Building a Fantasy World XVI: Miscellaneous
For this, the final entry in my worldbuilding blog series, I’ll be looking at everything else: the assorted and miscellaneous details that are unnecessary but can be fun. Details other worlds have used to bring depth and breath life into places that don’t truly exist.
Table of Contents
This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous
It’s very unlikely that a fantasy world with different laws of physics would have a Gregorian calendar using Roman months, and Germanic days of the week based on the Norse gods. Because its a quick exercise, most worldbuilders rename the dates for their setting as some quick ‘n’ easy worldbuilding. Deceptively easy.
It’s a simple matter to replace the names we have for days and months. It’s also possible to add names for time periods such as weeks, years, or decades. Instead of months there could be named weeks, or instead of naming decades by their numeration (the ‘20s, the ‘90s) they could have names (the Years of Dust, the Time of Grunge). Naming longer ages or eras is also common in fantasy. Such as “the Third Age”, “the Era of Man”, or “the Age of Darkness”.
It’s possible to personalize a calendar beyond renaming, such as changing the number of days in a week, weeks in a month, or length of the year. As the creator of the world, it’s very possible to have longer or shorter years. A longer year might mean plants have longer growing cycles (as crops are used to the longer year) or there could be multiple harvests in a single growing season. It’s even possible to have calendars radically different from the Gregorian, such as the Mayan calendar that paired the Solar and Lunar years into a lengthy cycle of eras. Or a calander unrelated to the solar cycle, such as dividing the traditional year into two calendar years: the summer year and winter year. It’s also possible to have calendars with different names for different races, with humans and elves having a different names for the days and weeks.
In practice, making calendar can be tricky, even one that is not a radically different. Primarily because remembering the names is hard. Referencing particular dates happens often enough that flipping the pages is a hassle yet infrequent enough that they are not committed to memory. If the length of months (or weeks) is different that can be awkward to easily remember. To the average player the names of days and months are little more than gibberish. Having NPCs use the in-world dates sets the tone and emphasises the world is different, but carries little real meaning. The point of a calendar is to make referencing time easier, by providing a common frame of reference, but as the players might lack that shared reference the benefit is lost.
The most common solution is a physical handout: either a full calendar for the year or a simple cheat sheet. It’s faster than flipping pages but both the GM and the players need a copy. The disadvantage is that it needs to be handy or it loses its advantage, which makes it another loose piece of paper at the table.
Another option is having an easy to remember mnemonic for the dates. Such as keeping the starting letters or syllable of the common names, or having the new names resembling the number of the date. A reference page or cheat sheet will still likely be needed for the GM, but one is less essential for the players. For example, Narslit and Yrdlit mean nothing, and could be a day or month. However, Mundydd and Tousdydd are recognisable as Monday and Tuesday. Firsay and Secunay are also recognisable as first day and second day (which could be Mon/Tue or Sun/Mon depending on intent).
As a guideline, the more complicated the calendar, the easier the names should be to understand. If you’re just keeping the Gregorian calendar but renaming dates then you can get a little more creative with names. However, if the year is 400 days long and divided into 15 months of 26-27 days (ten of 27, five of 26), with each month having five weeks of five days plus a holy day (or two) depending on the month… then date names should be obvious and distinct.
Ages are a little easier as they’re much longer of a time period – and because they tend to use natural language in naming. They might be length periods that last hundreds or thousands of years, or they could be a few decades. This can set a bit of the tone of the campaign, as eras could be denoted by large divine events or small mortal affairs. In a world focused on reigns of particular monarchs, eras might denote the rule of a single king, such as the Georgian or Regency eras of England. But in a world influenced by gods and the church the eras could denote popes, the dominance of certain gods, the position of heavenly bodies, and the like.
A subset of calendars is holidays. Or holy days, as holidays have an origin as days of worship, reverence, or religious observation. Even slaves were sometimes given days off to fulfil their religious duties.
Holidays serve a couple purposes in a campaign. They signal the passage of time in a campaign and offer an opportunity to focus some of the spotlight on characters with religious or national affiliations. They can also provide a nice change of pace in a campaign, allowing the players to be involved in a celebration or ceremony. A holiday is an excellent opportunity for some mini-games, describing food and sports, and the like. Holidays are also useful for making an otherwise normal (or cliche) story more interesting; chasing a fleeing monster through the city is fine, but becomes much more engaging when it’s the Night of Masques and everyone is in costume.
