Welcome back! So far in our top-down worldbuilding series we’ve created a world map, put down some landmarks, and even drafted up some borders for the different political states. Now it’s time we turn our attention towards the human element of our geography. Who are the people who live in the different regions of the world and what are they like? It’s a tall order and honestly, any world building attempt to model the nuance of human existence and sociology is going to be incredibly reductive at best. So keep that in mind as we work on this! I find the best way to approach this topic, and most, is by asking worldbuilding culture questions. So, it’s nice to have little checklist or world building culture questionnaire to help us along!
Worldbuilding Culture Questions
- What civilized ancestries, races, or species live here?
- What is the Impact of the region’s biome (climate [temperature, precipitation, wind], terrain, resource availability) on the local culture?
- What is the standard family unit or living situation of the people?
- Meals: what, when, and how (courses, customs, seasoning, serving, taboos, utensils)?
- What is architecture like, are there specific hallmarks? What construction materials are used (vernacular construction)?
- What rites and rituals are important to them? Are they different from the standard religious practices?
- What is the social hierarchy? Are there formal castes and how do they interact? (ancestry, language, social mobility, sumptuary laws, slavery/untouchables/homeless)
- What are the customs of hospitality?
- Do prestigious vocations exist? What about vocations the society look down upon?
- What is their basic level of formality? How stringent is the society about the right and wrong ways of how things are done in their society?
- What signifies a legally binding agreement (handshake, toasting drinks, registering a written contract with a government witness)?
- What typifies crime, legal procedures, and punishment/reform in their society?
- What does their education look like: access, level, importance in culture?
- Attitudes towards carrying weapons and what type?
- Attitudes towards magic: arcane, divine, primal, science?
- What does an attractive person look like: hallmarks of beauty, clothing, fashion?
- Views on modesty, bodily functions, gender, hygiene?
- Views on sexuality (coupling, love, lust, marriage/divorce)
- What are their feelings about travel? How are foreign ancestry, beliefs, customs, and people treated (inclusive/exclusive to their society)?
- What are highly prizes as luxury items and exotic imports?
- What is the perceived importance of art (religious/secular) and artists in their society?
- What are popular types of recreation (entertainment, games, hobbies, sports, ID third places)?
- What is a popular thing people see as “ruining” their society?
- Do they have any popular cultural or trade exports?
- What is the stereotyped primary virtue of the society? (US: Freedom, Germany: Order, Italy: Family, China: Obedience)
It’s a pretty detailed list, but don’t let that overwhelm you. In my experience the most important answer to these questions is not the what, but the why. It’s not that the people in this region are hostile against primal magic, but WHY they’re hostile to it that’s important. And, the way I use these questions is such that you don’t need to be answering every single question for every single region in the world! More it’s about comparing and contrasting to highlight the differences. So, with that in mind, let’s hop straight to the methodology!
Worldbuilding Culture Methodology: How to Create a Fantasy Culture
With the amount of questions we have it can be very easy to get lost in the weeds with nuances so myopic that they won’t make much a difference in the end result. That’s why I like to focus on the difference makers first. Partly I do this because it’s easier to focus being economical and efficient with my time and effort. Which… is a roundabout way to say I’m also lazy. But, lazy doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Lazy is another way to say optimal, like the Bill Gates quote: “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”
My methodology for worldbuilding cultures and society is to create just ONE culture/society as a template and then make facsimiles with mutations, variations from the origin. The farther we move away from the origin culture, the more mutations. This worlbuilding methodology is also going to give us a more organic transition of societal and cultural values across geography. Yes, that means we’re going to do less work with and end result that will make it seem like we did MORE work. We truly are lazy, but clever about it!
First we select an origin point. You can make this selection in a few different ways. We can choose a point on the coast of one of the larger landmasses, preferably at more of a corner than the middle of the coast. That makes it very easy to expand out from with our mutations. We could also choose the largest empire or other political state, serving them as sort of the taste maker for the world around them. A concrete point for what the largest percentage of people in the world would call “normal.” A third way is to choose the area with the most major religious capital. Like the imperial seat, the person, council, or whatever charged with leading the world’s largest religion has a lot of cultural muscle to dictate what is and is not OK in a society. Thus, it makes sense to use the seat of the world’s major religion as an origin point.
