World Building: Character Groups

Early in my work on building a setting for a game or story, I want to know the social, political, religious and economic groupings. Character groups are one of the most important elements of your setting. This is true for both fiction and gaming.

Characters must want something that is difficult to keep or get. Without an object of desire and an obstacle to getting it, there is no conflict. Without conflict, there is no game or no story. In both the real world and our imagined worlds, what stands in the way of someone’s goals and desires often isn’t one person but a whole group of people. Your characters will come into contact with these groups and may collaborate, do business with, or oppose them.

Character groups are a group of characters who have something in common by which the reader or player can identify them. Groups could be residents of a city, the members of a guild, an extended family group, a nation, or a clan. This can be as complex as you want to make it but for the sake of efficiency, using broad strokes will get you the largest amount useful material in the shortest time.

Our brains look for patterns. There is too much information from the world for us to pay attention to everything. The human brain looks for patterns and draws our attention to anything that contrasts with the patterns because the new experience could be dangerous. This is 99% unconscious. This is how stereotyping and bigotry occurs. We see the behavior of a group of people or; we are told stories about a group of people, the brain recognizes patterns and this becomes our attitudes about a group of people.

What I am doing, is the same thing, except on purpose. I am creating groups, assigning them patterns of behavior, so that the readers or players will then develop attitudes and opinions of their own based on their personal experiences. I am careful when I do this. One can stray into very ugly territory. Sometimes, I do that intentionally. I try to portray people in their good and their evil, not as I would like them to be.

Building an archetype allows you to later create unique characters within a group who overturn the assumptions of your audience. This places the players or readers in an uncomfortable position of having to question their assumptions in order to make sense of the situation. I get a great deal of satisfaction from setting people up for that moment. The moment when our assumptions blow up in our faces is a powerful learning opportunity.

I start with what it is that identifies the group. This can be their profession, religion, economic status, social status within the society, or even their species if you are creating a sci-fi or fantasy setting. If I was working on a generic fantasy setting some of my major character groups might be: Wizards, Peasants, Merchants, Artisans, Mercenaries, Priests, Bandits, Nobles, Forest Barbarians, Steppe Nomads, Elves, Dwarves.

In each of the following steps, I’m not being detailed. This is very broad and very fast. I want to get a general sense of each group without writing a dissertation on who they are. These are generalities. What I am creating are the archetypes of the setting. I try to keep this down to a single page of information. If I can fit it all on one index card, even better.

What do they do?

I rough out what the group does, what their place in society is or how they go about their work.

Artisans: construct objects of value for retail sale or wholesale trade via merchants, form guilds that have political influence over the city

What do they want?

It’s hard to say what an entire group of people want but groups of people can be generalized up to a point.

Peasants: produce enough food to feed themselves with some surplus so maybe next year they can get a better plow or another furrow of land

What do they value?

This is a list of words or phrases that defines what each group holds in the highest esteem.

Merchants: profit, family influence, reputation for honest dealing among other merchants, cleverness, reading/writing, fine art.

What do they dislike or despise?

This can be a sort of behavior or attitude, another group of people, a type of animal, or food taboos.

Mercenaries: unnecessary fighting, late payments, physical or mental weakness, lack of skill in the craft of war.

Obstacles/Problems

This is what keeps them from getting what they want as a group. This may be conflicts other groups, conflicts within the group, the groups own inability to adapt to the current situation, environmental problems (drought, too much rain, earthquakes), shortages of needed resources, monsters, or vengeful gods.

Merchants: Poor roads, war between kings, bandits, taxes, judicial system is corrupt

Identifiers

This is a way readers or players can easily identify the what group a character belongs to once you’ve introduced them. In some cases, this will be very obvious. If a group is 4 feet tall and long beards it is obvious that they are dwarfs. In others, what identifies a character as part of a specific group will be their clothes, some mark that their profession or lifestyle has left on them, or a manner of speech. This can be useful later when you get down to individual NPC’s, use the identifiers to create unique and memorable NPC’s that contrast in other ways.

