How to use this tutorial: This is one geek adapting the theories backing Anthropology and similar disciplines for the purposes of understanding, embellishing, and creating fictional cultures. Whether you’re working on a novel, fanfiction, the setting to a video game, or an RP character – I hope you find something of value to ponder here.
Culture is the “shared, socially learned knowledge and patterns of behavior.” (Essentials of Anthropology, 2002) Literally, it is everything that goes into how we grow up and there’s more than the extremes of an ancient village or a modern metropolis. Over 90 varieties of hunter-gatherer societies that exist to this day are covered in The Foraging Spectrum (2007), but I’m willing to bet that most of you won’t read either books cover to cover, even to help you create a fictional culture from scratch, will you?
What I’ve distilled here are the Five Pillars of Society, presented like 20 Questions from an inclusive perspective. Meaning, imagine someone asking you – an adult member of your imagined culture – these questions. No society can exist without addressing these 5 topics – no matter how big or small. I could have started with any one of the five pillars – they are all intertwined with one another; they're that important. You can basically think of it as the five reasons we bother organizing ourselves into groups and how those interactions play out.
· Economy: or how we acquire resources
· Enculturation: or how we learn & grow
· Governance: or how we resolve conflicts
· Spirituality: or how we perceive the unknown
· Tools: or how we customize our world
P.S. There’s a Challenge at the end
Disclaimer: I’m assuming that if you don’t know what a word means that you have google or – gasp! – a dictionary handy. If something interests you that much, I also assume you will do additional research through a local library or worldcat.org to learn more. In fact, I encourage both of these!
1. What ecosystem surrounds us? (Inedible)
a. Weather & seasonal patterns matter as much as coast vs. mountain and latitude / longitude for determining flora, fauna, skin pigmentation, residence patterns, trade routes, and all kinds of other background information.
b. Resources in abundance
c. Rare resources
d. Acquisition and Utilization [Tools]
e. Housing [Enculturation]
f. Treatment [Spirituality]
g. Are certain areas restricted? [Governance]
2. What comprises our diet? (Edible ecosystem)
a. Agriculture vs. Pastoralism vs. Hunting & Gathering vs. Horticulture vs. Domestication
b. Direct or indirect (Farmers vs. trade)
c. Anything required to tend to animals or plow fields or gather fruit [Tools]
d. Taboo foods [Spirituality]
e. Festival dishes – usually from rarer resources or public abundance [Enculturation]
f. Are certain foods ever restricted, taxed, or requisitioned? [Governance]
3. What facilitates a trade of resources?
a. Gifts & reciprocity
b. Obligations & ceremonies [Enculturation]
c. Money, stamps, and equating value [Tools]
d. Taxes or other rules [Governance]
e. Pacification Rituals (one-sided) [Spirituality]
4. What kind of stratification exists?
a. How rich is rich? How poor is poor?
b. Is it an “everyman” system, or profession-based? [Tools] Or Religion-mandated? [Spirituality] Age-ranked? [Enculturation]
c. How can we move between the strata? [Governance, usually]
5. How are our families structured? (Sometimes it’s a whole village)
a. Kinship lineages
b. Residence patterns
c. Marriage [Spirituality, Governance]
e. What makes a good spouse?
f. Bridegroom payment [Tools, Economy]
6. How is age marked?
a. Age of majority
b. What is expected of pre-adults?
c. Rites of Passage [Celebrations – Spirituality. Crafts – Tools. Test or documentation – Governance.]
d. Welfare / what happens with age [Governance / Economy (often one-sided). For moral justification, sometimes Spirituality.]
7. How are trade skills (occupations / jobs) learned?
a. Not everything is interviews or apprenticeships – sometimes it’s as easy as family members
b. Medical Quality / secondary life skills
c. How much do the people know about… anything?
e. For profit [Economy]
f. For prestige [Governance]
g. For leisure
h. For divine supplication [Spiritual]
i. With what are these skills performed? [Tools, if not by hand.]
8. How are the sexes and sexuality treated?
a. Romantic advances, lusty fun, and conception
b. The ecology of pregnancy and birth intervals
c. Gender discrepancies or lack thereof
d. Ease or difficulty in transitioning across the gender spectrum – believe it or not, plenty of “primitive” societies make this much easier than “modern” ones
e. Sexual division of labor [Economy]
f. Age discrepancies
g. Cycles and Child Carrying [Spirituality]
h. Displays [Tools]
i. Gauges of attractiveness and worthiness of long-term commitments
9. What are the acceptable morals and etiquette?
a. Who controls / teaches them?
b. What counts as “status”?