If you have one or more major oceans in your world, I would guide you towards using origin point number one. That way you can work coast to coast and then use the region that’s closest to the next land mass as the origin point for mutation. We’ll discuss crossing seas but first let’s talk mutation across contiguous land.
Mutating Culture & Society for Worldbuilding
To create a diverging culture and society from our origin point, I use the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 Rule). Basically, in this usage, the majority of the perceived difference between cultures/society is focused on a minority of actual, high-profile differences. So, neighboring areas on a contiguous landmass need only be 20% different. Now, that means we only need to alter the answers to FIVE questions to accomplish our task. That’s quite manageable.
Where this methodology really sings is by leaning into those differences to make our players, readers, audience, etc. FEEL them. It’s our job as Dungeon Masters, storytellers, and worldbuilders to play up those specific differences, to highlight them by creating tension and capital-D Drama around them. For example, if one of the main differences between neighboring regions is their view on the rites on transitioning to adulthood, highlight that.
Leaning on common storytelling tropes like “stranger in a strange land” is a clever hack that makes this easy. Maybe the traveling merchant the group comes across is a 14-year-old foreigner subjected to discrimination. The merchant is frustrated by the area’s ageist policies because at home they’re a card-carrying adult and prestigious member of society with a successful business. Plus, as a DM, that’s actionable world lore your players can interact with rather than you exposit at them.
High Seas, High Mutation for World Building Cultures
But what happens when the continent ends and there are no more contiguous landmass to cross? As noted above, we take the region that is closest to the next landmass and use it as our origin point. We create the first region on the new landmass by mutating the previous region’s answers. However, instead of the normal 20% difference it’s going to be 50%. It’s more work, but will help to create the idea that there is a sense of cultural exchange between these two regions due to commerce, immigration, travel, etc. but that it’s much more removed than two regions that share a border on the same landmass.
Once you have the answers for your first region on the new landmass, continue your mutation across the regions as normal. Pretty simple! Now I assume you have some questions. I think it would be strange not to have any even though the process is pretty simplistic.
Dive Deeper As Necessary
If you’re like me, there will be places where you will get stuck. Such as, we haven’t talked about the white regions of our map. Remember that those white, unlabeled dominion regions represent small nation states and less cultural cohesion. Unless it’s very important for the story that’s happening in-game at your table, or you want an entire campaign focused on dealing with a small unaffiliated region surrounded by the pressures of larger neighbors… you can probably ignore these areas for worldbuilding culture.
This is the type of worldbuilding that often ends up being non-productive for the end product (your next game session). If needed, you can create these ad hoc while dialing in the specific location at the region, county, or even local hex level. The fast way to do this is to look at those bigger surroundings neighbors. These are going to be cultural pressures on your unaffiliated area. With that in mind, you can take these larger cultures and sort of pick ‘n’ mix them to create a societal base for your new area. You can even add in the mutations as needed or go in a totally different direction. You can play any big differences off as being the “old ways” mostly forgotten by people in the world. And having an old vs. new beliefs and ways of thought can create capital-D Drama to highlight in your games.
Getting Unstuck Worldbuilding Culture & Society: A Practice Exercise
Imagine a day in the life of different people in different situations within the culture/society. What does their day look like, where do they go, who do they talk to, what frustrations do they run into? What aspects of the culture and society do they live in that makes their lives easier or harder than other cultures/places? Even something simple, like comparing a houshold servant in the city to a rural field worker, can give you deep insights about how commoners are treated and the quality of their life inside and outside city walls.
Wrapping Up Culture & Society World Building
Well, that’s going to be it for this one. I think in a future blog I’ll pick a demesne and address the questions to serve as an example. Let me know your interest on seeing that in an upcoming blog! Hope you found this helpful, if you’d like to support the blog and all the things we do, here’s how you can help:
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