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Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions: Peoples and Customs

  1. General

    • Do average people believe old tales, or do they dismiss some that have a basis in fact (e.g., Troy)?
    • Do wild and rebellious young people dress any differently from anyone else? Are they allowed to?
    • How do most people make a living here?
  2. Customs

    • Does the weather or climate contribute any habits or customs, such as the mid-afternoon siesta in hot countries?
    • What is considered a normal family unit? How extended is an extended family? How important are family connections and responsibilities?
    • What are the rites of passage in this culture? Are they formalized rituals, such as being dubbed a knight, or are they informal? Are they different for men and women? For nobility and peasants?
    • What customs surround a birth and the introduction of a new child to the family? Is the mother sequestered for some period? Is the child? Is there a formal presentation of the new child to parents, grandparents, overlord, priest? Is a feast and celebration declared, or does everyone keep a low profile to keep from attracting demons or bad luck?
    • Who is normally present for births? Is it strictly a matter for women, or are men involved, or is the only woman present the expectant mother?
    • Who raises the children? At what age do they begin to be educated or trained? By whom? Are they considered mini-adults? Do they dress differently from adults? If so, when do they change to adult dress?
    • What customs surround death and burial? Is there a special class of people (doctors, priests, funeral directors, untouchables) who deal with dead bodies? What things must be done and why (burn hair to free spirit, burn body to prevent necromancy, coins on eyes for ferryman, etc.)? Are the dead feared, revered, or ignored?
    • What personal weapons are available to anyone who can afford them? Are some considered “for nobles only” either by custom or by law? Are there laws forbidding certain classes from being armed at all?
  3. Eating

    • Do men and women, parents and children, servants and master, eat separately, or does everyone eat together? How is status displayed at the table (seating above or below the salt, near or far from the head, etc.)?
    • What dishes are considered holiday food? What foods/drinks are associated with particular holidays, events (e.g., funerals, weddings) or times of the year?
    • What distinguishes a formal, high-court dinner from an ordinary meal, besides quantity and variety of food? How do high-court manners differ from everyday ones?
    • What eating utensils are used, if any? Forks, eating knife, spoons, chopsticks?
    • What is the order of a typical upper-class meal — do they start with wine, then a sweet, then a stew, then a salad, or do they bring everything in at once?
    • Are special arrangements necessary for entertaining guests of different races/species — taller chairs for dwarves, raw meat for werewolves, perches for harpies, etc.? How do the eating customs of different races reflect their cultures and biology? How difficult does this make social interaction among the races?
    • Is sanitation good enough for untreated water to be safe to drink? If not, what do people drink instead?
    • What shapes are tables/eating areas (round, oblong, square, rectangular, etc.)? Where is the “place of honor” for a guest? Where do the important members of the household sit/recline/whatever?
    • What things, while edible, are never eaten (what’s not kosher)? Why? Are some common human foods poisonous to dwarves or elves (or vice versa)?
    • What types of food or seasoning are characteristic of different races? Different cultures? Different countries?
  4. Greeting and Meeting

    • When meeting someone, how are they greeted — wave, handshake, bow, some other gesture? How did the greeting gesture originate (example: shaking hands to prove one’s weapon hand was empty)? Is there a special I-am-not-armed gesture for wizards?
    • Is there a difference between the greeting offered to an equal and that offered to a superior or inferior? Is there a difference between the greeting offered a man or a woman? Human/non-human?
    • Is there a way of changing a greeting gesture to make it insulting?
    • How are two people who have never met normally introduced to each other? What is the order of precedence when there are several people of differing sex or social status present, all of whom need to be introduced to each other?
    • Are there classes of people/beings who are never introduced to other classes of people/beings? Are “true names” significant, and if so, under what circumstances would someone be given another person/being’s true name?
    • Are there customs involving the way in which someone is named when being introduced (for example: giving all of a person’s names and titles at the first meeting, but never repeating them afterward, so that he’s always referred to as “George” even though he’s introduced as the Duke George Edward Canterbury Gorden de la Suis-Foule, Marquis of Horsham, Whitewater and Framingham, Earl of St. Peter’s Close, and Vicount of Abernathy)?
    • Is there any difference in the way you greet someone you already know, compared to greeting a stranger (or does everybody just always hug or shake hands or whatever)? How does someone acknowledge seeing an acquaintance at a distance (passing on the other side of the street) — by a nod, tipping the hat, wave, smile, or not at all?
  5. Gestures

