Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Running Village Adventures (Part 2) - Layout and Structures

In the first part of this series on villages, we looked at thematic framings of village campaigns, as well as elements of PC village party coherence. In this installment, we turn to the physical organization of the villages themselves - their placement, layout, and special structures. Determining placement and layout goes a long way toward shaping a village's character, history, observances, etc.


People (and by extension, other intelligent social creatures) live together in large numbers for a reason. Villages  are first and foremost food producers, so frequently, placement about having access to resources that would allow the community to survive, expand, and grow powerful, but there could be other reasons, having to do with collective defense, or proximity to some nearby site that the villagers find significant. Sometimes, villages also grow up in proximity of existing structures, such as castles, inns, temples, and so on.

d10 roll (to determine placement)

  1. Especially fertile soil                                                                                                           
  2. Good pastureland
  3. Proximity to two resources (e.g. abundant fish and timber)                                                
  4. At a strategic, defensible location (atop a hill, confluence, island)
  5. Along a road or path intersection (multiple intersections if indicated more than once)      
  6. Proximity to other structure (fortification, inn/waystation, church/temple)
  7. Near old hermitage/saint’s abode (pilgrimage site)                                                              
  8. Near buried treasure (possible dungeon)
  9. Near magical resource (stream, tree, thunderstone, stove, magical zone)                            
  10. Roll twice (or more, if 10 is indicated again)

To survive, villages must also have access to a water source.

d10 roll (type)

1 - 5   stream/brook                                                                                                                         
6 - 8   pond/lake
  9      large river                                                                                                                              
 10     artificial (well, aqueduct, magical)


It's important to have a sense of how your village is laid out, not only for descriptive purposes, but also to be able to situate specific encounters in a concrete landscape.

There are several types of basic village layout. First, we may mention the linear layout, which one generally finds in villages situated at road intersections, along rivers or streams, or set along a lakefront. If population growth and/or favorable location causes a linear settlement expands to several hundred people, it will become a nucleated settlement, generally clustered around a central point such as a religious establishment (less frequently around an important enterprise such as a portage station or a hostel). The houses stand facing the main thoroughfare, while the barn, haylofts, sheds, bathhouses, outhouses, gardens, wells, and other buildings are discrete structures clustered in the yard behind the main residence. In a Russian-type setting exemplified by my own Lukomorye, houses are typically 100 – 200 ft. distant from one another, and are separated by a palisade fence (you may want to scrunch them closer together). Occasionally, streets in such villages will be paved with wooden planks – a necessary aid to traffic in the muddy spring months. Rarer still are cobblestone pavements.

In certain cases, houses are connected to one another by a system of tunnels. Sometimes, houses will be separated from the street with another fence, and anyone wishing to enter the property will have to open a gate in this front-facing fence. As a rule of thumb, each household contains 1d10 people (or 6 people on average). 

Specialized workshops (e.g. smithies, where appropriate) and communal storage sheds are generally found on the village edge. Communal pasture land, the village cemetery, and the trash heap are also located on the village outskirts (the latter typically in proximity to a temple, though there is a high degree of variability here; sometimes, a necropolis can be separated from the main settlement by water or some other impediment). 

Arable land is also usually located beyond the village proper, and is divided into strips (which are sometimes rotated between households to assure fairness). To insure that the land retains agricultural productivity, it is usually rotated between being sown or being left fallow (or used for pasture). In agriculturally productive regions (like Western Europe), the three-field system is in place (one field out of three is used for growing crops in a given year). In places where arable land is more scarce (such as Russia), a two-field system may prevail. Land that is overtaxed leads to soil erosion, and ultimately, to abandoned villages. Small orchards can be located within household compounds, however.

Smaller, hamlet-sized settlements predominate in agriculturally poor areas. Such dispersed settlements are characterized by individual nuclear family households that are typically ¼ to 1 kilometer distant from the next closest dwelling (although occasionally individual homesteads will be much more distant from other settled areas). Between 10% and 20% of such households will have more than one dwelling, to account for new families started by children of the original householder. In this sort of household, the sheds, barns, and other outbuildings usually be connected to the main house. A fence encloses the entire household. In these settlements, each household has its own, small separate plots of productive and meadow land, while the local village commune is more concerned with regulating commodity production (furs, honey, amber, etc.). Owing to the small size and poor yield of agricultural land, peasants in such settlements use the proceeds from sale to purchase supplemental grain in market towns. 

