For Your Enjoyment, Part 6: Law and order for justice systems

I’m running low on topics that can effectively be addressed in these “focus on cross-cultural trends” articles. I’ve got this one, then nobility, then travel, then I’m out. I’m open to moving on to For Your Enchantment, which will revisit these topics with magic and monsters added in, but I’d be fine with returning to cover any other requests that I think would make a good post.

Today we’ll be looking at everything associated with law: legal systems, enforcement, courts, and sentences. In some areas, it’s difficult to define features that separate premodern from modern societies. When this happens, we’ll just talk about more general theory that will hopefully help you as worldbuilders.

The usual conditions apply: I’ll by trying to hold to things that are true across most premodern civilizations, so there’s a lot of variation to account for. Fantasy magic and cosmology changes a lot, though less than you’d expect for this topic. The usual “most fantasy is early modern” also affects less here. Finally, if my unfortunate European- and Mediterranean-heavy education shows here, please let me know and point me to places to learn.

  • The phrase “legal system” describes the basic philosophy behind a government’s laws. There are two main families used to classify modern legal systems. These don’t map to premodern cultures perfectly, but they can still help worldbuilders to think about how laws might work in their societies.
  • The first family is civil law, also called statutory law. In this system, all laws are defined by a legislative body or other authority. You might expect this to be the only possibility, but there are others.
  • The second is common law. In a common law system, past judicial decisions can have just as much weight as legislative laws. This is the system that is used in America; it’s why landmark court cases like Roe v. Wade still have so much power. When there is no judicial precedent, courts must fall back on traditional written laws.
  • There are lots of variations. An extreme version of common law is customary law, where instead of relying on previous cases, judges use established traditions or cultural norms. Customary law systems are only possible in small, relatively simple societies like independent villages. The amount of wiggle room is too great for complex cultures to handle.
  • Similarly, an extreme case for civil law is something I would call autocratic law, though that’s not an established term. In today’s civil law systems, laws are created by a legislative body—usually elected. In autocratic systems, these laws come from a single person. This is often the head of the government, such as a monarch, but other systems have regional or local laws made by a local authority (for a while, Roman praetors served this role). This is another one that gets more difficult as a state gets larger. Eventually, leaders have to delegate legislative power, though they may reserve the right to veto.
  • Another special case is religious law. Religious law can layer over the systems we’ve discussed. A detailed work of scripture can serve as the basis for civil law, while spiritual authorities can be relied on for common, customary, or autocratic systems.
  • Aside from legal systems, one useful distinction is between civil and criminal law. Criminal law deals with actions that harm society itself, while civil law (not to be confused with civil legal systems) deals with actions that harm specific people. Individuals will go to court to look for justice concerning civil laws, while the government itself will prosecute people that violate criminal law. Murder is criminal, slander is civil.
  • Even in modern times, the line between these categories can be hazy. Many premodern societies didn’t make the distinction at all. Several Greek city-states, for example, considered almost all law to be civil. Even in extreme cases, such as murder, the government wouldn’t seek seek justice on its own unless the victims’ families specifically sought redress. If no one acted on the victim’s behalf, the murderer could easily go unpunished. The benefit of this system is that the government doesn’t have to invest many resources in unearthing crimes; your citizens will bring any relevant violations to your attention. The obvious downside is that a lot of crime will fall through the cracks.
  • I haven’t seen any societies that went to the other extreme—making all laws criminal instead of civil. I can’t see it being practical, or even possible. Citizens wouldn’t be able to pursue litigation on their own; it would all be up to the government. The state would have to develop extensive surveillance programs to find violations. This is almost certainly beyond the capabilities of real-world premodern societies. If anyone knows of a culture that I’m not aware of, I’d love to know.


  • Professional police forces are relatively rare in premodern societies. They represent a significant investment of resources and manpower. Because of this, there were two cheaper types of enforcers that were explored first.
  • The first enforcer type was the citizens themselves. In very simple societies, residents could often deal with criminals on their own. I mentioned one interesting example in the first article on premodern societies. Villages in several medieval cultures had something called the “hue and call.” If anyone was in distress (usually from an assailant), they would give a special shout—we don’t know what it sounded like. Everyone who heard one of these shouts was socially and legally obligated to drop what they were doing and come to help.
  • The second enforcer type was off-duty soldiers. We’ve already mentioned that standing armies were very rare. One way that governments could offset the expense of a professional army was to have the soldiers perform additional services when not actively fighting. Law enforcement was an excellent option, since the combat training professional soldiers had would help them be more effective. Infrastructure construction and maintenance were other popular options for employing off-duty soldiers.
  • Only when other options had been exhausted would governments resort to a dedicated police force. The first areas to get proper police would be high-security locations like temples and governmental residences.
  • Non-citizen enforcers could have a very interesting toolkit. Ancient Egyptian enforcers supplemented trained dogs with trained monkeys, though I don’t know what those were used for. Swords were more common than spears, since they can more easily be carried around and used in closer quarters.
  • One thing to note is that purpose-built jails were very uncommon. Again, they were a significant investment. Imprisonment as punishment was rare, since feeding and housing criminals at the government’s expense is only the sort of thing modern states can afford. One of the only times imprisonment was used was to confine offenders before their trial. Even then, jails usually weren’t separate buildings, but were repurposed portions of existing ones, like the cellar of a castle.


  • It’s easiest to look at courts by covering modern judicial systems and then discussing how premodern systems were different. Again, the two contributing factors for the differences are less complexity and fewer resources.
  • There are a few ways that modern courts can vary. One of the easiest is how the trial itself is conducted. There are two main methods: the adversarial procedure and the inquisitorial procedure.
  • The adversarial method is what we’re familiar with in America. Representatives for the plaintiff and defendant essentially argue with each other while the judge acts as referee. The main benefit to this system is that there is theoretically a balance of presented evidence and arguments. Judge and jury remain impartial through the entire process, only rendering judgement at the end of the proceedings.
  • The inquisitorial method places much more power in the hands of the judge. Instead of being a passive recipient of information, the judge actively calls witnesses, asks questions, and seeks evidence. They act kind of like an in-court detective. Lawyers serve a less prominent role in these courts, mostly serving as expert intermediaries for the participants. The inquisitorial system was invented in direct response to the adversarial one. Instead of waiting for people to report crimes, judges (inquisitors) would seek them out on their own. If I’m honest, it seems like this system would be prone to abuse and false convictions, but my lack of familiarity with it might be to blame.
  • In modern courts, most common law systems have adversarial courts while civil legal systems have inquisitorial courts. As far as I can tell, this is due to cultural history rather than practical considerations. I would say that worldbuilders could mix these systems without worry about realism.
  • There are also variations in how court systems are organized. In most modern judicial systems, criminal and civil cases are tried in separate courts (though this is one area of bureaucracy that could be ignored for less complex societies). With criminal cases, the government or citizenry is represented by a state representative called a prosecutor.
  • In most systems, there’s a kind of “pre-trial trial” where officials can determine whether a full trial is necessary. There are lots of names for this—inquests, grand juries, etc.
  • Now we can look at how premodern societies cope with fewer bureaucratic resources and exploit legal simplicity. One way is how evidence was gathered. In order to elicit confessions, many governments regularly used torture, unaware of how consistently it produces false testimonies. In addition, many groups used trials by combat or ordeal (subjecting the defendant to dangerous conditions to see if they survive) to see if the culture’s god(s) were on the defendant’s side.
  • One way to deal with legal cases without stressing the bureaucracy too much is to officially sanction nongovernmental courts—sometimes called “popular courts.” For example, guilds were often permitted to hold trials for their own members (at least in commercial issues), and ancient Indian offenders were tried first by courts organized by their families. Official courts would only be used in criminal cases, or if there was an appeal of the decision of a popular court.
  • Another way to deal with caseloads without overly stressing governmental systems was to use itinerant courts. Judges, along with all relevant support staff, would travel from town to town. In each settlement, they would hear all the cases that had been collected since their last visit, render judgement, and move on. This was used when there wasn’t too much demand for judicial services, but popular courts couldn’t be trusted for whatever reason.
  • There is one last modern institution that can be done away with if laws aren’t too complicated: lawyers. If almost everyone understands the laws in question, such as in customary legal systems, then it’s perfectly reasonable for parties in a case to speak for themselves. Professional lawyers are only needed when laypeople can’t reasonably be expected to


  • There are three main philosophies behind sentences of guilty parties: retaliation, restitution, and rehabilitation. These lend themselves to very different punishments.
  • Retaliation-based sentences focus on punishing the criminal. Flogging and mutilation would fall under this heading, as well as most “eye for an eye” laws. Fines or confiscation of property are also common. In premodern societies, slavery is also frequently seen. The ultimate retaliation sentence is execution, and is more common in premodern cultures—though some cultures specifically forbade it. Social shunning and banishment are also options.
  • Restitution-based sentences focus on compensation for the victim. This is frequently financial, though some ancient cultures would make the perpetrator the slave of the victim for a period of time. Smaller governments or clever judges might be able to think of some clever ways for criminals to right their wrongs.
  • Finally, rehabilitation-based sentences focus on reforming the criminal to ensure they’re less likely to offend again. This is a very recent philosophy—I haven’t been able to find any premodern polities that based their sentences off of this theory. Rehabilitation sentences often use therapy, training, and employment to reform offenders.
  • Once again, the boundaries here are vague and subjective. Many sentences can serve multiple purposes as listed here. Several things that give restitution also provide retaliation—if the offender is forced to pay the victim, for example.
  • We mentioned in the Enforcement section that jails were very rarely used for punishments. There was one exception: debtors’ prisons. If someone was sentenced to a fine they weren’t able to pay, they would be sent to special jails where they would provide forced labor until their debts were worked off. This system was obviously susceptible to abuse. If a government needed workers, they could just heavily fine a bunch of poor people, condemning them to years of servitude.

And there you go! Let me know if you have feedback on this article or suggestions for future ones.

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For Your Enjoyment, Part 5: Power and international relations for deeper politics

This is my first post directly on this fantastic blog. Hello, world!

Also, I’d like to announce a new series I’d like to start: For Your Enchantment. At the start of every post, I mention that these are only to address real-world characteristics. Fantastic elements like magic and monsters can change things dramatically, and I don’t want to make these posts longer than they already are. However, people have consistently requested that I talk about these aspects, so For Your Enchantment will revisit every post from the original series and discuss how these might change in fantasy.

This post will talk about political dynamics within and between nations. You may notice I dropped “premodern” from the title. This particular topic is one of a few I’ve been asked to tackle that require this kind of treatment. Sometimes, it’s hard to find things that premodern societies all had in common that separate them from modern ones. This is one of those fields. There’s a lot of variation in governments and international relations, and what few things premodern civilizations had in common with one another are things that modern civilizations also share.

Because of that, I’ll be using general theory to address these areas. This should effectively cover most societies you’ll be designing.

Our sections will be internal power, international anarchy, trinity of war, and diplomacy.

