The Architect DM: Fantasy Buildings 101

When it comes to designing locations and buildings, the DM/GM has a much more daunting task ahead of them than most players or even the DMs themselves realize. Thankfully in most of the RPGs we play and run it is far from crucial that the design of the world is 100% accurate and entirely believable. Most players are willing to suspend their disbelief to an incredible level and almost all DMs don’t really have the time to make sure every location they put into their game is believable. However, creating an environment that is believable can actually make your players lives easier because they will buy into the game on a more unconscious level. This added level of believability just might turn out to be the whole new layer of depth that your game needs.

What I hope to cover in this post (or series of posts if I think of enough examples and there is a demand) is how to design many of the basic building types that you might find in a fantasy setting. Thanks again to Andy for asking questions and suggesting this idea for a post!

Town Hall

Pretty much every modern city or town has one, and they are often at or very close to the center of the town, so the classic town hall seems like a good place to start. The basic town hall concept is nothing more than a place for gathering, and especially in medieval societies they can be as simple as a roof over top of a very large room. Tools, technology, and materials are some of the main influences in the design of medieval buildings and as a result if it is just one room it will be an elongated rectangle. Any guesses why that is? The answer is in the distance the roof can span, if you attempt to make a larger and larger square the distance you have to span increases quite a bit, but if you make it a rectangle you can span the shorter distance but enclose more space as it gets longer.

When you start to look beyond the one room town hall, as you advance your fantasy cultures the town halls increase in complexity and the number of rooms within them. Often these will include a kitchen, numerous smaller gathering rooms (including exterior porches), offices/residences for rulers or public officials, space to accommodate soldiers/law enforcement, and even in some cases theaters or other typically exterior public functions. The interesting development is that as a society progresses they will often eliminate the larger gathering spaces within a town hall and instead use the building for smaller interior functions and leave larger gatherings to take place elsewhere. As a place of gathering, town halls share many traits with churches and temples because their primary functions are almost identical.

Churches & Temples

Though places of worship or reverence have a lot in common with town halls, they will often be much more obvious in their reflection of the culture they were built by and particularly the specific beliefs of those people. Almost always a church will be designed with a foot print that is a significant shape to the builder’s religion. European Gothic churches have plans like a christian cross, while a Greek christian church will generally be a cross with all arms equal because that is a more meaningful shape to their faith. What this means for you when you design a church or temple in your game is that the basic layout can be very easy to come up with. If the building is dedicated to one deity, simply make the plan a derivative of that deity or religion’s holy symbol. A church dedicated to Pelor (the 4E god of the sun among other things) would very likely be circular in nature with radiating “spoke-like” wings going out in every direction. Even beyond that, have the entire building exude the themes of the religion. Stained glass windows common in many churches glow with a particular radiance, but they also block out direct light so our church of Pelor might instead have clear glass windows to allow the sun to come through and shine on those within.

If you’re looking to design a more general temple or church, perhaps one that is dedicated to no specific entity or to more than one deity, then taking the approach above could be quite difficult. In that case, much like the town hall above, you will generally start with a large gathering space but the difference comes in the developing societies churches and temples typically maintain the larger gathering spaces and simply add on additional, smaller spaces at the back or edges of the gathering area. My main suggestion for a temple like this would be to give it a round plan (and even a dome for a ceiling) or a multi-sided design depending on the number of gods it is dedicated to (8 gods? make it an octagon!) so that there can be a statue or shrine dedicated to each one spaced evenly around the building. The general design of these types of buildings can imply a lot about the cultures they represent, if all of the gods are treated equally then you get an impression of what they might be like versus a culture where there are many gods but one is clearly dominant and even sometimes overshadows/oppresses the other deities present.

Walls & Guard Posts

Even in the real world, many medieval towns were walled in and designed for protecting its citizens, and these people didn’t have monsters like trolls and dragons to worry about! Depending on the time period and society that constructs them, defensive buildings can enclose an entire city with a wall or simply be built around the center of town and designed so that the rest of the population can retreat inside when a threat presents itself. Many times you will see a castle or manor atop a large stone outcropping with walls and defenses built close by and a larger town of undefended houses and buildings spreading out from there. I’ve heard a few times that Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings was not designed properly because it only consisted of the fortified portion, the farmers and larger areas of housing that most likely would have been there were missing. Again, that’s comparing these things to real life where we don’t have some of the more dangerous wild creatures that are present in D&D and Middle Earth.

If I haven’t made it clear enough, one of the main guiding factors with designing defenses is rooted in what they’re defending against. In this way many common D&D towns are probably badly designed due to the sources of threat they often face. Walls and guard towers look different when they’re designed to withstand arrows versus later walls that had to deflect or withstand cannon balls and bullets. In the same way, a town that exists in the known territory of several different dragons might not have more than a handful of buildings above ground and be nearly undetectable from the air. A town that has to deal with a local infestation of Kruthiks might build their walls as much above ground as below, or else have large moats in front of those walls to try and catch the creatures coming out of the ground unexpectedly. Let me take this moment to dispel one of the great myths about medieval and fantasy construction – many moats didn’t contain water. That’s right, they were effectively just a large ditch dug outside of walls, but it makes a lot of sense when you can do that and turn a 10 ft. high wall into a 15 ft. high obstacle from up close.