There are two types of holiday: anniversaries and seasonal. Seasonal is the most common, as all cultures are influenced by the annual solar cycle; midsummer and midwinter celebrations are just common because those days seem momentous. The autumnal and vernal equinoxes are less noteworthy but still often worthy of celebration. And many religious celebrations can be tied to these seasonal festivals, such as Christmas and Easter. Another common seasonal holidays is harvest festivals celebrating the end of the growing season.
Holidays might also be the anniversary of memorable events in the world. These might be consistent, such as a great battle or catastrophe, or slightly variable such as the birthday of the king that shifts as different kings assume power.
In worlds of magic and mystery there might be other annual festivals. The standard Festival of the Dead is a good example, often said to be a time when the border between this life and the next is weak. This could be a literal time when ghosts are empowered. There could be other times of pronounced magic, such as times when spells are more potent, when the gods are more (or less) likely to answer prayers, certain elements are more powerful, or the fey enter the world.
Gods and churches likely have their own holy days. In an organized and unified pantheon, gods might only have a single day over the year as the lay folk celebrate every god’s holy day. In pantheons with more independant gods, where followers have a single household god or patron, the gods might have more holy days celebrated only by their faithful.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to have one day of interest in each month. This helps space out the festivals and makes each month interesting. There’s not a long wait between festivals or days of note so something is always happening.
A little extra description of coins can often be nice. Money seems to attract slang and names. Just in North America there is buck, beans, dead Presidents, greenbacks, five-spot, sawbuck, Hamilton, dub, Jackson, C-note, Benjamin, large, grand, etc. It seems a shame to just refer to coins by their metal.
Naming coins also adds a descriptive element, as names often reflect what is on the coin. The Canadian 1 dollar coin is a “Loonie” as it features a loon on the tails side. Having a coin be a “golden eagle” or “silver lion” describes what decorates the coin without having to explicitly describe the coin.
Western coins have had faces on them since the Roman era, denoting who was the current emperor. Many countries continue this tradition with nations in the Confederacy having Queen Elizabeth II on their money. The United States uses the portraits of statesmen of national importance, typically presidents. This is not universal as some nations considered faces on a coin a form of idolatry. There’s no rule coins need to have a “head” side. A fantasy world might have gods or avatars on their money, the crest of the nation or family house, or even famous adventurers.
Coins can also be different shapes, such as ovals, rectangles, squares, octagons, blades, or even beads. Some early currency was “knife money” that resembled wide blades. If coins developed because people were trading shells then coins might have a seashell or turtle shell appearance. One cheeky idea is a polyhedron in shape, which would allow dice to become a coin prop.
Aesthetic changes also change how you look at currency. Eastern coins are designed with holes in the center, so they can be strung on cords rather than stored in a purse. This makes counting large numbers of coins easier as they’re stored as a coin roll. It would also be possible to wear coins around the neck as part of a wallet necklace, or on the hands if ring-shaped, making money a fashion statement as much as a currency.
Flora and Fauna
There’s an anecdote that during the creation of the Dragonlance setting, one of the designers created a giant list of all the plants and animals that were found on the continent. So certain trees might not grow on that continent, or exist on that world, and the usage could be standardized.
This is interesting, as not every tree is common across the globe and there’s no reason a fantastic world would have all the same trees as Earth. And just using plants at random might place a tree or animal in an unsuitable habitat. But making a long list is not a very practical use of time.
A quick solution is to pick a real world locale that is about the appropriate climate and copy its flora and fauna. A comprehensive list is not needed, just a couple key examples: the most common trees, fruit, plants, and animals.
Another alternative to a big list of what does (and does not) exist is simply to add new plants and animals. This avoids the issue, because instead of having a tree or animal that should not be native to that latitude you have a fantasy variant. For example, instead of wondering if a beech tree would fit your nation there could be a bronzewood tree: named for its leaves that are bronze-coloured year round, or the colour of its bark, or even the hardness of the wood.
Fantastic variants also emphasise that the world is not just our world with monsters and magic added, that the only non-terrestrial beasts are not just horrible face-eating monsters or magical chimera-like combinations of natural beasts. There might be fantasy herbivores, new breeds of cows, squirrels, or foxes. Many fantasy worlds cheat and have prehistoric or extinct creatures continue to exist, such as the auroch, smilodon, and mastodon.
