All too often we rely on cultural references from our world when designing fantasy societies. This has an added strength by drawing on recognizable patterns. We echo feudal periods from various ages or ape the fantasy stylings of Tolkien and other classic fantasy authors. People achieve instant recognition of concepts we are trying to create. Sometimes we can create distinct cultures and fantastic divergences by altering just one or two facts at a culture’s core. Even simple adjustments or explorations when thought through can create radically different worlds from ours.
Campaign Development: Cultural Alterations
When trying to diverge from the norm while designing a society, city or organization consider the following basic changes:
- Explore the Racial Balances: A lot of our societies’ progressive moments are rooted in a core equality of basic human potentials and needs. When you deal with other genetically (and magically?) distinct races that without violence WILL out live yours by four or five times conservatively things are going to be different. Traditional fantasy deals with this by segregation. But what happens after generations of tangential development? In a culture that mixed racial elements of elves, orcs, dwarves and the like with one another what happens after decades? Centuries? Maybe elves are automatically preferred for archive work, politics or civil authority. Orcs are born into soldier castes. What if we didn’t stop there? Archons and other outsiders are immortal. Maybe a weary kingdom summons an eternal king in response to centuries of bloody succession wars.
- Explore the Gender Relations: Societies often mirroring European medieval societies have at the conceptual roots high degrees of sexism and other social negatives. In a world of active supernature innate skills are as unlikely to be distributed evenly as muscle mass or other generally heritable trait. Even social norms without magic can be altered similarly. Several authors have explored interesting gender balances with magic (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels) or academic skills (Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series). Be cautious in executing these shifts as the topic is often charged, but the results can be very rewarding.
- Explore the Divine Presence: In worlds were Gods can elevate a peasant to an archpriest with the literal power of miracles based solely on faith, religion has entirely new ramifications. A populous and generous faith could wipe out disease and hunger on a relative permanent basis. Another might require actual sacrifice to maintain their powers building generations of society around their religious rites that are visibly rewarding.
- Explore the Class Frequency: Most fantasy revolves on the relative scarcity of magic. What if a location (city, state or world) had access to reliable empowerment for its citizens? And army that required psychic awakening or assigned their fallen to animate magical constructs? Fighters that practice martial arts as a scholarly or philosophical art in a world withdrawn from physical conflict.
Simple changes can evoke massive ramifications. Any of the above would spawn a dozen side-quests, adventure applications and campaign hooks. The angel-king begins to yearn for heaven. The sorceresses dominate the City-States of Ahai. The Gods only allow children to carry the written word. The veterans of the psychic armies have to be controlled because of dreambleed and echoed empathies. The ideas can become contagious.
Don’t be afraid to alter the basics in your campaign structures you might be amazed by the results. If you are looking for new alter the basics in your games you can check out our rules expansions at: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow