Mar 142019

On Earth, motorized vehicles come with a speedometer to tell us how fast we’re going. Using navigation systems, which are typically connected to GPS, we can even learn how long a trip will take and get continual updates on that. In a SF world with even more advanced technology, we can likely assume the same convenience, but in fantasy worlds, none of this exists. Few of us know how long it takes to get any significant distance by walking or riding various animals. This chapter focus mostly on a fantasy-like setting, where help determining speeds, capabilities, and the impact of terrain on non-magical travel is needed.

Most of the Earth uses the metric system. If releasing products, it’s wise to state measurements for the culture where the product will be released. Despite this, miles were used instead of kilometers while writing explanations in this chapter because theories apply regardless of the measurement used and explanations are clearer with consistency. Conversions for kilometers are included for any formulas.

Writing “Not drawn to scale” on any maps we create is recommended. This provides some leeway in regards to stringent accuracy. A map is not needed for understanding this chapter, but the guidelines are written assuming that you have a map and now want to determine distances and corresponding travel times.

Mar 112019

It’s wise to start with the settlement’s location, as this affects everything about it, including layout, climate (and therefore dress), and neighbors, which can include not only other settlements and sovereign powers, but nearby species that live in adjacent terrain. The settlement size, and therefore population, is a second area to consider, as this affects the society and its world view.  We might next consider the defense needed due to nearby threats. What it’s known for can either be a starting point or a minor detail we add toward the end of our conception. Above all, start with whatever strikes you as a solid idea you won’t change your mind on later, as this inspiration often colors much else about our invention.

Mar 072019

If we’re creating a world, or part of it, to tell one story, our focus is clearly on those locales where events happen now or in the past, and which influence our work. Creating full details is advantageous for these places. Other settlements mentioned in passing can have little more than their sovereign power, location, climate, terrain, reputation (including defensiveness), population type and disposition, major products, and a few identifiers such as symbol and colors decided.

If we’re creating a world we intend to use often, we can become overwhelmed with scores of settlements to invent. There’s a way to manage this. Full details on a place are still only needed when we’re going to use it in a tale, or if we happen to have ideas. For the rest, a master spreadsheet with high-level details on every settlement can make it easier to invent that information. We’ll avoid creating the same symbol for two places, because we can see, in one file, all the ones we’ve already done. We can also more easily find this information when we need it.

A spreadsheet with columns like the following gets us started:

  • Name
  • Sovereign power
  • Location
  • Population size
  • Species here (and percentage of overall population)
  • Products
  • Symbol
  • Colors
  • Military

Despite this information being in a spreadsheet, we’ll probably want a file for each settlement, where this information is potentially duplicated, and get in the habit of updating both file and spreadsheet when we make changes.

Why would we want to create this high-level information for everywhere? We might want to remark that a character is drinking one of the fine wines from a place, or wearing clothes from there (or in their fashion). Maybe they’re sitting on chairs from another place, evident in its design. Or they’re sailing on a ship with a distinctive style. These little touches add realism and are easy to accomplish, but, as mentioned under the previous section about products, animosities and friendliness can result in added tension on regional levels.

Mar 042019

Inventing secrets for our settlement can be fun but is optional. Waiting until we have a need for a secret is recommended because a secret is, by definition, unknown, and we’ll have no reason to mention it unless characters uncover it. Secrets can be incorporated into city layout, such as there being a building off limits to most people, for a reason that’s a lie or which isn’t admitted to at all. Maybe a building’s location seems inappropriate, and the explanation lies underground, such as an entrance to secret catacombs, or a supernatural phenomenon, whether sinister or helpful. If we’ve created gods, world figures, and undead, the events of their existence can result in such places.

Secrets can be more mundane, such as benevolent or nefarious groups operating in the shadows; they might have influence over settlement leaders. Hidden doors or places are less exciting unless there’s something truly interesting there, such as a portal. We can have landmarks like statues that have an unknown feature that is activated under the right circumstances. Maybe a statue is a being that can be reanimated, either as a stone golem, a living person, or undead. Religion is good for creating places with unknown (or largely unknown) features. See chapter 11, “Creating Places of Interest,” for additional ideas.

Feb 282019

Every settlement tends to be known for something, such as a product, event, or population skillset, like excellent archers. Do they make great wines? Weapons? Are their knights amazing? The wizards? Pilots? Or is the place just run down and a haven for bad people like pirates? The reputation can help us craft an overall viewpoint that adds character.


