Rural Realms Architecture (Part One)

By Ed Greenwood

The blue mists of the portal faded around them. "My lord," the Dragon Queen murmured, staring up at windows she did not know, "where in all blessed Toril are we?"

Some streets in Waterdeep resemble a row of walled castle keeps interrupted by clusters of tall, narrow, Tudor-framed houses with multiple upper floors that cantilever out over the streets on which they front. Many streets in Secomber look like pleasant rows of tidy Tudor (outside dark wood framing, amid pale or white stucco) one- or two-level cottages. However, it's very wrong to think every settlement in all the Realms looks like either sort of street.

The Dragon of Cormyr looked at his wife with something akin to a frown deep in his eyes. "Why, Fee," he replied, "in Immersea, of course. Right outside the back door of the Five Fine Fish. Don't you --"

And then he stopped, grinned rather sheepishly, and added, "No. Of course not."

Filfaeril crooked an eyebrow at him.

"No," she agreed, "of course not. Unlike certain parties to this conversation, I haven't yet been thrown out of this particular tavern."

In settlements anywhere in Faerûn, local materials predominate, because they're easiest and cheapest for builders to get. Anyone standing on a street in most cities can see a wide variety of buildings. This variety of building styles is due to long-established overland trade: Merchants and pilgrims see things they like elsewhere and bring the ideas home, or relocate to distant places and want to dwell in "what they're used to." Moreover, buildings are almost always raised individually: Except in rare instances of royal or temple architecture, there's no such thing in the Realms as identical buildings standing side-by-side.

In rural (to most Realms speakers, "backland" or "upcountry") areas buildings tend to be simpler and more alike, thanks to a limited array of building materials and fewer builders. These builders often cling to what they know or copy what they can see locally.

In the countryside of the Sword Coast North and the Moonsea North, log buildings are the norm. If space permits (in other words, in almost every isolated farmhouse, or "steading" in Realms-speak), these homes are dug into hillsides or protected from prevailing winter winds by "stormshields" (berms) of sheltering earth planted with strong, squat sorts of trees. Trees are usually planted to protect entrances (to keep dwellers from being entombed alive by huge snowdrifts), and roofs are steeply pitched to prevent too much snow from building up and causing a collapse that crushes, suffocates, or buries the folk inside.

Barns are similarly protected when possible, and root cellars are dug into hillsides where stones are available to line them, which helps keep entrances secure against digging animals. Sometimes the cellars are dug right into the dirt floors of homes where stone isn't so handy or easily won.

A mud or mud-mixed-with-pebbles "slather" (stucco) is usually used to seal all gaps between the logs. In many places, local saps or boiled-leaf distillates are added to slather to make it more glue-like and slower to dry, crack, and crumble away; slather must usually be reapplied in at least one place in every building, each autumn. Where there are professional builders (those who take coin to raise buildings for others, as opposed to building their own structures and just hiring others to help), the precise mix of slathers tend to be jealously guarded secrets. Building timbers are usually squared, rather than left round, to minimize gaps that let cold breezes in -- unless a builder is in a hurry, or lacks help enough, and just wants to get the walls up now. "Shieldwalls" (stockades of logs) are common where wolf packs, goblinkin warbands, and other predators are a problem (in other words, in most rural northland areas), and short walls of this sort are also built to serve as windbreaks where natural topography doesn't provide one.

Window glass (made from fine sand) is widely known in the Realms, but expensive. In Calimshan and Tethyr (and less prevalently elsewhere, as ideas spread from the Sword Coast), windows tend to be rectangular, with rough-cast metal frames crossed diagonally by three or four bars, with small panes of glass leaded into place between the bars.

Where metal is dear but wood plentiful, "layer" windows are made by carving out a "tray" of precise shapes to hold available pieces of glass (loosely, to allow for the wood to expand and contract with the seasons). The pieces are held in by an overlapping-their-edges layer of wood scraps, or even a "sheet" of wood precisely carved.

So glass pieces and fragments of all sizes are sold in markets all across the Realms. Merchants transport these wrapped in oilcloth or scraps of old clothing and laid in layers in wood "presses" of boards bound tightly together with leather straps. Merchants often sell them in "tomes" (named for the large books they resemble): two pieces of wood, one hollowed out with chisels to form a cavity before the second piece is fastened over it to form a pocket, for carrying to the building where it will be used. Large panes of glass are rare and expensive luxuries to most rural folk, and even urban windows tend to have long narrow panes (vertical, diagonal, or horizontal) with large expanses of glass reserved for palaces and the mansions of the very wealthy, or for a single "grand window" in slightly less luxurious residences.

Mica can be gleaned in some areas (notably near Loudwater and Secomber, and in the Vilhon and the Vast) for use in windows, but most poor rural folk have windows that are simply holes in the wall covered with shutters: stout winter shutters on the outside, and louvered shutters on the inside. To keep out dust and insects, old clothing is wetted down and hung over the louvers, stretched tight and overlapped to prevent gaps.

Not bored yet? Remember, your character's survival could depend on knowing how fast yon roof will burn, or if that window over there can be plunged through in one swift, clean dive! Our next column will examine roofs. Yes, roofs.

© 2003 Wizards of the Coast, Inc. All rights reserved.