Internal Power

  • This section is largely inspired by Bueno de Mesquita et al.’s “selectorate theory,” which you can learn about through three methods. The book The Dictator’s Handbook contains a lot of great information on power within and between countries. You can also see the same material in its original, scholarly form in The Logic of Political Survival, or the more accessible YouTube video The Rules for Rulers by CGP Grey
  • There are two questions you should ask yourself when thinking about power dynamics within an organization: “Who’s in charge?” and “Who’s really in charge?” The answer to the first question is the “leader” (which doesn’t have to be a single person; we’ll stick to “leader” to simplify things) and the answer to the second is the “coalition.”
  • The leader is the person or group that technically has the most power in the country or organization. There is one overpowering motivation behind every leader: they have to stay in power. This is true regardless of their alignment or intentions. Even a benevolent ruler who wants to help their people will be unable to do so if they can’t hold their position of authority. Sometimes, this incentivizes good leaders to do questionable things so they can retain their ability to serve their people. This is the central idea behind Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (though it’s argued that he wrote the book to get in the good graces of Italian nobility).
  • The coalition—who’s “really” in charge—may not have authority in most areas, but they can do one very important thing: remove the leader from power. Maybe these are key voters in a democracy, aristocrats with military might in a feudalistic nation, or anything else in between. Because they have the ability to do the one thing that the leader is truly afraid of, most of the leader’s time will go into keeping the coalition happy. Everything else is secondary. The constant struggle between these two groups has a significant impact on the organization’s activities.
  • The leader’s main tool to limit the power of the coalition is his ability to replace the coalition members. Coalition members have the same fundamental fear that the leader does: if they lose their position, they won’t be able to coerce the leader to act to their benefit. If the leader can expand the pool of people the coalition can be picked from (called the “selectorate”) and/or limit the amount of members in the coalition, this will give the leader greater power to switch members out if they misbehave. The greater the leader’s ability to replace coalition members, the greater power they’ll have and the longer they’ll stay in office. Democracies have huge coalitions (the voting population), so leaders have relatively little power; autocracies have small coalitions and large selectorates (the few elites the leader has to keep friendly), so they live long and strong.
  • If the leader can’t replace the coalition members, they have only one option left: bribery. They need to spend resources to buy coalition loyalty. If the coalition is small, then the most efficient way to do this is with “private goods,” like personal riches and favors. If the coalition is very large, then it’s too hard to single members out to give them private goods. In this case, the leader must turn to “public goods” like education, infrastructure, and healthcare, which are more expensive but blanket almost everyone in the organization. This is why autocracies have relatively poor people and rich elites, while democracies have relatively equal conditions between the rich and poor. (When democracies start seeing the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, selectorate theory suggests that this is due to the formation of a new coalition that has the power to get rid of the leader, or otherwise have resources the leader can’t function without.)
  • These two dynamics spiral out into most of the things we see governments doing. A monarch is encouraging the growth of new noble families? They’re making their aristocratic allies more expendable. A fascist who served the people became the victim of a coup? The leader’s benevolent spending spree left less for the coalition, who then sponsored a revolution. A politician makes grand promises on campaign, but doesn’t follow through once in office? The large coalition needed to get elected switched to a much smaller coalition needed to stay elected. You can even follow the chain down and see the coalition that keeps coalition members in power. The possibilities are endless.
  • Because it goes nowhere else, I’d like to briefly discuss the “separation of power” theory of governance. To my surprise, I haven’t been able to find a better framework to describe different governmental structures than what Americans learned in high school. (Other countries probably learn about this, too, but I don’t know since I’m an ignorant American.) Put simply, a government serves three main activities: legislative (makes laws), executive (enforces laws), and judicial (judges cases where laws are broken). Understanding the relationship between these branches is a simple way to visualize governmental characteristics. The judicial branch is frequently separate from others to encourage objectivity, though it has had executive powers in the past (see the reign of the judges in ancient Israel). A presidential system keeps legislative and executive branches independent and places the power of the executive in a single person. A parliamentary system makes the executive leader a special member of the legislature. There are far too many variations to list here, but this is the simplest way to describe your government. Who writes? Who enforces? Who judges?

International Anarchy

  • One very brief note on premodern countries: nations as we think of them are actually a very modern concept dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Through most of history, there weren’t states with clearly defined borders with a monopoly on power within those borders. Instead, there were constantly-shifting lands defined only by which group held the most control over them. To paraphrase Bret Devereaux (I can’t find the exact reference), there was no “nation of France” any more than there’s a specific “library of Bret”—there’s just the books that I happen to have at a given time, the same way there’s just the lands that happen to be under the control of the French monarchy. We can still look at historic international relations through a state-based lens, but we need to acknowledge that things were muddier than that in real life.
  • There are a few theories that can be used to describe international relations, but the one that I find to be most useful is “realism.” This starts on the same assumption that selectorate theory does—just as the most important thing for a leader (regardless of their motives) is to stay in power, the most important thing for a nation to do is survive. Here, this means that its government must retain authority over its lands. The other basic assumption behind realism is that there is no power above nations that can effectively control states’ actions. This hasn’t always been strictly true (the Roman Catholic Church and the modern United Nations are examples) but they’re extreme exceptions. Even when such super-national forces exist, they usually only work because states all agree to let these institutions control them and not because they have any power by themselves. The failure of the League of Nations to stop World War II made that evident.
  • The lack of super-national institutions is called “international anarchy” and it, along with the state goal of survival, forms the basis of realist theory. The result of these two principles is that nations will always seek to increase their security by trying to grow more powerful than their neighbors. This is usually done through military might and conquest, which give them the resources to become more resilient against outside threats. The issue is that the stronger a nation gets, the more threatening they become, inspiring neighbors to invest in militaries themselves and wage preventive wars. This is called the “security dilemma” or the “Red Queen effect”—nations will always try to out-compete their rivals, but will usually not become any safer.
  • If a nation doesn’t try to increase its security through conflict and military might, it will often become taken over by a state that’s more pragmatic in its policies. This forces even well-meaning states to become military powerhouses if possible. Just like leaders, they can’t help anyone if they’re not in charge.
  • Nations can usually only escape the security dilemma and grow stronger in general if they have a special advantage that its neighbors lack. This is usually geographic in nature (better waterways for transportation, better farmlands that can feed more soldiers, a rare resource that gives them more revenues through taxes), but can sometimes be cultural (like a more robust military culture or a religion that encourages fervor in its citizens). When a nation has these advantages, it can grow into an empire and last longer than most other countries. A nation like this is called a “hegemon,” and this system of international domination is a “hegemony.” Most hegemonies are regional, but there have been one or two worldwide hegemonies before.
  • One important thing to consider is the fate of the small nations. If survival is based on military prowess, what can a country do if it just can’t achieve that kind of dominance? The answer is to ally itself with stronger nations, giving them shelter at the expense of some of their freedoms and resources.
  • Alliances tend to form to curb the power of a threatening neighbor. The neighbor then forms alliances of its own. This leads to a complex system of constantly-shifting allegiances, roughly trending towards alliances of vaguely similar strengths. This is called the “balance of power” theory, and can be best seen in the dizzying network of allegiances in European nations prior to World War I.
  • In rare cases, an extremely asymmetrical alliance network can form if nations decide to work together to fight an especially dangerous nation. These temporary alliances are called “coalitions.” The most amazing example of historical coalitions is the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was so terrifying that he inspired Europeans to form coalitions against him seven times. This is, obviously, rare; an upstart nation usually can’t survive a single coalition, let alone several.
  • I should mention that there are a few other theories of international relations out there. Liberalism says that a super-national authority can hold power by itself, and constructivism says that culture, not self-interest, is the motivating force behind state actions. I would argue that both of these theories go against historical record and—more important for us—are less useful for worldbuilders.

Trinity of War

  • We’ve discussed warfare before, but we’re now going to look at it through the lens of “grand strategy,” which is the realm that most foreign policy takes place in. Put simply, if there’s an option of “don’t have a war,” we’re discussing grand strategy.
  • The most influential military theorist throughout history is probably Carl von Clausewitz, writing during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Clausewitz’s ideas have had a huge impact on military thought. For the purposes of worldbuilding, we’re going to focus on the idea of his “trinity of war”—government, people, and army. For those of you already familiar with Clausewitz’s work, you may note that I’m using his “secondary trinity” instead of his “primary” one.
  • Clausewitz argued that any serious attempt to study of warfare has to go beyond the effectiveness of its armies. We’ve already discussed the characteristics of armies and militaries extensively, so feel free to look at the second article in this series if you’d like to learn more (or just want a refresher). We’re going to focus on the other two elements here: government and people.
  • Government describes the administrative, relatively rational element of a society. In general, in order to wage war effectively, a nation needs a strong government with clearly defined and sensible goals. It needs to be able to utilize non-military tools as well, such as diplomacy, espionage, and economic persuasion. If a government is fractured, disorganized, or starved of resources, its wars will probably end in defeat.
  • People describes the popular, relatively irrational element. The greatest tool a nation’s people bring to a war is its resources. This includes economic strength and manpower for armies. However, one of the best things it can offer is its determination to fight. The will of the people can keep a war going for a very long time—or cut it short. Military defeats and victories have a strong impact on popular support, which is one reason why nations that are on the losing side of a conflict tend to push towards unrealistic, desperate victories. They need to keep the people on their side, or they’ll lose what little momentum they have.
  • In practice, a nation at war doesn’t need to check all these boxes in order to function well. In one of these elements is lacking, however, it does mean the others have to compensate if the country is to have any hope. A loose or nonexistent government requires strong coordination and determination on the part of the people. An unwilling populace requires a very authoritarian government to keep the war effort moving. Military ineffectiveness is hard to deal with, but a well-organized resistance can at least make it hard for enemies to secure their gains.
  • Speaking of “securing gains”—an often-overlooked step in conquest is how the conqueror makes temporary control of lands into permanent ownership. One useful resource is the talk, Reaping the Rewards: How the Governor, the Priest, the Taxman, and the Garrison Secure Victory in World History, a talk by Wayne Lee. He argues that each of these roles is necessary for premodern success after war. The priest uses religion and culture to integrate conquered peoples, the taxman extracts local resources for the victor, and the garrison is a small military force stationed locally to discourage resistance. The governor is often filled by local authorities who are encouraged to ally with the region’s new rulers. This allows the victor to assert control without expending too many resources on setting up a local bureaucracy.


  • I’m including this section because I feel duty-bound to cover it, but to be honest, there isn’t much for me to say here. The logic behind alliances has been discussed in the “International Anarchy” section, and there’s a lot of variation in diplomatic systems. There’s honestly too much to find overarching trends. I’ll do my best to convey what little I’ve found.
  • In general, it seems that extensive diplomatic systems form in two main scenarios. The first is when a tenuous assortment of states with roughly-equal power need to ensure communication to prevent catastrophic, all-out war (as in much of Indian history and the Warring States period in China). The second is when a hegemon wants to extend its reach beyond its borders, either preparing for war with neighbors or enticing them into peaceful unification (as in the Roman Empire and Imperial China). If things are more disorganized than either of these scenarios, it seems that diplomacy tends to be more informal and less widely-utilized.
  • The role of diplomats has varied across cultures and eras, though they were usually granted a protected status to ensure peaceful communication (sometimes this was enshrined in local religions). In China’s Warring States, diplomats were essentially hostages. If a state acted up, its diplomats in rival states would be killed. In India, diplomats were expected to act as spies and thieves, though I’m not sure how this worked with the norm that diplomats were to be unharmed—if you knew who was stealing your secrets and treasures, why would you let them go free? Roman diplomats acted mostly as archivists, documenting local trends for imperial records. In many areas, diplomats acted as religious missionaries or economic intermediaries.
  • There’s also a lot of variation in the types of diplomatic positions. Messengers or heralds simply conveyed information, lacking the authority to do anything else. Envoys tended to stay in the target nation’s lands in order to learn more and build a relationship, expressing the general views of their home country’s leadership. Ambassadors were long-term envoys who usually had more authority to negotiate on behalf of their home nation. The most extreme on this spectrum were called “plenipotentiaries” (“many powers”), which had the right to enter into treaties and other agreements even without their leader’s permission. Plenipotentiaries became necessary when diplomats had to go far from their home, making constant communication for confirmation impractical.

And that’s all I’ve got! I hope this article was useful. Please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see me cover!

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For Your Enjoyment, Part 4: Facts about premodern polytheism for more engaging religions

After general society, warfare, and economy, people have been asking for religion. So here we go! Right at the start, I’d like to recommend Bret Devereaux’s “Practical Polytheism” series on his blog, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. That series inspired a lot of this, though I’ve added some insights and resources as well.

Alrighty, the usual conditions: I’ll by trying to hold to things that are true across most premodern civilizations, so there’s a lot of variation to account for. Fantasy magic and cosmology changes a lot, though less than you’d expect for this topic. The usual “most fantasy is early modern” also affects less here. Finally, if my unfortunate European- and Mediterranean-heavy education shows here, please let me know and point me to places to learn.

In addition, while this post focuses on polytheistic religions, almost all the points can apply to monotheistic systems as well. It could be argued that Medieval Catholicism followed most of the following points except for two main exceptions: other gods definitely didn’t exist, and God is morally right. This’ll make more sense once you read the rest of the article.

I’ve realized that these posts are too long for many people to read through, so I’m going to add a brief summary here:

  • Religion was less about beliefs and morals and more about achieving real benefits through rituals; deities and myths were mostly explanations on why rituals worked.
  • Think pantheons, not individual gods; your characters need someone to turn to for every situation. You can use existing pantheons to make sure you’ve got everything covered. Also, alignments don’t matter; people can’t afford to offend a god, no matter how much they disagree with what the god says, does, or wants.
  • For ideas, you can use the Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature; A0-A599 are great for gods, A600-A2599 for creation myths, and everything else for more general myths. (Details on how to use this fantastic resource in the article.)

This article has sections on origins, pantheons, rituals, myths, worldly matters, and religious relations.


  • The biggest lesson you can learn here is that ancient religion was about practicality, not morality. Religion wasn’t for doing what was morally right, but for keeping the gods on your good side to get real benefits in your life. What follows is the generally-accepted explanation for how premodern religion came to be.
  • B. F. Skinner, the psychology who discovered operant conditioning (basically positive reinforcement) made another, less well-known discovery called “pigeon superstition.” He divided pigeons into two groups. For one group, each pigeon was placed in a cage where they could push a button and a door would open, revealing a treat. As expected from his previous experiments, the pigeons were incentivized to push the button. The second group’s cages had treat doors that would open at random. These pigeons still tried to figure out how to make the door open, but in the absence of reliable feedback, they ended up making incorrect associations about what was working. They ended up creating very complex behaviors (flap twice, hop three times, spin, hop two more times) that they would repeat, trying to make the door open on purpose. Psychologists call this behavior “superstition,” the belief in causal relationships where they don’t really exist.
  • So far as we can tell, this is what happened for premodern religionists as well. They wanted something good to happen (e.g. crops to grow), and started trying things to make it happen (e.g. pour some wine on the ground). If it worked, they would keep doing it; over time, experimentation would lead to very complex rituals. However, because premodern societies are so risk-averse (see my first article), consistency was more important than innovation. Later came attempts to explain why the rituals worked (e.g an earth goddess was drinking the poured wine and she encouraged the crops in gratitude). These explanations were ultimately less important than the ritual results, but they formed an important cultural backbone.
  • This is important: premodern people didn’t have complicated religions because they were stupid. They had these things because they were trying to be scientific in an environment that made progress effectively impossible. These beliefs eventually morphed into the sort of religious fervor that we know and love from relatively recent history, but they didn’t start out that way.
  • Now, a lot of the reasoning behind this section doesn’t hold as well if the gods are actually real, as in most fantasy settings. However, a lot of the results of these forces do apply, so I’m including it anyway.
  • This doesn’t really go anywhere else, but as an aside, atheism didn’t exist in the premodern world. It’s a very recent invention. Without adequate scientific tools, there isn’t a good way to explain natural phenomena without religion. “There are no gods” makes about as much sense as “There is no sky.” We’ll touch on this in the final section, but most religious wars weren’t saying that enemy gods didn’t exist, but that the enemy gods were weaker than yours.


  • I’ve mentioned that gods probably came after rituals in real-world religious reasoning, but since they’re where most worldbuilders begin, we’ll address them first.
  • The most important thing to remember is, again, practicality trumps morality. There are two main effects of this. The first is that the most vital thing your gods can do is solve problems for your world’s denizens. Critically, they need to be able to help your denizens in all areas of your life. Real religions do this in two ways: either they have an all-powerful single god, or a pantheon that collectively can do everything a worshipper could want.
  • Many fantasy settings have individuals or cultures pick a third option that makes no sense: the person or society will worship one or two gods that can’t help them everywhere. It’s all well and good to say your orcs serve Gorshnakh the Bloody, God of Conquest, but what will they do when their crops need rain? When they need to secure an important alliance? When there’s a problematic childbirth? Gorshnakh probably won’t be able to help too much there. Your orcs need to be able to get help for whatever problems they encounter. The same holds true for individual characters. If your paladin worships only the Gentle Lady of Dreams, then they’re sunk if they need anything not sleep-related. Real-world priests still paid homage to other gods.
  • In your settings, it’s perfectly reasonable to have different pantheons for different societies and ancestries. They can even have overlapping domains. Premodern polytheists generally held this view: other gods existed, they were just weaker. We’ll return to this point later.
  • The second effect is that morality is completely irrelevant. Many RPG systems’ deities have alignment restrictions: Gorshnakh will only accept chaotic evil acolytes, while the Gentle Lady only takes neutral good followers. This isn’t at all how premodern religions worked. In the end, it didn’t matter whether you agreed with a god’s ideas or requirements; their power over you meant that you didn’t have much choice but to do what they wanted. What do you do if you’re an Aztec citizen who thinks that cutting out the heart of your neighbor’s daughter is a bad idea? You suck it up, because if that sacrifice doesn’t happen, the moon eats the sun and then teams up with the stars to devour the earth and everyone you ever loved.
  • This isn’t to say that there’s no correlation between a god’s character and a culture’s or character’s morals. For one thing, the explanation that a society comes up with for why its rituals work usually flows from what it values. For another, the power of cognitive dissonance encourages people to rationalize and justify actions they’re forced to take; over time, our Aztec will probably come up with a reason why human sacrifice is fine after all, and then teach that to their children.
  • We now have two general rules: think pantheons, not deities, and alignment doesn’t matter. (I’m placing this as its own bullet to make it easier to find for readers; hope that helps with these text walls.)
  • I have one technique that I use to make sure I’ve covered every need a group has. You can take a real-world pantheon—the twelve Olympians are low-hanging fruit, but they work just fine—and make sure your pantheon can do everything the Earth deities can. That doesn’t mean your gods have to be based directly on the “real” ones, but they do have to be able to accomplish the same things. If none of your gods can help with family matters, like Hera can, you may need to add a new god or give that power to an existing one. You can lump these domains into few gods or spread them out over many, it doesn’t matter. Some civilizations may have different requirements: a purely underground dwarven society won’t need a weather god, but they might need a god of subterranean creatures.
  • One thing that almost every premodern polytheistic religion had was “little gods.” The big guys (like the Greek Olympians) were extremely powerful, but they might have their hands full with big matters. Because of this, polytheistic systems usually had very minor gods over specific domains (the Romans had a god of hinges), places (this river, that hill), people (your family), or events (a god of marriages, business deals, etc.). The premodern person would spend most of their religious attention on these little gods, while acknowledging the superiority of the big ones.
  • At this point, I’d like to introduce a fantastic—and somewhat overwhelming—resource for religious worldbuilding. A folklorist named Stith Thompson composed a massive, six-volume classification for folklore and myths. There’s… a lot there. You can find a summary of the Thompson Motif Index here; you can click the red codes on the left to see the even more detailed sub-classifications. For ideas for deities, I suggest using A0-A599. As an example, I just clicked on A280 for Weather Gods, then scrolled down and saw A287.0.1: “Rain god and wind god brought back in order to make livable weather,” which apparently comes from an Indian myth. I’ve already got two deities and an idea for a myth. It’s great stuff, guys.


  • Rituals, or standardized rites of worship, are really what premodern religion is all about. An acceptable analogy would be the average car owner. You don’t really need to know what’s going on under the hood; most of your time is spent driving, not learning about its history or operations. In general, rituals are grossly underrepresented in fictional works. Putting rituals in your setting is one way to really flesh out your religions.
  • The fundamental idea behind rituals is called do ut des, Latin for “I give that you might give.” The supplicant does something for the deity—maybe a sacrifice, or at least an acknowledgement of the god’s power—in the hope that they will receive something in return. It’s a transaction, though an unequal one. This is a good thing to keep in mind for designing your own rituals.
  • A quick note about real rituals: obviously there will be times when a ritual doesn’t work. You pray for rain and there’s a drought. There are two classic explanations: either you did the ritual wrong, or the god just decided that it didn’t feel like accepting the ritual this time.
  • I’ll be using Victor Turner’s ritual categorization system, though I’m changing the names because the original terms seem counter-intuitive to me. In studying African rituals, he identified a few main types that I’ll call regular, irregular, divination, and consecration. If you read the descriptions and decide that other terms make sense, I’ll gladly rename them.
  • When I say that some rituals are regular, I don’t mean they’re ordinary—I mean that they happen regularly. These are rituals that happen consistently at specific times in the year, month, day, or other time increment. Seasonal rituals (solstices/equinoxes, harvest and planting festivals, etc.) fall under here. There might also be rituals for lunar phases, as well as daily events like sunrise and sunset. Cultures could come up with rituals associated with other times that are more arbitrary in their calendar, like the Sabbath in Abrahamic religions.
  • Irregular rituals are those that are brought on by specific events in one’s life. Turner further divided these into life-event and affliction rituals. Life-event rituals are used in key points of transition in a person’s life: birth, puberty, marriage, pregnancy, death, etc. Affliction rituals are used when people have a very specific need. A general needs success in an upcoming battle, a husband seeks aid for an ailing wife, a lovelorn teen needs a divine wingman, etc. One important variety of affliction ritual is exorcisms, where the ritual focuses on banishing a wicked being responsible for the problem.
  • Divination, when it comes to ritual theory, does not refer to seeing the future (although foreknowledge might be one result). Divination is when people want to learn what the gods have to say. “Is this marriage a good idea?” “Should I attack today?” “Why is my horse sick?” There are a lot of ways to let the gods speak. Classic divination uses random phenomena (the flight of birds, the appearance of animal organs, etc.), though drug- or trance-induced visions from oracles work too. Romans would sometimes overturn consular elections based on the results of a divination ritual; as Bret Devereaux says, “The gods get a vote, too.”
  • The final kind of ritual is consecration. We’ll be discussing this in greater detail in the “Offerings section, but the essence of these rituals is to dedicate something to the god in question.


  • Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say here. In the real world, myths are the results of people trying to explain things: why rituals work, why natural phenomena exist, where a civilization came from, even the origins behind place names. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur seems to be an attempt by the Greeks to explain why ancient Minoans liked bulls and had a labyrinth-goddess. Other myths may be for trying to come up with fables to justify the society’s values. This is anthropologically interesting, but generally not too useful for worldbuilders, since myths are usually supposed to be things that actually happened, not invented stories.
  • All I can really offer here is another callout to the Thompson Motif Index. It’s useful for deity ideas, and you can get some creation myths from A600-A2599, but it goes all the way to Z356. There’s just… so much there. Another random click (H1250, “Quest to the other world”) and scroll brought me to H1252.4, “King sends hero to otherworld to carry message to king’s dead father.” That could even be a real historical event or a quest hook.

