This is the second article in a limited series that we’re gonna call “The Elements of Worldbuilding,” and it’s going to go through a variety of concepts (building blocks) that game masters, writers, and developers can use to craft their worlds. This should come with the understanding that between these initial articles it is not a total and comprehensive list – as listing every concept that makes up a world would be near impossible – but the goal is to provide inspiration and a jumping-off point for the worldbuilder’s out there. (Hell, we might even do a follow-up article or two if there are some other areas readers would like to explore with us.)
This article will delve into the sentient races of the world – with a focus particularly on: how they’re living, what they’re making, and what they believe.
How They’re Living:
Understanding how the sentient races of your world live in the day-to-day is crucial when developing an understandable and “real” feeling world. Typically when it comes to understanding how people are living its starts with understanding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – which is a theory of psychology about what drives people to do what they do. Fundamentally, people have basic needs (food, water, shelter, safety, etc.), psychological needs (friendships, intimacy, etc), and finally the need of self-fulfillment – and those needs are what drive people to do what they do. For instance, this blog is a form of self-fulfillment, helping me to realize my dream of being a mediocre writer.
Starting with an understanding of what drives the people of any sentient race is crucial to developing a believable civilization. This is because civilizations, settlements, and societies form to solve individual needs on large scales.
The family unit is the most basic form of community – and typically how individuals are first taught to survive in the world they were born into. It is the family unit that generally feeds and protects the young when they are lacking any natural defenses or understanding of how to feed themselves, depending on how the family unit is set up. Families generally care for one another – first with the younglings being raised by the elders and then the elders being cared for by their offspring in their twilight years.
Language is a crucial component to the formation of a civilization – it is a means that allows information to be passed from one generation to the next – generally it is first done through oral traditions followed by written language. While going into the depth that Tolkien did when crafting Middle Earth Elvish may be overkill – understanding how communication plays a role in the development of a sentient race is key when it comes to developing a believable world.
How individuals are indoctrinated into their culture’s way of life can be an important element of the world. A lot of fantasy worlds talk about prophecies, myths, and legends that everyone in the world seems to be aware of – but how were those taught. Are children taught through schooling at an academy, by elders in their community, or through life experience and apprenticeships? Maybe all of the prophecies and legends of your world come from a crackpot shouting what seems to be nonsense on a soapbox street corner. Knowledge can also be seen as an important reward – leading characters on quests to seek out the most wizened sage on a certain topic in order to be educated themselves.
Professions / Jobs
When you ask Google to define the world “job” you get: “a paid position of regular employment” – an answer from a true capitalist. In terms of Worldbuilding though, we are considering a job (or profession) a position that allows an individual to achieve their needs to continue living. In a fantasy world, a non-player character might hold the “job” as a farmer, mostly to produce food for himself or his family. Sure – some of his excess crops are being sold for a profit, but the main goal of his “job” isn’t to be paid – it’s to survive. By farming, that character is meeting his basic needs for survival.
Obviously in other styles of settings, societal roles and positions and be filled with more standard “jobs” like in the Google definition above. In a hyper-capitalist dystopia, for instance, individuals are gauged by the value their labor provides almost solely – meaning that who they are as an individual may be greatly impacted by the job they work (labor they provide). I mean even in our regular late-stage capitalist society – most introductory conversations start with the question – “what do you do?” Now what those individuals or jobs produce is a matter of our next topic – what are people making?
What They’re Making:
What the different cultures of your world create provides insight into what those cultures feel is important enough to solidify through physical representation. What people craft is also largely what will get left behind when that culture ceases to exist. For instance, our limited understanding of ancient Meso-American cultures comes from the artwork, tools, and architecture their culture left behind.
Understanding what physical tools they are making and using also provides us insight into what those cultures are eating. Food is a key component of any civilization – as it is a key component to the continued existence of any living thing. Societies usually form as a means to provide food to more people – and generally speaking, that involves the craft of cooking.
The first thoughts that a lot of people have of different cultures is the food they eat – or the bastardized versions of the food created by their own culture. The smell of an Indian curry cooking or Latin American taco meat being roasted are evocative ways that can transport someone to the region the dish is from. Cuisines can be as varied as the people creating them, but it’s important to understand that they develop due to the proximity of ingredients. Cultures will cook with whatever is commonly available, for instance the tortillas of Mexican culture grew out of an abundance of corn (or maize).
When developing the cultures for your world, think about what they would eat – what kind of ingredients are available to them? Do the ingredients hold any special significance? What are some examples of food that common-folk eat? What about nobles? Understanding the nuances of the cuisines of the different cultures across your world can be a great way to build the world around your characters
The garments and fabrics that people adorn themselves with can provide a memorable visual distinction between cultures for your characters. When designing the clothing make sure it is functional and practical – it might be hot in desert locales, but that doesn’t mean female characters should be dressed in metal bikinis (First off they’d be roastin’ their naughty bits and secondly, imagine the sunburn. Think about how cultures in the real world use clothing to adapt to their environments, from the seal-skin wrapped Inuit in the arctic circle to the Sub-Saharan culture’s brightly colored fabric wraps and dashikis.
