Fantasy Cultures from the Inside Out

The Danger of Understanding Cultures from the Outside In

Imagine you’re an Englishman in the middle ages. You’ve never been to France or Sicily or the Holy Roman Empire, but other folks have, and they’ve come back and told you about the French, the Italians, and the Germans. They describe how different French cuisine, mannerisms, routines, fashion, courtship, warfare, and philosophy are, and the same with the Italians and the Germans. They don’t describe–in fact they may not even have noticed–how similar their patterns of life, their religious beliefs and traditions, their family structure, their trades, their form of government, etc., are. In the mind of a medieval Englishman, French, Italian, and German cultures are inherently alien and exotic, because all the stuff that was similar was too boring to report.

(Map of medieval Europe c. 950-1300)

Of course, the French didn’t consider the parts of their culture that were unique and different from English culture to be the critical parts of French culture. The French way of life, as defined by the French, revolved around mostly the same activities as other ways of life in medieval Europe. But when the French looked at the English, the differences stood out while the similarities blended into the background, so they also thought of the English in terms of the former, not the latter.

Cultural stereotypes, myths, and prejudices are quickly established since the number of people who directly interact with the other side are few. Both sides paint with a broad brush and in only the colors that seem strange and foreign to them. “The French wear scarves, berets, drink a lot, and smell bad,” says the Englishman (channeling modern stereotypes to make a point), and the other Englishmen nod approvingly, not knowing any better themselves.

(Depiction of stereotypical Frenchman)

Most of that is not true for most Frenchmen, and even the ones that have a basis in truth–many in France do drink a bit of wine with many meals–is not true for a huge number of the French. If you go to France, you might find a few individuals who embody a preponderance of these traits, but the French are as diverse as any wealthy culture, and the average Frenchmen bears little resemblance to the caricature. This was basically as true in medieval times as it is today.

Now swap out the English for fantasy humans and the French for fantasy dwarves. In fantasy, we accept that most, if not all individuals in a fantasy culture embody the cultural traits outsiders find unique: dwarves are all like Gimli, they all grow beards, wield axes, are smiths or miners, like to drink, and take their ancestral clan very seriously. Sure, there might be an individual or two who buck the trend, but they are the odd ducks, probably ostracized to some extent because of their un-dwarf-like behavior, the exceptions that prove the rule.

Pictured: a weirdo (Drizzt Do’urden)

That’s not really how cultures work, though.

How Cultures Work (according to me)

First, few1 cultures assign internal significance to the physical characteristics that differentiate them from other groups. Chinese culture assigns no significance to their epicanthic folds, other than to distinguish them from other groups. It’s externally significant, but has little to no internal meaning. Dwarves may care a great deal about their beards, but the beards did not become significant internally because it marked them different from their neighbors. Rather, dwarven beard culture happened first, and then became just one of those traits other races found unique and interesting.

1 The exception that proves the rule here, though, is an oppressed culture: an oppressed culture might just assign great significance to the biological or other signifiers that their oppressors use to identify and mistreat them, reclaiming them as badges of honor.

So if you find yourself making a fantasy cultural trait around a physical distinction, like an elven ballet tradition since elves are relatively slender and graceful, remember that elves don’t think of themselves as all slender and graceful. They think of themselves as elves, who may be short, tall, thin, bulky, stout, etc., to their eyes, no matter how other races would describe them. Elven ballet is a perfectly legitimate idea, but it wouldn’t happen because elves are graceful; the most graceful of elves would pick up ballet and it would be very interesting and memorable to other races that are unlikely to match the extremes of elven grace on display, but that wouldn’t automatically make it important to elves as a whole. Russian ballet is a world-famous style, but the vast majority of Russians have never danced ballet and aren’t suited for it just by being Russian.

