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Fantasy World Design

Cognisant

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A thread for tabletop games enthusiasts and fantasy novelists.

So I've been reading the Megatokyo Endgames books (recommended) and the author spends some time describing the architecture of various settlements and how dense the population is, giving each location a distinct mental image which is nice.

I'm thinking there should be a guide for fantasy settlement design because it's the little things that convey how the settlement works and why it exists that really sell it as an actual place and not just a static backdrop for the plot. In a sense settlements and even individual streets and buildings are like characters, or rather they have have character, reflecting the lives and personalities of the people who live within/upon/underneath them.

Pointless aside: I can't remember offhand what the goblin town Hadoblado devised is called but I can see a mental picture of it quite clearly, grand and dilapidated, imposing by design but softened by age, a medieval comic-book-Gotham where the buildings might not go so high or have quite as much glass but the underground is far deeper, nestled between the convergence of two mountain ranges with an open plain of forest in front and a narrow pass behind, although the geography may just be my imagination.

So what questions should such a guide consider?

For example:
For a given sized settlement (how is size being measured?) how many people live there, at what density, and how is influence by and in turn the influence to other factors?

It's hard to know where to start, maybe I'm going about this the wrong way, when creating a character for a story I tend to start with some gimmick that amuses me, create their appearance to work with that gimmick and then go into backstory to flesh out their personality, habits, mannerisms, etc. Settlements don't simply exist for no reason, it could be a militarily strategic location, a trade/transport hub, a location that's inherently valuable (farmland, recreationally appealing, hard to access), the settlement could even be a temporary worker's camp or purposely built in a wasteland for political reasons (like Canberra) or because the land was worthless (Las Vegas).

Maybe we could devise a list of settlement templates based upon purpose, geography, climate, culture and whatever else, the idea being that you combine one of each type (or several for culture/geography) and based upon a given formula it gives you a rough idea of what that settlement would realistically be in terms of its population, economy, living standards, etc.
 

Seteleechete

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The way I consider things when creating anything fictional in my mind is that everything is connected, any events or characters I make reflects this. That said I think making a guide is exactly the wrong way to go. Like anything else you create you should look at what circumstances and build the settlement upon that, making each settlement if just a little special based on the given circumstances. If you feel it becomes a bit dull just add more reasons to flesh it out until you are satisfied.

By doing this you are however adding a lot of focus on this part which could potentially detract from other parts of the story. Spending 5 pages carefully building up a settlement that the characters would just pass through would be disappointing. By making a place more than just a random add on for the story you are also making that place important for the story.

Just pure speculation not very experienced in this area.
 

Cognisant

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I've found in writing, particularly for fantasy and science fiction, having a fleshed out world really pays off even if a lot of it isn't seen because it's all about crafting that suspension of disbelief, which is essentially like telling a lie, the details, the consistency of those details and the rationality of how those details relate to each other are what makes a lie, and thus a story, convincing.
 

Seteleechete

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Hum, I prefer a story a bit more fast paced personally then again vivid descriptions is the area I have most trouble writing(goes back to my personal preference for a somewhat faster pace in stories over more detailed immersion). Like most other things I tend to gloss over (seemingly) unimportant details. With less immersive I mean maybe using 2 adjectives instead of 5.
 

Blarraun

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It depends on your methods, needs as an author (GM) and on your target audience (players), if you are not going to use detailed information because the town will be visited a few times, it's not worth the effort to produce excess content.

Firstly:
What you are trying to do and how it isn't relevant to your players. It's about your methods:
If your method is to design a world from basics (terraformation, continents, climate, flora/fauna), then with time you will unearth a wealth of information and connections.

When building a system, you are going to get to the point when it's sufficient to host campaigns or base stories, that's very similar to what Tolkien did, except he focused on specific elements such as language, culture and mythology and there were many elements left out that could be expanded on, you can spend near-infinite amounts of time fleshing out the details, but it will take a lot of time until your world is sufficiently complex to be presented on its own, without much of your input or improvisation.
Personally I love this approach when I want to create and I don't care if what I do is practical, sometimes I get to share my created worlds with others, but that's not the main motivation behind the effort. They will miss more than 95% of the content I prepare, but that's fine since there's so much content to begin with and I can give them an open living world to explore and play in, they in turn lend their ideas and write the history, they participate in my attempt to make everything more complex and real.

When I don't have the time for that, I rarely have these days, I think of what are my players going to like, what I'd like to do, then I select a few features or genres, a few promising ideas and sketch the basics. After I have the basic points of the storyline I adjust the world to fit, add details and crucial information that I know I will use, everything else including questions I didn't think of will have to be improvised and added to the lore afterwards. Players get to experience 70-100% of the story elements that I prepared, because that was the point.
Secondly:
Now if you agree that overly focusing on a single story element is what you want to do:
Again, depends on what you are comfortable with, what you want to do.
If you'd like to go fully scientific and provide every system with inputs, that's lovely.
Look at real life examples, see what existing towns depend on for food, goods or what their communities are like.
Look at examples in literature: Tolkien was a masterful system builder, but he only focused on linguistics, culture and mythology, he left many areas unfinished such as economy or emotional depth of his characters.

Think of the environment, if it's a coastal village are they going to rely on fishing, trade, agriculture, or a mix? Calculate how many people need to produce food to sustain the rest of the community, how good are their food stores, how many specialists and artisans, how do they get their resources.
You could:
Gather core elements of the village such as resources, community realm politics neighbouring locations, local knowledge/technology, traditions/culture.
Then focus on each particular element and fill the inputs and outputs.
If they rely on fishing, do they use boats? how do they get them? What is the fish scarcity? How come there is fish?
Or you could do it bottom up and first design continents, shorelines, fish populations and resources, then make as little arbitrary choices as possible when placing settlements, connect the inputs, think of how their tech and culture would evolve with what they were provided etc.
I don't agree there should be a guide, there are already thousands of them, every world, including our earth is a guide of this process that you can learn from. You will have to develop your frameworks, style, preferences, etc.
You are not going to be systematic (even caring about every detail you will get to a point where you have to make a choice, it's very similar to scientific explanations of the early universe or beginning of life, the information is incomplete and you have to add something to build on), or completely goal oriented (connections and causality is inescapable to induce participation in the world and consistence of experience), because you need at least a bit of each to have a continuous reality, how much of each you are going to use is up to you.

Popular authors using systematic creation:
Ed Greenwood, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett

Popular authors mostly relying on goal oriented creation:
J.K. Rowling, George Martin, C.S. Lewis and most of the folk really

Examples: D&D 3.5E Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting,
Anima - Gaïa Volume 1: Beyond the Dreams,
Cyberpunk 2020 sourcebooks.
 
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