Worldly Matters

  • (I struggled with a name for this section; if you think up a better one, let me know.)
  • In premodern religions, the gods could own things just like everyone else. The gods could claim things on their own (Mount Olympus is a very real mountain that the Greeks decided the gods owned), but most of the things the gods possessed were the result of worshippers giving them willingly. Temples, for example, were places the gods genuinely lived in (in premodern societies’ perspective) when they weren’t in their normal homes.
  • The term for something owned by a god is “sacred.” Technically, the word “sacrifice” comes from the act of giving the offering to the god (sacer facere, “to make sacred”), not the act of killing the victim or giving something up in general.
  • One very important category of property the gods owned was people. The priesthood—the group of priests—were usually considered to be sacred themselves. Religious workers belonged to the god for as long as they served (not always for life; even the famed Vestal Virgins of Rome only had to be devoted virgins for 30 years, which isn’t that bad compared to what Christian monks dealt with).
  • The act of offering something—person, place, or thing—to a deity usually involves a ritual of its own. These are the consecration rituals I mentioned earlier.
  • Two brief notes: there are a lot of ways that cultures handle their priesthoods. It can be a full organization with a developed hierarchy, like the Catholic Church; it can be a diffuse group of actors, like the stereotypical medicine man; it could even revolve around people who aren’t actually offered to the god at all, like household leaders. There’s too much variety here to establish general trends.
  • The other thing I’d like to address is the idea of state religions. Given the amount of power that gods were understood to have in the premodern world, it’s understandable that governments almost universally sponsored religion in one way or another. The degree and nature of integration with the worship in question varies a lot, but “state cults” are everywhere.

Religious Relations

  • To simplify things dramatically, we can say that there are two basic attitudes one religion can have about another: friendly and hostile.
  • When one polytheistic religion is friendly towards another, this can create some significant cultural merging. Remember, what’s important for premodern peoples is results, not “truth.” If another group’s gods seem to be more powerful—maybe their civilization has been around for longer, or they’re more successful in battle—it’s perfectly reasonable to start worshipping their deities. They’d usually add their own touches, since their gods clearly weren’t worthless; they’d gotten them this far, hadn’t they?
  • Hostile relations are generally easier to understand, with one caveat we’ve mentioned before. Usually, polytheistic cultures acknowledged that other gods existed, but they were certain their gods were stronger. There might be contests to see which god was better; one classic example is the Biblical story of Elijah and the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Elijah challenged the opposing priests to get Baal to accept an offering of a bull; when no divine event occurred, Elijah mocked that Baal might be powerless, saying “Maybe he’s asleep? Shout louder!” When Elijah made the same offering, holy fire consumed the altar and everything around it. In response, the government put the offending priests to death in an attempt to appease the clearly-stronger God Elijah served.
  • Religiously-motivated wars and violence were often justified by similar logic. Our gods might be offended by those who worship others, so we’d better stamp out the heretics. Interestingly, if wars were waged for secular reasons, then there was plenty of room for the religions themselves to be friendly to each other. The Romans had a ritual before they attacked a large settlement where they would invite the enemy’s gods to switch sides and join the Romans; if they won, it was a sign that the gods had indeed changed allegiances and could reliably be worshipped.

And that’s what I have for you guys! Let me know if you have any additions or corrections, and if you have something else you’d like for me to talk about next. Have fun!

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For Your Enjoyment, Part 3: Trade and commerce for deeper economies

I had a great time writing about premodern society and warfare, and people had some great suggestions on what to do next. One good one I saw was economics, so I’ll try to tackle that here. For those who might be nervous: I’m not going to be getting into stuff like interest rates and fiscal policy. I’m currently getting an MBA, so I have to deal with that, but this’ll just be the sort of stuff that’ll be interesting for worldbuilders. Bonus: the last section has my method for creating detailed economies in my worlds!

My usual conditions apply: as much as possible, I’m going to try to stick to things that hold true across most premodern (here roughly meaning pre-industrial) civilizations. There’s obviously a lot of variation, so keep that in mind. Also, magic shakes things up a lot, which won’t be explored here. Lastly, you could make an argument that many fantasy settings are technically early modern; I’m not going to complicate things by going there.

One thing I regret in these posts is that like most Americans, my historical knowledge is overly focused on Europe and the Mediterranean. Because of that, I might’ve identified something as being universal when it’s really just from that narrow geographical area; if that happens, let me know and I’ll edit accordingly. I’m doing my best to rectify that lack of general knowledge, but I would appreciate any suggestions. (Han China was especially interesting in the research for this article; many Eurocentric are prone to underestimate the sophistication of Imperial China. Personally, I think we should spend just as much there as on the Romans, but oh well.)

Our sections today are currency, markets, merchants, trade, and economic sectors.


  • Before we talk about regular currency, let’s discuss what happens when there isn’t currency. Most people think that the most popular kind of non-money transactions are barters, but those are actually fairly inefficient. A successful barter requires a “coincidence of wants,” where you and another party happen to have exactly what the other needs—this can be hard to coordinate (money makes it way easier).
  • Instead of bartering, many premodern cultures used what’s called a “gift economy.” This means that most needs are met by giving your surplus to others without an explicit arrangement to reciprocate. There are strong social forces governing implicit reciprocation; someone who receives a lot and never gives in return may be shunned. Bartering still existed, but it was mostly used for outsiders who weren’t subjected to the same social pressures as the local community (like itinerant merchants).
  • There are three kinds of money. The first is “commodity currency,” which is when the money is valuable by itself. Some systems of metal coinage worked like this: you’re actually trading specifically measured quantities of precious metals. A gold coin that weighs one ounce is worth exactly one ounce of gold; you could melt the coin down and nothing would change. This is one reason why many currency words are weight-related (pounds, shekels, talents, etc.). The stamps on coins were originally to verify that they’d been appropriately measured: “The royal treasury verifies that this is pure silver and weighs exactly 3 ounces.” Stamps provided an easy way to spread propaganda throughout an area, which is why you get so many mythological and governmental figures on coins. Well-made coins had clearly defined edges so you could tell if someone had clipped or shaved some of the metal off for your own use.
  • The second kind of money is “representative currency,” where the money stands in place of something of tangible value. Examples of these were everywhere, from Babylonian clay tables that gave the holder a claim to a portion of grain in the temple to relatively modern currencies that represent an amount of gold in the federal reserve. This is one way to get around some of the limitations of commodity currency, like not having enough of the precious material to go around. You’re free to make the money out of whatever you want.
  • The last is “fiat currency,” where the only reason the money is worth something is because the government says it is and everyone goes along with it. Most modern currencies work like this. The US dollar used to be tied to gold, but now it’s just important because the government says so. These systems are the most flexible, but can be difficult to execute. For one thing, the government has to have reliable authority, or no one’s going to care what they say is valuable. For another, the fact that this money isn’t tied to anything tangible makes it really tempting to just make more when you need it, leading to catastrophic inflation. Both the Roman Empire and Imperial China were prone to doing this.
  • Very small point: while it’s usually governments that are minting your money, that’s not always the case. Imperial China frequently contracted with private companies to make their money for them.
  • It might be obvious, but it’s worth saying: your money doesn’t have to be coins. Money can be paper, shells, or even knives (yes, that was a thing). In very small economies (like trade within a village), grain sacks of a standardized weight can be used like a very primitive commodity currency.


  • One of the basic quandaries of the ancient world was how to coordinate commerce. Most occupations (such as the ubiquitous subsistence farmers of the first post) had to work almost all the week, so you had to be sure that if you were leaving the house for a day to do shopping, the merchant was going to be there. At the same time, most merchants couldn’t stay in one place all the time; they needed to move around to get new goods and find new customers. Urban marketplaces made things easier, but being in the same place doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be there at the same time.
  • Many cultures solved this with “market days.” These were specific days that everyone—merchants and consumers—would come to the marketplace to trade. They were usually weekly affairs, though the length of a “week” varied between cultures. Frequently, there would be circuits of market days: Monday for City 1, Wednesday for City 2, Friday for City 3, etc. These allowed merchants to travel around, following the circle of cities for new customers.
  • For very valuable and hard-to-acquire goods, there might be annual or semiannual fairs. There would be fairs for specific industries, like clothes or metalworks. These were usually coordinated to be at the same time and place as a prominent religious or cultural festival to ensure that as many buyers and sellers would be in the same place as possible.
  • Urban marketplaces themselves had a lot of variety. Early marketplaces rarely had permanent shops (since merchants would be moving around), but would just be open spaces that would be used for other social purposes on non-market days (like the Greek agora or Roman forum). As cities developed, there would be proper alcoves for the traveling merchants to set up in. Covered marketplaces were an excellent way to keep buyers and sellers comfortable, and were common in hot environments. Some larger cities had multiple marketplaces, each for different goods (Rome had three).
  • It took a long while for shops to transition to permanent buildings. This happened around the same time that market days stopped being used, and for the same reason: a middle class was developing that could afford to shop whenever it wanted. However, permanent shops still didn’t look like we imagine them (buildings where you walk in, look at the merchandise, and then buy your wares at a retail counter). That style requires a lot of space. Instead, in many areas at least, customers would deal with the owner (or a representative) at the door/window, and they would bring what you wanted and finish the deal there. The rest of the ground floor could be for storage or manufacture. (Medieval England shops had a neat setup: shop windows would have horizontal shutters, with the top flipping up to be an awning and the bottom folding town to be a counter.) Owners, workers, and their families would live in upper floors.
  • Frequently, artisans would live in alleys near the marketplace, making it easier to transport bulky wares on market days. There were some exceptions; smithies and tanneries were very stinky, so many towns had laws that kept them out of the city walls. Livestock required too much space to store in the dense city proper, so they were walked “on the hoof” there on market days.


  • We discussed this in the first post on premodern society, but it’s worth revisiting that merchants are disliked in almost every premodern culture. By violating community norms they alienated commoners, by accruing wealth they alienated nobles, and by buying low and selling high—something that was usually considered fundamentally dishonest—they alienated everyone. This had a couple effects. The first was that there were often tense power struggles between rich merchants and nobles, sometimes leading to harsh legislation. The second was that groups that were disliked for other reasons—ethnicity or religion, for example—often became merchants, since more popular groups wouldn’t take the job. This is called the “middleman minority” effect, and can serve to exacerbate existing prejudices.
  • I identify three basic classes of full-time merchants: urban, trader, and itinerant. We’ve touched on urban merchants already, but it’s worth saying again that for much of the premodern world, these people didn’t have permanent shops. We might classify them as “peddlers” for having portable stores; they would bring these to the marketplace on market days. Again, some of these would travel to other cities for their market days, but others would stay in the town, moving their shops to other high-traffic areas like city gates or wealthy estates. Urban merchants often got more business than itinerants, but they also had to pay a fee to the city to set up their stalls.
  • Traders are long-distance merchants that tend to be highly specialized. They make trips between specific urban centers, buying and selling certain goods that they focus on. Some of them will bank most of their livelihoods on success at fairs. We’ll go into detail about the mechanics of long-distance trade in a bit.
  • Itinerant merchants are easy enough to understand. Instead of focusing on single urban marketplaces (or a market day circuit), they would wander around less populated areas, occasionally stopping in to a marketplace when they had goods that were worth it. In general, itinerants couldn’t afford to specialize in specific goods. Instead, they would buy whatever was cheapest and sell whatever was most expensive, making them travelling general stores. Seaborne trade like this is called “cabotage” (which has a different, very specific legal definition nowadays).
  • In both previous posts, we had elements that the popular imagination tends to underestimate. First, it was the amount of subsistence farmers, then it was the amount of non-combatants in an army. Now, it’s the predominance of itinerant merchants. These small-time folks meandering throughout the countryside make up the majority of economic activity. Your characters may be more interested in traders and urban merchants, but remember that they are the minority.
  • The last thing worth discussing is guilds, even though this is another area that goes beyond full-time merchants. While not ubiquitous, guilds were common in a lot of areas. They had governmental protection, and they usually required everyone in their jurisdiction who practiced their profession to be a member. They worked to ensure product quality and tried to maximize the profits of their members (often at the expense of the consumer, such as through predatory pricing). Interestingly, division of labor would happen across guilds, not within them: that is, instead of having a “Metalworkers’ Guild,” you would have the “Nailsmith Guild,” “Helmet-makers’ Guild,” “Horseshoers’ Guild,” etc. A couple cities I looked into had well over a hundred guilds.


