Scandinavia and Linguistic Distance

This week, I’d like to take a brief look at something different. I recently read through the amazing webcomic, Stand Still, Stay Silent (here’s page one), set in a unique post-apocalyptic Scandinavian setting. There are a billion good things about SSSS—fascinating usage of Nordic folklore, detailed worldbuilding, delightful character interactions, and an engaging storyline among them—but something I’ve legitimately never seen anywhere else is its use of languages. It’s worth exploring these dynamics to create more linguistically vibrant world.

In the world of SSSS, the only areas that have survived an apocalyptic plague are the Nordic nations of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland (at least, those are the only inhabited places we’re aware of). Unlike similar settings that take place in other locations, like the United States, the Nordic region is very linguistically diverse. Each of the five nations has its own language, and this hasn’t changed during the 90 years between the end of the world and the comic’s events. The author, Minna Sundberg, grew up in Sweden and Finland, so she brings a lot of personal experience to the table.

The party agreeing that the cat should be called Kitty—kind of. Note the flags in the dialogue boxes to show what language people are speaking—and that the person speaking Norwegian (far left) and the one speaking Icelandic (second from the left) are talking past each other, since their languages aren’t mutually intelligible (more on that in a second).

As tempted as I am to do a deep dive of the languages involved, a quick overview is enough to extract some valuable lessons. Minna has a great in-world graphic to explain the dynamics:

SSSS on the Nordic languages (written by an in-world Icelander, so it’s a bit harsh on Finnish)

Essentially, there are two main groups: Norse languages and Finnish. The Norse languages (Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) all come from Old Norse. The three Scandinavian languages (all Norse languages except Icelandic) are “mutually intelligible,” meaning that while someone who speaks one of them can understand the others with some effort. (As an aside, English isn’t really mutually intelligible with any other languages; the only thing that comes close is Scots, and that’s a stretch. The lines in that clip are “If he was a wee bit closer, I could lob a caber at him, ken?” and “It’s just nae fair making us fight for the hand of a queen that doesn’t want a part of it, ken?”, (“ken” here meaning “you know?”) which you can just barely make out.)

The odd one out is Finnish, which is very different from the others. Finnish isn’t even part of the Indo-European language family, which practically every other language in Europe is a member of. In technical terms, Finnish is “linguistically distant” from the Norse languages. This, along with deep cultural and religious differences, makes it very hard for Finns and other Nordic people to relate with each other.

The party’s Swede trying to speak with the Finn after a couple months of trying to learn the language. One interesting thing is that the third person on the far right doesn’t actually speak Swedish, only Danish, but they can understand each other due to mutual intelligibility.

These real-world dynamics provide lots of fodder for worldbuilders. Most people think of languages only in terms of extreme linguistic distance, like Finnish and the Norse languages. Mutual intelligibility is never considered. By creating settings with varying degrees of distance, you can inject both realism and nuance into your worlds.

I hope you enjoyed this brief diversion! Feedback and suggestions are always welcome.

For Your Enlightenment: Early modern colonialism for fictional empires

Now that the first article discussing the basics of the early modern era, is out of the way, we can get started dissecting the elements that can be used by worldbuilders.

One of the features that defined the early modern period was globalization. The world went from being a collection of regional powers that only interacted with neighbors to being relatively connected worldwide. Unfortunately, the vehicle for that increased connection was European imperialism and colonialism. These trends hurt a lot of people for the benefit of a few, but worldbuilders can use these events to create realistic empires of their own.

Let’s talk about colonial motivations, charters and companies, managing empires, and imperial conflicts.

Colonial Motivations

  • To simplify greatly, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was the catalyst for the Age of Discovery (which led directly to colonialism and imperialism). Christian Europe was nervous that Silk Road trade was now controlled by a Muslim Empire, so they began looking for ways around them. Once Europe started to move ahead militarily and technologically, they began subjugating the locals—the first modern colonies.
  • Historians use the phrase “Glory, God, and gold” to describe the motivations behind colonialism. (And you thought that was something Disney made up for Pocahontas.) “Gold” is the easiest to understand. Governments were looking for revenue, both through setting up trade routes and by extracting local resources. “God” refers to the push to convert locals to Christianity. The religious fervor of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation was a huge factor behind this. Lastly, “glory” captures both the drive for individual explorers to make a name for themselves and for governments to one-up each other. Of course, “glory” on the governmental level often boiled down to “gold” anyway.
  • One last thing to consider is how these considerations affected the nature of the colonies themselves. There are a few ways to classify colonies, but the simple system we’ll use differentiates between “settler” and “exploitative” colonies. The vast majority of colonies were exploitative, meaning that their main goal was to extract local resources. These resources were used to maximize the wealth of the “metropole,” or the colonists’ homeland (this is where we get “metropolitan”). A minority were “settler” colonies, meaning that the focus was providing a place for immigrants to live. The North American, South African, and Australian colonies were all mostly settler, while the rest were mostly exploitative (though South American colonies were kind of mixed).

