This is the third 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 world builder’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 societies and civilizations of the world – with a focus particularly on: Politics, Government, Economics, History, and Cities / Architecture.
Government & Law:
A system, family, or group of people set up and organized to rule over a group (most often a state or kingdom) is what comes up when you Google the definition of government. When setting up your world’s civilizations it’s important to understand the different ways government forms and takes shape – is your kingdom ruled by a single bloodline in the form of a monarchy, or is it a capitalistic oligarchy run by seedy guilds and corporations?
Form of Government
The form of governance that society utilizes can say a lot about the underlying principles of that society – for instance, democratic society may strive to be egalitarian whereas a monarchy may see itself as divinely ordered and impose a strict hierarchical structure. How a government exerts force and establishes order determines how the majority of its subjects experience daily life – a rigid class system due to a fascist hierarchy could mean a populace afraid to speak their minds and citizens afraid of the police meant to protect them.
There is a huge variety in the types of government that can rule over civilization, and bring order to anarchy. Some examples include: a Theocracy is a government in which the pious (or religious order) rules over society – the Covenant from the Halo series is an example of a theocratic regime. A technocracy is a form of government ruled by the learned classes (scientists, doctors, engineers, etc) utilizing technology to rule the masses – the World State in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is an example of a technocracy gone bad. There are many other examples of government types that have been used throughout history to control the masses.
All governments are made up of people, and people have a tendency to group and work together based on ideas or shared values. Basically, within all types of these government structures, there are factions made up of people trying to shape the government according to their group’s desires.
Republicans and Democrats, Labour and Tories, or even Jedi and Sith in the Galactic Republic – these are all examples of what could be construed as political factions (or parties). Yeah, the Jedi and Sith one might be a stretch, but you could argue that in the waning days of the Galactic Republic both groups were attempting to influence the Senate through political means. Political factions can be the parties that make up the elected government, they can be influential organizations (like Merchant Guilds or Militia Groups), or they can be large groups of like-minded individuals (like Trade Unions or Special Interest Groups).
The interplay between these political factions is how stories around political intrigue are built – the Game of Thrones series begins with much of this, the various kingdoms and factions making and breaking alliances to help position themselves favorably with the kingdom that finally “wins” the Game of Thrones (but then a bunch of dragons and ice zombies came along and mucked everything up). This interplay between political factions can provide players with a backdrop to their adventures and they may choose to aid one group over another, driving further complications into the political atmosphere of a town or city. The way these factions play off one another in the background of your adventures helps make your world feel that much more “alive” and real.
As a population expands the need for different forms of communication arise – for instance, a small tribe may find itself not needing to utilize a written language (leaning on oral traditions for their history and teachings), but as the tribe grows into society the need to communicate vast distances may require more complex means of communication. To go back to the Game of Thrones example, the ravens that allow the Night’s Watch to communicate with the rest of Westeros are an example of this.
Another impressive example from history would be the Yam of the Mongol Empire, a huge network of interconnected supply outposts that would allow messages to be sent quickly throughout the massive Mongol Empire, which in turn increased the ability for the Khan’s to rule. Another version of this type of system was implemented in the early days of America in the form of the Pony Express. These systems of communication provide some examples of how a Kingdom can safely keep control over the land under its purview.
The importance of law and order in a society is key – as it provides the general populace safety and security – otherwise what benefit would the lower classes have when a part of a greater society? When thinking about what important laws are on the books for your fantasy kingdom or society, it is important to understand why laws exist in the first place. Generally speaking, they exist to maintain relative order, stability and keep society from collapsing due to an individual’s ambitions.
Usually, these laws are in support of what society has deemed individual’s rights, or fundamental rights. The American Constitution is a document that outlines the rights of an American citizen – and the laws of the land serve to protect those rights for all individuals. For instance, “All men are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” means that another individual denying those rights is breaking the law of the land.
When dealing with a fantastic setting – Magic becomes a key component when creating laws as magic as the potential to easily displace a ruler and throw a kingdom quickly into chaos. A lot of fantasy societies seem to outlaw magic for this purpose – the City of Amn in Balder’s Gate 2 and the Game Dragon Age both have settings in which magic is predominantly outlawed due to the chaotic nature of those energies.
Money makes the world go ‘round – or so they say. The economics of the societies of your world are crucial to building a believable setting. Generally, the broadest motivation for characters (be they player or non-player) comes from the economic system they exist within. This motivation can be moving up through the social classes and hierarchy, earning piles of sweet dosh or gaining power over influential markets and systems – each of these is achieved through power-brokering in an economic system.
