Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Four


Every worldbuilder, whether a novelist or a game designer, has to draw upon real-world history, politics, and culture to a certain extent. It’s important, however, to be sensitive to those nations and cultures that are not one’s own, particularly if they have been subject to colonialism, enslavement, and other forms of genocide. It’s a fine line to walk, to be honest. There are those who think that Frank Herbert’s Dune saga is problematic. Some even think of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in such terms, and that’s understandable. But it’s likely that neither of those works would’ve enjoyed such success if they were written today (and H. P. Lovecraft would’ve been cancelled for sure).

On the other hand, there are worlds like Ver-Draak, a fictitious planet in a sci-fi/fantasy series I’ve loved ever since reading its first installment, Where the Ni-Lach, for the first time at the tender age of thirteen. In this series, Marcia J. Bennett tells the story of the last Ni on Lach (the natives’ own name for their planet, which was renamed Ver-Draak by the colonialists who invaded it and proceeded to systematically exterminate its indigenous population). You could say that the Ni are a lot like Native Americans, but you could also say that they are like Aboriginal Australians, or any number of other native populations that suffered under colonialism to the point of near if not total genocide (and in fact sometimes they even reminded me of the Jews). The point is that they are not caricatures or stereotypes of those peoples, they are only (possibly) relatable to them. The Ni have green hair and crystalline eyes; they are obviously not meant to represent any one human race or nationality. I don’t think anyone could point to that series and say that it was problematic or offensive in any way, but of course that’s only my opinion. I only bring it up because it seems to me that there is clearly a wrong way to do this, and it’s been done, and overdone, and it’s still being done, and yet it’s easily avoidable with a bit of sensitivity and a modicum of research.

That being said, the following information is not meant to represent the real world in any way, but to offer structure to the fictional societies you might create, and is squarely based on my college-level understanding of anthropology (a field rife with casual racism, I might add). Thus below I list the main types of possible societies as I understand them, from simplest to most complex, using the diagram depicted below as a rough guide.

[image description: Societal development by Rcragun (Own work) CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. top row: hunter/gatherer, pastoralist/horticulturalist, agricultural, industrial, post-industrial. bottom row: surplus, denser populations, specialization, technology, inequality.]

One of the first things you must think about in order to give your fantasy world a realistic foundation is how the people in your world sustain themselves. Much of this will also depend on the climate, topography, and of course the flora and fauna of whatever region of your world you happen to be developing at any given moment, but we’ll get to that in a later post.

I’ll also be addressing technology in the next few posts to a growing extent, not merely because the development of certain technologies makes certain types of food production possible, but also because the manner in which people obtain their food, their subsistence strategy, usually determines what kinds of technology they will find useful. For example, since a tribe of hunter-gatherers would have no use for a plough, there is no reason why they should invent one. Also, the more time you have to devote to obtaining or producing sustenance, the less time you have to spend sitting around inventing things.


[image description: Early human history (book illustration); Artist unknown (Public domain). a family of early humans dressed in animal skins, gathered around a campfire in a pristine wilderness as hunters return with game.]

The earliest and simplest of all human societies, the technology of the hunter-gatherer group will be minimal unless it exists alongside other, more complex societies. For example, you might arm your hunter-gatherers with wooden spears, or bows and arrows, as these would typically be weapons they could easily fashion on their own. But if they live in the midst of societies with more advanced technology you could also arm them with swords or even firearms if you wanted to (perhaps they obtained these through trade). The important thing to keep in mind is that hunter-gatherers don’t normally produce anything themselves that would require many people, animals, or resources (especially the kind that have to be mined, such as most metals) to create or maintain.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle also does not usually support large populations confined to one area or the large-scale domestication of animals, so hunter-gatherers tend to be at least semi-nomadic, following their chief source of food (often big game), and thus their dwellings will not often be the kind that are built to last. They may also be warriors due to frequent contact with other tribes that may be competing for the same food sources, but generally they do not wage war on a large scale or for prolonged periods. That would prove unsustainable.

Though their ways and technology may seem primitive to those who grew up in modern, so-called civilised societies, it cannot be forgotten that it was hunter-gatherers who developed the fine art of knapping, expressed themselves artistically (and perhaps religiously) through all those elaborate cave paintings, and even erected monuments. Their semi-nomadic way of life also probably culminated at least once a year in a great gathering of all the tribes (most likely occurring some time in late spring or midsummer). To modern sensibilities, this might resemble an annual festival. It would certainly have been an important communal event, probably involving trade as well.


[image description: a pair of women tend to crops in a field, without using any large scale farming equipment. By McKay Savage from London, UK CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]

Horticulturalist societies tend to be less nomadic because they grow much, if not most of their own food, and that requires a fair bit of homesteading. Often these types of societies will be supplemented by some hunting and gathering, or more likely the small-scale domestication of food-producing animals such as cows, chickens, and goats. Their settlements are usually at least semi-permanent. They might spend their summers in one region and their winters in another. Or they may become nomadic hunter-gatherers in the winter, when they can no longer grow their own food. And of course, like the hunter-gatherers, they may also obtain food or technology they do not produce themselves through trade. But also, like the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, horticulture generally does not support large numbers, because gardening and/or small-scale farming will not normally produce enough of a surplus for that.


[image description: Nomadic Woman, Niger. By Dominique Thaly (Fotographe/photographer). (Dominique Thaly) GFDL , via Wikimedia Commons.]

Pastoralists are typically nomadic or at least semi-nomadic. They may have evolved from hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, or perhaps even agriculturalists (see below). These are usually the folk that keep domesticated animals on a large scale, such as cattle, goats, sheep, etc. They are also most likely to have been the first to domesticate some type of riding beast, such as horses or camels. They may also be horticulturalists part of the time. But those that herd grazing beasts need to move around a lot because once the animals eat all the grass in one region, it may take some time before it grows back again. Many pastoralist societies develop a warrior class because 1) moving from place to place can often result in clashing with other tribes and 2) they need to protect large herds of beasts from others who would profit from stealing them.

Due to their mobility, pastoralists are also most likely to be traders, or raiders, or both. In fact, there’s a theory that the reason the Indo-European language family is so widespread is that its mother tongue, the hypothetical proto-Indo-European language, was spoken by wide-ranging nomadic pastoralists who descended upon lands spanning the entirety of Eurasia, often violently suppressing the native populations they encountered in whatever regions they happened to settle in. A lot of this is conjecture, of course, but much of it is based on contemporary accounts, and anyway we’re in the business of storytelling, not historical writing.


[image description: Scottish Lowland farm. Detail from Slezer’s Prospect of Dunfermline, published in the Theatrum Scotiae, 1693 (Public domain).

The society that is supported mainly by agriculture is a settled one. Agriculture also makes possible the production of surplus food which can support larger populations and more complex social structures. It enables the existence of entire classes of people who need not produce their own food, freeing them up to perform other functions. This makes the development of new technologies even more likely. Because agriculturalists are tied to the region where they grow their crops, they are more likely to have standing armies. Their territory has to be defended. This society is also more likely than the preceding ones to have instituted laws, complex systems of government, and even bureaucracies. Very large urban centers are also made possible by agriculture, because their populations can be supported by the large-scale food production which agriculture makes possible. Large, populous, permanent settlements also make significant mining operations possible, so these are the societies most likely to mass-produce metal tools and weapons. We’ll get to cities (and city-states!) a bit later, as they pretty much change everything.

Next: Forms of Government

Previous: Languages and Systems of Writing

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

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