Building an Epic Fantasy World: Culture, Ancient History, and Societies

In my previous post, I went into detail on how I designed magic and technology levels of Eoria and before that I designed the geography and physical make-up of the world. Now I’m going to discuss the social geography a bit. See the last post here.

First off, unless you’re writing some kind of utopian fantasy world, there’s going to be some conflict. Conflict is what makes things interesting, whether it is a conflict of words and discussion or one of hacking swords and bloodshed. That conflict can be over resources, philosophies, ideologies, or even just a continuation of previous feuds. Why does that matter for culture? Because few cultures grow up in isolation and it is inevitable that cultures will disagree about things.

First off, I wanted the main continent to have a rich cultural history and background. Just as our world has a history of empires rise and fall, so too would Eoria. The first human colonists landed on the far side of the world, and most expansion has occurred from there. So the first people who came to Eoriel, the main continent, were scattered tribes. Over time, they were unified, united as one people, though they still retained their original heritage. Their leader then formed them into a nation, the first real civilization on Eoriel. They would be similar to the ancient Egyptians of Earth, leaving monuments and ruins that other people would marvel over. These ancient people viewed the use of magic, in all its forms, as an art, and they slowly improved themselves, becoming a very static society, with little change. What happens in a static society without external threats is that they develop their own internal downfalls, which is what happened here. I didn’t want these folks around still, so I went with the old story: the nephew of their leader, tired of living in his shadow, assassinated him and broke their nation up into a civil war. In the process, he imported tribes from the other continent to serve as his troops, which he used to savage his opponents. These tribes were left standing over the ashes and ruins and revert to their previous barbarism. The surviving factions from the initial empire hole up in isolation and nurse their grudges.

This then sets the stage for another wave of migration. Other humans come to the (mostly) depopulated continent. They are builders of towns and cities and they gradually push the more barbaric tribals out of the good land, either shifting them north or pushing them into the high mountains.   They have some limited interaction with the survivors of the previous empire, but mostly they just established their small cities and towns. These are pragmatic types, explorers and colonists, people eager to build a place for themselves. They, however, are not ready when the barbarians push back, in an organized attack. The builders would form nations, developed around the geology I developed earlier, coalescing to unite against the barbarian threats, but each nation might not work with one another, leaving them unable to resolve the conflict.

This conflict between the two societies, the builders and the barbarians, sets the stage for uniting the builders against the common threat, while instilling in the barbarians a sense of grudges and unsettled disputes. The barbarians, especially if they are forced into the frigid north, have to live in harsh conditions. Since they were brought in by the old empire, they probably value themselves, as a culture, as warriors. Given the harsh conditions, they probably would lose much of their history, reverting to oral traditions and legends, perhaps even coming to venerate the general who brought them here to fight. Their hard lives will make them more pragmatic about what costs they’ll pay for survival, perhaps even coming to view the survival of the tribe or clan over individual lives and even developing a caste structure, in which warriors who go out and secure new sources of labor and food would be more valuable than those who produce that labor and food. They would be split, culturally, between those who moved north and those who lingered in the mountains and forests of the southern continent. The ones in the south would be even more desperate, being able to see the builders cities, farms and towns flourish while they barely scrape by in the mountains. These southern barbarians would be driven to even more savage acts, angry at how they’ve lost what they see as their legacy from the old empire.

This sets the stage for me to develop all three cultures in a conflict that, in turn, sets the stage of history. The mountain barbarians are savage, vicious people, driven by hardship to turn to allies and masters which most people would find unthinkable. The barbarians of the north would develop a raider culture, one which idolizes their warriors. This leads to the builder civilization focusing on their defenses and dehumanizing the two barbarian cultures, as well as being rather bitter over the previous empire which set the ground for this before. The three cultures would be in a sort of stasis, locked in battles where at one time or another, one side gains the upper hand, but the more numerous civilized groups can’t compete with the savagery and violence of the barbarians, nor can they stay united long enough to get through to the mountain strongholds and northern camps of their enemies to conquer and civilize them

Yet, at the same time, it’s missing something. I want these various cultures at odds with one another, but the mountain barbarians are at a severe disadvantage. They’re very likely to be worn down over time, their best fighters dying and their population declining and going extinct. While they might ally with the northern barbarians, they wouldn’t have communication. Also, they need some source of magical might to combat the civilized lands, to overwhelm their defenses. In short, there must be someone helping them. But why? Well, what about an ancient kingdom, in the south, who came over with the first wave. They bowed out of the ancient empire and remained independent. They follow their own gods, beings of evil and depravity. A wicked and ancient society, with an insatiable desire for slave labor and sacrifice. They’d view the mountain tribes as sources for both, and would likely facilitate a thriving slave for weapons trade, encouraging the mountain tribes and giving them aide against the newer peoples. This culture will have a dread approach to various forms of magic, using it as a method to reward and exalt their elite while their masses live in abject poverty, in fear that their wretched lives will end as sacrifice should the lines of slaves grow short.

I’ve now developed a system which would be relatively stable, allowing for conflict and a historical background that could maintain a history. Into this, I can then begin building a more recent history, with names and events that modern people in the setting will know.   In my next post I’ll talk about setting the stage for modern times.

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