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Building Nonhuman Architecture

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
Validated User
I am currently trying to develop some ancient Dhakaani ruins (an old Eberron goblin empire) for my new campaign, and I am struggling with giving them a distinct, nonhuman vibe. Which brings me to a larger issue - any good game of exploration (whether fantasy dungeon delving or the discovery of formerly inhabited exoplanets in science fiction) will frequently deal with old ruins - or still-inhabited towns and cities. With humans, or species that are very similar to humans, you can just recycle real world architecture. But what if you want to showcase that whichever species built this location does not think like humans? In the case of ancient goblinioids on Eberron, Keith Baker has written a fascinating essay on their eusocial behavior, but how is that reflected in their architecture and city planning?

This is not just an intellectual exercise - if you can give each ruin, or each settlement from a certain species a distinct vibe, then it should drive home to the player characters that they are moving in an alien environment, which should both awe and unnerve them. A good example of this are the assorted "dungeon types" from the Elder Scrolls universe - Ayleid ruins, Dwemer ruins, and Daedric Shrines each have their own unique flavor and their own type of environmental hazards.

So, what are your thoughts on this matter? Do you have any suggestions on how to develop architectural "styles" for nonhuman species? Do you have any good examples from gaming or fiction for distinct, unique styles? And do you know of any articles or even books that might be helpful for this?
 

DarkStarling

Brilliantly Crazed
Validated User
Well it very much depends on what non-human ways they think.

Mechanical concerns are going to stay the same regardless of your species, unless you're in a very strange environment like zero gravity or make extensive use of magic. And that may be a bad idea for architecture: you don't want your building coming down from a few targeted Dispel Magics. So I would advise taking human architecture and reframing it.

For a eusocial species, there are going to be lots of communal areas and similar. Community spaces, places for kids, all that.

A good example for this kind of worldbuilding would be At The Moutnains of Madness
 

Delgarde

Registered User
Validated User
Well, the obvious thing to note is that their height will certainly influence things. Hobgoblins are roughly human-sized, but any architecture built for regular goblins is likely to be built to scale... ceilings and passageways sized for small creatures. Conversely, anything designed for bugbears has to accommodate creatures which, depending on edition, can be nearly 8ft tall. So any adventurers exploring the ruins will find that the size of things is quite varied - most places will be comfortable enough for average humanoids, but they're also going to find some parts of the ruins that seem to be built to different scales.

Also, not sure if you saw it, but the Baker essay does include one interesting comment on architecture - since all three goblin species possess darkvision, they don't have much need for windows to let light in, and their construction will reflect that. And that will also be extended to any kind of interior decoration - if they're reliant on darkvision instead of light when indoors, they've also got the limitations of darkvision, notably the inability to distinguish colour... so no painting, no written material. Anything that needed to be visible would need to be distinguished by shape... engraved into wood or stone, etc.
 

DarkStarling

Brilliantly Crazed
Validated User
Well, the obvious thing to note is that their height will certainly influence things. Hobgoblins are roughly human-sized, but any architecture built for regular goblins is likely to be built to scale... ceilings and passageways sized for small creatures. Conversely, anything designed for bugbears has to accommodate creatures which, depending on edition, can be nearly 8ft tall. So any adventurers exploring the ruins will find that the size of things is quite varied - most places will be comfortable enough for average humanoids, but they're also going to find some parts of the ruins that seem to be built to different scales.

Also, not sure if you saw it, but the Baker essay does include one interesting comment on architecture - since all three goblin species possess darkvision, they don't have much need for windows to let light in, and their construction will reflect that. And that will also be extended to any kind of interior decoration - if they're reliant on darkvision instead of light when indoors, they've also got the limitations of darkvision, notably the inability to distinguish colour... so no painting, no written material. Anything that needed to be visible would need to be distinguished by shape... engraved into wood or stone, etc.
Well they can have paintings, but it will be strong patterns in black and white. Or if they can't see pigment at all, they can paint in texture and tile, and mosaics made of different materials.

I'd also expect that they have pigments which are mostly visible in Darkvision.

Also, just because they can see in darkvision doesn't mean they don't like color. I'm picturing paintings that combine a darkvision-friendly pattern with radium highlights, or windows and courtyards specifically to illuminate paintings and art. They've got two types of vision going on at once, you can take advantage of that.

Writing, if they can't see pigment with Darkvision, can be brail or knots. Carefully punched holes in paper. Or go summerian and have their writing on clay tablets. I don't know if you've seen their surviving writings in a museum, but those things are tiny and dense. Not at all what you'd expect from the stereotypical Big Blocky Tablet.

Good point about the three scale architecture. For design in the vein, look at Zootopia. They have a city designed to accommodate from Fine to Huge, take the same idea and just scoop out the middle range.
 

Dagor

Registered User
Validated User
Things will, of course, presumably increasingly diverge from human architecture the further the inhabitants themselves stray from the "vertical stance, two arms, two legs, one head on top, ground-based locomotion only" model. A centaur village won't feature many stairs or ladders (and indeed probably not a whole lot of multi-story buildings, period), old merfolk ruins now found on dry land will reflect the fact that the original occupants could simply just swim everywhere, and a beholder lair (created by something fairly large and limbless that can float in any direction, disintegrate new tunnels even into rock as needed, has all-around vision, and probably explicitly doesn't much welcome visitors at any time) is going to be yet another thing altogether.
 