Charters and Companies

  • This isn’t a massive point, but it’s an interesting phenomenon that would make sense in many settings. For much of Europe’s colonial history, governments lacked the resources and organization to fund and manage a true empire. To remedy this, they would provide companies with “charters,” or official permissions to found and run colonies. The largest and most famous examples were the British and Dutch East India Companies. There were many others, some with incredibly small jurisdictions permitted by their charters.
  • Chartered companies were less common at the beginning and end of the early modern period for different reasons. At the start, the commercial innovations of proper corporations and joint-stock companies limited the for-profit sector’s ability to contribute meaningfully to colonization efforts, so empires like Spain and Portugal managed their colonies directly. At the end, nations became strong and bureaucratized enough that the companies were no longer necessary, so they started being reabsorbed into their governments.

Managing Empires

  • The classic way to classify colonial administration systems is a spectrum from “direct” to “indirect.” This scheme is awkward both in timing (it was devised in the early 20th century by British and French theorists advocating for ways to manage their nations’ empires) and accuracy (the spectrum’s applicability has been challenged in recent decades), but it works well enough for worldbuilding purposes.
  • Direct administration, typified by the French Empire, involved immigrants from the metropole taking active charge of local government. It understandably required large relocation efforts to supply the required manpower, and could take a lot of resources. The benefits were that the imperial government had a lot of control over how things were run in the colonies.
  • Indirect administration, typified by the British Empire, left local officials in power, but made them subservient to the imperial government. Direct systems often left some locals in government, but reduced them to figureheads intended to provide the illusion of representation to keep the locals in check. Under indirect rule, the locals genuinely governed themselves, though they could only do so within the bounds that the metropole set. This was significantly cheaper, though it could get hairy if the locals decided to try and defy their overlords.
  • Another drawback of the indirect system was that it fell apart if the local culture didn’t have a centralized government to begin with. This was the case in several African regions. There, the British would arbitrarily pick a local and put them in charge. These “warrant chiefs” (named after the warrants that gave them authority) were poorly received and respected for several reasons. The most obvious is that people didn’t feel the need for such an authority figure, so why would they obey? Another was that the colonizers would usually pick warrant chiefs that matched their image of a good leader, which often didn’t align with the personalities that locals actually valued. Warrant chiefs were almost universally men, artificially creating a patriarchal structure in areas where there wasn’t one before. These areas tended to see the most resistance to imperial rule.
  • It’s worth mentioning that the direct-indirect spectrum applies only to exploitative colonies. Settler colonies don’t want to rule the locals, they want to displace them and settle their land.
  • A final consideration is how the colonizers related to the locals. This was a debate within French circles after the French Revolution, with the two sides representing “assimilation” and “association.” Those in favor of “assimilation” believed that the ideals of the Revolution were universal human constants. They advocated for culturally reeducating the locals and forcing them to adopt the metropole’s customs and language. While this was the dominant theory in the French Empire for a long time, it wasn’t the only one. Dissidents favored “association,” which said that the local society should be kept mostly intact, though usually separate from the colonists.

Imperial Conflicts

  • When colonial empires clashed, the results could be ugly. While empires were often hesitant to fight in their homelands, it was easier on the conscience to dictate distant bloodshed. As such, the colonies were often the sites of horrible proxy wars, frequently using locals as conscripts and mercenaries. In the most extreme examples, all the colonies would get involved, as in the Seven Years’ War (which is considered to be the first true global conflict; sorry, World War I).
  • Even when empires weren’t officially at war, there was a constant hum of low-level conflict. One of the simplest vehicles for this was the privateer system. Privateers (also called “corsairs”) were pirates that were given permission by specific governments to raid the vessels of their enemies. The “letters of marque” they were given as symbols of this permission theoretically made them immune from prosecution by other nations—even their targets—though some (notably Spain) didn’t honor these letters. (Random trivia: the US Constitution gives the federal government the power to hire privateers.)
  • Privateers often reverted to piracy once the war ended or their letters expired. Pirates could range for much longer distances than popular culture often remembers. One short-lived route, called the Pirate Round (used by pirates known as “roundsmen”) went all the way from the New York colony, down around the southern point of Africa, past Madagascar, and raided the ports of India. Just something to keep in mind—your pirates don’t have to stick to areas the size of the Caribbean.

And there you have it! Looking forward to feedback and suggestions in the comments.

