Podcast Episode 15.2 – How to Create Settlements


Episode 15.2: Learn How to Create Sovereign Powers

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how  to create a settlement. This includes the differences between an outpost, village, town, city, and even settlements in space.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Which settlement types have the most corruption
  • How travelers might be treated in each
  • What kind of attitudes will be where
  • Where to places your outposts, villages, towns, and cities
  • And other differences between one type and another

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Episode 15.2 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number fifteen, part two. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create a settlement. This includes the differences between an outpost, village, town, city, and even settlements in space. . 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.

The Outpost

When we’re populating our continent with settlement types, we have a variety of these to choose from, and we’re going to start this podcast by starting with the smallest ones, like an outpost, and work our way up to the megalopolis. The difference between all of them is, of course, physical, and this is determined, partly, by population size, their defenses and the availability of resources. But size, in turn, affects what is available there.

We can call something an outpost, a castle, a tower or something else, but we’re basically talking about a single building or a small group of them that are not big enough to qualify as a village. I’m generalizing throughout this episode, but these outposts may not be permanently staffed with people. This may have consequences, such as the inability to do farm work, depending on how often this place is inhabited.

Naturally, once plants are planted, they need time to grow and, arguably, there’s only so much that needs to happen in the meantime. Now, someone who is a farmer listening to this might think that there’s all sorts of things that need to happen, so pardon my ignorance, but if there are people there every season and they can do something with the plants that have been planted, such as harvesting them or planting them at a different time, then it may be possible for farming to happen. But my point is that if no one is there except for occasionally, such as once a year, then farming is not going to happen.

Farming is not the most exciting topic to most of us, but the point here is that if people cannot grow their food there, they’re going to have to bring it in from somewhere else. In science fiction, with something like a food replicator, this is less of an issue. In a fantasy setting with magic, it might be possible to open a portal somewhere and, therefore, supplies can come in that way. Without these options, people are going to have to bring their food with them. The exception is, of course, anything that they can catch or hunt.

Now, to over simply things, if the inhabitants are basically evil and they do obnoxious things, then they’re not going to have any problem raiding a local village or town for their food supplies. On the other hand, if they’re more benevolent and get along with people, and this is part of a sovereign power and there is a nearby village, town or whatever, then that other settlement might be tasked with providing food as necessary to anyone who is in this outpost. Another option here is that this outpost could be so far away from every other settlement, and it might even be forgotten, that there is no one who is responsible for this place. And that’s true whether we’re talking about supplies or even maintaining this place when no one is occupying it.

If no one is responsible for this place, then it has probably fallen into a certain amount of disrepair. Another option we have is that there might be other things inhabiting it. For example, we could have a monster living there. We could have orcs, goblins or something else in a typical fantasy setting that are making use of this settlement. This might be a known problem so that anyone who is intending to come there and make use of this for more peaceful purposes, for example, they might know that when they arrive they’re going to have to fight and drive out anything that is occupying it.

Some of these considerations are things that we can do to make it seem like this is not just a standing building that’s out there and no one has anything to do with it and it’s not connected to the real world. There are people and things that are going to be using this even if no one is consistently using it. Some of these might have been truly abandoned so that they are a ruin, but other ones might be only temporarily used or maybe only used seasonally. If that’s the case, you’re probably going to need a reason for that. For example, using weather, let’s say that there’s a monsoon season that only takes place for about two months in every year and, during that time, the monsoon causes certain things to happen to the land. As a result, this place should be occupied. In preparation for the upcoming monsoon season, people will probably come here and clear out anything living there and spruce it up a little bit.

Another issue with an outpost is that the population is smaller and, therefore, there are a lot of professions who are not actually present. In fantasy, they might realize they need a carpenter or a blacksmith, but one is not present. In science fiction, they may realize they need someone with technical skills, like an engineer, and this person simply isn’t present, or the one they have is not advanced enough to do what is needed. This is one reason such an outpost could have an alliance with a larger settlement. There’s also likely to be no police force here so that someone is taking it upon themselves to deal with such matters if it comes up.

When creating such an outpost and deciding which professions are not here, try to think of something where the absence of that person is going to cause a problem for your story. An obvious example would be medical personnel. If someone gets hurt, it’s a little too easy for us to think of the perfect healing ability or technology to fully recover that person. It might be better to have them still impaired in some way, but not as bad as when they were first wounded. Try not to make everything too easy for them.


