There's a lot to be covered when it comes to the people and civilizations that occupy any world you create. Not only does the interplay of various cultures create the possibility for intense conflict (which can be rich fodder for a campaign or story) but it also implies an intricate drama of history that has taken place over the ages (which can also fuel plot-points for a story in addition to layering more realism to your nascent world). It's this dynamic that needs to be carefully considered. Often, in my campaign worlds, the only major race found across all continents is the human race. These are usually based off of different real-world cultures (as we'll see below), but sometimes it's not as easy as that. For the Dragonsgate project, we've been trying to incorporate a more traditional/canonical experience, and this obligates us to include at least some of the stereotypical fantasy races (ie. Elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings et al.). Each of these additions forces us to consider just how that race plugs into a niche of civilization, requiring its own history and purpose.
Some designers assume that a utopian panoply of creatures and peoples have meshed into a hegemonic civilization at some point in the world's history. There is nothing wrong with this approach, though it may strain the ability to be credible. There certainly is no wrong way to populate your world – it's your world after all. Do what seems the most fun (or whatever best suits your design intentions).
The first step I take in figuring out what kind of people inhabit Dragonsgate actually involves skipping over the history or what kinds of creatures and people I want to see in the pages of the campaign and instead looks at the areas of the world (or the part of the world, in our case) that would be the most logical places for the seeds of a culture to take root. I look for areas that have natural fortifications (ie. Surrounded by mountains, elevated on a plateau) or advantages that would help facilitate city-growth, development and/or commerce and trade (proximity to rivers or the shores of the sea). Areas that would be inhabitable are also marked as points of interest – a culture might not flourish in a location, but that does not mean it might not be settled. For example, in Frank Herbert's Dune series, the desert-dwelling Fremen by no means have a super-complex, thriving society in the barren wastes of Arrakis, but they do manage to survive, albeit through highly disciplined efficiency. That said, I'd prefer to focus on areas that are “cornerstone” locations for a Civilization, not a tribe here and there. In general, the larger details are the ones that you need to know in advance prior to beginning a campaign. A kingdom or a race, a large city etc. A tribe or a singular encounter with a small, primitive culture could be an excellent idea for a single session within a large campaign, but it is a small enough detail that it doesn't warrant exhaustive preparation prior to the onset of the campaign. Essentially, I don't need to factor it into the design of the campaign setting inititally as it is a small enough detail that it can be inserted at ease later. That's not to say that small details are trivial or unimportant for a campaign. I merely suggest that the smallest details be saved until they prove necessary, as your task in worldbuilding is already difficult enough.
On our map, I use the circular marquee tool to select the “regional hotspots” where the critical settlement locations will be (ie. Likely the capital cities). I create several concentric or semi-concentric circular selections around this first main selection, each the same color but at a lower opacity than the preceding circle. This gives some insight to the level at which civilization will taper off as you move away from the heart of the settled lands. If you notice, the main settlement regions also correspond nicely to the regional locations that we roughed out previously (Regions 1-7). Following this graphic representation, it will be convenient and somewhat more easy if each of these regions corresponds to a kingdom or country (or territory of another country). I'll follow that system for now, and if any sudden bursts of enlightenment strike me, I'll revise as necessary.
At this stage, knowing nothing or very little of the history of Dragonsgate, making a shortlist of the races and creatures I think would make viable candidates is helpful. The history of the world is important, but if I don't know who or what exists in the world in the first place, I can't begin to understand the events that have happened in the past. This would be a tremendously difficult task to undertake, and working from ancient history to the modern times is often an approach solely employed when building your world with the macrocosmic method.
This list will help me begin to brainstorm the main reasons for including each race/creature. I'll move back through this list and evaluate whether or not there is space or potential for each society to function in a way that is usable for a typical campaign or series of campaigns. Over time this list could change considerably, but we need a place to start.
- Humans: a bit of a no-brainer here, as humans are essentially the bread and butter of any fantasy world (though they don't need to be). Just like the real world, humans exist in a range of ethnicities, and that will hopefully be reflected even in our small subsection of the world of Dragonsgate. I've already had in mind for a while that I want to model one particular region after an Iberian country, such as Spain or Portugal (Likely taking root in Regions 2, 5 or 1, but most probably 5). Additionally, I've been interested in developing an Anglo-Saxon (England prior to the Battle of Hastings) society or perhaps a Teutonic one (that remains to be seen yet). That (or those) nations would probably end up occupying Regions 4, 6 and/or 7. Ultimately, regions 4 and 6 might be the same country, though I think the major river that separates the two regions would probably act as a serviceable barrier between two countries.
- Tieflings: I'm a fan of humans that have a line of ancestry tainted with diabolical influences. While such individuals are not necessarily evil themselves, they are often prone to such personalities. When I was first beginning the initial steps in this project, I had thought it would be interesting to have not necessarily a country of tieflings, but a city of tieflings that housed or hoarded some sort of knowledge, wealth or power that was kept a closely watched secret form the rest of the mortal world. I had also toyed around with the idea of a low-magic setting, as my usual settings are often flush with magical energy. The tieflings could be protecting a wellspring of magic that acts as a bottleneck for mortal spellcasting. Already, I'm envisioning that the tieflings keep watch over a well of mystical water, such as the Nordic Mimir's Well ( For Your Information) which was responsible for bestowing omniscient knowledge unto the god Odin), where mortals come to endure a treacherous path that can ultimately lead to their chance to drink from the well and gain mystical powers. The mythical Mimir's Well required that an appropriate sacrifice be made (Odin gave one of his eyes, for example), and perhaps that could be integrated into the concept as well. Regardless, Tieflings are in.