As the great philosopher Puff Daddy once said, “It’s all about the benjamins,” and while in America that may be true, it’s usually all about that shiny gold in fantasy realms. When it comes to currency – most kingdoms or nations produce their own (Septims in Tamriel for instance), for simplicity’s sake usually, it is simplified into a system similar to that of Dungeons and Dragons. That system is platinum, gold, silver, and copper, with 10 copper being equal to 1 silver and 10 silver being equal to 1 gold and 10 gold being equal to 1 platinum – there’s also electrum (worth 5 silver) in there to confuse things, but most folks (myself included) ignore that one.
Outside of its physical properties and value – money is a consistent motivator for pretty much all characters – as earning money can be seen as earning one’s place in the world. The value of a treasure horde can be an important motivating factor when a party is deciding whether or not to take a side quest into a monster’s lair. Great treasure hordes and a shiny gold reward is usually what leads adventurer’s down into the darkest of dungeons.
Trade & Markets
As society grows, the need for more resources becomes a driving factor, generally as societies are starting out they are relatively self-sufficient – growing and raising what their people need internally. However, as a civilization grows and the population’s needs become more diverse – trade becomes crucial. To fill this need merchant guilds, shady black market dealers, and trade caravans move the resources that make society flourish. These organizations can become crucial elements of your world, providing quests and needed supplies to adventuring parties and player characters.
A great example of how a merchant group can help make the world feel more realistic, in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout: New Vegas, the Crimson Caravan company is one of the biggest trade caravans and guilds out of New California, bringing supplies across the irradiated southwestern United States. Their story tells of how in the aftermath of the bombs, they established a heavily armored force that would take any trade route – no matter the risk – showcasing the importance of the caravan’s work moving resources to begin to re-establish society.
The hierarchy of society, whether it is intentional (through law) or not (through social norms), is what determines a character’s social classes. How this hierarchy is determined depends on the structure of society overall, for instance, in a capitalist society, one’s relationship to capital determines their place in the social hierarchy. Another example is the aristocratic model of France in the 1700s (although we all know how that ended).
In modern times, people generally think of society’s classes in a three-tiered system being; upper, middle, and lower classes. The upper class is usually seen as the capitalists, businessmen, CEOs, or generally the oligarchy. The middle class (generally) makes up the bulk of society and are usually white-collar workers or salarymen and women. The lower-class is made up of individuals who are either barely scraping by or struggling – as the cost of basic needs goes up, this class tends to grow as more people fall below that line of succeeding or struggling.
The mobility of social classes is also important. Mobility meaning the ability for an individual to move up the social hierarchy through principles exemplified in society. In the case of the capitalist society, acquiring more capital is how one moves up the social hierarchy. Sometimes there are more rigid systems in place – determined by the circumstances of an individual’s birth or their family name – meaning individuals are “locked into” their class for life.
Social classes help your world feel more real as the social class of a character can determine a lot regarding their motivations and what they’ve experienced in life. The social class a character falls into can determine their level of education, their overall health and nutrition, and their job – as well as their position within society as a whole.
How a civilization grows, evolves, and changes over time can greatly impact the world – from the initial founding of its first settlement through potential struggles of famine and war – the history of a society (or civilization) shapes the world drastically. Creating the history of society allows you to understand its past, and therefore the present.
A crucial component in any kingdom’s history is its origin. When and how was it founded? And by whom? Why did these people see the need to found a new kingdom, nation, or society? Many times the true origin stories of kingdoms and empires get twisted into legends and myths – containing mystical elements of sorcery or divine right (but if we’re talking Dungeons and Dragons, that is all pretty par for the course, right?).
The situations surrounding a kingdom’s origin story can also make for compelling worldbuilding – as generally new nations or kingdoms don’t spring from perfectly utopian times (if everything was hunky-dory, why would a new kingdom be needed?). Perhaps this civilization’s freedom was won from a tyrannical despot through a game of chance or warfare – or maybe the kingdom was perched on a meteor streaking through the sky that crashed to the ground.
Struggles, Rivals & Warfare
As important as the genesis of your civilization or society are the struggles, warfare and rivals that shaped it. How a kingdom reacts to negative influences and stimuli from external (or internal) sources can greatly impact how life is lived within the kingdom. Some of the typical internal struggles that a kingdom or society can face are a famine, a revolution (leading to a civil war) and/or civil strife (like social upheaval). Whereas most external struggles are related to relationships with rival or nearby kingdoms.
