Designing Cultures The Shomshak Way

Designing made-up societies is a craft, and like any craft you can get better at it. Here is one of the techniques I use in critiquing and designing societies for game settings. I’ll draw examples from Exalted, but what I’m talking about will work for any kind of setting.

Be warned: I draw on a notion I took from a book about history and social science, but I’m not a historian or social scientist. Experts can probably tear all of this apart.

THE GOAL: While world-building can be fun in its own right, the purpose for a game is to create an exciting and memorable setting for the PCs’ adventures. Preferably, for more than one adventure: If you go to the trouble to make a cool setting, you want to get plenty of use from it, yes? And if your players think the setting is cool, they will want to see more of it.

THE PROBLEM: All too often, a game writer had one idea for a society, and didn’t look for a second. The resulting society looks boring or gimmicky or just doesn’t make sense when you look at it closely. Exalted fell into this trap early in 1e, with “gimmick” cultures such as Chaya, Varangia or Paragon, and the setting has struggled to get out ever since.

Even if it’s a cool gimmick, building a society around just one idea limits the stories you can tell about it. Fine, the PCs had a fun adventure coping with the Chayans’ yearly freak-out. Then what?

There’s no sense that a country could be a real place, with people who have lives apart from when the PCs show up. (To use Tolkien’s terminology, it does not inspire secondary belief.) It’s hard to care about such a setting or the people who live in it.

ONE PARTIAL SOLUTION: To make a culture more interesting, start by looking at it from more than one perspective. Real people never lead simple, one-dimensional lives: Neither should the people of your imaginary world.

Then use the different aspects of the society to generate factions and conflicts, both internal and external. These conflicts, in turn, present members of the society with choices — and choices are the stuff of drama. But that’s a subject for another essay.


Lucky for you, social scientists already came up with a set of perspectives by which you can view your made-up society: Social Forces. I learned about them from a course on Introduction to Historical Analysis, and have found them useful. (Specifically, see Carl G. Gustavson, A Preface to History, though I have changed Gustavson’s ideas somewhat.) Examining a society through the filter of each social force won’t guarantee your society is cool, fun and playable, but by Gods, it will work and you will know that society inside and out.

"Social Forces" are ways in which people and groups, including governments, can get things done. There are many specific forms of power, but they fall into (appropriately) five general categories: Political, Economic, Ideological, Military and Technical power. In most societies, all five forces are at work to some degree, but a few may dominate. Look at a society from these perspectives to see how it works, who has power, how they use it and what they want.

POLITICAL power comes first because all other forms of social power comment on it to some degree. Political power is all-pervasive, yet becomes shifty and circular when you look at it closely. In brief, though, this form of power grows out of the social structure itself. Somebody has to make decisions for the society, so societies invent ways to appoint Deciders. Political power is legitimate, in that most people agree that certain individuals have a right to tell the rest what to do. Usually, this act of collective make-believe is so ingrained that nobody notices it. In short, "Do what I say because I am the person who says what to do."

Most importantly, political power is "whoever" power: whoever holds the office, gets the power. If they leave the office, they lose the power. The other social forces tend to create or define their own offices, without regard to pre-existing social structures or notions of legitimacy. Given time, though, power entrenches itself and becomes routine and political. Once an institution appears, its members try to perpetuate it, entrench it in society and maybe even extend its powers. The institutional drive for self-preservation and expansion is another aspect of political power.

Examples of this social force include kinship and hereditary leadership: The authority of parent over child is the first and oldest form of political power. Smaller societies may structure themselves entirely through kinship. Other examples of political social structures include elections, courts and judges, and any sort of social contract. How does your society decide who gives the orders? … Even if these “legitimate” leaders aren’t the people with the real power. What entrenched institutions will resist any attempt to change society? Conversely, what institutions might back a person who seems likely to aggrandize their power?

Case Study: The Scarlet Empire. Her Redness began as utterly illegitimate. She had the biggest beat-stick in Creation, though, and most other institutions were in ruins. She made herself legitimate through the Thousand Mazy Paths of the Realm bureaucracy: Final decisions were not possible without her to resolve bureaucratic conflicts. She also had parental authority over the Scarlet Dynasty, even if this was not explicitly coded into law.

