Religions Part 3: Cosmology and Metamyth

When designing a fantasy world, you should be focused on the areas that will be the stage for your story; the cities, the ancient ruins, the castles and the bustling port cities. But, eventually either your audience or the conditions of your story will beg the question “What lies beyond?” The realms beyond the material and how they connect form the cosmology of your setting. This cosmology will usually be a side note of your worldbuilding, places people rarely go, and maybe only tenuously believe even exist. But, there are a few major questions about a fantasy world that can only be answered through exploring your cosmology. And, for some types of stories the cosmology of your world can become critically important, as your heroes travel the multiverse and plumb other realms for their secrets.


How did your world come to be? Was it created? If so, by who? How? Why? By answering these questions you can create a starting state for your world. The most important cosmic factor in the early stages of worldbuilding can be the story of how your world(s) were created, how they function, and how they’re structured during creation. Aside from setting the stage for your world to come, figuring out how your world was created can inform all sorts of things from how magic works, to what cultural traditions exist, to what the surface of your world looks like.

On the other hand, this is also a question you can leave for later, or simply never answer. It’s okay for the origins of your world to be murky or unexplained, as long as you understand that there will still be theories about creation, even if they aren’t correct. In fact this might even be the more “genuine” way to tackle the problem, as real world people also developed their ideas of creation by observing the world around them and working backwards in this same manner.

Creation myths take many forms, but there are repeating motifs of rebirth and sacrifice that seem to find their way into the creation myths of most if not all people. For example, it’s common in creation stories for various gods to give up parts of themselves, or to be sacrificed entirely to create the world. In Norse mythology the world is built from the corpse of the Ur-giant Ymir. His flesh became the earth, his blood the ocean, his skull the vault of the sky, etc.. If this is the case in your world, the gods that supplied parts of your world may have magical influence on the areas where their body parts lie. Alternatively, there are similar but less gory “egg” myths, where the universe was a cosmic egg which cracked, creating the first life and usually leaving the shell to become some part of the new-born world.

The Roman Mystery god Mithras emerges fully formed from a world egg.
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other times, a god appears out of the chaos and fashions the world whole-cloth. As opposed to the (re)birth analogy of egg and divine-dismemberment myths, these myths often invoke the archetype of an artist or craftsman fashioning or discovering something. These worlds might be very ordered, as the creator deity can be very picky about how they design the world. In these types of situations Chaos as a cosmic force antithetical to creation may be present, typically represented by a serpent, water or the night sky. It’s similarly common for creation myths to talk of the land being lifted out of the sea, a sort of “birth from chaos” motif halfway between the others. For example the pan-Polynesian folk-hero Maui is said to have lifted many islands from the seafloor using his magical fishhook. In Japanese mythology, Izanagi uses a spear to lift the world out of the primal ocean.

Sometimes a pair of deities are born from the chaos, or from the world egg, and these two populate the world by reproduction. These primordial couplings may be stable, or they may be destined to fail, with the fallout of the breakup setting the stage for the mythologies going forward. In Greek mythology Gaia, the Earth and Oronos, the Sky fell in love and had many children, the Cyclopses, the Hekatonkheires and the Titans. But Oronos hated how ugly some of his children were and locked them away in the Pit, Tartarus. Gaia grew angry and plotted to overthrow Oronos with the help of the Titans, eventually exiling him back into the sky.

Still, other cultures strongly believe that we are not the first world created, but rather one in a series of worlds. Either through a pre-ordained cycle of ages, or simply by bad luck, the earlier worlds were all destroyed one by one, and this one is simply the latest in the chain. In this case, the new world may be built on fragments of older ones, or may be built of a different material entirely, representing a successive improvement or incremental change in the design of the world.

Different stories will have different thematic focuses and needs, so sometimes this sort of background information is unnecessary. It will depend heavily on the scope of your story whether this all remains theoretical background information, or becomes very important plot relevant lore.

Realms & World Structure

Just about every culture has its own version of Hell, or Heaven, a sort of afterlife that exists in another space. Many mythologies feature even more worlds beyond that; purgatorial realms, lands of fire or ice, magical paradises, abodes of the outsiders, holy lands, elemental planes, divisions of the sky, etc.. If these realms exist, or are believed to exist in your world,  they will become richly entwined in the mythologies of your world. They will be the places where the gods and monsters live and were born, and they will be places visited by heroes on their great quests.

Yggdrasil, the Nordic World Tree is probably the most recognizable organizing motif for a world in the West.
Oluf Bagge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How the realms are divided is an important question when it comes time for the gods or heroes to traverse them. In some myths, the other realms are close at hand. They are under the earth just below our feet, they lay at the end of such-and-such river, far-far away in a mythic land, or at the top of a sacred mountain. Sometimes the realms are bound only tenuously; there is a path, like the Bifrost or Yggdrasil, or they must be entered through dream or astral projection. Other times, the realms are sealed completely, save under particular circumstances or to particular deities. Setting up these boundaries and connections will be part of the process as you add new realms to your cosmology.

Paths that provide access to other realms are called Liminal Spaces, and though they are varied in form, essentially every culture acknowledges these spaces in some form as the doors that open into inexpressible realms.

A liminal space can be as simple as the threshold of a door, especially one that delineates a boundary. The door to a church or a temple is an archetypal liminal boundary, which separates the mundane world from the holy realms of sanctuary which can be found within. The transition into this space is usually acknowledged by washing of the body, especially the hands, feet and face, a symbolic cleansing ritual which allows the person to properly breach the threshold and enter into the holy sanctuary, rather than failing the transitory rite and remaining in the mundane world. But, something like a forest or ocean can just as easily form a liminal space. While passing through these places it is easy to become lost, and that sense of dissociation with continuous space makes them perfect catalysts for liminality. Be careful when walking through the woods at night, because you may find yourself somewhere else entirely. If you notice a ship with green lights at night on the sea, kill your lanterns and do not respond to its signals. These are fantastical superstitions, but they are fitting because they acknowledge the mystique of these places, and assign to that feeling a certain power to transport things from other realms into our own. That power which we grant to certain spaces, to carry us away with their mystery or majesty, and with them to manifest things in our own realm, is liminality; and establishing what spaces have this property in your world can be important for all sorts of magical and esoteric purposes, as well as for figuring out what path your heroes have to take to enter your outer realms.

Most ancient people at least tried to develop a sense of how the world was organized. The ancient Greeks theorized that the world was composed of successive layers, beginning deep underground or in the underworld, eventually coming up to the surface of the earth, and then rising into successive layers of air, ending at the dome of the stars. The Norse instead had the World tree, which held the worlds together and kept them stable. The theme of the world requiring a stabilizing force is common, as is the idea that if these forces ever ceased the worlds would come crashing down. For further examples we can look to Atlas holding up the weight of the heavens, or the world-elephants of Hindi mythology. A good organizing principle for your world or for a particular belief system of your world can be a distinguishing aesthetic and thematic choice that helps keep them memorable.

However, these gateways and organizing principles are just frameworks for the really interesting parts, the stranger outer realms of your world. The variety of realms expressed in world mythology really are staggering, but here I’ll try to summarize a bunch of types and give some examples.

The Afterlife or the Underworld

Just about every culture has either an afterlife, or at least a belief in something after death. Afterlives are usually very different cross-culturally, unless those cultures have been in contact long enough to assimilate or syncretize their beliefs. Most seem to make a distinction of sin and punishment, whether it be sentencing to Heaven or Hell by Saint Peter, or having your soul devoured by Ammit for being heavier than a feather. But some dodge the need for an explicit afterlife by the inclusion of a philosophy like karmic-reincarnation, where the dead are reborn anew.

The most common spaces to place the realm of the afterlife are either underground or in the sky. The association with the dead being below our feet may have to do with a metaphorical link to burial rites. Those that bury their dead see the underworld as somewhere “below”, those that burn their dead, or dispose of them in other ways may see things differently. Even those that bury their dead may do it with the idea that one day they will need to rise again, because the grave is not their permanent resting place. Regardless of the thought process involved, when people die, something must be done with the body. Once a preferred method is established in a community and becomes tradition, the culture will begin to enshroud that burial rite in religious metaphor and deeper meaning, and this often involves an understanding of how the “soul” should be directed to receive a healthy, happy afterlife.

Mythologies often directly address the afterlife in their stories. It’s not exactly uncommon for a hero to descend into the underworld to bring someone back to life, though it is uncommon for them to have any success in this endeavor. In Norse mythology Frigg meets with Hel to bargain for the life of her son Balder, and obtains an agreement that Balder would be returned if every single thing in the world wept for him. Frigg was unsuccessful in her quest, and so Balder remained dead. In Greek mythology Orpheus went to Hades to bargain for the life of his wife Eurydike, and by the mercy of Persephone was given the chance to lead her soul back to the surface, but only if he never looked back on the way out. Just like in the Norse myth, Orpheus fails the task set for him by the Lady of the Dead and is forced to return to the world brokenhearted.

Afterlives are often vividly detailed in myth with fantastical elements befitting their importance. Places of punishment are often associated with fire, disease and rot, while places of paradise are bright, warm and full of life. Many mythologies take the time to detail the arrangement of cities and lands in the underworld as well, speaking of places where particular monsters or demons reside, detailing the walls and gardens of the death-god’s palace, and adding districts and realms reserved only for particular classes of people. People are naturally curious about death, and will ask all sorts of questions about what it will be like when they get there.

Realms of the “Other”

Some mythologies have special realms where certain spirits or creatures live. In Norse mythology there are the realms like Niflheim, Svartalfheim and Jotunheim specifically set away for some of the magical races, much like Midgard is set aside for humans. These other parallel realms are very common in fantasy where they frequently form either the ancestral homeland of the elves or another race, or as the place that magic is drawn from. You could even implement another world like this as a way to avoid having multiple countries or continents, instead having a series of sectioned off worlds full of fantastic denizens. While in fantasy these worlds are generally very different from ours, being lands of extreme cold, eternal light, wide oceans or what have you, your versions of these worlds can be very earth-like and full of more conventional characters.

As a sort of extension of this idea, your world may be part of a larger multiverse. Magic: the Gathering, and many comic books have multiverses made up of these other realms which are composed of different sorts of magic or other energy and often have unique creatures inhabiting them right alongside the more conventional races of the setting. In many settings, the multiverse is also an expression of time, fracturing into endless permutations representing all possible timelines for all worlds.

Keep in mind as you add more realms to your world that you are also stacking on complexity. Only add and design worlds that you really want or that you plan to use, and keep everything else in the dark until you need it. Even one world is a lot, and especially in high-power fantasy it can be difficult not to get lost in the weeds on realm design. The details of these places should be among the last things you work out in your worldbuilding unless you have a specific use for the information now.

Mythical Lands

Prior to the understanding that the world was a complete sphere, people had all sorts of ideas of what the world must look like beyond their lands. A common staple of ancient worldviews was the idea that the world got stranger and more mystical the farther you travel from your homeland. Historically, it was easy to make things up or exaggerate things you saw in distant lands, as no one existed to fact check you. Marco Polo’s journey to China returned with stories of dragons, cameleopards and all sorts of other nonsense that was accepted in the West for hundreds of years before global communications finally started to correct the misinformation.

People may also attempt to extrapolate what they know about the world to create an idea of what lies beyond. For example, a common motif in world mythology is a land in the east where the sun physically rises from, possibly corresponding to a setting point in the west. Heroes often journey to the palace of the sun far away in these lands as part of the boon-seeking part of their hero’s journey. Cultures may believe in a frozen land beyond the north, as the Greeks and Romans did, or a land of searing fire in the south as the Norse believed would appear at Ragnarok at the behest of the fire-giant Surtr.

Hercules binds Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Amazonia was a mystical kingdom thought to be in Asia Minor or Libya where warrior women ruled over the men of the society; which to the Greeks was a quite fantastical idea.
Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The major difference between these lands and the realms discussed earlier is that these places are felt to exist in the physical world, simply farther away than anyone would ever reasonably travel. Gods often live in these lands, if they are physical beings, and monsters are also frequent travelers here.

Elemental Planes

Elemental planes are getting more and more common in fantasy these days. The basic idea is similar to the Nordic outer realms, but aligned to the cardinal elements of the world. D&D and its derivatives assume your cosmology include these planes and reference them in some of the rules, which has contributed to the proliferation of these types of planes. What’s nice about using this type of realm is that they reinforce your elemental system if you want that to be a defining aspect of your setting, and they simplify the design of your outer realms, leaving you more time to explore other, more important parts of your world.

Fire, water, earth and air are the four classical elements of the West, but there are other elemental systems in the world to draw inspiration from. Chinese mysticism assumes five elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Video games, especially CRPGs and Diablo-likes often have a system of three elemental damage types, electricity, ice and fire. Many JRPGs use some combination of these other elemental systems but often add light and dark as well, much like how D&D and similar d20 systems often include positive and negative energies. Which elements you choose to include, and how your realms reflect the qualities of those elements are up to you, but the choices you make will reflect the inspirations and expectations you are bringing into the setting.

Planets and Stars

Among a wide array of native cultures of North America there was a belief that people had descended from the stars, and that the ancestral home of mankind was somewhere among the heavens. In other cultures, planets associated with the gods were sometimes imagined to be their distant abodes, or their bodies drifting through the heavens. And even in ancient times there was speculation about what it would be like to travel to the moon, and what we might find there.

Before the launch of the Mariner 2 probe in 1962, some scientists were of the belief that Venus lay within a habitable zone of our sun, and could support a swampy ecosystem. Modern understanding of astronomy, surface imaging and seismographic data of the planet itself, indicate that Venus likely never had the proper conditions for life to survive there; but, even as late as the 1960’s a mythos of a shared solar-system was alive and well.

Stellar and planetary worlds verge on the realm of science-fantasy, but if that flavor is something your world can accommodate, it allows you to illustrate your cosmology through the things visible in the night sky, which is pretty cool. Your other planets could be mundane realms which are bound to the same laws and functions as your setting’s “homeworld”, or they could be more classical style planes and realms; highly magical and difficult to get to without the aid of a divine being or a liminal portal.

Dream Realms

The closest most of us will ever get to living in a fantasy world is the occasional memories we have of our dreams. Dreams are sort of an enigma, even now with the benefit of modern science. It’s still unclear what, if any, evolutionary pressures led to dreaming, or if it is the result of some sort of convergent coincidence. The interpretation of dreams and their meanings is still a hot topic, but it’s also an ancient one.

Some ancient peoples assumed that dreams were gifts from the gods, and practiced oneiromancy, or fortune-telling through dream interpretation. Others assumed that dreams must take place in another realm, one which is altogether stranger and more magical than the waking world. For these people, it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that if the dream world existed, that the things they experience there must somehow carry over into the real world. Healing through dream journeys was an especially common fixture of societies who for whatever reason lacked robust herb-lore and couldn’t properly medicate through foraging. For those societies with access to psychedelics, there was often a conflation of the dream and psychic realms. For many the medicine-man figure of their community acted as a sort of psychic psychopomp, who would lead them on journeys through these other realms for therapeutic purposes.

The nice thing about dream realms is that be definition they are fluid, inconstant places. Most worldbuilding done here will focus on structure and cosmology, because each dreamer will be subject to the random whimsy of subconscious expression. On the other hand, you could instead make dreams in your world more concrete and consistent, like a parallel set of lives between two continuous worlds. In any case, if your world or mythology has a dream realm, remember that people dream every night. This realm may have a disproportionately larger effect on the thematics of your world than other realms, because people will be interacting with it so often.

Metamyths and Narrative Motifs

Many authors have found that when they construct a world, it benefits them to have that world convey a specific philosophical view-point. Often this is not done as a direct allegory to real life, but rather serves to illustrate a belief or narrative theme of the story being told.

An excellent example of worldbuilding-narrative assonance, is Frank Herbert’s Dune. [Spoilers for Dune in this paragraph.] In Dune, the planet of Arrakis has been designed on a narrative level to help Herbert convey the social and environmental messages he wants to highlight in his narrative. The fact that Arrakis is a desert planet allows Herbert to properly frame the Fremen’s water crisis and ecological management solutions while also reinforcing the message that ecological disasters disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised. The harshness of Arrakis in general and the Fremen’s extreme adaptation to the Shai-Hulud and other threats there allows Herbert to make a contrast with the Sardaukar, and illustrate the narrative pattern within Dune that only great adversity breeds greatness, and that success and power conversely breed weakness. He then carries these themes throughout every level of the book, reflecting again and again on the injustices wrought by the wealthy Imperial interests against the people of Arrakis, and repeating the theme of power breeding weakness in his representation of the Atreides line vs the Harkonnen line, and the ultimate displacement of Imperial power by the much more hardened and enlightened Paul.

For people who haven’t read Dune, a historical example is the personae of Roman comedies. The word persona originally referred to the masks worn by actors in the comedies. These masks were iconic. The designs and the characters were consistent enough across the Roman world, that a person from Roman Egypt and a person from Roman Britain would have been able to watch a play together and find that both of them were familiar with the characters almost at once. Aside from the visual element, the mask represented a specific function for the character within the narrative of the play. The roles were so common and ingrained that they had names based on their story function, like the adulescens who is a noble young man who has fallen in love with a woman of lower birth, and through the course of the story will earn her love, and in the end reveal that she is actually through some happenstance a noble woman, fit for him to marry. It’s actually that specific, and there are around a dozen of these which all have similarly complex and oddly specific quirks and character arcs.

A Greek Tragedy mask, probably a leukos aner, meant to be worn by an actor playing an older man, like a teacher or worried father.
George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My point here is that if you are creating a world for a narrative driven work, it will likely benefit you to design your world to reinforce your narrative themes through repeating patterns of settings and characters. This would include in some cases creating stock characters or archetypal character-forms for your world which appear again and again in different contexts, with the purpose of tying disparate narratives into a single cohesive whole. Or it might involve telling the same story structure over and over again with the characters and factions swapped out. When you apply these narrative motifs to your world in a way that integrates them into your in-universe cosmology, you are creating a system of metamyth, or a mythopoeia. When these themes exist only out-of-universe as a tool to help unify your story which doesn’t extend to the internal worldview of your characters you are instead creating a narrative framework, or meta-narrative.