Arguably, the largest outpost is going to be something like a castle that has no village surrounding it. Castles are defensive in nature and, therefore, they are largely self-sufficient. They will need the farmland nearby, but of course, a certain amount of those supplies are stored within the castle so that they can withstand a siege of a certain duration, such as a month. However, until recently, the ability to preserve food is pretty limited. So, don’t think that you’re going to have a castle where they have like a year’s worth of food and it’s not going to just rot within a month. That’s only likely to happen if magic is involved.

Now, there may be buildings adjacent to this castle that are not big enough to be considered a village, but basically, these are temporary buildings in the sense that they could be destroyed during a siege, and it’s not a huge loss to the people in the castle. They can always rebuild those. So, there’s only going to be so many of them in this scenario we’re talking about where there’s a castle with no real village. There may still be these other buildings around.

One big question for world builders is where do we place a castle? These are typically placed along an important trade route. They may be near a dangerous territory, such as a mountain pass. If there are nasty things like ogres in that mountain range and they are likely to emerge from those mountains in that mountain pass, then somewhere within a mile or two of that pass there’s probably going to be a castle. The idea would be to stop these ogres before they get further into a sovereign power.

This has another advantage to us in that we can decide that we have a character who is something like a knight who has special training in fighting ogres. And how did he acquire that training? Well, he went to live in that castle for a couple years and he specialized in doing this because that’s what goes on there. This castle could be famous for that and any knight who lives there should be required to go there. And this is one way we can fill out the backstory for such a character.

Another thing to consider about castle placement is that, yes, we may have decided that we want one within, say, two miles of this mountain pass, or whatever the danger is, but then the question is, well, where within those two miles do they actually build the castle? Since it is defensive in nature, castles are often built on existing areas of land that have some sort of natural fortification. The easiest of those is land that is simply higher than the surrounding terrain. There might be something like a cliff face that is standing behind this castle so that no one can attack from behind. There could be a body of water there that is large enough to inhibit anyone from attacking the castle from that direction. If there’s a cliff face on one side and a body of water on another, then this place can only be attacked from two different directions.

A final word on castles is that there seems to be an oversight in a lot of fiction where if a castle is located within a sovereign power, but somewhere near the border – and we’re talking like 50 miles – then there is this impression that whoever owns that castle now has always owned it and, therefore, they are the only ones who know the secrets of this castle. Well, the reality is that if this castle has stood for, say, 1,000 years, it has probably changed hands several times, especially if it is near a border like that.

I can tell you this: If I captured your castle, I would do everything I could to learn its secrets. And then if, let’s say 50 years later, my country lost that castle to yours again, well, I would still know those secrets. I mean, I might be dead. But the point is my sovereign power, we would still understand the secrets of your castle. So, we might know how to break into it in some sort of secret avenue that you’ve created, such as hidden tunnels or whatever. So, it’s not going to be the situation where I don’t have any tactical knowledge of your castle. I’m probably going to know a lot about it. So, try not to fall into this trap of portraying your characters in a story as being the only ones who understand the secrets of this castle. That’s probably not true.

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Let’s talk villages. When we are going to create a settlement type, we often are trying to figure out, “Should it be a village, a city, a town or what?” If we have a map and there’s an area that we consider to be somewhat out of the way, but potentially useful, this is where we might choose to place a village. Why a village? Well, because we might reason that this place has some things to offer, but not so many that it’s going to attract a lot of people. Generally, you probably want to place your villages on a map after you have already decided where the major cities are. Actually, to be honest, I don’t even place villages on my maps unless I’m doing something really regional. The reason is that there would be so many villages that it would completely consume my map. That’s all you would see.

Even so, this basic idea of an out-of-the-way village is one to keep in mind. Such a place is probably less visited and, therefore, they might be less likely to be welcoming of strangers or travelers, and this is something to keep in mind if your characters are going to arrive there. They are more likely to be viewed with suspicion.

Another location for a village is along an important trade route, but not at a critical part of that trade route. At a more critical location, such as a place where multiple roads are coming together from different directions, that might be a major trading point that increasingly builds up to a town and then, later, a city.

So, if we have something like a city at a major crossroads, then where would the villages be? Well, they’re going to be along those trade routes, but at not such a critical place. By along the trade route, I don’t mean that they’re necessarily right on the road.  They could be several miles off to one side. They are, once again, going to be somewhat remote, but not as remote as one that is off in the middle of nowhere. They, therefore, might be used to travelers, especially if it actually is built along the road and it can be seen from there. Such a place is more likely welcoming of strangers.