Case Study: The Haslanti League has an explicit political system, consciously designed by the nation’s founders as a social contract between the various city-states and classes of Haslanti society. While the election process is cumbersome, it ensures the many divisions of Haslanti society believe their interests are all represented at the highest level of power.

Case Study: An-Teng’s matriarchal clans are an implicit political structure, maintained by pure tradition. Men ostensibly dominate business and politics… but only so long as their grandmothers allow it. The Three Princes — hereditary monarchs who nominally rule An-Teng — simultaneously show fealty to the Realm and to native traditions through the legal fiction that the Scarlet Empress is the matriarch of their “clan.”

ECONOMIC power is control of the production and distribution of goods and services. As the old saw goes, it's the Golden Rule: "Whoever has the gold, makes the rules." (Though in Creation, it’s silver, salt, cowries or jade.)

Economic power means a lot more than mere wealth, though. Farmers and artisans wield economic power because other people need what they produce. As a society becomes more complex, exercises of economic power can include control over hiring and firing, wages, prices, transport of goods, consumer boycotts, national fiscal policy, striking for health benefits… on and on.

Sometimes, economic entities such as corporations or trade guilds get mixed up in government. If the businesses create a government, you have Syndicalism, with the Italian merchant princes as RL examples. If the government directly controls economic activity, you have Socialism, more or less. Other forms of economic power include land ownership (particularly in pre-technological, agrarian societies) and plutocracy (political power explicitly limited to people with great wealth, however that's defined, from livestock to corporate stock).

How does your society organize itself to produce and distribute the necessities of life? Or the luxuries? What are the necessities and luxuries? What do people eat? (How people feed themselves may be the most basic economic issue.) Who has the wealth, and how do they get it and keep it?

Case Study: The Realm’s system of banking and jade scrip is both a source and exercise of economic power. The conversion rates between jade scrip and actual jade make the system deeply unstable without the Empress backing it up through her possibly imaginary Privy Purse. However, loss of faith in the system would harm just about every power broker on the Blessed Isle — so the Great Houses play along. For now.

Case Study: The Guild. Duh. See Masters of Jade, coming soon!

Case Study: The Lap indentures everyone at a young age as a way to control their labor for state benefit. Officially, no one has a chance to gain private wealth until they are over 43, or acquire any privilege they can pass along to their children. Unofficially, money talks as loudly in the Lap as anywhere else.

IDEOLOGICAL power is the power of belief. Political power arises from the social structure, but ideology claims authority beyond the social structure, and tries to create its own social order. Ideological leaders justify their power in ways that have nothing to do with decision-making: The Pope is Christ's vicar on Earth, so if you believe in Christ you should obey the Pope. Or, the Communist Party will create the utopian Classless Society, so you should obey the Party. Even mob rule is a savage form of ideological power, driven by primitive ideologies such as "Let's Get What's Ours From Those Rich Bastards" or "Keep Those Dirty <Insert Ethnic Minority> In Their Place." Cults of personality are also examples of ideological power — a belief in the superhuman qualities of the Great Leader. On a brighter note, abolitionist and civil rights movements demand that societies change their structures for the sake of fairness, inalienable rights endowed by a Creator, or other transcendent ideals. Whatever the ideology, followers believe that they act as the vehicle for some greater power and purpose: "I'm on a mission from God."

Theocracy — rule by a god or divine representative, such as a priest-king or church — is one manifestation of ideological power, but other forms can exist. What transcendent values does your society endorse? Or at least claim to endorse? Who defends and promotes these beliefs, and how, and what privileges do they claim for doing so?

Case Study: The Scarlet Empire operates in symbiosis with the ideology of the Immaculate Order. It doesn’t matter, the Order says, what you think of your Dragon-Blooded master personally. The Dragon-Blooded are higher beings, and disobedience to them violates the fundamental order of Creation.

Case Study: Halta and Linowan have spent centuries locked in a religious war over which type of forest is better, evergreen or deciduous. What began as a spat between their patron gods has become a mutual hatred so deep and pervasive that either society would likely disintegrate if it gave up the war — it’s one of the few things every member of these far-flung wilderness empires has in common.