Functionality can also drive clothing design – easing some of the burdens cultural lifestyles may bring about. A nomadic tribe could favor clothing with many pockets and outfits generally include some type of bag or backpack – useful when everything they own needs to be transported from one place to the next.
Art, and more broadly – the arts, are a diverse range of activities (auditory, performative, visual) that express emotion, imagination, conceptual ideas or technical skill. I think the best way I’ve heard art described is, “art is what emotions look like,” (or sound like, in the case of music). Generally speaking, cultural values are what is codified in that culture’s artwork. Art history shows us many examples of this – from the Islamic world’s classical artwork depicting calligraphy (as it was, and still is, taboo to depict the prophet Muhamad) to the Christian classics showcasing the fate of those who strayed from the righteous path.
The arts and music of a culture can help highlight what that culture views as important to the characters in the story. It helps ground the culture’s belief to the world with tangible objects and can provide means to worldbuild somewhat abstractly – through the cultures of the world.
What They Believe:
What the sentient species believe generally involves explaining systems of the cosmos and their place in it. From origin myths and cultural traditions to the gods they worship, these beliefs can drive the sentient races to war with other races or themselves. It could be argued that the beliefs of the sentient races have more impact on the world than the physical geography that makes it up.
Origin or Creation Myths
There is always the drive for people for people to understand why the world is the way it is. If there is a lack of scientific knowledge or understanding people will usually create myths and legends to fill in the gaps. One thing that all cultures across the world consistently mythologize is the world’s origin story. Just as Bruce Wayne didn’t become The Batman without his parents getting shot, cultures will create origin myths that naturally lead to how their cultures formed or were created.
Now, cultural origin myths don’t need to be true – in reality they rarely are – but they can help explain how certain cultures view things. These beliefs can help inform the NPC character’s decisions and help make your world feel more realistic, even if the origin myths contain the outrageously fantastic. Some examples of creation myths from Native American cultures in North America are the Four World’s creation mythology from the Hopi, or the growth of the world in Cherokee culture. Both of these origin myths help explain the cultures they originated in, from the Hopi’s more nomadic / traveling focus culture to the growth of the world mirroring the growth of the life sustaining crops of the Cherokee.
The creation myths of a culture form the foundation for their spiritual practice – generally revering the divine one (or ones) that brought that culture into the world through that creation mythology. These spiritual practices generally form the basis to any religious worship or traditions that culture may hold.
Worship & Traditions
How cultures observe spiritual traditions and worship their corresponding deities can provide insight into what that culture values above other things. Some folks would say that the morality of a society is usually founded through the creation of a semi-organized religion – usually those folks are in powerful positions within that religion.
Traditions are the means through which a culture conveys what it views as important, its history and its morals. These can be oral histories, festivals, life events, feasts, cultural remembrance, burial and birthing rituals. What cultures hold sacred or taboo is generally conveyed through these traditions.
Worship is how those traditions are put into practice. Some cultures worship through the use of consistent rituals and religious piety – an example for this would be the Judeo-Christian religions that are featured predominantly in the western world. Other cultures worship through daily acts and meditation as seen in Buddhism. How the cultural traditions are put into the methods of worship can help build a more alive world, helping your players understand the cultural foundations of NPCs and adding flavor and background to adventures and quests.
Factions & Cults
Now, the reader might think (if they got this far), factions and cults are not really “what people believe,” however, I would disagree. A faction or cult forms when a group of like-minded individuals get together, hierarchically organize themselves and perform actions to move their belief forward. So really a faction or cult is just an organization formed around a single shared-belief between the individuals that make it up.
The difference between the two (factions & cults) is pretty straightforward, a group of individuals that have a shared religious belief and are working towards goals related to that would be a cult – while a group of individuals with a non-religious shared belief would be considered a faction.
The term faction is pretty broad – a faction could be a worker’s union, a rebel group, a political group or many other things. Sometimes factions exist within other groups, an example could be a faction within the town watch that is anti-dwarf (because they’ve got gross beards) and could be working to rid the town of dwarves.
Dang, so double-brain-dump. Following up on the individual people of the world comes the creation of the civilizations and societies these people make up. The next Elements of Worldbuilding article will focus on the civilizations that exist across the world and how society grows and forms.
To note, the above article provides a high-level reference point for a single culture / group of people. Any given world is going to have significantly more than one (unless not, because it’s your world, and I’m not here to tell you how to make it), so look to use this list multiple times based on the many different peoples populating your world.
Worldbuilding – Wikipedia
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Kobold Press, 2012
Worldbuilding Questions – Science Fiction Writers of America
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – Wikipedia
Hopi Creation Myth – Wikipedia
Cherokee Creation Myth – Wikipedia
Hero Photo BG by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
Church Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash
Woman in Beige by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash
Art Patron by Igor Miske on Unsplash
Farmer in Rice Paddy by Eduardo Prim on Unsplash