  • This is another thing that was discussed in a previous post, but we need to talk about just how expensive premodern transportation was. Transporting things overland was extremely expensive. It’s not worth getting into specific numbers here (since they change frequently), but what is important is just how much cheaper water transport was. Transport by river was five times cheaper than land, and by sea was twenty times cheaper. Needless to say, you always went by water if it was possible. Goods could reach 5-20x farther on water, powerfully shaping trade and settlement networks. Note that it was still frequently worth it to invest in infrastructure to overcome the costs of land trade—see the famous Roman roads—but the high cost of such construction was often prohibitive.
  • There’s another side effect of the difficulties of overland trade. It was rare for edibles to be transported long distances for several reasons. For one thing, they tend to be large and heavy for their worth, making it hard to carry a lot at a time. For another, the animals required to move the goods had hefty food requirements of their own. These factors—plus a few others—meant that aspiring food traders often ended up eating their wares en route. (See Bret Devereaux’s discussion on the Loot Train Battle in Game of Thrones—that army would’ve devoured all that food long before it could’ve done anything useful.) Most of those factors weren’t there for water travel. Rome, for example, had massive food needs. It was cheaper to ship grain from Egypt, across the Mediterranean, than to cart it through Italy, Rome’s backdoor. Water changes everything.
  • If you know any world history, you’re probably aware of one example that spat in the face of all the difficulties of overland travel: the Silk Road. It spanned a ridiculous distance (though people often forget about the Black and Caspian Seas; less of it was on foot than people think). The main force here was one of the most powerful ones in economics: scarcity. Peoples on both sides of the Silk Road had goods that were completely unavailable to the others. This made them extremely valuable, and the profits involved made all the costs worthwhile. Of course, this made Silk Road goods very expensive, reserving them for the elite.
  • This is a key point to consider in trade: in general, an area’s exports will be something that they can provide that others can’t. That sounds obvious, but the “can’t” part is important. If a different area can make the thing themselves, they will; trade secrets or special knowledge often isn’t enough to stop replication attempts, since transport is so expensive. An area will need unique climate, resources, wildlife, or something similar to sustain a competitive advantage. At the same time, no region will specialize completely in a good. People there will still make all the necessities of life themselves; completely specializing entire regions with no variation is a great way to make everyone starve. (Looking at you, Panem.)
  • The final thing to discuss is banditry. An important feature of trade—long-distance and otherwise—is the threat of bandits or pirates. Otherwise-attractive trade routes will go unused if people aren’t safe there. One surprising effect of the Mongol conquest of Asia was that their crack-down on bandits made the Silk Road much safer, creating a “Pax Mongolica” of renewed commerce. Governments that had strong law enforcement were usually more economically successful for this reason.

Economic Sectors

  • The main purpose of this section is to provide a tool for thinking about your world’s economy. Real economists divide industries into three sectors: primary (extraction of raw materials), secondary (processing and manufacture), and tertiary (services). We’ll go through the sectors here and then talk about a way to use them for worldbuilding.
  • The primary sector encompasses all industries that create raw materials: food, wood, ore, etc. In the premodern world, these industries are extremely inefficient, and so take up the vast majority of labor and resources. Food is by far the worst offender: remember from the first post that 80-90% of the entire population will be subsistence farmers. Note the word “subsistence” there—these people generate barely enough food to get by, leaving barely any surplus to sell to the economy at large. It takes a lot of these people to make the foodstuffs required to support the other sectors. Forestry and mining are activities that belong here, though they don’t take up nearly as much labor. (As a brief aside, premodern miners didn’t have the same stabilization technologies that we do, so they couldn’t really make mines that were like cave systems. Instead, mines were just big, relatively shallow pits in the ground. Sorry, dungeon designers.)
  • One other thing: there’s a massive industry in the primary sector that is almost always ignored in fantasy settings—charcoal. Charcoal is valuable for fuel, useful in all metalsmithing, and required in advanced smithing. A lot of charcoal is required to meet these needs, and a lot of wood goes into making just a little charcoal. I’m not going to go into the charcoal-making process now, feel free to look it up. There were entire forests dedicated to charcoal to fuel the Romans’ all-consuming metal industry. Saruman would’ve had to fell all of Fangorn to make the gear for his Uruk-hai.
  • The secondary sector is responsible for taking those raw materials and transforming them into finished physical products. The processes that transform ore into breastplates, wood into ships, and wool into fine clothing all belong here. This is another labor-intensive area—remember that clothesmaking dominates the lives of commoner women. In general, these industries require a lot of work and specialist knowledge because they’re relying on artisans instead of factories.
  • Remember how I said that regional specializations required that an area have something that can’t be replicated by anyone else? Most of these are due to differences in the primary sector, since raw materials are heavily location-dependent. Large forests, extensive mineral deposits, unique wildlife, and favorable agricultural climates all work here. In some cases, transporting those raw materials is impractical, maybe because they’re bulky or delicate. When this happens, the region will export finished products instead of the raw materials. This is why Rome imported iron ore from Britain, but silk cloth from China.
  • Finally, the tertiary sector is the services: the industries that provide value without creating physical products. Merchants, politicians, clergy, and professional soldiers belong here. Note “professional” soldiers: remember that most armies were made up of workers from other sectors who were briefly recruited into the military. That’s a pattern for tertiary laborers in the premodern era. It’s relatively rare for people to be full-time tertiary laborers: artisans will sell their goods directly, for example. Still, a lot of wealth and commerce flows through workers here. They are often the richest and most powerful members of their societies.
  • There’s one tertiary sector industry I want to mention in particular: bankers. Except that in the premodern world, banks as we know them took a long time to form. The profession started with money-changers, who were valuable in areas where multiple forms of currency were used. They naturally charged for their services, which left them with lots of wealth in coins. It didn’t take long for money-changers to become money-lenders, providing them with another source of income. (I can’t corroborate this, but I’ve heard that the English word “bank” comes from Italian “banca,” the benches that money-changers sat on.) Eventually, these money-lending and -changing services were offered to key families in important cities, elevating the trade in society and pushing toward proper institutional banks.
  • For completeness reasons, I guess I should mention that in modern economies, there’s technically a quaternary sector describing knowledge workers: people who use specialist education to produce intangible goods. This barely existed at all in the premodern world. Universities were a very late addition, though you could make an argument that monasteries and other full-time educated, religious workers counted. I would still make this a very slim minority in your worlds.
  • With this framework in mind, devising your world’s economy is fairly simple. All you have to do is go through the sectors. Start with the primary sector, paying attention to regional availability of resources. Once that’s done, you can take a look at transportation patterns: where are your waterways? Your relatively easy overland routes—valleys and plains as opposed to mountains and forests? Next is the secondary sector. If raw materials are hard to transport, place production in the same area as extraction; if they’re cheap to transport, place production at the population centers. Finally, look at the tertiary sector. Labor here will be strongly concentrated in more populated areas, though there will be low-level activity everywhere. Have a look at what you’ve made and see if it makes sense, tweaking if necessary.

And that’s all I’ve got for now! A bit less organized than previous ones, but I hope it’s just as informative.

Let me know if there’s anything I should add or correct, and feel free to suggest future posts!

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For Your Enjoyment, Part 2: Facts about premodern warfare to make deeper armies and battles

I made a post the other day about using premodern society to inspire worldbuilding, and it got way more popular than I expected. I decided to make a sequel on warfare. Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like me to write on!

Like the last one, I’m going to try to focus on things that are fairly constant across the premodern (here roughly meaning pre-gunpowder) world. There’s a lot of variation across times and places, so keep that in mind. Also, magic and monsters will significantly change a lot of things; I’m not going to touch that here. Lastly, you could make an argument that many settings are technically early modern, but that also makes things more complicated and these posts are long enough already.

I wish I had more expertise about areas outside Europe and the Mediterranean, but I’m lacking there. This post will hopefully have principles that can be generalized everywhere, but readers should be aware of the bias.

Also like the last one, a lot of this is pulled from Professor Bret Devereaux’s blog, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. Because he’s a military historian, I’ll be using his work heavily, directly using some of his favorite phrases where it helps. Some of his stuff that’d be good to start with if you like what’s here are his “Siege of Gondor” and “Battle of Helm’s Deep” series.

We’ll go into armies, gear, strategy, operations, siege tactics, and battle tactics. If you have any thoughts on what I’ve written—or anything you think I should add—let me know!


  • Almost no premodern armies were made up of “professionals” or “career soldiers” (there are rare exceptions, like the Romans). That is, it wasn’t anyone’s “job” to be a soldier, not even as a temporary occupation. Instead, regular people fought when they had to, sometimes forcefully through conscription or slavery.
  • One key exception was the “warrior aristocracy.” In many cases, the “nobles” from my last post got their land by force, so the upper class valued military might and trained frequently. Think Medieval knights, though they’re not the only example. This also isn’t a universal constant, just a relatively common phenomenon.
  • Just how armies were organized and formed depended on the structure of the society. There are way too many variations for me to try to go into them, but in general, it was common for people to fight with those they lived with—fellow villagers or countrymen. This created “cohesion,” or the determination to stay fighting with your comrades. Cohesion (sometimes called “morale”) is much more about social bonds than courage; one reason professional armies go through such rigorous training camps is to artificially create those social bonds and keep soldiers fighting.
  • Types of units (infantry, archers, cavalry, etc.) were generally only good if their society valued and invested in them. That could leave dangerous holes, like when Middle Ages Europe treasured their mounted knights so much that their infantry started falling apart. One solution was “auxiliaries,” or using specialized units from other cultures. They could be hired, allied, or just be part of peoples you’ve conquered. The Romans were specialists at this; legions were good heavy infantry and siege engineers, but lousy at everything else. So legions would march with German cavalry, Syrian archers, Numidian light cavalry (North Africa), etc. These auxiliaries could make up half the army, and since they were rewarded pretty well, they were fairly loyal and could even fight on their own.
  • There wasn’t a “standard kit,” either—no mass-produced armor and weapons. Soldiers were often responsible for personally buying their battle gear, which usually led to a very eclectic bunch of gear. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some regularity, especially among units that needed to fill a specific role (archers, pikemen, etc.), but it’s much more varied than you normally imagine. Individual soldiers would often paint personal patterns on their armor and shields, too.
  • One note about cavalry: horses are expensive to own and take care of. There’s a ton of food involved. Most cavalry was part of that “warrior elite,” since only rich people could afford horses.


  • Absolutely everyone wore a helmet, even if it was just a skull cap. It was the first piece of armor poor people would buy. There’s a reason helmets are the only real piece of armor that continues into the modern age (bulletproof vests excluded): the head is vital to protect and easy to guard. Everyone in your setting should wear a helmet.
  • The next thing that would be bought is essentially a quilt that you wear, called a “gambeson” in Middle Ages Europe. It’s surprisingly resilient and can even stop arrows if they’re fired from a great enough distance. (Note that this piece of armor is slightly more restricted time and place wise, but something like it exists almost everywhere.)
  • “Leather armor” isn’t like biker’s leather. It’s a special kind of boiled leather called “cuir bouilli,” and was pretty hard and tough. While we’re at it, “studded leather armor” isn’t a thing. Taking leather and adding some metal bits doesn’t make it tougher. What fantasy writers were probably thinking of is brigandine, which is made up of metal strips sown into a jacket. It’s pretty dang good. Brigandine often has bolts on the outside, which is probably where the “studded leather” misconception came from.
  • Full plate armor is effectively impenetrable. No arrows or spears are getting through. At this point you start seeing polearms like halberds to try to smash things in, and special daggers (roundel daggers) to stab in gaps in the armor.
  • These pieces of armor aren’t worn alone—they’re layered. Knights would put on a gambeson (or a smaller version called an arming jacket), a mail coat (or “voiders,” which was a shirt with bits of mail where there were gaps in the plate armor), and then their plate armor. Armor in general needed help to put on, but full harness like this could require an entire team.
  • I’ve heard it said (but can’t find where) that “swords are like pistols, but spears are like machine guns.” An awkward analogy, but it kind of works: spears are the high-powered weapons that soldiers use, while swords are fallback weapons for if your spear breaks (or if you’re not a soldier and need something easier to carry around for daily life). In general, spears > swords.
  • There’s a strange idea that bows are easier to use than crossbows; the reverse is true. Crossbows have special winches to help you draw them, and you don’t have to hold the tension to fire. A proper war bow can require someone to pull and hold around 80 pounds of force. Give bows to your beefy dwarves, crossbows to your gentle elves.