    • When meeting someone, how are they greeted — wave, handshake, bow, some other gesture? How did the greeting gesture originate (example: shaking hands to prove one’s weapon hand was empty)?
    • Are gestures and body language in this society generally subtle or not? Do people talk with their hands, or is that considered vulgar?
    • Is there a way of changing a greeting gesture to make it insulting?
    • What is a comfortable and polite speaking distance for people in this culture? Other cultures/countries/races? How aware are people of these differences?
    • What gestures are insulting? What do they mean? Do some gestures differ in meaning depending on the culture, race, or time (example: the American “V”-for-victory sign, which became the peace sign, and which is/was highly insulting in Europe)?
    • How do gestures and body language differ between countries? Between species? Are there things that don’t matter in one area that are mortal insults in another (eating with the left hand, etc.)?
    • What are the ways of showing respect (bowing, saluting, etc.)? To whom is one expected to show such respect — one’s elders, superiors in rank, teachers, priests, etc.?
  6. Visits

    • Are there questions that must be asked or avoided (how’s the family, how’s the business, never talk politics or religion, etc.)? Are there topics that can only be raised by the host? The guest?
    • How seriously does the culture take the responsibilities of host and guest? What rules define when someone becomes a host or guest (e.g., in mid-eastern countries, giving bread and salt to someone makes the person your guest; giving a 5-course meal without bread or salt doesn’t)?
    • What things are considered courteous to offer a guest: food, reading material, personal guards or attendants, music/entertainment, a person of the opposite sex to sleep with?
    • What is considered a courteous response to a host’s offer? Are there things it is considered rude to accept? Rude to turn down? Rude to ask for? Rude not to ask for?
    • When a guest arrives, is food or drink offered immediately, after an interval, or only on request? Is there a particular food or drink that is customary to offer a newly arrived guest?
    • How do different eating customs of the various cultures and races interact and conflict? Example: a person from a culture that considers it impolite to refuse an offer of food being the guest of someone whose culture considers it impolite to stop offering food until the guest says “when.”
  7. Language

    • Is there a “trade language” that facilitates commerce between countries that don’t speak the same tongue? Is there a “universal language” spoken by educated or noble persons, as Latin was in the Middle Ages?
    • Are some or all people bilingual? Is there a common second language many people know?
    • Are there “secret” languages or codes known only by priests, soldiers, wizards, guild members, etc.? Why were they developed?
    • What are the variations in speech patterns, syntax, and slang from one social class to another? One occupation to another? One region to another? One race to another?
    • What areas do local slang phrases come out of? (Example: in a fishing town, referring to good luck as “a good catch,” while people in a farming town refer to it as “an unexpected harvest”.) What kinds of colorful turns of phrase do people use?
    • What things in this culture would their language have many specific words for (e.g., Inuit languages that have 14+ words for different kinds of snow)? What do the people in this culture consider important enough to name? What does this say about the way they look at the world?
    • What things would the people of this culture not have a name for, or have one word that covers numerous variations? What do they consider too unimportant to name? How does this affect the way they see the world?
    • Are there words that must never be spoken except at particular times, in ceremonies, or under particular circumstances? Are there words that must not be spoken in polite company? Do these words differ from culture to culture or race to race?
    • What will people swear a binding oath by? What do people use as curse words?
    • How many languages are there? Which ones are related (e.g., the Romance languages) and why? Which languages borrow words or phrases from other languages? Which is likely to be most widely spoken?
    • Are there different languages for different races (dwarves, elves, etc.), or is language based more on geography than race/species? Is there a special language you need to learn in order to talk to dragons or other magical beasts?
    • Do wizards have a special language that is used for magic? If so, where do they learn it? Is it safe to chat in this language, or is everything said in it automatically a spell? If so, how can it safely be taught to new students?
  8. Ethics and Values

