Fantasy Settlements 1.5 - Excessively Urban?

Since last Fantasy Settlements blog post, I've not been idle - I've been digging around in population data and settlement models, and making spreadsheets.
Despite how dull that seems, I think that some of what I found may be interesting!

D&D demographics are post-industrial
D&D and derived d20 fantasy games give us a bunch of settlement types / names to work with, as I mentioned last time:

  • Metropolis, large city, small city, large town, small town, village, hamlet, thorp
These settlements are assigned population sizes, purchasing limits, and so on.
Notice that we only have three types of rural settlement, and 5 types of urban.

When I studied urban development and settlement theories at school, one of the key theories was Christaller's central place theory. (I suspect I remember it so well through a combination of this topic being one that my father helped me understand by getting me to explain it to him, and the fact that it lays out settlements on a hex grid...)

I'll not bore you with all the details, but simply put, he proposed (and then to some extent proved in the real world) that settlements grow according to their place in a hierarchy - the settlements that provide the most important or unique services grow largest and influence a wider area, while those with common services are less influential and grow less. That is: there are many farms (small settlements), but only a few seats of government (probably in a metropolis).
You can look up more details, of course, but the practical issue I want to talk about here is that he said that each order of settlement would be served by on average six of the next lower order: a town would be surrounded by six villages, roughly equidistant, and those villages by six hamlets, each, and so on.

When I applied this idea to the categories from the d20 fantasy rules, I found that for 1 metropolis, I had:

  • 6 large cities, 
  • 36 small cities, 
  • 216 large towns, 
  • 1 296 small towns, 
  • 7 776 villages, 
  • 46 656 hamlets and ...
  • 279 936 thorps
The d20 settlement rules give the following guide to population sizes:

  • metropolis, 25000+ 
  • large cities, 10001 - 25000
  • small cities, 5001 - 10000
  • large towns, 2001 - 5000
  • small towns, 201 - 2000
  • villages, 61 - 200
  • hamlets, 21 - 60
  • thorps, 20 or fewer

When I put those population data into my numbers of settlements, I got the following average:

  • metropolis, 37500
  • large cities, 105 003
  • small cities, 270 018
  • large towns, 756 108
  • small towns, 1 426 248
  • villages, 1 014 768
  • hamlets, 1 889 568
  • thorps, 5 598 720 or fewer

That gave me a total urban population of 2,594,877, total rural population of 8,503,056 (rural being anything smaller than a town), in a total population of 11,097,933. In other words, a 23.4% urban population.
(This is of course based on a relatively small "metropolis" - bigger metropolises will tip the balance even further.)

Now, when I looked at real world data, I found that this level of urbanisation only started after the industrial revolution. Before that, there just weren't the transport links to make massive urban centres sustainable. We couldn't get fresh food to the city markets fast enough to support city dwellers on a large scale.
Prior to the industrial revolution, the split of urban to rural population was more like 1%, rising to 10% over the first hundred years of the agricultural revolution and early industrial era.
A 23% urban population is more like the level we saw in Europe around the mid to late Victorian era.

Urban sprawls need magic or technology
So it seems that the top heavy set of settlements that the standard rules give us means that the d20 fantasy setting is out of kilter with its usual pseudo-medieval idyll. It's a more modern balance, based on a time of technological advancement, railways and mechanised farming.

Of course, maybe a wizard did it.

In some high fantasy settings, magic can take the place of industrialisation, so that the early industrial or even modern distribution might be appropriate. Consider the level of magic, and the ability to rapidly travel. Food production might even be magically achieved. It might even be possible to exceed our real-world modern level of urbanisation.

But I think it's important that if you decide to have a wizard do it, you know what they have to do.

Next: Population density
Back to my intended schedule, in which I put some of this research into practice.


  1. According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_London#Population

    In 1350 London's Population was around 25k-50k (D20 Metropolis Levels)

    The Industrial Revolution didn't start until 1760 when Londons population was 700k.

    Of course my research is flawed because a> I spent about 15 minutes on it and b> I did it on wikipedia. But, I thought you might find the alternative numbers interesting also.

    1. Yup, I was looking at historical population levels, with the UK in mind in particular.
      As a percentage of the whole, despite that large urban population in London, only 1 or 2 in 100 people are living in towns and cities up till 1801, when the urbanisation starts to swell those centres.

      I'm not saying that big cities aren't possible in a pre-industrial setting, just that the rural population vastly outnumber them.

  2. Heh, this reminds me of the Unforgotten Realms cartoon. Sir Schmoopy approaches a house and says he rings the door bell, only to be told no such thing exists in a fantasy world. The argument then springs up in such a world with abundance of magic that surely a magical incantation would have been created to cover such a need.

    I think the biggest thing in all urban areas is how they handle sanitisation and waste management. Theres just too much poo from all those people and animals, and no where for it go - unless a wizard magics it away? :p

    1. Haha! Of course, pulley bells had been around for ages before we had electric door bells...

      In Victorian cities, the build up of horse poo was terrible - a whole industry existed to shovel it away and use it for fertiliser.
      When the motor car was invented, it was hailed as a clean solution to the filthy horse!