For a modern example of an enormous narrative framework, look no farther than Hollywood. If I say “Racing Movie” or “Spy Thriller” or “Christmas Rom-Com”, you know exactly what films I’m talking about, even if you can’t actually think of an example. In the racing movie you have “The Team”, which consists of at least three people, one of which is a very attractive woman/love interest for the main character, who is either hot-headed young upstart, or an older possibly bald man who “got out” and has now been pulled back to the scene for whatever plot contrivance necessary to kick off the story. Probably a murder. I could go through the rest, but you get the idea.

In Hollywood, these motifs are mostly just a fast way to crank out movies. But, when you take the time to craft your own systems of meta-narrative, you can actually suggest quite a lot about a character very quickly with few words and just a couple overt cues, once your audience is familiar with the framework you’ve constructed.

The most common metamyth in all of fantasy is the Triumph of Good over Evil. The hero, the villain, and the structure of worlds that feature this metamyth are almost so second nature that you almost can’t utilize it anymore without a nagging feeling that you should try to be a little more creative. Part of the reason this narrative feels so stale these days is because it’s based on an older worldview that doesn’t speak to modern audiences as well as it did 100 years ago. Namely, the Triumph expresses the narrative theme that “goodness”, which was often aligned with religiosity in the past, is an absolute and perfect force that contrasts an “evil” associated with a devil or irreligious figure. Good will always win, while evil is a self defeating and doomed force. In the context of a broadly Christian society the metamyth was well accepted, and was a reassuring and powerful message about the strength of faith. In an increasingly atheist society, the message seems childish and undeveloped, because broadly the worldview being expressed seems too simplistic and unselfconscious.

Look at the stories you like and ask yourself why you like them. What about them speaks to you? The themes and struggles of the characters? The way the world feels? The ideas that the author is trying to convey to you? If these elements jive with the world you’re building, you may be able to include them in metamythic constructs of your world. By iterating on these narrative elements you can create a consistent narrative core that runs through your whole world, from bottom to top. It will not only help the setting feel unified and well thought out, it will also provide a seed for all the stories and characters you will produce in your world. And, just like modern Hollywood or ancient Roman Theater, you will want several of these meta-stories and meta-characters so that it’s easier to genuinely mix up the formula while still adhering to the same roots.

Your use of meta-narrative structures can be aided greatly by having a robust symbology associated with your world. Numerology often ties into metamyth as an organizing principle for the world. In Taoism, where the world is viewed as a cosmic balance between the dual forces of yin and yang; dualism is then reflected in the understanding of all lesser systems. If the world is made of two balancing forces, then these forces should be everywhere, and more to the point, nothing will have three or four essential forces instead, the number 2 has to carry consistently through everything. Imagery and symbolism can prop up meta myth as well, acting like the Roman persona masks by using imagery to mark people subject to shared mythical roles. By using common symbols to draw parallels between your characters you create archetypes specific to your world, which just like the “natural” set of character archetypes will help you quickly convey large amounts of information about a character without overt info dumping.


Once you understand your realms, your world’s creation, and its mythic structures, you are basically prepared to answer any of the high order questions about the cosmic echelons of your world. More importantly, these answers may often feel like they come as natural consequences of the systems you’ve set down beforehand. However, developing these features of your world can easily distract you from the more grounded parts of your world and the stories that take place there. Unless you have a particular need for lore on one of these features, your time here is best spent by briefly outlining your bare essentials now, and coming back to tweak these things as your actual story becomes more developed in its themes and needs.

Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs

Religions Part 2: Divine Archetypes and Motifs

In Part 1, I talked about various systems of belief and how to implement them in a fantasy world. However, I didn’t spare much time to talk about individual gods and how they might look. There is an innumerable myriad of gods greater and lesser, and so it’s almost impossible to go over every different permutation of divinity. Fortunately, there are a much smaller number of identifiable archetypes that gods take on. These archetypes aren’t all encompassing, and the archetype itself is rarely very interesting. But, these templates are memorable and they repeat often in world mythologies. Using archetypes to help design your pantheon will help ease your audience into your setting by providing them something familiar to latch onto while they learn more about your world. Don’t take these archetypes as requirements for a “complete” pantheon, and don’t adhere to them too closely. Just let them inspire you and help get your ideas flowing.

Household Gods

Among the most common types of gods in the ancient world were household spirits. These lesser gods were thought to involve themselves in the day to day life of ordinary people. In England alone there were dozens of varieties including hobs (from which we get the words Hobbit, and hobgoblin), goblins, kobolds, alps, brownies and more. Some of these, like kobolds were imagined to perhaps once have been human but were now inhuman spirits. They could be helpful in some cases, or could be hostile. Usually, house spirits were something you lived around, you kept to their customs and gave them small offerings in return for protection and perhaps help around the house. Sometimes these spirits were attached to the family, and sometimes they were bound to the land, and it often depended on the particulars of where the spirit was thought to come from. These types of “small” gods tended to be the most active in the daily lives of people. They will be credited for bringing the family small game when food is scarce, or with returning missing belongings when things get lost. They may help keep away curses, or whatever other spiritual evils people were worried might afflict them, and even help around the farm bringing in the harvest, corralling animals or collecting eggs.

Many cultures held gods and goddesses of the hearth and home as well. In Greco-Roman belief systems, the hearthfire was the heart of a family and home; the fire was sacred to Vesta or Hestia, and was often a propagated flame from one kept in a dedicated temple. In Rome, The Vestal Virgins were tasked with the keeping of the sacred hearthfire, and their Temple of Vesta was one of a few temples that formed a centerpiece of the Forum. The hearthfire would have been the centerpiece of every premodern household, and the task of keeping the flame lit was important. The hearth represents the heat that keeps the family warm and the food that keeps them alive.

Gods of the hearth might be additionally associated with fire, abundance of food, and with the parental figure who manages the home (which will vary from culture to culture). Gods of the home-space might be also gods of good-health, of warding off curses, harvest and luck. Gods of the land obviously have connections with fertility, and possibly also with the animals that live there.

The Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum where the eternal flame was once housed.
Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, if greatly displeased, these spirits become more like demons than gods. Spirits might be able to withhold the waters of a river or well when they are displeased, or blight a crop. Sometimes a ritual similar to an exorcism might exist to drive away the angry spirit, but prior to the advent of Christianity the concept of an expelling ritual would have been less common. More likely the spirit would need to be appeased, an act that would be much more expensive for a farmer than simply paying his local hobs their tax of milk and cream.

In a setting with a large number of these types of spirits, you quickly get the sense that these people live every day in a fantastical land. When even poor farmers are interacting with spirits on a daily basis, you are establishing a world very unlike our own; one that’s steeped in magic and wonder. These are tacit promises to your audience that magic and the particular mysticism of these creatures will be an important part of your story’s tone and narrative. While almost every culture will have something like this in their mythology, if these creatures are actually manifested in your world and interactive you are trending into very high-fantasy territory, and need to conciliate that tonal shift with the rest of your work.

Harvest and Fertility Deities

Similar to home spirits are the rustic gods of the field and harvest. These tend to exist on a more communal level than home spirits. In most climates, planting and harvest are seasonal, and so the windows in which these gods are important are focuses of the year for everybody. Most temperate climates might have a planting period of only a few weeks, which isn’t much when all your work is done by hand and ox-plow. Thus, harvest festivals are usually large production affairs with offerings to match the importance of the season. In places that practice blood sacrifices, only your choicest cow or yak will do when the whole community is depending on the crop to survive the winter. In places that honor gods in other ways, they will also push the envelope, looking to impress the gods and gain their good graces while they can. Some fertility gods, like the Roman Proserpina, goddess of springtime, growth and the underworld, become seasonal deities associated with the times when their help is most needed.

If you have a particularly wide pantheon of gods, you might think of having many of these deities. Each crop and each animal have different needs, as do the farmers that tend them. Your staple crops might be associated with more powerful or prestigious gods, which may in turn give that crop a myriad of ritual uses relating to those gods. Horses might be the domain of your god of war, and perhaps sheep are associated with your divine seamstress. Don’t be afraid if half of your pantheon is associated with the farm and field in one way or another, because more than half your people spend all their time farming.

Another common associated domain with the harvest is fertility, or fecundity. Gods of sex, pregnancy, childbirth and children, not just for people but animals as well, are often connected with the fertility of the land. This may be because metaphorically speaking, cultivating plants and sexual reproduction are mechanically quite similar. A “seed” is planted and it grows, slowly maturing until the result of the labor shows forth. Priapus, a Greek god of the vegetable garden is often depicted as a giant penis with legs (and usually also a smaller penis of his own.), and this is meant, however it might seem to us now, to be a sign of his virility, fertility and mastery over reproduction. Moreover, harvest is often a time of joy, parties, and drunkenness; all of which contribute to a big upswing in the population of the community.

As an extension of this particular function in the community, these fertility gods may become symbols of romantic love and sexual attraction. Many kinds of love may be known to your people, and they may have gods for each of these types of love, or they may have a single god that stands over all interpersonal affection. Worship of love may take many forms, from the writing of love songs, to the maintenance of spousal relationships.

Even sex can be a votive act in these religions. Herodotus, the Greek historian falsely claimed that “The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life.” This was likely an attempt to slander the Babylonians, but it refers to a very real Babylonian custom of sacred prostitution. Culturally, these women were seen as priestesses carrying out important spiritual work, and they were protected legally to the same degree as the priests of other gods. The Romans and Greeks themselves practiced orgiastic religious festivals called Bacchanalia or Dionysia. These were festivals dedicated to religious intoxication and in some cases ritual sex. The mystery-cults of Bacchus and Dionysus held these ceremonies in secret, so little else is known about them that can be backed up with primary sources, but the practice was widespread and well known throughout the Greco-Roman world.

A Roman funerary engraving of a Bacchanalia.
Getty Villa, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tricksters and Wild Gods

Trickster figures are a favorite in almost every mythology. These dynamic characters are elements of chaos who represent the intrinsic randomness of the world. Characters like Loki, Coyote, Anansi, Crow and Sun Wukong are all incarnations of this basic archetype. While some tricksters are at least theoretically good, most of them cause harm and incite chaos everywhere they go, often afterward being made to somehow atone for their misdeeds. The Trickster is usually the protagonist in the context of the story, but is an antagonistic force in the universe at large. This makes them great characters to tell stories about, because they are constantly generating interesting conflicts by being self-serving and lacking forethought. Bugs Bunny is the perfect example of a Trickster. He is, in many but not all stories, the “bad guy” but he’s so dynamic and fun that we empathize with him immediately over the often mean and dour counterpart like Elmer Fudd or Daffy. Bugs has seemingly reality bending powers, which he uses for gags and pranks, seemingly without ever intending to “truly” harm anyone; and this is often how these cosmic pranksters are depicted in myth.

Tricksters are often shape shifters, and so you may or may not have to even give them a set form. The most important part of designing a trickster is giving them good myths which paint them as properly dynamic and unpredictable. I would also suggest that if your trickster god is real, they will almost without a doubt at some point arrive to “shake up” the ongoing story. It’s just what they do. Of all gods these are the most active and interventionist. They are often wanderers either by choice, like Coyote, or by edict of a higher power as a punishment, like Sun Wukong. This puts them in constant contact with the common folk, and their daily lives.

A stone carving of a traditional Green-Man figure from Llangwm, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A variant of this trickster archetype is the Green Man or the Fae, who specifically represent the capriciousness and danger of the forest manifest in physical form. A green-man is a deity which is associated with the forests and woods. They are often a warden or a guardian and will become angry and retaliate against people who break certain taboos, like cutting trees or hunting certain animals. Pan, the god of the wild in Greco-Roman myth would strike panic into the hearts of those who trespassed on his land by making a terrible goatish-bleat.

These can be tricksters, but can also be more bestial and violent figures. Green-men were blamed for stealing away people who disappeared into the woods. And they were thought to bend paths and confuse people until they became lost. However there were also cultures, like those of the Pacific Northwest, who venerated their green-man figure as a protector of the people who provided for them and led them safely through the woods. These vastly different conceptions of what the forest made into a man is like illustrates vastly different cultural views of the woods, one being highly adversarial, and the other, highly cooperative.

The Fae, or Sidhe, or whatever other particular word a culture has for them, are very similar to the green-man, but viewed as a large collection of beings, rather than a single one. They too can shift paths and play tricks on lost people, or save them and lead them home. But only more animistic cultures with larger pantheons may be willing to accept that there are hundreds of little trickster gods living in the forest.

The counterpart of the green-man is the hunter-deity. Where the green-man represents the untamed forest, the hunter represents the ways in which man can master the forest. Particularly in hunter-gatherer cultures, hunt-gods can be as important as fertility deities when it comes to securing food for your tribe. Hunters also fill the roll of protectors where the green-man often does not. Many cultures have charms that can be fashioned or prayers that can be said to ask for such a god’s protection while they travel through the woods.

Geographical Gods

Many ancient people believed in gods that inhabited their rivers, their mountains, and their other important geographical landmarks. River gods in particular were often prolific, as it wasn’t uncommon for every named river to have an associated god. Depending on the belief system in question, and how important these landmarks are, the gods here could be major figures in the pantheon; like Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile and an important fertility deity, or Enbilulu the Mesopotamian god of the sacred Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Smaller streams and rivers may have no gods at all, and if they do, only ones local to the specific area where they live. An exception to this is if locals begin to associate their local river with an already established god, perhaps as a way to link the river to a particular myth.

These gods vary in form from mythology to mythology. In Greece the river gods were the Potamoi or Okeanides, who were represented in art as either men and women, or else as people with fish tails or bull heads. In China, their river gods took the form of serpentine dragons called lóng, as beautiful as they are powerful, and completely untamed. There is a tendency to depict these river gods with animalistic traits or as outright beasts to indicate the intensity and wildness of the waters. As rivers become smaller and smaller, they are more likely to have more humanoid forms as they become relatively more “tame”.

Gods of the fields, mountains, and other wild places are often similar to the Tricksters discussed above. But, this type is more finely tuned to a specific area. These things may not even be true “gods” but more like monsters or even animals. In areas that are known for danger, like wolf-invested woods and deep-running rivers where drownings are common; the danger of the area becomes personified as a way to explain the deaths that surround it. If the danger passes, or people become more cautious because of the folktales surrounding the area, they may believe they have resolved the anger of the spirit by venerating it. Thus these gods may persist in areas where there is no actual danger to be found, but locals still scold their children with stories of the “wood-wolf” or whatever such boogieman. Conversely, holy places may have benevolent protector spirits who may even have established social authority. In many cultures “refuges” exist where guilty people may flee to avoid persecution, as entrance into the sanctuary places them under the protection of the spirit there.

In cultures with a large number of gods, a tradition may develop of building shrines all over the countryside to appease these spirits. The size of the shrines range from full human-sized temples, to small votive shrines, perhaps only large enough to hold a small candle; and this size likely reflects the degree of importance that spirit holds for the community.

Celestial Deities

Solar and lunar deities appear in nearly every polytheistic tradition. And, it’s not surprising, because there’s almost nothing in our lives that dictates our actions more than the passing of the day and night. More than that, solar deities provide warmth, fire, and make the world visible. Lunar goddesses at least in our world are associated with all sorts of monthly cycles due to the very regular passing of our moon’s phases. The moon also draws the tides into their maximums and minimums, and seafaring people will often connect their sea and moon deities as a result, either through syncretizing the two into one, or by giving them some kind of social relationship.

The moon and sun are often interconnected as well, as brother and sister, husband and wife, even mortal enemies. The duality of the sun and moon as they appear from earth can be viewed in all sorts of human contexts. They can chase one another across the sky, or dance together, or be literally star-crossed lovers forced apart by some mythical magic. The relationship is evocative, and so these motifs crop up frequently.

In fictional worlds, even scientifically plausible ones, you might have multiple moons or even multiple suns. In fact, it’s more likely that you would have two moons than one around an earth-sized planet like ours. In fantasy you aren’t even bound to having physical suns and moons. As you change the astrological conditions of your world, keep in mind how this affects your deities. More suns and moons mean the two are no longer so obviously paired as they are in our world, and different myth structures will crop up in response.

Beyond just the sun and moon, your people may have separate gods for day and night, for the stars, for dawn and dusk, or even for the milky way (which is just our galactic disk viewed from the inside, so it might look different in your world!). Think about how these things form recognizable patterns when viewed by your people. What are your people’s constellations? Do they view dawn and dusk as roughly the same or entirely different events? How do they count the days and seasons, and how might this inform the shape of the deities who they count on for those signals?

War Gods

All cultures (except isolated island-bound ones) experience aggression at times from their neighbors. Death, loss, and defeat are all very difficult to deal with, but very common in the life of a soldier; and having a religious outlet for their suffering is very important, especially in worlds where psycho-therapy practices haven’t been developed. War gods might act as heralds of victory, bringing omens of good fortune to those who favor them. But, just as often, war gods act as a sort of underworld-deity who comes to the battlefield to reap the souls of the fallen. Depending on their connections to destruction or death, they might even appear as demons who torture deserters or the souls of the enemy, or whatever else needs to be told to make the men fight. For soldiers simply “knowing” what happens if they die can be a huge weight off their chests. For the vikingr who fall in battle Valhalla awaits them, and so death is not such a worry or a great loss. Your comrades are in a “better place” and you can move on more quickly, knowing you will be going to join them eventually. Being able to couch death in this type of mysticism softens the blow and allows men to resist the effects of PTSD.

Some cultures, like the Old Nordic people, envisioned entire sections of their pantheon as being “war” gods, who had their own unrelated domains as well, but were all warriors in their own right. In fantasy, this suggests a highly war-like culture; though that wasn’t necessarily true of the worshipers of the Aesir, it has still become a cornerstone of the pop-culture view of “vikings”. The Greeks had at least two dozen war gods, all with different purviews and reasons to seek their aid, but we only think of the Spartans as the war-like ones. War gods, real or not, provide soldiers a sense of protection and sense of righteousness that actually makes them more effective in the field. So, if you want your fantasy race to feel really vicious, feel free to make some or all of their gods into dedicated war deities in addition to their other tasks.

