View Full Version : How much variability do you give your setting's sophonts?

2012-12-19, 03:05 AM
This occured to me while reading the "World-Building Turn-Offs" thread: if monoculture and one-culture-per-race/nation is bad, how much do you vary things before they start to get a bit crowded? I mean, for any value over two or three, planet*race*language*nation*culture*whatever else starts looking like some sort of horrifying inverse Drake equation to determine the amount of work going into diversifying the setting.

Thus my latest battery of questions. If we restrict ourselves to one-plane(t) settings, or at least settings where we're talking about at most billions of people rather than trillions and so on, how many languages are ideal? How many races? How many cultures? Basically, how do you decide how diverse to make your civilizations while avoiding handing your players a multi-volume set called "the 10,000 unique populations of [wherever]"?

2012-12-19, 03:20 AM
I usually hand my players one or two cultures at a time. Even in a roaming game like D&D or Hell on Earth, players rarely stray more than a country away, so all they need to know about is what's nearby.

I've had players play in seven or eight separate campaigns before realizing the magic systems were all the same thing with different words attached, which they thought was lame and lazy of me until they realized it was all the same world and just on different continents or even just across the mountains from their last campaign.

I had one player just realize there were three whole races he didn't even know about when he picked up some of my super secret need-to-know documents by accident.

During the development process? As long as it all makes sense and maintains verisimilitude, go nuts. There are over 33 languages in mainland India alone. Europe? Probably hundreds.

2012-12-19, 06:12 AM
First, keep in mind that you don't have to fully detail all cultures. For example, you can centre your setting in an area with 3 or 4 cultures while at the same time mentioning "the exotic southerns who are found in the ports of Calamaris" or "the sand empire beyond the White Mountains". This adds flavour without much work, settles the boundaries of your game and gives you the opportunity to add some additional features in the future (if your players end up going beyond the White Mountains, you can surprise them). Think of the Haradrim or Easterlings of Tolkien: we know they are there, we know a bit about them, and that's about it. They are beyond the border of what matters. If they ever mattered, Tolkien could fully design them and create something totally knew to its readers.

Just don't go too far with languages. Certainly Europe had hundreds of languages during the Middle Ages, but this can easily disrupt a game. Having some trouble communicating with people in certain areas can be interesting; not being able to ask for a beer in 70% of the area of your setting can be very annoying.

2012-12-20, 05:23 PM
For different cultures it really depends on how much territory the course of the story is going to cover. Usually it's kept to not more than a half-dozen, because after that they start to run together or get really stereotypical/cliched (this is the medieval Europe area, this is the "Egypt" area, this is underdark, etc).

Generally, I prefer to do things by geography rather than race. If one area, for example, has a far-east Asian theme, then all the races in that area will follow that pattern, maybe with a few small callbacks to their RAW cultural characteristics. Or they might still be stereotypical except for something unusual, like dwarves that are still craftsmen but never work with purified metal (because this ethnic group believes that it dishonors the earth or something) so they are architects and woodcrafters, but not smiths.

For language, I usual stick with the standard racial ones, because introducing 200 different ones is just a pain in that ass that doesn't accomplish much, since 90% of the time it's just "Oh great MORE people we can't understand. Ok, break out the cue cards and everyone warm up your sherrades routine."

What I'll do though is introduce accents, so that high elves, forest, and drow all speak elvish, and can understand each other, but definitely recognize that it is a disimilar elvish. Sort of like comparing a thick New York/brooklyn accent to a Southern/Texan drawl to maybe something a little harder to understand, like Spanglish. Characters can make Linguistics checks to figure out what accent it is.
Particularly with the monstrous humanoid races, every single one of them having their own language get's pointless after a while, so most speak the monstrous dialect of common or orcish or goblin.

2012-12-21, 06:56 PM
If people can accept that the gods just decided to make the races as they are (elves didn't evolve, they were created by corellon [I don't know where *he* came from]), then why can't they just accept that elves speak elven? Maybe it's an inborn thing: giant eagles speak auran because their brains develop auran naturally - the gods created them that way.

2012-12-23, 02:45 AM
If people can accept that the gods just decided to make the races as they are (elves didn't evolve, they were created by corellon [I don't know where *he* came from]), then why can't they just accept that elves speak elven? Maybe it's an inborn thing: giant eagles speak auran because their brains develop auran naturally - the gods created them that way.

They aren't always created. The only created races in my settings are usually the result of genetic manipulation by existing races, which themselves evolved, because I don't write many settings with active gods in them.

Even if your setting has sentient beings just spawned ex nihilo, it's usually the case that they've been around for a while, and presumably there aren't divine language classes, so we're stuck trying to figure out the evolution of language.

As a larger part of sapient history, of course, which is mind-bogglingly complex. The question of how leads invariably to "why", and it's here that I can't think of any other process than an adaptation of human technological/cultural development, which is patchily understood to begin with and dependent on relatively few universal truths, at least that I can detect.

2012-12-25, 05:38 PM
The way I usually deal with this is leaving parts of the world intentionally undetailed. It could well be exclusively personal experience, but I think that mysterious or undiscovered parts of the setting are much more convincing when they are not fully understood by the GM either.

There's no reason the Knights of Dragonville or whoever your players are know or understand anything but the superficial details of foreign cultures if they don't regularily interact with them.