The Architect DM: How to Improvise Fantasy Buildings

In an ongoing effort to help new and experienced tabletop RPG storytellers improvise and design locations, I started by talking about urban open spaces and provided what I called a design toolbox for that purpose. In this post (and most likely several future posts) I will attempt to provide an extensive and easy to use design toolbox for “Fantasy Buildings”. What type of buildings fall into that category is not set in stone, so I invite you to comment on this post or suggest on twitter (tag me with @Bartoneus) any types of fantasy buildings that I don’t cover in this post that you think should be included in future posts on the subject.

The Classic Inn / Tavern

What better way to start than with the cliche and classic starting location for most D&D parties? Your average fantasy Inn/Tavern is going to focus on the main sitting room which can take any shape that you prefer, but the simplest to start with would be a rectangle (due to structural concerns of limited span distance). The length of the rectangle is entirely up to you, but the width can be easily determined on the spot by how many tables you wish to fit in the room. For simplicity I’m going to base much of the design off of 5 foot squares because the most recent version of Dungeons & Dragons use the standard, but I will try to discuss things in feet instead of squares to make it easier.

For the most part your classic fantasy table is going to be 5 ft. wide and as long as you like (10-15 ft. typically). Then you have to account for seating on both sides of the table, so if we allocate 5 ft. on each side for seating your table space ends up being 15 ft. wide clear. Next a very important consideration is how much room for movement there is around the table. If you want your Inn to feel cramped, then assume chairs are pushed under the table and circulation takes place within the 5 ft. around the entire table. If you want it to feel more open, then provide an addition 5 ft. on each side increasing the single table to 25 ft. in space required.

The next big decision is the basis for how large of an Inn your designing, which is how many tables side-to-side you wish to have across the width of the building. For instance, a very small Inn would hold only one table per section meaning it would probably be 20 to 25 ft. wide (I wouldn’t make it 15 ft. wide unless it’s an incredibly small building, allowing for at least one side to have 5 ft. for circulation passed the tables is a good idea). On the other hand, a very large Inn might be able to hold three tables across which would put it anywhere between 55 ft. or 11 squares wide (3 tables – 15 ft. each and two 5 ft. aisles on each end) and 65 ft. or 13 squares wide (3 tables – 15 ft. each, two end aisles, and two 5 ft. aisles on each side of the middle table).

Once you start getting to the wider end of this range, I encourage you to add some small wooden columns into your Inn to make it more believable but also to give it a more realistic feel and add a little bit of interest to the location.

Okay, So the Inn/Tavern Takes More Than One Heading

Now that you have determined how wide you’d like your Inn to be, the next consideration is how long the tables will be and how many rows of tables your Inn will contain. If you’re designing a grand dining hall, then perhaps three tables wide and five rows would be appropriate allowing a total of 15 tables which would be able to serve upwards of 90 people or more at a single time (guessing at about 6 people per table). A small Inn with only one table and two or three rows could comfortably serve between eight and twelve people at a time and would be a much different feeling building.

Now that everything feels nice and decided upon, I’m going to throw a wrench in the works by suggesting that you experiment with different shapes for your Inns by bending the rectangle and making an L-shape building or by considering using different shaped tables such as smaller square or round tables. Another great way to add some character to your locations is by mixing and matching table sizes and shapes, because in reality it is unlikely that most fantasy Inns would have similarly manufactured tables spaced at perfect intervals. However, in the end the spacing described above is relevant for any table sizes and shapes, just make sure that you account for appropriate space for the table/chairs themselves and for as much or as little movement space around them as you desire.

I Guess Three Headings Will Do It

Beyond the common room your typical Inn/Tavern is going to have a serving bar and/or a kitchen that will make up the “back of the house” section of the business. If you have been reading this post and thinking that it sounds like the main room of these Inns is entirely too large to be realistic, then you’re right! I advocate providing extra space in the public/action oriented rooms of buildings to account for the movement that happens in your standard RPG. However, when it comes to other rooms it is perfectly fine to stick with more realistic proportions to create a feeling of expansion and contraction as players move between rooms. This technique is often used in other mediums such as films, where you see people running through large rooms and then they suddenly enter a cramped, crowded, loud, and noisy kitchen as they continue on their chase. This is a handy trope because it mimics real design, more space will be provided in public spaces for comfort whereas utility spaces will be sized much closer to exactly what is needed for the operation of the business.

