The Architect DM: Questions & Answers

While I’m gearing up and preparing to continue the Architect DM series into 2011, I decided to first put out a call for more questions on my twitter account (@Bartoneus) and see what kinds of questions you guys have when it comes to DMing and world building in your RPGs. This has worked incredibly well for me in the past, at least half of the posts in this series so far have come directly from reader questions or suggestions and I’m always looking for more topics to cover.

Today I’m going to keep it simple and simply share and respond to some of the questions I received this afternoon.

Samldanach asked, “How much damage can your average structure really take before collapsing? Assume barbarian w/axe, not explosives.”

This is one of those interesting questions that you never expect someone to ask, but when you start to think about it some interesting discussions can come up. Most structures can actually take a surprising amount of damage before collapsing, and more likely than not only certain parts of the structure will fail without the whole thing being compromised. This is especially true if we’re talking about a barbarian with an axe doing the damage – think about how much effort a person has to put forth just to hack apart a pile of fire wood. If you’re dealing with a sturdy wooden tavern or inn, the structural beams would probably be roughly 6 inches thick (round or square, either way) and even an impressively strong barbarian would have to take at least a dozen good swings at that with an axe to make any progress through it.

The great thing about games like D&D is that they let us exaggerate for effect, so if you have a person trying to destroy the inn and they start hacking away at a beam you can follow it up with the barbarian cleaving through the beam in just one or two swings and really highlight how incredibly strong the barbarian is (when he’s angry, at least). However, the problem then becomes that the entire building won’t collapse simply because a single beam has been heroically chopped in half – at its worst this would only cause a part of the floor to sag or collapse. If you start to look into stone structures then it just gets even worse, and you’d need a huge mob of people before any damage could really be done to a building using weapons like axes. All of this really just highlights how powerful fire, explosives, and magic are when it comes to doing meaningful damage to structures.

Our very own Vanir asked, “Where do babies come from (from a world-building perspective)?”

Of course Matt was being his usual funny self (just, really hilarious…so funny. He should be a comedian…) but I started to think about it way too much and figured I would treat it in some ways like a serious question. One of the first things I thought of was how much of an extreme change child birth could be in a world, and how defining that would be for a setting. Think about running  a D&D game where children are literally brought to houses by storks or other flying creatures. Maybe everything is normal, except that when children are born they are offered up to flocks of magical flying birds which then redistribute the babies where they are needed most in the world. This could be a fairly epic, if a little bit hokey, origin story for your classic ‘hero in a strange land’ character. Maybe the cultures of this world revere and worship the birds, and instead of your standard pantheon of deities the meta-entity of these birds is the major divine force in the universe. Hell, the Raven Queen could have extended her domain from death into rebirth and be the one orchestrating this whole thing.

The second thing this brilliant (really, so intelligent…) question made me think of was one of the elements that stood out the most to me in the Lord of the Rings movies – the Uruk’hai being super-orcs born out of the mud. For me as a movie-goer this really added a supernatural and very bizarre element to what could have otherwise been just your standard Orc creature. Think about the different ways that all of the creatures we use in our games must be born and use the coolest ones you come up with to really add a distinct element to your game. Maybe demons in your game world are such creatures of carnage and destruction that they only ever come into existence when something is destroyed. Nations that go to war run the even bigger risk of being overrun by demons in the aftermath of the fighting. Perhaps the entire world of your game is in a fearful stalemate, all too afraid to fight one another for fear of bringing the next demon invasion into the world.

There, I think I got enough useful ideas out of Matt’s smartass comment.

My friend Paul King (Paul_kingworks) asked, “How might the rules and conventions of traditional architecture be of use when creating magical structures?”

Now this is definitely along the lines of a question that inspires me to write an entire post, and I may come back to this in the future,  but for now I’ll try to address it as well as I can in a brief period of time. The rules and conventions of traditional architecture are going to be your friends no matter what kind of structure you’re designing, but including magical elements can allow you to break some rules and circumvent some conventions in interesting ways. What I consider some of the basic rules and conventions of architecture are ideas that most people are familiar with – symmetry, scale, and functionality for starters. When you’re designing magical structures you are the one that decides the level of intrusiveness that magic will have in the design. A building can easily have no doors when magic can be used to teleport inside of it. Some of the interesting decisions you can make are going to be how magic was used to create the structure and what benefits or even disadvantages the magic brings to the design table.