The larger the community, the more likely we are to think of the settlement’s reputation. This status is as much about the population’s makeup, beliefs, or acts, as about what the settlement represents, though these are intertwined. We need a sense of what this place is like, and how we intend to use it, to form this reputation. Do we want it feared or a haven? Frequently or rarely visited? Humble and easily conquered or aggressive and out to dominate life around it? Are the warriors or rulers famous? For what? The amount of danger a settlement experiences can influence this.


A settlement’s colors will figure in our work in two major ways: characters might use them for personal or structural decoration, and flags, banners, or symbols are likely to incorporate them. During battle scenes, we’re almost certain to mention the flags of the opponents. When characters arrive at our settlements, they may notice the pennants, and local colors may figure in awnings and other functional fabrics. Ships may use the colors on their sails or trim, while more technological vehicles could feature them on the designations painted on the vessel, and the interior.

The colors can be arbitrary, in which case it’s recommended that world builders delay on a decision. By the time we need to be specific, maybe we’ll have thought of a justification. If we’d like a reason, which is optional because we may never explain it, we can associate colors with something. Red makes sense for a settlement with a violent history, for red’s association with blood. Blue might work for port towns, green for forest ones, and yellow for deserts or plains. Or we can use a suggestion of wealth, like gold and silver, whether the settlement has mountain mines for these minerals or just fancies itself wealthy (whether it is or not). A port city with a marauding navy that plunders other towns might also choose gold to show its wealth. Humility might figure in a settlement’s sense of self, resulting in muted browns. A justification can be simple. And in a more primitive or isolated society, colors might be limited to what dyes can be created from local plants.

We might want a sovereign power to have a primary color that is incorporated in all symbols by settlements. For example, the Kingdom of Antaria’s color may be blue, and the capital’s colors are blue and gold, while a sister city is blue and silver. A nearby town is blue and brown, etc.


Many settlements have a symbol that’s a source of pride, identity, and possibly fear among opponents. This symbol might represent the population’s values and be humble for a peaceful place, or aggressive for a warlike or barbaric one. The settlement’s colors might be part of it or even derived from it, so we can create this first. A wolf symbol suggests white. A raven suggests black. These can give us one of our two or three hues.

Symbols are often simple so they’re easy to remember and therefore more powerful. Ones that don’t require an explanation are better than those that do. Being easy to draw allows commoners to reproduce them, not just skilled artists. We can use animals associated with peace, war, or strength, or staple plants may suggest prosperity, though these won’t exactly intimidate someone on the battlefield. Decide how often and what sort of hostilities a settlement faces before going with something warlike. A backwoods farming community probably favors tools of their trade. If a “first” happened somewhere, like the first launch of a ship into space, the silhouette of a vessel lifting off can become a new symbol. Crafting symbols isn’t always easy, so consider saving this for when you really need one, and use the most obvious ones, which are often the best ones, first or on your most important settlements; there’s a higher chance you’ll be mentioning it.


We seldom have reason or opportunity to mention a settlement’s slogan, if it exists, but this may result from world builders not taking the time to invent them. Sometimes one doesn’t exist until an event, like “Boston Strong” emerging after the Boston Marathon bombing. We can leverage this by tying our slogan to an event, recent or not. What is on the minds of the residents in the aftermath? Strength in the face of adversity led to the above example. Resistance might play on the minds of those in war-torn areas. We don’t need a slogan for everywhere in our world and it could be difficult to conjure up so many, so focus on what you need for a given story. More can be added later; this is a prime subject to skip.


Every settlement has products it consumes or produces (or wants to). The population might be known for adoring particular wines, sweets, meats, or vegetables. Some will be delicacies due to rarity there. Others might be local and preferred for that, or coveted in various other locales far and wide. Locals might also have disdain for other products, particularly those with which they compete, or those from despised sovereign powers or regions. They might even enjoy such products while having contempt for those who produce them: “I hate elves but they sure do make good wine!” This sort of world building can be quickly mentioned in scenes to give an impression of a wider world than what we’re seeing.