If you add a bar space you can put it directly off of the main hall we designed first, either with or without benches along the bar, and the kitchen should be accessible from directly behind or beside the bar. If you don’t have a bar, then simply provide a small space in one of the corners/edges of the main hall that is clear of a table and provide a door or even a simple hallway that leads to the kitchen/storage areas. These spaces will often be no more than 5 or 10 ft. wide and will often only be 1/4 or 1/2 the size of the entire main hall. This is also a great location to add a back door (from the kitchen or from a back hallway) and also add some storage rooms depending on the size of the Inn. If your main hall is in the shape of a rectangle, then most likely your back spaces will create an overall L-shaped building and if your main hall was already L-shaped then the back spaces can perfectly fill in to make it a square or rectangular building overall.

The last important feature of our typical fantasy Inn is the staircase assuming you want it to be two levels), which should be placed off to the side close to the front door (oh, put a front door on the building as well, directly into the main hall and often close to bar/kitchen area with the bulk of the main hall extending away from both the front door and the bar/kitchen). The staircase should be at least 5 ft. and no more than 10 ft. wide, again depending on the overall size of the building you’re designing. If you favor simplistic design you can go with the D&D standard of 5 ft. of stairs for every 5 ft. of height, but if you favor realism then your stairs will be twice as long (5 ft. of length will only account for 2.5 ft. of height). This means a simple stair going up one story (roughly 10 ft. of height) will be 10 ft. long (2 squares) but a realistic staircase going up one story will be 20 ft. long (4 squares). I favor realism, because I’m just like that but also because it means your average staircase is going to be more of a feature and provide more division between the levels of your building which is a good thing.

If you’re designing a simple tavern then perhaps there is no second level, but for an Inn it is likely that the entire first floor is public use, business function space, and perhaps one or two private rooms while the second floor will be mostly private rooms. The easiest way to design the upper level is to have it perfectly match the plan of the first floor, but with a 5 ft. or 10 ft. hallway down the middle (or one side) and rooms off of the hallway. Rooms can be practically any size as long as they are at least 10 ft. in any given direction. A 10 ft. square room being the smallest you would see. Depending on the size of the Inn, it’s perfectly fine to cut out a portion of the lower floor that does not have rooms on the upper floor, which adds some distinctive interest to the building and also provides a roof for players (or enemies) to jump out a window onto or enter a room from.

Go Forth, Design Inns and Taverns, Be Merry!

I really hope that this has been helpful and enlightening for some of you. It’s hard to tell whether it’s something new to a majority of you or something that once you read it you just think, “duh, who didn’t know that?” and then move on. However, my hope is that in the future when you need to design this kind of building for your games, either on the spot and improvising or when preparing your adventure beforehand, you consider the design guidelines I’ve discussed here and they make designing the locations for your RPGs easier, quicker, and better for you and your players.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. Gargs454 says:

    Another great post. While at times it does seem obvious, its still nice to see that reassurance. Placing tables and spacing between them is fairly difficult for me to come up with on the fly so having this here certainly helps. A question I do have though is how much height does the average roof (assuming its sloped and not flat) add to a building? I ask because its likely my players will soon be involved in a city fight and naturally I want to place monsters on the roofs of buildings if for no other reason than to encourage the PCs to climb up the buildings themselves. Knowing the height would certainly help. I realize its generally going to be roughly 10 feet per story, but don’t know how much extra height we get from the roof as well.

  2. This is really helpful, even if some of it is intuitive. It’s just nice to have specifics defined for this sort of design. Keep these coming.

    Here’s a question: should stairs be difficult terrain?

    Also, I’d love to see some principles on government buildings, banks, and other urban public location. I’m sure you have a lot of that in mind.

  3. Back in 2e, one of my friends in my Greyhawk D&D campaign designed this beautiful tavern that his character owned, on drafting paper. He did an incredible job. It was complete with a huge bar, lots of tables and windows, a staircase upstairs to the rooms, a kitchen, and a gambling hall. Very cool. He was inspired by the personalities NPCs he’d met their and the food – you know, the RP bits – and I loved it.

  4. I’m guessing that you haven’t spent much time in old pubs in England. They have multiple rooms, nooks and crannies, and are generally interesting spaces to explore. What you describe is a typical purpose-built modern North American pub.

    If I am bothering to design a tavern, I’m far more likely to make it similar to an actual very old tavern than to something of more recent design. They are WAY more interesting.

  5. Steve: I’ve spent a fair amount of time in English pubs too. I think there’s a decent mix of both. The oldest and smallest seem to have a sectionalized, winding feel to them, but there are plenty that are more open, particularly ones that double as inns – the nook-and-cranny ones are usually food and drink only from what I’ve seen.

