Episode 15.1: Learn How to Create Settlements
Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how to create a settlement. Learn how location, terrain, water supply, Old Town, neighbor settlements, zoning, and secrets can make for a more interesting setting for your story.
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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- How to determine where the water supply is
- Choose what Old Town is like
- How terrain can impact city layout and fortifications
- How neighboring settlements and sovereign powers impact society
- Why nearby terrain can affect the population and who lives in your settlement
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Episode 15.1 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fifteen, part 1. Today’s topic is how to create a settlement. This includes the impact of location, population, zoning, its history, and any secrets it holds. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
One of the most important aspects of any settlement is its location because that determines so many things about what happens there. This includes the reason it exists on that spot, to what it has to defend itself against, the climate, species, culture and a lot more. So, we’re going to start with this. First, we’ll talk about climate, and we’ll only touch on this briefly because we already did a whole episode about this earlier. Today, we just want to talk about how this affects our settlement.
Climate is a consistent weather pattern over a long period of time, and it affects the amount of rainfall, the temperature and the air quality. Since the climate generally stays the same in a place for thousands of years, any city built there is going to experience that climate for a long time and adjust to that climate. This not only affects the people there and the culture that develops, but it also affects the plants and the animals who live there, or nearby, and that, in turn, affects the livestock and anything else that’s available for the people who live there.
A simple example of this is that some climates cause a desert to form and other climates cause a rainforest, and these are basically the opposite of each other when it comes to rain and how much livestock and plant life is found there. That’s an especially dramatic example, but less dramatic versions of this happen, such as one area of the United States is known for being really humid and hot, but another area of it is known for being really hot, but dry. And the result is that people think of these places different ways, even if they don’t live there, just because they’ve heard of what life is like there. They hear about it because it’s important to the people who live there and it has affected the way they live their lives. For example, in the hot and humid area, people probably don’t spend quite as much time outdoors during the summer. We could think of many examples of this, but you can really just base things on analogues. Something from Earth.
One of the great things about deciding our climate is that if we have a map, for example, and we’ve already decided where our city is located, our map may have already basically told us what the climate there is. In that sense, the work is done for us. Now, if we don’t have a map, we may want to choose a city that we are familiar with, or at least one that we’ve heard about, and choose to use that as the basis as far as the climate goes, and then research that city on the internet and see what life is like there as far as how that climate affects people.
When we first go to create a settlement, all we really need is a high-level idea of what it is like, such as humid or dry, rainy or arid, hot or cold. More details than that are something that we can add later. Also bear in mind that the terrain can affect the climate because if we have a city that is very high in the mountains, for example, the climate is going to be different there than we might expect, given the latitude where it is found. This is also something that we discussed in a previous episode.
This is a good segue into talking about terrain, so let’s focus on that. If our settlement is located in the mountains, those mountains are going to inhibit travel to and from that settlement over land. If we have a science fiction setting, or even a fantasy one where there are a lot of giant birds of prey or dragons or something similar that flies, some of this could be mitigated. Keep this level of technology in mind when you are laying out a mountainous settlement because, depending on how much ability there is to go over walls and over the terrain, this will impact the kind of fortifications that they have, and that’s something that we’ll talk a little more about in the next episode.
What you want to do in the beginning is get a feel for how well-visited is this place? Do they seldom see travelers, or are travelers coming there all the time anyway? Decide how easy it is for people to get there. Also consider how technology has changed. It might be that in the past there wasn’t technology that allowed people to easily get there, and, as a result, there weren’t too much in the way of walls, but now it is easy for people to get there via the air and there still aren’t too many reasons for walls. But maybe they have other fortifications instead.
Part of what we’re getting at here is that there might be fortifications that are old and in disrepair because they no longer apply, such as a wall that used to keep people out, but now technology has rendered that well meaningless, but no one took the time to knock it down, so it’s still standing. Maybe sections of it have fallen down and no one has done anything about it. This is the kind of thing that we can use to characterize the age of a place as people are arriving, or if we’re just setting our entire story there.