Guard posts or towers are a very important part of most walls constructed, because they provide lateral stability that can help fortify the wall from tipping over either forward or backward. In addition, they often provide the means for accessing walkways along defensive walls or if there are no walkways the guard towers will be even more common so that the entire length of the wall can be covered by at least one guard tower. Sometimes a guard tower will be connected on the inside to a barracks or quarters so that the larger group has quick and easy access to their defenses. In other cases a guard tower might have small rooms set up as uncomfortable quarters for the on duty guards so that they are never far from their posts.

When you’re designing a city or town and want to add some defenses around it, think about the reason that the people of that city are defending themselves and try to make the defenses a reflection of those concerns. It is rare that the wall will just be a straight line with a few guard towers along it, so try to change the direction of the wall at each tower. In real life those changes in direction usually conform to the natural terrain they’re built on because you are rarely going to find a stretch of European land that is completely flat! When it comes to later, colonial style walls they are typically in diamond or star shapes so that the cannons have trouble finding a flat surface of wall to shoot at (where cannon balls can do the most damage).

A Series Within a Series

Depending on how you guys like this initial look into some basic Fantasy buildings, I can see this becoming an ongoing part of the Architect DM series. Already I have a handful of other buildings I almost always use in D&D (Tavern / Inn, anyone?) that should be some of the first ones discussed along with those I’ve already talked about here. If you think of any others that you always use or come across in your games, or any types of buildings in particular that you have had trouble designing or using in your games, please let me know and I’ll most likely address them soon!

Comments

  1. The idea of structuring the churches around the religion it serves is really awesome- especially if you were to make a temple to, say, the Spider Queen…

    Also the points about city walls are important, especially if I attempt another 7 Samurai type adventure.

  2. A very good point that defense vary considerably with what you need to defend against as well as the resources available. Earthworks with wooden palisades are good for keeping out wild animals and bandits, but will not slow down an orc army much. Putting a group of PCs in charge of defending such a place could be a fun game.

    Enjoyed the article, looking forward to more on the subject.

  3. I echo your point about city walls around a medieval town, and it was something I never really appreciated until I went to York England back in the 90s. I did the “wall walk” with some friends along the top of the old city walls – built originally by Romans to keep out the Celts, then later reinforced by the Celts to keep out the Vikings, and finally fortified again to keep the Normans out – these walls squirm their way around the city in a sort of three-leafed clover fashion, but definitely not straight lines. They are broad enough to walk anywhere from 3-4 people side by side, and you can meander your way completely around the city on top of them – amazing construction, and as you said, these people never had trolls and dragons to contend with!

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    Great series! I’ve often thought about how real-world castles couldn’t stand up easily in a world with fly spells. I’d love to see more!

  5. I really liked this. Definitely gunna use the church/temple tips for my current campaign I’m writing.

  6. That’s fabulous! When I get more time, I may actually (as part of a mini-series) design some sample buildings, and post about them, using these principles. Mainly, I was inspired by how you talked about the town that faces dragons frequently, and how that impacted the design. I wanna do that: take a specific scenario, and explore how it would change the terrain.

    Also: Minas Tirith actually -was- designed to include the farms, etc. In the books, that is. The seven-ringed city is surrounded by fields, and outside the fields is one long wall (the Rammas Echor). In fact, it was a breach of that wall which Faramir (in the books, again) was sent out to defend. /Tolkien geek

    I speculate that the movies just made a design decision influenced by the popular depiction of fantasy cities.

  7. Sean, Philo, Marc: Thanks, glad you’re enjoying it!

    Dave: yea, that classic adventure should be really good the next time you pull it off!

    Neuroglyph: Thanks for sharing, as if I don’t want to go to Europe enough already! :P

    Andy: Glad you enjoyed it, since it is your fault anyway. If you have any questions or want any advice when looking at specific designs like I talked about, feel free to send me an e-mail and I’d be happy to help out! I figured in the LotR books things like that were covered (Tolkien covered pretty much everything…) so thanks for clarifying that.

  8. Hey,

    really great series, I like it very much.

    Would it be possible for you to also cover modern/sci-fi buildings like airports/space ports, offices, industrial facilities, space stations or the like? As a DM mastering a sci-fi-based Shadowrun Group, I find myself often having trouble coming up with intriguing and fun buildings/architectures for a Cyberpunk/Sci-fi setting.

    I also think some concrete examples that demonstrate how those general guidelines can be applied would be great and offer the benefit of having some templates available to work with.

    Looking forward to see more from this series.

    Kind regards,
    zaha

  9. Great series! I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s giving me some great ideas for upcoming adventures.

    About Minas Tirith, by the way, the complaints you heard were probably directed at the movie. Tolkien knew his stuff, and he did mention the farms and so on surrounding the city. The moviemakers chose to leave out that detail and put MT in the middle of apparently empty grassland. (Oops, I see someone beat me to that already. But still, gotta defend Tolkien!)

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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