For Your Enjoyment, Part 8: Premodern travel for realistic journeys

Assuming your world will feature a variety of fascinating places, your characters will probably spend a lot of time travelling between them. Today we’ll look at all the factors affecting transportation in the premodern world.

The usual conditions apply. Magic changes a lot, so we’ll address that in a different article. You could argue that many fantasy settings are early modern, but we’ll focus on the premodern world today. Lastly, if my Mediterranean- and European-heavy bias of historic knowledge shows through, let me know. As much as possible, I’ll be focusing on elements that should remain common across all premodern societies.

We’ll look at travelers, transportation, roads, waterways, and banditry.


  • While travel was fairly common, it was a relatively small portion of the population that traveled regularly. Commoners (as defined in the first article of the series) generally lacked the resources to travel, and usually felt no need to do so. Travel for leisure is a fairly recent phenomenon—premodern peoples traveled because they had to. They might enjoy the experience, but they rarely traveled for its own sake.
  • There were five varieties of premodern traveler. The first is governmental travel. Officials frequently needed to go from place to place as part of their duties. Nobles may want to travel between their estates, attend official events, or visit their superiors. There are plenty of non-nobles who act on the government’s behalf as well. Several ancient empires developed postal services with couriers who served official needs.
  • Another category is military travel. We know from the second article of this series that an underappreciated domain of military action is operations, or getting the army from place to place. Traveling armies are unique in several ways. As discussed in the Operations section, they need to keep moving and keep taking resources from locals or risk running out of supplies. Military travel can significantly stress transportation infrastructure. This was the fundamental reason why the famous Roman road system was constructed: to make military movement easier. Any benefits to trade or other travel was secondary.
  • Perhaps the largest category of travelers was merchants. Again, this was mentioned in the third article on economics. There was a constant hum of small-scale, local merchant traffic. Larger trains were also common, and the Silk Road saw massive convoys called caravans. Similar trends could be seen in water transport.
  • The last regular type of traveler is migrants. There are many reasons why people would want to look for a new place to live, usually boiling down to economic hardships or opportunities. Economic migrants often head for cities, though the pull is less strong before the Industrial Revolution. A less common, but far more impactful, force for migration is war. Conflict can create massive amounts of refugees looking for a safer place to call home. Some cultures of war allowed citizens a relative amount of peace, but collateral damage is inescapable.
  • Some religions encouraged an additional variety of traveler: pilgrims. Many religions ascribe special importance to particular places. This encourages worshippers to make pilgrimages to visit these holy sites. Specific festivals could make these pilgrimages more regular. Some developed religious institutions provided infrastructure to encourage these treks, as we’ll discuss in the Roads section. We can also include the journeys clergy go on in their duties here. Religions with central authorities often require their priests to travel to assignments.


