The Architect DM: Give Your Cities Some Architecture

Not every D&D campaign or world map includes nations or regions that break the larger mass into more digestible pieces, but this is one of the features that I’m glad I chose to be a primary element of my current D&D campaign. Inspired by a 3rd Edition D&D campaign run by our friend Dennis (aka The Main Event) where the nationality of the PCs became one of the most memorable parts of the game for me and ended up factoring into the ongoing plots in interesting ways, I decided to present my players with a world divided into various nations each with a unique flair and often divided by racial distinctions. However, one of the elements that I failed to strongly present to my players and that I’m going to discuss today is the idea of giving a unique design and feel to each of those nations when it comes to locations and buildings.

I’m not going to say that every D&D game should have nations as I’m discussing them, but when it comes to precedents the worlds of Tolkien and Robert Jordan are strongly grounded in the idea of conflicting nations so it can’t be a bad idea to build on what they used to improve their stories. I am currently reading through the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan which is one of the main reasons this topic is so fresh in my mind. Throughout the books Jordan does an excellent job of describing (in detail, at length, constantly…) the different styles of architecture, fashion, and attitudes that are prevalent in each nation.

Details Grow Over Time

At first the intricate details that Jordan presents are simply descriptive and help us visualize specific people and places that we are reading about, but without knowing much about the nation as a larger concept they remain simple descriptions and are quickly forgotten. After numerous books and thousands of pages (I’m currently on the 11th book in the series, to give you an idea) these descriptions begin to grow into definitions and characteristics. What this means is that while Jordan will still go through the effort of describing the dress styles or architecture of a specific region, the reader already has a pretty damn good idea of what it’s going to look like from the precedents he has created. I have a strong feeling this same technique could become incredibly valuable over the course of a long campaign or several games set in the same world.

While I attempted to do this in my own game, the one place I fell short was on the architecture of each region. As ironic as it may be, in my own campaign I have developed a style of DMing that does not focus very much on the buildings or architecture. That said, if one of my players reads this and chimes in that they actually do have a very good idea of what the buildings in my game world look like, then I may just be harder on myself with regards to architecture (because damn it, I can do better)!

From Character to Architecture

This discussion is a fairly linear progression from my post back in April titled Give Your Cities Some Character. While that post presents some ideas on world building and how to introduce some interesting elements into your game’s settlements, what I’d like to discuss today is how you can specifically apply architecture to the same ends. As with nearly everything I discuss in this series, the way it is presented to the players is the key element and I feel that with architecture you need to start on the broadest scale possible. Have a town where almost every single building is perfectly square or circular, or other simple but large in scope ideas that can quickly convey an idea.

The absolute best example that comes to mind for this is the way Hobbiton was presented in the Lord of the Rings movies, all of the buildings had circular doors and floor layouts. Take that concept and apply it to nearly anything, for example any regular D&D game could use square doors for dwarven buildings and it makes perfect sense, dwarves are short and wide the same as their doors!

Beyond the Simple Details

After you’ve thought about some of the simple and large scope ideas, you can begin to look at the more complex elements that may influence the architecture of your cities. I always advise starting with a handful of defining elements about the region or city and tying those into the designs as firmly as you can. If you’re designing a dwarven settlement than short heights, stone construction, sharp angles/straight lines, readiness for battle, and an overall stubbornness can all be tied into a pervasive architectural style that could really start to define things in your player’s heads.

Like many elements I’ve discussed in this series, this concept can be best introduced to players through their interaction with it in the middle of a game. For instance if your players discover in the middle of an encounter that dwarven buildings are much more readily equipped for defense against attackers they may remember the details of the architecture more intimately then they would through a simple description from the DM. I would be willing to bet that details like these are easily forgotten after the first 2 or 3 adventures in any D&D game, but once the players have revisited the region that many times they should begin to gain an inherent sense of what defines that region just through the architecture and locations that you present them.