Chthonic Gods

Underworld gods come in a wide variety of forms, and are shaped heavily by the underworld presented in the cosmology of your religion. Most of us can think of numerous underworlds with different power structures, rulers and contexts for people to enter there. In some mythologies, entrance into the underworld isn’t even guaranteed. The death rights of the Egyptians, the Greco-Romans and even Christians suggest an understanding that the soul can “fail” to move on to the next world. For this reason, the most common type of underworld deity is the psychopomp, a spirit tasked with guiding the dead on to the afterlife. The word psychopomp comes from the Greek deity Hermes Psychopompos (”Hermes, Guide of Souls”), but the most readily recognizable psychopomps in the modern era are probably Santa Muerte of Mexican folk Catholicism, and the Grim Reaper of European folklore. These figures are important parts of funeral art and funerary practices in the cultures that house them, and so knowing your psychopomps will tell you a lot about how people bury the dead.

Hermes Psychopompos watches as Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) carry away the dead Trojan hero Sarpedon.
Jaime Ardiles-Arce (photographer). Krater by Euphronios (painter) and Euxitheos (potter)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In many accounts, the afterlife is complex and sometimes even bureaucratic. To this end, many traditions include a sort of “servitor” race that serves to keep the underworld functioning properly. Christian devils are a familiar sight, but angels serve much the same purpose, simply reversed. This group may serve as psychopomps for the gods they represent, or may have another purpose entirely. Punishments are often meted out by this group to the damned based on what they have done wrong, or services done for the good who have lived out respectable lives.

The word chthonic means subterranean, and describes beings of literal under-world, but your gods of death don’t have to live under our feet, deep down in the earth (though it’s certainly the most common arrangement). Instead your afterlife could be under the sea, somewhere in the sky, or even on another plane of being entirely. Generally your god of death will also be master of whatever realm you place your afterlife in, and this will in turn inform the vibe of your underworld. Many underworld gods that are associated with living underground are also gods of things like metals, springs and gemstones, which are pulled from their domain. A god of death and the sea likely also includes storms in their purview, and a god of death and the sky may be associated with lightning or carrion birds. Changing the visual aesthetic of your underworld by shifting its location can go a long way to making your gods of death less one dimensional, but you can achieve the same effect with an underground underworld, as long as you are thinking critically about how your culture perceives death.


Christianity has systematically placed their devil into the mythologies of every pagan culture they’ve converted. From Loki to Hades to Baron Samedi, early Christians loved to take earlier unrelated religious figures and make them into “the bad guy” to match their view of the world. But even without this intentional contamination, local traditions usually did have an opposition figure whose role is to represent calamity, suffering and evil in the world. Satan is of course the archetypal Western example, viewed as the antithesis of God’s benevolence. But, others had creatures like Typhon, Fenrir and Tiamat who represented the same destructive and chaotic forces. Antagonists like this provide a framework to tell compelling myths through, and also serve to explain the frequent suffering of humans without assigning blame to the gods themselves. Giving bestial or draconic elements to these forces connects them to the primordial chaos from which most creation myths rise, and it’s also not uncommon for these things to be described as “half-formed” or “always changing” to further cement this association.

You have a few options here. The first is not to have a direct antagonist at all, as your cosmology may not feature this sort of archetypal evil. Another option is to take one of your existing gods and heighten the negative aspects of their purview and personality until there is a division between them and the other “good” deities. You could choose to have one or more dedicated antagonistic gods, dedicated to things like sins, violence, chaos or destruction. Or, you could design your world with a baked in antagonistic element, a Satan figure, Lovecraftian nightmares, another tribe of gods, or what have you. Depending on your choice, worlds with direct divine interventions will look quite different, though in less fantastical settings the difference will mostly be restricted to the philosophies, art and mythology of your people.

Messianic Figures and Heroes

The last important divine figure I’ll talk about is the messianic figure. Jesus Christ is the one that jumps to mind as the capital-M “Messiah”, but the word comes from Hebrew, and the Jewish speakers of Hebrew today don’t view Jesus as their messiah. Originally the term meant “the anointed”, but messiah has come to refer to any prophesied savior of a people. Though the Abrahamic catechisms are very specific about what their idea of this savior entails, other cultures have their own versions of the same basic idea. One day, a holy person will arrive to save us. From what? It could just be the ails of life and the world, but it could be from slavery, from hunger, from war, or any number of other persecutions. The important part is that there is a religious belief in a coming upheaval structured around this one person or god.

In Hawaiian mythology the god Lono i ka makahiki was said to have told his people that one day he would return by sea and bring great fertility to the islands. When the Hawaiians saw the European explorer Captain James Cook arrive in an enormous ship, they mistook the ship as the canoe described in their legend of Lono’s return, and believed for a short time that the Captain was their messianic figure, there to fulfill his promise. Unfortunately, Cook abused the Hawaiians’ hospitality and was eventually put to death for attempting to kidnap a chieftain. So, the shape of the savior and what their agenda is entirely dependent on the culture and the situation of the people. But the idea of a coming golden age, or age of freedom is very appealing, and can help bare people through difficult times, so this type of story, while not universal, is very common.

A ki’i or tiki of the Hawaiian fertility and agriculture god Lono.
Musée du quai Branly, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons

Historic people who filled a messianic role, or mythological figures from popular cycles of story may in time come to possess hero cults. This may be viewed as a sort of apotheosis, or as a revelation of divinity that was always there. Mythological characters receive this treatment most often, and this can be seen in the deification of Herakles, Maui and Aeneas. But, real people living and dead are also occasionally chosen as the target of this process, like Augustus Caesar who we discussed earlier, or the Egyptian priest Imhotep who was not deified until over a millennium after his death.

Hero cults are an excellent way to neatly tie together your history and religions. This makes info dumping a little easier because you can provide context for other parts of your world at large while still staying on topic. Hero-gods also make your pantheon feel very active and participatory in the world, which can help reinforce a particular flavor of high-fantasy.

Identifying Motifs

So, you have all of these gods now, but how do you make them distinct from one another? How do you make them immediately visually identifiable? What about in spoken language and written text?

In real world religions each god has their own set of identifying symbols or motifs. These can be very physical objects, like the winged caduceus staff carried by the god Hermes, or Thor’s hammer mjolnir; or, they can be highly abstracted as in the Book of Revelation which makes several reference to God speaking: “with the voice of many waters.” What exactly that means is probably intentionally unclear, but presumably if you ever did hear it you would know immediately that you were hearing the voice of many waters. These identifying motifs are important because they allow worshipers to communicate using a shared symbology. The most prominent and practical purpose of these motifs is making icons and idols immediately recognizable. But, these motifs also make it easier to shorthand very complex ideas into simple symbols. For example; in the way that the crucifix represents not just the death of Jesus, but also the sum of the very complex Christian philosophies of sin, redemption and martyrdom.

Hand-held objects like the mace and noose of the Hindi god Yama, or the crook and flail of Egyptian pharaohs are one of the most common types of visual motifs. From the far east, to Europe, to the Americas and Africa, you can find examples of idols and votive artwork depicting the gods carrying identifying instruments as the primary means of indicating their status. Some of these come from myths, like the caduceus given to Hermes by Apollo in exchange for the first lyre. Others are born from the real life uses of objects, like how the crook and flail is meant to symbolize the pharaoh’s role as a shepherd of his people.

Associations with specific animals are also a common way to identify certain gods. The Egyptian gods might be the most iconic example of this, with most having the heads of animals in at least some of their depictions. But holy animals are attributed to all sorts of deities, like the crows of Odin, the peacocks of Hera, the elephant head of Ganesha, or even the lamb symbolism associated with Jesus. These animals are often chosen because the culture assigns them an attribute aligned with that god; peacocks are regal, elephants are wise, lambs are innocent, etc.. Plants get a treatment very similar to animals in this respect. Ceres is depicted holding a sheaf of wheat, the Buddha is often depicted sitting or standing on a lotus flower. Again, these have a symbolic sense, Ceres brings forth the bounty of the earth, and wheat and its related grains were the staple crops of the Romans who worshiped her. Gautama Buddha compares his enlightenment to a lotus flower rising out of a swamp.

Another common set of motifs are hand and body positions in artwork and sculpture. In particular the various mudrā of Hindi and broader Buddhist iconography, whereby certain positions represent signs of peace, different moments in the Buddha’s life, and can help aid in meditation. One form is called the bhūmisparśa mudrā, a common pose given to statues of Buddha representing the moment that the earth recognized his enlightenment. This pose is made while sitting, with the left hand resting upward in the lap, and the right gently touching the earth. In this case the form of the pose relates directly to the myth that spawned it, but others have more to do with the symbolism of the act itself. Most cultures have poses they associate with prayer, like the Christan clasping or steepling of the hands, Muslims prostrating toward the qibla (the direction of Mecca), or the still meditative poses of many eastern traditions. Sitting in certain places or in certain positions may indicate authority, for the same reason most thrones and altars sit on raised daises; no one may sit higher than the king or the gods.

You can make almost anything a motif, from a color, to a name, a specific direction, a material, or even a particular narrative arc that plays out repeatedly. The point is that these motifs must be clear icons that the faithful can use to parse their religious art more quickly, and to make even crude icons recognizable. By melding motifs and archetypes, your gods will not just be easier to understand, they’ll be easier to remember, which is an important factor if you’re going to be feeding a lot of this information to your audience. Moreover, your gods will feel more authentic because they fit into the patterns we’ve come to expect from real world religions, while also preserving some of the mythological strangeness.

Religions Part 1: Systems of Belief

When creating or imagining a fictional world, one inevitably is faced with the question; “What do these people believe?” It’s an open ended, but also important question to ask, because as we’ve seen through history belief systems can shape the development of culture in massive ways. Christianity in the West, Islam in the Middle East, and the now neglected practices of innumerable indigenous populations all shaped their host cultures’ lives. For many people in the pre-modern era every story, every song and every holiday had a pointed religious or cultural significance which in turn informed their values and the general “vibe” of their art, architecture and clothing.

So, let’s relate this more directly to worldbuilding. There is a trend in modern fantasy to fill out pantheons of gods like a checklist. God of Fire, check. God of the Sea, check. Goddess of Fertility, check. Of course, effort is often made to hide this box-checking through the melding of multiple domains into a single deity. If you like this system, great, it’s very easy for people to digest these sorts of roles. And, if all you want are a set of gods to staple domains to in a D&D campaign, it might behoove you to lean even further into this by making your gods very small in number with very wide purviews. You see this frequently in RPGs where there may be one god for each of a handful of classical elements, and that’s it. You can establish one god of a single element, and people experiencing your world can fill the rest in for themselves: “Yup, that’s the Fire God, so there’ll be Water, Earth and Wind next.”

However, there are more holistic options for establishing what a religion or belief system looks like in a fantasy world. Here I’ll address my most common approaches to designing different types of pantheons, trying to establish their benefits and drawbacks as tools in your worldbuilder’s toolbox.

Plausible Polytheism

When designing fantasy worlds, it’s easy to simply say your gods are real, physical beings, thus doing away with any sort of secular belief. Because obviously the gods are real. I think this line of thinking ignores how messy secular belief systems can get once people begin rejecting anything and everything that was a part of the previous orthodoxy. But, more importantly, I think it also misses the opportunity to really dig deep into how your fictional culture came to have a particular understanding of their gods. In our world, religions and cultural belief systems evolve over time in tandem with the culture that holds them, and times of cultural upheaval almost always coincide with religious tensions and shifts in belief as well.

Polytheism in the real world likely developed from a perceived connection with natural features by native peoples. The Spring-time is often a welcome release from the cold of winter, and so is characterized as a benevolent force of some kind, which must be incredibly powerful to effect such wide-reaching changes on the earth. Rivers bring water that nourishes the land, rains bring water to the river, winds drive the rain storms. Without a modern scientific perspective to point out the greater forces at work, it makes more sense to assume that something is out there affecting changes in your environment. At this point, people start giving these forces names, and trying to reason with them. They start doing the things they might try to curry favor with a Lord or new neighbor. People bring the forces food, talk to them, treat them fairly and with respect. How this all works out is dependent on how the culture contextualizes their interaction with these gods. Some Meso-American peoples believed that their gods needed the life-energies of their blood, and so would make blood-offerings as a way to empower the gods, who then might favor them. The Greeks believed that the gods would become angry from time to time and might be appeased with the burning of a portion of a choice goat or bull. Romans believed that their dead ancestors became divine spirits called Lares which would live in a shrine inside the family home to keep them safe from sickness and the wrath of other gods. The Romans treated the Lares like present members of the family in many ways, insisting that they must be included in certain social gatherings, and fed food and wine to keep them happy.

In all cases, we see something important here, reciprocity. The people offer the gods something, because the gods have something to offer the people in turn; even if all that’s up for grabs is “I won’t flood your town and kill everyone in it.” This is the reason that some gods fell out of fashion in the Greek and Roman world as the centuries progressed. If the god wasn’t a threat to anyone, and didn’t have anything to offer, what good are they? The thought process probably wasn’t as callous as that, but it’s true that if a god was seen as having less to offer than another, people often drifted away from that god, or else blended the two together and called it a day. Thus, we get late Hellenistic gods like Hermes-Osiris or Isis-Aphrodite who had become completely mashed together (or “syncretized”, to use a more scientific term) with an Egyptian counterpart and now was recognized as mostly a separate entity. These syncretic gods represent a stepping stone between a pair of older gods, and a new vision for the deity.

An idol likely depicting Isis-Aphrodite, exposing her genitals as a symbol of fertility.
Einsamer Schütze, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All of this is to say that ancient peoples were really thinking hard about this stuff, and they continued these practices for millenia because from their perspective these rituals were actually effective strategies for navigating a very dangerous world. In a fantasy world, these ritual patterns will develop in the same way, but unlike our world, your gods may have an active role in shaping how those practices form. It all depends on what you want from your world and how you want it to form. But, if a god is too vicious or demanding, people might well forget them, or remember them only as a fragment of a myth attributed to some other spirit now. Because people don’t just worship their gods for fun, generally they want to get something out of it.

Now, how do you develop something like this yourself?

First, start with an older version of the culture you’re trying to get to. How did their ancestors live, under what conditions, and where? If they live by a river, they will likely have a god for that particular river, as the Egyptians did for the Nile and the Romans for the Tiber. If there are major seasonal shifts or flooding, the regularity of these events may eventually lead to a personification of the event. Shepherds who view their flock as people like them might make sure their animals have gods too, to keep them healthy and safe. You should come up with more gods than you need or want in this step, you’ll be merging and discarding some later. Make sure that everything you make is somehow important to the people whose culture you’re developing. Resist any urge to add a god because it feels necessary to cover your bases. Leave gaps if you have to, you can always widen a god’s purview or borrow a foreign god later.

At first these deities will be very flat and one-dimensional without much life to them. What rituals and festivals do your people practice in honor of these gods? What might begin as a yearly offering to say thank-you for sending rain, might eventually evolve into a week long festival with rituals dedicated not just to thanking the god, but also for other “maintenance” of their relationship, with votive dancing, physical cleaning of the river, or contests in the god’s honor. What myths are told about the god? Origin myths, for the world or the gods themselves are popular, but often memorable myths will involve the gods interacting with mortals and other gods. Stories like Thor staying among the Giants, Athena and Arachne’s weaving contest, or the antics of Coyote are memorable, but say nothing about where these deities originate. Write yourself some outlines for these myths.

A Roman mosaic of the nine muses and the poet Homer.
Tom Lucas, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Once you have these early deities worked out, look over your list. Anything you love, keep, everything else, either toss or incorporate into your favorites. Maybe your god of the River can pull double duty and be the Fertility god too. Now he gets all those myths, those rituals, those festivals, you had planned for that other, boring, harvest god. If it doesn’t make sense? Not a problem, mythological systems are frequently inconsistent and messy if you try to apply timelines or real-world logic. This process will simulate people’s faith changing over the ages, and might be guided by their collective experiences. A long period of war might draw a War god to the most prominent position in the pantheon; a golden age or renaissance might cause numerous new deities devoted to crafts to suddenly appear or diversify out of a single older god (as the Muses proliferated in number over the course of Greek history, from as few as 3 to as many as 9). Your people will be changing too, into whatever “modern” looks like in your world, and these changes may be massive enough to drive gods in and out of favor in turn.

Once you’re done blending and cutting your pantheon together, look to this culture’s neighboring cultures. Now is the time to pull in some of those gods too. Only grab the ones that make sense obviously, a desert culture usually won’t need a goddess of winter or snow. But, there will always be this sort of cultural blending, especially on borders or in areas where there have been conquests. Maybe the new god comes in and completely usurps the old one, maybe they mix evenly and you end up with an Aries/Mars situation where even with different names and different prominence in the pantheon of the culture that worshiped them, they are recognizable enough that even to outsiders it looks like they were “stolen” from one or the other. Obviously, people will be resistant to gods from cultures other than their own, but conquest or even simple generational immigration and bi-culturalism will eventually cause people to forget a god was ever anything other than what they believe in now.

Now is the point where you have to add your own flare. Get in there and put your personal mark and flare on it and make these gods the sort of characters someone could build a belief system out of. Personal philosophies of yours and your writing style will heavily guide this part of the process. Other details of your world might inspire specific decisions as well. Maybe you need to divide your pantheon in a specific way; or you want some of these gods to have literally died off, like Pan and Tyr.

When you like how your pantheon looks, you have a choice. You can either say that the gods will continue to change in this way over time, or you can set these forms in stone and say these are how the gods “truly” are. For fantasy with interactive gods who live in the physical world, the second option usually will make more sense. A hybrid option where people’s ideas of the gods continue to change, but the gods don’t actually change much from this point on seems the most plausible to me in a world like this.

The Elder Scrolls games do things like this all the time, with gods like Anui-El, Auriel, Akatosh and Alkosh, who are variants of the same god separated by temporal, cultural and linguistic boundaries. The Dark Souls series also play with this, with the Lord Souls containing enormous god-like strength that eternally passes on to the next generation of mythical figures, who for better or worse will come to rule over the world and then fade out themselves. These examples also show how you can twist this system around. Perhaps your gods are molded by their believers, and thus physically change as people’s faith does. Or, your gods might only be puppets for larger more invisible forces, meaning the cultural practices and stories don’t reflect their reality at all.

So, what are our Pros and Cons?