Another thing to keep in mind with mountains is that this will really limit where any farmland is, and might inhibit it altogether, depending on how rugged that terrain is. Keep in mind that mountain ranges typically have valleys and those may be wide enough and fertile enough for farmland. However, this does restrict them to that particular valley and, as a result, there is some vulnerability to someone burning down the crops or just predators knowing that our species are there and they can be attacked because they’re working the land at times.
A mountainous settlement is also a likely one to have a certain amount of involvement in mining. This is going to help us think of some potential products that they might have in the form of gemstones or other materials that they’ve pulled out of the earth. The settlement might even be rich because of this. Maybe they have big walls after all.
Bear in mind that any settlement might be adjacent to more than one terrain. So, for example, with a desert city, we don’t have to decide that it’s entirely in the desert. We could just have the desert be off to one side. Now, there’s not going to be a lush forest right next to a desert because, if you’ve been paying attention to these episodes, that’s not typically the way climate works unless something like magic is at play.
We could also use technology because, certainly in our modern times, we have turned entire deserts into something that’s got enough vegetation for people to live. In a futuristic society, we could certainly do the same. The real point I’m getting at here is that by having more than one terrain type near our settlement, we can make use of more than one. This gives us the best of both worlds, and potentially the worst of both worlds. You may recall from a previous episode that not all deserts are actually sandy. Many of them are hard. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we have a sandy desert to one side. It’s unlikely that an army is going to choose to approach from that direction. On the other hand, if there are grasslands in the other direction, that’s probably the way they’re going to come. This may have an impact on the internal layout of our city, not to mention the fortifications.
Another terrain type that might be near, but not surrounding, our settlement is a forest. Fortifications is one of the basic reasons for this because a forest can hide an approaching army. It’s fairly standard for the inhabitants of that settlement to cut down the trees within a certain distance around the settlement, such as a mile or two. So, even if our settlement is inside the forest completely, there’s still going to be that cleared area around it. But we may want to just decide to put our settlement adjacent to that forest.
One great thing about a forest is that the trees and the other plants there provide a great number of products that our people are going to use for one thing or another, such as building ships. There’s more mundane stuff that they can do with it, but I think the presence of wooden ships in a fantasy setting is something that’s pretty important. This can greatly expand how far people can go, but the absence of those will also restrict them from going anywhere. This is something to keep in mind. Just as with mountains, we need to figure out how often is this place visited, or how often do people travel away from here to other places? We need to do this with other settlements, whether or not they have a forest and access to water, whether that’s the ocean, a lake or even a river.
A water source is another thing that’s really important, not only for the ability to drink it, but because of these travel opportunities. Anywhere that’s located on a coastline, such as the ocean or a large lake, is going to be visited and also have the ability to travel, assuming that there is a forest nearby for them to create ships from.
Some of these settlements near the water might also have other dangers that they face, just like in the mountains we might have something that’s living underground and that comes out from time to time. Near a large water source, we could, of course, have sea monsters. We may have also chosen to invent species that are water-dwelling and which are sentient, and therefore can interact with our species. So, by knowing that these exist and deciding where our settlement is, we can decide whether that species is well-known there or not.
Bear in mind that there are underground rivers, and these could allow a species that is water-dwelling to get much further inland than we might expect them to. There are a lot of products that come from the sea, and I’m not just talking about food. This could be anything like candle wax from whales, to any product that we invent.
Another subject we should think about is whether the terrain is impacting the layout of our city. This is something that’s certainly going to happen in the mountains because if there’s a giant area of hard ground, we just aren’t going to be building anything on that. We may want to decide that there’s a large outcropping of rock that’s in the middle of a settlement, and that it acts as some sort of gathering place for people. It could also be a convenient lookout point when people climb it, or it could also be used for games such as those by adolescents.
Higher areas are typically used for defense, such as a castle being built there. Sometimes this is also where wealthier people will live. Water is generally considered to be more advantageous than not having the water. And I don’t mean on the grand scale, but just that the wealthy people will be those more likely to live near a river, for example. This isn’t always true because it will depend on the river and other factors, but it’s something to keep in mind as an option. On the other hand, the port area of a town is going to be a little more rundown in many cases, but it will depend on the settlement and what you want to do. In a fantasy world, it is often shown that a port is somewhere where nefarious people are more likely to gather, such as pickpockets and those without a job. On the other hand, in certain modern ports here on Earth, we have very nice ports where that have been turned into a tourist destination.