Pictured: the premier danseur of the 1917 season (Vladimir Lenin)

Which leads to the second point: cultures are not monolithic. Keeping with the Russian theme, most Russians have never given more than a passing thought to Russian ballet. Or to the architecture styles of the buildings around Moscow’s Red Square. Or to the characteristics of Russian vodka compared to other alcohol. Even if a significant minority do think about them, such that they are cultural touchpoints that foreigners will encounter, most Russians do not embody these cultural traits anymore than the French wear scarves, berets, and always have cheese and wine ready. And some Russians reject Russian ballet as insultingly bourgeois, or Russian vodka as cheap and unsophisticated. They might engage in the cultural trappings of Russia, be neutral towards them, or actively reject them.

Similarly, fantasy cultures will have a spectrum and diversity of opinion, even on things that outsiders see as inherent to the culture. Dwarves live underground and their kingdoms’ wealth comes from mining, but only a minority of dwarves really consider themselves born to mine; a lot of them are just there for the paycheck or until something better comes along. Some probably hate mining, and these are disproportionately likely to be adventurers, since they would rather accept great risk on an adventure than take the relatively steady life of a dwarven miner.

The same with drinking, or beards. Dwarves could have an absolutely killer alcohol culture known far and wide, but the average dwarf probably isn’t a connoisseur, he likes his local brews well enough, while the progressives are rallying in the capital for unions and *gasp* prohibition. And how would the clan elders respond to a generation of rebellious youth who started shaving their heads and beards, originally in solidarity with a revolutionary political figure whose beard was shaven for “corrupting the youth,” but which has now just become a style?

“Free the chest hair, lads!” (Male dwarf with only stubble and an open shirt)

Cultures contain multitudes, and the pressures that shape cultural values, practices, and expressions are generally internal or environmental, not comparative. They have to do with the life cycle of the race, the place they live and how they fulfill their physical and emotional/spiritual needs as individuals, families, villages, towns, cities, and nations.

Building Cultures from the Inside Out

When you’re thinking up a fantasy culture, then, avoid starting with “what will outsiders see first?” Instead, start from the inside out: what do wood elves talk about with other wood elves? How are families organized, how is labor divided? What life milestones are celebrated? How are decisions made in the village or town? What functions are essential to an elven settlement’s way of life? What does their spirituality look like? What do wood elves disagree about? How do they resolve conflicts between individuals? Between settlements?

If the culture has cities and trade and specialization, the answers to these questions will probably vary more, as different needs are prioritized for different groups, creating the potential for more conflict and drama. The spectrum of attitudes really starts to extend. Embrace it! Let the dwarven capital actually feel cosmopolitan instead of provincial. Small villages in an area may be a little more homogeneous, though you should still flesh out the conflicts in a village that will be explored, but a city should lean into the fissures in a society dealing with ever-shifting internal and external pressures. It helps you understand the facets of your culture, including what parts outsiders will see first, and it increases potential for great characters and great drama.

The dwarves of Tyr Alona, for instance, were exiled from their mountain halls by a great dragon that took up residence in the ancestral capital of Bhar Moldir and sent his draconic armies to eradicate any dwarves that dared remain underground. Now living on the surface in Kharnumok, the dwarven civilization was under extreme pressure. The more orthodox among them, including many of the clan leaders, believed that they were being punished for straying too far from the traditional faith of the forge god Rapha, and only repentance and religious renewal would restore them to their homes under the earth. In fact, there were some who took this to extremes and terrorized those they deemed insufficiently pious to encourage all dwarves to remember the old rites. While the traditionalists disapproved the extremists’ methods, some sympathized with them. Many dwarves, however, placed the blame squarely on the dragon and didn’t feel their forebears’ religion was particularly insightful on fixing that problem. Some even embraced surface life; fresh produce was a whole new dietary world, and they loved it! They saw a new chapter in dwarven society, opening untold new opportunities that weren’t working in that gods-forsaken mine.

(Dwarf in armor standing in a mountain valley)

The city of Kharnumok was ground zero for dwarven extremists and reformers. Even if the story that brings the characters there isn’t about the dwarves’ plight, it’s a background element that shows a living culture responding to extreme circumstances. That is simply more interesting than a city that emphasizes a one-dimensional set of cultural traits like a tourist attraction.

What do you think? What fantasy cultures have you found or made that are fully fleshed out and three-dimensional? What about their culture seemed most real to you?