Peasant: Coarse woolen tunic, bare feet or simple leather turn shoe, smells of sweat and animal manure, malnourished

Internal Hierarchy

How does the group differentiate its most important members? The most important members of the group will most exemplify the previously defined set of values and have the few or none of the characteristics which are despised by the group.

Peasants: Free land holding peasants are the top of the economic and social ladder. They are often elected for offices in the manor such as reeve and bailiff. They are known for their ability to do hard work, wise management of their animals and land, tidy and well kept cottages

A Family of Tartars, c. 1885. India, Punjab, probably Lahore, Company School, 19th century. Ink, watercolor and gold on paper; overall: 25.3 x 33.8 cm (9 15/16 x 13 5/16 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Maxeen and John Flower in honor of Dr. Stanislaw Czuma 2011.137

Horizontal Subdivision

Each group may have factions within the group. A group of steppe nomads may be separated into clans. As a group they will have in common their way of life, what they value, what they hate, the obstacles to getting what they want but the clans will be different in some way. One way I will differentiate a faction from the others is to accentuate the factions esteem for a particular value. All the steppe nomads keep falcons but this particular faction is known to be the best at raising birds. All the steppe nomads are animists and each one holds a particular animal in highest esteem and paints it on their tents and embroiders their wool tunics with symbols representing their clan’s affinity for that spirit.

In A Song of Fire and Ice there are the different noble families, who are similar in that they have land over which they rule, bannermen who serve them, a family coat of arms, family words, heirloom weapons and armor but the specifics of each of these differ and that is how you can tell them apart.

Wrapping Up

At this point, I have a clear idea of who the group is. This gives me a basic background from which I can build conflicts. Once you know what someone wants, it becomes easy to brainstorm ideas about how to keep them from getting it. Putting groups into conflict with each other is an easy way to build stories or game conflicts. The nomads want to graze their flocks and the grain farmers want to plow up the grass and plant oats. The king wants more gold so he can pay for an army to enforce his claim on the next kingdom over and the nobles are balking at the imposition of the tax and the military service.

This process creates the pattern that your players or readers will learn to expect from the members of a character group. Once you establish the pattern in your game or story, you can reverse it and surprise your audience with something unexpected. If a character gets described as a peasant, it will be quite a shock when the “peasant” pulls out a wand and blasts the player characters with a 6d6 fireball. The overturned archetype is a powerful tool.

Here is an example of what this process might produce using one of the character groups from The Expanse. The big groups are Earthers, Belters and Martians. The Belters all live and work in the asteroid belt, have various maladies and ailments due to poor nutrition, the physiological effects of growing up in low gravity, and speak a creole language. They all want more autonomy, better living conditions, respect from the Inners (the people Mars and Earth), and better financial opportunities. They value the skills necessary to the work and lives they lead living on space stations, space ships and mining the asteroids for valuable materials. They despise the Inners who exploit them for their labor and other Belters who collaborate with the Inners to exploit their own people. They are identifiable by their deformities caused by malnutrition and low gravity living, a particular style of tattoos, their language and their accent when speaking English. They are divided into factions which have differing views on how exactly the Belters should go about getting better living conditions and being able to contend with the Inners in financial, political and military terms.

One of the reasons I don’t make maps until I’m further into my world building process is that the kinds of groups I want to have in my setting are more important to me than where rivers or mountains appear on the map. The emotional content of the game or narrative is where “story” happens. The emotional content comes from the interactions between characters and character groups. Once I know that I have steppe nomads, I need to put the steppe on my map. Once I know that there are merchants, I know that I need to have cities where the merchant’s live and connections between those cities that the merchants travel with with their wares. I can begin to extrapolate what the world looks like and where places are in relation to each other once I have a clear idea of who lives there, what they want and how they collaborate or conflict with each other.

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