Lots of words have been spilled on the matter (again and again and again, as the ttrpg disc horse tends to run in circles), but I can't recall any practical guides on how to do it. This is my method & thought process for both Mother Stole Fire and my Mothership material, though normally I don't use discrete steps and just re-iterate all the pieces in no particular order as I go along (and keep all the maps in my head, I must admit).
You will, no doubt, tweak it as you see fit need to fit within your own settings.
A diverse fantasy setting is of value because human experience is diverse. That is the long and short of it. We live in a universe of endless fractal complexity, and it does not suit us as artists or audience to let ourselves be fooled into believing that the world or its people are simple.
This foreword is now over.
PART 1: THE STEPS
1) Open up your map in image editor of your choice
If you don't have a map, or don't want a concrete geographical map, a relational map is fine. Just throw location names on a blank page in the appropriate arrangement in relation to each other, and leave it at that. Make sure to note mountains, coastlines, major rivers, any other important bodies of water and geographical features. The most important for later will be those that make life easy, those that make life difficult, those that facilitate travel, and those that get in the way.
2) Add the following layer groups: 'POLITICAL', 'CULTURAL', 'LINGUISTIC', 'RELIGIOUS' 'APPEARANCE'
Each of these groups will have however many layers as are relevant for your map, and you can always add more as you need. Treat the map as a living document - something you can always come back and add things to or change.
The most important thing, for any of these layers, is that the borders are fuzzy and porous. They are generalities, because we're working at a region or world map-level and hard borders are fake and made-up.
3) Set opacity down to 50% or so for each layer (adjust as necessary).
You want to be able to see where regions overlap.
4) Color in each layer.
Start with the polities / cultures / languages that you already have in mind. You can (and will) add more later, and edit them as more ideas come to you. You should be hiding layer-groups you're not using for your own sanity.
5) Make sure you have overlap
I repeat this point to drill it home. Even when there are natural borders like mountains or coastlines, they're not impermeable. Some regions will be more isolated, some will be more cosmopolitan, but there will always be overlap.
People move, and they take their languages and their cultures with them. Cultures and languages change over time, and through contact with other cultures and languages. Political borders are
6) If you have some large, awkward blobs, break them up into smaller ones. Add more elements!
This step is pretty straightforward - it's a natural tendency to generalize far-away places, but it is also reductive and leads to focusing on what outsiders think / want a place to be, rather than what it actually is
7) Continue until you are satisfied (for the time being)
There is always room for more.
[Aside] This would have been better with a visual component, but the draft has been sitting listless for months and since this process is normally all in my head, I don't have an example on hand. Maybe sometime in the future. My MSF map is out of date anyway [/aside]
PART 2: The Components
Here I'm going to go through each of the layer groups with some more guidance and detail.
GEOGRAPHY is where people live. It is a foundation on which everything else is laid - resource availability and scarcity, available modes and ease of travel, available foods and goods, the necessities of survival.
POLITICS is how people organize themselves. While this often manifests as kingdoms, city-states, empires, confederations, the-guy-you-pay-taxes-to and so on, it encompasses all forms of participation in organizational hierarchies. While there is always the temptation to make nice big blobs with clearly-defined borders, that is an invention of the modern era. Reality is always more complex. It is important to not limit ourselves to the political structures we take for granted simply because we do, indeed, take them for granted.
CULTURE is how people live. This is an incredibly broad category encompassing everything from family structure to food to clothing to art and architecture. It is how we are born, grow up, settle down, and die. It is shared traditions. Any given person in any given place is going to exist at a cross-section of multiple overlapping cultures, and those layers will change a great deal as you zoom in or out (what might appear a singular group at a great distance will always be much more complex on closer inspection) There is no such thing as a monoculture, nor one that remains still to let the years wash over it as water upon a stone. There will always be gradients, variants, change.
Just because a given CULTURE is not the focus, it is no less complex than the ones you are dealing with up-front - it's just not what you're focusing on. Reduction is a means of narrative convenience and easing cognitive load - acknowledge this, use it as needed, but do not forget that it is a reduced representation of the real. It is not a pipe.
LINGUISTICS is how people talk. The languages they speak and the way those languages interact. It is the vehicle of CULTURE, POLITICS, and RELIGION - sometimes all at once, and sometimes each has its own tongue - and the means by which they spread and perpetuate. Languages mesh with each other, change each other; they are historical artifacts of their own, describing long histories of contact both peaceful and not.
RELIGION is what people believe. It is the art of relationships - between humanity and the cosmos, between humanity and the self, you and your neighbor. It contains cosmology, philosophy, ethics, spiritual traditions, values and anathemas, all those pieces that go into building a worldview, regardless of if there are gods involved. It might be the lapdog of POLITICS or its bitter adversary. It may remain within a CULTURE or spread across them, linking groups across the lines of POLITICS and CULTURE and LANGUAGE.