10. How is bad behavior policed?
a. Warfare and “the little brother of war” (sports)
b. Can “criminal” behavior be remedied? [Enculturation / Spirituality]
c. How are estrangers marked, if at all? [Enculturation / Tools]
d. What negative and positive effects does the criminal activity have? [Economy]
11.What alliances or hostilities exist?
a. Intra-/extra-societal, such as stratification-based (Classism) or profession-based (Butchers are icky) [Economy]
b. Resources imported or limited [Economy]
c. Objects crafted from imports or gifted from outside the culture [Tools]
d. Integration of “Other” groups, ex: Black Egyptians, or adopted and multi-ethnic children [Enculturation]
12. What is the conflict resolution style for non-criminal activities?
a. Between people, or with a 3rd party (leader, chief, religious leader)
b. How are those people chosen? [Virtue – Enculturation, Status – Governance / Economy, Divine Mandate – Spirituality]
c. Making requests of the leadership – bribery and supplication [Economy]
13. How is the connection defined?
a. Dreams, etc. that everyone could manage?
b. Physical distinction, as by birth or accident or accomplishment?
c. Wisdom or age? [Enculturation]
d. Skillset [Enculturation]
a. Writing or other communication system [Tools]
b. Leisure class or everyman?
c. Magical powers?
d. Extraordinary physical abilities?
e. Self-promotion? [Governance]
f. Physical spaces of worship [Economy]
14. What are our holy days? (Holidays)
a. Participants and Leaders
b. Food [Enculturation]
c. Games, dances, and other leisure festivities [Enculturation]
d. Gifts of obligation [Enculturation / Economy]
e. Place [Economy]
f. Origination [Enculturation]
g. Special creations [Tools]
h. Participation or condemnation [Governance]
15.What is “divine”?
a. Heroic or saintly ascension
b. Organization: Mystics, Priesthoods, and Soothsayers [Economy]
c. Origin mythos beings
d. Object personification [Tools]
e. Ecosystem spirits [Economy]
f. Celebrations and other temporary divinity [Enculturation]
g. Mandate of Heaven [Governance]
h. Monotheism, Pantheons, “they walk among us,” & other systems of organizing spirits.
16. What is “profane”?
a. Cults and other underground spiritualities
b. Monsters, their creation, and moral stories for children [Enculturation]
c. Taint / sympathetic magic [Tools]
d. Damning immorality [Governance]
e. Black Markets [Economy]
17. What sort of clothing and textiles (Rugs, etc.) do we make?
a. Who crafts the tools to accomplish this?
b. How detailed / time-consuming is the technique?
c. Resources utilized (Animal and plant byproduct) [Economy]
d. Crafters and how the methods are learned [Enculturation]
e. Reserved materials, colors, symbols, etc. [Spirituality / Governance]
18. What communication method do we have?
a. Language(s) and cant
b. Cuneiform and writing
c. Obelisks and totem poles
d. News [Economy]
e. Town Crier and the Pony Express [Enculturation]
f. Information from other groups [Governance]
g. Trade Routes
h. Divine Command [Spirituality]
19. Accouterments of demarcation?
a. Bestowed between family and romantic interests [Enculturation]
b. Raiment of a profession or class [Economy]
c. Age [Enculturation]
d. Sacred objects [Spirituality]
e. Rare or limited resource [Governance/Economy]
20. What crafts can we make?
a. Leisure (Art) vs. necessity [Enculturation]
b. Weaponry [Governance]
c. What can they not live without? Starbucks vs. electricity (Modern day) and cows vs. electricity (agricultural based society)
Challenge Mode: Revisit this entire list making notes about how your society’s past accomplishments, folk heroes, and emigration or immigration informed their present culture and the diaspora.
The author, pseudonym Frudence, is a graduate of The Ohio State University in the studies of Cultural Anthropology and Folklore, a paid author of RPG adventures, and a paid speaker on the intersection of genealogy and technology. A self-professed nerd, she has been playing and DM-ing / judging tabletop RPGs for over 16 years and has helped organize the RPGA sections of conventions alongside her father.