Circular settlement with corrals at the center (Masai village)
Some less common settlement patterns may also be appropriate for historical and fantasy milieux. The Fulani, Bantu and Masai people in Africa, as well as the Iroquois in North America, constructed circular settlements, which were commonly surrounded by a high palisade fence. The Muskogee people of what is now the southeastern US constructed rectangular settlements, also fenced on the outside. The fenced areas in both types of settlements served as corrals for livestock, and also contained the orchards and gardens of the village residents. Such settlements also had communal buildings (such as the Iroquois longhouse). In certain cases, a village could be also constituted by an individual (or interconnected) structure, such as the pueblos of the southwestern US, or the malokas - round, circular, communal huts - of Colombia and Peru. Variations on such settlements could be applied for non-human settlements, e.g. a settlement consisting of overlapping circles of circular houses might be appropriate for a gnomish village. 
North American rectangular settlement

It is difficult to recommend a random roll for deciding settlement layouts. GMs are best advised to decide which types of layouts predominate in the cultural region where their adventuring parties are currently operating. The following table is given only for reasons of convenience (though in certain cases, settings may be diverse enough to allow for truly random generation.

d6 roll (to determine village layout)

  1. linear settlement                                                                                                                   
  2. nucleated settlement
  3. dispersed settlement                                                                                                             
  4. circular settlement
  5. rectangular settlement                                                                                                          
  6. other (interconnected structure, single tree, sunk into the earth, series of caves, star-shaped, etc).


Village population can be shaped by a variety of factors, including the local culture and population density. It is also likely to be affected by layout.

The figures given here are idiosyncratic, and are merely given as examples. They make sense for my setting, but YMMV.

Dispersed settlements will commonly contain 3d12 individual households.

Linear and nucleated settlements will commonly contain 8d12 individual households.

More densely populated areas, like medieval China, or France, will likely have larger villages.

To determine the precise population, roll 1d10 for each household (or simply multiply each household by 6 and add all totals together).

Settlements with under 300 people will usually be classed as hamlets, whereas ones with over 400 people will be regarded as villages. There is likely no juridical difference between these two (but in your world, there may be one).  

Types of Structures

Building materials for houses and other structures in a village are best determined on a case-by-case basis. Wood is probably the most common building material, and the most easily available, but in arid climes, houses are more likely to be built of clay or mudbrick. Stone structures in villages are rare, and would probably occur in villages that are proximate to quarries (or else, in a very prosperous economy). In some places where wood is less abundant, dugout dwellings predominate, though these also often have a wooden superstructure rising up out of the ground. Dwellings made of animal skins would occur among nomadic peoples, though they are occasionally found interspersed with more permanent structures. Less durable materials, such as bark or straw might also be used.

A mudbrick Arabian village

Unless the village is located in a tropical climate, it will need some sort of heating system - a stove (in individual family dwellings) or a firepit (in a collective dwelling). Stoves will be made of stone, brick, or clay. Chimneys are found in more advanced constructions - simpler ones will have smoke-holes (and walls covered in soot). Owing to geothermal forces, dugouts will have warmer temperatures in the winter even without heating (which accounts for the main reason why they were built, even in paleolithic times). 

A neolithic dugout in North America

Size and apertures. As a rule of thumb, assume that each individual house is roughly 265 square feet (25 square meters). Structures with slanted roofs will be roughly 15 feet tall at their highest point. The most basic dwellings will consist of a single room often divided into a "men's side" and a "women's side"  (or perhaps with separate sleeping lofts for each). Larger or richer structures will have separate chambers (perhaps a mud room, and a special (unheated, therefore "bright") room for receiving guests. Houses will also have cellars for storing perishables (or occasionally, valuables). Kitchens would be rare in all but the richest households - the cooking is done on (or in) the stove or fireplace. Most houses have four windows, but remember that houses are difficult to heat (so windows were usually small). Also, glass would have been very expensive. Windows will have shutters and in summer, screens of gauze or similar material. Roofs can be made of logs, wooden planks, shingles, or straw (or other dry vegetation known as thatching). Toilet facilities would be located in an outhouse, in the yard. 