APPEARANCE is what people look like. That's it. POLITICS, CULTURE, RELIGION, that's just what you're taught. Anyone tries to claim there's a correlation between them and APPEARANCE is trying to sell you something and the product is not worth your time. Folks who look practically identical might not have a single point of overlap between them elsewise, and folks who don't look a thing alike might as well be kin in the way they act. Human beings have a great internal itch, somewhere deep in the electrochemical cocktail of our souls, to wander - so don't expect a connection to GEOGRAPHY more strenuous than a trend. In fact, it is best to only ever think of this component as a trend, leaning perhaps one way or the other but never written in stone.
Part 3: Other Unsorted Advice
Basically just do the opposite of Talislanta - a setting where every people has one culture, one language, and one religion, and there's no variation or overlap between them. Sure there are no elves, but every people of the world just has the one stereotype.
The dichotomy of "civilized" vs "barbarian", while a central part of fantasy literature, is unhelpful for our purposes here, and generally an attitude I encourage all and sundry to challenge in your own works. While an awareness of who speaks Greek and who doesn't is important for this exercise, it is vital to approach these divides with equal parts neutrality and empathy - people and groups of people are ever-willing to dream up justifications to excuse their poor treatment of others, and it does not behoove us to buy the justification simply because the side giving it had sharper swords or more guns. The Greeks were not morally superior because of their cities, nor the Scythians inferior for their pants and warrior women. (Indeed, the Spartans were 'civilized', and their fascist trash-fire of a civilization was built on the backs of a slave class supermajority and a culture of formalized and socially-accepted sexual abuse.)
There is a piece of Elder Scrolls art by Michael Kirkbride, found in the Pocket Guide to the Empire, First Edition, which features a line that has stuck with me ever since I found it some years ago.
> "There are some Nordic tribes on the fringe; settlements that have never even heard of Septim or his Empire."There is a vastness in this little statement of fact. For all the pomp and power of the empire that dominates Tamriel, there are still places within their own ostensible borders that go about their lives in total ignorance of what calls itself the civilization at the center of the world.
Think of your POLITICAL layers as containers, that will be filled with mixtures of the other layer groups - but also that the elements poured into the political container are not limited to just one jar. Additionally, it is important to remember that LANGUAGE, CULTURE, and RELIGION are often spread at swordpoint and gun barrel - favored tools of POLITICS. If you ever want to find the worst bastard in the room, look to see who makes demands that others should give up CULTURE or LANGUAGE or RELIGION for the benefit of POWER.
Joe O'Connell, of the Youtube channel Beyond Ghibli, phrases it like so while talking about Golden Kamuy:
> "[The Ainu] are presented as a culture in flux. When we explore other cultures in our media, especially the oft-exoticized native people of any land, they are a fixed point: a laundry list of interesting divergences from our own cultural norms. The Ainu in Golden Kamuy are an evolving people, portrayed in the middle of an intergenerational divide. Asirpa speaks of her people's customs and beliefs, and in her more-traditional grandmother we see these routines upheld and respected, but Asirpa considers herself a 'new Ainu woman, for a new age'. 'Only old people do that,' she states, when asked why she doesn't feed her guardian spirit. It's in wonderfully observed moments like these that exemplify an earnest depiction of the Ainu as a living people, instead of a simplified snapshot of a culture boiled down to their bullet points."Or, as I like to say "people is people, wherever you go."
One of the most important things to keep in mind with CULTURE is travel - who is moving, how, and where. What are the best paths to take, where are the obstacles? Much easier to go down a river than over a mountain chain.
Cultural / religious / ethnic minorities will always exist, there will always be some sort of cultural exchange or interaction going on even in the most isolated and tiny locales. Migration and diaspora are written into our souls (for is it not said, that the open road still softly calls?)
A hopefully short aside on coding: semiotic coding is using some sort of short-hand signifier used to draw a connection between the content of the text and something else. The author references something outside the text that the audience is also familiar with to draw a connection between the contents of that text and the thing being referenced.
On its own, coding is neutral; it's a pretty inescapable aspect of writing fiction (communication strives for efficiency, and referencing "this is like that" is nothing if not efficient). It is a tool to be used. And like a lot of tools, you should be aware of where you're swinging it - you can make a real nice birdhouse with that hammer, or smash your thumb. Or hammer someone's head (which you shouldn't do, but that doesn't stop people from trying.)
There is, as you no doubt already know, a very long and very virulent tradition of using coding in fiction to spread harmful stereotypes of real-world groups. Disney's queer-coded villains, Star Trek's antisemitic stereotypes via the Ferengi, James Cameron's inexplicable love of the noble savage trope (But blue! And in space!), and more examples than we have time for in RPGs and fantasy as a whole.
