May 8, 2012

Cole's Question about Setting Questions Pt. 1

"...what, in your opinion [are] the most important questions to ask and answer in developing a society and its material and social culture for a fantasy setting[?]"

Outside of the questions I provided last time, there are several questions I return to when thinking about societies in fantastical settings. I'll organise them thematically and present examples of how I've used them. These are mainly for fantastical settings and are intended to provoke reflection rather than serve as a checklist. I'll present three simple ones first to avoid overwhelming folks.

Food

What do people eat?
How do they grow it?
How is food distributed?
Is the food supply stable?
What are the ecological consequences of their production methods?
How many people are required?
What are typical dishes?
What resources and tools are required to produce food?

One thing people often overlook is how ecologically precarious intensive agriculture is. Once forest cover and tall grasses are stripped away, desertification is the inevitable result as top soil blows away in dust storms or washes away downstream. Central North America is currently undergoing this process (the dustbowl; currently staved off through unsustainable ecological exploitation of the Ogllala Aquifer). The Middle East underwent it, sub-Saharan Africa turns into Saharan Africa by it, and the Chinese government devotes millions of dollars a year trying to reclaim land for cultivation from the Gobi as loess is depleted.

In the Dawnlands, desertification through intensive cattle ranching led to ecological collapse of the eastern Plains of Kadiz about three hundred and fifty years ago, leading to mass starvation amongst the Children of Night, and the Years of Knives, an era of petty warlordism, extreme violence and political fragmentation. The Orthocracy is uniquely situated for long-term agricultural exploitation, with wind storms blowing top soil up into the mountains, where streams bring it back down to farm.

Clothes

How does summer clothing differ from winter clothing?
What is clothing made of?
Who makes ordinary clothing?
Who makes luxury clothing?
Which anachronistically advanced clothing innovations do you want? (i.e. pockets, buttons, shaped shoes)
Do people only wear locally-made clothing?
Is cloth exported, and to where?
How does clothing differ between genders?
How does clothing differ between classes and occupations?
Where does the dye come from?
What are people trying to convey to one another with their clothing choices?

I think it's worthwhile to spend your time coming up with a couple of standard outfits and accessories, and letting PCs choose from them according to whether they want to appear as a "tradesman", "soldier", "priest" etc. Historically and into the present day, cloth is one of the most common trade goods due to its high value and labour-intensive production process (especially when transformed into clothes).

Law

How do people settle disputes informally?
Is there a code of laws and is it written down?
Is there more than one?
Who enforces the laws, and when do they enforce them?
Is there an occupation or class who formally resolves disputes?
What is the basis of their authority?
Why do people accept those with authority as legitimate authorities?
Do all people accept them as legitimate?
What kinds of excuses for bad behaviour are considered legitimate?
What kinds of punishments are meted out?
What happens to people after the punishment?
What is the cost of participating (social, economic, etc.) for participating in formal dispute resolution?
How does one exploit the law for one's own benefit?
How are people who have avoided the authorities brought to justice?
Is there any class or group who are not governed by the law?
Is there any group or class who consistently break the law?

The Orthocracy of Kaddish was a pseudo-Maoist state that imploded. It lacks anything like a written code of law, and relies on customary law, the rulings of orthocrats and a homeostatic level of interpersonal violence to maintain itself as an entity.