Designing a Village in Detail

Medieval Village ModelNot too long ago, Zalekios conquered a small village. It’s something I’ve wanted the character to do for some time. And, in our last game, my GM was gracious enough to include an opportunity for conquest. To be honest, I have no grand and evil scheme to further overpower my character through corrupt governance. Certainly, I have plans on how I’ll make use of my subjects, but the ways in which the town will benefit Zalekios are much less interesting to me than the challenges and opportunities ruling over a town will provide. The need to fortify it, defend it, and ensure that my subjects are unable to oust me while I’m out adventuring, all sound like interesting and entertaining challenges to me.

So once I had the town under my thumb, I asked my GM if it would be alright for me to make a detailed map of the village. He agreed, and we spent some time going over what my limitations were. Geographically, the village is located in a large area of plains, with no major shifts in elevation or terrain type for several miles around. Neither are there any significant bodies of water, or forested areas nearby. Honestly, I think he just made the environment as simple as possible because he’s afraid of my ingenuity. But that’s okay with me. I like a challenge.

I was also told that I had a total of 377 villagers, 27 of which could be level 1 experts, adepts, warriors, or aristocrats. The rest are level 1 commoners. Other than that, he left everything up to me. I’ve checked in with him periodically throughout the town creation process, but he hasn’t vetoed any of my decisions yet. Of course, I’ve kept everything in line with what one would find in a dirt-poor town, so he hasn’t had much to say “no” to. He and I have been playing games together long enough that we have a pretty good sense of what the limits are in each other’s games.

Now, even as a GM, I don’t often have the opportunity to truly build a thoroughly detailed community. Normally it’s simply not an efficient use of time. It’s much easier and faster to simply plot out the most basic outline of what the town is like: what kind of government it has, what its economy is based on, whether it has any unusual traditions or culture, and whether it has any noteworthy landmarks or NPCs. Everything else can be generated on the fly. Even with more detailed cities which my players return to often, I rarely do more than sketch out general “districts,” and identify the location of the main roads through the town. The port city of Niston, which the players in my Ascendant Crusade game have visited in between adventures for several years now, is still just a rough collection of squares marked “Affluent Area,” “Merchant Section,” “Slum,” “Docks,” and so on.

As a player preparing to govern this town, however, I find the idea of exacting detail appealing. Knowing precisely how many warriors are in the town guard will help me plan my defenses. And since the character in question is Zalekios, knowing just how many commoners I can eat before my breeding stock gets too low is important! Additionally, a large part of my plans involve modifying the town, in the form of watch towers, walls, work camps, etc, so I want to know precisely what I have to work with.

Example: Afghanistan population pyramid 2005I decided to start by figuring out what kind of population I have. I broke my population into three age based groups. First would be children, defined by Pathfinder as anyone under 15 years old. Last there’s the elderly, which I defined as anyone over 55. In between those two groups are the adults. So out of my 377 total population, I needed to figure out how many people fell into the three groups. I decided to use a population pyramid to work out a basic percentage. I spent some time looking for one which applied specifically to medieval villages, but didn’t have any luck finding one. So I just stuck with the closest to average I could find. What I wound up with, using some very rough estimation, is 91 children, 260 adults, and 26 elderly. I figure that, to keep things simple, I would split the genders evenly. Since my population is an odd number, I flipped a coin, and determined that the odd person out is a woman named Old Ms. Dyterran, by far the oldest person in the village at 84 years. Her children are dead of old age, but she lives with her grandson and his family. She likes to tell scary stories to children.

Outliers such as old Ms. Dyterran aside, I find these numbers to be telling of the type of community this is. With a max population of 377, it’s a very small community. People’s lives will be interconnected. But I would estimate that the community is still too large for everyone to know everyone else. Even acquaintance level relationships are difficult to maintain when there’s several hundred of them. However, when you break things down by age, the numbers get remarkably smaller. If there are only 91 children under the age of 15, then how few must there be between the ages of 8 and 12? If there’s only ten or twenty kids your age in town, you probably know all of them. That goes doubly so for the old folks, who probably all know each other quite well by now.

