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Social Science and Fiction Part 1: Why Bother?

You can create reasonably immersive, fairly convincing settings by remembering a simple five-letter acronym.

MERPS: Social, Political, Economic, Religious, and Military.

From tiny little subsistence bands to mighty intergalactic empires, from sword-and-sorcery barbarian epics to swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, these five dimensions allow you to cover every major aspect required to create conflict and a memorable story.

As products of our own culture, we understand these elements without much reflection. Social interactions include hitting the pub with a few mates, attending a neighborhood block party, or chatting up that special someone you’ve had your eye on for a while. Politics include voting in national, state, and local elections, as well as debating PTA bylaws. Economics is what happens at the grocery store and on the stock exchange. Religion is church stuff. The military includes national armies and navies, as well as private militias and guerrilla warfare.

I want you to abandon those heuristic notions for something more abstract. Consider instead both distance (spatial, temporal, cultural) and the use of force. Close-distance social norms arise in clans, families, in small towns or villages, and among children, anywhere you find regular close, face-to-face contact. Far-distance social interaction is governed by widely-accepted custom, regional or national in scale. Rules that don’t involve the threat or use of force are things we would think of as niceties or basic manners: what food can I eat with my fingers, which side of the street should I walk on, etc. Add in force, and hey-presto, you have a criminal justice system. Rinse and repeat for economics, for worship, and so on. How do your fictional people deal with insider/outsider divides, and how do they handle resistance?

So how do you take this stripped-down version of the five aspects of community and apply them to crafting a fictional society? The answer depends on how much work you are keen to do. If you are so inclined, you can start from primordial origins, detailing what geological (or supernatural as the case may be) forces led to your new species attaining sentience. How did migration patterns work together with major natural events to either retard or accelerate advancements in agriculture, mining, forestry, or the like? Were your people forced underground because of a volcanic or asteroid-related event? What influence would that have on their long-term social strategies? Were they able to domesticate pack animals with opposable thumbs and prehensile tails? How might that have given them an advantage over rival species?

Maybe that’s not your cuppa. Not everyone will wish to start from a blank slate. Your audience might prefer well-established races or maybe you just can’t be bothered to begin from nothing. Luckily, you can use the same approach to adjust the lore of existing creatures. Take a popular example, the humble orc. Orcs are known for having a penchant for violence, and are a bit on the dim side. In most game systems, or in popular literature, the reason behind this predilection is little more than Gruumsh/Sauron/Khorne/Whomstever made them this way. Make no mistake: vainglorious gods bearing grudges against each other is part of a literary tradition stretching back at least as far as Homer. However, contrasted against emergent behavior based on evolutionary principles, direct divine intervention as a storytelling device leaves the author’s unsightly fingerprints all over an otherwise pristine work of fiction. What if instead, orc tribes were driven from arable lands during an evolutionary bottleneck and were forced to subsist on low-nutrient tubers while the more enlightened species developed larger brains on a diet of fish and game? One little change like this can turn lingering antipathy between orcs and elves into an emergent phenomenon rather than mere author fiat.

Let’s go through a quick example. I recently started running a Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition conversion of the old Spelljammer setting. One of the early-game optional quests involves investigating rumors of missing street orphans. Drawing on the definitive 1948 film adaptation of Oliver Twist for flavor, I considered the sort of institutions that might arise on a space port grafted to the inside of a crystal sphere*. Long transit times to the nearest settlement capable of agriculture imply high relative prices for food, textiles, or any other goods that can’t be made in an foundry or enchanted in the (accident-prone) tower owned by the local scatter-brained gnome wizard. Consider what implications this has for the care and upbringing of unwanted children. The few charities might arise in an area with such high natural interest rates will be more disposed towards short-term care or workhouses. Orphans too young to work will have a rough time justifying the allocation of scarce resources under such circumstances. It should be no surprise that these kids end up as Dickensian rubbish.

My players, of course see none of this prep (unless they either ask or they end up reading this post, as I’m sure they almost certainly will [hi guys]), but as a Dungeon Master, the extra up-front work gives me two advantages. First, the cognitive burden of ad lib is lifted. Unless the players do something spectacularly unpredictable (like killing the main villain of the story early in Act 2), I can simply revisit my reasoning for the present arrangements, and adjust to the new turn of events. In other words, I spare myself from having to invent post hoc rationalizations for unexpected plot developments**. Second, at the risk of seeming boastful, I am obliged to admit that my regular D&D group is filled with some of the smartest dudes it has ever been my good fortune to meet. We are all pretty well-educated across several disciplines, and these boys can tolerate only so much plot spackle before they get antsy. Diligence is much a courtesy to them as it is a convenience to myself.

