You may have crafted an amazing landscape for your tabletop RPG or novel setting. You may have drawn elaborate maps, and created entire cosmologies. But until it has people – not just humans, but any sapient species – it’s a dead world. Stories can’t happen there. Worldbuilding cultures, establishing governments (and pitting them against each other), and creating a fantasy economy are the elements that start to bring your world to life, and set the stage for adventure!

In this guide, we’ll touch on how to populate your world with sapient species, develop cultures and ethnicities, establish the law of the land, and even delve into trade and commerce. Let’s go!

Populating Your World with Sapient Species

Creating sapient species for your science fiction or fantasy world requires imagination and empathy, as much as an understanding of speculative biology and evolution. Your goal is a diverse civilization, with distinct cultures and unique traits. Here are some principles and considerations to keep in mind as you craft these species:

Principles of Speculative Biology and Evolution

Adaptation and Environment: Consider how the species has evolved to suit its environment. This includes aspects such as climate, terrain, available resources, and predators. For example, a sapient aquatic species might have webbed hands for efficient swimming, while a species from a harsh desert might be capable of water conservation.

Physiology and Anatomy: Determine the physical structure of your species. How many limbs does it have? What kind of sensory organs? What’s its size relative to other species? The physiology of your species should influence its abilities and behavior.

Reproduction and Lifespan: Decide how your species reproduces and how long it lives. Do they lay eggs or give live birth? Are they capable of parthenogenesis? A species with a shorter lifespan might reproduce rapidly, while a longer-lived species could reproduce less frequently but with more complex offspring.

Intelligence and Communication: How does your species communicate and demonstrate its sapience? This could be through speech, telepathy, or other methods. Determine their level of intelligence and how they use it, whether for survival, technology, or culture.

Culture and Society: Develop the social structures and cultural practices of your species. Do they have a hierarchical society, a democratic one, or something entirely different? What customs and traditions do they observe?

Artificial Sapients

Design and Purpose: Were they created as laborers, soldiers, companions, or something else? Constructs, disembodied intelligences, golems, robots, and androids are all created for different purposes. Do they still embrace this purpose on some level, or reject it as a symbol of oppression?

Autonomy and Ethics: Delve into the level of autonomy and self-awareness your constructs possess. This can lead to ethical dilemmas about their rights and treatment.

Evolution and Adaptation: Even artificial beings may evolve over time. Consider how their creators might alter them or how they might develop self-improvement or adaptation mechanisms.

Interactions with Organics: How do these beings interact with organic species? Consider their relationships and potential conflicts.

Uplifted Animals and Human-Animal Hybrids

Origins: Determine how these beings came into existence—through natural evolution, scientific experimentation, or magical transformation.

Instincts vs. Sapience: Balance the instincts of the animal side with the intelligence of the sapient side. This can create unique behavior patterns and cultural nuances.

Social Integration: How do uplifted animals or hybrids fit into the broader society? Are they accepted, marginalized, or treated as equals?

Physical and Cultural Traits: Consider how the combination of human and animal traits impacts their abilities and lifestyle. For instance, a werewolf might have enhanced strength and senses but also face social challenges.

Other Humanoids: Things to Consider

Avoid Stereotyping: It’s essential to avoid portraying humanoid species as stand-ins for real-world races, which can perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce harmful biases.

Diversity and Depth: Give your humanoid species depth and variety in their cultures and appearances to avoid oversimplification.

Context and Sensitivity: Be mindful of the real-world implications and connotations when drawing from human cultures and races. Strive for respectful representation.

Narrative Purpose: Use humanoid species thoughtfully in your narrative to explore themes of diversity, prejudice, and identity without falling into simplistic or offensive portrayals.

💡When using World Anvil, you can utilize the Species worldbuilding template to flesh out the details of each race, from their biology to their societal structures. If you’re not quite ready to fully flesh out these peoples, the People tab of the Worldbuilding Meta, is a good place to start gathering your ideas and inspiration.

Worldbuilding Culture: Breathing Life into Your World

When you’re worldbuilding cultures and ethnicities in your sci-fi or fantasy world, a great starting point is looking at the environment. Climate, terrain, and resources shape how a culture develops. For instance, a society in a cold, mountainous region might focus on building sturdy, insulated homes. A community in a lush, tropical area might embrace open structures and lightweight garments.

  • How do they obtain food?
  • Is it an agrarian society? Do they have a surplus of food for trade or is it a subsistence culture?
  • Are they dependent on hunting and gathering? And if so, is that food abundant, scarce, or seasonal?
  • What kind of materials do they have to create shelter, clothing, and art?

