildings. This suggests they’re the ones to take over somewhere abandoned or often unoccupied. They may even do so seasonally so that the regular inhabitants know this and prepare, either by laying traps, making it otherwise less desirable when gone, or coming back heavily armed for the yearly reclaiming of their outpost. The unsavory inhabitants might also leave behind a mess, including carcasses of food, enemies, or both.

Jan 032019

Young settlements will have no clear zoning, which is a designation of how the land can be used (residential, commercial, industrial, agriculture, mixed). The longer a place exists and the larger it becomes, the more zoning takes place to handle incompatible land use, such as dirty factories being beside homes. A place advanced enough to have sizeable industry is also advanced enough to have zoned that into separate areas. More mature towns may also have separate housing areas for the wealthy or upper class, but this is not always the case and we can have different classes mixed.

When laying out a settlement, consider whether these zones exist. Unless it’s been rezoned, “old town” will have mixed use, possibly with buildings that are a store on the first floor and a home on the second; this might have been the original purpose, now changed. Upper-class areas might be by the river (upstream) or higher up a mountain, or near another natural resource like a glade or lakeshore, away from industry. Farmlands are obviously farther out from the settlement. Otherwise, we have residential and commercial zones, but they tend to be near each other, just like they are in your town; this sort of zoning is often on a block-by-block basis because no one wants to travel far. For that reason, the wealthiest might live in the center of town.

Dec 242018

Aside from leaders, other significant figures could be associated with the settlement, whether they reside here, have been born here, or visit frequently. This includes world figures such as heroes. Monuments might exist for them, whether that person is alive or dead. Where do they reside in town? What made them a hero? Did those acts occur here so that they’re adored for having saved citizens or the town, or did events happen elsewhere so as to make people proud they call this home? Decide if they were born here, or just moved in at some point, and whether that was before, during, or after the associated heroics. There might be some who resent him. This person might be one of our town’s secrets or have powerful friends who come to visit openly. Is there any spectacle associated with the hero-in-residence?

Villains might also be here. They could be hiding after a horrible act or just use this as a clandestine base of operations. Is there something that tips off others to the villain’s presence, such as a specific type of arrow? Clothing they’re seen in, or even technological/digital trails could also lead some to realize their presence. Do they moor a distinctive vessel, whether a spaceship or a sailing ship, in the port? Do they have a feared stronghold nearby?

Our settlement might also be home to other similar people so that they fit right in; this could be the reason they’re here. Just as heroes bring pride, villains bring shame unless they’re expected, tolerated, or even welcomed. Remember that a villain to some people is a hero to others, so we might need to decide on their values and those of our settlement before we know how they’re viewed. Their means might be despised while their end results are admired.

Wizards could have a tower here or a more modest home that doesn’t call attention to them. A priest likely lives in or near their temple, if one exists, and makes their presence known for healing or guidance. We might have celebrities, depending on our world; actors, musicians, athletes, and other performers seem more likely in SF than in fantasy, where life is often too hard, and mass consumption is unlikely, for people to have elevated these people to celebrities.

We might also have monsters or creatures here, on the outskirts of town, in a tower, or beneath the ground in catacombs. We’ll need a good reason why they haven’t been destroyed, if known. Maybe someone has control of them. Perhaps there’s a use for them, like the way Jabba the Hutt of Star Wars fed enemies to them. Decide on the creature’s capabilities before figuring out how it can be used, where it is, and how it manages to survive if people know it’s here.

Who Leads Your City?

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Dec 202018

The smallest settlements, like villages, may have no formal leader but will still defer to someone who makes good decisions or who has some power, such as a wealthy farmer. This may change if that leader makes a few poor choices, or even one disastrous one is made. A large village, and certainly towns and bigger, will have a definitive leader, who might rise to power in the same way as a village leader, or through actual elections in a free society, or by appointment from someone within a sovereign power. This is largely a function of government, which is discussed in chapter five, so what we really care about within the settlement is who this person currently is, what sort of influence they wield, and what curbs their power. On one extreme is someone who can enact laws or simply declare something a crime and someone guilty of it, and what punishment would happen. Such tyranny tells us much about a place and the quality of life there. We may use this in authoritative states but not elsewhere. Conversely, a place with elections and laws that reflect the moral code of the population is likely to be fairer to all, though minorities can still suffer. Leaders of such settlements can be accountable for their actions, decisions, and even be the victim of poor situations, such as an economic downturn that isn’t their fault but results in losing the next election. In between these extremes is a wide variety of possibilities that provides us leeway to create limits that impact our story.

Determine Power Structures

The larger the settlement, the more formal its structure, but unless our story features this, we can skip this stage and focus on our actual leader. If we need it, we can decide on a structure such as a city council made up of individuals who represent each ward, or neighborhood of town, each of whom are elected by their ward. A mayor might be little more than another member of the city council, albeit one who presides over all meetings and has ceremonial duties, but little power to act independently. He might have final say over financial matters or anything else we assign to him, such as decisions on magic or technology. Other mayors have more power, including veto rights, the ability to hire and fire staff within administrative bodies, and some legal authority. They are more definitively in charge but still need cooperation from the council on certain initiatives, which are at our discretion to decide upon. Great variety exists on Earth and gives us leeway to determine what we need. When inventing a settlement, only decide on the details of power structure when you need to use it. Otherwise you might just contradict yourself later, or find yourself needing to change it for another story. That a council and a mayor exist can be assumed in any place larger than a town, so all we might need to do is decide who the person is and the influencers on them, then worry about council and mayor interactions when, and if, needed. Our characters might need to understand relationships if they want cooperation from a settlement. This is when the mayor’s power, or lack thereof, becomes an issue we can leverage. They might think they can appeal to him only to discover that he’s powerless to help. An appeal must be made to the council, meaning several people must be swayed, not just one. This adds complexity and makes goals harder to achieve, even if an audience cares little for the details of government; the workaround is to make this about the council members’ personalities, turning them into characters with agendas that interfere with our main characters.