This system gives you gods that have a sort of veracity and grittiness to them, that for worldbuilding junkies can be fun to learn and figure out. Your pantheon will be unique to you, and specific to the culture you’ve constructed for your people. But, this is probably the most difficult method of pantheon generation, as it creates a lot of background information that might never see the light of day, and that realistically you are looking at making dozens if not hundreds of gods before the end.

I cited video games for both of my best examples of this style of god-building, and I think there are a few reasons for that. Games allow you to control your level of engagement with the lore, meaning that if you don’t care about a piece of information you can usually just not look at it and move on. In more structured mediums like books and movies, time spent explaining anything is time spent un-focused on the plot, with no easy option to just return to the matter at hand. Thus, this detail oriented system requires a lot more investment from anyone consuming the media you produce. If they can’t actively control the focus of their experience, you have to be very careful with where you focus your forced narrative perspective. This adds another layer of workload where editing has to balance oversharing with undersharing of background information.

In summary, this system is the highest effort, and produces something unique and deep, but may actually hurt you when it comes time to info-dump all of this lore you’ve created. For people who are just having fun building worlds, this is a great exercise to add depth and get you fleshing out your history and culture while you build your religions.

Artificial Polytheism

I mentioned at the beginning that there is a tendency in modern fantasy to make gods as “check-boxes”, building them to serve an almost mechanical function in the world. While this is fairly shallow when compared to the historical depth of real world religions, it can be perfectly plausible in the right context. Sometimes in fantasy, the world is not a complex biological system born of billions of years of development. Instead the world is literally fashioned by a Creator and is impossibly young by our standards. In this case, the artificiality of the world is a part of the design from the outset; and this is where I think these types of gods can shine; by reinforcing the recent creation of the world.

If your world was designed by a Creator-deity, it makes sense for them to also add powerful curators to the world, to help facilitate the proper conduct of everything. Each god was literally created for the express purpose of safeguarding and maintaining an aspect of the world. And, because of this their roles are not socio-cultural, but mechanical in nature.

Designing this sort of pantheon is “easy” on the surface, but is more difficult to make feel distinct from settings that use a similar technique.

To start with this type of pantheon, your first step will be figuring out who your creator (or creators) are and what their goal was in designing this world. It’s worth noting that “because they were lonely or bored” is actually a very common justification for the creation of the world in myth, and is a valid option if you don’t feel like narrowing this purpose down. For others, perhaps your world has a concept like Nirvana, or some other cyclical pattern the completion or continuation of which is the ultimate “goal” of the world. Maybe your creator is evil and just wants to make things suffer, this is all really up to you.

Once you have this, think about what sorts of gods your creator might find useful to them. A god of the sea to work the tides, a god of the sun to manage the days, a god of the forests to make the trees grow. It might be helpful to think of your creator as a director making a film, your other gods are the people in the credits, the stagehands and actors that make the whole thing real and manage the day-to-day minutia that the director can’t be bothered with. Alternatively, your creator might only fashion a handful of gods and then leave or die, allowing their “children” to finish the work of populating the world themselves.

These gods will be inherently more simple than the gods made with the system discussed above. At least they will be at first. Because now they are essentially just workers doing a job they’ve been assigned. However this already suggests opportunities to complicate things. What if one of the gods doesn’t want to do their job? Like Melkor in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, who rebels against Eru Iluvatar in much the same way as Lucifer rebels against God in the Bible. If the gods are so important in maintaining stability in the world, a single rebellion like this will have vast implications for your wider world. Even without open rebellion, what if one of the gods doesn’t like their job? A god of death or war who hates killing, or a god of the sun who would rather sleep in some mornings. Gaps between the gods’ roles and their personalities can be a great way to spice up this type of religion building.

This way of viewing your world also suggests another option; If the world is created by divine magic, why does it have to resemble the real world at all? If there has to be a god to make the trees grow and the sun shine, there could conceivably be a god doing anything that the creator decided they liked. Maybe a god of the sky has blessed the world with magnificent flying islands, that he maintains much like the sea god maintains the islands of his domain. Maybe each god also maintains a servitor species, and various non-humans crowd the setting with new and different cultures.

Tabletop settings like Forgotten Realms and Golarion often use this style of deity building. There must be a god for everything, so that the game mechanics can freely allow clerics and paladins of any alignment to select their domains and powers in a way that fits with the setting. Settings with elemental magic systems frequently break up their pantheons so that their gods are also elemental. This is particularly common in non-western RPGs like Final Fantasy, where powerful entities like Tiamat and Ifrit are tied directly to particular elements, and thus represent the sort of powers a high-level user of their magic might attain.

The biggest Pro for this system in my opinion, is that your gods become, at their core, very simple. “This god is in charge of X,”, “This god only does Y,”. You can, and should, mix it up beyond that, but it makes your gods very easy to digest when first introduced. This is great for table-top RPGs, books and movies, because these are mediums where time and attention must be managed very carefully. A name and a basic domain of influence gets your audience most of the way toward understanding what your gods are about, and an offhand remark about their personality can complete the image almost immediately.

The major Con of this system is that your pantheon will feel artificial. It will feel game-y, caricatured and incomplete, and it will in many cases be hard to imagine who would worship these beings, or why. A big trope of this style of world building is the inclusion of an evil cult of some type. However, under closer examination it’s often difficult to see why anyone with a brain would worship the God of Betrayal, knowing that obviously they too will be betrayed in the end. This can push your villains into Saturday-morning-cartoon levels of idiocy and murky goals. But, hey, if you want that tone for your bad guys, and you embrace the hokey-ness of the premise, this can be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

In the end, there are a lot of reasons to use this system for creating your religions. First, if you need to be able to dump all of this information all at once, this streamlined style of god-building will make your gods easier to digest and identify with. Secondly, if you have a particular world that calls for a high degree of “intelligent design” these types of gods subtly reinforce the idea that these gods were directly manufactured. Further, you may decide that this is your favorite way to make your gods because it allows you to focus more of your energy on other parts of the setting.

Monotheism and Henotheism

Henotheism is an often overlooked style of religion in modern times, but it is an important stepping stone between traditional polytheistic religions and monotheism. Henotheism is the belief that while there may be many gods in existence, there is only one god that the practitioner chooses to venerate. The earliest parts of the Bible make clear allusion to there being other gods than the God of Israel (Genesis 2:22 “And the Lord God said behold, the man is become as one of us…”). Though it’s also made very clear that they should not be worshiped; the First Commandment is after all “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. What I’m getting at here is that even in a fantasy world with tangible gods interacting with their worshipers there can be plenty of reasons to only acknowledge the authority of a single god, or a smaller pantheon.

In the real world, Henotheism is most common in minority communities who experience religious pressures to convert to the faith of a hostile culture, and in places where familial or clan specific gods are kept. Though henotheistic religions do crop up in other places as well, even casual relationships with outside communities will often lead to religious influence which in turn usually leads to the adoption of outside gods. Prior to the development of writing and dogmatic religious prescription, it would be much harder to convince a community that there is only one god worth worshiping, and so other spirits and gods are frequently adopted in.

In the case of colonialism, we might think of religious pressure as coming from missionaries, sent to a place with the express intent of converting the populace. But in fact, most historical faith systems weren’t interested in directly converting others. Certainly, rulers used restriction of local religions to force compliance, but this was usually a more ethno-cultural conflict than a truly religious one. The goal was not to force them to see the “light of truth”, but rather to force social integration and quell dissent. Instead of proselytizing, the primary source of pressures to convert were social (access to higher social classes will usually be restricted to the in-group of highly culturally integrated families), and a simple matter of shaken faith. If your people lose a war, then their freedom, and their land, at least some will start to question if their gods are still watching. The gods of one’s enemies seem much more powerful and “real” in these moments. Surely, the gods wouldn’t allow heathens to win, and so the winners of a war must always be the most favored, at least by some logic. This can evolve into philosophies like the Mandate of Heaven or Manifest Destiny, which basically justify any and all Imperialist conquest under the justification that if the gods didn’t support the Emperor’s actions, they wouldn’t allow them to have power in the first place.

As some people convert to the new religion, others more faithful, will hold on even harder to the old ways, even if they are forced to acknowledge these new gods to some degree. This conflict can often lead to groups choosing to acknowledge other god’s existence, but firmly refusing to worship them.

The other possible origin of Henotheism is familial gods. Cultures with tight-knit family groups or clans may have a guardian spirit, possibly even an ancestor spirit that watches over them. If this spirit is viewed as very powerful or grows into prominence for some reason, these families may discard other religious figures altogether and instead focus their efforts on appeasing the spirit of their clan. This rejection is similar in form to the colonial-response Henotheism, but often comes from a less bloody, or at least less one sided history.

Monotheism is the most familiar style of religion in the modern West. But, this is a relatively uncommon way to view divinity from a historical standpoint. When monotheism does develop, it often does so as the last step in a chain of developments from a more broadly inclusive sort of deisim. Fantasy changes this, you can choose to have monotheism from the get go, or you can choose to prevent its development altogether. Contrary to modern portrayal, monotheism is usually quite insular, and mostly develops in very isolated places that make free exchange with outsiders uncommon. These culturally insulating features might be vast mountains or deserts, but monotheism could just as easily develop in the heart of an empire where their “isolation” is borne of the fact that their homogeneous surroundings shield them from outside influence.

The biggest Pro of implementing these types of religions in your setting is that they are going to be familiar to a western audience. In pure monotheism, you will only need to develop a single god, though you may want to introduce a few schisms to shake things up.

As for the Cons; your audience may equate your religion immediately with Christianity or another modern religion, and bring their pre-existing ideas and opinions from the real world and directly conflate them with what you’ve created.

As always your own worldbuilding style and your particular project will decide if you can ignore these Pros and Cons as you develop your faiths. Monotheism is tricky in particular, because if you have only one god, they likely have a heavy hand in every part of your setting, and will be deeply intertwined with the other stories you create. I think these are better suited to the role of minority religions among a sea of other faiths in a world, but you may have different tastes, and that’s cool too.

Animism and Ancestor Worship

There are still a few loose ends to discuss as far as world religions go.

The first is Animism, the belief in a plethora of souls or spirits that inhabit every object in the world. The most familiar example for many these days might be the Yokai and Kami of Japanese folk-lore which exist in the tens of thousands and often have very small, hyper-specific jobs or practices. There are some cultures that require the permission of a tree’s indwelling spirit before it may be cut, and there are many examples of cultures extending human rights to animals who are thought to have a soul. All of these cultural beliefs stem from the idea that life and nature in all their forms are basically equivalent. This is not as common of a belief in modern societies, because our understanding of the world through science has given us a pretty thorough understanding of just how “dead” things like rocks really are. But, classically, without the benefit of geology or biology to tell us different, most found it better to err on the side of caution and be extra respectful to everything in their environment.

Koshi-no-mushi, a flying disease spirit depicted in the Harikikigaki, a c.1568 Japanese acupuncture instructional. This spirit causes diarrhea, sweating and chest pains, but can be driven away by licorice root.
Source Kyushu National Museum

If you want a world crawling with spirits at every crossroads and wayshrine, Animism is a great option for you. Animistic cultures always have a huge variety of interesting monsters and spirits with different properties, and these can eat up a lot of your time as a worldbuilder, and are super fun to design. The sheer craziness of a setting like this can be a little overwhelming, but especially in visual media it can offer some stunning views of your world.

Developing animistic religions for fiction will be easier the more mythology you have read. Stories of these sorts of every-day magical creatures and spirits are salted liberally throughout the fables of human history. Even familiar fantasy creatures like goblins and kobolds have their ultimate roots in the animistic house spirits of English folklore. The important thing to remember is that if a person believes that everything is alive, it will vastly impact the way they conduct themselves in the world. The Greeks and Romans often placed shrines to Janus above their doorways; even the simple and very common act of passing through a doorway was contextualized as a sort of mini-prayer to one of their little gods. Think about the things everybody does everyday, like eating, drinking, traveling, sleeping; and make sure that your people have a context for these actions. Do they pray to the food spirits before eating? Do they worry that by snuffing out a fire they are “killing” the fire spirit? Do they avoid certain places because the god there is angry or territorial? There is a lot to think about when working with these sorts of traditions, but they are very lore rich as a result.

We touched earlier on how ancestor worship can become the seed of monotheism. But ancestor veneration in one form or another is much more common than monotheism. Some cultures explicitly worship their ancestors, but even the keeping of grave sites indicates an ongoing commitment to the relationship between the living and the dead. In cultures where ancestors are explicit objects of worship, they will usually have a shrine in the home and a separate burial site somewhere (occasionally also in the home). At these shrines there will sometimes be depictions of the deceased, if any are available, and votive gifts given to the spirits. It is not uncommon to feed dead relatives, either with the same food the family eats, or a substitute like wine, honey, cakes, or anything else the living assume the dead might like. The assumption among those who directly worship their ancestors is that all this gift giving and feeding keeps the spirits happy and strong so they can protect the family from other spirits, intruders and misfortune. Therefore a failure to show the necessary reverence could spell doom for not just the offender, but their whole family. It’s not difficult to see why this type of worship is most common in cultures with strong and more importantly, large family groups who can enforce these practices on their extended relatives, and also keep the practice alive for the centuries that it takes to develop a lasting tradition.

Again, this is rarely going to be the entire story of a culture’s spirituality. Ancestor worship is frequently coupled with other gods or spirits to create a cohesive world view. Ancestor worship is a great addition to tell your audience subtly about the importance of family and relations in your setting. In order to incorporate this type of worship into your world you will likely need to work out the social structure of the family in great detail. Decide who the “core” family is, and how it’s determined when and where the family “branches”. You may also need a genealogy for some of your major clans; to work out who a person’s most powerful ancestors might be, and thus who these offerings are being made to. However, unlike other forms of religion, your mythology and history are more or less merged. Your myths may read more like a biography of major figures than a fantasy story, but that’s okay. This is what this type of religion is really good at: grounding your myth in real world situations and people, directly involved in the ongoing history of your world.

Atheism and Deification

So far we’ve been talking about gods and religion as part-and-parcel. But, let’s take a step back and remember that there are absolutely religions that don’t have gods. Buddhism (in some forms) requires no belief in anything other than a particular view of the afterlife. Modern Satanism, though perhaps not what we might think of as a “proper” religion, is recognized as a religion by the US government and is explicitly anti-theist. These vastly different belief systems share at least one commonality, there is a core philosophy that inspires and unites their adherents to a common goal. These atheistic religions are very difficult to design by yourself, as they require a consistent, believable philosophical worldview, which usually requires someone very wise to structure in the first place. You may have better luck adapting your non-theistic religious ideology from existing sources. Or, hell, go crazy and invent your own religion, no one’s stopping you.

Aside from the above type of atheism, there is also the more familiar type. Modern atheists usually believe that there are no gods or spirits of any kind. This atheism or something like it has existed almost as long as the idea of gods. Around 300 BC, Epicurean philosophy was developed in Greece, on the grounds that, among other things, the gods either didn’t exist at all or at the very least had no power to intervene in the material world. So, atheism wasn’t absent in the ancient world, though it remained a minority belief for a very long time.

I earlier described how even with gods intervening in the world, it could sometimes make sense to only worship a single god. However, in such a world, atheism becomes much less defensible. Perhaps your atheists acknowledge the gods’ existence, but split hairs about the nature of divinity and view them more like people on a power-trip. Maybe your atheists come from a place where the gods have no power, and have no idea of the miracles your other cultures have been experiencing. I think you would be more likely to develop at least a small group of antitheists instead. Antitheists may fully believe in a god, but also insist that they are not worthy of worship. Perhaps these people see the suffering that still exists in the world and blame the gods for their hand in making it. Perhaps they believe the gods have a darker purpose that they want no part of.

On the other hand, some mortals at some point in life or after death may rise to become gods themselves. After the death of Julius Caesar, his son, the new Emperor Augustus, had him deified, saying that he was Divus Iulius, The Divine Julius. Temples were built in his honor, and there were religious festivals and a priesthood dedicated to Caesar that continued to operate until paganism was banned in Rome hundreds of years later. In every meaningful way, the man Julius Caesar had been elevated to divinity. Augustus himself took the title Divi Filius (son of the divine) for himself, and was granted godhood according to the new Imperial Cult while he was still alive. The elevation of not just Kings, but any historical figure to godhood is called Apotheosis, and was practiced by many cultures throughout history. Both the Chinese and the Egyptians also believed some of their Emperors achieved apotheosis after death. Examples of hero figures receiving the elevation to godhood also exist, but are relatively more rare. In some Buddhist faiths, there are a number of semi-divine bodhisattvas who are men and women who are firmly on the path toward becoming a Buddha. These bodhisattvas are thought to have originally been regular human beings before a prediction is made of their fate to become enlightened.

The Temple of Divus Iulius in the Roman Forum.
Rabax63, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In short, maybe your fantasy world doesn’t need gods at all, just people, power and faith. Perhaps there is a schism in your world between “classical” theists and these new hero-worshiping people. Maybe all of your gods are ancient wizards who found the path to godhood. Of course, it’s one thing to declare a person a god, but quite another for that worship to spread far and wide. Caesar’s deification came on the heels of his assassination which was broadly viewed as a tragedy that subverted the rule of law and stole Rome’s favorite princeps away from them. When Caesar’s heir took the throne and declared his divinity, people were still in mourning and were willing to accept this new god as a return to normalcy. For this sort of deism to work, you need a powerful founding figure with the popular support to make it a reality. Even after a literal apotheosis, a new godling could easily struggle to make their case to the populace until they can start pulling down miracles


Making religions that don’t break your audience’s suspense of disbelief will depend heavily on the tone and purpose of your setting. The goal here was to present options and real world scenarios that can help inspire you. Most of these systems don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and most real world religions require a lot of explanation and deep examination to get to the heart of what they’re about.

I leave you with these small words of guidance as you step back into building your world.

Make it bigger. Whatever you decide for your gods, make them bigger, more expressive, more extreme. Gods should feel like a force of nature. Your god of the sea should seem like the type to throw a ship full of sailors against the rocks at the slightest provocation. Your god of fire should escalate, burn people, live hard and fast. Making your gods feel extreme, and ultimately more than a human ever could be, is an important part of reinforcing how powerful they are supposed to be. Keep your setting’s general tone in mind as you do this, a darker setting will draw out different sorts of extreme behavior from your gods than a lighthearted one.