In the Creating Places book, I have an entire chapter about travel on land, and one of the things you learn in that chapter is how long it takes to get from one place to another by various means of locomotion. The reason I mention this is that if two locations are within a day’s travel, there’s probably not going to be a village along the way. On the other hand, if it would take a week to go from one major location to another, then there’s probably going to be something like a village or a town in between. The reason for this is not only the distance that needs to be traveled, and the fact that a certain number of people are going to be living there, but the reality is that people need somewhere to stay overnight when they are traveling by land. A village may spring up for exactly that purpose. Now, originally, it’s probably just something like a campsite that has a convenient water access. In time, maybe someone built an inn or a tavern there and this becomes the focal point of a village that slowly grows out from around it.

For example, if wagons are routinely going through there, well, wagons breakdown. We might need a carpenter and a blacksmith. So, these might be two people who live in that town. Well, we’re talking villages, but you know what I mean. This sort of point of origin is a good idea to keep in mind because it can affect the attitude of our settlement, such as whether they are welcoming of strangers or they don’t want them to come there. There are other ways that the attitude of such a place can be affected by this. An out-of-the-way village might be one where everyone shares a similar religious belief, for example. Differences might be less tolerated.

By contrast, a village with a more transient population of people coming and going through there is going to be more tolerant of differences. If I’m a traveler and I’m about to approach a village that’s in an out-of-the-way location, maybe I’m smart enough to hide something like a talisman of the god that I worship because I don’t know if that is viewed favorably there. On the other hand, if I’m approaching a village that is right along a major trade route, I might reasonably assume that they are more tolerant and not do such a thing.

Another thing to keep in mind with all villages is that they are less likely to have a dedicated, official protector like a sheriff. The community might be small enough to not need someone who does that on a full-time basis. The reason we might care about this is that there’s probably someone in that settlement who is a better fighter than everyone else, such as an expert swordsman, for example, and that person is the one who is looked to by the rest of the villagers for guidance or, at least, interference when there’s some sort of fight that breaks out. Or if villagers are being approached by travelers who are coming there, this might be the person who someone goes running to get and says, “Hey, there are some people coming up on horses,” for example. “Why don’t you come up in a show of strength and make it clear, ‘Hey, we’re not just defenseless villagers. We’ve got a guy here with a sword and he looks like he knows what he’s doing.’”

So, this person might be seen as an unofficial protector of the town. The same can be done in science fiction where a character can just appear to have a lot of confidence with the way they wear their guns or they’ve got some sort of rifle slung over their back. A village is also unlikely to have something like a wall surrounding it. Or, if they do, it’s probably going to be made of something like wood. That may be less true in science fiction because they are more likely to have technology in general, and it’s relatively easy to have something like a wall built if you have things like spaceships. And, of course, that wall is not going to be made of wood.

While a village may have characters like a carpenter or a blacksmith or an engineer in science fiction, they may not have these individuals. So, once again, we might decide who is here and who is not. The big reason I mention this is that, let’s say it’s fantasy and there used to be a blacksmith who lived here, but he recently died six months ago. Well, now things might be falling into disrepair a little bit and one of our visiting characters might have that skill and be able to barter that. In other words, maybe this character doesn’t have money to pay for food and lodging, but they have the skill and they might have to stay for a week doing a bunch of repairs. And the same thing can be done in science fiction with an engineer.

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Let’s talk about towns. Unlike with the villages, a town is likely to have more than one of something, such as a blacksmith, a carpenter or an engineer. This means that not only is the population not going to be deprived of such expertise, but there is competition for these people’s skills and the business. A side effect of competition is that everyone raises their game. The result is that everyone here is likely to have a superior skillset compared to the same people who are from a village. Our traveling characters are also less likely to get away with bartering their services for fare and lodging. In other words, they’re going to need money. If they don’t have any, this might be one reason why they visit villages instead of towns.

Another issue with a town is that there tends to be more diversity of the population, and this includes races and species. Depending on which ones you have invented or included in your settlement, this might also affect the amount of crime that takes place here. For that reason, some species might not be welcome here. Or, if they are, they are watched very carefully, or there might be special rules just for them. These rules can include a curfew or not being allowed to carry weapons. There is also almost certainly a dedicated police force. Both of these promote more rules and laws. That, in turn, means there’s probably a jail.

Now, there are likely to be fewer laws here than a city, which means that there could be more corruption. We could have businesses more likely to cheat customers, for example. Sometimes corrupt officials hold considerable power, and this kind of reminds me a lot of the Hollywood westerns that we’ve seen. A stereotype of those is a traveling character who arrives somewhere and runs afoul of the corrupt sheriff who is intimidating the town.