Further Reading

The Church of the Random Number God

Here’s a quickie, five different aspects of the Random Number God covering five of the eight divine domains of 5e. Nothing to do with Halloween, except in that the Death Domain is covered. I guess that’s spooky.

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That Time When Nothing Happened For Six Thousand Years

Faerun has had a couple of loosely defined ages. The most recent one is the Age of Humanity, which doesn’t line up with the Dale Reckoning at all for some reason. The Age of Humanity begins with the rise of the ancient Netherese Empire, the first really big-deal human nation, and is ongoing today, even though Netheril collapsed nearly two thousand years ago. All told it’s four and a half thousand years of time. It’s mostly empty. Between -3000 DR and 0-year, basically the only thing that happens is that Netheril is a thing and the Old Empires establish themselves. Three thousand years just so that one empire can rise and fall (the Roman Empire lasted 2000 years in even the most extreme interpretations, and if we’re more strict about ruling out enclaves and successor states, they lasted more like 1000) and some of the older nations can have their origin stories before the newer ones. We don’t need 3000 years for that. We need like five centuries.

This is not the most egregious waste of space on the timeline, though. The Crown Wars occurred between -12000 DR and -9000 DR. There are five Crown Wars. I summed up the entirety of their events in a single blog post. Even if each one required a full 100 years recovery period for a new generation of elven warriors to be raised, we’re still talking about a couple of centuries. What did they do for three thousand years?

That’s not the most egregious waste of space on the timeline, though. The very first age was when five ancient civilizations all emerged from the primordial gloop from -25000 DR to -20000 DR and just sort of…existed for five thousand years. The era of the sarrukhs and company has almost zero actual events or stories in it, just these civilizations existing, and it takes up 5000 years on the timeline. Could’ve gotten away with 1000, tops, and that only because you need civilizations to both rise and fall in that time span.

That’s not the most egregious waste of space on the timeline, though. The most egregious waste of space on the timeline is the First Founding. This is the time from -9000 DR to -3000 DR when dwarves and elves did nothing for six thousand years. It wasn’t the first founding of anything in particular, since elves had been around for millennia and so had dwarves. There’s just this big six thousand year gap in the timeline labeled “the First Founding” for no reason. Just to have more space in between the height of elven civilization and the modern day, I guess.

Fantasy authors have a perception of time that’s as jacked up as a sci-fi writer’s perception of distance.

Elven Lifespans Should Be A Bigger Deal Than They Are

Elves are dicks. I wrote an article about it and I stand by it – in nearly every D&D setting, elves have been somewhere between moderately and extremely dickish (Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, two of the biggest D&D settings around, lean towards the extreme side). So, when I say that elven lifespans should be a huge deal and that middle-aged elves should logically have crazy-high character levels even if they’re bog standard elven guards or the local apothecary or whatever, that’s not because I’m an ardent supporter of the “misunderstanding Tolkien” school of worldbuilding, it’s because being able to live for a very long time is a huge advantage which is pretty thoroughly underestimated by D&D. I use elves as an example here, but dwarves are quite similar.

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Dragonlance: In The End, Evil Shall Always Triumph Over Good

Of the big three D&D settings (Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Dragonlance, ignoring meta-settings like Planescape), Dragonlance is the setting used to exemplify epic fantasy. A titanic struggle between good and evil rocks Ansalon down to its core whenever Wizards can find the money to pay Hickman and/or Weis to squeeze out another trilogy, bold heroes facing off against tyrannical overlords, whose triumph is inevitable. The tyrannical overlords, I mean. Good guys never win lasting victories in Dragonlance.

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Elves Are Dicks

So I’m going to talk about some Forgotten Realms lore. Specifically I’m going to talk about how elves are total dicks. So, like most fantasy worlds riffing on Tolkien, Faerun used to be ruled by elves back in the era before humans were a big deal. Before that, though, was the era when dragons and giants battled one another for control of the world. How did we get from one to the other? How did elves take over from a world ruled by dragons? Numerical superiority? Aid from friendly metallic dragons? Alliance with the giants?

Unfortunately, the answer is dickishness. Continue reading