Today I saw a regional fantasy map that someone had created for their campaign. It didn’t list distances but I had the impression that it covered an area roughly 1,000 miles square. There was a grid of roads (north-south and east-west) each spaced roughly 50 miles apart (based on my previous assumption of scale). At every intersection there was some sort of community (village, city, keep, tower, etc). I thought it looked very strange.
(The thumbnail image is not a section of the map in question.)
So What Was Wrong?
I wouldn’t consider it to be realistic but I can’t say it was wrong. There are endless societal structures and each will dictate a different distribution of communities. In medieval Europe, there were large urban centers separated by fairly large distances, with a handful of small villages between them and a vast number of family farms between those. In many places, you could travel from city to city without ever being out of sight of some form of community.
That kind of urban sprawl was probably quite efficient given their situation. There was some danger from invaders but, for the most part, invaders were more focused on the cities, making the farms a potentially safer place to live.
The Fantasy World
Some fantasy worlds involve vast kingdoms and focus on the interaction between those kingdoms, with monsters existing only in remote locations. Even so, I can’t imagine knowing there are hordes of sentient monsters anywhere out there and feeling comfortable living in a small isolated farm (I’m thinking single-family or multi-family farms here). I would at least want to band together around a community center (village or town) of some sort for mutual protection. That would lead to villages spread out between the cities with clumps of farms around them. Further, I’d expect the villages to remain close (perhaps a couple of days ride) to a larger community (town or city) so as to stay within the patrolled lands of that monarch.
But what if your world isn’t so civilized? I prefer a “points of light” setting where monsters are everywhere, except where civilization has carved out an island of safety, and people are banded together against the darkness. People would live within large walled cities. There would be a number of fortified villages within sight of the city walls, serving the many farms needed to support the city. Large numbers of patrol parties would be required to protect these farms and villages. There would be no villages or other communities off by themselves as they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves.
Powerful knights (and high-level adventures) may have the ability to build a keep and defend it. After a time, this might grow into a small town and eventually develop into another city. Due to the danger involved, such undertakings would be few and far between, and always in danger of being sucked back into the darkness.
In this sort of world, there is little room for conflicts between kingdoms. Each city-state would be occupied just keeping itself safe from the evil creatures just past the tree line.
Each DM has her own vision of what type of world she wants to create. There are endless possibilities. But if there are large encampments of intelligent monsters thriving anywhere in the world, I have trouble envisioning how urban sprawl could exist to any significant level. Banding together for mutual protection seems like a necessary arrangement, no matter how civilized the world becomes (unless monsters are completely removed which changes the entire nature of the game).
So, in answer to my original question, there is nothing wrong with laying out communities and roads on a grid, everything spaced evenly apart (as in the map I described). But I can’t imagine the fantasy world in which it would be practical.