Don’t strive for originality. Your setting will be original because it is yours, even if it’s your version of something else. Instead, in the words of Tom Lehrer “Plagiarize! Let no one else’s work evade your eyes.” Read. Mimic. Copy. Obviously we all know that real plagiarism sucks and will ruin any reputation you have; but, the borrowing of themes, ideas, and even whole characters and plotlines can be done without being blatant. As long as this is all done in the spirit of rigging together something of your own, and you are careful to make the necessary personal touches, mimicking the style of other worlds and stories you like is crucial to becoming a better creator. Never let “X already did this” be a reason to remove something you like from your setting. Gods especially are often very similar cross-culturally because every human on the planet has similar basic needs and suffers in the same ways.

Remember the people. Heroes and myths are cool, but most people are farmers and shepherds. These are the people that will be doing most of the worship, and they will be raising the next generation of faithful. Depending on how active your gods are, the people in the fields might have no idea what they even look like. Some will be blindly faithful, and others will doubt and ask questions. Make sure you have answers for these people, because they are carrying the culture on their shoulders.

Previous: The World of Eis: Modern Cultures

Selghast and Voulmar

The streets of Oltuyr were in shambles. All along the rows of neat plastered-brick dwellings, the awnings hung torn from their poles and the family market stalls were emptied, overturned, and broken. The shadows of men darted through the smoke that filled the avenues between the houses in choking billows. There was a roar all around of voices distant and near. Yelling and crying, screams and the baying of every hound in the city. The avenues were stained black with tar and a rising wet heat that smelled like a burning latrine.

There were dead men too. One great one the size of a yak lay face down in the gutter, a sword lodged between his ribs. On the raised curb, away from the grime, two smaller bodies had been arranged under a blood-spotted awning.

Selghast clenched his jaw. It served to make him appear stoic, but also kept his mouth from hanging open at the awful reality before him. The long white haired elf drew the sword from the ribs of his former master and wiped the blood on the giant’s muddy robe. He gazed sternly at the back of his master’s tawny head. There were ways this could have ended without the man’s death. Selghast didn’t feel any better, but it felt settled now at least. A life for the life he had stolen. Selghast couldn’t spare a glance for the others, it would shake him, and he still needed to be strong.

“Where to now?” One of the group behind Selghast asked. There were twenty or so of them, some still in their tattered nightclothes. The man who spoke was a red haired elf of heartier build, Arbus, the baker.

“Gather what you can from the house. We’re going to the castle to drag out Voulmar.”

The group of assembled elves looked half-nervous and half-blood thirsty like a pack of hungry dogs.

“If you don’t want to come, get out of the city. Go to Arna, or one of the villages. Things are only going to get worse here.”

Some of them looked up to the sky which seemed to burn with the city. Others looked at the two shapes under the awning. The pack silently broke apart, as many of the elves slipped back into the house to pilfer what they could from the wardrobe and pantry before starting their journey.

Arbus stayed, and half a dozen others armed with knives, a rake and a maul made from the butter-churn. A sorry force if they met with any resistance.

“We’re with you, Sel.” Arbus said with a weak smile, raising his churn slightly.

It was a heavy task to smile at a time like this, and Selghast repaid him with a poor grin.

“Thank you.”

The group didn’t have to worry about resistance. The whole way to the castle the carnage was the same, broken streets red with blood and filled with anguished voices. But, empty of soldiers. The only giants left were deserters, unarmed families escaping the violence. One family had a child as tall as any of the men, but still with childish features and the bewildered fear of the innocent. They left such unfortunates to pass without a word.

They passed a manor where a giant noble and his soldiers had barricaded themselves. But as they drew near, they saw the gathered crowd begin to throw brands over the wall. There was panic from within as the manor burned, but the crowd in the street began to cheer with joy.

Throughout the city, everyone else had moved on or hunkered down. Selghast could see people peering from the windows, but the shutters all snapped shut when he met their eyes.

As they neared the castle, a crowd began to form. The streets became packed with elves who all moved with purpose, and the voices on the wind became angry, but harmonious. Like an army of ants they poured through the streets, all bound for the castle that lay just above the city on a cliffside.

Voulmar’s manse was decked in bronze and built half into the dark stone of the mountain. The siding was a fine dark wood, and the roof was shingled with enamel tiles of yellow and orange that gleamed wickedly in the smoky twilight. The path leading to it was intentionally thin and winding to hinder an army’s approach. But, Selghast doubted that the designer of the path had been imagining an army of slaves when he designed it. Still it did its job, and well before they reached the castle, the crowd was pressed tight, and all forward motion ground to a halt.

“Seems we weren’t the only ones out for Voulmar’s blood today.” Arbus said, craning over the interminable line to the castle.

“I should think not. Had you heard none of the rumors? Every elf in Fannur has been talking about it in his cups for months. The men could hardly hide their excitement.”

“Bakers don’t gossip.” Arbus replied dryly. “We’re honest folk.”

“Mhm.” Selghast humored.

“So by agreement then? Today is the appointed day?”

“More, or less. When news came in that the capitol fell, it probably started. Then this morning the air was different. The first fires I think had already started then.”

“The fires were burning before first light. I noticed it when I went out to smoke after I put the first batch of loaves in the oven. By the time I went out for my second smoke, dawn had come in flame.”

As they stood and spoke, three men began to cut through the crowd behind them on horses.

“Make way!” One of them called ahead.

Selghast at once recognized the voice.

“Llud! It’s you.”

The elf who had yelled trotted to a stop before the group and removed his bucket-like helm a bit too large for his head. He was severe looking, with a graying auburn mustache and a shaved head that accentuated just how round he was for an elf.

“Sel! I was worried about you. I’ve seen Uswydd kill slaves for less than insurrection.” He said with no humor.

“As have I. So I was very cautious when I gutted him.” Selghast deadpanned.

That drew a wry chuckle. “So, who’s your friend?”

“This is Arbus, the Antels’ baker. Arbus, this is Llud, one of my co-conspirators I suppose you could say.”

“You any good with a sword, Arbus?” Llud asked.

“No, but I can swing a maul built for a giant.”

“Good enough. You two should ride with us. We’re going to the gates.”

The giantish draft horses didn’t so much as whinny as Selghast pulled himself up to sit side-saddle behind Llud, and Arbus scrambled into a similar position behind the second horseman. The crowd didn’t part quickly, but it parted fast enough that the horses could canter through the lines of standing men in single file.

Sel was struck by how thin some of the elves around him were. Some fared better, looking washed and well enough fed. But most were like incumbent ghosts, with visible lash-scars under their tattered clothing. Every ounce of whatever energy was left in them was tied up in a fervent anger. Sel felt their rage bubbling in his stomach. It was his as well.

“Sire? I’ve received reports from the guard that the fires haven’t abated. Also, I called for your council to assemble. But only three of them have arrived so far.”

King Voulmar couldn’t look at his steward. He stood by the fire in what he hoped was a relaxed and confident pose. If he turned to meet the steward’s eyes, his own would betray him. Fear, unsurety, panic. The giant King’s heart beat like a racehorse. His mind struggled through seven thoughts at once.

“How many men could I field in a day? What levies in a week?” The King asked, vainly grasping the marble mantle above the fire.

“There are four hundred men in the castle, but the rest won’t be back from the capitol for at least another week and a half.”


“Just that many, Sire. The castle guard is the only force left to the kingdom.”

“Then hire mercenaries, private armies, place a levy on house guards!”

“Sire, I can’t just…”

“I want a thousand men marching here to raise this insurrection within the week! And I don’t care how much it costs, bankrupt the kingdom and sell my crown, but by the gods, bring me something!”

Silence hung over the gilded drawing room. The only light in the room was the fire burning low and dark, and half concealed behind the King’s looming shadow. The golden trim and plate glittered under the light of the guttering fire, and in the gloom the vague shapes of golden lounge chairs looked like the piles of a dragon’s hoard.

Voulmar had drawn the heavy velvet curtains the night before. He had seen red lights on midnight clouds of smoke rising from fires in the city. His city. Burning like a Qardagh grove. Bottles lay strewn about the woven rugs that covered the floor, evidence of the King’s evening engagements. His head was pounding, but the buzz had faded. And, now he needed to think.

“And, bring me water.”

“Yes, m’lord.”

“It’s ‘sire’ now.” The King repeated emptily.

“…Yes, sire.” He heard the elf leave the room.

Voulmar collapsed heavily into the nearest chair. It was twice the size of any other chair in the room, but it still groaned as the wood twisted under the King’s weight. Two elf-sized couches served as rests for his tired feet.

When Voulmar had joined the Fannur Kings in rebellion against the Empire he had thought he was being handed a great opportunity. Independence was the dream of every little Prince, wasn’t it? To make the laws to fit one’s own people, unbeholden to a distant tyrant. So he had bought in, risked everything for the chance to make Oltuyr free. And it had paid off. Plefed lay in ruin, the ancient walls sundered and breached. The throne was crushed, and the Empire as it had been could never be reassembled now.

Now, now that he would pay anything to see those Llergeidan banners on the horizon, coming to keep their peace. But it was all well out of his hands.

“A week and a half…” He repeated to the golden room around him. The castle keep would hold, at least that long. Four hundred men could hold the walls as long as the food held out. There was nothing to worry about. But still the hairs on his neck prickled nervously.

There were voices outside the door. A moment later the elf steward and the captain of the guard filed in.

“…I saw spears and knives in the crowd.” The steward finished.

“Sire,” The captain reported. “There’s an armed mob at the gates.”

Voulmar felt a tide rise in his gut. He sat up.

“How many?”

“Most of the city, from the looks of it.”

“Rouse the guard and fetch my armor. I’ll go meet them.”

Voulmar let the tide of his restlessness bear him along. He went to the mantle first, and fetched down his sword from where it was displayed above. It had a bronze core with a blade of amber that scintillated in the dim firelight and was as long as a man is tall. As his servants departed to do his bidding, he fastened his sword belt and strode out the door in a trance. He felt confident, or felt like he needed to be confident. So he marched down the stone halls of the keep with purpose and tried to keep his head up for anyone who was watching. But if he held out a hand, he was sure it would tremble, so he held the hilt of his sword in a death grip instead.

The stone halls were dark and cold. Whoever had been supposed to light the torches must have fled. Like the cook staff the night before, or the maids the night they had received news of the Imperial fall. It seems the elves had known this would happen. If by some shared link or by secret meetings in the dingy taverns of the city, the elves had spread the word everywhere before his victory had even come. The night that the Empire fell, this mob had been set loose, even if they only now found their way to his door. If he had known months ago it might not have made a difference. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the little moments and failures. If he had been wiser or kinder, or more like his father, would things be different?

Voulmar stood suddenly at the bottom of a spiraling staircase that led up to the forecastle. He wiped his face of cold beading sweat and took a breath, then mounted the stairs. He emerged into a day of smoke-choked skies. The sun wasn’t even vaguely visible, instead a red hue of diffused fire-light gripped the world. It was dim as twilight, but it wasn’t even noon. And the wind that swept up the cliffside from the city smelled like ash and death. Voulmar suppressed a shudder.

Men and elves lined his walls in rows, bows down, but ready to defend him at a moment’s notice. The show of force made him feel a little better. Then he stepped to the edge of the wall and looked out over the mob, and his breath caught in his throat. The sound of them hit him all at once. How many times had he stood here addressing the same crowd? Then, they had sat in respectful silence. But every voice and hand was raised now, bearing their hatred for him in blades and venomed words. When they saw him they did not quiet. They suddenly surged, like a wasp nest struck.

Voulmar stood dumbfounded. He didn’t signal for them to calm so he could speak. What man could believe he had the power to quiet them? It was like the fury of the sea itself had come to dethrone him and now raged at the castle doors. Voulmar stood. And, he waited.

Eventually from among the turbid crowd a single voice rose, and he called for quiet. He sat on a horse, behind another man who had the reins. A young elf with uncouth braids, a long face and piercing silver eyes. His gaze caught Voulmar’s, and without a doubt Voulmar knew he saw the truth. Voulmar could not hide his fear from this man.

“Voulmar!” The silver-eyed elf cried so he could be heard. “Come down and leave the castle. If you surrender now, we’ll let you leave with whatever you can carry. You can go back to the Empire and leave us here to ourselves.” There were murmurs among the crowd. Voulmar doubted they would let him go now, no matter what this one offered.

“Who are you?” Voulmar asked, fear mingling with rage. “I am King here! My family has ruled this land for three hundred years. I fought for this land! I would die for it.”

“I am Selghast. My master was Uswydd Antel, who is now dead by my hand. Now, I’m free from him and I’m here to claim freedom for all of my brothers and sisters.” There was a cheer amongst the crowd that silenced all thought for a moment with its sound.

Well, at least Voulmar knew why Uswydd hadn’t come when he summoned the council. It would have crushed him if the Antels had defected to save themselves. Though, perhaps they should have if this was the result of their loyalty.

“Uswydd was a friend.” Voulmar said, trying not to let the grief or the other swath of emotions flooding him come pouring. “My father…”

“Uswydd was a slaver and a monster.” Selghast cut back. “And your father was no different. There are people here who remember how your father put down the slave revolts. We won’t weep for a murderer.” The crowd cheered again.

Voulmar gripped the parapet and leaned out over the crowd. “Enough! You’ll gain nothing here! Go back to your homes and forget this folly. I am the King now and you cannot take this from me!”

At that, the crowd flew into a rage and began to beat at the doors so furiously that the whole wall shuddered. Stones and sticks came hurtling up and over the embrasures along with bottles and rotten fruit that shattered and squashed in the courtyard beyond. Voulmar chanced to catch the eyes of Selghast again, and once again found himself transfixed by his steely gaze.

Voulmar stepped back from the edge until all vision of the crowd receded and sat down hard against the wall behind him. He sat there reeling as his guard went to work around him, fortifying the castle for a siege. At some point Voulmar realized that his captain of the guard had arrived with a servant bearing his armor.

“Sire, your armor is ready. But, we have this under control, you needn’t trouble yourself with this mob. The guard will keep them at bay.” As he said so a salvo of bottles sailed over the wall and crashed into the courtyard.

“I didn’t ask for your opinion, Captain. The night is young. I’ll don my armor and wait out the evening in the drawing room.”

The Captain gave him a quizzical look but said nothing other than, “Yes, sire.”

Evening once again saw King Voulmar in the drawing room, drunk. But this time the giant was armored, and stood at the windows, curtains flung wide, with a wild look in his eyes as he watched the city burn. From his doorstep to the horizon, fires. Burning everything he had ever known. Burning in defiance of his will.

As he stood there, he could hear distantly the crowd at the castle gates calling for his death. Wherever he went in the castle he could hear it, even if only in a whisper so soft it could be his imagination. He could hear it now, the cry of ants barely louder than the thumping of his heart. But even without hearing the words, he knew what it meant. Voulmar took a drink.

He stood at the window drinking and watching the smoke until the moon rose and was well on its way back down.

Near dawn, there was a noise at the door, and Voulmar didn’t turn.

“Sire, the crowd has left for the night. There are a few guards, but if you were waiting for the right moment…”

“The right moment to what?” Voulmar spat. “To flee like a cowering mutt? To hand my birthright over to them without a fight? No, if they’ve left then I’ve won the night.”

Voulmar could still hear the whispers of their cries for blood. Were they really gone? Or did his steward mean to lead him out into the throng? Voulmar shot the elf a suspicious look. He was pale as a ghost, and he looked pointedly at the floor. Guilty, Voulmar decided.

“Is the old witch still in the castle?” Voulmar asked.

“Miss Frei? I’m not sure. But I will go check her quarters.”

“Hmm. And, don’t come back without her.”

The elf backed out of the room, bowing deeply with his eyes on the floor.

“And, before you go,” Voulmar stopped the man. “Look at me.”

The steward raised his eyes incrementally so his gaze fell on Voulmar’s shoes.

“Look me in the eyes.” Voulmar took a step away from the window and saw the room grow dark under his looming shadow.

The elf looked up and just askance of Voulmar’s face. Voulmar waited. Finally, the elf’s fervent eyes glanced at Voulmar and were caught.

The steward saw madness in his King’s eyes. And Voulmar saw the deep and uneclipsable fear that he desired.

“Never speak to me again about surrender or retreat.” Voulmar said, voice dripping with venom.

“Y…yes, sire. Of course. M…my apologies.”


The elf practically vanished from the room.

Voulmar turned back to the window. The fires were dying now. Before morning they would stop. That would be the first step toward returning things to normal. After that, he would set about crushing this rebellion and retaking his right.

Starting with the upstart Selghast.

Voulmar gazed out the window a moment more and then threw shut the curtain in disgust. The King waited in the darkness, slouched in his enormous chair for the witch to come. Propped up in his drunken stupor by armor he had never worn before.

She came in silently. The door opened and shut in the darkness and the old woman’s doddering shape came into view.

“Sire. What is your wish?” She crackled.

“Give me the power to crush this rebellion.”

“Does my King not already have the power to do so?”

“Tomorrow. I will end it tomorrow.”

“If you simply wait, your armies will return from the capitol and they will quell this rebellion without the need of magic.”

“I have been questioning loyalties as of late.” The King let the barb hang in the air.

The silhouette of the woman gave no indication.

“The armies will not remain loyal if they return to find things like this. I see now that they will join that mob and beat down my gates. When they return, I plan to show them the aftermath of a short-lived and bloody rebellion. That will keep these ingrates in line.”

“So what would you have me do?”

“Give me the power to defend my throne.”

The witch seemed to ponder for a moment. “It will be painful.” She said, making toward the dying embers of the hearth and stirring them. She added logs as she spoke. “I will need materials. Fine ones fit for remaking his highness’ body anew.” As the fire re-took, it cast a glow over the room, which glittered in the gold and amber fixtures. The King himself shone in mirrored bronze armor from neck to toe. The elven witch revealed by fire-light looked more sunken and ancient even than she was. Her expression was sad. Or, maybe she was frightened too.

“What cost is too great for a King?” Voulmar answered.

In a dingy bar below the castle, the co-conspirators drank and caroused. The fire, confined properly to the fireplace, was cheery. A few casks of booze that had survived the riots had been rolled in and flowed freely into the raised cups of the comrades.