When looking at our real world, finding inspiration without appropriation is all about respecting the cultures you draw from and blending elements creatively. Do your research, and don’t simply copy and paste them into your world. Drawing inspiration from multiple sources can help diversify your world while avoiding a direct lift from any specific real-world culture.

A magic system or advanced technology can deeply influence how a culture operates and its unique identity. For example, a society where magic is intertwined with everyday life might develop a caste system based on magical ability. Or a network of guilds that teach and manage its use. Alternatively, in a sci-fi world, a culture with a powerful artificial intelligence guiding its governance could develop a very logical, efficient society based on data analysis and prediction.

In both cases, the influence of magic or technology on a culture’s way of life adds depth and complexity to your world.

💡With World Anvil’s worldbuilding templates, you can delve deep into the intricacies of each culture, exploring everything from its language and cuisine to its art and music. By immersing yourself in the cultural tapestry of your world, you’ll create a vibrant backdrop for your story or campaign.

Worldbuilding Government: Establishing Order and Conflict

Every society needs a system of governance to maintain order and resolve disputes. Whether your world is governed by a benevolent king in a monarchy, elected officials in a democratic republic, or religious leaders in a theocracy, the type of government you choose will have a profound impact on the dynamics of your world. Governance shapes the distribution of power, the enforcement of laws, and the means by which decisions are made, influencing every aspect of your fictional society.

When worldbuilding government, consider how power is wielded and who holds it – and where the weak spots exist. In a monarchy, power may be concentrated with a single ruler or a royal family, so quick, decisive action is possible – but a single assassin can throw a country into utter chaos. In a democracy, power is distributed among elected officials, promoting diverse representation and debate – but also leaving multiple entry points for corruption to seep in.

The decision-making process within your world’s governance can reveal a lot about its values and structure. In a centralized government, decisions may be swift and efficient but can lack accountability. A decentralized system, such as a federation, may value local autonomy and community input, fostering a sense of participation and belonging. Consider how conflicts and disputes are resolved—whether through negotiations, trials, or force.

Finally, think about the impact on different groups. Who benefits from the system, and who might be marginalized? How are laws enforced, and what are the penalties for breaking them? The answers to these questions can provide depth to your world and its characters, shaping their motivations and challenges as they navigate the complexities of the society you’ve created.

💡 World Anvil’s Organizations template provides a framework for detailing the governments and institutions that shape your world. Create opportunities for intrigue, betrayal, and political maneuvering in your story or campaign with sprawling empires, secretive cabals… and everything in between.

Fantasy Economy: Greasing the Wheels of Commerce

No world is complete without an economy that fuels its growth and sustains its inhabitants. From bustling marketplaces to sprawling trade routes, the fantasy economy plays a crucial role in shaping the lives of your characters. Consider the resources that drive your world’s economy, whether it’s precious metals mined from the earth or magical artifacts crafted by skilled artisans.

The flow of trade is a key aspect of any economy, that provide opportunities for your characters to engage in trade, negotiations, and adventures.

  • How do goods move through your world? And how fast, costly and reliable is it?
  • Are there established trade routes by land, sea, or even air?
  • Do different regions specialize in producing specific goods or resources? Are they vital essentials, or luxuries?
  • How does commerce lead to potential conflict?

Examine how the economy affects characters on a personal level. Are there wealthy merchants or influential guilds that hold power? How do economic disparities impact the lives of commoners and the elite? Characters’ access to resources, the challenges they face, and their ambitions can all be shaped by the economic landscape of your world

💡With World Anvil’s diplomacy webs, you can map out the intricate web of trade and commerce that binds your world together. Show the flow of wealth, power, and influence. Whether it’s navigating the cutthroat world of mercantile politics or embarking on a quest to secure rare resources, the fantasy economy adds depth and realism to your world.

Breathe Life into Your Setting with World Anvil

Populating your world with sapient species, vibrant cultures, and dynamic governments is just the beginning of your world-building journey. To truly bring your vision to life, consider using World Anvil’s suite of world-building tools, including the People tab of the Worldbuilding Meta and the worldbuilding templates for Species, Organizations, and Countries. With these powerful tools at your disposal, you can create a rich and immersive world that sets the stage for drama, intrigue, and adventure.

So what are you waiting for? Dive into World Anvil and start building your epic setting today! Whether you’re a seasoned storyteller or a first-time world-builder, you’ll find everything you need to bring your vision to life and captivate your players or readers.