  • While poor migrants, pilgrims, and other impoverished travelers usually traveled on foot, anyone who could afford it looked for other options. Animals and vehicles could be hired for specific trips, though wealthier travelers usually preferred to own and maintain their own.
  • Animals pulling carts preceded mounted travel by several thousand years. Several innovations made carts more effective. Harnesses that place more weight on the shoulders instead of the neck as well as spoke-and-rim wheels (which are more expensive than solid wood wheels, but lighter and way easier to maintain; people will always go for spoke-and-rim wheels whenever possible) were both helpful.
  • Another set of discoveries that made carts better were the successful domestications of various draft animals. Horses are useful, but the breeds that were available for most of history were relatively weak and couldn’t pull large loads. Donkeys were a bit sturdier relative to the amount of food they needed to eat, but they were famously stubborn and pain-resistant, making them hard to motivate (like it or not, whipping and other physical punishments were key motivators for much of history).
  • When people realized horses and donkeys could be bred together, the world of mules opened many doors. Mules share the best of both worlds (though they can still be stubborn at times). They became the animal of choice for many traveler types, especially merchants. Mules’ sterility meant that people couldn’t keep personal farms of just mules—they needed to either have horses and donkeys, have one and arrange with someone else for breeding, or purchase mules from a seller.
  • Another option was to go with oxen. Once proper yokes were designed, oxen could pull truly massive loads. The downside was that they were both slow and hungry. Because of this, were really only used by merchants who would use the oxen to carry lots of goods to sell, paying for their exorbitant cost.
  • I should briefly mention that people could pull carts themselves. This was very difficult, and was often restricted to very short trips within cities or between a city and its hinterland. In extreme cases, very impoverished people might need to use handcarts to travel very long distances. The classic example is the Mormon pioneer experience, though the 1800s could hardly be called “premodern.”
  • You might notice that I’ve made lots of references to things being in carts, but not people. That’s because for a lot of history, actually riding in carts was tremendously uncomfortable. It took until the very end of the European Middle Ages for any kind of suspension to be discovered, and that was just straps of leather. If you wanted to sit in a vehicle, it usually had to be for short trips within a settlement (which usually had slightly gentler roads) or actually carried by horses or people, no wheels involved. Chariots are an exception, but people stood in those—only for brief periods—and they were never built for comfort in the first place.
  • In addition to using animals for draft (pulling things) there were three other purposes: pack (carrying goods in bags), mount, and as the goods themselves. Pack animals don’t require too much explanation. Mules were favored when available; oxen’s backs are so broad and awkward that panniers (bags slung over the back of a pack animal) don’t fit well. Livestock was often cargo in its own right, transported in large groups between pastures or to marketplaces. Some areas had menageries, a kind of traveling zoo.
  • This brings us to the final use of animals: mounts. My horse-loving wife has a long list of pet peeves she has about how riding is often portrayed in fiction, so I had a lot of help with my research here. (And yes, it is easiest to just talk about horses here. You could ride mules and donkeys, as well, but you can figure out what those are like by learning more about horses.)
  • The biggest thing is that horses will not be galloping the whole way. Races are short for a reason. In the best conditions, a horse could gallop for about two miles at once, but then it will need to stop and rest a while. Shadowfax doesn’t count. He was very, very magic, and was extremely tired after galloping for a day and a half. My wife specifically wrote in italics: “Your horse will die if you gallop too long, and that’s assuming it doesn’t yank you out of the saddle with its teeth first.”
  • Instead, your horse will be walking most of the time. Horse walking is still faster than human walking, so you will still get to your destination faster and less tired, but you won’t be running the whole way. You can go faster than a walk if you want, but that means you’ll have to stop and rest every once in a while—especially if you’re trying to save your horse(s) up for a battle.
  • We should expand on that and point out that if your horse is going to be doing something important at the end of a journey—a battle, race, or hunt—then you don’t want to be riding it during the actual trip. You’ll probably need a different horse to ride along the way, along with another pack animal (probably). This is another reason why cavalry and recreational horse events are reserved for the wealthy.
  • In the end, riders make about 25-30 miles each day. On foot, people can make about 20-25. It doesn’t seem like much, but that adds up when most journeys worth hiring animals for are multi-day affairs.
  • The last thing to consider about animals for transport is food and water. These will be some of the largest expenses and one of the key determinants of the route you take. You will want to stay close to bodies of water whenever possible, and ideally you will want to travel where there’s enough grass or other food for your animals to forage. You can carry grain with you, though it’s very bulky. Long story short: using animals is invaluable, but it doesn’t solve everything.
  • There isn’t a better place to put this, but readers should be aware that almost every mode of transport was very seasonally dependent. Even a heavy rain could make a route useless for days at a time (one benefit or Roman roads was that they were designed so rain flowed off of them, making this less of a concern). Roads and waterways both could be completely impassible in Winter (in a European climate). This meant that most settlements had to be self-sufficient for those seasons, since trade at any distance would be cut off. Local governments would need to be able to function without reliable communication with higher-ups. Wars were fought during non-Winter seasons, since Winter made both travel and foraging much harder.