Forests provide plants for medicines and wood for furniture, tools, and building materials, including wooden ships, if the right kind of forest or trees are here. Mountains provide for gems and other minerals, even stone. The sea can be a product source for locals and an export to landlocked settlements. An import can be desired because it isn’t (italics) found here. What if a port city doesn’t have access to the trees needed to build ships? This sort of consideration can lead to trade with friends and enemies alike, helping inspire conflict. Inventing products doesn’t seem glamorous, but much world building can be achieved by deciding what’s available in a given region, and who they can sell to or get things from. Creating our own plants, animals, and resulting products gives us more options.

Feb 252019

To create a settlement’s history, it can be beneficial to have already decided the history of the sovereign power to which it belongs. Is it part of one now or has it been part of different powers? Understanding where this settlement lies in relation to powers makes this easier to decide. Anywhere near a border has likely endured changes, but even places many days’ travel from the nearest border could’ve experienced change. This is especially true if an empire has ever spread over it.

A city a thousand years old has likely changed hands, but one only a few hundred years old might never have. Decide how long ago this settlement was founded. If large scale wars are rare in that area, it might’ve only changed hands a few times, but more tumultuous places might have experienced this every generation, or more frequently. What matters is how much of a melting pot experience the community has had. This can cause a mix of building styles, materials, customs, and certainly population. And if a different species is the conqueror, we’ll almost certainly have a more varied atmosphere than the mono-human one often shown in fantasy.

We don’t need to identify or discuss these wars. All we need is the fact of the settlement having been embroiled in one, and the resulting damage or destruction. There can still be toppled buildings around. There might be monuments to individual soldiers or generic ones who represent a conflict. If a power conquered the settlement, erected such statues or buildings, and then disappeared, are these items still pristine, gone altogether, or defaced? Have some been re-purposed, with their original meanings and inscriptions redone or removed so that the source is no longer apparent? Is a building abandoned? A tourist attraction? Such a building could be one native to the population, abused by conquerors, and still standing but unused, or taken over by vagrants. Sometimes these are an eyesore and sometimes they’re a source of pride.

On a practical level, we don’t need extensive details about which power it’s been a part of, because in most cases we’ll do little more than mention the fact in passing. We can just decide that it’s changed hands to this one or that one a certain number of years ago, and various relics are around town as a result. But it isn’t just structures but people who are affected, and their memories and attitudes about other places. Two places that were once enemies won’t always be, nor will two that are friendly always be. Persistent strong sentiment is rare and is usually fueled by something like religion or ethnicity. Opinions and sentiment change over time, provided that situations have changed, and what remains is subtler lingering dislike or prejudice.

We can also have events that took place within a settlement, such as discoveries, inventions, accidents, and failures. Great fires, droughts, earthquakes, and other natural disasters sometimes leave a mark on not only the topography, but the living memory of a population. In a world with magic or technology, good and bad acts are likely, the number of them dependent partly on population size and settlement longevity. Is our settlement famous for anything having occurred here? Will it be?

Local Lore

Settlements sometimes have local stories or legends. In a fantasy setting, this is arguably more common in villages and towns than in cities due to their lower education and worldliness, leading to myths. In fantasy, these may center on supernatural phenomena, such as magic or ghosts, even the appearance of gods. But in SF, these may be more technological in origin, such as first contact with alien species. Events are one way to create these, with a story surrounding those events. These stories often have missing details that could alter their interpretation, which also lends itself to there being misunderstandings about what really took place. Any unusual place or character, past or present, can cause lore. World figures who originated from here are good examples, and we can decide this person has unusual talents or skills that this settlement claims some responsibility for, though that’s only likely in the event of a hero, not a villain.

Choose Armed Forces in Town

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Feb 212019

In fantasy, most settlements will have some archers, swordsmen, knights, and others capable of armed combat, but what we want to look at now is whether large groups of these will exist in a settlement, and why that might be. The use of technology in SF might reduce the skill and training required to operate weapons or defenses, allowing more generalized troops. Training is often required; still, this training is often more mental than physical. We’ll spend less time looking at this because those technologies and the skillsets needed to operate them are imaginary, meaning we can invent restrictions as needed for our story. Reading about considerations for existing military may give you ideas.

Local Guards

A larger settlement will have its local guards, or what we might call police on Earth. These individuals will have some skill, but nothing like those of more specialized warriors. This can be a sore point with them. Their reduced privilege or standing may cause jealousy, especially if they are mocked by more experienced warriors. This is a good way to add tension that occasionally erupts in a brawl, duel, or disciplinary action. These guards deal with more mundane issues among the population and less so with threats from outside. Minorities might feel unfairly targeted by them.