Taxes are almost a certainty in a town. While that’s not a glamorous subject, one of the things that comes with taxes is the ability for the town itself to improve the town. This could mean better roads and better fortifications. Those police we were just talking about need to be paid. We don’t really need to worry about what taxes are used for, but the basic idea is that the town tends to be better quality precisely because of the taxes. There’s also a kind of infrastructure there in the sense that there might be a mayor and he needs to make a living. Although, in some places, he may not be officially paid.

Generally, things are more official and formal here. Naturally, due to the population size, there’s going to be a lot more farming going on nearby. In a less civilized world, like in a fantasy, the farmers may have a lot of prominence. Whereas, in our modern world, we tend to take that for granted because we have such an abundance of food. Try to keep this in mind if you’re writing such a scenario because the farmers have a lot of power.

In addition to the mayor, there might also be a formal town counsel. These people might be appointed, but they might also just be people who have influence in some way, such as those farmers we were just talking about. We could have a wizard, a blacksmith, an engineer or whoever we think is important to this town’s functioning.

A town often has one or more families that have been there a really long time, and they are considered to be very influential and, in fact, the town might actually bear one of their names. In order to ease the management of a town, it is sometimes divided up into wards, with each one of those neighborhoods having someone who is ostensibly in charge of that ward. Those individuals are the ones who can be voted on and voted into the town counsel to represent the interests of that ward.

Another issue with a town is that there may be zoning. What I mean is residential, commercial and industrial areas. If you’ve ever played a game like Sim City, you know that it’s not a good idea to have your industry right next to your homes because the residents start complaining about the smell, for example. When thinking about laying out the interior of a town, you may want to decide where everything is located.


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Let’s talk about cities. In a place with this many people, there tends to be a lot of formalities such as laws, regulations, police, a legal system, mayors, a voting system in a free society, zoning and even procedures like how to evacuate or handle certain kinds of emergencies. As world builders, we don’t typically have to worry about a lot of this and we can simply assume it’s there.

However, one area this comes up for is when these laws don’t take into account certain minorities who don’t have the rights that other people have. This is something we definitely might want to consider because it could impact the lives of our characters whether they live in this city or whether they are just visiting. With visiting characters, some of them may be allowed to carry their weapons while the others have theirs confiscated. Not only can this be based on race or gender, but it can also be based on where this person is from because that other country or city might be a traditional enemy of this one.

Try to think of some restrictions that you can impose on some of your characters, but maybe not all of them. Someone who lives here but is not treated equally might see this as a reason to leave this place for somewhere else. This is one reason why immigrants come to the United States, which is seen as a place where this kind of diversity is more tolerated, even if it is so with limitations. The concept of equality for all is a driving force behind that kind of immigration, even if the reality fails to live up to that.

Cities offer the best and worst of everything because there’s a lot of competition here, but there’s also a lot of crime. It’s going to depend on the settlement, of course, but there’s a lot of leeway for people to get away with things. There can be a big difference between how life is for the rich and for the poor.

There’s definitely going to be zoning where industrial areas are separated from commercial and residential. It can be tempting to think that the rich people live in one area and that the poor people live in another, but there are certainly places on earth where everyone is mixed up together. So, we have this as an option.

Cities are certainly going to have some of the best fortifications and the military to staff them. It can be assumed that something like a knight from such a place is better trained and has more experience than someone from a town or a village. There is snobbery in all things, so this can also influence the attitude of such a character. Maybe when this guy is traveling and he comes into a village and there’s a knight there, he is looking down on that person as being inferior when that person might actually have been from a city or had extensive experience there and is simply living in the village now and is, actually, much more capable than is assumed. This is one of many ways we can add dynamics to our characters.

These military people might have inns, taverns and equipment shops that cater to their needs as well. There may even be a certain amount of culture associated with them because there are so many of them.

There tends to be more anonymity in a city, but that will depend on the technology level. In a science fiction setting, we could easily have people be issued some sort of card that is needed to access every single doorway or something else so that people always know where they are. Without that kind of technology, people are much less likely to know where you are coming and going from because there’s simply no way to track you and there are too many people for anyone to be paying too much attention to that.

This is in stark contrast to a village where everyone might know your business, whether you want them to or not. This freedom allows you to do things that might be considered inappropriate. So, let’s say that you have a sexual orientation that you don’t want anyone to know about. Well, in a village, people are going to figure that out pretty quickly. But in something like a city, it’s going to be easier for you to carry on with the kind of relationship that you want, and possibly keep that a secret.

