Building a Fantasy World XII: Cultures & Quirks
Three elements define people: their ethnicity, their nationality, and their cultural heritage. My nationality is Canadian, my race is European mongrel (with a slim Scottish majority), and my culture is suburban Albertan with a geekcentric slant. The is true in fantasy worlds as well, save “race” (read: species) is often interchangeable with “ethnicity”.
This blog is really the counterpart to the entries on Race and Nation and focuses on the third part of the trifecta: culture. Specifically, this blog looks at the elements that make up cultures, with the aim of customizing and creating interesting and memorable cultures.
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
Culture versus Race & Nationality
How much culture varies from ethno-race and nationality very much depends on scale: if you’re looking at populaces globally, regionally, or locally. On a global or continental scale, culture and nationality might be fairly interchangeable: someone from Japan could be described as having the “Japanese” ethnicity, nationality, and culture.
Looking at culture with a wide lense does invoke stereotypes, which should be done carefully: not all stereotypes are wrong, but not all are right. And some traits that may be accurate can be presented as negatives. But when looking at an average member of the populace, many generalities will be accurate. For example, if you were to grab a random passerby off a Japanese street, odds are they would be middle-aged, because Japan has an aging population with a high median age. While the country is not lacking children, youths, and seniors the average age is one of the highest in the world.
This is a little easier in worldbuilding, where the creator can decide which stereotypes are accurate and which are horribly flawed. And the GM can present a people comprised of horrible stereotypes without offending (unless the people are analogous to a read group).
When you reduce the scale subcultures emerge, such as looking at a country on a national or regional level. These subcultures might even be distinct cultures, especially if the scale is zoomed-in enough that everyone would share the same ethnicity and nationality.
For example there is no shortage of Japanese sub-cultures, most of which have just as much right to be called “Japanese” as the majority culture. In a campaign set entirely in a fantasy Japan, “Japanese” does not distinguish anyone, and differentiating people by clan or subregion works better.
While nationality can be equated with the culture of the majority, sometimes the values of the nation drift away from the traditional culture. The culture of a nation becomes less representational of the actual populace, or the culture is an idealized state that no longer reflects the day-to-day activities of the populace. There could be two cultures at once, the classical culture for special occasions and holidays, and the everyday culture that has grown over time. Similarly, there could be an ethnic minority that has a very different culture than the majority of the nation.
The Star Trek method of defining culture tends to focus on finding a single human trait and exaggerating it, expanding it into the dominant cultural value. Vulcans are logical, Klingons are honourable warriors, Romulans are Imperial, Ferengi are avarice, Changelings are orderly, Bajorans are spiritual, Cardassians are Orwellian, etc.
This is a little simplistic and it’s a little unrealistic to describe an entire population by a single value, but it works. Television writers and GMs alike have to introduce and convey the nature of a people as quickly as possible. Subtle nuances of cultures will be missed and there’s no time for deep immersion in an alien culture.
Once the basis for a race or culture is know it can be expanded with other details, even subtle ones. While exaggerating a single trait is a good place to start it’s a terrible place to end. It’s essentially a cultural “Hook” that serves as inspiration and drives later ideas. The trait can also offer inspiration, raising questions that need to be answered. Returning to Star Trek, knowing that Vulcans are emotionless raises the question “then where do little Vulcans come from?” which inspires new aspects of the culture and maybe a story or two.
A good start to culture is names. An exotic name can really define a character as not being a member of a standard fantasy world. I once played a Baklunish character in Living Greyhawk with the name Komiser Muavini Husam ibin Kharif al Barakhat. “Komiser Muavini” was his rank in the Spahis organization, “Husamn” was his given name, “ibin Kharif” denoted his family and “al Barakhat” denoted he was from the Barakhat province.
Do names have a deeper meaning or are they just syllables? Is there a naming tradition, such as babies named after a certain family member? Do children have a “son of” or “daughter of” in their name? Is there a geographic element? Do names include a clan or caste? Names could also be colourful actions and descriptions, like the stereotypical Amerindian names: Lives in Woods, Joined Together by Water, One Who Lives Lone, Leaps Over the Mountain, etc.
There could be some belief in true names, given young and seldom used or shared save by close friends and allies.
Names might be impermanent, with names changing or evolving over time. In cultures with high infant mortality, babies might not have permanent names until they reach a certain age. There might also be a difference between adult and childhood names, with the transition to adulthood being marked by a naming.
Language & Speech
Language is important. Charlemagne once said “to have a second language is to have a second soul.” To discover what is important to a culture, you look at their language. The easy example is how the Inuit have dozens of words for snow; while not factually true it sounds true, as language describes what is people view as important enough to need subtle differences in communication. (To emphasise that point, in Canada alone we use: snow, sleet, hail, slush, flakes, blizzard, flurries, rime, graupel, powder, drifts, packed, and squall before getting into composite words and esoteric scientific terms.)
An uncomfortable example is how mental retardation is viewed in western society. The common term for people wth MR has varied over the year: retarded, challenged, developmentally delayed, special needs, learning disabilities, etc. This is an example of a euphamism treadmill where none of the terms are inappropriate (or inaccurate) but are made inappropriate because of how society uses (and abuses) the terms. Which stems from the negative cultural view of the individuals.
There’s a great deal of variety in languages. Languages can be literal and rational or full of subtle emotions. Languages can be lyrical and poetic or harsh and aggressive. They can be simple with limited vocabularies but modified by suffixes and prefixes or there might be an expansive vocab with myriad different words.
Beyond the actual vocab is the phrasing: not what is being said but how. The language of a culture might establish if they respect politeness or terseness. A polite society might have brusque words, but the culture uses longers or less direct phrases “I wish” or “it would please me” rather than “I want”. This includes description and how abstract concepts are conveyed. Commonly used expressions are another example, such as how people curse or express surprise. What is an insult to the culture?
What a people eat and what they don’t eat are determined by culture . This can be animals; many cultures eat dogs and horses, but this is frowned upon in North America. There are also non-standard sources of food such as insects and organs that are not typically consumed.
An example of how culture can radically change how food is used is semolina. Coarsely ground wheat, this is just a heavily processed grain product. In North America it’s commonly known as Cream of Wheat, and is a breakfast food (a non-wheat variant is the corn-based grits). In much of Europe, it’s instead sweetened and served as a dessert, occasionally chilled into a pudding. Same food, but very different implementations.
Preparation is another variable: ingredients might be cooked and kept separate, cooked separate but served together, or mixed and combined. There may be single servings or multiple small courses. Food might typically be raw or it might always cooked. Soft food might be prefered of the culture might lean to crispy. Food might be a casual affair with people eating quickly just to fill their bellies or it might be a slow ritual and an important part of the day.
Seasoning and choice of spices are also a nice variable. Some nations might default to plain food, others might prefer simple seasoning, while others might regularly have spicy dishes.
Utensils also vary. The big two sets of eating utensils are cutlery (fork, knife & spoon) versus chopsticks. Kebabs/ skewers are another utensil, as are combinations like the spork. Other cultures eat with their fingers or have a bread dish as an edible utensil.
One option for a worldbuilder is non-standard animals. What if ducks were more common than chickens or bison were the domesticated cattle of choice? There are plenty of exotic fruit we don’t see, and that’s without thinking of foods from mythology or fantasy flora and fauna.
How a culture defines and handles marriage varies greatly. Without getting into the same-sex debate (which does get a little easier when you can just cast a spell to speak with your god and ask if they’re cool with it) there is a lot of diversity in how you define “marriage”.
Start with the bigger question: does a particular culture even have marriage? With races that live for centuries, marriage might not exist and there might only be longer relationship. If there is marriage, is it for a lifetime or a short term? Are weddings private affairs, familial ceremonies, or big public events? Even love as the basis for marriage has varied over time with marriage being an economical of political affair for much longer. The parties involved might have a choice or betrothal might be involved.
There’s also polygamy, which is divided into polygyny (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands). Polygyny tends to be more common in cultures with a high infant mortality rate, as the survival of the tribe depends on the number of children that reach maturity; fewer men are needed to sustain the population and thus are allowed to have multiple wives.
In the western world marriage has both a civil and spiritual component and is marked by the exchanging of rings worn on the left ring finger. Other cultures might view marriage as secular and strictly a contractual arrangement while other nations might forgo the legal portion and keep it a religious ceremony. Marriage could be marked by rings, bracelets, tattoos, brands, necklaces, etc.
Arms, Art & Leisure
How a culture decorates and adorn themselves and their homes can show how they think and what they value. Natural motifs and subjects such as plants or animals can suggest a connection or nature or effort to meld their lives with green spaces. Abstract patterns can suggest a desire for order or value of symmetry and balance. A lack of decoration and adornment suggest a utilitarian focus. Religious symbols suggest the importance of spirituality to a culture.
What people choose to decorate and adorn shows what is important. In our culture as computers became more and more important we’ve seen a change from plain beige boxes to vibrant and decorative cases with superfluous lights and detailing. While to most it is simply a method of transportation, you can spot the people who love their car as it might be airbrushed or feature a custom paintjob.
Art also includes dance and music. What instruments are played? Do people sit quietly to music or is dancing mandated? Do the songs tell a story (or history)? Is the music happy and jovial or somber and serious?
Armour and weapons overlap with art as there are elements of style and design in both. A culture might have stylized weaponry and armour or utilitarian arms, it might be blocky, crude, or sleek and elegant. The Lord of the Rings movies highlights this well; compare the ugly angular weapons of orcs with the curved and beautiful elven weaponry, or the dwarven weapons with their sharp angles.
Choice of weapons can also differentiate a culture. Such as if they use tool-weapons (axes, picks, hammers), blunt weapons (hammers, clubs, flails), or exotic and unusual weaponry unique to that culture. It sets the tone of the culture being offensive or defensive, or having overt weaponry or traditionally reappropriating tools as weapons.
Lastly there are sports and leisure. How do people pass the time? Are board games the prefered leisure activity or physical sports? Do people participate in team based sports or is competition between individuals? It’s been commented that many early sports were a replacement for war, either using martial skill for entertainment (wrestling, jousting, or archery contests) or to defuse aggression via friendly competition or to keep fit and skilled at violence despite weaponry being unavailable. Early board games tended to be wargames that emphasised and educated strategy.
Other forms of entertainment tended to be violent, such as bear baiting, fox hunting, falconry, etc.
The examples above are a small number of the ways cultures define themselves. Death rites and the view of death, the views of sex and violence, view of wealth and money (and what is considered wealthy), economics, government, and the like. Far more than could be covered here in a single blog.
There are lots of ways of distinguishing a people. There are two-hundred odd cultures on the planet, some with overlapping cultural elements and some with myriad different cultures. There are innumerable subcultures and countercultures on top of that. Attempting to accurately and realistically portray all the cultures in a fantasy world would be maddening.
As such, a worldbuilder must work efficiently, defining a couple key traits for each major cultures, be it a race, a nation, or other. It helps to focus on a couple big and memorable elements of the culture. These should be a little larger-than-life to make them easier to recall. These are essentially a cultural mnemonic
After settling on the culture’s distinguishing element(s), use the theme to influence other elements of the culture. Look at how it might impact how the people live, what they like and fear, and be reflected in their behaviour.
A culture with deeply rooted ties to nature might build out of wood whenever possible and use carved vine and leaf motifs in their construction. Buildings might be designed to have large courtyards in the middle with gardens and green spaces. Armour and weapons might have natural designs and patterns. Important events and ceremonies – like weddings – might take place in natural settings, in glades under the sky. Their language might have many natural words and descriptions might focus on nature-based analogies: “as strong as an oak”, “as proud as a mountain” and “as temperamental as the sea”.
While it’s possible to continue the example into food, names, and the like that might not be necessary as the theme of the culture
With little art and constant warfare, the culture of war world is a little subtler. Weapons and armour would be utilitarian, as would most buildings. Art is nonexistent. I have to get creative to differentiate the world and its cultures.
Going with a non-standard food can emphasise this is not just a renamed Europe. I’m thinking of adding tapirs as a common food animal, replacing pigs and cows. Sheep and goats might be common, but more as a source of wool and milk respectively. Guinea pigs might be a source of smaller meals (although I might refer to them as cavy to avoid referring to the nonexistent pig). With food being scarcer – being rationed for troops and supply lines – people cook as much as they can, stewing and food to get the most out of usable meat. With soup, stews, and curries being the default utensil is likely a spoon.
Horses are useful for warfare and a heavy cavalry is vital to winning battles, so fewer horses are used as beasts of burden. Something like water bison or might replace them on the fields and pulling carts. This means riding horses are an expensive luxury and most commoners walk everywhere. Carriages would be exceedingly rare and non-military wagons would be pulled by bison at a slow yet steady pace.
Sports and athletics are unknown and games tend to be military training. Bouts are a common entertainment, with festivals holding archery, wrestling, quarterstaff, and hammer throwing contests. Dueling is also common, with disagreements settled in public on a weekly dueling day. These encourage people to practice their martial skills but are not to the death, either to first blood or someone is disarmed. Dueling weapons are commonly used and typically blunted or made of wood. They’re held publically as entertainment in dedicated spaces, a form of unprofessional and voluntary gladiatorial matches.
Death is a little more common and accepted in a world at perpetual war. It’s just a fact or life. The populace is likely more than a little jaded and accustomed to losing family members. As such, marriage is likely less permanent and widowhood commonplace. Remarriage is common. Marriage is really an extended support system for children; both extended families agree to raise any children from a union, and thus assist the raising of the child after one parent dies in battle.
The population needs to be maintained. There needs to be future generations to sacrifice in battle. The kingdoms cannot wait for people to find love, and once a child reaches adulthood a marriage is arranged by their family. Adultery is common and all but expected, as people invariable develop feelings outside of their arranged marriage.
With some ideas for human culture done, I can brainstorming a few quick traits for the other races. I won’t detail all the secondary races, but provide a few thoughts for the big three and whatever else jumps to mind.
Living for centuries, elves see the world change before their eyes. They have a worldview of impermanence and change. They do not get attached to people, places, or objects because those will only go away. Elves often come across as flighty or removed from the world.
Eves are predominantly left handed (but frequently ambidextrous). Where many other races thing left-to-right, elves think right-to-left. They read starting at right, their alphabet is flipped, and they sort things starting on the right. As such, elves seem to do much backwards, shaking and saluting with the wrong hand. Paired with their worldview of impermanence they are alien and difficult for humans to understand.
Elves do marry but enter into short-term partnerships of cohabitation and cooperation. These relationships typically last several decades and a century at the longest. These are voluntary unless a dalliance results in pregnancy in which case partnership is mandatory. Elves mark their partnerships with tattoos on their right arm representing that person, starting at the wrist and working up as they enter more partnerships. When the tattoos reach the shoulder the elf can no longer marry.
When an elf does swear an oath of allegiance or service they add a tattoo to their arm, showing that they will not marry while under their oath. But as they leave space above the service tattoo, this emphasises their obligation will eventually end. Elves also know they have to pick their allegiances carefully, as all their past oaths are visible on their arm.
Having adapted partially to aboveground life, dwarves eat human food. Those mountain dwarves that live underground make do with whatever food they can scavenge, frequently surfacing when food cannot be found. They have typically lost access to the vast warrens of dwarven fungi, delectable moulds, and ranches of meaty deepworms. Even now dwarves still prefer earthy food: insects, worms, and mushrooms.
Once, before the wars, dwarves divided themselves into extended clans that were sub-kingdoms that were greatly extended families. Marriages were kept inside the clan save for marriages to cement alliances between clans or end feuds, the latter being rare during the times of prosperity and peace. With the fall of the dwarven nation, the clans can no longer stand alone and intermarriage is the norm. Children take the clan of their mother (to guarantee lineage). With so many dwarven men killed in the wars, there are too few males for the females, so polygamy has become common: a male dwarf marries a woman and all her sisters.
The little people survive by staying neutral, going with the wind, and keeping out of sight. Most halflings live quiet lives as the ranchers and farmer who providing food for the owners of the land, or acting as traders and merchants along the coasts and rivers.
Halflings live lives of neutrality and servitude. Even those halflings who become spies and smugglers are indiscriminate regarding their employer. Even thieves seldom work just for themselves but tend to act under the employee of a master thief, a thieves guild, or employer. While halflings have their own desires, goals, and drives they prefer to work under someone. They feel comfortable under authority.
But halflings are not slaves, and a master that mistreats their halflings will discover that quickly as they awake to see multiple small lives in the candlelight.
As they are neutral, halflings are a little more festive than other races. They are fond of lively music using a variety of instruments and dancing. Halfling trader caravans are one of the only sources of entertaining, often offering small shows when they stop for the night and as they trade their wares.
I already decided on the dragon-folk of the north being amoral raiders, akin to Vikings. They sail their seas with dragon-prowed ships. To add some spice to this I’ll make the ships ice, magically preserved when raiding south. They can magically enchant ice to be as hard as steel and many use weapons of ice. As they have endless resources of ice, they can take the time to personalize and carve their weapons prior to enchanting them. They prefer weapons they can attach to wooden hafts (saving their hands from clutching ice) such as axes, maces, and spears.
The dragonmen live in a harsher terrain of ice and mountains and think in terms of the elements. They commonly use fire, stone, ice, and the like as descriptors. The elements are given attributes with earth being steadfast, cold being merciless, water being persistent, thunder being boisterous and boastful, etc.
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