The size of collective dwellings depend on the number of families that live in them. An Iroquois longhouse could house more than 20 families, and be up to 100 meters (330 feet) long, and 7 meters (23 feet) wide. These are divided into "booths" for individual families. The structure would be covered in animal skins for insulation. The structure lacked windows, but had doors at either end.

An adobe pueblo
Adobe-type structures usually measured 65 to 100 square feet per room. Each had a flat ceiling around 12 feet high, and a cone-shaped oven. It was connected to other rooms, by ladders. The whole structure had a pyramid-like shape, and the largest could have up to five stories. They were centered around a collective courtyard. Islamic-type dwellings were of a similar size and construction, but rather than being laid out vertically, they were arranged horizontally within a jumble of courtyards and fences. (see image above)

Aside from family or clan residences, villages composed of individual family households typically had barns, storage sheds, haylofts, and the like. Sometimes, these abut the house, forming an "L" or "U" shaped structure, sometimes, they are free-standing structures in the yard, which is usually surrounded by a fence or enclosure of some kind. Typically, these structures are smaller than the house itself. The lower floors of haylofts were used to house farm animals. For a typical family, assume the ownership of 1 cow or its equivalent (3 pigs, sheep or goats), as well as 2d6 adult chickens. Note that in places with harsh winters, animals were often stabled inside the house during the cold months (since the barns were unheated).

In villages with a circular structure, livestock will be housed in circular pens, which are in turn surrounded by houses.

In larger villages, granaries are located on the outskirts (or are laid out as separate "granary villages" beyond the village proper). This was done in order to to preserve the village’s most important source of wealth should a fire break out in someone’s hut. Granaries usually had two stories in order to allow the grain to dry, and to preserve it from floods and rodents. The upper story was accessible by an internal or external ladder. Such structures were also used to store or dry fish or animal pelts in places where these formed an important part of a village's livelihood.

A Russian bathhouse
Depending on the culture, a village might also have a bathhouse. It is typically communally-owned and managed. It must be located near a body of water, though it may be separate from the rest of the buildings in the village. It and contain a stove or firepit of some kind. In villages that feature communal housing, the bathhouse or sauna may be replaced by a sweat lodge. Bathhouses are sometimes gender-segregated.

Villages with collective residences will sometimes have separate structures for cooking food, a medicine hut, and perhaps some sort of sacred space (like the underground kivas for rituals in Native American adobe villages).

Overall, it is difficult to devise any kind of universal 'random buildings table' for villages, because so much depends on culture, climate, and population. Occasionally, it may be useful to have such a table in the case of chases (someone runs into a random building), or simply determining layout on the fly (if a village has not been mapped). In such cases, the following tables may suffice, if only as blunt instruments:

Villages with individual residences:

d20 roll

  1 - 9      residence                                                                                                                         
10 - 13    barn
14 - 15    shed                                                                                                                                
    16       outhouse
 17 - 18   granary*                                                                                                                         
    19       bathhouse*
    20       special**                                                                                                                          

* - if appropriate. Treat as "residence" if not present
** - see below. If special structures are absent, treat as residence

Villages with collective residences:

d20 roll

 1 - 10      residence                                                                                                                        
11 - 14     animal enclosure
15 - 16     cooking structure                                                                                                           
17 - 18     medicine house
    19        sacred space*                                                                                                                  
    20        special**

* - if appropriate. Treat as "residence" if not present
** - see below. If special structures are absent, treat as residence

Special structures such as ice houses or smokehouses may be present in certain villages as well.

An Iranian ice house

Specialized Structures

People who live in villages focus on primary production, so the division of labor there tends to be quite primitive. Still, although they are not urban centers, villages can occasionally attract certain specialists, and may possess specialized institutions.

To determine the availability of specialized structures in a village, roll a d20 for each one on the list below. If the die roll equals or exceeds the DC, the village possesses the specialized institution. For every 100 people in the settlement, add 1 to the roll. For every 5 points the roll exceeds the DC, there will be an additional structure of that type. Note that not all specialized institutions are appropriate for all settings (e.g. horse stables cannot be found in settings without horse domestication).