Everywhere, elves danced and sang. Heady marches and rebel songs, too bold to be whispered even a week before now roared out. They all knew them, though they’d never heard them full voiced, assembled, as they were meant to be. Men were drunk not just on the beer, but on victory, freedom and a new life.

Selghast wished his heart was with them.

Arbus, Llud and Sel sat together at a rough table pocked with knife-holes set away from the fire and the general cheer. They drank, but only lightly, and kept their wits about them.

Sel drank to ease the urge that demanded he climb the path to the castle and dispose Voulmar at once.

He felt sharply that it wasn’t over yet. As long as the keep stood, their efforts were nothing more than a rebellion. Until the King was dead, there could be no liberation.

“Relax you two, it’s a party.” Arbus said. “What’s the point in planning all this if you can’t even enjoy it?”

Llud and Sel shared a look.

“I can’t believe they can sing like that.” Llud replied. “My stomach hasn’t stopped doing flips since we rode back down here. It’s all I can do to keep down a few sips. I feel sick.”

“What about you, Sel? You looked sour on the ride back too. The nerves got you?”

Sel shook his head. “No, it’s more like, I get the sense that the worst is yet to come.”

At that moment, the door of the bar swung open, and an unseasonal chill swept in along with a man in a heavy black cloak pulled tight around him. The lights in the bar dimmed as the flames shuddered in the breeze. A lull fell over the roar of the party, suddenly muted.

Then the stranger closed the door, and the cold fled. The fires bounced back to life and the chatter returned to a clamor.

The black cloaked man stopped only a moment to scan the room, and then walked straight to the back corner where the three friends sat. He sat down at their table unbidden, leaving his cloak and hood on. Though they peered into the pit of his face, all they could see with his back to the glowing room was the suggestion of an elvish chin with a wispy beard jutting from the dark.

“Selghast?” The man asked.

“Yes, I am Selghast. And who are you?”

The man cocked his head at the other two sitting at the table.

“They’re good friends.” Sel replied. “As trustworthy as I am, and far more so than a stranger.”

The man considered for a moment, then leaned in as far as he could and spoke in a whisper that died almost on his lips in the bustle of the tavern. “My name is Telian, the Captain of the Castle Guard.”

The man sat back, and the three stared at him, unsure of what to say.

Now more assured, the man spoke less quietly. “He,” And he made a motion to the cliffside above where the castle, and it’s King lay. “Is going mad with fear. He’s confined himself to the castle’s drawing room and stares at the fires daily. He paces like a beast in the darkness and has taken to ruling those who remain with threats. His time has come to an end, so I’ve come to help end it. There is a hidden cleft in the rock above the path to the castle. It leads to a cave that connects to the inner courtyard by a false wall. I will show you where it is, so that the head can be cut off this beast once and for all.”

There was an uneasy silence at the table once he had finished.

Finally, Llud spoke. “It sounds like a trap.”

“I know, I know. You have very little reason to trust me, but I’ve come because I’m the same as you. I’m no giant or noble. I was a lucky slave with a strong arm that… that he picked to bear the weight of his duties. Your freedom is mine too.”

The whole time the man spoke, Selghast’s heart had been picking up speed. This was the chance that his soul demanded. With no more great bloodshed, or a protracted siege, a prospective battle with the returning armies, a chance to end this. In his heart of hearts, he needed this to be real.

“Show me your face.” Selghast said.

The man hesitated, but then, carefully pulled back his hood just enough to reveal his face to the table and no others.

It was indeed the Captain of the Guard, Selghast recognized him from the wall of the keep. More than that, he recognized the man. His eyes were sunken-gray with lack of sleep and mingled fear with a supplicant gaze. Selghast locked eyes with the man, and though he squirmed he didn’t look away.

“Can you swear to me you’ve come to us in good faith? Can you meet my eyes and swear that to me?”

The Captain looked deep into Selghast’s eyes, and Selghast looked deeply back.

“I swear to you, I’ve come to end the monster called Voulmar.”

Beneath the weariness, the panic, the pitable begging gleam, Selghast saw within the Captain a resolve. A resolve that Selghast felt was in harmony with his own.

“I believe you.”

Selghast drained his cup and stood from the table.

“Go to sleep my friends. I’ll need you well rested and sober in the morning. I plan to make it the last dawn Voulmar ever sees.”

By guttering torchlight, Selghast, Arbus, Llud and Telian stood before a wall that choked the mouth of a stony cave. Behind them, a small band of co-conspirators stood huddled in silence.

They had emptied the armories of the city’s old elite, and stood all fully armored, gripping gleaming spears of amber. Telian wore his captain’s armor, less the helmet and cape.

The old captain reached forward and pressed against the stone wall. With some effort, it ground outward, and opened into the dawning courtyard of the inner keep. They were blinded for a moment by the eastern light, but when their vision resolved not a man of them said a word.

Within the courtyard, dead as if from a great battle, lay the castle guard. Perhaps a hundred corpses were strewn about the courtyard. Some had their armor wrenched back and heavy ragged gashes beneath, like they had been caught in a sawmill. Others were crushed like grapes within their armor and more had simply burned away to ash and bronze slag. The stones of the courtyard had been pulled up and thrown through windows and facades, and some men lay broken on the eves as if dropped there from great heights. But there were no sounds. There was no wailing of the dying, or the life of embers among the ashes. It was not the chaos of the city below, no battle had been staged, It was as if death itself had visited this place.

“What happened here?” Telian spoke in a whisper.

He stepped alone into the courtyard and gazed around in horror. Reeling, he fell against the wall, a look of uncomprehending sorrow on his face.

The others stepped out to join him, but none moved to comfort him.

“Sel, this place has been cursed.” Arbus whispered. “We should leave, and go back down to the city.”

Selghast shook his head. “He’s still inside.”

“Sel, I don’t think anyone is still alive in there.”

Selghast looked to Arbus; he saw his own fears reflected on his friend’s face. So he steeled himself before speaking to keep his words from betraying him. “Do this with me.”

Arbus looked pained, but he nodded after a time.

The doors of the entrance hall had been flung wide, and a hot wind rose from inside. Selghast was the first to mount the staircase that led into the maw, and it seemed to steel the men, because a clatter of armored footsteps followed up behind him. Their footsteps urged him onward, so even as his fear begged him to leave the cursed place, he mounted the steps, and stood before the darkened door.

Beyond the door was a wide corridor lined with columns. A fountain had once stood in the center of the room, but now was reduced to rubble. Dribbling water seeped up through the fine woolen rug and pooled around the shattered basin. Enormous bloody footprints marked the path of something which seemed to have entered the dining hall at the end of the corridor. The doors there were shut, but a red light danced through the gap beneath. It was stifling here, like a sauna with no steam.

As the elves marched down the open corridor, they stood ready, on edge. Their eyes darted to shadows on the wall, and the curtains flapping in the breeze.

When they reached the dining hall door, Selghast felt as if he stood before one of Arbus’ ovens. His heart pounded with fear, but lacked no resolve.

The wooden door was warm under his hand as he pushed it inward.

The braziers were burning wildly all along the far wall. Two long stone tables took up the space between. A marble throne sat among the fires, and all around it was curled a steaming mass of molten gold and heaps of blackened stone. The air rippled around the pile like a rock in the summer sun.

Then the pile shifted as if to collapse, but by some magic instead it rose up. It uncoiled its long body from around the throne, and spread wide two wings of melting amber. It raised its head and leveled its hateful, glowing eyes at them.

“Selghast.” It rumbled.


“Kneel to me before I kill you, and I will spare your families my wrath.”

Nothing moved, save the sway of the molten dragon’s tail.

Voulmar screamed as he lunged at them. The elves all scattered seeking cover among the tables.

Selghast ducked forward, avoiding the snatch of Voulmar’s blazing talons. He landed behind and scrambled back to his feet. Voulmar turned around and reared back, wings raking the vaulted ceiling. He came down with the full force of his body behind a claw. Selghast jumped clear, but a spray of hot rubble scorched his skin and sent him skating along the floor. He crashed into one of the tables, insensate.

There was a yell from one of the men, and then the dragon. The floor shifted and rumbled.

When Selghast shook himself free from the haze and the tangle of broken chairs, he saw the dragon lift and throw one of the stone tables away so he could get the man beneath. The dragon breathed, and the man was washed in a flameless heat that choked him before he could scream. He ignited like a struck match, then fell over dead.

Selghast drew his sword, his spear already lost in the chaos. He ran at the dragon from behind as Llud and Telian stepped up to draw its ire.

“Captain Telian, you dare? Traitor! Regicide! Mutiny!”

Voulmar raged at Telian, but the man was light in his armor. He sprung back a step, and the cobblestones beneath his previous spot exploded in a shower of molten debris. He struck out with his spear, and Voulmar snapped it in his iron teeth. Telian jumped back, and a wave of heat that shook the air followed after him. He ducked and dodged his old liege for three, tense, eternal seconds.

In the blink of an eye, Voulmar shredded Telian with his molten claws.

Selghast responded by planting his sword firmly in the dragon’s gut from the side.

Voulmar wailed in agony. He seized the other elf, Llud, around the chest and lifted him in the air. Still grasping Llud he whipped around and pinned Selghast by an arm and leg with the other talon. Where they were touched, they burned and the claws cut deep. Both elves screamed.

“Selghast!” It bellowed with the rage of a mountain. “I have crushed your pitiful rebellion, just like I crushed the Empire! And next I will crush you, and everyone you’ve ever loved until the mere whisper of your name strikes fear into the hearts of…”

Arbus struck out at Voulmar with his spear and caught him below the jaw. The dragon lashed out with it’s tail and threw him against the wall.

Still wailing, Voulmar half-collapsed in agony over Selghast, crushing the wind from his lungs, and searing deeply the flesh of his chest.

Under the dragon’s weight it was too hot to breathe, but seeing no other chance, Selghast lifted his sword in his one free hand and sliced the dragon’s neck from chin to nape.

The dragon rolled over and over as it and gurgled with agony, crushing the other table and coming to writhe against the far wall.

Selghast’s arm and leg were ruined, so he dragged himself over to the dragon. When he came to its side its eyes were open, and it breathed shallowly. Without wasting another thought, he fell upon it and cut its head from its body. He threw away his smoking blackened sword and fell upon the ground beside the head. The breathing of the beast went silent, but its eyes still watched him.

There was no sound in the great hall, save the gentle crackling of Voulmar’s cooling body.

“Sel…ghast.” A voice whispered.

His head whipped up, expecting a friend who had survived the carnage.

Instead he found Voulmar’s draconic head still glaring at him from the floor.

“Selghast,” It spoke again. “How cruel to see your victory turned to naught. Curses, curses.” It’s mouth worked as if to bellow but all it could do was choke. “All for naught. All the gold and amber in the world will not buy lifeblood. I take solace only in your agony.”

“Then you are a monster, Voulmar and your new form and condition suit you. There is no agony in my soul.”

“Your name will be forgotten elf. I will forever be the Last King of Oltuyr.”

“But, my work here will remain. The time of the giants is over.”

For the last time Selghast looked deeply into Voulmar’s cooling metal eyes, and there he saw no humanity. There was rage aplenty, and animal panic, instinct and fight. But within Voulmar’s eyes, Selghast saw nothing of himself or of his comrades at all. And that thought alone was enough to give him peace.

The dragon lay there gnashing its teeth and cursing in wrath; until, with a resounding crack, the cooling metal of Voulmar’s head split in half.

Then he was still.

Selghast lay back his head on the crushed stone floor, and allowed the light to bear him away into sleep.

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.

Pre-History and Subsistence Strategies

An Introduction to Eis

As a companion to my On Worldbuilding series, I will also be working through my process step by step and building a world. I want to do this to help illustrate how the topics I’m writing about can be applied to actual worldbuilding. Once in a while I’ll also be throwing in some short fiction set in this world to show you how I take what I’ve developed and apply it to a final product.

 I have three goals for this world I’m going to be building. First I want to be able to include just about anything I need to help tie into the On Worldbuilding articles. Secondly, I want to be able to write these short companion stories. My tertiary goal will be to develop this into a setting for a Pathfinder campaign for me and my friends. I feel like between catering to writers and DMs, I will be covering the use-cases of most worldbuilders. Having goals is an important part of the process, because building your world to fit your final product is much easier than building a world and then trying to make it work in a specific medium. This isn’t to say you can’t create trans-media settings, adapt between mediums, or just build a world for yourself to enjoy; but, if you do have to make adaptations you may find that your vision for the final product and your vision for the world are at odds with each other. Think about how few successful video game adaptations there are, or how many book-to-movie adaptations fail to even tell the same story. This is because some worlds just work better in certain mediums. So make goals for your setting and keep them in mind as you develop your worlds.

To fulfill all of my goals for the setting I’ll be building, I will be making a high magic world with inspirations from fairytales and myths. I will maintain a mostly Euro-centric design, at least for my initial planning stages, to give everything a cohesive aesthetic and familiar vibe. However, I think the principles I will discuss can still be applicable to other settings, even if you plan to aim for something more constrained or more outlandish. I’ve also chosen to start with my scope constrained to a single continent. We can give some thought to the wider world, like other continents and alternate realms, but we’ll do so at a later date when the core of the setting is more firmly established.

In order to give my project a name, I’ve decided to call the world Eis. Your world doesn’t have to have a name from the beginning, but I like to have one even if I might change it later. As I will discuss later in the series, naming things is highly arbitrary and subject to preference for how you want your world to be perceived. Eis is short, which I find subjectively very fitting for world names; and it’s suitably “neutral” in the sense that I can imagine this word being from all sorts of different cultures.

Before I begin I’d like to say that this is my second crack at this. After figuring out a few thousand words of this article and all of my cultures, I decided that I’d deviated too far from my original plan and had to scrap most of what I’d done to that point. This is an ordinary part of worldbuilding. Some days you’ll be tired or hungry or just drained and wont bring 100% of your creative energies. Don’t be afraid to set things aside when you feel frustrated or unhappy with what you’ve made. You can always keep your notes and reintroduce parts of those scrapped ideas later. That’s exactly what I plan to do with my first attempt at my cultures, I’ve got them all saved in a document where I can go look at them again later if I’m lacking inspiration.

Developing My First Cultures

I would like to have at least one culture practicing each of the subsistence strategies I covered in Part 1: Subsistence. In a full sized continent like mine it makes sense that you would have each of these strategies present in some form, assuming the technologies have actually developed in that world, and that agriculture hasn’t asserted dominance everywhere yet. Keeping this in mind I’m going to invent six proto-cultures that I will then develop into my “present day” Eisian cultures. I’m going to start with two Hunter-Gatherer cultures, two Pastoralist nomad cultures, one proto-culture dedicated to Horticulture, and one civilization that has recently developed Agriculture. Much later on, in a future part of the series I’ll add one culture on the verge of Industrialism to round out the list.

Because I want the tone of this setting to be very familiar to those used to fantasy, I’m going to stick to fairly conventional choices for what fantasy races to include in my “core” set of common species. I’m also going to keep the cultural inspirations for these proto-cultures very straightforward. No mixing and matching of real world cultures just yet.

To give a rough idea of how these cultures will be arranged on my continent, I can just look at the requirements their subsistence strategies impose on them. The hunter-gatherer communities will be most widespread in the temperate regions of the world, occupying small villages of between 70-150 people. The shepherds will live in places like mountains, steppes and tundras where no one else can sustain themselves, but where herd animals can graze all or part of the year. The horticulturalists will live in a fertile, isolated place like a jungle where they can maintain their practices without harsh competition over land-rights. And the agricultural society will (at first) be restricted to highly fertile river valleys and floodplains.

Temperate Hunter-Gatherers

First, I want a group of human hunter-gatherers. As discussed before, humans are an important part of building a sense of familiarity with a setting. In my setting I want humans to be widespread so that anywhere I take my stories humans can be present if I, or my eventual players want them to be. This group of humans will be based on the continental Celtic peoples, like the Gauls, the Galatians and the Belgae. These people, related to the Irish and Scottish Gaels, had a beautiful style of complex metal and stonework involving spirals and organic shapes. Unfortunately, their languages died out in Europe following the numerous Roman conquests of their people. Using these people as the basis for this proto-culture will give it an antiquated but distinctly European feel. Because these are hunter-gatherers, they likely aren’t doing much metal work and they aren’t building monoliths yet, but we can still represent their style in other ways.

These people live in small semi-permanent communities of thatched mud huts, or in gatherings of tents pitched in favorable areas. They gather what they can from the surrounding forest and move when things become too scarce. In established villages there will be numerous wood carvings and smaller stone steles commemorating good events, lost loved ones, acts of worship and so on. Perhaps some of these tribes practice ritual tattooing in the same organic style; a practice based on the woad face-painting of the Celts. Copper and silver jewelry are marks of high status, as none but the best warriors, hunters or chieftains can afford them. Life is fairly simple for these people, and they are mostly peaceful. But bad years can easily push tribes into conflict over small stretches of fertile land. Over time, their tribal bonds will completely eclipse the wider shared culture and these people will begin to fracture into many smaller sub-cultures.

An example of Continental Celtic decorative metalwork.
BastienM, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This particular group comes from an area of mostly flat, vast woodlands, broken by river valleys of even denser forests that come down from the mountains. In the lowlands, as it gets hotter, the woodlands give way to open meadows and smaller forests that follow the winding of the rivers. Living in an environment like this, they will be familiar with all kinds of common animals like wolves, hawks, deer, rabbits, etc. But, they likely aren’t so familiar with aquatic creatures other than whatever lives in the rivers, or any of the colder weather beasts like moose or grizzly bears. All sorts of fruits and berries will likely grow around the rivers and in the woods, and the meadows will likely be home to all sorts of herbs and edible flowers and grasses. These may seem like incidental details, but these will all be important factors later when we are making choices about the language, religion, culture and food of these people’s descendants.

These people will be characterized by lightly tanned skin, thick and coarse brown to straw-blonde hair, and darkly colored eyes. I will call them the Nyktii. This is a compound of the Greek word nyx and the Latin genitive plural ending with double “i”s; as in filii “of the sons”. Most of our knowledge of the Celts comes to us from Latin and Greek sources, so most of the names we have for them come to us through these lenses. Nyx means night, but I’ve chosen it here entirely for the purpose of aesthetics. The word is immediately non-English without being overly difficult to pronounce, and it will stick out in blocks of text. As we further develop the world, the Nyktii will be replaced by numerous daughter cultures. But all of them will have a foundation that starts here.