In fantasy, a settlement with open lands around it is likely to have a cavalry, whether this is actual knights or less armored horsemen. Unless we invent different animals, this is the fastest way to travel on land without machinery. A horse charge is a devastating tactical move. A settlement surrounded for many miles with open land is virtually certain to have cavalry (and a large one at that). But if open land is only on one side, the size of cavalry is reduced in favor of other skillsets. Horsemen still navigate forests, depending on density, and there are often trails or roads, but higher density reduces the number of troops that may pass. The same is true of mountains. Few settlements will lack horses completely unless self-powered vehicles have replaced them, so what we’re looking at here is the existence of a specialized force: cavalry.


While knights are often part of a cavalry, they may work independently of the cavalry, in circumstances where horsemanship is peripheral. Our settlement is likely to have knights if warriors with the greatest skill set and armament are needed. A settlement in the middle of a stable sovereign power without natural enemies (like an animal or monster in a nearby forest) is unlikely to have many, if any, knights in full-time residence. But if there’s a horde of something dangerous in the nearby mountain range, or the settlement lies along a contested border, we’ll have knights, and lots of them. Active war zones can change the need for such individuals, as well.

Flying Forces

In fantasy, giant birds or dragons are two options our settlement has for an airborne military. If we decide to include creatures which are tamable to this degree in the settlement’s defenses, we need to work out their capabilities, including range. These airborne forces are more plausible in mountainous areas, due to flying creatures’ greater ease of movement there. Forests prevent them from flying, and therefore seeing, below the tree cover, but they offer an advantage even when plains or deserts surround a settlement.  We might have invented flying creatures that are too small to be ridden but which can fly beneath the canopy, but this is still perilous due to the ease with which they can be shot down from hidden archers, for example.

In SF, an air force is virtually a given, with machines replacing creatures, but not always; nothing says we can’t have such exotic animals, too. This defense might have replaced cavalry and other land forces or augment them. Ships ranging in size from single-rider craft to troopships are options that give us great flexibility in what we decide is available and in what quantities, and what sort of training, if any, the riders need. It can be attractive to decide that little training is needed for one simple reason: our characters could arrive on a world which requires them to operate one of these and do so with a modicum of success, resulting in a hopefully thrilling chase on slightly unfamiliar machines through strange territory.

Consider the impact of such machines on the ability to defeat or even bypass threats on land, such as creatures capable of interfering with them. A dragon that blasts fire or ice into an engine comes to mind, but any creature able to hurl a projectile a short distance into the air can bring down a low-flying, small craft if done right. There’s a tendency to make machinery impervious to such threats; avoid this trap and your work might stand out in a good way.


The navy is easy to overlook in fantasy, as so much is focused on land and even aerial threats. In SF, the battle is typically in space, making this ignored. Regardless of genre, consider using the details found in Chapter 8, “Travel by Water,” to create a more robust presentation of naval issues. Lake-side settlements will have a decent number of ships, but their focus may be commercial rather than conquest.

The settlement’s access to lumber, if that’s the primary material for ships, will limit its shipbuilding capacity. To be a seafaring power, the country requires both sufficient wood and access to the open ocean; by contrast, if they’re located on a sea and must get past other navies to reach open water, they might be restricted to a smaller fleet. They might also become allies with a power that has a bigger navy. A settlement on the coast might be at risk for attack by ships that have cannon or a replacement for such firepower. This will mean fortifications like lighthouses, a castle, and a battery to repel an attack. Their own fleet is the best defense and keeps the fighting at sea.

Creating Fortifications

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Feb 142019

A settlement without defenses is unlikely to resist capture. Here we look at the types of fortifications a settlement may need.

Cleared Areas

While not an actual fortification, a cleared area devoid of trees often surrounds a settlement to prevent opposing forces from approaching unseen. Decide how far out this region extends from the city or whether it’s been done at all. Trees might have been left there as a trap and the locals know better than to set foot inside.

Archery Towers

Whether towers for archery or another missile defense, lookout towers provide the opportunity to rain missiles down on approaching forces. They could be located all around the settlement, but we should establish what’s going to attack and from which direction. An army can typically approach from only one side; if they can do so from all sides, then this settlement isn’t in a good location for defense. The direction from which the primary threat comes will have more towers, as will major entrances. A city wall might also provide an inner walkway that means archers can be anywhere and move easily; in this scenario, actual towers might be mostly for lookouts.