[Aside] I have heard several different explanations for "this is what the ferengi are actually based on", and I find none of them convincing [/aside]
[Aside] The reductive slurry of spec-fic monocultures I blame on Star Trek. Orcs
in generic vernacular fantasyland are just green klingons and that's
why we are stuck in endless cycles of discourse samsara. [/aside]
To make a long and complex topic brief and pithy, the best approach is to write with intent and awareness (funny how that is usually the solution). What external information am I referencing? What auxiliary information am I trying to get across? Is it rooted in stereotypes or misinformation? What am I saying about this aspect of the fiction, what am I saying about the thing I am linking it to? I should probably double check things with someone who knows what they're talking about.
So, so many problems in the RPG and spec-fic sphere come from a combination of the nerd impulse to categorize combined with a sort of unwillingness to think about what is being signified - they're just repeating the signifier, thinking nothing of it.
There is a good example of the underlying principle here in Tolkien's work, of all things: elves, dwarves, orcs, all consist of different cultural groups found in different regions of Middle Earth. Lothlorien elves and Mirkwood elves. Blue Mountain dwarves and Iron Hill dwarves. Moria orcs and Mordor orcs. As with most of the good parts of Tolkien, it has been soundly ignored by large swatches of people.
PART 4: A Worked Example
To give a practical worked example, let's look at our old friends Pen and Tam and what layers they belong to.
GEOGRAPHIC - P & T live in the northeastern Hill Country along the Mora River. The climate is temperate, the biome primarily broadleaf forest, the landscape is the hilly remains of some truly ancient mountains (the region's explicitly based on Pennsylvanian Appalachia). River, rail, and road access provide a convenient link to Bensael and other cities on the rivers, and it's a doable journey over the hills to Orlei, but there are few crossings to the south, meaning a more limited connection to the Low Country. The North Country is much more accessible.
POLITICAL - Bensael is the nearest major city-state, and Olen is part of its network of connected towns. It's not really a case of direct rule as we would think of it, but more along the lines of...okay so in a lot of the Hespermont there is a principle of governance that, since I don't have a real-world term to use just yet, would be rendered as "social well-being" or "social connectedness" or "mutual goods", which started out as a way of describing networks of gift economies and inter-clan alliances, and it's evolved to a modern-day iteration that operates similar to but perhaps not exactly quite like socialism. The Mora-Pono system has between four and six major nodes of this network (Redgate, Bensael, Rivershead, and a few others that I haven't made up yet along the Pono). The old clan and tribal affiliation networks remain, and are entirely too complex to get into here.
CULTURAL - The overall culture of the Riverlands / Middle Hespermontane is descended from the southern branch of the elder Longhouse Culture, like most everything else north of the lower hills. P&T in particular sit in a nook where there's further overlap from Bensael. Primary neighbor-cultures are the peoples of the North Country (themselves cousins by way of the Longhouse Culture), the Forest Peoples (their own group, descended from a completely different source), and Orlei (heavily influenced by Eostremontane cultures).
RELIGIOUS - Hespermontane religious practices are anthropogamist (Gods of Man) traditions and local folkways. The Solar Church has no real presence in the region, though eastern-style religious orders (such as the Order of the Sable Maid) imported from Orlei (where they have long been syncretized with the Gods of Man) have grown more popular in the wake of the War. There is a sizable congregation of Okavim in Bensael but it has not dispersed far into the surrounding country.
LINGUISTIC - P&T live in a very linguistically diverse region.
Their primary language is the Bensaeli dialect of Riverlands Hespermontane, a language that I have previously described as "Breton that's been mixed with Mohawk", chosen as an appropriate illustration of Bensael's role as a major engine of cross-cultural exchange. It is the admixture of languages from neighboring regions - Orlei in the east, the lower North Country, the Hill Country proper and those regions to the south - that has since become its own language.
Those neighboring languages all fill the roles of secondary languages in the Riverlands and Hill Country, and thus P&T are either additionally fluent in or have a passing knowledge of what would, in this analogy, fill the roles of French, Scottish Gaelic, and the Iroquoian languages.
(Now, bear in mind, that I use these real-world languages as illustration and comparison - evocative analogy rather than exact description. They are close enough for petanque, as it where, and my main methodology remains mostly "what sounds / looks good", with perhaps some phonotactical limitations if I want to evoke a specific cultural influence or the equivalent of Dog Latin. I am a monolingual dabbler in this stuff and certainly not someone with any sort of subject-matter expertise, judge me accordingly.)