Structure Type   DC

Church/temple       13                                                                                                                   
Tavern                     14
Smithy                     18                                                                                                                   
Horse stable            19
Hostel/inn              20                                                                                                                    
Mill                         21
Postal Station          23                                                                                                                    

Brief descriptions of specialized structures:

Church/temple. Obviously, the precise character is setting- and culture-specific. Assuming a standard "church"-type structure, it will probably be the largest and tallest building in the village, located at or near the center, perhaps 25 - 30 feet in height, roughly rectangular or cruciform in shape, and with a spire or dome of some sort. If the village is prosperous enough, it may be built out of more durable materials (i.e. stone rather than wood or clay, though this is far from always the case). There may be an accompanying tower (belfry, minaret, stupa), etc. Obviously, different religions may call for an open-air temple, a closed structure hiding a holy-of-holies, a grove, grotto, an underground space (like the kivas, above), and so on.

Horse stable. This will be located in a normal stable, albeit of a large size. It will probably be found in villages that are proximate to a noble estate, or some sort of waystation. Assume 1d6 horses for every 100 population.

Hostel/inn/tavern. Historically (and contrary to the standard fantasy and RPG tropes), these were simply be large households that put up or feed people on the side. They probably don't even have a name. Eating quarters will be together with the occupants, while sleeping quarters will usually be in empty rooms, barns, or sheds, together with other visitors (if any). Of course, feel free to have your Tudor-style cottage with a thatched roof, and call it the Green Dragon, if that suits your needs.

Mill. Mills will be found only in the largest villages in proximity to the largest towns (elsewhere, grinding is done by hand - historically, windmills are actually relatively late technology). They are likely the tallest structures around, and can reach 30 feet in height. Mills are located away from the rest of the settlement, and near the fields. Windmills are designed roughly like granaries. An internal ladder (or an external ladder leading to a platform allows access to the millstone, shaft or spokes, in case anything should go wrong. Suspended above the platform are wooden funnels into which grain is poured prior to milling. After milling, the flour descends down a chute into the same kinds of wooden storage bins that are found in a granary. Some have external chutes, if customers commonly store flour themselves, but in villages where this is done by the commune, mills sometimes replace granaries as storage facilities. Water mills are somewhat more rare, and less imposing. They stand on water’s edge, and are elevated on stilts on the water side, while the other side is built into the riverbank. The main entrance to the water mill is on the higher level, while the bins are located on the lower floor, as far from the water as possible. The miller’s family usually lives in a hut that abuts or stands near the mill itself. 

Postal station. This is likely a large household, that also caters to a messenger service (whether the Mongol Yam, or the Shire's Message Service). The establishment may be indistinguishable from a hostel, but it is likely combined with a stable, allowing messengers to change horses very quickly. The proprietors likely have the protection of powerful states or potentates. Alternatively, a postal station can be a portage station - a business that specializes in the overland transportation of goods from one water source to another.

Smithy. Smithies are also located near the village outskirts, near a body of water (to control the fire and to quench metal). The area of the smithy is roughly comparable or slightly smaller than that of regular hut, but with a much lower roof (which also tends to be flatter). The forge, along with the bellows, is located opposite the entryway. Unlike house stoves, it is always attached to a chimney. The anvil stands in the center of the room, while the slack tub stands in front of the anvil, toward the door. There is a dirt floor, a larger window next to the entryway, and smaller windows on the adjoining walls. Tongs, hammers, chisels, hardies, and other tools hang on the sidewalls when not in use.

* * *

Hopefully, this material is neither too generic, nor too specific (the base text was taken from my own setting description), and has succeeded in generating ideas to help design up different kinds of villages.

In the next installment of this series, we will take a look at modeling village social relations, with a view to making them interesting bases for adventuring parties, as well as for 'social crawl'-type adventures.


  1. I love this series. Mentally adapting to Hyperborea as I read. "So the thew wagons would be in a central mud corral, near an apiary in case sugar is needed . . ."

  2. Haversack! I lost track of you! Where are you going after G+ shuts down? I want to look in on the thew wagons from time to time...

  3. This series is proving really useful fodder for ideas! Thank you for the more realistic depictions of village life. Putting some of this stuff into my game this weekend and we'll see how it goes...