In fantasy settings, the castle is a major part of many settlements and the center of life. In addition to a strategic position for firing upon attackers and making itself harder to conquer, castles are used to shelter locals in case of emergency or invasion. In a village or small town, the entire population might fit in the castle. They’ll be overflowing the rooms, sleeping in halls, maybe even in the courtyard, but it’s better than being in the path of an opposing army. However, in larger settlements, not everyone’s going to fit. No matter the size of the community so housed, there must be enough food and water to outlast a siege or surrender is inevitable. In cities, the castle’s fortifications will be augmented by the city wall, which can protect a larger population and the city itself.

The Wall

Small settlements sometimes have a wall, which controls entrance and exit in addition to providing protection from attack. Some are only waist high and made of stones, which may seem pointless to us for being so easily climbed over, but limited material might be the reason for this. A settlement near mountains is unlikely to have such small walls of stone. Similarly, a low wall of timber when a forest stands near seems less believable.

We should decide what this wall is designed to keep out. Anything with the ability to control fire will burn down wooden walls, though this is a time-consuming way to remove one, but a wooden wall can still slow an attacking force, especially if it’s comprised of less-intelligent creatures, such as animals or monsters.

Creating Cities

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Feb 072019

Formality typically rules a large settlement. There are laws, regulations, police, a legal system, mayors, voting (in free societies), zoning, and even procedures like how to evacuate or handle certain emergencies. Everything is taken more seriously due to physical and population size and diversity. Otherwise, the chaos overwhelms, especially in times of conflict. This formality can become a problem, however, when groups are marginalized or taken advantage of, or when laws and regulations are unfairly and inconsistently applied, causing social strife that may boil over into protests, riots, and death. Congestion also makes the spreading of disease an issue. Cities offer the best and arguably worst of everything due to competition and quality.

The population is likely to be diverse even if some wish this were not so. Even hundreds of years after a settlement began, newer species can face racism from factions that want a return to the old ways, when their majority ruled and made no concessions to other species. A stark difference between poor and rich can be common, and stricter separation of crime-ridden slums and clean, wealthy districts is common. Marginalized groups will have less sway in town affairs and may be prevented from holding office.

Cities may have the best fortifications and military to staff them, with entire garrisons of trained warriors, many with elite skills; formal ranks are likely and a subculture for these people will exist, with inns, taverns, and equipment shops catering to them. All of this is more likely with somewhat isolated cities as found hundreds of years ago; such places weren’t yet surrounded by suburbs, and police, not military, enforce daily order and the military is reserved for civil unrest and actual wars or excursions into other territories, for example.

Zoning will prevent industrial, commercial, or residential from mixing but will result in more traffic from commuting, even if that’s mostly pedestrian in fantasy settings. Such a scenario lends itself to pickpockets and people hawking wares to passersby, making for noise. Main thoroughfares are more likely to be paved; otherwise, the mess after a rain storm is considerable. In SF, all roads are probably paved and parking is another concern, though public transportation may have reduced or eliminated this.

Pollution is a major concern and taxes help pay for better infrastructure to minimize the risk of illness spreading. Sanitization is generally better unless the city is run down. Increased anonymity in the largest cities means people only know a small percentage of the population and can fall back on stereotypes and prejudice to judge those nameless masses with whom they share a city.

Rivers and lakes provide the needed water for cities, so we’ll want to place our largest settlements along them, though in SF we can use technology to create drinkable water from sea water, for example, and make better use of irrigation and the divergence of rivers from their natural course. Dams can also create lakes that didn’t exist before. There are also likely man-made reservoirs, particularly if the area lacks water.

In SF, public transportation is common and might include a space port. We should decide where this is located, but the answer is that it’s typically near industrial areas and somewhat out of the way due to pollution, traffic, and noise; think of airports and all they provide in food, other transportation, and nearby lodging.

The largest type of city, sometimes called a metropolis, is so large that it has often absorbed nearby villages and even entire towns. Individual towns may have retained their names and governments, but physically they’ve been absorbed into the metropolis, with no intervening gaps. These formerly independent settlements could have building styles unique to them and seem like neighborhoods of the larger settlement. If they had walls, those might still be there because in an attack, each walled area has its own fortifications.