Moving on, I estimated that there would be 89 households, based on the adult population. That’s assuming that every household is centered around an adult couple. Children and elderly would live with said couples, as would a number of dependent adults who are over the age of 15, but have not yet struck out on their own. This would mean that there are 2.9 adults per household, 1.02 children per household, and 0.29 elderly per household. So if you walk into one of these 89 homes at random, the odds are that there are two wedded adults there, who live with one young child and one adult child. And there is a roughly one-in-three chance that one of the couple’s parents is still alive, and also living in the house. So most homes contain 4-5 people.

Once I had some ideas on what the population numbers looked like, I moved on to economics. Fun fact, if you google “Plains People,” all you really come up with are the Plains Indians, and they were nomads, so information on them was no help in this project. However, Wikipedia has a great deal of information on plains which I found extremely useful in this endeavor. While it may not be an ideal source if you’re looking for facts you can rely on, Wikipedia more than accurate enough if you’re just looking to inject a little realism into your role playing games. Turns out “plains” is an exceptionally broad category, which covers dozens of terrain types.

I decided that my GM’s goal in providing me with an endless flatland of plains was probably closest to the American prairie. Which, I learned, is excellent for farming. However, farming there required more advanced farming equipment than was available when it was first settled. Apparently, up until that point, farmers used wooden plows, but steel plows needed to be developed to handle the tougher earth. I decided one of my experts would need to be a dedicated toolmaker. Animal husbandry is also an option for people living in an area like the American prairie. Using that information, I decided that farming would be the main source of food and income for this village, with pigs and chickens providing them with some dietary variety.

The only major landmarks of note are the homes of the mayor and wizard, both of whom Zalekios killed in his secret coup. Since Zalekios is impersonating the mayor, he’s taken up that residence, and billeted his small army of 33 goblins in the Wizard’s home. I mocked up this “Town Character Sheet” in open office writer.

Town of Doverston (Zalekiosville) Character Sheet

Town of Middenheim City of the White Wolf Map Warhammer Fantasy RoleplayFrom there, it was time to draw the map. As with the previous steps, I decided to do some research first. I dug through a number of sources for maps, including my own books, the Cartographer’s Guild, and just plain old google image search. I saved a few dozen samples to reference as I went to make my own map, and used elements from several of them. However, this map, from the Warhammer Fantasy RPG, was my biggest aide. It is at the same time both extremely simple, and extremely detailed. If you step back and look at the whole map, you see what appears to be a birds eye view of a large city. Each building and side street is distinct, and you get a sense of what the town is like from a street view. There are clearly affluent areas near the parks, with larger houses, etc, along with poorer areas of much smaller buildings clustered together. Yet for all its detail, the map is drawn quite simply. Each individual building is little more than a brown shape with either an “X” or an “I” drawn on top of it to indicate the slant of the roof.

To start with, I sketched out a “districts” map, like the ones I mentioned above. It looked like a series of circles, like a bulls-eye. The small, center circle was designated for important buildings, like the mayor’s residence. It’s also the location of the town square, where meetings would be held. Around that is the residential area. This was a much larger section, which would contain most of the town’s buildings, arranged around the center of town roughly evenly. The largest circle, by a significant margin, is the farmland, which surrounds the entire town.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Town of Doverston (Zalekiosville) Map
The areas of brown within the town indicate pig pens, whilst I imagine many homes have chicken coops next to them. The small circles in the center of the two ancillary “town squares” represent wells. The two white buildings are the Mayor’s residence and the Wizard’s home. The crosshatch patterns surrounding the town represent farmland.

There are still a number of problems with this map. My scale is way off, for one thing. The more important buildings near the center of town should be much larger, while the residential buildings can be relatively small. The farmland was also truncated due to the limited size of the paper. Normally I’d remake the map before posting it, but at this point I’m not sure I’ll bother remaking this map. Even though it’s not “to scale,” it effectively demonstrates the layout of the town.

Anybody else have experience detailing small towns? Any tips on how to improve my process?

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