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.
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.