World Building 101: Real World Cultures in Fantasy Games?

Any long-term reader of fantasy fiction or player of fantasy games will have at one point or another encountered a setting that uses real-world cultural analogues. In these settings, nations or people are often described in such a way that their cultures are clearly inspired by or directly lifted from an existing real-world culture, living or dead.

Depending on how it’s handled and how it’s viewed, this can range from being a very clumsy and lazy effort to a valuable tool—a shorthand that allows the world builder to explain a large number of details in a short time.

When you are building your world, defining a large number of unique, distinct, and interesting cultures can be a daunting task. So many details, including names, language, fashions, etiquette, ranks, political and military structure, and so on—they can be intimidating enough to create for a single nation or people, and with player characters so prone to broad travels, one single nation is often insufficient detail.

By using a real world culture as a basis, you can essentially skip a lot of the associated work of creating unique cultures by hand. Explaining that a culture is essentially Roman, or even just painting it that way with a few details and leaving the rest to your players to realize, can tell them in a matter of a few words what form of government they’re likely dealing with, what the military structure is, and even potentially let them tell that a given NPC belongs to your pseudo-Roman culture by the name you select.

There are dangers and pitfalls associated with this method, as well, though. First, you should always be careful to avoid caricature or outright racism—be sure to be respectful and not reduce cultures to mere stereotypes. It’s a shallow and uninteresting way to present your setting and your world will suffer for it, at best—at worst you run the risk of offending your players.

Second, consider the effects of environment and magic on the culture—how would the ancient Roman legions have been different with the inclusion of war wizards? If your game is set in an ice-bound world, there’s very little likelihood that the fashions associated with the warm climate of Italy would make sense. Generally it’s still less work to adapt real world cultures to fit with the unique elements of your setting than it would be to create them from scratch, but you should put forth enough effort to ensure that the cultures make sense in your world as well.

Third, think about how the non-human races fit into the scheme of things in these cultures. Are they accepted as equals or treated as second class citizens? Be cautious about applying a real-world culture to the non-human races that may be considered stereotypes—again, try to avoid anything that might be considered racist or insensitive, or that will distract your players from the world you’re creating in your game.

Finally, it’s best not to rely too heavily on this method. Unless you are explicitly playing in a historical setting or alternate Earth, it can be considered lazy and uninspired, and may not be as well received as you might like. It depends greatly on the nature of your campaign and your player’s expectations, of course, but always bear in mind that this is a shortcut, not a full substitute for creating your own cultures in your campaign world.

Comments (3)

Noumenon (May 20th, 2010)

Morrowind had the Imperial Legion and I was happy to be able to say “Oh, those guys are the Roman Empire.” It just made it so much simpler with all the other factions and cults that at least one made sense immediately. And it offered a “normal option” — my first character was a woman wood elf thief, but my second was a straight-up Roman Legionnaire.

Sean Holland (May 20th, 2010)

Using history culture as a basis or shorthand for the core idea of fantasy cultures is entirely understandable and effective. Yes, you do need to ponder what effect magic, active gods and the existence of multiple intelligent races (and monsters) will have. But that also means the GM has to think about and engage with the culture which can only be good.

Guildenstern (May 29th, 2010)

It’s a fact. I’ve been using real world allegories and even just lazily saying to players, “This is the Frouwman Empire. (explain the Roman Empire’s social and political structure).” It works great, saves me having to DELVE into a made-up-on-the-fly-for-a-side-quest empire or whatever, and as someone already said, inventive players will often give the GM some interesting things to decide/think about during the game.

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