These are not the only languages in use, though - there are the languages of the Forest People and those who live up in the mountains, both of which isolates, there's the old northern language of the Second Empire (served here by Greco-Latin) brought here from the Eostremont, which is mostly the domain of wizards and historians. The equivalent of Spanish/Italian is from the Lower Arivienne and is somewhat mutually intelligible to those who know Orleian. The Okavim have region-specific dialects of their own language. The Lilu-Voya dialect is the most commonly-spoken of the subterrene languages in the various lilu enclaves in the region. These languages would be the ones P&T know of and can recognize, but would have to find a translator if they didn't share another language with the speaker (Tam does know some Wizard's Imperial thanks to her work, but since she wasn't on a translation team her knowledge of it is limited.)
APPEARANCE - People in the Hepsermont fall, generally, into six very broad/loose visual categories, which I have just assigned letters to because they are broad categories and, as has been established before, strict categorization of such things is the source of many problems in spec-fic I would rather avoid (and, indeed, have written this entire post in the hopes of avoiding). Traits listed are common, not exhaustive nor exclusive - people move, populations mix.
MSF as a setting (by design), does not really have a conception of race - certainly not one anywhere close to the bullshit we are shackled with in reality. Cultural / clan affiliation is much more important than what one looks like, and correlation between the two is not considered to be a set thing. But it's still useful to know what people look like.
Following in the lead of Hail Santa, I am using the Phonecian alphabet to represent population groups as an out-of-universe shorthand. There are arranged, very roughly, in chronological order according to when there was a major migration of that population into the Hespermont. The very generalized home region is at the end.
- 𐤀 Alep - Slate grey, grey-brown, deep brown or red-brown skin; speckling or mottling of darker colors common; coppery or deep brown hair; beards very common; anakim build; broad facial features; Hill Country (Forest Peoples)
- 𐤁 Bet - Very deep brown skin; black hair; lilifio build; Hill Country (Forest Peoples) & Riverlands (other bands)
- 𐤂 Giml - Brown skin (shades vary from light to dark), brown or black hair (straight or wavy, occasionally curly); beards very common; epicanthic folds common; North Country, Riverlands, Hill Country, Arivienne, Low Country; the Hespermont in totality.
- 𐤃 Dalet - Pale pinkish or beige skin; brown, red, copper, or sandy hair (straight or wavy); North Country and Riverlands.
- 𐤄 He - Dark, deep brown skin, black hair (bold), occasionally sandy/gold/white; epicanthic folds common; Low Country, Lower & Upper Arivienne, Orlei, some Riverlands.
- 𐤅 Yaw - Mid brown skin (tan, bronze or olive common); brown or black hair (tight curls or straight), occasionally sandy/gold; Low Country, Lower Arivienne, Riverlands.
[Aside] many thanks to Enziramire for informing me that there's a people in Madagascar who call Afro-textured hair "bold" and straight hair "quiet", which is such a good descriptor. [/aside]
In very, very, rough chronology...
- Alep, Bet, and Giml have been here long enough that they are considered autocthonic populations. Alep and Bet are the oldest - oral history accounts of contact between them and Giml exist, and are old enough that they cannot be accurately dated.
- As best as can be determined through anthropological survey and mythic-historical records, the Dalet population migrated to the North Country during the collapse of the First Empire and the Years of Chaos, and swiftly integrated into the Longhouse Culture. A place of origin, and any related peoples, remain unknown.
- He migrated from the Belt and up the Arivienne during a period of major instability in the region.
- Yaw has migrated from the Eostremont into Low Country and Lower Arivienne in sporadic waves for most of history; they are placed as most recent in this list due to the influx of Eostremontane peoples during the 2nd Empire occupation.
And now I pop back in to say that all this description more or less doesn't matter because the matter is not this simple. There are lots of dark-skinned folks with red hair and blue eyes up in the mountains, plenty of folk in the north with epicanthic folds. Small percentage of general population will have traits of anakim or lilifio descent (certain peoples will have much higher rates). There are enclaves and isolates such as the Lilu, Wendish, Dhorch'maeh, Acephavarans, the Dayrdani, and none of those are monolithic either. Doesn't even mention the Idaltu, who were there even before the Forest Peoples. Travelers and immigrants. Lots of mixed families, lots of generations of mixed families (there's hardly a difference between Giml and Yaw in a lot of places). Nothing remains set. On and on. No hard borders.
Do not be seduced by the lie of simplicity.
Having spent a lot of time being long-winded about this, a TLDR:
All factors of a setting influence each other
You will never have a place on the map - no matter how isolated - that will be only one people, with only one culture, with only one language, and only one religion. Even if it's as small as "they put red ribbons instead of green on their shrines on the other side of the hill", there will be differences.
Don't be like Talislanta, where depth is ignored in favor of superficial breadth.
There is no such thing as a monoculture and anyone who wants there to be one is dangerous.
Draw from real life - it is always more complex than expected.
People are people, no matter where you go.