There’s some earlier advice and thought on language in the Culture blog, but some further advice is warranted.
Languages can be tricky at the gametable. There’s frequently too many languages for an entire adventuring party to learn everything, so there will always be some languages that cannot be understood and end up frustrating mysteries. In practice there are really two languages in play: the one the table speaks and the one they don’t.
Humankind is often assigned a single language, a common tongue justified as a trade language used to both explain how all the characters at the table can communicate freely and cement humanity’s place as the generic races that can be found anywhere. Some campaign settings add national languages for human nations, while other worlds limit foreign tongues to the various demihuman races.
For a skilled gamemaster and worldbuilder, languages can be a fun tool. As mentioned in the Culture discussion, languages emphasise what a culture holds important. Languages can also emphasise the tone of a land, being smooth and melodic or harsh and ugly. It’s a descriptive element for how people (humans and demihumans sound).
Language can also be used to change the tone of a world. If Common is a non-human language it makes another race the trade race, and humanity is less central to the world, being just another race. If Common is a combination of human, elven, and dwarf it suggests a period of unity where the races traded freely.
Eliminating the Common tongue can be interesting. The absence of a shared language creates a feeling of isolation, with cultural barriers between nations; people need to learn another language to communicate with their neighbours or rely on translators. It increases the chance of miscommunication and makes borders firmer. It also means the players need to coordinate language (and actually think about language) at character creation, to have the characters able to communicate. This pushes the characters to having a shared nationality, which is helpful if national borders are meant to mean something.
Flags and heraldry were particularly important in the real world but often get forgotten in fantasy campaigns.
Knowing what side of a battle you belonged to often depended on the banners being flown, spotting an enemy with their face hidden by an iron plate meant relying on crest and colours. Even today armed forces rely on flags on vehicles and uniforms to recognise the enemy and it’s a serious wartime crime to use an enemy’s uniform. A country’s flag is a national symbol, with their important iconography and country’s colours. And an evolution of heraldry applies to many teams sports, such as hockey and euro-football. And a less positive example is gang colours.
There a lot of elements to Western heraldry.There’s the shield, which is very much like a flag. There’s also often a motto or saying and a few signature elements in the crest and supporters. These all combine together to form the Coat of Arms. There’s a lot of similar elements in things like the Seal of the US.
This is all a little complicated but is not necessarily so. The Japanese also practiced heraldry for very similar reasons, but their Mon are much simpler, almost like icons. Today, some have even been adopted as corporate logos.
Making a full medieval crest might be fun but there’s a lot of work there, and it requires some artistic talent. But making some simple banners and family sigils is easy and adds a visual cue to distinguish between nations or families. This requires no artistic skill: if it’s just for a quick player handout then clipart is fine. There are also a number of crest and heraldry makers available online.
If you want a world that evokes the feel of a Game of Thrones then every family should have its own banner and sigil. If nations are more united and squabbling nobles is less a focus then each kingdom (or large city) might have a banner. In a campaign entirely focused on dungeon delving – such as an urban-centric game, it’s possible to give each adventuring company their own banner and logo.
A War World Miscellany
Lastly, here are some quick examples of the above using my running demo of War World.
Calendar & Holidays: Making a full calendar is a little beyond the scope of this blog, so I’m going to cheat and use the first rule of worldbuilding: steal. Technically this should be “steal and don’t reveal your source” but since this is meant to educate I’ll just steal.
The calendar of the Forgotten Realms has the standard year of 365.25 days. These are divided into twelve months of 30 days with 5 extra days that fall between months as act as holidays. I’ll place them every two months. Every four years there’s another holiday in the middle of the year, following the third holiday. I believe the Realms uses three weeks of ten days but I’ll divided each month into five weeks of six days, five of work and one of rest.
It’s simple and familiar without being identical or hard to learn.
This also gives me regular universal holidays, one every month. I need to add a few extras, and maybe one between the end and start of the year. But these can be national or racial in nature.
For names I’ll return to my gods. I had the four Primordials/ Elemental Lords as high gods, which equates with the four seasons. Assigning each god a season and having the belief that the each god has primacy in an annual cycle is a neat idea, either in explaining the season in a mythological sense or actually giving a reason for the seasons in a magical world where an axis tilt means nothing. Each season has three months: low middle, and high. So Low Fire would equate with early summer and June, Middle Air with mid-Autumn and October, High Water with the end of winter and February, and Earth as spring. It’s tempting to have Water as spring but that puts it beside Fire and it’s nice to have opposing elements be opposing seasons. I could fix this by having Fire as fall and emphasising the ending nature of flame (plus, fall leaves being all fiery in hue) or just leave fire as summer.