Bear in mind that something like a river can act like a natural mote, preventing or inhibiting an army from attacking from that side. And, obviously, a big body of water is going to have the same affect, unless, of course, they are attacking from wooden ships. Well, in a fantasy setting, they will be wooden. But, of course, they don’t have to be. Generally, you want to figure out how the terrain has impacted the layout of your city. Where’s the river or lake? Where are the higher areas? Is there something that must be built around, and what is it? Is it a swampy area or is it a giant boulder? Variation is good.
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Water Supply and Old Town
We should also consider where the water supply is and remember that seawater cannot be consumed by humans, at least, because the salt will make us sick. Our basic options are a river, lake, spring or well. In a more modern or futuristic society, we could have giant stations that are basically turning seawater into something that is drinkable, because that is possible, even today. That process is called desalinization. When laying out our settlement, it helps to know where that water supply is. If we have a settlement that is a large town, or even bigger, such as a city, then there’s probably going to be an area that’s called “Old Town,” or something similar. Old Town is definitely going to have its own water source. After all, that’s where people started building this place.
Just like we were talking about with ports, Old Town can sometimes be a rundown area that is not much traveled, or it can be a tourist destination that is well kept. As you build many settlements across one world or multiple worlds, try to vary this. Regardless, Old Town tends to be a place with narrower streets and where the buildings are kind of crowded in close upon each other. So, decide if there is an Old Town, where it’s located, and what it’s like.
We should also think about who the neighbors are. This can include sovereign powers. After all, our settlement is either deep within a sovereign power, near the edge of its power, or in a land without a power ruling it. If it’s deep within a territory, it’s not going to be reached very quickly by an invading army. This means it might enjoy more peace of mind, and therefore have less expectations of war. In fact, the population there could be rather skeptical of ever being attacked. They might be complacent. This does depend on the strength of the sovereign power to whom it belongs, because if it’s a new power or one that is actually failing in some way due to something like famine, or just poor government, then that kind of weakness can invite another sovereign power to attack. It’s also possible that the settlement is now deep within a territory, but that sometime in its past it was closer towards the border. This is another scenario where it might have walls for fortifications, but those are not necessarily being kept that well anymore. Maybe the guards who are on those walls are just doing a kind of duty where they don’t expect any actual fighting.
If the settlement has been near the border of a sovereign power, that means it might have been attacked repeatedly over the coarse of it’s history by another sovereign power’s cities. If it’s currently near a border, then that means it’s probably built up a little bit more when it comes to military and fortifications. And it might even have people who specialize in certain kinds of fighting, such as if we have a kind of species that is known to live in that neighboring sovereign power, we might have people who are good at fighting that.
During either times of peace or war, it’s possible that people could come to this settlement for training, and that could be something that we make our settlement known for. This is one way in which the neighbors can help build up our city. So, one of the things we need to decide is where inside our sovereign power is this settlement, and how long has it been there? If it was part of another sovereign power, and that has a very different culture, we can also then figure out what cultural elements from that other sovereign power have impacted this one.
Another option we have is a city or city state that is not part of a sovereign power. Some such places might be very strong, but others could be very vulnerable. Decide if this place needs allies and whether or not it has them, and from where. That will determine how quickly someone can come to their aid. It’s also possible that one of its allied cities is the one that has been captured recently by another sovereign power, and now cannot come to its aid. Many places will have been conquered at some time in their past, so it helps to figure out how long ago this last happened, how often it happens, and how did it end? Is this settlement recently captured or was that a long time ago and it’s at peace with being part of whatever sovereign power it now is part of? Or is this settlement a little bit restless as far as the population, and they would like to have their freedom back but they don’t think there is anything they can do? Maybe everyone is just biding their time.
