I’m generally not very disciplined in creating living spaces for my characters, so I decided to make a checklist and protocol both to save time and to ensure I don’t miss critical details. The following is an example of a roleplaying-game adventure setting just off the top of my head. After it, I describe the steps I used to help me think about the details, followed by more steps for developing maps to go with my notes.
Dragon’s Lair Overview
The dragon lives in temperate pine forest within a semi-dormant cinder-cone volcano. There is a town thirty miles southwest. At the base of the volcano is a river with a large ranch beside it maintained by a pack of mangy werewolves. The werewolves supply the dragon with sheep and cattle. In turn the dragon pays them gold, and occasionally raids distant towns near the ocean to the west, from which it brings people for them to hunt, which is their favorite recreational activity. The dragon and his minions do not bother the local town because the werewolves rely on it for trade, and so the townspeople believe the werewolves to be merely a clan of surly yokels. Since the dragon ventures out rarely and only at night, the townspeople don’t know about him either. The nearby forests teem with deer and elk. The dragon and his minions have wiped out the local predators. Occasionally hunters will venture into the area and end up mauled to death by “mountain lions.” The werewolves breed the cats so that they can occasionally offer up a dead one to mollify the locals when they’ve been obliged to kill a snoop. The locals fear and mistrust the werewolves, but they’ll take their gold when the werewolves come to town. They have mostly learned to avoid their lands.
The dragon adopted a small dispossessed tribe of goblins fifty years ago when he was driven from the kingdom far to the east. The goblins quarried to expand natural caverns into the dragon’s lair and have also reworked the caves to make their own dwellings. They are constantly expanding to accommodate their growing population. The dragon takes rent from each goblin. Those who don’t pay are eaten, so the goblins set out on raids to bring the dragon treasure. This is a liability, since people are beginning to track the goblins and suspect the werewolves of harboring them. But the dragon’s not overly concerned, because he is now cooperating with several powerful local monsters including a giant chieftain, a wererat lord, and a mad archmage, and soon he and these allies will move to kill or subjugate everyone within a hundred miles.
The goblins have expanded a lava tube to allow the dragon to come and go through a main hall that leads down to a cavern where it nests on treasure. Volcanic activity that causes heat to radiate from the cavern walls keeps the nest extremely warm. The goblins have created a chimney over the cavern that joins a volcanic vent so that the exhalations of the dragon and the volcano mingle before exiting the surface. The volcano does not quite mask the signature rancid-meat dragon-smell, though, and visitors to the area may catch a whiff of it.
The goblins live in caves branching off to the sides of the main hall above the dragon’s lair. The caves angle down into the mountain, converging on a central shaft to the magma at the mountain’s root. Because of the vapors leaking up from the mountain, the goblins have walled off the shafts, but they have set iron hatches in them for garbage disposal, with an ingenious airlock system. Opening the outer hatch pulls an inner one shut on the side of the mountain core. Garbage is then loaded into a sloping shaft, and when the outer hatch is shut, the inner one opens, allowing the garbage to fall into the mountain.
There are a dozen wings off the main hall and each has standard features: its own armory, its own dining hall and larder, its own shaft to a hidden exit on the surface, its own well, which is filled by teams of goblins that descend every night to get water from the river. Each hall also contains a fungus farm, where both food mushrooms and hallucinogenic mushrooms are cultivated, and a grub farm, where big wood beetles are reared amid wood-shavings for their tasty larvae. The goblins have foraged all the snags on the mountain and for miles around, and attentive visitors to the area may note the lack of wood slash.
The goblins mostly eat game left in the main hall by the dragon: deer and elk from the nearby forests, and even whales and sea lions brought all the way from the coast. They prepare their food by slow roasting it on hot veins of rock in various places throughout their complex. These are randomly and inconveniently located and dangerous to tread on.
The goblin lairs are filled with bones used for both decoration and practical uses. Giant whale vertebrae serve as stools and small tables, scapula of large animals as dinner platters, and so on. The goblins use hides liberally, for bedding and clothing. There are many furs and lots of leather in the goblin nests. Whale oil and animal fats supply lantern fuel. Flames gutter from bowls of oil or lard throughout the complex. The light is largely too poor for humans, but goblins see well in the dark.
The various living areas of the goblins all have shafts that lead to a lower set of halls where goblins train for battle and gather for religious rites. The top shamans and veteran warriors live down there and guard their own magic treasures.