Sub-Arctic Hunter-Gatherers

My second proto-culture of hunter-gatherers will be made up of elves. Elves are, for lack of a better term, a very generic option. Which is good for my purposes as it establishes expectations for the rest of the world very well. But we can still do some work to make them a little more interesting while also fulfilling the goals of my world. I’m going to borrow these elves’ cultural cues from Scandinavian and Old Norse sources. This will hearken back to their mythological roots, and is well within the wheelhouse of expected elven cultures. However, I’m also going to bring in elements traditional of the English faerie-lore much like Tolkien did for his elves, but to different effect. Elves of this culture almost always live with a powerful local forest spirit who watches over them in exchange for offerings. These spirits make the land more bountiful, allowing these elven communities to be much larger than human communities in similar climates. Depending on the spirit the elves have made their King or Queen, their diet may vary, as will what resources are available to them. But the basics of the culture will remain roughly the same, for now.

Thanks to their divine benefactors these elves can inhabit less temperate environments that are not favorable to human habitation. The result is that they have a wider range, but are generally less mobile, and tend to inhabit a single spot without moving for centuries at a time. Elves therefore do build permanent dwellings, often of wood, but just as often out of stone, or dug into the earth. These elves may have elaborate paintings and carvings decorating their homes that depict scenes of nature and animals, or venerations to their Lord. However, the specifics of their living situation will depend on what types of magic their Lord has at their disposal.

These people will live in the colder parts of the continent, and in some places, share the same temperate zones as the humans. Sharing the same range may put them in direct conflict for resources if the humans have a rough season, and so there may be frequent conflicts where the two cultures overlap. The elves prefer to inhabit temperate and boreal forests, or seasonally frozen glacial rivers and lakes. These fresh-water lakes would be surrounded by heath which eventually gives way to open tundra. They will be more familiar with sub-arctic plants and animals like bears, elk, botcats, ermines and salmon, than their human counterparts, but may not have the same generalist knowledge of plants and animals, as their Lords discourage unfavorable growth in their lands.

Visually these elves are by the books; pale skinned with white, blonde or red hair, and tall with pointed ears. Their eyes will be blue, gray or violet. I’m going to call these people the Hulvre, which is a mash-up of the Scandinavian word huldra and the word elves. I love the -lvr- cluster there in the middle, it’s very fun to say. And, also importantly, it isn’t too similar to the other culture name I’ve already chosen. At each step where I add a new name, especially this early, I want to make them look distinct when read and when said aloud, because this will help people keep them separate in their heads as they learn about my setting later. I can already see that both of my cultures have six letter names, and I’ll make sure to switch it up to something longer or shorter next time to keep the profile of the words distinct enough as well.

Arid Pastoral Nomads

My first pastoral culture is going to be another set of humans. But, why add more humans when we already have a human proto-culture? It’s because I don’t want my races to be mono-cultures. I want them to be diverse to help sell the authenticity of my world. So I want to make sure that there are different proto-cultures to represent different human ancestries when I get to the point of developing my modern cultures.

As pastoralists these people will live a nomadic lifestyle in the arid parts of my world, herding their flock from place to place, settling only when the dry summer forces them to shelter at a water source like a large lake or a pre-dug well. Numerous real world peoples lived just like this for thousands of years prior to the spread of agriculture, but the majority of them that are well recorded lived in the dry parts of north Africa and east Asia. This proto-culture will be based on the Semitic peoples, a group that included speakers of Hebrew, Aramaic and pre-Islamic Arabic. Even though this doesn’t conform entirely to my stated goal of making a European inspired setting, Christianity’s roots in Judaism mean that Semitic cultures are still visually recognizable to most Westerners due to their familiarity with Biblical stories set in these communities.

I want these pastoralists to live in the hot and dry parts of my world: in savannas, low deserts, and rocky hills and mountain-sides around their homeland. Given these restrictions, I think these people will primarily herd goats, with oxen being kept as pack animals and as a secondary source of meat and milk. Every few weeks these people will load up their oxen and drive their flock of goats to a new pasture. Once a year, in the summer, they will hunker down in a settlement near a well or lake where some part of the tribe stays year round with the children and elderly. This cycle defines the life of these people, and everyone works toward the shared goal of maintaining the flock by doing their part.

Priit Kallas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Goats and oxen will be a core part of these people’s cultural practices and beliefs. If they have gods, it’s likely that some of them will be in-part or entirely animal-like. It’s also likely that they view these animals as different from others, as more intelligent or spiritually similar to humans. This is similar to how modern people place pet animals “above” the general animal kingdom when it comes to assigning empathy. Seasons and time will also be vitally important to these people, and they may develop some sort of calendar long before anyone else, simply to track the coming and going of the dry seasons. If their women remain at the homestead year round, and the men are always on the trail, then it is likely they will have a marriage or courtship season when dozens of weddings happen in the span of a few weeks leading up to the men’s departure. Some of these tribes will form matriarchal societies. In these situations the eldest woman from the family that “owns” the land will hold cultural authority over the whole settlement. These groups are usually small enough that “town halls” or similar gatherings of all the adults to talk through a difficult issue faced by the community are common, but the matriarch may still wield the right to overrule the community for their own benefit. Some of the descendant cultures will certainly have these features, but none of them will preserve all of these features exactly like this, since each tribe will have its own specific practices and policies.

Living in such a dry environment means that the biodiversity around these people is limited. They likely have very few large predators to contend with (perhaps one or two species), and very little in the way of wild fruits or vegetables. For this reason, animals like their own goats and oxen, but also lions, hawks, lizards, snakes, hawks and buzzards, are part of a very small group of animals these people would be familiar with. These types of dryland animals will crop up very frequently in their mythology because there just isn’t much else going on in the desert than the endless playing-out of this very small food-web.

These people will be identifiable by their dark brown to almost reddish-black skin, to help them stay unburnt while wandering around the desert all the time. Older people will have leathery, sun-cracked skin regardless of their melanin levels, just from spending so much time in the sun. They will have curly black or brown hair and dark eyes, similar to the other human group, the Nyktii, but their facial features will be wider and more pronounced, especially around the mouth, nose and jawline. Let’s call them the Orochites, or simply the Oroch. I’ve derived this term by corrupting the word auroch, the feral ancestor to the modern cow, and giving it the -ite ending that appears appended to the various biblical tribes, like the Semites, the Canaanites, the Israelites and the Hamites. The ch in Oroch should be pronounced like in Hebrew words like challah and chanukah, that is to say as the uvular fricative [χ], an h formed higher in the throat so that your uvula vibrates. This will help give the word the proper non-English feel.

Boreal Pastoral Nomads

My second pastoralist proto-culture will be my dwarves. Dwarves will round out my generic fantasy fare and firmly plant my setting in the conventional high-fantasy aesthetic. Just like with the elves, my choice to include dwarves in the setting gives my audience a clear sign of my intentions for the general and tone of my world. Like my other pastoral cultures, the dwarves will necessarily be nomads, bringing their flock here and there to keep them fed. To make them different, the dwarves will instead inhabit my sub-arctic and boreal climates, where resources are scarce due to the snow and the cold choking out most of the growth. Dwarves will be perennial nomads, constantly moving, and never settling for longer than a few days or weeks at most. My dwarven proto-culture will be based on the Cossacks, a group of independent and semi-democratic people who lived along the banks of the Ural and Don rivers in what is now Russia beginning sometime in the 1400’s. The Cossacks were known as fierce warriors who stood toe to toe with several Empires despite lacking the same resources and manpower. Even when finally brought under the control of the Russian empire, they led rebellions for independence and tried to abolish slavery. Cossacks traditionally had a highly identifiable manner of dress; a long sturdy wool coat that falls to the shins and a tall cylindrical sheepskin hat they call a papakha or papaha.

The tall black hat on the man to the left-of-center is a type of papakha.
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These dwarves will keep a special breed of giant wooly sheep that is uniquely adapted to their cold-weather climate. These sheep need a lot of nutrition to keep their enormous size, and so they can quickly strip the land to the roots if not grazed properly. The dwarves will maintain a meritocratic and semi-democratic society which values freedom and self-reliance. They will likely be resistant to ideas like conquest and expansionism, meaning that the dwarven clans are more likely to attempt diplomacy over warfare when solving conflicts. Of course armed disputes will still occur, but dwarves likely have the most developed systems for raising and resolving political disputes out of all of the proto-cultures. However, in keeping with the common fantasy trope, young dwarves within the group experience harsh treatment by elders and an incredible pressure to both conform and provide for the clan according to ancient and often inscrutable cultural laws.

Dwarves living in the boreal regions may frequently come into contact with the elves who live there as well. The Hulvre and these dwarves likely strive to keep their distance from one another, as the Hulvre’s Lords keep their lands very well protected, and don’t take kindly to the dwarves’ ravenous flocks destroying the carefully balanced ecosystem. When the dwarves are forced by bad weather or luck to delve into the Hulvre’s lands, this is likely cause for war. The resulting conflicts have embittered dwarves and elves to one another, especially in border communities where such interactions are more common.

My dwarves will have fair complexions, and brown, black or red hair. They will be short and stocky just as we expect, having more muscle mass than humans and a different bone structure as well. As for their beards, perhaps there is a pervasive cultural taboo against shaving, as there has been in many real world cultures. I will call these dwarves the Dverrack, a portmanteau of dvergr, one of the old Norse words for dwarf, and Cossack. This word has all of the “harshness” I want from a dwarven word, with few vowels and many clustered consonants. I especially like the dv from the Norse borrow-word, which is also sort of evocative of the word dwarf, as they ultimately share the same root.

Tropical Horticulturalists

For my sole proto-culture that practices slash-and-burn horticulture, I’ve chosen elves again. Elves’ natural affinity for nature makes them perfect for this style of subsistence which is so reliant on the rejuvenation of the land to provide for them. As a horticultural society, these elves will live in small static villages surrounded by a rotation of land plots in various degrees of growth and burn. Because I’ve already established that my other elves have a deep symbiotic relationship with a local spirit, I’d like to do the same here. But, instead of a land spirit, these elves organize themselves around a spirit of fire, who fulfills much the same role as the Lords of the Hulvre, but who does so by scouring the land with fire instead of magically nourishing it. The aesthetics of this culture will be inspired by Carthage and other Phoenician city-states like Tyre. This means they will wear light thin clothing and live in permanent stone and mud-brick dwellings along the shores of whatever sea or ocean they can find. Because they have such ready access to the sea, this race will do a lot of fishing to supplement their harvests. They will be the earliest ship-builders and sailors, and the first to begin to inhabit the distant islands of the world.

A proposed reconstruction of Punic Carthage.
damian entwistle, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Without a nurturing Lord spirit, these elves will be forced to live in naturally fertile environments; namely, jungles and tropical islands. In the real world the tropics lie between 23.4°S and 23.4°N of the equator, but slight differences in the orbit of your planet, or major differences in what even constitutes a “planet” in your setting could mean that this band is larger, smaller, or not a consideration at all. In this world I haven’t decided exactly what I want yet, but I know I probably don’t want a very earth-like cosmology, so I will assume that these people live in the hottest and most humid part of the world, whatever that looks like in the end.

Living in a jungle environment and near the water means that these people will be very familiar with both the aquatic life and jungle flora of the region. They may however be less familiar with the fauna, as their reliance on fishing will lessen their need to hunt. They will still be intimately familiar with the large predators of their environments; tigers, panthers, lions, snakes, and in the water sharks, and whatever other fantasy beasts we mix in with them will all be significant threats to these people in their day to day lives within the jungle. They may learn to fear these creatures, or they may learn to venerate them.

These elves will have brick-red to pink skin, a slightly different sort of pigment than human skin gives them a little fantasy twist that is also a nod to their fire-y survival strategy. They will keep the same hair and eye colors as the Hulvre; white, blonde or red hair, and blue, gray or violet eyes. This will help keep the two races cohesive while allowing them to be visually distinct. As for the name: the word Carthage comes to us through Latin Carthago, which was borrowed from Punic quart khadash, which simply meant “new town”. I can take these old roots and crunch them down into Qardagh. Q has a pedigree in English as a very “foreign” seeming letter, especially when it appears without u, which is obligate in English words that do use this letter. This name will give these elves an exotic feeling in this otherwise very familiar setting. So, these will be the Qardaghi.

Agricultural Empire

For my final proto-culture I’m reaching just outside of Tolkienian fantasy and into the nearby realm of European mythology. The culture that discovers agriculture first in this world will be a race of giants. In this case I don’t mean dumb hill-dwelling monsters, but something more akin to the giants of Welsh and Irish mythology. In these traditions, giants were often very wise and somewhat godlike creatures. They were often truly enormous, Bendigeidfran was a giant King of Britain in the Mabinogion who was mistaken for a walking mountain as he waded across the sea to Ireland. My giants won’t be that large, in fact they’ll be only a few feet taller than humans, and very human-like in appearance. But, giants will be a very contentious and imperialistic force that views the world as full of lesser creatures, fit only for eating, slaying or domestication. The giants’ will for domination will set the scene for the wars and conflict that carry my world’s cultures into their modern forms. To keep in line with these inspirations, I’m going to base giantish culture on their depictions as kings, knights and courtiers in Welsh and other British mythologies. This will paint them in the light of an Arthurian fantasy, which matches the regal air I want my giants to have on the surface.

King Arthur, Charles Ernest Butler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These giants will have to live in a fertile river valley at first, as all agricultural societies generally did at first on earth. They will likely be on the cusp of the tropical regions near an inland sea, where the weather and seasons are stabilized by the large body of water, and fertility is maintained by the yearly flooding of the riverbanks. When exactly they plant a crop will be determined by either the rainy season, or the flood season depending on whether they actually see a rainy season in their climate. I will say that the annual snowmelt of distant glaciers many thousands of miles away leads to spring-time flooding of the riverbanks. In early summer, when the floods are over, the planting season begins, and harvest then occurs sometime in autumn. There may be another attempt to replant and harvest before the floods come, but this will depend on how tightly they can fit the two growing seasons together. They may even have staggered summer and autumn fields, so that the winter harvest can be in the ground before the harvest of the summer crop.

These guys will be growing barley, wheat and oats at first in large mono-cultured fields. If they do manage to take in two crops in a year, the more nutritionally demanding wheat will probably be the first harvest, and the less demanding barley can be sown as an autumn crop if proper fertilizer is provided. The need for fertilizer may suggest that the giants have domesticated animals as well. I’ll say the giants have domesticated draft horses. Though they aren’t really rideable yet, especially for such large people, they will provide a source of much needed labor in the fields, dragging heavy plows to turn the earth. I will also say that giants are the first to domesticate cats, to keep their grainstores free of mice and rats.

The giants will be light gray skinned, like stone statues, or like the depictions of Norse giants with gray or ice-pale skin. Their hair will range from black to white, but won’t bear any coloring otherwise, and their eyes may be blue, black or gray. I will call these the Llergeidan, a mixture of the Welsh names Llyr and Bendigeidfran. The initial double ll isn’t common in most Latin script languages, so it stands out and gives a distinct appearance to the word without making it harder to pronounce.

In the next part, I will take these proto-cultures and turn them into the modern cultures of this continent. This will involve working out the major conflicts and technological developments that these people will be subject to for the next few millennia. But, we’ll do so by working out how we want our final races to look, and then cutting in our history to fit whatever narrative we need. Once I’ve finished that work, I’ll show you the first piece of fiction I’ve written for this world, and you’ll be able to see how I take these ideas established here and follow through to implement them in a narrative.

Next: The World of Eis: Modern Cultures

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.

Cultures Part 1: Subsistence Strategies

The art of designing fantasy cultures is incredibly complex. From art to language to technology, belief and magic, there are hundreds of factors that should probably be considered when trying to create a culture that feels self-complete. Most of us don’t have time to do all of this, so we take shortcuts, focus our attentions and keep our audience looking at the parts that are finished. Today, I want to talk about a single aspect of culture, but one which informs so much else about how a group of people live and think; Where do they get their food? This may seem like an easy question that could be a footnote in the tomes of ancient history and epic quests that you want to be working on. But, focusing on how your culture eats will tell you a lot about what their days look like, what their years look like, and what their outlook on life might be.

Anthropologists have identified five of what they call patterns of subsistence. These are; Hunting-and-Gathering, Pastoralism, Horticulturalism, Agriculturalism and Industrialism. Each of these strategies is indicative of significant social trends, like the development of class divisions, the distribution of labor and the overall health of the people. By using these patterns as guidelines we can make strong predictions about our people based solely on the methods they use to feed themselves. I can’t speak directly to the science of this; but even a simple understanding of these categories provides an excellent set of basic templates that can guide us toward making fictional cultures that feel grounded in our experiences with real world cultures.


Rawpixel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All of the very earliest human cultures were hunter-gatherers. Of all of the patterns of subsistence this one is the least like a technology and most like a “default” state for humans, though this pattern still relies heavily on inherited knowledge passed down through the generations. Hunter-gatherers are small tribal bands of 70-150 people who do not domesticate plants or animals for food. Some are nomadic, moving to follow the rains or the migrations of game animals. Others, especially those in abundant environments may live in a single village for generations. In these societies long term storage of food is difficult or impossible, and so they live mostly hand to mouth. Hunts might only take place once a week if large game like elk, moose or buffalo are available, or a few times a week if only smaller game is present. Large tribes can afford the high energy, high risk hunts for enormous game like the mammoths, elephants and rhinos which can feed the entire tribe for days. Gatherers, who often work alongside the family or tribe’s young children, can produce enough food from the local vegetation to feed their families in only a few hours a day. The result is that hunter-gatherers have the most free time of any of the subsistence types. While some of this free time will be spent mending things and improving the campsite, most of this time is spent socializing, resting for the next day of work, or creating art like textiles or songs. Doing extra work is inefficient, because it burns calories and can only provide a short-term benefit due to the lack of storage. In a fantasy world, things like frost magic for consistent food storage or plant growth magic may alleviate these limitations and allow uncharacteristic population booms among hunter-gatherer tribes.