  • This section describes all land travel, even though it’s called just “roads.” Despite the image of people roughing it through the rugged countryside, roads were there for a reason. They were next to water and other resources, they were easy to traverse, and they would have settlements for resupplies and other amenities. Even armies stayed on roads for the most part, since they had to forage supplies off of the locals.
  • Investment in roads was a key part of many developed civilizations. The most classic example was the Roman Empire, though their roads weren’t primarily intended for citizens. Roads were built behind marching legions, making military mobility extremely efficient. Any benefits for traders and other travelers were a happy side-effect. Indeed, there are a couple reports that the pavement was awful to carts (no suspension, remember) and uncomfortable for some animals, which is why the roads often had unpaved areas to either side. They were designed for marching soldiers accompanied by baggage trains.
  • Romans were also known for their milestones, small roadside monuments that recorded the distance from nearby settlements (and Rome itself). These were so regular that historians started using milestones to record locations.
  • One thing that many worldbuilders ignore is navigation. It’s generally assumed that most people didn’t have access to maps. If maps were available, they were usually low-quality, inaccurate, and very local. How did people know where they were going? Aside from memorizing common routes (and we have some records of songs used to remember roads and landmarks), one important tool was the “itinerary.” Instead of a map, you would have a list of directions, distances, and landmarks or settlements. “Five miles south to A, then six miles southeast to B, etc.” Itinerary hawkers could make a decent living selling directions. In Rome there was a master itinerary on the Pantheon that listed distances and directions to far-off settlements, allowing travelers to copy down their own itineraries from its lists.
  • It’s worth spending some time on inns, since they’re such a staple of fantasy. I’ve heard some people say that inns are almost completely fictional, and that most people slept in their own tents. This is definitely not true. Inns were almost everywhere except for smaller villages (where travelers could often pay to sleep with local families). Most of these were about a day apart, allowing travelers to almost always spend the night under a roof.
  • Inns were regarded differently in different cultures, though. Inns in Roman times were very seedy; many ones archaeologists have uncovered have plenty of graffiti and references to prostitution. Traveling officials would instead stay in a “mansio,” which was a villa set aside for them. More reputable inns called “tabernae” would show up eventually.
  • The mansio was an example of something several societies did: provide formal inns for traveling government agents. They would require passports for use and were, naturally, far more luxurious and convenient than regular inns.
  • Occasionally, religious orders would support pilgrims by offering their properties as inns. Monasteries served this purpose in Middle Ages Europe.
  • I found something very interesting in my research for this article. I looked at inn layouts in Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere, and was very surprised to find that the design was very similar in all of them. We usually imagine something similar to modern hotels, where travelers would come into a common area and rent rooms upstairs, all accessible via hallways. Real inns were usually structured around a courtyard, with rooms opening directly into the courtyard itself. Larger inns would have multiple galleries of rooms (still facing the courtyard and accessible via balconies), and fancier ones would have a fountain in the courtyard as well. Stables and storage were offered either behind the bedrooms or at the ends of the wall. Less like a hotel, more like a motel. I guess this layout was best for convenience, allowing residents to come and go without bothering others.
  • Another inn variant that was culture-specific—but very influential—was the “caravansary.” We’ve mentioned that traders traveling the Silk Road moved in large convoys called caravans. These caravans would stop in places called caravansaries, which were effectively small forts. They were structured just like regular inns, but they featured watchtowers and reinforced gates that closed at sunset. Caravansaries were outside town rather than within them, too. These precautions were necessary to protect the caravan’s riches from bandits.
  • One last thing that I was interested to learn about inns was that they often didn’t provide food. Residents had to eat whatever they’d brought. When food was available, there wasn’t a menu; everyone had to eat the same thing. Some civilizations did have restaurants—Rome had something similar to fast-food places for the poor people who didn’t have personal kitchens—but inns didn’t serve that purpose.


  • Waterways—any body of water that a boat can use—were of immense importance in the premodern world. We’ve mentioned this in other articles, but the cost and time efficiency of water travel is immense. In Roman times, river travel was five times cheaper and sea travel twenty times cheaper. To put this in perspective: say you’re a farmer on the coast. You need to travel 21 miles to a town, also on the coast. It would be easier to walk almost 19 miles in the other direction, then take a boat to your destination. (I think I did the algebra right there…)
  • Because of this, you are much more likely to see settlements next to waterways. Those that aren’t near one probably won’t be able to grow very large, and will have to be more self-sufficient. If there are important inland resources, like ore deposits, roads and other land infrastructure will be a top priority to get the resources to where they could be processed and/or sold. Lumber is especially easy to transport by river; it can just be tied up into rafts and floated down, a practice called “timber rafting.” (This is where the North American sport of logrolling comes from.)
  • Canals, or man-made waterways, showed up earlier than you might expect. The first canals were for irrigation, and it was a happy coincidence if a canal was large enough for riverboats. Once technology advanced enough for more reliable canal construction, they could be built to connect important waterways or provide access to important inland areas.
  • River barges had to be very flat-bottomed in order to get them past shallower portions. They were often smaller, since they might have to be pulled on land a short ways in the event of low bridges or very shallow fords. When technology made it possible, seagoing vessels could have much deeper bottoms to make room for more cargo.
  • For almost all premodern cultures, seafaring boats had to stay pretty close to shore (the portion of ocean known as the “littorals”). The tools to navigate open waters were a while off, the weather could be harsher, and the vessels often needed to resupply frequently. The exception was the region of the Pacific Islands, whose peoples developed incredibly sophisticated methods and technology for dealing with these challenges. For the rest of the world, everything stayed coastal for a long time.
  • If a traveler couldn’t afford to own a boat or rent one—which was the majority of travelers—traveling by water was essentially the premodern equivalent to hitchhiking (though you’d need to catch a ride at settlements rather instead of any place en route). You needed to find a vessel that was going in your direction, then buy or barter for a seat. There weren’t regular passenger lines that consistently traveled between key settlements—there might be merchants that made regular rounds like that, but nothing geared specifically for travelers.


