GM Advice: How to Place Settlements in Your Campaign

Do you just sprinkle settlements willy nilly all over your setting or do you give it a bit more thought?

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


Villages and towns don’t just pop up in any old location. To make your world believable, each settlement must have a reason for existing. Giving thought to a settlement’s location adds another layer of verisimilitude to your game world which aids the players in suspending their disbelief. A settlement’s location affects its:

  • Buildings and layout.
  • Defences.
  • Economy and prosperity.
  • Feel and flavour both of the layout and inhabitants.
  • Local natural features.
  • Nearby adventure sites.
  • Rules, laws and traditions.

Commonly, the presence of one or more of the five features listed below determines a settlement’s location:

  • Fortification: Often, a kingdom or local lord builds a castle or tower in a strategic location to either act as a defensive point or as a springboard for attack. When this happens, invariably a settlement grows up around the site to service the needs of the fortification’s inhabitants. Such settlements may even be built before the fortification – the builders, masons and other craftsmen engaged to build the castle must live somewhere, after all.
  • Geographical Feature: The lie of the land often determines the location of a settlement. For example, if there is only one place to ford a particularly fast-flowing river a settlement is sure to spring up at that location. Similarly the mouth of a pass cutting through a hill or mountain range is a great location for a settlement.
  • Natural Resource: Settlements often spring up near to a natural resource. The nature of the natural resource – a deposit of rock or precious metals, fertile land, plentiful fishing or whatever often affects the size and flavour of the settlement.
  • Site of Religious Significance: If a site is of particular significance to a powerful religion, they may build a church, cathedral or monastery at the location. As with a fortification, such buildings often become the nucleus of a settlement. Here, the tradesmen and shopkeepers both tend to the need of those dwelling at the site and of the pilgrims coming to worship.
  • Trade Route: Trade is the life blood of civilisation, but often the merchants carrying out such trade must travel great distances. Whole villages and towns can spring into existence along trade routes to service the needs of these caravans.

Help Fellow GMs!

Do you consider other factors when placing a settlement? If so, share them in the comments below and help your fellow GMs build even better campaigns!

This post is part of Urban Week. Urban Week celebrates the release of GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing from Raging Swan Press which is available from Thursday 26 June. I hope you find it useful and that it enhances your urban campaigns!


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

4 thoughts on “GM Advice: How to Place Settlements in Your Campaign”

  1. Some settlements are placed on Kingdom boundaries. Others are placed to EXTEND the boundaries. If a the border is in the center of a deep forest, a number of roads and villages around and across the border will defacto extend the influence of the active kingdom.

    Some settlements were created to make trade easier to monitor and tax.

    Warm regards, Rick.

    1. These are excellent additions–thanks for making them Rick. I was thinking of including this article in an upcoming GM’s Miscellany. Would you mind if I include your additions in the article? If you don’t mind how should I credit you?

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