  • To simplify greatly, war is generally about acquiring resources. In the premodern world, the best way to get more stuff was to control more land. Ever since permanent settlements emerged, they’ve been political and economic centers of the surrounding landscape. Therefore, the best way to get more land (and therefore more stuff) was to conquer towns, cities, fortresses, etc.
  • Since cities (here just meaning decent-sized settlements) are the prize, enemy armies are only important if they get in the way. The intended target of an army was almost always a city; sieges were the main goal. Pitched battles only really happened if they prevented an attacking army from reaching a city or a defending army from reinforcing a city.


  • Operations is everything that happens between deciding your target and the actual battle/siege. Bret Devereaux wrote that the main goal of premodern operations was “delivering the siege”—that is, it was all the logistics that got the army to the target city.
  • Most movies and books will have soldiers all on their own, an army marching to their destination. Real armies had lots of baggage; pack mules, carts, backpacks, etc. There might be a mule for every five soldiers, a cart for every twenty. They needed to carry rations, firewood, gear, fodder for the animals, materials for shelter and siegeworks, etc. This “baggage train” is an integral part of premodern armies on the march. All those marching soldiers you see in epic fantasy movies are 100% going to starve.
  • If your army has cavalry, then you also need horses. Not just one horse per rider: at least one riding horse and one warhorse. The warhorses were bred differently and were more expensive—and even ignoring all that, you don’t want your warhorse to be tired when you get to the battle.
  • Similar to all the missing supplies in fantasy armies, there are lots of missing people. “Camp followers” are all the people who march with an army but don’t technically fight, and there are a ton of them. The soldiers’ families, slaves, servants, and more will walk with them and help whenever possible. Camp follower merchants (“sutlers”) will provide goods and other services.
  • Even with all this support, it’s practically impossible for armies to carry enough to feed and sustain themselves on the march. In order to survive, armies “forage,” though that’s a very gentle word for it. What that means is that they are constantly sending people out into the countryside as they march, taking food and supplies from nearby civilians. If an army stops moving, then they’ll quickly run out of places to “forage” and will start to starve—Bret quips that “an army is like a shark: if it stops, it dies.”
  • However, an army can’t forage too hard: remember, the strategic aim of a war is to control the producing countryside. If an army takes too much food from civilians (around 20% of a year’s harvest), the commoners will start starving and won’t be able to give the conquerors anything. That’s another reason the army has to keep moving—it has to find new people to take from instead of just foraging from the same people over and over again.
  • One last thing to consider about operations is how slow armies on the march are. Armies move more like inchworms than caterpillars; the army has to all meet up for the night’s camp, so the front of the column has to stop before sundown so the rear can catch up. The larger the army, the slower it is, since the column is longer, making the front stop even earlier. (If that doesn’t make sense, just take my word for it.) The very very general rule of thumb is that premodern armies move about 12 miles in one day. The average traveler on foot can go twice that speed (ish).
  • Armies can split up into multiple, shorter columns to move faster, but that’s risky. In order to have enough forage space, they usually need to take different routes, and making sure that everyone gets there at the same time is important (if you arrive a bit at a time, your enemy can defeat you much easier). While not strictly a premodern general, Napoleon was known for masterfully coordinating many fast-moving columns so they all hit the enemy at the same time.

Siege Tactics

  • If you only remember one thing about how settlements protect themselves, it’s this: dig a ditch. That’s it, just a ditch. A big ditch. Pile the dirt from the ditch on the inside to make a low wall, too. Heck, put water in it and you’ve got a moat, which is even better. Catapults, battering rams, siege towers, and horses all break when they meet a big ol’ ditch. Attackers can fill them in eventually, but it takes a lot of work. Roman legions would make a ditch and wooden wall (palisade) every night.
  • There are a couple things that popular walls also get wrong. One, the crenelations—the zigzag parts on top—are usually too short. The tall parts need to be taller than a standing man, and the shorter ones should be waist-high. Those are so that standing can stand behind the taller bits, reload, then duck out and use the shorter parts as partial cover while they shoot. The other thing that needs to be changed is the wall’s surface itself. All that exposed masonry gives too many footholds for potential climbers. Real castle walls were regularly plastered to keep them smooth (and nice and shiny as a bonus). This is a misconception regarding ancient stone structures in general: they usually had painted plaster (or something similar) over exposed stone. Ancient people wanted things to look pretty. The stone was all that survived, but not all that was originally there.
  • If at all possible, the attackers would try to get the defenders to surrender. Waiting out a siege is painful for attackers—they’re running out of food too, since they’re losing people to forage from (remember the shark). Taking a settlement by assault is very costly, and ideally you want what’s inside to stay intact (including the ever-valuable food your soldiers need). Getting a traitor to secretly open a gate was also an option.
  • One note: if attackers are approaching the walls, they’re not going to do it by marching in close formation. That’s easy arrow fodder. They’ll approach spaced out, often behind large “riot shields” called “mantlets.” Everything that was going to get close to the wall would be covered, including things like battering rams.
  • Almost everything popular culture shows about siege engines is false. Using ladders (a tactic called an “escalade”) was a very risky move that was only attempted if the defenders were very weak. Battering rams could be used against walls and not just gates, since gatehouses were very heavily defended. Siege towers weren’t really for getting soldiers on top of the walls, but getting archers high enough to shoot over the battlements. Catapults and trebuchets weren’t for knocking walls down, but for breaking the top parts of the wall that were sheltering defenders (and for shooting over the walls to destroy buildings inside). Digging tunnels under the walls wasn’t done to get soldiers through the tunnel, but to deliberately collapse the tunnel, causing the wall above to cave in. Also, siege engines weren’t wheeled all the way from one town to another. Armies would bring materials in carts, then construct them at the siege itself.
  • Something that existed in real life and would be awesome to see in a movie is the idea of combined siege engines. The Assyrians would use siege towers that had a battering ram at the base, and the Greeks used a massive tower called a Helepolis that had ballistae and catapults inside. The Helepolis didn’t work since the ground was a little tilted and it broke (remember those ditches!), but still awesome.
  • One common tactic that’s never touched on in popular fantasy is just building a big dirt ramp (called a “mole”) up to the walls. It was slow, and your laborers needed to be protected, but it worked frequently. It wasn’t restricted to just land, too. When Alexander the Great was being defied by a fortress on an island, he made a land bridge to the island. It was fairly close to the shore, but again, still awesome.
  • Defenders don’t have to just sit there, either. Not only can they pepper attackers with arrows (and rocks and hot water, if they get closer; falling rocks really hurt), but they can actually leave the city and make small attacks of their own to wound the besiegers. These counterattacks are called “sallies,” and many walled cities have secret doors called “sally ports” for exactly this reason.
  • A besieging army had to protect itself both against these sallies and from the threat of a relieving army attacking from the rear. To stay safe, they would dig their own ditches and build their own walls, facing both the settlement and the countryside. Caesar called the inward-facing fortifications “circumvallation” and the outward-facing ones “contravallation.”
  • Again, remember that field battles weren’t the most important parts of a war: sieges were. They could be used to intercept approaching attackers or eliminate troublesome defenders, though.

Battle Tactics

  • One very important thing needs to be kept in mind: battles were less about death and more about morale. You don’t win when every enemy soldier is dead. You win when they all run away. Killing your enemy is obviously important, but those deaths are most valuable when they make your enemy lose hope and run.
  • While specific formations usually required some training (like the phalanx), you always wanted your soldiers to stay in some kind of order. Staying organized was very important for morale/cohesion, especially if your soldiers were close together.
  • For this reason, there’s almost never the kind of disorganized melee you see in movies, where it’s just a mess of soldiers and fighting. Instead, soldiers would stay in their formations and the people in the front ranks would fight, reinforcements stepping over bodies when someone falls. Battlefields didn’t have bodies strewn everywhere, but in nice neat lines. The only time you’d see fighting in loose formation is if a unit has broken its cohesion and is routing (fleeing), and the attackers are chasing after to pick off stragglers.
  • Cavalry is also used incorrectly in movies. Horsemen don’t just smash into infantry in close formation; that kind of impact just breaks the horse. Cavalry also doesn’t just stand next to infantry and strike down at them; the horses are also very stabbable. Instead, the cavalry charge was to freak out the infantry and break their morale, making them rout and flee in loose order. The cavalry would then ride between the fleeing soldiers and strike down at them, almost always with spears/lances (being able to hit past your horse’s head is useful), but very rarely with sabers (curved swords that are great at slicing infantry as you ride past). If a charge couldn’t get the infantry to break, the cavalry might turn and ride away in a feigned retreat; for some strange animalistic reason, people are compelled to chase after, loosening the formation and allowing the cavalry to turn around again and run through them, killing as before.

And that’s all I’ve got for now! Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed / gotten wrong, or if there’s something you’d like me to write about in the future.

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For Your Enjoyment: Facts about premodern life to make livelier settlements and NPCs

It can be hard to make interesting people and places. Things kind of blur together, forming a mush of fantasy tropes. One source of inspiration is actual history: so many of our fantasy settings are based on misconceptions that a world closer to reality can be novel and fascinating. (And if you’re like me, realism is something to be prized for its own sake.)

The facts presented here are largely true regardless of where you’re looking in the world: the Mediterranean, Europe, China, India, whatever. This is because they’re mostly based on fundamental physical (Edit: and technological) realities instead of cultural themes. However, it’s impossible to say that anything is completely universal, so there’s tons of wiggle room here.

It’s worth mentioning that most RPGs, D&D included, could arguably fit in the “early modern” period instead of “premodern.” We tend to intuitively understand those times a bit better, so I won’t cover them here. In addition, magic and monsters change things a lot, way more than we often think about. That’s another rabbit hole I won’t be going into; this is just about the real world.

A lot of this is drawn from the fantastic blog of Professor Brent Devereaux, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry—particularly his “How Did They Make It?” and “The Lonely City” series. I highly recommend checking out his stuff.


