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.