We haven’t talked about tolerance since we were talking about villages, but in a city there’s likely to be much more tolerance in general of different viewpoints. This does not mean that there’s not going to be prejudice. What I mean is that there are going to be individuals who still have a nasty attitude about some other belief system, but all of these belief systems are still there as one giant melting pot where people are mixed together. By contrast, in a village, the people who have some opposing view might actually be shunned out of that village altogether.

In a city, opposing groups with different viewpoints can still be there, but they may not have much interaction with each other. But then, some of them may. So, you’ll have a mix of tolerances. Generally, people in a city are exposed to many more ideas that they may not agree with and which may change their opinion about things over time. A generalization we can make about people on earth is that those in cities tend to be exposed to more viewpoints and have more tolerance, while those in more rural areas tend to have a more homogenous viewpoint, and the people who live there are more uniform in the way they think about things. The reasons for that could be complicated, but one of them is just exposure, or lack thereof, to opposing ideas.

The main difference between a city and a megalopolis is simply the size. In our modern world, we have cities that have very large suburbs around them where those suburbs are actually towns. Those towns are often right up against another town that is next to another city so that all of it almost seems like one giant place. Each one of these will still have its own name whether it gets absorbed into a larger megalopolis or not. One distinction I’m making there is that we might effectively have a megalopolis, but we don’t actually give it a name. It’s still just going to be called a city, even though it’s right up against other cities. Functionally speaking, they may form a megalopolis, but no one’s probably going to call it that. Lastly, another word for megalopolis is metropolis.


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In Space
Figure 60 Rotating Space Station
Figure 60 Rotating Space Station

Let’s talk about settlements in space. There’s what I’m calling a “vacuum settlement.” This means any settlement that is surrounded by a vacuum instead of breathable air. This reality will completely dominate how life is in that settlement. Since such a settlement doesn’t happen naturally, we are completely fabricating how that is laid out. We can pretty much do whatever we want – within reason, of course. These can range in size from a village to a city, and many of the issues we’ve already talked about will apply to these.

Naturally, one of the most important aspects of such a place is that no one interferes with the oxygen supply. This could literally kill everyone. And, as you might imagine, there’s probably going to be significant technology preventing such a thing from happening. This means not only redundant systems, but significant military who are protecting these. Such a place is likely to have significant rules for even something as simple as opening a door from one place to another could lead to depressurization.

As you can imagine, most people living there probably have a significant understanding of the risks. They almost certainly have an interest in certain kinds of laws being obeyed; those laws being the ones about that kind of interference. Even someone who considers themselves a rebel is unlikely to be willing to go that far with their rebelliousness that they interfere with such a thing. Visitors might also be closely watched and monitored to make sure that their access to one thing or another is tightly controlled.

What’s Not Covered

Now, before we wrap up with how to start creating a settlement, I want to talk about a few things that are not going to be included in this episode. These are additional subjects that are included in Creating Places in Chapter 6.

One of these is the defense and offense of such places, such as the fortifications like archery towers, cleared areas, castles and, of course, the wall. There’s also a discussion of what kind of armed forces are really located here, from the local guards to cavalry, knights, flying forces and beyond. Then there’s the importance of how our settlement is known to others, and from within its own population. This includes not only reputation, but its colors, symbols, slogans and even the products that they produce. All of these can make our settlements more interesting and believable.

Where to Start

Finally, let’s talk about where to start with inventing a settlement. It’s a good idea to start with a settlement’s location because this is going to affect so many things about it. This includes not only its layout, but the climate and, therefore, how people dress, for example, and even the plant life and animals that are nearby. The neighbors are also important to decide soon, and this includes things like the terrain, such as a forest or mountain because that’s going to impact how easy it is to reach this place and what sort of products and livelihood they can create for themselves.

We should also determine where it is within a sovereign power, such as how close to the border or further in because that’s also going to impact the fortifications. The most important of these neighbors is, arguably, any neighbor that affects the number of species and kind of species that are located here. The size and population is a major area to consider after you’ve decided where this settlement is located. This will determine much about what life is like here, including the society’s worldview. The smaller areas that we can worry about later are things like its reputation, how well it is known and things like the symbols and slogans. These are not things that are going to have a major impact on our use of this place, but just add some color and depth.

And, as with everything with world building, the most important thing is to start with something where you have a solid idea. As long as you’ve got one, just go with it and it doesn’t really matter what order you do these things in. It’s just really a question of whether you have an idea or not. And if you don’t, then I recommend doing the order we’ve talked about here. But if you have an idea, go ahead and work on that first, exhaust it, do what you can, invent everything you can think of and then worry about some of these other things.


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