They tend to exist and static objects, without history or style. They're often just a resource centre for adventurers - a place where PCs buy potions or armour. They're placed without thought, and have no function of their own. Or they're outlandish fantastic places that bear no relation to the settlements we see in the real world.
We all have some experience of settlements of various sizes - it's a rare person who lives without any experiences of some kind of hamlet, village, town or city. We're an urbanised population. You may have less experience of life in a tiny settlement like a thorpe of hamlet, than you do of town or city life.
So by living in these spaces, we have some ideas about how they work. We'll usually put these ideas into effect when the adventure takes the heroes to a village or city: there's a market place, a tavern, a jail, and so on.
Often, that'll do fine. The players aren't much interested in a strung out series of farms and crofts in the valley, but only really pay attention to the coaching inn where they've stopped for the night, or the spooky manor house they're exploring. Nor do they care much about the theatre and opera while they're busy trying to persuade the temple priests to heal their dead companion (he's only mostly dead, see).
But an understanding of what makes settlements tick, what makes them arise in the first place, why they are found where they are, what you can find in them, and so on - that will help the referee running the game to improvise, and answer those impromptu questions: "Is there somewhere in the village I can get a magic sword?" or "Who's in charge here?"
Knowing how and why real world settlements work will also help you make those bizarre and outlandish places like the flying castle, or the volcano city, or whatever you come up with seem more real.
So I'm going to write a series of posts on various topics around settlements. It'll be a long project, and I may post many unrelated topics in between, but I'll tag them all "Fantasy Settlements", and link to them here.
Still to come...
- Part 3: function
- Part 4: zoning