  6. Steve: I’ve spent a fair amount of time in English pubs too. I think there’s a decent mix of both. The oldest and smallest seem to have a sectionalized, winding feel to them, but there are plenty that are more open, particularly ones that double as inns – the nook-and-cranny ones are usually food and drink only from what I’ve seen. Plus, the oldest pubs around in most of England are 17th century at the very best. If we’re going medieval, there’s a good chance of seeing different architectural styles.

  7. I just had a thought. Drawing out maps of taverns, bars, and inns has always been a thorn in my side. On the one side, you want it to be realistic to convey that most of them are probably cramped, so the tables and chairs need to block clear lines of movement. On the other hand, you want to draw everything so that there are indeed clear lines of movement (to avoid nasty cramped and confined combat restrictions and penalties).

    Why not just draw the map as it really would be (cramped with obscured movement), but let characters move about the squares normally. Say that all physical attacks require you to use Dexterity, to account for the more dexterous character fighting more effectively. I think the more dexterous character would just clean house in a cramped tavern full of obstacles and people. The fighter still gets to use his Strength attack powers, but he simply uses Dexterity instead.

    It’s an easy solution without having to worry about a ton of penalties for cramped, squeezing characters. Anyone see any serious flaws there?

  8. Also an idea: you could just allow the players to move the furniture. It would add an interesting piece of business to the encounter, and is realistically what some stronger characters would do in that situation.

  9. Shilling says:

    Having worked in pubs in England, I can spot one thing I think you missed: the cellar!

    In absence of refredgeration technology cellars are even more important for keeping food and drink cool and so longer lasting (many large medieveal inns would have a cellar built close to a river – the passing water keeps the room very cold, and you can actually hear the river rushing by).
    They may also have a small office down there for the book-keeping, a safe, general bric-a-brac etc – all making them exciting places for adventure to take place. The cellar will typically also have a trapdoor leading to the street for taking deliveries.

  10. DarkplaneDM: Stairs can be difficult terrain, or not, but to me it depends largely on what is being done on them. If someone is just running up or down them, then it isn’t that bad but fighting on stairs can start to become a bigger issue and lead to more dangerous situations, thus difficult terrain.

    Steve: I have spent ZERO time in old pubs in England, so certainly much of what I discuss is more theoretical design rather than based on solid facts. The mish-mash (and more realistic) pubs you describe are going to be a lot more involved and harder to provide design guidelines for. Though many of the same principles apply, you’re just creating small spaces and a less organized plan in favor of realism and a unique character to the location. Thanks for sharing, as that’s a large part of how I gather information about certain types of buildings/how they’re designed!

    Tourq: I’m not a fan of the “swapping out other stats for Dexterity” because this would make the encounter a lot more painful for non-Dex based characters. However, leaving certain parts of a location more cramped and then using a rule like this could lead to a great way for Dex based characters to gain an advantage, but forcing all of the players into it whenever they’re indoors could lead to a lot of fights quickly going into the streets (which isn’t necessarily bad, but I prefer a good mix of indoor and outdoor settings). I think about location design as an equal amount movie/play set design as I do realistic location design. The functionality of the space with regards to the game and the players is a very important factor, and often trumps realism but can be informed by realistic ideas to create a happy medium between the two ideas.

    Darkplane (again): YES! Moving furniture is always a good thing to allow, as well as destroying of the building/location to change things or create new environmental features (collapsing entire buildings is always fun, and tough).

    Shilling: That’s fantastic! I did completely leave out the cellar, I simply forgot about it but also the length of the post kept growing and growing so I cut it short of some content I’d originally intended to explore (such as Inns that are more than 2 stories, which might have led me to remembering about discussing cellars). Everything you mention is fantastic, right down to the trap door to the outside and the potential for private rooms/offices in the cellar.

  11. In addition to the missing cellar is the missing living quarters. At least for an inn, and possibly a tavern, the owners very likely live in the building as well. Just giving them a room or two on the second story of the inn might work fine, but typically, at least in my experience, the owners live in a series of adjoining rooms more like an apartment and have more private living area than the standard rooms. This is also true of many shops, where the front of the ground floor is the shop itself and the back and upstairs are the living area of the shop owner and his/her family.

    For the whole fighting in cramped quarters thing, I often just ad hoc the rules. To some extent there are set bonuses and penalties, but when things get really complicated I let the player describe their actions and then just give a flat +/-2 depending on whether it should be a bonus or penalty. And if the players don’t have a strong guy throwing furniture around, I tend to give one to their opponents, just so I can clear out some space when the fight inevitably breaks out.

    I’d like to see something on temples, churches, and/or government buildings.