- Aasimar: just as the tieflings have a dark bloodline, there are humans whose bloodline dates back to some source of grace or celestial ancestry. I think it would be perhaps a bit too symmetrical to have a city of Aasimar that balances the tieflings. However, there could be one lone Aasimar that has undertaken some great duty, much like the lone crusader knight left charged with protecting the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Something to think about. It's a bit more specific than any other race included, but it could create an interesting plot-device at some point.
- Elves: at one point in my life, I was fascinated by elves. I considered it my Tolkienesque phase. Nowadays, I rarely plug a major elven civilization into any setting (usually excluding them entirely), and this will be in keeping with that design choice. In one of the major forests in Dragonsgate, there will likely exist a transitory kingdom of fairies and fey that ebb and flow between the plane of Dragonsgate and the plane of Faerie (I'll discuss the cosmology of Dragonsgate in a later post). This fairie kingdom will probably include elves, satyrs, nymphs, pixies and sprites). I might even venture to call it Titania (after the fairie queen in A Midsummer Night's Dream) – I do like to punctuate Shakespearean names into my works often. The man had good taste in naming characters and places, in my humble opinion. So, elves are in, but in a limited fashion.
- Dwarves – I'm on more amenable terms with Dwarves, but I strictly believe that they would scarcely care to venture above ground and away from their mines, and as such, their influence is almost entirely limited to the subterranean world. Occasionally one will find his way out into the surface world and find work as a mason or a master craftsman, but it is rare. Nevertheless, dwarves are universally expert artisans and expert practitioners of any craft they have set themselves to. Dwarves make the cut, but they won't be factored into any of our established regions, as none of these eke out territory underground.
- Gnomes – I don't particularly like gnomes. The reasons are hard to justify, but I have to concede that they do serve a useful niche as tinkerers and machinists. Granted, the technology level of this world isn't too far advanced and the thought of a people out there capable of introducing intricate war-machines or scientific devicery is a bit troubling. I'll say gnomes exist, but guardedly. Probably in small, isolated collectives. Or perhaps they are also limited to underground settlements.
- Halflings: I like halflings a great deal, though I usually never see them played in a campaign, nor do I see them employed in most settings (though it's never implied or stated that they don't exist per se). Also, it's unfortunate that the stigma with halflings seems to insinuate that whatever setting they find themselves in is trying to emulate the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit. I would argue that this is a logical fallacy, mainly as the works of Tolkien are seminal texts in forging what can be considered the modern fantasy genre. Nevertheless, I understand that many worldbuilders refrain from using the smallfolk as it seems to undermine the sense of enterprise and ingenuity that all designers wish to feel. As I want this world to feel canonical, but also very medieval, I will not say that halflings do not exist, but I will not detail any regions or areas that are predominantly halfling in composition.
- Orcs and Goblins: Both are in, mainly as they serve as quintessential baddies. However, in light of that, I'd like to break that stereotype, at least a little bit. They often are portrayed in tribal societies, sometimes as “noble savages” (such as in the Warcraft world (at least starting with Warcraft III – anything prior to that definitely lumps the orcs into the “bloodthirsty monsters” pile). I'm thinking that a more polished city-state or feudal society in which the orcs rule with an iron fist and the goblins are relegated to slavery (or serfdom) could be interesting. Alternatively, the orcs and goblins of the world could simply be servants of the tieflings aforementioned. I'm not too sure yet, but I'll say that both orcs and goblins are in. Hell, I'll throw trolls in here, too. In fact, I might try to make a nation with a rigid caste society in which orcs, goblins and trolls stand atop one another.
- Giants and Ogres: given the relative abundance of mountainous terrain in our areas of interest, it seems logical to fill those highlands with monsters typical of such biomes. They're usually solitary or tribal, and there are all sorts of varieties of them, but as they're mainly relegated to the highest reaches of the mountains, they won't really factor into our Regional scheme, although they would logically present some existential complications to the dwarves of Dragonsgate.
- Merfolk: I've been fascinated with the notion of having a human kingdom that trades regularly with a peaceful merfolk kingdom situated off the coast some distance. It just strikes me as one of those fun, fantastic elements that we can get away with just because. I like the notion. Merfolk are in. But if they start collecting snarfblasters and dinglehoppers or talking to seagulls, there might be some problems.
- Outsiders: Celestials, Devils, Demons, Genies. I tend to overuse outsiders, mainly as one of my absolute obsessions in the fantasy genre is the notion of a multiverse or a multiplanar worldweb – a collection of infinite or near-infinite worlds and dimensions that are connected together by some sort of cosmic fabric and almost always only accessible via magic. I think one of the quintessential examples of this method of setting design is accomplished in the card game Magic: the Gathering (the notion of planeswalkers and such). Granted, this can make for some fantastic story elements, but as it does tend to distract from the more canonical feel I'm aiming for, I will say that none of the nations in Dragonsgate will be purely for outsiders of any kind. That said, I do feel like using Genies, as they are a type of creature that I employ relatively rarely, and they can be very fun. They evoke a great deal of unusual but highly intriguing exoticism, which make them a striking element for a nation or place that needs to feel decidedly different. I'm not entirely certain if I want to have a nation that takes inspiration from the Middle-East, but with one of the potential nations resembling Spain/Portugal, it would make sense for that country to fuel a geographic transition to a place that derives elements from Syria, Jordan or maybe a more ancient civilization such as Babylon, Sumeria or Assyria. These kinds of details will fall into place as we move into Nation-Building.