Internal struggles can drastically shape or alter societies – some of which can be seen right now in modern society. Famine, or the extreme scarcity of food, can drive huge population migrations, a historic and common example would be the Great Famine (or the Irish Potato Famine), during which an estimated one to one and a half million people emigrated from Ireland. Civil unrest in the form of civil disobedience and protests, some of which can lead to confrontations with authorities or riots, can greatly affect a society in reform – some aspects of this can be seen in the current situation in the United States, which hopefully leads to a more egalitarian society. If a society does not adjust to the prevailing societal norms, or continues to oppress its peoples – civil unrest leads invariably towards revolution – leading to an internal conflict known as a civil war. Sticking with the United Kingdom (albeit from an earlier era), an example of a revolution would be the Scottish War for Independence. Armed conflicts are common drivers for action in fantasy settings, providing a backdrop for the adventures of the main characters – but armed conflicts are not limited to internal conflicts.
As mentioned before, external conflicts are primarily focused on rival kingdoms or societies – and the common form these struggles take is usually warfare or armed conflict. For instance, a nearby kingdom may desire the land or resources of another and musters an army to conquer the corresponding region. Generally speaking this kind of action would quickly cause a response by the offended kingdom, quickly snowballing into battles and then into war. Another external struggle that can greatly impact a society (and I’m speaking from experience now) is a plague or pandemic. A plague can rip through a society regardless of borders – creating drastic changes in response – for instance see “How countries across the world are responding the the coronavirus.”
Settlements & Cities:
As the civilized races begin to congregate – first in family units and then into small tribes – settlements start to form. Settlement locations are usually determined by proximity to important resources or water. Water is crucial for most settlements (unless there is some unique reason in your world that it isn’t) and ensuring easy access to it potentially means transportation (via boats) or irrigation of crops. Outside of the location of your towns, there is the matter of the individuals, shops and governance that make up the local populace.
Settlements, Cities, & Towns
When creating a settlement or town starts with creating a reason for that town to exist – As mentioned before, most settlements spring up near important resources. In Colorado, there are several “mining towns” that sprung up during westward expansion near veins of rich minerals (usually gold) – one example of a town like this is Idaho Springs. Other towns can start due to a location’s religious significance, like the city of Jerusalem and its holy sites for the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths.
Outside of the reason for the town’s existence there are usually a few key locations that will help each town feel a bit more realistic and grounded in your world. These locations usually are: an inn and bar (a place for adventurers to rest or relax), a market or store (a place for adventurer’s to shop), an authority (governor and army), a temple (a place for people to worship), and a blacksmith (a place for adventurers to repair their gear). There are a number of other locations, stores and buildings that can be added for additional context or as locations of importance for quests.
When it comes to quests – the locations in your town can provide rumors or NPCs to interact with to give your world more flavor. Generally, I try to avoid just using “quest boards” to provide potential quests for adventurers, instead building locations and encounters that help add flavor and context to the world.
What makes up the buildings of your cities? How are they constructed and why are they built in such a manner? All of these questions are important to the architecture of your society. When it comes to the construction materials – as with most things – convenience is the most important factor. Whatever resources are nearby are usually what folk will build with – building log cabins in the dense woods and stone huts in desert regions. Some really interesting types of ancient architecture in my backyard are the cliff dwelling Pueblo people of the American Southwest.
Following up on the civilizations and societies of the world the next article will focus on Magic and Technology – the two areas that will drastically differentiate your world from our own (and also change-up pretty much everything we’ve written about so far).
To note, the above article provides a high-level reference point for a single society or civilization. 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 civilizations populating your world.
Worldbuilding – Wikipedia
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Kobold Press, 2012
Worldbuilding Questions – Science Fiction Writers of America
Political Parties – Encyclopedia Britannica
The Pony Express – Wikipedia
Yam (Mongol Empire) – Wikipedia
DnD 5e Currency – DnD 5e
Crimson Caravan – Fallout New Vegas Wiki
Social Class – Wikipedia
Scottish War for Independence – Wikipedia
Global Coronavirus Response – USA Today
Pueblo Architecture – Wikipedia
Hero image – Photo by Jane Palash on Unsplash
Money – Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Government – Photo by Marco Oriolesi on Unsplash
City – Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash
History – Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash