Modern Cultures of Eis

Modern Cultures of Eis


In this part, I will be taking the six proto-cultures I developed last time in Pre-History and Subsistence Strategies and molding them into the contemporary cultures of my continent. There are six proto-cultures I have to work with: the Nyktii, the Hulvre, the Orochites, the Dverracks, the Qardaghi and the Llergeidan. I’m not working on history per-se, rather I might outline a few historical conditions and pressures that might have led to the modern cultures. But I will at least discuss the widespread cultures and Empires, roughly how they formed and influenced each other, and how these changes shaped the cultures. The six proto-cultures will then constitute my “ancient progenitor races” like the Romans, Mesopotamians and the Ancient Egyptians of our world.

Descendants of the Llergeidan and the Fate of the Nyktii

The most influential of the cultures by far will be the Llergeidan derived giantish traditions. Not long after the development of agriculture, the Llergeidan begin amassing huge populations. The largest wars in history are fought, and in the end more or less a single Empire rises from the ashes. The Llergeidan Kings then wage wars across the continent, using their technological superiority to conquer and enslave the local races.

However, this is all a very slow process, on the order of hundreds if not thousands of years. During this time the culture is not only changing naturally, but also integrating various aspects of local cultures into theirs. Eventually, the giants living on the borders no longer see themselves as ethnically and culturally aligned with the heartland, leading to various rebellions and collapses. This ends in the storming of the capital city, the deposition of the emperor and the division of the Empire into independent states. In places where giants remained the minority ethnicity, they may lose their power without the backing of the Empire and be forced to integrate, or face exile or execution. Even if there are no giants left in an area, everywhere historically within the empire will likely have Llergeidan elements to the culture of their ruling classes. Llergeidan agricultural techniques will spread even further beyond their borders to people that as of yet have been relying on less labor-efficient survival strategies. This transitional period when most of the world’s economy is switching over to agriculture will result in cultural changes of its own, which each culture will have to respond to differently.

First, let’s deal with the descendants of our human culture, the Nyktii. These hunter-gatherers live in the temperate zones, meaning that they are right in the path of the giants as their Empire begins to expand. The Nyktii will put up a good fight, but within a few hundred years, the Llergeidan will conquer the Nyktiis’ lands and force most of them into slavery. The rest will flee across the mountains, or into other communities among the Orochites and the Hulvre.

Within a few generations, the humans being born in the Imperial heartland will have no independent culture other than as members of the Empire’s lowest class. They may maintain a cultural identity that is distinct from their slavers, but they will have very little connection to their old language, their heritage and their way of life. What connections they do have will be born through their new tongue, and couched in Llergeidan ways of living and thinking. This gap will only grow wider with time, until class and racial identity will be the only remaining divide between them and the giants, no longer culture.

It may be worth noting that what portion of Nyktii culture is preserved by the slaves of the Llergeidan will likely do so by first entering into the giantish culture through contact and borrowing, and then be preserved through the ages as a part of broader giantish culture. The Nyktii likely have names for many plants that the giants don’t and these names would likely pass into the vocabulary of the giantish language. Similarly, many tasks related to drudgery will also likely preserve Nyktii words and practices, due to these tasks being spoken of most commonly among the lower classes. Compare this to how in English we preserve very old word forms like pig, sheep and cow for common farm animals, but borrow the Norman-French words porc, mouton and buef for their meats. The low class farmers most often spoke about the animals in real living terms, and the Norman rulers of England at the time spoke of the animals mostly around the dinner table, and their usage still affects the language today.

So these people will adapt to life under the Empire, but the Empire will also adapt to them. Especially early on, this will cause huge upheavals in the way people on both sides speak and act. This new Llergeidan heartland culture with elements of the old Nyktii just under the surface will be called Plefed, the Llergeidan word for the lands they inhabit. The giants and men of Plefed will live in a highly structured society with giants acting as the rulers, priests and soldiers while the humans tend to the homes, farms and flocks of the giants. Some humans may be trained as scholars, teachers, engineers and bookkeepers, but these would all be done with the objective of making them more valuable to their masters.

This Empire centered in Plefed will have elements of the Celtic aesthetic from the Nyktii mixed with the feudal social order and Welsh influences brought by the Llergeidan. High-class giants will adorn themselves with gold, cut jewels and fine fabrics, but these will be made by human metalsmiths, gemcutters and weavers who will incorporate the artistic elements of their people, like the more organic shapes, spirals and abstract animal figures. Once the Empire falls, the heartland will be less wealthy, but won’t be likely to change their ways at first, instead holding tightly to the prestige of the old Empire as it fades to dust around them.

Outside of the heartland, lesser giantish Lords will become Kings when the Empire falls. This will be the case in most of the borderlands the Empire seized from the Hulvre and the Qardaghi in their heyday.

In the more arid borderlands, the new giant Kings will amass great wealth from the trade flowing through their lands as exotic luxury goods are carted into the Empire. Once the Empire collapses, it will destabilize their economy, likely leading to the return of much of the land to the natives either in sale or by force of arms. There will be a series of wars fought as the giants and the new human city states battle for control of the land.

Plantations powered by slave labor and control of the cities will sustain these Kings for a time, but they will be forced to yield much of their actual authority to the locals to avoid coup-d’etats. Parliamentary or republican monarchies will be the middle ground found by the surviving ex-imperial states that allows them to maintain their lifestyle somewhat. Slavery may be abolished in many of these states, as the electorate post-war will likely be in majority human. But, this won’t mean that the plantations go away, rather, the slaves are now paid a pittance and classed as “laborers”.

Eventually there will be revolts, and efforts made toward forced emancipation in the states that resist. Pro-labor movements will crop up everywhere to resist their exploitation by the upper classes and these will become ongoing struggles that will take hundreds of years to stabilize at least. But during this time, these Kingdoms will be mixed bags of highly authoritarian and highly pro-labor.

The fracturing and reforming of states in this region will make finding a single name for their culture difficult. They are at times very imperial in culture, and at others very Qardagh. Some are free and others are slave states. Personal politics are the cultural divide here, not race or tribe, but “who do you support?” and “where are you from?”. I will call this area the Sugar Deltas, for the area’s famed cash crop; cane sugar farmed in the marshy deltas in the floodplains of the rivers.

The Hulvre borderlands will fare better. Having been on the winning side of the war that crippled the Empire, almost all the lands were returned to the Hulvre or to giant Lords who had been kind to the elves under Imperial rule. In many cases Orders of Emancipation were signed during the war to conscript troops, and slavery broadly has been abolished here. However, the elves who live here have lived under the Empire too long to remember a time when they were the Hulvre. They have grown up in Llergeidan homes worshiping Llergeidan gods and they now know nothing else. After the initial upheaval, elves, humans and giants will live here in relative harmony, though with a lingering memory of a time when the giants were tyrants just beneath the surface.

Since we are talking about a very racial integrated society, now is a good time to address the question of interbreeding. I like the idea of a human-elf hybrid race cropping up on the border here, so I’m going to say that humans and elves can produce viable offspring. I similarly think human-giant hybridizing is possible, though perhaps producing only infertile children, incapable of further passing on their blood. This would suggest that humans and elves are in fact different expressions of the same underlying species, but that giants are different species of the same genus. How about dwarves and giants occupying a sister clade to the humans and elves. This would mean that humans and elves are one species, while dwarves and giants represent another closely related species. It might seem strange to make the smallest and the largest humanoids the same species, but this allows “dwarf” to express more of a body-type than an actual size. So, I can have a “dwarf” just as tall as a human, or even a giant, but still built with the stocky dwarven body shape.

Returning to the topic at hand, I’m going to say that the elves and humans of these imperial provinces intermingled for centuries slowly merging into something akin to a “half-elf”. As the genepools of the two races begin to overlap they won’t see themselves as “half-” anything, but simply their own ethnicity. Other elves and humans are likely to see this differently, and view these people as strangers regardless of how similar their cultures may be. There may be several Kingdoms of elves, giants and men here but they will all have roughly the same culture from centuries spent as a united Empire and centuries more now of alliances as independent Kingdoms. We can say that when they were under the Llergeidan, their province was called Alppelied; and now they continue to call the people from the region as a whole Alppelieds.

Descendants of the Orochites

As the Nyktii flee from the Llergeidan, one of their closest refuges will likely be among the Orochites. They too will be grappling with giantish imperialism, but their place among the arid hills and savannas makes their lands less valuable to the Empire, and more difficult to capture and hold. Orochite communities whose grazing ranges border the Empire will likely develop a more war focused culture as they are forced to contest with their aggressive neighbors. When the Nyktii refugees arrive, this will only stoke the fires of these communities’ hatred for the Empire as the refugees integrate.

These new Orochites will maintain their herds, but they may also develop small-scale agriculture to supplement their diets, based on seeing the new technology in the settlements they raid. Their land is too poor in water and soil to properly monocrop, but the home settlements may grow into sort of groves with small patches of heat-tolerant crops like barley, rye and date-palms growing there year round. Another technology this tribe may discover is metallurgy and how to alloy the native metals from the mountains around their homeland. Copper can be alloyed with lots of other metals, like tin to make bronze, and zinc to make brass, both of which are better tool metals than their component metals. I’m going to say that over the centuries these people have slowly worked out a recipe for a strong brass that they can forge into armor, weapons and arrowheads to give them an edge against their enemies. This final discovery will come less than a hundred years before the fall of the Empire in Plefed, and will play a large role in its ultimate downfall.

Like most militaristic societies, these Orochites will abandon their traditional matriarchy in favor of a patriarch who leads the men in the battle. The increased labor requirements of agriculture may also mean that these people are no longer truly nomadic, with the home settlement now occupied year round, and only some of the labor force working with the flocks. Men in the home, especially foreign Nyktii who are not used to the matriarchal society will likely curtail the freedom and authority that the women had under the old system.

I will call these new shepherd-warriors the Mychabites. This name incorporates some of the elements of the Nyktii, and the Orochite demonyms, but also is meant to evoke the Maccabees, a holy army who conquered Judea for the Israelites mentioned in the Old Testament. These Mychabites will be renowned for their skill with the bow, and their ability to disappear like a shadow into the mountainous terrain of their homelands. They will retain the ritual tattoos of the old Nyktii, and use them to display their victories and accomplishments in battle. It’s thanks to these border-peoples that the other Orochite cultures will be safe to develop without giantish influence.

Past the lands of the Mychabites, there are yet more Orochites. But, unfortunately for these people, while they don’t have to contest with the Empire, they do have to contest with the incredibly ruthless Mychabites. Due to the Mychabites’ culture associating prestige with accomplishments in battle, will never be content without an enemy to fight. During times of peace with the Llergeidan Empire and after its fall, the Mychabites will turn on their cultural cousins for resources and the opportunity to earn more prestige. At first these people will be fighting on even footing, but as the Mychabites develop more advanced weapons technology, and a standing, well-trained raiding force, these other people will have to adapt to avoid being overwhelmed.

To help with this I’d like to place one of my world’s major rivers right in the middle of these people’s lands. When the Mychabites inevitably introduce the concept of agriculture to these people, they will be uniquely positioned to exploit the new technology in a way the Mychabites couldn’t. By digging canals that draw water from the river, these people can expand the reach of the river’s fertile floods and irrigate wider stretches of land. Like their cousins, they will probably grow barley, rye and date-palms, things that can flourish in their arid homeland. But, as they expand along the banks of the river, they may find particularly fertile and sheltered oases and valleys that can support more demanding crops like wheat and oats. As before, these people will likely become sedentary, and may begin to feed their oxen and goats on the oats and barley that they grow, marking a complete transition out of their previous subsistence style.

Cities will be these people’s primary defensive strategy against the Mychabite raids. By using the river and the city walls as buffers, they can tilt the favor of battle back to them and can continue to hold their lands. The borders will likely shift constantly as battles are fought and won and then lost again, but the borders will always recenter to the river as the major geographical obstacle in the region. With the advent of cities, these people will develop more strict social hierarchies with steeper wealth disparities between the upper and lower classes. Eventually this will lead to many of these tribes-become-city-states that dot the river, each of which is ruled by a hereditary monarchy that grew out of the traditional Orochite matriarchalism.

I’m going to call this great river the Shonna, and the culture that lives along its banks are the Shonnai or the Shonna River People, though individually they would likely identify with their city first and their broader cultural heritage second. This is because each city will have different laws, traditions and practices which, though slight to an outsider, seem like major deviations from what each other city would think of as the “normal” and “proper” way to do things.

To make the Shonnai more distinct from the other Orochite cultures, and to compliment their grand agricultural river-cities in an otherwise desert-like land, I would also like to give them some cultural and aesthetic cues from ancient Egypt. I’m going to avoid pyramids, as the Shonnai probably don’t have the resources or the veneration for their monarchs that the Egyptians did. Instead we will adopt objects like the obelisks, the statues and the practice of decorating temples in highly stylized logograms. As we dig more into Shonnai religious beliefs later on, we can also co-opt a lot of the Egyptian religious iconography, but that’s a project for a later time.

In small pockets all over this arid zone, Orochite communities likely exist that have maintained mostly the same exact lifestyle for millenia. These pastoralists will persevere in areas too infertile for agriculture and too far from the city states and the Mychabites to be assimilated. What changes do happen will likely be improvements to technology like well-digging, borrowed metallurgy skills improving tools, better engineering and passive systems for cooling their homes, and hundreds of years to selectively breed their flocks to provide exactly what their communities need. Only the most fiercely insular tribes will be able to continue this way, as more open-minded Orochites assimilate to the other economically and militarily dominant cultures of the region. These factors will select for extremely conservative tribes of Orochites living in very hard to reach places.

These people likely view themselves as culturally contiguous with their Orochite ancestors, to the degree that they maintain any knowledge of those times. It is likely they still use the same name as their ancestors did, but slightly garbled over the years. The specifics of how languages change over time is a super interesting topic, but short of constructing a whole language for these people, I’m just going to make up some sound changes that might happen and derive a new word for these Neo-Orochites. If we take off the o at the beginning, we can get a different initial letter, which will go a long way to making the words read differently in text. Perhaps that sort of difficult to pronounce ch sound becomes a much easier k, and the ending loses the final consonant. If we adjust the final vowels to be more similar to the end of Shonnai, it will even give the sense that they probably speak the same or similar languages, ultimately deriving from some mother tongue. So we will call these reclusive nomads the Rokai.

Descendants of the Hulvre

While all this is going on among the human cultures, the Hulvre have had to adapt to both a large influx of the Nyktii refugees, and a new enemy who has set its eyes on cultivating their cold but workable lands. Hulvre culture will likely become a gradient from very humanized on the borders to almost exclusively elven in the more distant regions. Luckily, the Nyktii and Hulvre cultures are fairly compatible, and though some of the humans may struggle with living under the Lord or Lady of the woods, they will likely integrate very smoothly over the centuries. On their nearest border is Alppeleid, where humans and elves are already slowly becoming one mono-culture under the rule of the giants. This will likely happen to more or less the same extent with the interbreeding of elves and humans in this region. Once the Empire collapses these people and the Alppeleids will look almost identical in terms of their heritage; but where the Alppeleids are thoroughly imperialized in terms of their beliefs and culture, these people will instead be a mixture of Hulvre and Nyktii culture free of direct influence by the Llergeidan.

This borderland culture will face a lot of prejudice, and a series of wars with the vastly superior Llergeidan forces. Their salvation will be their ability to harness nature magics provided by their Lords to protect their lands from invasion. Maintaining supply lines through a forest that is actively hostile to you would be almost impossible, and any ground gained would be lost as soon as the armies retreated. Thus, the Llergeidan Empire would be forced to expand slowly, taking small sections of defensible land and building a frontier of farmland and clearcut from which to wage their war against the elves. Where these lands are continuously in the Empire’s control, you get Alppeleids, and where the border shifts back and forth you get free people of a new creolized culture. Certain Lords and Ladies will be too powerful for the Empire to conquer and many pockets of Hulvre will remain independent or enter into the Empire on negotiated terms of their own.

Now, several cultures will be sharing this region with one another. An imperialized majority including both the Alppeleids and the creolized borderlands, and then several minorities of autonomous natives who have managed to resist the Empire’s influence. Across this whole area, almost all of the cultures use an elven word for the land, but their language has likely been influenced at this point by the giantish tongue. Let’s say that the Hulvre traditionally called their lands vangr, which simply means “land” in their tongue. The creolized elves who have received Llergeidan influences then apply their own accent to it. Perhaps to them it comes out more like fannur. The local independent elven settlements however maintain the original pronunciation. It’s very common for real world cultures to derive their names for their people from a phrase along the lines of “people of the land”, so perhaps the native half-elves do the same and call themselves the Vangralfé, or Vangr-Alfé, “land-people”.

The people of Fannur and the Vangralfé tribes often work together against the Empire as a matter of self preservation. But they have little loyalty to one another; instead the Vangralfé acknowledge that the Fannur elves are an important buffer between them and the Imperial forces, and perhaps feel obligated to help out of a sense of kinship. For the Fannur Kings who have escaped the Llergeidan’s grasp, the Vangralfé are a critical ally, and they often pay heavily in metal and luxury goods to the Vangralfé Lords for help from their warriors and magics.

Beyond these contentious borderlands, the elves are developing their own empire. The great Lord spirit of one of the tribes has domesticated certain plants for their people and taught them when and where to plant them. This gift of agriculture caused an explosion in their population. They built cities, and expanded along the river system where their civilization first formed. Agriculture is difficult in these climates, and even more so when just starting out, but with the aid of magic we can make anything work. Perhaps these elves grow a crop enchanted to keep them from freezing in the ground, or to grow more quickly through the short warm seasons. A much more mundane solution however, is that the crop the Lord spirit granted these Hulvre was a root crop like a potato or a beet. These hardy tubers can survive frozen conditions by sequestering their nutrients and water below the frostline in bulbs that are built to survive the cold. So perhaps the elves mainly rely on root crops like this, but supplement with less plentiful harvests of rye originally imported from the giants through early Fannur cultures.

These elven farmers will outpace most of the other traditional Hulvre tribes, and soon begin to integrate them. However, the difference in technology may not persist, and other Hulvre may begin to practice agriculture as well, eventually leading to a sort of stabilization in this region. The largest Empire of elves will live along the most fertile river systems, with smaller Kingdoms dotting the fringes. Beyond them, hunter-gatherer tribes may persist in some areas, but will be pushed to the absolute limit of available land as the Kingdoms spread out. So there will be three sister cultures all living in the sub-arctic ancestral range of the Hulvre.

The large elven Empire at the center of it all is ruled by the Lord spirit that brought them agriculture in the first place, now at least several hundred years old. This figure is wise and likely genuinely cares for their people. They also have immense magical power which they can bend to the benefit of their Empire and people. This spirit eventually begins to teach the elves forest magics to aid in their agricultural development and to help repel the many contenders for their lands. At this point the ancestral shamanic magics of the elves may be codified into something more concrete. I won’t design a full magic system now, but I will say that this won’t be run of the mill druidism. Rather it will probably resemble druidic nature worship on the surface, but has more to do with alchemical processes, robust knowledge of the local biosphere and divination used to predict the weather.

The ancient Hulvre that gave rise to these people lived in hovels covered in earth. In modern times however, these are thought of as the dwellings of peasants. Anyone in a city lives in a brick house, either made from mudbrick, or more expensive clay. In farming settlements their homes are likely thatched and either shingled or simply tarred in the cities. The end result is that the settlements of the Hulvre look strikingly similar to some early European cities that employed brickwork. They will have maintained their love of nature motifs and organic shapes, so green spaces are everywhere and homes are more likely to be domed, sloped and arched than they are to be box-like, as long as the owner can afford to have it built that way.

Although these people likely haven’t done much metallurgy, we can use magic to give them an interesting new material to work with. Amber hardened from a certain enchanted tree and baked in a kiln like pottery becomes as hard as bronze, though more brittle. Moreover, this amber is easy to cast, as it’s liquid in its original state, and can be farmed unlike metals. These elves use the amber of these trees for their arrowheads, spearheads and daggers. They would have to import sturdier materials to make larger arms like swords and axes, so they generally only do so as necessary. The amber also sees extensive use in their sculptures, jewelry and architecture.

I will have these people take their name from their Lord spirit that watches over their Empire. I’m going to call it Empress Enue. Remember, this isn’t literally an elven queen, it’s an ancient and powerful forest spirit that the elves have made their Empress. And in honor of their undying Empress, the elves call their Empire Enuelia.

Around Enuelia are the many independent elven Kingdoms and commonwealths. These likely all have their own local cultures, so I won’t delve too much into them here. But, these will be an excellent source of new cultures and plots in later parts of the world’s development. In the meantime we can treat them as ethnically related to the Enuelians and therefore likely very similar in many respects. They have mostly the same access to technology and resources, and they live in a fairly stable and traversable part of the world, so cultural diffusion will bare the Enuelian culture out into the Kingdoms at large. Economic bonds, and eventually marriage to lesser nobility of the larger state will probably also contribute to similarities between these cultures.

I will simply call these the Elven Kingdoms for the time being, and we can come back and give them individual names and cultures at some later date.

Finally there are the semi-arctic elven hunter-gatherer tribes living beyond the edge of the Kingdoms. Most of these people will be exiles from their homelands, which were seized by the Kingdoms as they grew. There will be animosity over their treatment, and the elven tribes out here will not have a friendly view of more civilized lands. At best they will simply be reclusive semi-mythical communities tucked back in the glacial valleys and fjords. At worst they will be actively hostile raiders who descend from their icy villages to take what they need from their more fortunate neighbors.

Given that the Hulvre were based on Scandinavian culture, this would be an excellent opportunity to include some viking flavor in the setting. These Hulvre have been marginalized for centuries and now have no problem raiding “those damn city-elves” for whatever they happen to need. These people do still have protector spirits, but the spirits may be related to ice, snow and war more often than forests, given that these people often live in sparsely wooded areas.

I will call these icy elven raiders the Alvroc. Again I’ve taken the older term and “smoothed it out” so to speak. The h is gone and the vowels have changed, but you can still see that very identifiable lvr cluster from Hulvre. Then, instead of cutting off the end vowel like I did before, I expanded the word with an extra consonant. This might represent some new grammar that these elves are applying to their words, or a shift toward avoiding word final vowels. Once again, without having a fully developed language for these people, it’s hard to say why the words are changing this way, but words will change and drift over time, and you can use this to your advantage as a worldbuilder to take some creative license with your naming conventions.

Descendants of Qardagh

In the tropical regions of our continent the Qardaghi elves are living mostly undisturbed by the development of modern politics and technology. Those that live on islands are completely out of reach for the non-seafaring Llergeidan Empire. But those in the jungles may have some surprises in store for them. Jungles are naturally rich in biodiversity and life in general. The moisture and the heat are fantastic for plant growth, and that growth in turn supports a huge and varied ecosystem. To the Empire, this represents a vast sea of available resources, if only they knew how to exploit it. Jungles and tropical rainforests aren’t like temperate forests. They’re thick, swampy places, full of ancient growth that may be older than human memory, and all kinds of hostile creatures and diseases. Those who are adapted to the jungle can live there just fine, but those like the giants who aren’t familiar will likely stumble constantly into unforeseen dangers.

Luckily for the Empire, they don’t need to learn the jungle’s dangers if they can find a guide. Through diplomacy or enslavement, the Empire will eventually find a Qardagh elf and entice them to lead their armies through the jungles. There may be a few conquests especially along the rivers, and the erection of new Imperial cities there. But, after several failed forays into the jungle, the Llergeidan will likely wash their hands of the whole affair. Holding territory in the interior of the jungle represents even more issues than supply lines through enemy territory, and they may find it’s cheaper just to pay the natives’ asking price for the goods they want. Most of these goods will be luxury items like perfumes, exotic pelts, rare minerals and cultural relics to be sold as artifacts and curios back in Plefed. So, the people buying these things can afford to pay top dollar. Other things like useful botanicals might be imported as seeds or cuttings and grown in greenhouses in the Imperial cities.

Even though the Qardaghi will quickly learn not to trust the Empire, they may well settle into an uneasy trade alliance. The Qardaghi will eventually also gain some things back from the whole deal. Metal tools well beyond their ability to fashion can be traded for common local commodities like spices, and technologies like agriculture will spread by word of mouth. Though the seed stock of the giants won’t survive the damp environment of the jungle, things like wild rice and sugarcane could quickly be domesticated once the basic principles are understood. The Qardaghi likely still maintain ritual burnings of their fields, but do so after a traditional harvest, rather than after exhausting a stretch of jungle of its resources. Fire still helps rejuvenate the soil, and this combined with the natural fertility of jungle soil likely means that the Qardaghi are capable of turning some of the largest harvests in the world. Their population would boom in response to these developments, and soon there would be large elven cities dotting the jungle, farming wild rice and cash-cropping sugarcane and spices for export.

These new agricultural Qardaghi use the rivers as their highways for shipping goods, and this may extend to the way they design their cities. Tenochtitlan was a city state built by the Mexica people in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was originally built on an island in Lake Texcoco, but as the city outgrew the island, they began to build homes and public buildings on drained and uplifted portions of the lakebed. Eventually they also built what were called chinampas, partially floating gardens built in the previously swampy edges of the lake. An important factor here is that Lake Texcoco had no inlet, it was fed directly by spring water, and therefore sat very still and wasn’t very deep. Perhaps our Qardaghi use a similar technique to build their cities and rice paddies. But instead of locating the perfect spring fed lake, the Qardaghi begin this practice by digging artificial estuaries next to the rivers in order to flood the banks and create shallow lakes to farm their rice in. Over time, they reclaim parts of the artificial lakes for homes, and the result is a city interlaced with canals that allow water traffic to flow through the open avenues between the buildings.

Let’s give these people a new demonym to reflect their new cultural developments. Remember that the original Qardaghi are based primarily on the Phoenecian and Punic city states, not the Mexica. Though now the inspirations might be a little merged, I’d still like to keep with the Punic naming scheme. Unfortunately, we don’t have many attested writings in the Punic language. However, as best as I can find online, we do know the words for “water” and “city”, mm and r’. But wait, those are some pretty strange words. Where are the vowels? Well, the Phoenician script as the Punics used it was an abjad, a writing system similar to an alphabet except that there are no independent characters for vowels. Abjads are common among Semitic languages; both traditional Hebrew and Arabic use these vowel-less spelling systems. So mm and r’ are the words when written without the vowels, the way they originally would have been written in Phoenician. Luckily, I found one online dictionary that tells me for mm the most likely reconstruction is mim. I don’t trust my source entirely, but that’s fine because I’m just looking for inspiration. By compounding mim and r’ I get Mimrh, which I love the sound of already. Mimrh reminds me of the English word murmur which is one of the sounds we associate with rivers, making this word that much stronger in my mind. So I’ll call these flooded city dwelling elves of the jungle the Mimrh.

On the islands out at sea, the other Qardaghi live a peaceful existence without much conflict at all. Tribes that share an island may fight from time to time, but their populations are so small that war is a losing proposition for everyone. Actually war-like tribes wipe themselves out in a few centuries, leaving only the tribes capable of finding other ways to settle their problems. Contests of strength and acumen are common ways of solving tribal disputes, or even skirmishes between smaller squads of elite warriors rather than anyone’s full force being leveraged. Wars might even be waged magically by sending storms, evil spirits and curses back and forth until one side relents. In any case, tribes will develop a shared sense of what is and isn’t permissible in war time, and it will certainly include rules that limit the amount of actual killing that takes place.

The result is that these tribes may sit on these islands, harvesting their burn-crops granted by the fire spirits, fishing and developing their culture without ever actually developing any new technology. Some may even lose the skills needed for seafaring, locking them to their archipelago or single island and the surrounding waters. These cultures may never “develop” in the sense that the lack of outside pressures may allow them to reject innovation entirely. If they do this, their time will be spent developing family bonds and making art. Though these people’s lives would be simple, they would also be (outside of a few disasters) very happy, with strong communities that produce all sorts of sculpture, music and art to pass the time and keep people entertained. They may also have highly developed religions, that in a way, are “designed” to eat up a lot of the people’s free time with tasks that will keep them engaged in the community, like festivals and communal building projects.

Each of these islands may be separated by potentially thousands of miles of open ocean, and so the cultures that develop will not only be isolated from the mainland, but also from one another. Chains of islands will likely share some cultural features, but even then, there will be a gradient of cultures passing from one end to the other. Like the Elven Kingdoms around Enuelia, we don’t have the time to go through and develop each one of these right now. So, we will call these the Insular Qardaghi for now to distinguish them from their ancestors.

Descendants of the Dverracks

We have one last proto-culture to square away, the Dverracks. Dverracks were originally shepherds living in the boreal north near the Hulvre. With the formation of Enuelia, the division of the Elven Kingdoms, and the expansion of the Alvroc into the boreal regions, the Dverrack will be forced to fight for their lands. Even still, as the Elven Kingdoms adopt Llergeidan war tactics and import bronze to arm their troops, the Dverracks will have nowhere to go but into the high alpine forests where the elves, lacking proper transport, would fail to follow them.

By this point the dwarves have developed two different breeds of their mammoth sheep, one that is more like a yak, used for milk and wool, and another that is more goat-like that the dwarves have bred into riding and pack animals. Thanks to these animals, and the dwarves’ smaller size but wider bodies allowing them to store heat more efficiently, the dwarves can survive in the arctic mountains. Their massively reduced grazing range means that a family can only support a few animals on the land they have, and so hunting and small-scale farming of the elven frostroots become a regular part of their diets as well.

Tribes and clans are too large to support in these new conditions, instead one to three families on independent farmsteads might inhabit a small valley between a few peaks. Their nearest neighbors are similar farmsteads on the other side of the mountain. A dwarf living here might meet fewer than a hundred individuals over the course of their entire lifetime, making marriage prospects slim, especially when accounting for avoiding incest within such a small population. Genealogies are kept as a matter of great importance, and arranged marriages are common in order to avoid this.

These poor mountain people will be called the Gvorra, which I’m borrowing from an Old Church Slavonic word гора meaning “mountain”. Again I’m using a word for the land to describe the people, this title probably being short for a much longer dwarven phrase meaning “people of the mountains”.

Some dwarves will not go live among the Gvorra, they will refuse and they will resist. Some Dverracks may live on in minority communities among the Elven Kingdoms, though they would likely be treated quite terribly by the locals. Others will join bandit gangs or mercenary groups and earn their living by the sword. Dwarves will in this way disperse into the general populace of the elven and giantish Empires. Becoming common sights in the urban centers from Enuelia to Alppeleid.

In our world the most famous itinerant community of this kind are the Romani, also known by the historically used, but now derogatory term “gypsys”. Proud of their culture, and broadly mistrusted and mistreated wherever they go, the majority refuse to integrate into societies that have shown that they are not welcome there. For the dwarves who were already wanderers of a sort, this new sort of wandering will be more demeaning but not a significant change in their lifestyles. The enormous sheep herds of their homeland will be gone. They are too destructive to be brought with them in great numbers. But, their riding sheep will remain, and they will switch to herding the smaller human-domesticated sheep breeds. They make their living selling woolen cloth and other things they can craft on the go. Dwarven home-wagons become a regular sight on roads all over the continent and become associated with wandering craftsmen and merchants.

I’m going to call these dwarves the Üzimatn, again from an Old Church Slavonic word, this time възьмати, meaning to “take up” or simply to “take”; as these Dwarves take their homes with them wherever they go.

With this, we’ve developed an outline of our modern Eisian races. There’s still a lot more to do! But these will serve as the foundations of our “setting bible” as we develop things further. We still don’t know much of anything about the religion, history or geography of these people yet, but this is enough to get us started.

Before we leave off I’m going to briefly summarize what we’ve developed so far.

This chart shows which proto-cultures evolved into the modern ones. We have roughly 15 modern cultures for our continent; which is a lot for fantasy, but it’s what you would expect of a fairly large continent that spans so many climate zones. When I start writing fiction or campaigns for this setting, I will be focusing on smaller regions one at a time. Constraining scope this way will allow me to give rich detail to each part of the world individually, which supports the overall illusion of completeness.

The Dverrack, our dwarven shepherds have not fared the ages well, their descendants, the Gvorra and Üzimatn are highly marginalized communities that struggle to provide even the basic amenities for themselves. Some Üzimatn dwarves chose to integrate into the cities of other nations where they congregate together in a small area and try to make it feel as close to “home” as they can; a phenomena similar to the “Chinatowns” of many American cities.

The Hulvre elves have done much better for themselves, building several grand nations of their own like Enuelia, the Elven Kingdoms and the half-elven Vangralfé tribes. The Alvroc still maintain the old ways of the elves in distant corners of their lands. The Fannur and Alppeleid half-elf Kingdoms have only recently thrown off the shackles of the Llergeidan Empire, but are still reeling from the cultural and political changes instigated by the collapse.

The Nyktii were swallowed by the Llergeidan. Those that escaped found themselves with the Mychabites fighting an endless war against the Empire, or among the elves where long years made the two peoples into a single race. The Llergeidan Empire is now dead, but it lives on in Kingdoms like Plefed, Alppeleid and the Sugar Deltas, even if they are a bit less wealthy. Llergeidan culture lives on also in the agricultural practices of the human Kingdoms descended from the Orochites.

The agricultural Orochites, the Shonna River People, are now quite powerful, with cities and massive irrigated fields to feed their booming population. But they must contest with their cousins, the war-like Mychabites, who have been taught to crave war by centuries of battles with the now dead Llergeidan Empire. The Rokai alone have kept to the original ways of the Orochites, in the most inhospitable places where they will be left in peace.

The Qardagh live on in two populations, the continental Mimrh who build great river cities into the shallows of artificial lakes, and the Insular Qardagh who have spread out and begun to inhabit the islands of the world, completely isolated in their tropical paradises.

I can’t wait to take these modern cultures and start to work with them more. I want to give them religions, histories, magic systems, governments, and more. But those will have to each by discussions of their own, and it will be a long time before all of these cultures have all of that development. Instead, next time, I’m going to move straight into a short story set in Fannur during the Imperial collapse to illustrate how this rough outline can already be turned into the foundations for a final product.

Cultures Part 2: Fantasy Races and Ethnicities

In the fantasy genre the term Race has come to refer mostly to the species of the character in question. Whether they are elves, dwarves or orcs, these are understood to be “fantasy races”, intelligent creatures that live in your fantasy world. But the English term “race” has a lot of negative and potentially inflammatory associations. I will continue to use the term race throughout this article to talk about these differences, but I want to make it clear that technically what I’m talking about are better termed as species, genetics, ethnicity, or nationality, depending on the context. Okay, cool. Let’s move on.

“Traditional” Fantasy

Elf, dwarf, halfling, human. These fantasy races existed long before the lands of Middle Earth were conceptualized, but it wasn’t until the publishing of The Hobbit in 1937, and then the Lord of the Rings in 1954 and ‘55 that these races were presented together, in this particular style, that absolutely changed the face of fantasy. Prior to and contemporary to Tolkien’s works, there were authors like C. S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft who presented fantasy worlds with talking animals, lizardmen and aliens as their inhuman fare. These races remain common in fantasy as well, but nothing tops Tolkien’s Big Four in terms of frequency of use. We could speculate endlessly about why these stuck, but we probably wouldn’t get anywhere. Instead, let’s just acknowledge these four for what they are; classics. No one will ever call your setting inventive for having elves, but everyone you talk to about your setting will know right away what tone you’re trying to evoke and what types of characters they might see from your elven races. This might be part of why these are so common in tabletop RPGs, because these comfortable and familiar forms give players a solid ground to stand on as they develop their characters in an otherwise alien world.

So, if you want something easy and quick to feed your audience, these races are your fantasy bread and butter. But, there’s more to all of these races than Tolkien, they all have roots in ancient beliefs of real world people, and by acknowledging these roots you can deviate from the default in a way that still embraces the core aspects of these races. Let’s examine the origins of these races to understand what exactly an elf or a Hobbit is.

The word elf comes to us from the albiz or alp of Proto-Germanic mythology. These were envisioned in many different ways over the years but were primarily thought of as a sort of malevolent spirit or goblin that would frequently accost people while they slept. These attacks might include nightmares, vampiric blood sucking, or “wet-dreams”. Norse elves were markedly different, and were presented more as powerful beings similar to giants. Unfortunately very little of the Norse canon remains to us, and the sources we do have rarely expound on the exact nature of their alfar. It’s likely that Tolkien meant to conjure images of the Norse elf here, rather than the horrifying monster that is the alp. Most of his readers would be familiar with Norse mythology given that Bulfinch’s and similar anthologies were standard reading in English language schools at the time.

But, he may have also wanted to evoke the word alp in the sense of a goblin or fae-like creature. Certainly Tolkien’s elves have more in common with the faeries of English folklore than they do with vampiric night spirits. However, Tolkien may have been deliberately avoiding the term faerie or fae, which at the time had the connotation of being part of children’s “faerie stories” which were not considered respectable literature. By the early 1900s faeries had been reduced to pleasant little people who dance on toadstools, a far cry from their own mythological roots as wardens of the mysterious woodlands. Tolkien loved these faerie stories, and wrote extensive essays on the subject, but also understood that using the term faerie would appear rather childish to his audience. Regardless of what Tolkien’s exact reasoning was for choosing the term “elf”, in doing so he effectively wrote elves into the fantasy canon and spawned endless works that use the term in emulation of his vision of the Quenya.

Luis Ricardo Falero, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Understanding this gives us a number of different options for any elves we design to give them some additional flare while remaining true to their roots. Your elves may be dream-eating night spirits, wise and ancient immortals, or mysterious forest sprites, all without modifying the core of what makes them elves. But, you also have an infinite number of options to consider beyond these more traditional elvish styles. In the 70 years since the publishing of Tolkien’s works, the popular interpretation of elves has shifted, with many authors discarding Tolkienian elvish immortality and bringing them more in line with the power level of humans. Another common trope now is the division of elven races based on an elemental system of some kind, or the environment they choose to live in. Terms like High Elf, Wood Elf and Dark Elf are common enough in fantasy to qualify as archetypes of their own. It’s clear to see that the concept of what makes an elf an elf is adaptable. The inherent wishy-washiness of the term allows you to make all sorts of changes, and as long as they remain humanoid, magical and long eared, most people will know what you’re getting at.

Dwarf, a little magical man associated with stone and mountains. These creatures have been a part of broad Germanic folklore for well over a thousand years, appearing in Old Norse, Old English and Old High German all with roughly the same basic form. Use of the plural dwarves instead of dwarfs was started by Tolkien to bring the word more in line with English words like wolf/wolves and of course, elf/elves. Reading older sources will show you that they consistently use dwarfs prior to 1937, and many dictionaries still list the original as the standard spelling.

In Scandinavian mythology dwarves, like elves, are immortal magical beings of comparable power at times to the gods. Famously, the greedy dwarf Fafnir became a poison breathing dragon to guard his horde of gold. Dwarves are often depicted as being greedy or at least very self-serving in these myths, while also being craftsmen or at least collectors of artifacts. In another myth, the dwarves Fjalar and Galar murder a man created by the gods and boil his blood with honey in a magical cauldron to make the “mead of poetry” which makes any drinker into a wise poet. In English folklore, dwarves are again, dream-like creatures who come in the night to cause nightmares. The Germans however tended to view dwarves as the Norse did, as little men of the mountains. The Germans were the first to make beards one of the defining characteristics of dwarves, and the Germans further expanded the canon of dwarves with stories like the Nubelungenlied which feature dwarves as prominent characters.

In modern times, dwarves are mostly defined by their iconic appearance. The beard, the stocky build with a barreled chest, and the often ornately crafted armor or clothing are all part of what makes a dwarf a dwarf by modern standards. Most people will expect your dwarves to live underground or in the mountains, but this expectation is slowly vanishing as people move toward more integrated settings where all the races live together. Craftsmanship has also persisted as a mark of the archetypal dwarf, and many dwarves in fantasy settings will be featured as smiths or masons, hearkening back to their roots in Norse mythology.

Lorenz Frølich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dwarves are a great traditional fantasy race. They’re evocative without being over the top and fit in even in low-magic settings as an alternative to stock-standard humans. You can make them very mundane, essentially just a genetic offshoot of humanity, or you can make them wildly magical with shapeshifting powers, invisibility or the ability to craft magical wonders. Neither seems too out of tone for dwarves. And unlike other fantasy races, there aren’t really expectations for the role that a dwarf plays in a story (perhaps aside from “gruff”). A dwarf seems equally at home as a knight, a priest, a barbarian, or a hunter. Dwarves are basically the tofu of fantasy races, they readily absorb whatever sauce you decide to put on them. They will work with basically any world you throw them into, and you can spice them up and people will accept just about any odd detail you choose to give them. If your dwarves eat rocks people will roll with it. If your dwarves are all sailors and fishermen who live on floating sea-mountains, people will roll with it. If your dwarves turn into solid gold statues in the sun, people will just accept that fact, even though they would definitely raise some questions when presented humans with the same traits. Personally, I think if you were going to choose one fantasy race aside from humans to include in your world, dwarves are a strong contender for their versatility and simultaneous simplicity.

Halflings are sort of the odd man out here. Tolkien invented the word Hobbit himself, borrowing it from the Middle English hob or gob. Halfling was a “mannish” term for the hobbits in the stories and was used extensively by humans in the books when talking about them. But, when TSR decided to add hobbits to the list of standard races for Dungeons & Dragons, they were forced to use the more generic term halfling instead, because Tolkien and his estate actually own a trademark on the word Hobbit. Now the words are basically interchangeable in the general parlance of fantasy, but you’ll never see a published author with hobbits in their stories other than Tolkien and this is why.

Moreover, while tiny people who can easily hide or disappear are common in mythologies all over the world, the specific image of a halfling is certainly distinct enough that we can say that Tolkien “created” the idea, though he did so by iterating on well tread narrative ground. Unless you really reach, it’s hard to say directly where the concept of the halfling comes from. They could be partially based on leprechauns who have the same ability to hide from sight and the same stature, but halflings clearly lack the other magical abilities of leprechauns. Halfings strike me as being more similar to domestic spirits like brownies, tomte and kobolds: small local humanoids tied to homes and lands who are content to do house and fieldwork in return for offerings of dairy products and food. Regardless of their origins in mythology, the halflings of most fantasy settings today are most similar to their Tolkienian ancestor, the hobbit.

Because of this I think halflings are by far the weakest of what I consider Tolkien’s Big Four, and the most likely to be left behind in favor of other options. The problem with halflings is that they are often too specific to fit into a setting while remaining distinct. When does a halfling become a gnome? Or a Santa’s-workshop-style elf? If you tweak them too much they lose what makes them distinct, and they get lost in the malaise of mythology. This isn’t a problem, just a reminder that people will have expectations for your races based on the names you use for them, so be deliberate with the names you choose for your races.

Including halflings solidifies your place in the Tolkeinian/D&D realm of fantasy. If this is what you want for your setting, these guys are a big comfy and friendly flag to let people know what to expect. If you do make changes to their formula, make them subtle, or be a little more creative with your names for them to highlight the changes you make.

Humans are almost a given. We’re human, so we like to read stories about humans. We see ourselves in them, and their appearance in an unfamiliar fantasy world gives your audience some understanding to work from. You don’t need humans, but I would recommend including them in every setting unless you have a specific reason they can’t be there. The big exception seems to be stories like Watership Down and Redwall with anthropomorphized animals. I think that between the anthropomorphism, the cuteness of the animals, and the often still very down to earth settings of these types of stories, people can suspend their need to directly empathize with the characters by appearance. Other than this and a few other exceptions, humans are a crucial part of making fantasy worlds connect with the audience of your work.

 Humans are often the most diverse ethnically of all the races in a fantasy setting. While elves may have a few varieties, humans will invariably have dozens of cultures in a fleshed out setting. This should extend to other races as well, and I encourage you to make all of your races at least as diverse as your humans, if not more so. The following sections will try to cover how wide the range of ethnic and genetic diversity can get, and while most of this will be spoken of in terms of humans, you should keep all your setting’s races in mind when it comes to developing independent ethno-cultural groups.

Mythological and Personalized Races

For many of us elves and dwarves will not suffice. Maybe you want even more variety, or maybe you want something with a different flavor than the blanket Germanic pseudo-history of Tolkien. Once you look beyond the familiar tropes of contemporary fantasy, the next place to look is at the original fantasies: myths. World mythology provides us an endless list of demi-humans all with a prewritten set of abilities and limitations. Reaching for mythological inspirations also allows you to quickly suggest huge amounts of information about the culture of your races without giving much more than their name. “Giant” might be the name of a generic fantasy race, but Jötunn suggests a Norse inspired culture, while names like Nephilim or Fomorian would suggest Hebrew or Celtic inspiration.

Using mythological races can help you define the scale of your world in a few easy steps. Consider these two lists of races from two theoretical settings; 1) Satyr, Dryad, Human, Cyclops, Centaur; and 2) Oni, Jötunn, Deva, Human, Menehune. The first setting has clearly defined its thematic scope as being set in fantasy Greece. The second setting is worldly, with cultures differing vastly from country to country. Both of these work, but for very different sorts of settings, and the familiar names help to quickly solidify the aesthetic and feel you want to portray.

There are too many different magical creatures that work well as alternate races for me to cover them all. Instead, I would suggest that if you plan to go down this route, that you read as much of your favorite world mythologies as you can. Especially try to find original sources, because you will often find very strange and evocative imagery that has not survived into the popular view of those myths. In some versions of the myth of Perseus and Medusa, the Pegasus is born from the neck stump of Medusa’s corpse after she is decapitated. This detail is often omitted in modern retellings in favor of the version of the myth where Perseus rides the Pegasus after receiving a magic saddle from Athena, which is much more heroic and quite a bit less gory. Details like this one are hidden throughout older and pre-Christian versions of myth, and I encourage you to go find them in your favorite mythologies. There are all sorts of strange monsters, magical races and odd rituals that our ancestors believed they shared the world with that would fit perfectly into your story.

Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, Perseus watches as the Pegasus and the god Khrysaor are born from the neck of Medusa.

Maybe even mythologies aren’t original enough for you, and you want something completely personalized to your specific world. In sci-fi, almost every writer that includes aliens feels obligated to do something new and inventive. I’d even argue that it’s a faux pas in modern sci-fi to copy someone else’s aliens; you have to at least change the names around or you might at worse be accused of plagiarism. In fantasy we’re a bit more lenient depending on the situation. You obviously can’t take someone’s original race that’s unique to their setting, but otherwise, and especially as it pertains to mythological reborrowings, it’s kind of the wild west. Dark elves are forever and inextricably linked to spiders and other insects thanks to D&D. Even though that specific detail came later than the mythological inspiration, it’s still stuck pretty hard in the modern consciousness, to the point that some people just can’t help themselves but add at least one drider. And, that’s fine, but it might be too simple for you.

So, you’re gonna make up your own fantasy race. My number one suggestion is; KISS, keep it stupid simple. When you present people with your homebrew fantasy race, I’d say you have about ten seconds to explain them before people’s eyes will start to glaze over in boredom. Your race must feel like it’s a fixture of your world that belongs and is firmly set there, and you have to give people this sense quickly. Develop an elevator pitch for your race, I’m serious. “These are the X, they live in Y and they Z.” That’s it, one long sentence and you have to be able to convey the basic spirit of your race or people will not give you the time of day.

Now, once that foundation is laid, go wild. People love to discover things in fantasy, it’s one of the perks of the genre. And, as long as people are bought in on your world and its characters, they will accept and even clamor for you to feed them the bread-crumbs leading into your “deeper” lore for the race. One of my favorite fantasy settings is Elder Scrolls for this exact reason. They have the stock standard fantasy races on the surface. But then as you dive deeper, they give you reasons to doubt everything you’ve been taught upfront. They set up a very simple world that satisfies your preconceptions, but once you start paying attention everything becomes a bizarre facade overlaying a lot of cosmic horror and confusing metaphysics. By structuring your races with a simple-up-front but a deep backstory, you will be able to maintain engagement with your world and stories much easier.

Remember not to info-dump unless you’ve got the investment from your audience to sustain interest in the information you are giving them. There’s a reason the villain always monologues right before their plan is complete, and not at the beginning or after. Before you’ve seen the villain’s plan in action you might not really care, and once he’s defeated it doesn’t really matter what he has to say. So the best moment for the dramatic monologue is right in that sweet spot where you care enough to give him the time. Info-dumps are exactly the same. And also much the same, they should usually be cut a little short at the end, just to keep people wanting more.

Antagonistic Races

In some settings, creatures like goblins, orcs or vampires might be intrinsically evil. They have no choice in the matter and though they may have intelligence it will always be bent and twisted toward hatred and suffering. I don’t like this style of race in my settings because I like complex characters with good justifications for the things they do. Which isn’t to say you couldn’t develop a character like that for a race like this, but the overwhelming majority of your evil race’s members will have to be evil for the sake of being evil, and that just kind of rubs me the wrong way.

But, maybe it’s necessary for your setting, or you like having a henchman race your main characters can go around killing without remorse. In a fantasy world evil may be a literal cosmic force in the universe, and if that’s the case it’s not surprising that there would be evil creatures of some sort. You could pull the old “evil is a matter of perspective” card, with hive minded ant people or aliens. Their goals and morals may simply be beyond our understanding and lacking empathy for humanity. Vampires and similar “converted” evil races may struggle with their previous persona coming into conflict with their new nature.

Evil races are relatively common in both fantasy and historical belief. The demons of Christian mythology serve as the devil’s eyes, ears and hands in the world, inflicting curses and diseases on the living; and of course torturing the seas of the damned in hell. Orcs in Tolkien’s stories were evil creations of Morgoth who made them by torturing and corrupting elves into new twisted shapes. The 15th century concept of a witch or wizard was often accompanied by an infernal familiar or homunculus which they believed would have been granted by the devil. The semi-divine Erinyes or Furies of Greek myth, much like demons, were given the task of tormenting betrayers and murderers and thus were universally aggressive and unpleasant. The skinwalker or yee naaldlooshii of Navajo belief was an evil witch made into an animalistic shapeshifter by committing heinous acts like murder or necrophilia. Skinwalkers in particular are a great example of how to plausibly create an entirely evil race. Because all new members choose to become skinwalkers, they self select only for those people willing to sacrifice their humanity for power. Any of these “evil” races could easily be adapted into antagonists for your fantasy stories, and there are tons more examples out there of this trope being played out well.

Evil races can serve a purpose in your story. They can provide a morally black and white antagonist for your noble-bright setting. They can provide you an opportunity to explore inhuman intelligences in your stories and introduce moral quandaries for your readers to consider. Maybe you just chuckle at the idea of goblins being goofy little murder machines. Whatever your reason, I encourage you to think twice before making a race 100% evil. It’s easy enough to frame your enemies as evil regardless of whether they really are or not. Instead give your people vastly conflicting cultural values or goals, or pit them in a war against one another and allow tribalism to do its work of alienating them from one another. You will have more freedom as a worldbuilder to create characters atypical of their home culture if you aren’t grappling with this hard moral limit.

Culture and Ethnicity

So far I’ve been talking entirely about the species aspect of what constitutes a fantasy race. But the interesting aspects of these races are set much more in their culture and traditions. Culture covers every aspect of how a group of people live from how they eat, to what they find attractive, to what they believe and everything in between. An ethnicity is a group of people who identify with one another based on shared aspects of that culture. Each of your races can, and in my opinion really should, have several ethnic groups among them. How many of these exist will depend highly on the scope of your setting. If you plan to focus only on a small part of your world, or have a literally small world, there may be only a few ethnic groups who exist. In an Earth sized world it is very strange to not at least suggest that the world is as diverse as our own.

So this poses a conundrum, because we can’t feasibly build hundreds of unique cultures to populate our world with, instead we have to do a little worldbuilding smoke-and-mirrors to make everything seem a lot deeper than we actually have time to make it. If you have a small scope of focus, you do this by making the small part you focus on deep, and merely suggesting “there’s more out there”, to your audience. Harry Potter pulls this off very well. By giving a lot of focus to just one small part of the world for the whole series, we are led to presume that the larger world is just as filled with quirky creatures and people as the part of the world we’re familiar with. A few offhanded comments on foreign affairs or world history serve to remind us that there is a whole world still out there, even if we never see any of it directly.

On the other hand if you have a large scope, like a whole world, especially a “realistic” world, you have your work cut out for you. You still have to focus your attention on the stories you plan to be telling about your world, but in order to make each area feel unique you are going to be spread thin. My suggestion is to have a small number of ethnic-forefathers, a few progenitor races if you will, or at least ancient ancestors of your people. Develop this smaller number of ancestors and then imagine how they might change over time. As the years go by there will be wars and disasters that divide these people until they represent a larger number of ethnic groups. These new, smaller, groups will be similar to their parent culture, and will share some of these similarities with their neighbors, but can also be given unique traits that specifically align them with their new culture. This is essentially how ethnic diversity develops in the real world (with a lot of cut corners), and it will be an ongoing process at all times. Wherever you decide your “modern” era is, you pause that development and if you’ve done your job right the world will feel cohesive and complex. By simulating a history you’re introducing natural complexity while also producing the families of related cultures that we frequently see in the real world.

You will have to borrow some of your cultural cues from real life. Even if you staunchly plan for your people to be absolutely unique with their own incomparable culture, you will recreate the wheel, and ten months later you will learn about how so-and-so culture in real life does that already. Don’t “Simpsons did it,” your setting, borrow the things you find evocative about real world cultures, and if it still bothers you that you aren’t being “original” enough, just hide your work by obscuring your source culture under some unfamiliar aesthetics and terminology. Even as you shamelessly pillage history and your favorite media for ideas, also keep an eye on things you want to be unique about your setting. Your personal history and experiences can be just as rich a resource for worldbuilding as Wikipedia or another novel. You are looking to put something together from all these familiar pieces, and that end result will be the unique thing, not the steps you took to get there.

In real life, cultures are rarely distinct in the sense that there are no clear cut boundaries that divide, say, Portuguese culture from Spanish culture. If you were to map the cultures of the world, you would have to blend a lot of the edges to represent how culture bleeds across national and international borders, or at times simply ignores the borders set by nations entirely. While a few sharp divides exist in culture across certain borders in the real world, these are usually formed either physical impediments like mountains, or by military intervention that prevents the exchange of ideas. Otherwise, any groups living near each other will eventually adopt and borrow things from one another over the years until they begin to look similar. This is great for worldbuilding, because it gives you a good reason to blend your cultures and create some really inventive combinations. Think about how distinct Caribbean cultures are from any of the African, European or Native American cultures that they were formed from initially. But you can still see the similarities if you know where to look, like the ties between the spiritual practices of west Africa and the various vodoun religions. Cultural intermingling like this is very interesting, and goes a long way toward making your world feel like it’s constantly in the process of changing and developing.

The patterns of subsistence that we talked about in the last part will take you a long way toward forming the basic shape of your culture, including deciding what they eat, their social hierarchies, their population size and the way they organize their lands. But there are a myriad of other factors in culture like how they dress, speak and express their faith. These in turn will be influenced by their cultural neighbors, their oppressors, their environment and the twists and turns of history. Culture could be broken down into hundreds of different full length articles of its own, and it will be one of the biggest topics of discussion in this series going forward. For now, suffice to say, worldbuilding could be properly described as “culture-building” at least half the time.


Once you have hierarchical societies with the surplus resources to wage war, nations will begin to form. Unlike ethnicities which are defined by shared culture and beliefs, nationality is determined by a shared central power structure. Nationality can become at odds with ethnicity during times of war, when refugees and colonizers frequently find themselves in unfamiliar places, placing cultural and military pressures on one another. A shared power structure means some kind of government be it a monarchy, a democracy, a theocracy or whatever else you like. The government will implement taxes, levies and laws which will heavily impact the lives of the citizens in ways they cannot control.

With the birth of nationality and government, ethnicities may be promoted or marginalized based on who is favored by those in power. The decision to make a distinction based on genetics, religion or bloodline will lead to implicit bigotry within the power structures perpetuated thereafter. This sets the scene for culturally motivated violence and racism, which are unfortunate but consistent factors in the development of real world societies. For this reason, nations often find it productive to foster a shared cultural identity among its citizens, promoting internal cooperation and external suspicion. This is the reason that cultural boundaries are often most sharp at the borders between nations. Not because the people themselves are different, but because their power structures are encouraging differentiation between “our” population and “the other people”.

Additionally, if a nation becomes powerful or isolated, and remains free of outside conquests for a time they may develop a truly shared ethno-culture confined to their nation state. These situations are rare, and more likely to lead to further divisions into ever smaller groups, than to true harmony. Island nations and Empires in particular tend to develop a strong shared culture, at least within their “core” territories. Regardless of how united a society is, they will always experience periodic upheavals and schisms.

A strong shared identity can also be born from shared suffering. The unity born of a shared memory of oppression can be even stronger than the shared bond of an idyllic homeland. Communities in exodus or living through wartime must learn to help one another or perish. This fosters a strong sense of trust and communalism that might be lacking in more privileged societies that don’t rely the same safety net.

National boundaries are based on the geography and history of the surrounding areas, and they will shift to accommodate the changing political landscape. As empires rise and fall they will push at their borders and attempt to seek new lands. The native people will resist and the end result are borders that are either in constant motion or stabilize around a geographical element like a river or mountain range. The shifting of borders will contribute to the blurry divisions between the cultures as people on the border are forced to live in a nation-state to which they are not native, bringing their cultural practices and belief systems with them. Look at the border towns of the American southwest where bilingualism has become the norm, while food and music culture have also adapted a distinct Latin American flare. This comes in a part of the US that has historically had tensions surrounding immigration, illustrating that even out-and-out racism will not stop the exchange of culture across borders.


To put this all together, your steps are generally going to be this; Choose your races and their physical characteristics. Determine the environment they live in and how they sustain themselves. Then decide on the cultural inspirations you want to borrow and how you want to work them into your world. Establish the heartland cultures of your major empires and independent ethno-states, and then work outward creating new traditions through cultural diffusion. Remember to focus most of your efforts on the parts of the world you plan to actually use. Then finally, consider the nations of your world and their histories. How might conquests and changing borders affected the culture of the local areas? And how might this have an impact on the political situation going forward?

Once you have this outline for your race, revise things as necessary. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate decisions you made earlier with your new expanded view of the world. Maybe you have too many races, or too few. Or you don’t quite like how one of the cultures turned out in the end. These sorts of changes are easy to make now, but might be heart-wrenching later if you have to throw out a bunch of lore because you want to make changes. I encourage a good night’s sleep, or putting the setting down for a few days and coming back if you’re unsure about anything. I’ve often found that ideas I hated initially were great choices looking back, and I’ve just as often gone back to something and thought “How did I think this was a good idea?” Your mileage may vary, and sometimes you just have to put pen to paper and get the idea out, no matter what.