In the real world, these groups almost always have extremely elaborate poetry, or textile work, or word games; things to pass the time while they rest. Stories, especially parable, myth and oral histories are also usually highly developed in the sense that they are usually remembered verbatim and sometimes involve elaborate performances like dancing, singing or audience participation. Some linguists even theorize that the emergence of “click” consonants in the Khoe languages of southern Africa may have come from a word game involving the replacement of certain sounds with clicks that eventually became the dominant way of speaking. Even if this theory doesn’t hold out in the end, the fact that it’s a consideration should illustrate just how important some of these practices can become to a culture.

Another interesting commonality of these societies is a tendency to be highly egalitarian. Even in groups with “chieftains” or similar figures, there is usually no one with absolute authority over the group as a whole. Discussion takes place for every major decision and generally nothing is done without a broad or unanimous agreement. Even medicine-men and similar medical-religious figures will generally live as normal members of the tribe, hunting and gathering with the rest, and only assuming their “higher” role when they are needed to help with a ritual or cure.

Hunter-gatherers are also deeply in tune with their environment. In fantasy, it’s easy to perceive this as a sort of magical attunement with the natural forces; but in the real world, it comes down to deep knowledge of the local flora and fauna. When tasked with naming local plants, children in hunter-gatherer communities can often name hundreds of different varieties, and can identify the edibility of most of these. By adulthood, they will likely know every single plant that grows in their range by name, and will know most of their properties and uses. Hunters can identify animals by tracks, smell and sound, and will be tuned to even slight changes in the area, like the stirrings of birds or unusual motions in the brush. These aren’t magical talents, these are simply people who have been practicing these things in a single environment all their lives and who have become experts at their craft.

The size of these communities is self regulating. The more people there are in a village the farther people must go on foot to meet everyone’s needs, and at a certain point they will burn more calories looking for food than they gain from eating. At this point there will either be a famine that drives down the population, or some or all of the tribe will be forced to move on to new lands. In the early days of your world, there will likely be plenty of places to move to. But, as the years march on and your map fills in your tribes will increasingly be driven to conflict over expansion and emigration to new lands. War for tribal communities is devastating, as their populations often cannot sustain the loss of so many people. The death of a single generation of men in a population of 100 could leave only a few young boys as the stock of the future tribe. A genetic bottleneck like this could easily lead to the death or assimilation of the whole tribe in just a few generations. The result is that many tribal communities will avoid war at all costs, even staging mock battles and intimidating performances to ward off their enemies instead of fighting them directly.

When designing hunter-gatherer societies for fantasy, you can tweak all of this to your liking. If a tribe lives in a magical garden-like land, then maybe food is never a struggle for them and they can support a vastly inflated population. If your people can teleport, this presents a new style of “nomad” that could jump around a few well established camps, or even teleport abroad to hunt and be back for dinner. The specific conditions of your world can provide endless variations on this lifestyle, just like the specific conditions of our world produced thousands of unique cultures that lived this way and continue to live this way.


Shepherds are a familiar sight in many places all over the world. In highly developed agricultural and even industrial societies pastoral communities exist on the periphery to provide important resources to the cities. But, for some people herding is the only way they have to provide for their families. Pastoralism is a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, wherein the family group travels with their flock to keep them in fertile grazing grounds year round. This lifestyle requires a vast amount of open, unoccupied land for the nomads to travel, but this land can be fairly non-arable as long as there are a few edible grasses around. Thus, this lifestyle is most common in extreme environments where the land doesn’t support agriculture or gathering. Or, it might be more accurate to say that pastoral communities are often pushed out of more favorable lands by agriculturalists, and forced to subsist on the lands that don’t support farming.

Pastoralists almost always have a home range, a territory that they mostly adhere to, which they are familiar with the seasonal shifts of, and which they can protect from outsiders who might try to move in. Defense of this territory, even in the off seasons, is very important. If another clan comes through and grazes your winter pasture in the summer, you may very well starve when you get there and find too little has grown back. To make this worse, the enormity of these territories make them difficult to defend especially with such a low population density. Thus disputes over land and water rights are common for pastoral cultures.

These people may either be entirely nomadic, or semi-nomadic. Nomadic tribes likely live in some kind of sturdy and easily movable tent, which they strike and rebuild as they move from pasture to pasture. Semi-nomadic people will have one or more static sites where they stop for some part of the year. Usually these static sites will have a small group that lives in the area year round, maintaining it for occupation when the herds return. These static sites might have some gardens with a few domesticated plants, but if they ever develop into full-scale fields, the community is set down the path of conversion to agriculturalism. A common pattern of semi-nomadic living involves a single wintering site which is occupied year round by the women, children and elderly of a clan, while the men drive the herds around their spring, summer and autumn pastures. These arrangements are usually highly weighted in the favor of the matron of the home. As the master of the house year round, the woman-in-charge is usually the defacto or even de jure matriarch of the whole clan. This arrangement is somewhat more common in cultures that ride animals, as life on the trail and constant riding can be harsh enough to lead to miscarriages or other natal problems which could easily become fatal in a pre-modern society. Of course, people find a way, and many cultures manage just fine dragging every member of the extended family along on their endless march from camp to camp.

Photo by Tomu00e1u0161 Malu00edk on

A fun factor of pastoralism as a worldbuilder is getting to decide which animals your culture keeps. Usually keeping flocks of wildly different animals is much more difficult than having a single staple animal and perhaps a few working animals like dogs and horses. In the real world there were pressures to domesticate certain species over others; mainly milk, wool, meat, leather and value as a draft or pack animal. But, it’s more or less arbitrary which specific animals were chosen when as a worldbuilder you have the option of hand-waving what wild stock was available to your original people. Some default options for herd animals include cows, goats, sheep, yaks, horses, llamas, elephants and camels. However, in a fantasy world you could choose giant pigs, deer, birds, bugs, or even some magical monstrosity. Real world pastoralists to my knowledge never domesticated predators as their stock animal, but who’s to say your people can’t have herds of bears or dragons that “graze” on the local wildlife of an area before moving on to let the prey replenish itself.

Pastoralists are frequently just as technologically advanced as their neighbors (unlike hunter-gatherers who often suffer from a disparity in technology). But, pastoralists often lack the population to effectively fight against larger groups. Pastoral lands have the lowest population density of any sustenance strategy. When other cultures come knocking, pastoralists are often left with no option but guerrilla warfare. Their land’s enormity suddenly becomes a way to obscure their position, and their advanced knowledge of the geography puts them in an excellent position to ambush attackers. Depending on the environment in question, pastoral communities may be able to simply slip away deeper into the mountains or canyons and be lost forever until they choose to be found.


Horticulture is usually a catch all term for labor intense small-scale cash and food cropping; namely, gardening. But when anthropologists use this term, they mean something a bit different and more specific. Horticulturalism as a survival strategy is the process of scouring and burning wild spaces to encourage the quick growth of certain favorable crops. Horticulture in this sense differs from agriculture because no planting is taking place. Instead areas are burned and left ashen to replenish on their own. This requires less labor than agriculture, but also requires more land, as most plots must be left empty for years before they are productive again and will have lower yields overall. However, slash-and-burn horticulture is also much less harsh on the soil than large scale repeated mono-cropping, thus more sustainable. Horticulture requires long growing seasons or perennial growth in order to have a high enough turn over to remain effective. For this reason it is most common in tropical or equatorial climates.

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When it comes time to harvest the land, the people go through and gather all the edible plants from the area in much the same way a hunter-gatherer would. They pay no mind however to the sustainability of their harvest, as they plan to burn it all soon anyway and start over. What they gather will depend entirely on their environment but will likely include fruits from trees and vines, edible tubers, berries and other plant matter. Burns are also an excellent opportunity to hunt, as all the activity leading up to the burn and then the fire itself will drive any creatures from their hiding places. Once a burn is complete, the soil might or might not be turned to help the ashes permeate the topsoil and to promote root-growth.

Horticulturalism is relatively rare in our world compared to other survival strategies. It was practiced by some Austronesian cultures, and brought to several of their island nations as they traveled across the Pacific. The indigenous people of Madagascar still practice these controlled burns in some communities. Some theories are that Horticulturalism is uncommon because of its inefficient land usage relative to agriculture, specific environmental requirements, or because horticulture has a tendency to quickly evolve into the domestication and planting of crops.

Like hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists are masters of their environments and are capable of identifying essentially every plant available to them. However, they are more likely to have gaps in their knowledge, as some of these plants may not be common in burned out land, or may not necessarily be useful. These gaps will be small, and they will be made up for in a deep knowledge of seasons and the passage of time. Keeping seasonal time helps them plan and time burns properly to coincide with peak periods like the driest and wettest parts of their year.

From a fantasy perspective, there are all sorts of ways to take such an evocative lifestyle. Perhaps this is the way your elves express their close bond with the land, by keeping it young, healthy and fruitful through rejuvenating fire. Maybe you have dragon-kin who ritually burn their forests for a yearly hunt. The exact realization of these burns and how the land recovers could be very interesting in a world with pyromancy or bio-magics to aid in the re-growth.


Fulcran Vigouroux, ed., Dictionnaire de la Bible, 5 vols. (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1912)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Agricultural societies have been the norm in the Western world for the better part of three millennia now. We are all familiar with agricultural societies and their quirks, but they’re still worth examining in detail. Agriculturalism is the practice of domesticating plants. Wild grasses become grain and hard crab-apples become delicious fruit through the process of selective breeding over generations. But, agriculture isn’t born fully grown. Simply domesticating plants is only the tip of the iceberg, and the real social changes arising from agriculture come from irrigation, plow technology and storage techniques. These things allow the production and storage of surplus goods, and thus of material wealth. Pastoralists have material wealth as well in the form of herd stock, but unlike a herd of cattle, grain and gold in a vault do not need to be fed. Almost as soon as the surplus arrives, feudal systems, fiefs and clans pop up to seize and centralize all the wealth. This centralization of wealth leads to the development of social classes, and also (if they haven’t already arrived) of cities.

People move to cities to find economic opportunities not available in the countryside. Skilled laborers like blacksmiths and potters can find enough clientele in cities to keep their business afloat, and their presence there in turn makes the city a destination for people from the country to come in for supplies. Markets form around the craftsmen and the center of wealth in order to capitalize on the business they drive into the area. People can only go so far to get to market before the added cost makes the journey unprofitable, and this effectively creates a gradient of value around the city, where nearby land is highly valued, and more distant land less so. Only relatively rich people can live in the city at all, and the richer one is, the more central they can afford to be. Meanwhile, people with poor-paying and menial jobs will be moved as far to the periphery as possible, creating a smooth grade we are still familiar with today; urban → suburban → farmland → pastureland.

Social classes develop from disparities in power between those who have wealth and those who don’t. And the economic factors that drive farmers out of the cities function to also segregate the population by wealth. The people with surplus grain can leverage their wealth into favorable deals and better equipment going forward. Continued investments of excess wealth compound and eventually elevate one or more families above the rest of society. With the subtle or overt threat of force of arms, and the direct power granted by control over the food supply, someone will eventually declare themselves “king” or whatever local title is roughly equivalent. At this point it’s down to personal preference and worldbuilding how exactly the culture develops. But, the class conflicts caused by agriculture must be dealt with because at least in our world they appear to be universal.

The types of crops employed by agricultural societies will heavily shape the appearance of their populated areas. Think of the ubiquity of Japanese rice-paddies or the sprawling corn fields of the American Midwest. Mono-cropping, the practice of maintaining large fields of a single plant, has a specific look to it for each crop and this will change the appearance of your countryside in a dramatic way. Additionally, specific crops require different processing techniques which will inform other visual aspects of your world. Traditional grain crops must be milled, meaning wind or water mills will be present in just about every settlement. Excess chaff from grain production will be going somewhere, either to be eaten by domestic animals or to be made into roofing material like thatch. Food must be stored, meaning silos, grain-houses or caves dotted here and there, and often manned by guards since in pre-modern times a grain silo may as well be a bank. Most obviously, staple crops become the foundation of the food culture in an area and will determine what and how your people cook and eat.

Fantasy worlds raise many possible options when it comes to agrarian societies. Magic can make anything viable as a staple crop if you want. Maybe you have bird people who primarily eat peppers because they can’t taste the capsaicin, or a group of halflings that only eat giant pumpkins because you find it goofy and fun. Lots of people get very up in arms about what crops are and aren’t available in certain periods, but unless you’re writing historical fiction, your people can farm ornamental flowers for nectar if you really want them to. The important takeaway is that whatever they choose to grow, it will be a monolithic presence in their culture, and will absolutely drive the shape and vibe of your settlements.

Sea Cultures

Okay, this one isn’t in any textbooks, but I would feel like I left a gap if I didn’t at least mention it. Most anthropologists consider fishing a type of hunting when talking about subsistence. The two practices differ in technique, but don’t shift the distribution of labor all that much. Most cultures still live on land, and whether they’re gathering or farming on that land will determine if they are classed as agriculturalists who supplement their diet by fishing, or hunter-gatherers who happen to mostly hunt fish. But this leaves a few options unexamined.

Some people, like the ancient Hawaiians, would build large artificial lakes or gate off lagoons from the ocean. Fish could swim into the lagoon through the gate, but upon feeding and growing there, would become too large to fit back through the bars. By keeping their schools fed, and only culling the proper number of fish, they could effectively farm fish in these ponds. For our purposes, this strategy of subsistence looks different enough from the others that it’s worth mentioning. Aquaculture like this prevents overfishing of the wider waters, but it requires vast tracts of sea-front or land set aside for flooding, and will never produce the same sizes or types of fish as deep sea fishing. Fish farming this way was almost never the only food source available to a people. Agriculture was a common partner to this system, as fish could be supplemented on overproduced crops, and each of the systems could serve as a buffer if the other had a bad season. If your people grow rice or wetland potatoes, they could even keep their fish in their flooded fields, allowing the fish to fertilize the crops as they grow.

The ‘Ai’opio fishtrap, Kailua Kona, HI
W Nowicki, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nutritionally speaking, you can almost survive on just fish alone. But there are a few vital nutrients unavailable from fish that have to be supplemented somehow. The big one is vitamin C, which causes the infamous piratical disease, scurvy. Many navies of the world are known to have supplied their sailors with citrus fruits to cure the disease. But the natives of North America found that pine-needle tea would cure scurvy as well, in fact it was a better source of the vitamin by far, and was easier to pack and store. This little quirk of dietary requirements is what caused the British to be called “Limeys”, and is the reason that the word for orange is some form of “la naranja” in almost every place the Portuguese and Spanish navies visited during their explorations.

If you wanted to take another step further, you could create a completely seafaring people. Maybe they grow plants on their ships somehow, or they just trade for their vital supplies at some landlubber port. Fishing can easily provide food for a crew’s worth of people indefinitely. Another big consideration if you go down this route is repairs. Your people must be able to drydock somewhere, unless magic somehow allows them to replace or mend wood without sinking the ship. Floating islands solve all these problems in one go, as they provide a place to grow plants and would already be self maintained by whatever magic or ecological system you’ve worked out for them. Plausible seafaring cultures in fantasy are totally possible, and exploring them can lead you to some interesting conclusions for your world.


Industrialism came along in our world with the advent of chemical fertilizer and new irrigation techniques. The ability to artificially replenish the soil allows massive yields, and inventions like the combine harvester did away with the most intensive portions of labor. These factors combined transformed the shape of our society in the blink of an eye. We went from 90% of every person alive contributing in some way to food production, to the polar opposite; Less than 10% of the population does all of that work, and they’re doing it on less land, in shorter growing seasons. Suddenly our society didn’t have to spend all of its effort on meeting its basic needs. So, what did we do with our new found freedom? We expanded empires, colonialized, and had some of the most devastating wars to ever occur in human history. However, once this era of instability died down, technology granted the new world powers a new golden age of thought, science and art.

Industrialism only really developed once in our world, though it did so on a global scale, with the sharing and capture of technology between nations fueled by the birth of globalism. Because of this, it’s hard to say much about post-industrial societies. There seems to be a trend of heightening class disparity already seen in agricultural societies. Likewise, the exponential growth of population and the proliferation of new ideas and technology also seem to be core factors of industrialism. The defining characteristic of industrial societies however is that shift in the portion of the population involved in subsistence. Arguably any society that has a very small percentage of its population involved in primary production is industrial, even if you don’t see the typical signs we associate with the word, like factories and smokestacks. Elves who have attained an attunement with the forest to provide for them, and thus spend all their time reading and singing, have entered a sort of pseudo-industrial state, and will likely reap the benefits and dangers of that change. Perhaps such a society decides that the world would be better off all living under the auspices of the forest, even by force; Or, the additional freedom to pursue philosophy leads to division and ultimately a rebellion against the old social order. Maybe tree-gods don’t like science, and so when the first great thinkers appear among the upper classes of the elves during this golden age, they are exiled for their “heresy”.

The point is that while industrialism has a certain look in our world, this doesn’t mean that every industrial society needs to go through the same exact stages of development as ours did. In fact, the development of many of our core technologies in the modern world, like antibiotics, vulcanized rubber and internal combustion engines likely wouldn’t develop or at least would look very different in any other world. Keep in mind that industrial techniques often spread easily, and it is likely that any culture that encounters these sorts of technologies will try to copy them if they can. Give a very good reason if you plan to have a single industrial culture that never spreads to its neighbors.

An interesting thing to note is that industrialism can fail. Before the bronze age collapse, which saw the death of every major Mediterranean empire in the span of 60 years, there were signs of a coming industrial revolution. Scientists, or early thinkers at least, were studying subjects like steam propulsion and chemistry, which given the time may have led to the same sorts of fertilization and plowing techniques that wouldn’t actually develop until almost 2000 years later. Though historically speaking, this is mostly just an interesting “what if?”, for a worldbuilder it suggests some options for how you plan out your history. Maybe you did have some sort of industrial society in your world’s past, but before they could really get going something came and wiped them off the map. It’s a common trope, but it’s based in real events, and provides lots of detail that makes your world feel like it has an extended history.


So, with these five or six subsistence strategies, you can categorize almost any method your people use to feed themselves. Figuring this out can tell you about what your culture’s priorities are and what things they spend their time doing. Societies structured around a specific way of life are a very good starting point for a fantasy race, as the structure gives both you and your audience a core idea to orient around. You might choose not to use this list for all of your races, but at least something here probably got your worldbuilding gears turning, and that’s what I’m here for.

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