In the next installment, I’d like to dig a little deeper into the role of microfoundations. To convincingly model a society of individuals, I submit to you that it is necessary to first model the individual. To that end, we will look at Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and apply it to the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, inter alia.

But before we call it quits for the day, let’s reach into the ol’ reader mailbag and see what comes out.

Murali writes:

Isn’t there going to be a worry about how whether a world looks realistic (e.g. in the field of economics) to me depends on what I think about the roles of private property, or the state etc in the economy?

Yes! One of the little joys of crafting your own world is that you get to start with the foundations of alternative property arrangements, and see where they lead. Magic is a big part of a lot of fictional settings. What sort of futures contracts emerge in the presence of even low-level divination magic? How does, say, the racial telepathy of the Illithid influence Mind Flayers’ understanding of intellectual property rights? When gods are real and routinely intervene in the affairs of mortals, what role is there for faith in the organized religions of your world? You ask an important question, one that every good world builder needs to seriously contend with if they hope to develop a plausible setting.

Derek Stanley writes:

 I am like you. I have created five different worlds for just D&D (Pathfinder).

I have also created worlds in the Heroes System.

Also, cities in Fate, Cthulhutech, Shadowrun, and Rifts.

I find I love to build my own stuff rather than using something already given

Shadowrun is a great example of what I mentioned above about reimagining classic tropes under new circumstances. Decker half-orcs are so compelling not just because the idea itself is interesting, but because the lore that supports the whole setting is rich and engaging. Also, the SNES game was set in Seattle, and I’m a sucker for hometown stories.

Michael Cain writes:

I have an ongoing exercise in world building. 25+ years ago I was having trouble getting to sleep (career, wife, house, kids, dog, etc on my mind). I had read a piece by a former Vietnam POW who had described how he distracted himself from his situation by building a house in his head: every brick, every board, every nail. I decided to try distracting myself from all the other things by building a story set in the various groups of asteroids, with a history for each of the major sites the protagonist visited and how they had evolved several different approaches to running a society in that setting. (I invented one piece of magic tech to solve a bunch of the problems, but only that one.) It’s an open-ended story, and because the exercise turned out to be successful in putting me to sleep, progress is slow :^)

That sounds fun. I’m getting a kick out of my Spelljammer campaign for many of the same reasons. With enormous distances to travel between settlements, you can expect a great deal of cultural heterogeneity. All it takes is a little jostle for those insular communities to come into contact.

Chip Daniels writes:

Yes, I have created a world, of a sort in my paintings on Instagram.

It is of the City of Angels in some alternate timeline, where buildings are part machine, part living beings. When I caption them, the writing is in the past tense, third person, like a traveler writing in his journal of a strange place.

It isn’t meant to be exhaustive and descriptive like a Dune sort, but evocative and suggestive, where it is still shrouded in mystery that the viewer fills in.

Absolutely lovely. Watercolors I assume? Unfortunately, I don’t really have the time to do my own illustrations anymore, but I have little notepad sketches of key settings. I find that being able to look at geographic features, architecture, even weather or dominant color schemes can help give a better sense of what sort of institutions govern my fictional races. Do they live in harmony with nature, or impose their own patterns on their environment? What do they find beautiful? Ugly?

North writes:

I have created a world, worlds even. For D&D, the Marvel RPG and several other older systems. Then because I had no life I created an overarching ‘verse structure to organize the disparate worlds in relation to each other. I’m looking forward to this series.

My own tip: commonalities really bind worlds and campaigns together. Makes players feel knowing about what they’re playing in. In all of my worlds normal mundane cats can travel transdimensionally and it’s considered common knowledge that they do. Players can be abducted from their own realities into strange scenarios and contexts but their house cats invariably show up and demand regular feeding and the NPC’s react to this with a shrug and a “cats can travel transdimensionally; everyone knows that.” It was originally an innovation done to deal with a player who would absolutely melt down over being separated from his fur-babies but the custom has outlived the player.

I concur. Repeating elements can establish harmony. Humans are sensitive to variations between harmony and tension. If you want folks to keep coming back to your world, establish patterns, then disrupt those patterns from time to time, preferably following a somewhat predictable beat (predictable unpredictability?). The three-act structure of modern cinema does just that. It’s why you’ve seen pretty much the same film over and over again for the past thirty years.

J_A writes:

Though I spent a large part of my teens imagining countries and even worlds (*), I wanted to suggest an alternative that I think about a lot: Alternative life forms.

SF tends to imagine that highly evolved life forms converge into some sort of anthropomorphism. I beg to differ. Plants, which can survive by converting electromagnetic radiation into food, are a much more successful life form qua life form (i.e. ability to self replicate). What would a civilization of completely different life forms look like?

(*) one specific imaginary country still accompanies me while jogging, or while I fall asleep; a meditation in which I add bits and pieces of history and geography (**)

(**) It’s in the NE corner of the Adriatic, south of Austria, more or less where the real Slovenia is. Pre- Roman conquest oral history and mythology was recorded by monks in the High Middle ages

World-building on hard mode, I see. Nice. I came up with a variant on the Myconid race from the Monster Manual to create what I fancy is one of the more compelling sights out there in Wildspace. Fungus people using the walls of the crystal spheres to tend massive mycelium farms for use as food and fuel. Again, the underlying individual motivations will help shape patterns of behavior for the whole species.


*the cosmology of the Spelljammer setting is akin to Firmament conjectures popular in antiquity.

**in my experience, players are easily alienated, particularly if they sense the DM is phoning it in

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4 thoughts on “Social Science and Fiction Part 1: Why Bother?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Looking forward to the rest of the series! (I’d probably have more substantive thoughts about the nature of “plausible” and “implausible” in story, but brain is fried today…)

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  2. What do you say to the notion that of the five items in your mnemonic, economics is king? I realize that’s a very contemporary way of seeing things, but RPGs are constructed and played by contemporaries so we are telling stories to one another that are meaningful.

    For example: in your world where basic agricultural foodstuffs are required to be imported at great expense, it’s certainly true that one result of that fact of life will be a surfeit of impoverished orphans. But I’d predict a couple of other things:

    1. The principal religion(s) will elevate the importance of grains, fruits, and other agriculture. If using the Greek pantheon, Demeter becomes a more prominent and powerful deity than, say, Apollo; the gods of trade and commerce (Poseidon and Hermes) will treat her more as a partner and an equal than they would have in actual history. And more to the point of an RPG, the priestly orders of the agriculture gods have substantial amounts of temporal power.

    2. Political and military objectives become securing transit lines to keep the populace fed and acquiring land or other resources with which to produce higher levels of food security. We would expect to see wars fought over scarce farmland, nobles jealously guarding the fertility of their fields, and magic-users bending their efforts towards expanding the food supply. Speaking of magic-users, we’d be seeing the kind who do nature magic (druids) given social and economic premiums over other kinds (illusionists).

    3. Fresh fruit, because of its scarcity and perishability, would become a luxury good and a status symbol. Note that it is also perishable, so the ability to consume something so evanescent will likely become a very public event. The nobility would make it a point to display their wealth and power by publicly eating ripe peaches. Sounds like a good setting for palace intrigue, assassination or theft attempts, or important announcements.

    4. Look for the political leaders to be members of or in some ways subordinate to the merchant class, because the people who keep the rest of the people fed hold a great deal of practical and economic power. And then look for that merchant class to self-organize into some kind of guild. If the king is not directly involved in the grain trade, look for the king to more than once have to bow to the demands of the grain guild.

    5. Non-agricultural food (fish, for instance) will be more plentiful, and therefore lower-status. Symbols of fish, birds, mushrooms, and other things associated with this world’s “poverty food” will become emblems of lower-class kinds of establishments and people. So the king might have sheafs of grain and peaches on his coat of arms, where a criminal gang or the Thieves’ Guild might use a fish skeleton as its symbol.

    All of this from elevating the scarcity and expense of agricultural products from the “baseline” of some hybrid of what we experience in our daily lives and what we recollect and know of the historical cognate of the setting (likely medieval Europe). My big point is that the economic factor of scarcity is what governs what is politically, socially, and religiously powerful.

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  3. Orcs are known for having a penchant for violence, and are a bit on the dim side.

    One approach I like to that one is to bring it into the political (ideally a fair ways into the campaign) “Of course elves would say that. How do you think they’d sleep at night if they didn’t? You should hear what our playwrights have to say about elves.”

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  4. Love this! Takes me back to my world building days as a teenager (AD&D 1st Edition – ORPG!).

    Of course, I did the same thing in the Navy (deployment involves an awful lot of time where the brain can wander off to world building).

    Haven’t since then, never found a group I wanted to play with. Kudos that you have.

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