Inheritance of the Game

It would be my hope as a DM that after enough adventures in the game world that the players start to gain an inherent understanding of the game world, and I feel that defining regions and specific aspects for those regions is a fantastic aid in this effort. The more your players understand the game world, the less effort they have to put into envisioning things on their own and as a result the more they share in the world building whether or not it is a conscious effort. One of the best ways to do this might be to have your players DM their own adventures in your game world, literally sharing the world building and as a result improving everyone’s investment and understanding in the game world, but most people wouldn’t have that luxury available to them.

My attempt at building this kind of set up is going to be slightly different. I am currently 45 adventures into my ongoing 4th Edition D&D campaign, which started in July 2008 and will likely continue through the rest of 2011. After 3 years of running the same game, I am definitely exciting to move on to other things but I am also planning the next step for our D&D game as well. I don’t plan on running another extended campaign for quite some time, but what I am going to try is several shorter episodic campaigns that highlight certain regions or even specific periods in the history of my game. My hope is that with the players already familiar with the game world and the various regions, the episodic campaigns will present them with content that is familiar enough they will feel invested in it from the beginning and be able to share in the storytelling and world building along with me.

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  1. Clear and concise as always. The “take one idea and run with it” advice is great. As a DM, I think its often really easy to get carried away with the details. The key is that in all likelihood, unless they are undergoing extended adventures in a particular area, the players are unlikely to remember more than one or two details about a region anyhow. Using the Hobbiton example, I think most people would be able to recall the short, round houses with round doors and layouts. However, I’m not sure many could really describe the details of the inside of Bilbo’s house or the inn. They might remember “cluttered with maps” but won’t be able to tell you what the people in the paintings were wearing, etc. Ultimately, what people take out of it is “short round houses”. *

    I think this simple philosophy can then be carried throughout much of the rest of the campaign. The buildings of the dwarven nation are built for defense. The dwarves themselves are gruff and constantly scanning for a threat. The halflings have short round houses and always have time for a good meal or a good drink. etc. etc. You don’t need to go into great detail about the colors they prefer to wear, or the types of jewelry, etc. (unless its somehow key to your adventure/campaign).

    You can then take those simple “quick-hit” thoughts and expand on them when the PCs encounter the region. The halfling mayor welcomes the newcomers over a grand feast. The dwarven king greets them wearing his armor and with his axe at his hip and armed guards all around him and interrupts the PCs when they try to give a long, flowery, greeting steeped in flattery. etc., etc.

    *naturally, mega-fans of the movie may well remember every single detail, just generalizing here.

  2. This is my favorite topic. In fact, I’m currently writing a new (eleventh…?) draft of my setting’s Player’s Guide document, including a full page description of the history, culture, and technological/artistic aesthetic of each race. It’s so helpful to give each race a little hook, something to keep them unique. When I started this setting, I decided, “you know what, I’m going to make half-orcs have an arabian feel.” Consequently, the half-orcs my players have interacted with all have names like Jotnaal, Anulis, and Mahualod. They use scimitars, wear cloth over their hair, and their people are mainly migrant merchants. Sometimes I take the time to describe the details, but sometimes I’ve straight up said, “this group of half-orcs have a sort of arabian feel.” Now they know.

    Reskinning is key. Don’t just give your players a scimitar. Give them a scimitar that came from a specific place, made by a specific culture. It should be made of obsidian or polished iron, or it should have fine tassels dangling from the scabbard, or it could have a notched or broken tip. These details do stick with players, at least moreso than telling them that a certain henchman was wearing a linen tunic rather than a woolen one.

    In my opinion, what you’re trying to achieve isn’t players remembering all the detailed descriptions. You’re trying to help them get a certain feeling. Key words will inform them how to imagine stuff, and that mental image is what will stick with them, and not necessarily in a specific way. They’ll just get a certain emotional response to NPCs. It’s all based on your descriptive approach. Not all of it is conscious on their part, but it has to be on yours.