Delgarde

Registered User
Validated User
Also, just because they can see in darkvision doesn't mean they don't like color. I'm picturing paintings that combine a darkvision-friendly pattern with radium highlights, or windows and courtyards specifically to illuminate paintings and art. They've got two types of vision going on at once, you can take advantage of that.
Somewhat out of character for the goblins described by Baker... they're really not into art for the sake of art. But that's certainly possible for other species... it would be a very elven thing, to create art that played tricks with light in such a way that only a viewer with darkvision could fully appreciate it, and designing their buildings to accommodate it... perhaps alternating spaces of light and darkness in a way that that would just irritate a human visitor, but which was aesthetically pleasing to those who can see the full effect.
 

T. B.

Registered User
Validated User
Quadrupeds can scale steeper inclines with less difficulty. As such, their staircases will be steeper. Observe mountain goats.

If a species can fly, well, what use do they have for lifts or steep stairwells? They will still have shallow ramps or stairs for convenience--for the young, or the elderly.

Extremely large species may forego stairs altogether. If an elephant falls, it's a potentially lethal affair, after all.
 

soltakss

Simon Phipp - RQ Fogey
Validated User
So, what are your thoughts on this matter? Do you have any suggestions on how to develop architectural "styles" for nonhuman species? Do you have any good examples from gaming or fiction for distinct, unique styles? And do you know of any articles or even books that might be helpful for this?
At the core, you like in a box surrounded by other boxes. What I do is to work out why it would be different.

  • Position - What is it about the position of the settlement that influences the architecture? A settlement in a swamp might be built on stilts and have walkways between buildings, a causeway, floating islands with houses on or similar. A settlement in a crag might have buildings that don't overhang. A settlement on a small island might have very tall buildings.
  • Raw Materials - What raw materials are close at hand and how does this affect the architecture? A settlement in a large forest might be made entirely from wood, either with log cabins or using planks. A settlement in a rocky plain might use rocks stacked on top of each other. A settlement in a grassy plain might use woven panels as walls and doors, or a wattle and daub approach.
  • Racial Considerations - What is it about the race that changes the architecture? A big race will need lots of room, a small race less so. A race with a certain physical shape might need large, wide doors, or small narrow ones. A race that started life off underground might want building that look like caves. One that started life off on a wide plain might want large, open plan buildings. A blind race would not need windows or a light source.
  • Cultural - What is it about the culture that changes the architecture? If peasants live in log cabins, people might want to use brick instead, leaving log cabins for the peasants. If the people of Next valley Down use blue stone in their building, we will use white stone. If our grandfathers told us to make dwellings from woven grasses then we make buildings from woven grasses, no matter what these newcomers say. Our grandfathers made buildings from woven grasses, my, weren't they old fashioned and primitive, we make our houses from sun-dried bricks.
  • Religious - Does the local religion change the architecture? Brekan the Bender broke away from Arkan the Builder and broke the straight line, so that is why we don't have any straight lines in out buildings, they must be made with curves and bends, flowing around the building. Arkan the Builder said that we should use stone, rock and cement to make out buildings, so that it what we do. Our dwellings must not face westwards, as that it the Land of the Dead, so we have no windows or doors looking to the West and all houses are aligned so the walls do not face to the west. All out houses must have chimneys, so that Cathan the Mater can come in and mate with our wives, so that we can have fertile children.
  • Skill - Do the locals have the skills to make certain types of building? Can they work stone, weave grasses or make sun-dried bricks? There is no point using the local materials if you don't know how to use them.

Put these all together and you can get an idea of what the architecture could be like.
 

clarence redd

FrostByte Books
Validated User
I have worked on alien architecture rules for a while now. The over-arching idea of architecture, I would say, is protection. Protection from the weather, the sun, pests, predators, enemies - or anything else that threatens the inhabitants.

I have also realised that architecture is ’frozen behaviour’. So a species that collects a lot of food will need plenty of storage, if it lays thousands of eggs it will need well-protected egg chambers and a religious species will require areas for worship.

Which means, if you map out a species’ behaviour, you get a basis for their architecture. And more central behaviours will often - not always, though - result in larger built structures. Medieval cathedrals is the obvious example.
 

mrlost

Hi I'm Lost
RPGnet Member
Validated User
Didn’t the ancient Dhakaani fight aberrations from the Kyber/underworld? Maybe make many of their ruins include a fortified passage into subterranean caves. I think I would adopt some of sharpened blade motifs present in Planescape art to suggest a martial tradition to the architecture. As well as include concealed fortifications that could be deployed to make any room more defensible especially against aberrations. Stuff like floor grates and drains to counter slimes and oozes, recessed wall segments that could be used as cover, and short corridors with lots of twists to break line of sight possibly with dragonshard scrying foci.
 
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