    • What will people swear a binding oath by? What do people use as curse words?
    • What is the most desired/most valuable stuff in this society — gold, jewels, drugs, money, furs, reindeer, etc.? Why is it desired/valued? Do different races value different things? Is there a race/culture for whom non-material things (information, time) are the most valuable things? How did they get that way?
    • What things are considered normal and acceptable in this society that would not be considered normal or acceptable in yours? (Examples: dueling, drugs, open homosexuality, polygamy, infanticide.)
    • What things are considered shocking in this society that are not considered shocking in yours — e.g., showing a woman’s ankles, eating left-handed, reading in public? What would be the reaction of an ordinary person who sees someone doing one of these things — to turn away, call the cops, draw a sword and challenge the offender to a duel, etc.?
    • What are the acceptable limits to honor and/or honesty in this society? Are “white lies” acceptable socially, or is lying in any form considered beyond the pall? Is thievery an accepted, if disreputable, occupation, or is it a crime?
    • Is a binding oath unbreakable no matter what, or can you get out of it if the other party turns out to be evil scum or if you weren’t fully informed? What is considered the right thing to do if two oaths come into conflict — do you have to decide as best you can, hold to the most recent oath, hold to the oath to the most/least powerful person, commit suicide?
    • What are attitudes toward ownership? What constitutes “theft” and what can be stolen — gems, gold, someone’s good name or reputation? Are thieves independent criminals, members of an illegal guild, business people licensed by law, or what?
    • Who is considered a citizen, with the rights and privileges thereof? What are those rights and privileges (voting, protection from thieves, the right to a hearing in Rome) and what responsibilities go along with them (jury duty, providing funds or knights for the lord’s army?
    • Are there certain classes of people (wizards, foreigners, children, peasants, women) who have fewer legal rights or less recourse than full citizens? Why? Are they considered mentally or morally deficient, a danger to the state, or is there some other rationale?
    • Is there a group of people who do not have full rights in this culture? Why not? Are they considered mentally or morally deficient, a danger to the state, or is there some other rational?
    • What are the controversial subjects in this culture? What things can you start a friendly argument about in any bar? What things will automatically start an unfriendly argument?
    • What are the social taboos — what things are “not done,” like wearing a bathing suit to the office? What things are not talked about? What would happen if someone did? How do these taboos vary among the different races?
    • What are the biggest social faux pas — burping loudly at a formal banquet, drawing steel in the presence of a queen/noble, asking a dwarf whether it’s male or female? What subjects or actions cause embarrassment or discomfort?
    • What are the society’s mores regarding courtship, marriage and family? Is marriage primarily a civil or a religious institution?
    • Who are the persons or groups to which one automatically has a duty simply by being born — one’s family, one’s town/city, one’s country, one’s ruler/president, the gods? What is the hierarchy of duty among them — is it considered more noble to follow your mother’s teaching or to follow your emperor’s orders?
    • What are the standards of beauty for people? Paintings and sculpture? Clothes and furniture? How do they differ from the standards in your culture (example: a country which considers fatness a highly desirable beauty trait)? How do standard of beauty reflect the physical traits of the various races (examples: dwarves might consider excessive height unattractive; werewolves might be attracted by long teeth or a particular scent)?
    • Who are this culture’s historic heroes and villains (e.g., Washington and Lincoln in the U.S.; Henry V in England, etc.)? Why are they admired as heroes/villains and what does this say about the people who admire them?
    • What is the ideal life that people aspire to? Do people mostly want to retire to a little house in the country, buy the most “toys,” serve in the army/navy?
    • What kinds of people are the rebels and outcasts of this society? How does society deal with them? What actions or ideas will get you made an official outcast/exile? What happens to people who don’t fit the accepted social order — do they have their own sections of town, or are they invisible (“in the closet”), or do they get kicked out of the country altogether?
    • Who are the arbiters of ethics (as opposed to law)? How did they get to be arbiters? Who are the social arbiters? Ditto, ditto.
    • Which ethical/moral decisions are considered the province of religion, and which are not?
  9. Religion and the Gods