  • Travelers had to constantly watch out for robbers. People usually only call these people bandits if they operate on land, pirates on waterways. Both bandits and pirates almost always worked in groups, which distinguished them from “footpads”—lone muggers that usually stuck to settlements. For simplicity, I’ll use “bandits” to describe anyone who robs travelers, land or water. Obviously many factors change when you move from land to water, but less than you would expect—and what changes there are are intuitive to understand.
  • The most common motivation for banditry was personal need rather than desire for riches. Consequently, specific items like grain, livestock, or household tools were more likely to be stolen than trade goods like gems or silks. Another consequence of this was that if someone didn’t have something the bandits specifically wanted, they would usually be left alone. Juvenal, Roman writer, wrote that travelers with empty pockets were safe on the roads.
  • In general, bandits were disorganized, with every group operating independently. Corrupt nobles could run bandit operations in their territory to extract extra revenue or terrorize opposition. Merchants and clergy could do this, too, though it was less common. Sometimes, governments would even hire bandits to harass enemy territory.
  • Sometimes in history, a bandit organization would become folk heroes. Robin Hood’s Merry Men are the archetypal example of “social banditry,” but they’re not the only one. Like Robin, social bandits often restricted their victims to wealthier travelers, earning popular support. Most weren’t organized groups like the Merry Men, but were more like a common occupation. In extreme cases, these social bandits could grow in power and become the vehicle of a peasant revolt against the ruling class, though this usually didn’t end well.
  • One of the most common sources of bandits was out-of-work mercenaries. If your only skillset was hurting people, what else would you do between jobs? Refugees and forced migrants often turned to banditry to survive, meaning that war and economic distress contributed significantly to bandit activity. Surprisingly, shepherds also frequently became bandits. They were separated from the economic structures that would meet their basic needs, so they sometimes needed to steal to survive.
  • The most common banditry tactic was the toll road. Bandits would station themselves on a thoroughfare—road or waterway—and demand payment from passers-by. Whenever possible, they would hide, revealing themselves only at the last moment so victims would have less time to escape. One way that authorities could combat this was by regularly removing trees and undergrowth that got too close to the road in common ambush spots.
  • Banditry was often legally defined by lethal violence. The penalty for banditry was severe, so bandits were incentivized to get rid of witnesses. Travelers would travel far out of their way to avoid “badlands”—areas where bandits were known to operate.
  • Banditry could be a serious limiting factor for long-distance travel. Fighting bandits and making travel safer was often a key goal for governments. Powerful authorities like the Roman or Han Empires could create a golden era of relative peace for travelers—the Romans established police checkpoints and watchtowers. More fragmented governments like those of Middle Ages Europe usually lacked the resources and coordination to effectively deal with the problem.
  • Inversely, rising banditry could be an early-warning sign that a government was losing its power. During one period, the Roman province of Syria were so plagued by pirates that it couldn’t afford to pay its taxes to Rome. This was another reason why bandits were considered a top priority and banditry was so highly punished.

And there we go! Let me know if you have any comments regarding this article or suggestions for future ones.

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!

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!

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!

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!


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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


  • 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.



Naming Languages Part 4/4: Bringing it Together and Putting it to Use

Now it’s time for us to bring our little naming language together, ironing out some details, making some revisions, and writing up a little mini-grammar on the language. We’ll also be putting it to practice to see how well it functions.

First of all will be the changes to the phonology. The original list of phonemes I had chosen was as follows:

Consonants: /p b t d k g m n ɲ f s ʃ x h ɾ w j/

Vowels:        /i y e a o ɯ u/

We also had a syllable structure of (C)V(C) We’re going to change this up a bit by adding some sounds and removing others, as well as writing them up in a more organized way. The following is a little mini-grammar on this naming language.

Language Name: Fteki

PHONOLOGY (IPA values in slashes, Orthography/Romanization in angled brackets)


Stops:           /p t c k q/ <p t c k q>

Nasals:          /m n ɲ ŋ/ <m n ñ ng>

Fricatives:     /f v s z ʃ ʒ x ɣ/ <f v s z š ž kh gh>

Tap:              /ɾ/ <r>

Approximant:  /w j/ <w y>

Vowels:        /i y e ø a o u/ <i ü e ö a o u>

Syllable Structure


1 is any consonant

F is a voiceless fricative (f, s, ʃ, x) if C1 is an obstruent (p t c k q f v s z ʃ ʒ x ɣ)

V is any vowel

C2 is any consonant except /w/ or /j/


Word order is VSO

Determiners and numbers come before their nouns

Adjectives come after their nouns.


