I'm at the point in my worldbuilding where I can kind of see the general contours of the history of the region I am working on. However, I always have trouble translating this into discrete cities and nation's.

I have a complex coastal region with a cool temperate climate that spans around the length of the West coast of the US from Seattle to San Francisco.

I know general things like the colder south will have less settlements, and therefore less city-state polities, and that the cities will all be near the coastline and its various fjords and islands. I also know the polities will likely be small city-state entities because of the fragmented geography.

But what I don't know is how to look at a region that I have all of these general geographical, environmental, and to some extent historical guidelines down, and see how many cities and nations will actually be in that area to start fleshing out an actual history.

I'm wondering if any of you have any guidelines or insight of your own that can be applied to this problem. Thanks.

  • $\begingroup$ Have you ever looked at a map of Ancient Greece? (Click to embiggen. Note that on the linked map the tick colored contours are not polities, but linguistic dialects. The borders of the polities are thin dotted colored lines.) Note that the exact same geographical area later became a province of the much larger Roman Empire, then a province of the Ottoman Empire, and is now a member-state of the E.U. And the word "nation" did not acquire its modern meaning until the 17th or 18th century. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 2, 2018 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ Point taken on my use of the word "nation" in this context. $\endgroup$
    – user47264
    Feb 3, 2018 at 0:14
  • $\begingroup$ Can you describe the geology a bit further, or put in a map? It's a bit hard to understand, especially when you say "colder south". Is this related to your other question? if so, you should put a link to that one in this question. $\endgroup$
    – user41674
    Feb 3, 2018 at 17:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Many of the general things you know aren't necessarily so. Take for instance your example of the US coast from Seattle to San Francisco: many cities & the bulk of the population aren't on the coast - Portland, the Willamette Valley, Sacramento, &c - much of which is comparatively unpopulated. Nor is there that much of a north-south disparity, especially pre-Silicon Valley. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 3, 2018 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ The south is colder because it is in the southern hemisphere. If you want lots of details, I have them. The region in question, is as I mentioned on a west coast from 57 S to 66 S. Just trust me on the climate; I've made a model. It has a climate similar to far southern Chile. Inward from the west coast is a range of volcanic mountains that have been created along a subduction zone in the past 30 million years and are still very active. These mountains reach up to 3 km high and are largely glaciated. Thus the interior is largely uninhabitable. I am not considering the east coast... $\endgroup$
    – user47264
    Feb 4, 2018 at 1:37

4 Answers 4


Coastal cities require a harbor, a freshwater supply adequate for the population, nearby arable land for food production, and some economic reason for a city to grow there instead of a fishing village.

Let's look at that final requirement. The economic reason can be:

  • A junction or transshipment-point (like Seattle, where cargo is moved from truck/rail/oxcart/canal-barge to ship for onward movement to Alaska)
  • An export-terminal industry (like cut lumber export at Coos Bay, OR)
  • A value-added industry (like food-processing from caught-fish into finished products in Newport, OR)
  • A classic market center providing services to local communities (like Port Angeles, WA)

The politics is opinion-based, and outside the scope of this site. The coastal communities can be peacefully confederated or mutually-antagonistic city-states with equal facility depending entirely upon the needs of your story.

Climate is generally less relevant than you might think - more people live in Anchorage, Alaska than in Coos Bay, Oregon.


I would try to figure out the flow of water first. This is because cities normally formed in an era where the availability of water is crucial. You need it for drinking, washing yourself and your clothes, getting rid of waste, getting power for mills and early factories etc.

Warning: The following is not hard science. It is simplifying things a lot to work out a practical guide.

Do you have Mountains somewhere? If so lets choose one and call it "current mountain". Now take a dominant wind direction (your choice, but if you can not decide take the direction of the nearest ocean). Go against the wind until you reach a larger amount of water like an ocean or a really huge lake. If our current mountain is significantly higher than any mountains on that way you can expect rain at the wind facing side of our current mountain. If you reached the end of the map you have to decide if the air there is humid (contains water) or arid (no water).

From this side the water flows downwards until it either reaches the ocean or a depression. In the later case it forms a lake.

Now start placing your cities on the water. The more water you have inside of a river/lake the more cities can be supported by this.

If your rivers do have some cities continue with roads: Try to connect each city with the neighbors without going to steep up- or downwards. If the distance between two cities (on different rivers?) is to long to be traveled in one day, you may add another smaller city at a point which can be reached from one of the cities in one day by a wealthy merchant.

I hope this approach is helpful to you

  • $\begingroup$ This contains some good advice. I think it is generally helpful, except that the special situation my climate is so atypical. I'm along a coast, and most places along this coast receive more than 40 inches of rainfall due to orographic lift as you described. So the water is everywhere. Also, the mountains themselves are very close to the shoreline, which is cut with fjords, so there are no large lakes, and no significant rivers becsure the land has been glaciated too recently for good draining. I know my cities exist along the coast, I don't know how many will be along the coast. $\endgroup$
    – user47264
    Feb 3, 2018 at 16:15

Difficult to give you a precise answer because you have not provided any information about level of technology. Is this the equivalent of 1 AD, 1000 AD, 1500 Ad, or 2000 AD?

Secondly, the number of nations is a function of the population per nation. The higher the population of each nation, the fewer nations you can have given that geographical areas have a limited carrying capacities.

The basic starting point is to determine the populations of your nations, kingdoms, etc. Populations are largely a function of geography and climate. Cities require a supporting rural/farming population. A general rule of thumb up until about 1500 AD is that 80% of the population of an agrarian polity/state (i.e., prior to the industrial revolution) would be engaged in agriculture, pastoralism, fishing. So a city of 10,000 people would generally require a supporting hinterland population of 40,000. There are exceptions of course. Classical Rome (the city itself in 1 AD) had a population of about 450,000. But Rome "cheated" in that it shipped in most of its grain from Egypt and North Africa. To determine the number of polities requires that you make some decisions about population densities in this province/region you have created. You mention fiords and mountains and coastal islands. Mountainous and hilly land areas support fewer people than river valleys and lowlands/plains land areas. For example, the population of SW Norway (mountainous and fiord-y) has been much lower than the population of SE England (mostly flat-ish lowlands) for the last 2000 years even though they both have relatively similar climates. Another example: England (not the UK) has a land area of about 50,000 sq miles. In 1100 AD, the estimated population of England was about 2,500,000. That works about to about 50 people per sq mile. In 2015, the pop. of England is 53,000,000 = 1000 people per sq mile due to the magic of technology.

In closing, this is my suggestion on how to proceed. 1. pick a land area where you want to have a nation. 2. Determine the sq mi or sq km of that area. 3. Allocate percentages of that area to: farmland, pasture land, forest, wastelands, etc. E.g., 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%. 4. do some historical research on population densities for those sub-areas. 5. crunch the numbers to get a population for that nation/city-state. 6. rinse, repeat.

Hope this helps.


I would use a week's travel as a rule of thumb. If it takes longer than 7 days to get somewhere, it will probably have its own government.

There are exceptions to this: USA, Rome and China, for example, but in most countries, for most of history, you could travel internally anywhere in the country in 7 days.


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