Who Has Influence?

Before we decide on power and limits, we might also decide if there’s someone other than the nominal leader who is in control. A clandestine group might have corrupted settlement officials and be getting their way. Lobbying groups can bribe and otherwise influence someone, or get their chosen people into government and then exert control behind the scenes. Some leaders become little more than figureheads. In these cases, the apparent authority they wield is sharply curbed. This creates a good conflict where the public might know the leader can do something but he refuses because someone is controlling him, and yet he can’t admit this. Our characters might also run afoul of this influencer and find a more challenging situation than they had prepared for. It doesn’t have to be “evil” people who influence leaders. A benevolent wizard could insist things be a certain way. Those running a space port might need a degree of cooperation and assistance from town officials. A group of farmers may influence decisions that benefit the crops, which aid many in town. A resident hero might inspire not only the population, but the leaders into doing some things his way. Decide what role this settlement plays in your story and whether some complication can help enliven it. If not, we can decide a leader is truly in charge and then change this later if needed. A new influencer can always arrive.

Which Species Live in Your City?

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Dec 172018

Along with setting, our residents are the most important aspect of a settlement. This includes the species and their collective dispositions, leaders and others in power or exerting influence, and whether everyone is segregated into their own neighborhoods, or intermingled.

Which Species Are Here?

We should decide which species are present in our settlement and in what percentages. Someone is a majority. There’s a tendency in fantasy for that to almost always be the humans, unless another species originated the town. In modern times, a melting pot is increasingly common, and with travel easy in SF, a mix seems more plausible. In less advanced times, as is often the case in fantasy, with less travel, each settlement or region will be more homogenous. That’s believable but a little restrictive. Perhaps we should have a few well-visited settlements that run counter to this assumption. If you choose one, select a politically neutral city along a trade route, rather than an out-of-the-way settlement that’s also a hotbed of war, where strangers might not be welcome. This place is also more likely to be a city due to these factors. A port that lies on a continent edge, so that visitors from this land mass and others arrive here, is a good candidate, with visitors not necessarily moving on to other settlements.

Consider the nearby land features. In fantasy, elves go with forests and dwarves with mountains or hills, for example. A settlement near either feature with a native population is significantly more likely to have that species living in the settlement. However, with their homeland so near, they may not. If there’s no such land feature near, then why would they be here long term? They likely wouldn’t be if truly attached to their native habitats. We can invent species that aren’t so caught up in their origins. Why can’t a dwarf be sick of living underground? He can be, but would enough of them feel that way as to live here? What is it about this place that draws them? A good reason is encouraged. Perhaps there’s work to be done cutting stone. Maybe tunnels are needed. Can they create a home away from home?

In SF, travelers get around a lot and might find habitats on other worlds which differ only somewhat from their home. This gives them enough of what they grew up with while providing something new. Consider that in artificial environments like ships or vacuum settlements, the climate control can be set to accommodate the species residing there—or purposely not set for them by those who are indifferent or cruel, like our villains.
With multiple species in a democracy, we might have an elf be president with a human for vice president, for example. In a hereditary monarchy, we may not have such variation, but who’s to say that an elven ruler doesn’t have some human in their ancestry? When this sort of thing is included, contempt for ‘half-bloods’ may surface, where that person is considered bad by both sides, but some societies might even insist the ruler be such a half-blood (to represent everyone). Strive for variety among your settlements and sovereign powers.

The military might also have people of different species at different ranks. Restaurants can certainly be elven, dwarven, or whatever. Shops can cater to a niche or everyone, whether this is clothing or weaponry. Why can’t the humans fancy elven clothes and buy some outright or just have human clothes influenced by other species? Integration has its advantages for making our world more believable.

As an example, let’s take Jai, a human character. Maybe she fancies elven styles for aesthetic reasons and is considered to have high ambitions by her peers, who misunderstand her style choices because they like the idea she has a big ego. Maybe Jai spends a lot of time with dwarves and swears like one, or uses their expressions. Maybe she’s considered a dwarven sympathizer when the dwarves have pressing political issues that are causing tension. Jai could love dragons and get herself an apprenticeship to one that can shape shift, so she’s assumed to have access to all sorts of powerful items or information, which places her in danger.

To integrate species, we might have to rethink how they get along, and this can change from one locale to another, which also adds variety. We can have a traditionally segregated continent, and a more integrated one elsewhere. This can seem like a radical departure from expectations, but this is a good thing. It’s also one reason to invent our own species—we’re not beholden to anyone else’s ideas. Despite this, there will probably still be settlements that are predominantly one species and which are preferred that way by the founders.

Decide how each of your world’s species is welcomed and viewed in this settlement.

What Are the City’s Neighbors?

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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.

Where is the City’s Water?

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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.