Synthetic typology


Plural:           -(a)n         -akh                 -iž

Infinitive:     -tir

3pl.pres:        -em


Actor:           c(e)-

Location:      hr(o)-

Nominalizer: -vek

Adjectivizer:   -ri

Diminutive: -(a)f

Augmentative: -oz



Human Terms

Qasi – City

Net – Town

Netaf – Village

Skola – Gate

Mikhtü – Crossroad

Tönvek – Ship


Kura – Hill

Stiri – Pass

Pušra – Forest

Süfna – Sea

Mösin – Beach

Celüs – Peninsula  

Qero – Spring,Well

Isti – Tree

Štam – Rock, boulder

Ñasa – River


Khte – all

Skimri – Blessed

Wirü – New

Ñöfqi – Great


Khdir – White

Aste – Red

Manga – Silver

Rin – Blue

Rinoz – Bright blue, Azure


Fužtir – to be able

Žetir – To see

Skimtir – To bless

Töntir – To Sail


O/E – The

Qoña – God

You don’t really need verbs if you’re only naming places/people/things. And this tiny lexicon is just to give you an idea of how you could structure your mini grammar. You might find that you need less, or even more than the words that are in the sections above. It’s all dependent on the world that you’re building. But, now that we have our mini-grammar all laid out, let’s put this language to practice and see how well it functions. Here’s a little map of the nation in which this language is spoken, with various settlements and features named.

Fteki Nation

As for people’s names, I like the idea of verbal nominaliztions being common, such that you get people like Cetön – Sailor, and Ceže – Seer/Guide, and Ceskim – Priest (literally Blesser).



Here are two more mini-grammars for some naming languages with different characteristics than the one above, just to show some of the variety you can get.

Tal Kan Wuç

Tal Kan Wuç is spoken in the archipelago nation of Tal Kan Sig. There are two dialects. The southern dialect is considered the standard version of the language, spoken in the capital and by the queen. However, the northern dialect is seen as a bastardization by traders and fishermen living on those islands.

I’ve decided to incorporate a little mini-lesson into this one – making dialects. You don’t have to include them, but like all other things, it’s just another layer of depth to the world. You also don’t have to get too crazy with them either. Just changing a few sounds here and there is often enough for the purposes of a naming language. Here are some of the places dialects can arise:

  • Across natural boundaries such as large rivers, mountain ranges, or on different islands
  • Rural vs. Urban areas
  • In different social classes such as rich vs. poor.
  • Basically anywhere people are separated from each other for whatever reasons.

So what’s the best way to make some dialects? The simplest and most effective way for the purposes of a naming language is to just change the first sound (specifically consonants) in systematic ways. These will have the most pronounced effect. Here are some things to consider changing between the dialects:

  • Where one has voiceless stops, the other can have the voiced ones – Para, Tina, Kole vs. Bara, Dina, Gole.
  • Stops vs. Fricatives – Pilir, Daska, Kom vs. Filir, Zaska (Dhaska/ðaska/ and /ʒaska/ also being a possibility), Xom
  • Voiced stops vs. Nasals – Bosur, Dimet, Gariz vs. Mosur, Nimet, Ngariz (/ŋariz/)
  • Stops vs. Affricates – Pasa, Taiko, Kyyler vs. Pfasa, Tsaiko/Chaiko(/tʃaiko/), Kxyyler
  • Fricatives vs. Affticates – Fomo, Sana, Xemi vs. Pfomo, Tsana, Kxemi
  • Affricates vs. other Affricates – this really words best with the coronal (made with the front of the tongue) sounds – Tsara vs. Chara
  • /w/ vs. /v/ – Wakari vs. Vakari
  • R’s vs. l’s – Rözun vs. Lözun
  • /l/ vs. w/j – Lana vs. Wana vs. Yana (as a note, for phonological reasons this can work a lot better at the ends of words – Kaasal vs. Kaasaw vs. Kaasay))
  • R’s vs. R’s – /rezu/ /ɾezu/ /ʀezu/ /ʁezu/ /ɹezu/ /ɻezu/ etc.
  • Interdentals (θ ð) vs. t/d, s/z, f/v – Theeso vs. Teeso vs. Seeso vs. Feeso
  • Aspirates vs. Plain – Phaka, Thekto, Khama vs. Fako, Sekto, Xama
  • Ejectives vs. Plain – P’iros, T’awis, K’ulam vs. Piros, Tawis, Kulam

Also note that most of these differences could occur at the ends of words or medially (between vowels) instead. So that’s something to keep in mind when making your dialects as well.

Changing up the vowels between dialects can be a bit messier, and to avoid going beyond the scope of this guide, I’m going to stick with one very common difference – vowel mergers. That is, what may be two (or more) separate vowels in one dialect have merged into just one in another. Here are some ideas:

  • In a five vowel system /i e a o u/, the middle vowels (e o) merge with the high ones to give a three vowel system /i a u/ – Kena, sorim, Areto vs. kina, surim, aritu
  • In a seven vowel system /i e ɛ a ɔ o u/, the low middle vowels (ɛ ɔ) merge with the two above to give a five vowel system /i e a o u/
  • Similarly, the high middles (e o) can merge with the high vowels giving /i ɛ a ɔ u/
  • Where one dialect has /ɛ/ and /æ/, the other has only one of them.
  • Where one dialect has long vowels, the other does not.