I haven’t given much thought to the farm. There are living quarters, barns, and animal paddocks. The barns contain prison cellars and cages for human prey and mountain lions. If rescued by busybody heroes, the humans will describe being carted away from their ravaged homeland by a dragon. They may or may not know their captors are werewolves, probably not. There’s a patriarch among the werewolves who maybe considers himself a peer of the dragon, the ratlord, and the archmage, but they all consider him expendable. (Or maybe his eyes are open and the others only think they are using him. Maybe he has worked out a scheme to protect himself and his pack.) The werewolves cultivate magic mushrooms of their own, but the ones from the goblins are a potent strain and they trade for them, mostly to sell again at high markup in the local town.
Step 1: Identify the physical location
What’s the climate?
What major biomes are nearby? Mountains, deserts, ocean, forests?
How mature is the habitation and any settlement around it? Is it still under construction? Is it sustainable?
What resources are especially abundant and which constrained?
Is the habitation self-sufficient, or does it rely on trade?
Is it part of a larger development that protects it or otherwise supplies its needs?
What are the natural features around the habitation?
Did the creature build its home, repurpose someone else’s, repurpose a structure not built for lodging (like a warehouse, or a minotaur’s labyrinth), or furnish a natural feature like a cave, tree, giant insect hive, or dragon’s carcass.
You need the answers to these questions to decide what you may or may not need to address in step 2.
Step 2: Identify biological and psychological needs
To decide what elements make up a habitation, first consider the creatures living there and their biology. My daughter suggested that Maslow’s pyramid comprises a useful breakdown. She pointed out that the intelligence of the creatures will determine the number of layers up from the pyramid base that you’ll need to address.
The following italicized categories correspond roughly to different levels of the pyramid, starting with the base, which addresses immediate physical needs. Arguably many of the questions could be migrated around, as they each impact multiple basic and higher-cognitive needs.
What does it need for shelter? Does it need to keep out the elements, and which ones?
Where does it get water?
What does it eat?
How does it produce food, if it does?
What does it do to prepare food?
Where does it store food?
Where does it dine?
Where does it dispose of waste?
How does it stay warm or cool?
What does it do for light?
Where does it sleep?
How does it attract mates and where?
How does it breed? What kind of maternity, hatchery, nursery facilities does it require?
What does it do for productive work? Does it specialize tasks? Does it perform its work at home? Does the work dominate the living space, as would, say, an inn or a cobbler’s domicile and workshop?
What are common foes and threats from nature (hurricanes, local volcanoes, earthquakes, tides, floods, plagues, locusts, parasites)? What does it require for strategic defense against both foes and natural threats?
What kinds of weapons does it use?
Does it train warriors?
Needs for its intimate groups
What are its religious practices?
What are its vices?
Does it have pets?
Needs for larger social groups
What kinds of sports does it engage in? Do these require specialized arenas or fields?
What are its favorite communal activities?
Does it have formal group education?
If the habitation repurposes someone else’s home, you’ll need to ask all these questions about the previous occupants.
For pets, you may likewise have to revisit all these questions.
Step 3: Create the rooms
For each question in step 2, make up an area of the habitation that addresses it – part of a room, a room, or a set of rooms. Write some notes on each area.
Write the names of these areas on index cards or scraps of paper. These labels do not need to be to scale.
Step 4: Refactor the rooms
Which rooms are in common areas and which are in private ones, and which areas, if private, require redundancy? For example, a large barracks will have multiple bunkhouses, each having its own wash and toilet facilities. It may have one communal dining hall, one chapel, and one garbage dump instead of separate ones for each bunkhouse.
Step 5: Situate the rooms logically
Food preparation should go near storage and dining. Major stores of food and water might be communally held and have dedicated guards.
Sewers and middens will be removed from sight and smell.
Sleeping and nesting areas may be communal or private, closely located or farflung, depending on the sociability of the creatures.
Are pets bunkmates for warmth? If they’re functional, like cats for killing vermin or like dogs for protection, they will probably be housed appropriately, like near granaries for cats, and in kennels near patrol areas. Again consider all their physical needs and what features will be needed to satisfy them.
Step 6: Customize important areas
Revisit the list again, thinking about individual characters. Furnish their living areas accordingly and expand your notes.
Here are some further questions:
What’s the status of each major character? Marginalized or lower-class individuals may be on the fringe of the habitation. High-ranking ones may be at the center with many guards, but also with a secret escape route.
What things are most valuable to them? How do they protect them?
What things are most personal, private, perhaps shameful? How do they hide them?
Do they have young children they personally protect? Where do the kids play and sleep?
What projects would they work on near their sleeping space? Would they study, weave, tinker? Or do they maintain a strict separation between home and work and have their work areas somewhere else?
Step 7: Draw up and key maps