For any settlement that’s within a sovereign power, we can generally assume that other settlements within that sovereign power are basically friendly toward it. However, this may not be true if they were once adversaries or at least recently so, especially if there’s another nearby settlement that has only been recently conquered by the sovereign power to which our current settlement belongs. One thing I’m getting at here is trying to create a little bit of history for our settlement. We don’t have to explain history, but we can show it in various ways, such as architecture that came from another sovereign power that is no longer ruling this place.
Our characters may be well aware of such a thing, and we could have them walking down the street and see some building that they despise because of that association. Maybe they think about this as they’re going along. We’ll only want to do this if it impacts the scene that we’re telling, but there are ways to do that. For example, maybe he’s about to meet another character who is from that sovereign power.
I’ve already mentioned the idea that there could be skilled warriors here due to threats that this settlement faces, but we’re also going to have skilled laborers who have one talent or another based on the kind of terrain that is nearby. For example, if the right kinds of trees are nearby, we’re going to have people who are good at building ships. If there are mountains here, we might have a mining colony and we could have people who are good at carving those stones.
Think about who is here, and why. And one of the reasons we can do this is that our characters are going to have some sort of history or a family business that they have originated from. Even if our character is now an adventurer, for example, and he’s going to go out and do whatever adventurers do, his family probably has a business that they run, or that they’re at least part of. What is this guy trying to get away from? What talents does he have that he almost wishes he didn’t have, but he was forced to acquire those by his parents? You can see there are ways to tie all of this together.
We should also decide on a very important set of skills, and that is who are the warriors, healers, wizards and something like fighter pilots, and do they come from the settlement or not?
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Another concept to be aware of is that of zoning. What this means is that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural zones are often created in settlements to separate things. If you’ve ever played a game like Sim City, you have some familiarity with this because if you create something like the garbage dump that’s needed to take care of the city’s waste and you put it too close to the residential areas, the game will start telling you your characters are unhappy in that residential area because they just smell the garbage all the time. So, you’re supposed to try to layout your city so that there’s not an overlap of certain things. This is a simple subject, but it’s something that’s sort of advanced in the sense that you don’t really need to worry about this too much unless you are taking the time to draw a map of your settlement.
Now, if you would like to sketch something that no one sees just so you can get a better sense of how things are laid out, this is a good idea. We’ve already talked about several areas to be aware of, such as where Old Town is, where the source of water is, if there’s a river or something, if there is an area that has high ground, or if there’s some sort of obstacle like a giant outcropping of rock.
Another area to consider is where are these different zones? When I do this, I first think about where I would like people to live, and then I put the commercial stuff nearby and I put the industrial stuff just a little bit further away. It’s tempting to say that the wealthy people are in one area and the poorer people are in another, and that does happen, but sometimes they are mixed together. This is arguably better for conflict. The upper class might also be farther upstream because all the refuse will flow downstream towards the poorer people. This is one of the things that wealth gets you.
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We should also consider what secrets there might be in this town and if those have anything to do with this physical location. We can also decide what sort of secrets our settlement has. Some of these might be based on its location. Secrets could be incorporated into this city layout that we’ve been talking about. For example, maybe there are catacombs or some other supernatural phenomenon that’s underground and a building has built over that location. And over the centuries, most people have forgotten that this is there, or maybe they never knew at all. If we have gods or world figures or even the undead, we can create these places that have some sort of significance.
Secrets can also be a little bit more mundane, such as some sort of nasty group that is operating out of this settlement. What comes to mind on Earth is terrorist groups. Naturally, these groups don’t invent a settlement. They find one that is welcoming in some way, or at least allows them to operate. Consider what sort of secrets there might be here, and if you were to read Creating Places, Chapter 11 is called “Creating Places of Interest,” and it has a lot more ideas.
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That’s going to be all for today’s episode. In our next one, we will continue our discussion on how to create a settlement and we’re going to tackle a really big subject. That’s going to be the differences between a village, town, city and megalopolis. Each of these has their own consideration and things that are possible there and things which are not. We’ll also talk a little more in detail about the defense of these places, how a settlement is known, and how many places you should create.
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