Essentially what you want to do is take vowels which are relatively close together in the vowel space and merge them together. So, merging /æ/ and /u/ doesn’t make much sense since they’re so different. But merging /y/ and /u/ does, since they’re both high round vowels.

So now let’s get into Tal Kan Wuç!

Tal Kan Sig Map

PHONOLOGY (values are given in IPA)


Stops:           /p b t d k g/   <p b t d k g>

Nasals:          /m n/             <m n>

Fricatives:     /f s h/            <f s h>

Affricates:    /ts dz tʃ dʒ/   <c z ç j>

Trill:              /r/                  <r>

Approximant:  /w l j/            <w l y>

Vowels (South Dialect):      /i e ɛ a ɔ o u/    <i ei e a o ou u>

Vowels (North Dialect):      /i ɛ a ɔ u/       <i/ei e a o ou/u>

Syllable Structure


C1 is any consonant

V is any vowel

W is /w/ after /a e/ and /j/ after /a o/

C2 is any consonant except glides (w j)


Word order is SVO

Adjectives before nouns

Numbers before nouns

Determiners not marked


Isolating morphology




Island – Lay

Archipelago – Kan

Ocean – Wal

Reef – Jan

Cliff – Ray

Bay – Ko

Mountain – Rez

Point/Peninsula – Im

Beach – Sin

River – Wos

Harbor – Ju

Flora & Fauna

Fish – Mi

Crab – Cei

Turtle – Tal

Egg – Tei

Ray – Kar

Seagull – Gaw

Oyster – Hay

Tree – Nos

Nut – Pek

Prey – Zer

Human Terms

Temple – Han

Capital – Nak

Town – Tei

Port – Mec

Nation – Sig


Language – Wuç

North – Gou

South – Pay

Knife – Bay

Sun – Maw

Pearl – Sein


Big – War

Small – Çed

Many – Çou

Long – Eij

Beautiful – Nay

Safe – Fi


The – Ci  

Who/Which – May

Sleep – Ik

One – Sa

Two – Mei

Three – Ga

Four – Ço

Five – Fer

From – an

Of, belonging to – Ke


Tal Kan names are structured as follows:

Personal name – clan name – an/ke island

Personal names are usually a positive adjective, whereas clan names are based on animals. The use of “an” before the island name is restricted to the southern islands (War Lay, Eij Lay, and Mei Ray), while the northern islands (Çou Hay Lay, Tei ke Tal, Pek Nos Lay, War Cei, and Çed Cei) prefer to use “ke + island name”. Some common names being Nay Kar an War Lay or Sein Cei ke Çed Cei (Yes, Pearl is also a common name for both men and women).


Xihopa is the native language spoken on the desert moon Rewa, which serves as a communications outpost and trading hub for the Joakan Federation of Planets.

Orbital Map of Rewa

PHONOLOGY (values are given in IPA)


Stops:           /p t k ʔ/         <p t k ‘>

Nasals:          /m n ŋ/          <m n g>

Fricatives:     /ɸ s ʃ ɬ h/       <f s x l h>

Trill:              /r/                  <r>

Approximant:  /w/                <w>

Vowels:        /i e a o/          <i e a o>

Syllable Structure



Word order is SOV

Adjectives before nouns

Numbers before nouns

Determiners as suffix on noun


Agglutinative morphology


Plural: -mi

Definite: -a

Accusative: -xo

Genitive: -iho

Locative: -lo

3s: – pe


Place of: -siki

Place with lots of: -xamo

Adj > Noun: -sa

Noun > Adj: -lana

Diminutive – gi

Augmentative – tu



Planet – Xiana

Mountain – Sagiga  

Cliff – Pala

Canyon – Palaxamo

Plain – Ka’o

Saltflat – Lekisiki

River – Fiwe

Forest – Koaxamo

Ocean, Sea – Po’a

Village/town/city – Rasi

Salt – Leki

Snow – Wotowa

Tree – Koa

Tower – Tohi

Captain – Kapitana


Long – Kele

Southern – Wawaxi

Red – Koli

Blue/Green – Laxe

Black – Kigo


To run – ana

To climb – Ixima

To fight – ese

To watch – Oro

Xihopa names can vary from town to town, but the most common type of name is one which is essentially a small sentence:

Lekilo Anape – Runs on Salt

Sagigaxo Iximape – Climbs Mountains

Kapitanaxo Esepe – Fights the Captain

Tohimi Orope – Watches Towers


And so we can see that with a little bit of effort, you can create a great deal of depth and flavour for your world. I hope that this guide has been useful to everyone and will inspire you all to get creative with naming in your worlds.


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