  • The vast, vast majority of people living in premodern societies are subsistence farmers. We’re talking 80-90% of everyone running small farms that make enough for their families. They don’t have specialized occupations or even buy/sell things that much, they just do their best to survive off of what they can make themselves.
  • One important thing to note is that despite the realities in the previous point, “commoners” weren’t miserable people grubbing in the dirt. They had a surprising amount of downtime and a robust life, filled with festivals, religion, etc. I don’t go into detail here, but there are a lot of sources to describe village life.
  • With a lot of variation, the average household size is around 8 people. These households have fairly little land to farm, so there’s always too many people and too little land—these people are almost always close to starvation. In fact, there are very high death rates in the period right before harvest (especially for children and elders). Their decisions are based more on avoiding the risk of death and less on maximizing the potential of their resources.
  • There are two main activities that dominate the lives of these “commoners” (for lack of an easier term): farming and clothesmaking. Because women have to spend a lot of time nursing, they end up with the clothesmaking role, since they can do most of it while working on other tasks. Since both jobs require a lot of practice, these roles can be pretty rigid: everyone, from kids to elders, helps with their assigned role (food or clothes).
  • Farms have many different types of crops (mostly grains) and animals (pigs, sheep, chickens). Specializing would lead to higher outputs, but this way a bad harvest on one crop at least means you’ve got a bunch of others to fall back on.
  • The clothesmaking role of women is one of the most glossed-over aspects of “commoner” life. Making clothes is very labor-intensive, and making just two outfits per family member a year can take many, many hours of work. Almost all of a woman’s time will be spent spinning thread; even while doing other things, like cooking and child-rearing, they’ll have tools for spinning (distaff and spindle) under their arms or in bags, ready to start again once they get a moment’s time. Spinning wheels make this faster, but no less ubiquitous. They also weave the clothes for their family.
  • Commoner clothes are usually wool or linen. They’re pretty tight-fitting, both because they’re made for the individual and because using extra fabric is to be avoided. Unlike almost everything you’ve seen, clothes were usually very brightly dyed using whatever colors were available. This is also almost universal; people like to look good. These were relatively varied (reds, greens, blues, yellows, browns, etc.), though there might only be one shade of each color.
  • One very important way commoners mitigated risk was by investing in relationships with other commoners. Festivals and celebrations were very, very frequent. If a household got a bumper crop, instead of storing it (it would probably spoil before next year) or selling it (money was very unreliable), they would throw a party for their friends. All these favors made it more likely that if your harvest went poorly, others would help support your family.
  • One interesting custom I feel like mentioning is the “hue and cry.” In settlements too small for a city guard (which was sometimes kind of a real thing), people in distress would give a special shout to indicate they were in trouble. Everyone who could hear was obligated to immediately come and help. Great to keep in mind if you have to deal with murderhobos.


  • While commoners are defined by “too many people, too little land,” nobles are defined by “too much land, too few workers.” People like this are in every premodern society; they’re technically called “big men” to avoid relying on a culture-specific term, but I’ll just call them nobles to make it easier.
  • Systems will often be in place to get nobles the labor they need: slavery, serfdom, tenants/sharecroppers, whatever. While commoners are focused on avoiding risk to survive, nobles are more profit-oriented to get as much as they can from their land, allowing them to support relatively lavish lifestyles.
  • In most settlements, the best farming-enhancing resources are owned by the nobles: plows, powered mills, draft animals, etc. Commoners have to pay in goods or labor to use these services.
  • Nobles often have some obligations to their commoners—usually defending them militarily or legally—but these benefits are small compared to the resources the nobles extract. This relationship wasn’t completely one-sided, since some elite peasants could often bargain for better rights, but it definitely wasn’t equal.
  • Something important to note is that the clothesmaking role of women is almost never abandoned, even for noble ladies. They may supervise other women who do a lot of the work, but they still have to help themselves. Several ancient sources revere “good wives” who spin and weave despite their wealth—Livia, wife of Roman Emperor Augustus, still made his clothes.


  • I’m using “specialists” as a catch-all to describe everyone who isn’t a “commoner” or “noble” as I’ve defined them. These people have “jobs” in a way that’s at least close to how we understand it.
  • Merchants are one of the most important specialist classes, but also almost universally despised. They broke the relationship-based system of commoner life and no-one thought it was honest that merchants bought at one price and sold at another (economics took a long time to be discovered). Most merchants were travelers who bought whatever stuff was cheap and sold whatever stuff was expensive; ware-specific shops were rarer and restricted to cities.
  • Merchants could, and sometimes did, grow as rich as the nobles of the previous section. The nobles did not like this, and often passed laws to limit merchant wealth and power.
  • Commoner clothesmakers were supported by two groups of specialists. The first is shepherds, who usually have to move their herds from place to place to give them enough pasture. They also process the wool before selling them to commoners—one of the few times commoners regularly buy things. (Note that many villages have communal flocks to reduce their reliance on external shepherds.) The second group is fullers and dyers, who treat and color clothes once they’ve been woven. Yes, fullers do soak clothes in urine in most ages, but that’s not the biggest part of their job. (Still there, though…)
  • Metalworkers are another specialist group that you can find almost everywhere and frequently interact with commoners. Metal goods are invaluable; the processes involved are complex, but still interesting.
  • It’s not worth going into all the other specialist groups here, but I want to restate: these people are a slim minority. Remember, 80-90% of people are “commoners.” Your characters are likely to be interacting with specialists and nobles more than commoners, but understand that there’s way more going on behind the scenes.


  • Think about Winterfell, Minas Tirith, or almost any other fictional premodern city you’ve seen. Those cities are functionally naked; any real premodern city is surrounded by miles and miles of farms, pastures, etc. (In the books, Minas Tirith had farmland stretching all the way to the river Anduin, where Osgiliath is.) This productive countryside around the city is called the “hinterlands.” All this supporting area has to be there in order to give the city the resources it needs to survive; transporting stuff, even grain, is incredibly difficult and expensive. Transporting by water is way cheaper (about 5x cheaper for river, 20x cheaper for oceans), which is one reason why cities tend to be near water.
  • One interesting result of this is that if a city learns that an army is on its way, it will frequently demolish the buildings near the walls to make sure enemy soldiers don’t have cover as they approach. Not a big deal, just something I thought was neat. Many cities had laws that buildings couldn’t be built near the walls for this reason. Just as there were buildings outside the walls, there were often small farms/gardens inside the walls.
  • The three main things that cities were good for was being a commerce hub, a political center, and a military stronghold. Almost everything that was in the city was based on one of these functions. When I say “commerce,” I mean selling stuff, not making stuff. Almost everything was made in the hinterlands, then brought to urban markets. Also, when I say “political center,” I mean the administration of the surrounding countryside. Since that’s where almost everyone lived and where almost everything was made, that’s what was worth governing.
  • Lastly, it’s hard to overstate just how deadly cities were. Disease was constant, and mortality in general was very high. It was so high that more people died than were born. The only reason that cities grew in size—or at least didn’t disappear entirely—was that people moved there in search of the three benefits mentioned above. London only reversed this trend in the late 1800s.

And that’s it! I hope all this was useful; thanks for reading!

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Climates and Biomes

In this post I will be talking about all the different climates you might want to include in your world and how they all fit together, some info on each and the kinds of animals and challenges faced to live there. Many people are happy to place climates as they like, but you might want to keep the world as realistic as possible, at least in terms of environment.

If you’ve followed my working out climates tutorial you’ll recognise this table.


  Temperature Precipitation Location
Name Summer Winter Summer Winter  
Desert Hot Hot Dry (Low) Dry (Low) 0 – 30
Semi- Arid Desert Hot Hot Wet (High) Dry (Low) 0 – 15


Surrounds Desert

Tropical Hot Hot Wet (High) Wet (High) 0-20
Savannah Hot Warm Wet (High) Long and Dry (Low) 15 – 30


Between Tropical and semi-Desert

Steppe Warm Cold Low Dry (Low) 30 – 60
Temperate Grassland Warm to Mild Cold Moderate (High) Low (Low) 20 – 65
Temperate Forest Warm to Mild Cold Moderate (High) Low (Low) 20 – 65
Taiga Cold Very Cold Moderate (High) Dry (Low) 50 – 70
Tundra Cold Very Cold Low Dry (Low) 60 – 80
Icecap Very Cold Very Cold Low Dry (Low) 75+


Of course there are variations within each climate but these are the main ones. It might seem obvious, but don’t place a hot climate next to a cold climate, consider the temperature changes.. Bridge a desert and temperate climate with savannah, for example.


Many rain forests experience more than 100 inches of rain every year. Precipitation may also come in the form of fog and mist, like the clouds surrounding this rain forest in Borneo.

Tropical climates are hot and wet with heavy rains and are found near the equator. Tropical climates usually only have two seasons, wet and dry, which can vary in length depending on location.. Temperature variation is often minimal with a high amount of sunlight. This level of sunlight and plentiful rainfall is ideal conditions for plant life, which can in turn support plentiful animal life. Tropical plants tend to be rich in natural resources.

Animals and humans living there have to be adapted to be able to deal with the heat. Many do this by sleeping all day and being active during twilight hours or at night to avoid peak heat. Some burrow underground as its much cooler, some are simply able to withstand higher temperatures, and if so you’ll be unlikely to see these elsewhere.


Not everything needs to be a forest

Savanna environments are dominated by grassland and scattered trees due to the low rainfall. They are usually warm all year round, but long and dry winters make life difficult. Water becomes scarce and wildfires are common, often caused by lightning striking the ground and igniting the dry grasses. Pockets of trees are often found near streams or ponds.

Many animals living in the savanna are herbivours due to the abundance of grasses. During the dry winter months, the lack of water often drives the herds to migrate to other areas in search of water.

Savannah animal are often fast, herbivores move in herds and packs of predators hunt in groups using speed, stealth and tactics. Endurance is a trait that is common here.

Arid Desert

Sahara | Location, History, Map, Countries, Animals, & Facts | Britannica

Anywhere where vegetation is scarce would be considered a desert, hot or cold. Rain is often light or infrequent and can evaporate quicker than it can fall. Sometimes even before it hits the ground!

Any plants have adapted to survive will be experts at finding and storing water, often with shallow, widely spread roots and thick leaves to store any water it does manage to find.

Many animals that live in the desert are cold blooded and any mammals are often small. It is very hard to survive in a hot desert and cold deserts can support even less animals. If possible many animals will live near the coast, or any other water source for access to fish and so on.

Hot and dry all year round, these environments can support little life and only the bravest would cross. Life will be concentrated around rivers and oasis.

Semi-Arid Desert

Semi-Arid Desert Environment in Environments - UE Marketplace

Semi-arid deserts are cooler than hot dry deserts and are often more humid. If they are near the coasts, fog could blow in. Rainfall would be more than a dry desert, but not enough to support widespread vegetation. They are generally found around the fringes of arid deserts, as the biomes merge from one to the other. Some might experience short rainy seasons, which support some vegetation, but not enough to become a savanna. Plants an animals are often quite similar to arid deserts.


Konza Prairie stretches out near Manhattan, Kansas. The American prairie is a steppe ecosystem. A steppe is a dry, grassy plain that occurs in temperate climates.

A steppe is a dry grassy plain, found in temperate climates, which are found between polar and tropical regions. Steppe’s are considered semi-arid as they have a low amount of rainfall, just enough to sustain short grasses, but not enough for tall grass or trees to grow.

Communities that live here are often heavily reliant on horses for travel, trade and conquest. The steppes themselves are ideal routes for travel and trade due to the flat open terrain.

Temperate Grassland

Life In A Temperate Grassland

Temperate grasslands are large open areas of grassland, similar to the Steppe, but with more rainfall. Charictarised by low growing vegetation on acidic soils, which leads to a lack of larger vegetation (ie would otherwise grow into a temperate forest).

Temperate Forest

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This biome receives a lot of rainfall all year round, with mild to warm summers and cold winters. Animals that live here are adapted to cope with warm summers and cold winters, some hibernate or migrate to avoid the cold, others have adaptions such as thick winter coats.


Taiga forests for kids - location, climate, plants and animals

Taiga lies between temperate forests and tundra and as such are the forests of the colder regions. The ground can often contain permafrost all year round. Along with rock, this can stop water from draining away and can create shallow bogs, which can look like solid ground but are actually wet and spongey.

The forests are thick and have adapted to survive long cold dark winters and short summers. A wide range of animals live in the taiga, all will have adapted to the cold. Birds will often migrate to warmer climates for winter, but other animals live here all year round.


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Tundra ia cold harsh enviroment with a distinct lack of trees due to permafrost and high winds. Combined with a lack of rainfall, this leads to low-level of vegetation. For much of the year the area is cold and frozen, with a short warmer growing season. Alpine tundra would be found at a very high elevation where nightime temperatures fall below freezing.

Any animals will be well adapted to make use of the short growing season and often build up large fat stores to sustain and insulate them throughout the long winters. They often have thick coats and many migrate or hibernate.

Icecap / Polar Region

The Arctic Vs. Antarctica: Choosing Your Polar Trip | Intrepid Travel Blog

(AKA cold deserts) These are the regions of the world covered in a sheet of ice for most of the year and are some of the harshes regions of them all, yet life still finds a way. Any plants and animals that live here will have adapted to the long, cold, dark winters and will take advantage of the short, productive summers. Many animals will be migratory. Most soil will be covered in ice most of the time and any soil that is exposed is often low in nutrients.


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Credited to u/darkblade273

The most common map guides I’ve found glance over coastlines as just “use a fractal generator” or “just make it really jagged and never use straight/curved lines”, which are only really suitable for some regions of the world. Coastlines are affected by elevation, underlying tectonic plates, and climate, which are never really touched upon, so I made this short guide as to different types of coastlines.

Here are pics of real world coastlines of varying sizes with parts outlined in black, to better help visualize what coastlines look like at various levels of zoom in.

Any Elevation, Temperate / Warm / Hot Regions


  • The most common coastal pattern, straight lines that sometimes bend into points or have very small inlets/estuaries for rivers or tiny islands at the coast
  • No recent glacial activity, so no fjords or inlets like in glacier affected regions

High Elevation, North/South Regions


  • Glaciers carve fjords and islands into the elevated areas of the coastline
  • Lots of tiny little bays and inlets, also lakes
  • In other areas coastlines are rigid, but fairly straight

Low Elevation, North/South Regions


  • Glacier activity still carvves lakes and islands, but not as dramatic and no real fjords
  • Mostly straight lines that curve or come to points at places
  • Lots of lakes still

Oceanic Island Chains


  • Oceanic island chains are where Oceanic plates converge with other places, they result in chains of many volcanic islands following the boundary of the plate
  • Glacial activity is possible if islands are close to poles, like in eastern Russia, which results in fjords and islands
  • Even without glacial activity, have large amounts of tiny islands surrounding big islands, all of them volcanic

Continental-Continental Mountainous Regions*


  • * In areas where continental plates converge with an open sea coast, like the Mediterranean Sea or the Persian Gulf, there’s an increase of islands around the main peninsulas and coastlines
  • Lots of islands with jagged coasts and inlets, closest to the typical fractal generation



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Using Natural Wonders as Holy Sites, Points of Conflict and Mystery in you World

I was recently rewatching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth (which I highly recommend), and there’s a part where a waterfall is so high up that the water falls unbroken for so long that it blows away in a fine mist. This got me thinking that this would likely be a spiritual or sacred place for nearby settlements. Here are some examples. Angel Falls – Venezuela angel falls.jpg Angel Falls in Venezuela has a height of 979 m (3,212 ft) and a plunge of 807 m (2,648 ft)making it the highest waterfall in the world. So high up that much of the water evaporates before it reaches the ground and turns into a fine mist which is spread across the land, keening the surrounding lands lush and full of life even in the most dry of seasons. You can easily imagine local tribes honouring this place and its life giving properties. The Grand Canyon – Colorado, USA grand canyon.jpg The Grand Canyon 277 miles (446 km) long, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and attains a depth of over a mile (6,093 feet or 1,857 meters). The Canyon has, for thousands of years, been inhabited by Native Americans who build settlements within the Canyon and caves. At least one tribe, the Pueblo considered it a holy site and made pilgrimages to it. Perhaps in your world, a great canyon such as this may be viewed as the battlegrounds of the gods. Glow Worms & Fireflies glowworms.jpg fireflies.jpg Fireflies and Glow worms are pretty magical in the own right. Perhaps some legends will tell of a forest that lights up with flying lights when the gods are pleased, or the glow worm cave might be a sacred site. Mud Volcanos mud volcano.jpg These strange formations, found in Azerbaijan are where gasses and fine solids suspended in liquids (mud) are pushed up out of the ground causing volcanos and ravines. Kummakivi kummakivi.png.jpg Kummakivi, Finland is a giant rock, sat atop another in the middle of a forest. Legend has it, it was placed there by giants. Hoodoos hoodoo.jpg Found in Cappadocia, Turkey, these towers were created by erosion. They are so large buildings can be carved into the side of them. The fact that they are also known as Fairy Chimneys indicates that legends will have around these formations. The Giants Causeway A surreal collection of hexagonal rock formations stacked together like play pieces in Northern Ireland. Local legend has it was the site of a fight between the Northern Irish giant Finn McCool (yes thats his name!) and Scottish giant Brenandonner where McCool ripped off chunks of the coast and hurled it into the sea to make a walk way! The Northern Lights Imagine seeing this hundreds or thousands of years ago. The tribal elders would almost certainly claim the Gods are pleased with the tribe, or they are witnessing the birth of a new god or something like this. You can use this in your worldbuilding. This might be a sight that unites the tribes, or a point of contention with differing views. Salar de Uyuni The reflective salt sands of Bolivia; its easy to imagine some long lost traveller returning to his village telling stories where world ended and there was only the sky. You can use these to spice up your world and add character with interesting natural formations, as locations for sacred sites, inspiration for legends, points of conflict as different people fight over important holy locations. ——————
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Drawing Culture Maps and Using Them to Produce Plot Points

Today I’m going to be talking about a technique you can use to inject your world with conflicts, situations and drama, by drawing a new overlay for your map. This technique is inspired by the Paradox Games such as Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4. You can think of Cultures as Ethnicities if it helps. (I imagine many worldbuilders have already played these games, but if you haven’t check them out. You’re in for a treat). What is a Culture Map and what does it do for me? The aim of the culture map is to give you material to work with when it comes to your history. It is a way of breathing life into your world. The tool directly creates situations which you can choose to develop. Rather than working through your countries one by one, it allows you to build up several at once by almost generating situations for you. For example you might have a country that is populated by a several different cultures, bordering a country with a culture of a different group. You as the worldbuilder can take this and develop it. This country might be a diverse land with different tribal ethnic groups squabbling for power, but prevented from civil war by the threat of the neighbouring barbarians bringing with them a completely different and alien way of life. Even though I had info on different countries, and a good idea of their culture, the political map can still look rather static. I found it hard to weave a nice history around the states. I felt like I was following a checklist, disputed succession here, ethnic minority rulers here, civil war there. I was getting caught up in how different cultures should be from their neighbours, whether there is a common religion across this region etc and a Culture Map can help overcome this. map.png We’re going to create something like this. You can use this on your current world or on a new world. If its your current world, I would suggest hiding the nation boundaries so you don’t follow them too much, then enabling them at the end and taking a look what has developed. How to do it This guide assumes you are using GIMP, PS, or program that has layers. Duplicate your map / terrain layer.  Hide the bottom one. On the top layer, erase the sea and water bodies. Follow the coast as close as you can. Right click the layer and hit Alpha to Selection. Make a new layer, lower the opacity to about 50%. Select the new layer. This allows you to paint on your cultures without painting in the sea, over lakes etc. Always remember to click Alpha to Selection on on the second layer and then draw on your top layer. This way you can show and hide your cultures and your coastlines will be nice and neat. Points to Consider Colour in different areas on the map to show the (dominant) cultures there. I prefer to do each separate culture and then group them after into different culture groups, or religions.
  • Use the terrain to guide you. People living in mountains are going to have cultural differences and traditions from those living in humid swamps, who would again have different cultures form those living on temperate plains or islands.
  • Use geographical features such as rivers, mountains and the coast act as natural boundaries for some culture, but also imagine a history of culture expansion and transition as people, ideas and empires spread across the land. Allow this to guide you to smudge your cultures around your mountains and across the river. Don’t worry about how the culture came to be over here, just know that at some point in your world’s history there’s a reason, which you can discover later on if you want.
  • Tough to handle terrain, where its harder to travel, tends to lead to more linguistic/cultural diversity.

Darker brown areas indicate higher mountains. Mountain ranges will form natural boundaries to cultures, such as those dividing Pink and Green. In this section of the map we have several cultures nestled around the mountain peaks .The Blue culture, in the centre, is localised in the higher regions of the mountains.

  • Don’t make them too blobby or follow your Political Map too much. Cultures won’t fit neatly into political borders. They aren’t spread evenly and don’t have even populations. They can take much longer to change that nation boundaries. They can be spread across nations and be of different sizes and shapes. one culture might be large, but but its people spread across four nations and be a minority in each. There might be three separate Kingdoms all belonging the same culture type.
  • Some cultures may pop up in unusual places, away from their main area. Perhaps relics of fallen Empires, or new expansion efforts?

In this section of the map, you see an area of Green culture cut off from the majority of their kin. They are separated by high mountains (brown) and the Purple culture in the lowlands. The people here are likely to want to reunite themselves with one another

  • Small or remote cultures. Some cultures might resist change in more remote areas from lack of contact, strong cultural identity or sheer stubbornness. Consider putting these in remote areas, peninsulas or islands on the back side of a larger Empire.

Here there have a number of small cultures on the islands. Brown culture hugging the coast where Blue dominates. In the East, Purple holds on in to two remote areas. Perhaps they are a fading culture, once dominating the lands between them too?

Culture Groups Many cultures have a similarities. Several may share a religion or the same cultural roots. They have more that binds them than separates them when they consider their similarities and differences.
  • Look to the terrain again. Try picture what regions might have more common ground.
  • Think about your history. Rising empires will spread their culture across a region or a collapsed empire’s culture might fracture into a number of successor cultures that share a group, and a history.
Process Use the Fuzzy Select Tool (select area of continuous colour). Holding shift, select all cultures of the same group. Select a new layer. Then Edit – > Stroke Selection. I used 3px as width. cultureMapWGroups Show Country Borders Drawing country borders using criteria such as those above will ensure your countries will broadly match your cultures. If you already have borders, simply re-enable them and take a look and see whats being going on. cultureMapWBorders.png Putting It All Together: Plot Points Using this technique, you can generate loads of plot points or areas of history for you to explore. Take this section of the map. plotPoint1
  • Are there any minorities?: In this country on the southern half of the land mass there are 4 cultures. Three cultures belonging to to the red culture group, and one to dark blue. These two regions are a different culture group to the majority of their country. Are they persecuted?
  • Who is in control? How is their relationship with the others?: The two large cultures are split pretty equally. They might be two large factions of the country vying for control, have a bit of a divide or a friendly rivalry.
  • Common Enemy: Most of the countries on this protruding landmass are in the red culture group, they might all share an animosity to the light blue culture group, or a defensive alliance to protect one another.
  • Separatist movements: In the central large country, there are a few orange cultures, and a blue region in the west. This region has a completely different culture to the majority of its country, it borders regions in other countries and borders a country where its culture is dominant. Any one of these might be cause for rebellion. All three means civil unrest is likely be very high here.
  • Claims to the Land: The orange country holds lands belonging to the culture of its neighbour. That neighbour is likely to declare war at some point to free and reunite their people.
  • Why is the culture spread like this?: Perhaps blue used to hold all these lands and wishes to reconquer them. Perhaps orange is a new radical religion that is sweeping from the mountains in the east and spreading across west as more and more people adapt to the new way of life.
  • Patchwork Countries: These mountain regions are a patchwork mess of interweaving nations and cultures. Borders here seem particularly fluid, short lived empires might be prone here. Maybe its a region of mountain warlords constantly subjugating one another, spreading their cultures around.
So you can see how much material and inspiration a culture map can give you to develop your world and its history. It can be a great way to breathe life into your world and be another way to look at it. Thanks for reading. ——————
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