    Yeah, my players make fun of the complex names I give to aztec-ish cities (Caraquetularác), but they at least know that that city has a flavor. It’s not Riverdale or Tavern Town. I’ve noticed things are most memorable for them when I demonstrate cultural nuances through conflict (like in an early Firefly episode when Mal gets in a barfight over the failed independence movement – it sticks with you that he hasn’t let the war go).

  3. anarkeith says:

    One of the techniques I use to help regionalize things in my campaign is naming patterns. For example, in the capitol city the noble houses are named after the metro stations in Athens, Greece. They have an exotic flair, and sound like they come from a consistent culture. Locals generally have names drawn from Mediterranean sources. Repurposing existing cultures is a handy way to paint your world in broad strokes, and since they’re vaguely familiar (my players weren’t overly familiar with Athens’ transit system) they help players discern cultural differences.

  4. Ivan Stoikov - Allan Bard says:

    Interesting post! Yet, I still cannot understand why some many people prefer games to good fantasy/sci-fy books? Many of them are much better than any game, no matter how great interface, heroes, battles, etc there are… Such a wisdom amnd good thoughts we can find in books no one could include in a game?
    I’d like to add a suggestion of mine: How about using sites like,, fiverr, etc? They could be a good way for promotion and “removing” stupidity in streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge magnets, cups, etc. of the kind My Boyfriend kisses better than yours, FBI – Female Body Inspector, etc… Every author could use some good, wise quotes from his/her works, some poems, illustrations, etc. I’m allanbard there, I use some of my quotes, illustrations, poems, like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hottest fire there’s a bit of water, All the problems in the world lead to one – narrow-minded people, Money are amongst the last things that make people rich, or
    Love and happiness will be around,
    as all the chains will disappear!
    And Mountaineers will climb their mount,
    and there won’t be any tear!
    I guess such lines are uch better than the usual stuff we see every day? Best wishes! LET THE WONDERFUL NOISE OF THE SEA ALWAYS SOUNDS IN YOUR EARS! (a greeting of the water dragons’ hunters – my Tale Of The Rock Pieces).

  5. Shilling says:

    It always warms my heart to see an Architect DM post pop up.

    Nice article and good advice as always. I’d add my usual snippet about making details and flavour part of the adventure. In this instance… maybe an important NPC stands out from the crowd becuase – being a traveller – their dress is so different from the locals. In fact the PCs are likely to be the same, and they’ll need local clothing if they want to blend in and not attract attention.

    Or the dwarfen building thing. Suppose the PCs are expecting an assassination attempt, either on themselves or someone they are protecting. If they have paid attention to the different racial architecture then they would do well to choose the home of a dwarf friend as a safe house, since it will be so much easier to defend.

    I’d also suggest, as always, looking at real world settlements for inspiration (especially unusual places like the wonderful photo in the article above) and also to see how the architectural style has developed in reaction to its environment. In cold places with lots of rain or snow, steep roofs are needed. In deserts, buildings are often “reverse ovens” whose interiors provide areas of dark respite from the heat. Nomadic people or herders are likely to use dung as a building material (don’t worry it doesn’t smell once it’s dry…). A city whose expansion is curtailed by the surrounding mountains will have very tall buildings to maximize floorspace. And so on. Style and problem solving are linked, and so by describing one thing you are actually giving several bits of information about a place.

  6. I’ve been toying with the idea of a dwarven city that feels less “dwarven” the further from the center of town you move. For example, the center of town are the giant buildings that one wonders how a short humanoid even got up there to inlay the mosaic of Moradin into the overhead. Once you leave the very center of town, the buildings are shorter, but they still have the harsh angles that make it dwarven. These are practical buildings. When you get to the outskirts of town, the homes look like a temporary settlement (at least by Dwarven standards), things like raw rock stacked, and caves made into homes.

    This would represent a loss of ancient techniques over time and the durability of the old ways.


  1. […] of a wooden wasp.” I also enjoyed the latest entry in the Architect DM series, which covers city architecture and the way little details can provide your players with a rich understanding of the campaign […]