A building might be absolutely and perfectly symmetrical, down to every last stone, if magic was used in its creation. On the other hand you might use magic to create the most asymmetrical building ever seen that hangs hundreds of feet off of a cliff and is suspended by the arcane runes inscribed throughout the structure. Breaking one of the basic considerations for a structure, gravity, is a great way to highlight the use of magic. Just think about who is building the structure and why they’re doing it, but add into that the tools and materials they have at hand when they’re building it. Perhaps a powerful Wizard takes up residence in a long abandoned tower and makes it his own, he certainly didn’t build the wood and stone structure, but when a fireball takes out a large chunk of the building perhaps he repairs the tower in his own way. Any party would be intrigued at entering a tower and suddenly finding a third of the building formed out of one large continuous piece of crystal. When magic is considered you can pretty much do any kind of structure imaginable, but as always my advice is to start with what we know in the existing world and choose one or two definable differences to emphasize how magic has been used.

In the end, if you really want to have an insane wizard create a structure that doesn’t follow any rules or conventions of architectural design you are free to do so, but the end result would most likely be a bizarre and otherworldly feeling location that I would reserve for only the most insane or alien NPCs to emphasize how off their rockers they really are. Then again, when I want to introduce Frank Gehry the NPC, maybe I’ll do just that!

Thank you for the questions, and I hope to share more of this kind of Q&A in the future!

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM series.


  1. Given the recent talk of 2012 solar flares and the Earth’s magnetic poles shifting, satellites and other astral bodies could certainly have a profound affect on a world. If there were multiple moons, it would do all kinds of crazy things to tidal patterns. If there were multiple suns, perhaps the surface world never become completely dark. Or if there are remnants of an asteroid belt in the atmosphere, perhaps they occasionally fall, raining down destruction… causing inhabitants to worship chaotic, vengeful gods.

    And actually, that’s a whole fascinating topic on its own– how the traits of the natural world affect the religious beliefs of inhabitants!

  2. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what else could bring down a structure. My players are well aware of the benefits of taking out infrastructure, in preface to, or instead of, facing enemies directly. They have occasionally burned down buildings, attacked perimeter walls with magic, poisoned water supplies, and once they dropped the Tarrasque into the middle of a large city.

    Right now they’re in the upper Epic Tier, and they’ve discovered the advantages of buying large amounts of alchemists fire, and store them in crates on their airship. They recently finished off a dracolich they were fighting by having an npc drop about 200 of these from above. Sure one of the players died too, but they ressurected him later.

    They’re now considering doing this against a settlement.

  3. Danny, you realize all you’ve done is encourage me to be a smartass even more, right? 🙂

    I love the “give peace a chance or demons will kill you all” idea. THIS MUCH. It’s even competing with Bill & Ted for my favorite utopian scenario ever.

  4. “Maybe demons in your game world are such creatures of carnage and destruction that they only ever come into existence when something is destroyed. Nations that go to war run the even bigger risk of being overrun by demons in the aftermath of the fighting. Perhaps the entire world of your game is in a fearful stalemate, all too afraid to fight one another for fear of bringing the next demon invasion into the world.”

    I really dig this idea, it would be fun to see that explored as a world background where the last demon invasion was X000 years ago; so long ago in fact that no one remembers exactly how the demons invaded, only that they nearly wiped everything out. Since then, nations have been rebuilding and not only refusing to go to war but being isolationist. Once enough time has passed and leaders have forgotten why they hadn’t gone to war, they start exploring the option of expansion into neighboring kingdoms. The party coud be involved and along the way come to the understanding of how the demons invaded the first time.

  5. I used magic in my city in this way and I thought it was kinda cool. Every night a wave sweeps the city and rearranges things. Not in huge ways, but in subtle ways. Doors change positions, archways, windows, halls shift in little ways. Not so much that players can’t find things,(they can) but things are slightly different. Local townspeople embrace these effects as part of the character of their hometown.

    The reason for the nightly shifts are unknown, except to a select few. Think of the town as water. As long as it is moving it won’t change structure. (Ice or vapor) But if if stops, the water settles, and freezing can occur. When there is freezing, cracks can occur. When there are cracks, things can escape through them. And you don’t want that.

    Anyway magic in the architecture has added fun mystery and flair to the town. As long as it doesn’t stop….

  6. As a professional world builder, I’m always cautious and wondering about one point:

    How much is too much detail/information?

    There’s a fine line between the fans who want every shred of information they can get on a world and those who only want just enough for a game session or a campaign.

    So where’s that sweet spot that satisfies both camps (if you have an opinion on this matter at all)?



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