    • How do various religions, if any, view magic? Do any forbid it? Why or why not? Do any require priests/priestesses to be magicians? Do any forbid it?
    • Are there actual gods/godlike beings? If so, do they take an active role in a) the temples, churches, and religions that worship them, or b) the lives of everyday people? Why or why not? How many gods are there, and is there a hierarchy among them? Which ones are good or evil, or is this meaningless when speaking of gods?
    • How do various religions view non-believers? Foreigners? Non-humans? Which support the state/ruler/government, and which are interested mainly in ordinary people?
    • What customs surround a birth and the introduction of a new child to the family? Is the mother sequestered for some period? Is the child? Is there a formal presentation of the new child to parents, grandparents, overlord, priest, the gods? Is a feast and celebration declared, or does everyone keep a low profile to keep from attracting demons or bad luck?
    • What customs surround death and burial? Is there a special class of people (doctors, priests, funeral directors, untouchables) who deal with dead bodies? What things must be done and why (burn hair to free spirit, burn body to prevent necromancy, coins on eyes for ferryman, etc.)? Are the dead feared, revered, or ignored?
    • Is there a difference between miracles and magic? If so, how are they distinguished?
    • Is there tension, rivalry, or outright hostility between any of the actual gods? How does this affect church politics? People’s everyday lives?
    • Where does religion fit into this society? Is there a state church? Is freedom of religion the norm? Do people generally think of the temples/churches as parasites or as a useful part of society?
    • Which ethical/moral decisions are considered the province of religion, and which are not? Do the gods care how people behave? Why or why not?
    • If there are actual, demonstrable gods, what part does faith play in their worship? What are their various rites like, and why? What offerings are considered good, better, best? Are people supposed to pick one or more gods to worship and ignore the others, or does everybody officially worship everyone? How do people decide whom to worship? How do they decide which temple to be affiliated with?
    • How much of a part do various religions and philosophies play in public and private life? Are philosophers and theologians considered ivory-tower academics, or do they debate in the marketplace, like Socrates? How much influence do their theories have on the way people actually behave?
    • Are priests and philosophers full-time workers, or do they need day jobs? If they are full-time, who supports them — the congregation, a wealthy patron, the temple’s investment fund, the god they serve?
    • Why are the gods interested in people? Are they like the Greek pantheon (quarrelsome, larger-than-life humans), or are they transcendent and incomprehensible? Do the gods have limits to what they can do? To what they willdo? Can the gods make mistakes?
    • How do the various temples and philosophies explain the classic “problem of evil”? Do they think bad things are always a just punishment for some transgression, a character-building exercise, the result of an evil antagonist (Satan, Loki) or just something the gods can’t prevent?
  10. Population

    • How many people are there in this country? How does this compare with world population? What is considered a small town/large town/city in terms of number of people?
    • How diverse is the population of this country — how many different races (human or non-human), creeds, etc. normally live in various cities and towns in this country? In what percentages?
    • Is population shifting from rural to urban, south to north, mountains to coast, etc.? Why — invasion, plague, gold rush, job opportunities, etc.? What effects has this had on the places being left? The places gaining people?
    • Given the magical/technological level of this society, what is an appropriate ration of farmers or food producers to urban residents? If farm production is based on magic, how many urban residents are going to starve if the spells supporting farming (weather, land fertility, etc.) fail suddenly?
    • Is there much immigration into or out of various countries? Why? To or from what other areas?
    • Which geographical areas are most heavily populated? Least? Are certain areas or terrains more popular with certain races that with others? Why
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