Coins: In my blog on Economics I described how electrum and platinum would be repurposed as fresh silver and gold coinage from the fallen dwarf empires, unworn from the passage of time and thus worth more. As such, everyday coins are often worn smooth and undecorated. There might the faint images on the surface, but these are hard to distinguish.
I’m uncertain what dwarves would put on their coins. Mining equipment and weapons are the glib answer. They might also have dwarf kings or legendary heroes. But they might also have geometric patterns like a Celtic knot or writing like most viking coins. Or even famous mountains denoting which kingdom they were mounted in.
It might be fun to have sequential images such a pick to represent mining, a hammer for smithing, and an axe for the finished product. So there’s an order to the coins (which also helps remind players what the coins are named). There’d be copper picks, silver hammers, and gold axes.
This leads to fun world elements such as highwaymen demanding “your axes or mine!” I’ll have the other side be runes acting as a smithy mark, the stronghold of forging and family rune of the current emperor. “Heads and tails” would be “words and tools”.
Flora & Fauna: Because I based the shape of my continent on South America I’ve already been slipping in rainforest animals and indigenous critters, like the tapir. These are slightly less familiar to people making them fantastic and yet still grounded in reality. But if I want I can still make a unique ecosystem by adding Eurasian animals.
I will need to rename some tapir, as “Malayan” and “Brazilian” are inappropriate names. Since there’s already a “mountain tapir” having a “jungle tapir” and “forest tapir” work. I could have some others like a flameback tapir, named for its vibrant red pelt.
Chinchilla’s might be common pets, replacing cats in homes, and being a frequent magical familiar. Guinea pigs/ cavy might be a pest rodent, often found in cities. Jaguar would be more common and dangerous. There will likely be a plains jaguar that’s a menage for many regions. For fun, I’ll add a dark coloured one called the onyx jaguar rumoured to have magical powers, such as the ability to call to people if it learns their name.
Language: With its fallen Dwarven trade empire, War World’s common language is likely related to dwarven if not actually dwarven. I could justify a difference by saying dwarven is more formal while common is a little more casual and easier to learn, simplified dwarven rather than traditional. However, as tension between nations is a big theme of the world, removing a common language makes more sense. Instead, dwarven is like esperanto, the most common second language everyone knows when they want to speak to a foreigner.
There’ll should be several human languages in War World. There will be the three big root languages: eastern western, and southern, as mountain ranges really allowed very different languages to establish themselves. The more populous east will see its language divided into two or three dialects or sub-languages. I’ll split these easily into northeast, central, and southeast. Possibly with elven, dwarven, or orc having an influence.
Heraldry: In a land divided by war, flags and national colours would be very important. The larger scope of generations of national warfare would likely have diminished noble houses and smaller conflict, as infight would not be tolerated. So I can limit iconography to kingdoms.
After a thousand years of tiring conflict, the national symbols might have become simplified and more abstract. Abstract and simple symbols are easier to paint onto armour, being quicker and thus more functional. They’re not works of art like some heraldry but serves a clear purpose: distinguishing armed forces and territory.
Khaledon likely has something representing the dead king. Your standard skull with a helm flag. Or a crowned skull.
As a land where might makes right, Guimarn might have a sword on their banner. Or some abstraction of a sword, possibly resembling an inverted cross. To avoid Satanic imagery I’ll angle it and add a second.
Firaxies is a neutral nation of traders. They’d want something that stood out, simple yet hard to mistake. A line of three circles is simple, and the smooth lines are more passive than aggressive angles. And they can represent coins and trade.
The above thoughts are quite possibly the final things I’ll write on War World. I created the world solely for give examples for this blog, and I have no real plans to “finish” the world for my homegame, let alone for publication.
“Finish” is in quotation makes above because a campaign setting is seldom truly done. I created my first fantasy world back in 1991, and every time I play there it reveals a new place, new detail, or new surprise. Published settings that will likely never see another published word written on them are not “finished” until the final GM using that world puts down his pen and dice and steps away from the table. Even in fiction, many worlds continue to be explored again and again.
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