Case Study: Sijan exists to honor the dead. Everyone wants a little respect when they die, and Sijan serves that purpose. Its holy mission lets Sijan remain neutral and unarmed; its morticians travel unmolested. Any warlord, prince or bandit chief who ordered an attack on Sijan would find his own troops in revolt, and not just from fear of revenge from angry ghosts. Desecrating the dead, and their keepers, is just wrong.

MILITARY power is simple and obvious. "Do what I say or I'll kill you." Or for a slightly subtler form, protection from enemies and dangers: "Do what I say or they'll kill you." Or "Do what I say and I'll kill them," if people feel aggressive.

Military organizations can achieve political legitimacy if they adopt rules of conduct, a chain of command, and other formalities. A military might even take over ordinary social and political functions. Warlords, on the other hand, make no pretence of legitimacy. In this mode, soldiers don't follow a chain of command; they are personally loyal to the warlord (if only to the warlord's money). Criminal organizations often show aspects of military power, even if the criminals don't explicitly rob people: They use force to protect their turf and profits from other criminals and to intimidate legitimate authorities.

In your society, who uses violence to gain power and get what they want? (Besides the PCs!) Is their use of force sanctioned by some other group, or is it raw threat of force?

Case Study: The Realm Defense Grid is the greatest source of military power within Creation. (It is arguable whether the Daystar counts as “within Creation,” and anyway it is rather firmly kept out of human hands.) The Realm’s legions, however, are far from insignificant. The satrapy system ultimately rests on the threat of retribution by the occupying legions.

Case Study: Through the Staff of Peace and Order, the Perfect of Paragon literally holds the lives of his subjects in his hands. His subjects can die if they consciously violate his law. This is not as sweet for the Perfect as you might think… But every citizen knew the deal when they swore their oath on the Staff, legitimizing his power.

Case Study: The Mask of Winters maintains a façade of government in Thorns, but he is about the most brutally illegitimate a warlord-conqueror one could imagine.

TECHNICAL power is the power of specialized knowledge and skills. Scientists and inventors possess technical power because their discoveries and inventions change what people can do and what they know. The priests of Egypt held technical power because of their monopoly on writing, the calendar and geometry. Nowadays, lawyers wield technical power because the law is so complicated that only a specialist can understand it. Any group based on technical power can claim authority on the grounds that only its members possess some skill that society needs to function, whether the skill is writing, law, engineering or alchemy: "Leave it to us, we know what to do."

What does your society treat as specialized skills and knowledge? Who has power through their possession of such skills? How do they use it?

Case Study: The Realm may appear somewhat weak in the field of technical power (though the sorcerers of the Heptagram qualify as possessors of specialized knowledge, and so do the artisans who increase the Dynasty’s panoply of artifacts). Keep in mind, though, that the complex bureaucracy of the Thousand Scales is a form of technical power. Prudent Realm-folk should not ask how much that power is meant to assure competent administration and how much it screens the people who really run things.

Case Study: In Creation, shamanism is not always coupled with piety. Small gods and elementals have power; the shaman develops special skills to chivvy the spirits into using their power for the benefit of the tribe (or at least not to use their power to its detriment). While shamans might learn thaumaturgy for this purpose, just the diplomatic skill to bribe, browbeat, wheedle or otherwise persuade a spirit is a form of technical power.

Case Study: The astrologers of Varangia decide everyone’s occupation, as well as the times to initiate war and peace and just about everything else. Their divinations are real, if not infallible. This assurance that everyone and everything is in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time makes Varangia an example of a government that is explicitly based on technical power.


Keep in mind that every social force can affect the other four, and institutions often combine more than one social force. In the Scarlet Empire, for instance, the military occupation of the satrapies brings in the tribute that enriches the Great Houses and opens the way for Immaculate missionaries. The Lap’s enormous food surplus, an economic resource, is used tactically to reward and punish societies through half the South. Or, the Varangians guide their lives through astrology because of an ideology that elevates stasis as a social goal, and ordains astrology as a way to achieve it.

Conversely, activities and institutions that seem similar might operate within a context of different social forces. For instance, look at religion in Creation: The Immaculate Order is explicitly ideological; but shamanism is often an exercise of technical power. A god who extorts worship by threatening mortals uses military power, whereas a god who promises boons in return for worship enters into an economic relationship. Spirits can even become legitimate heads of state, as the Syndics of Whitewall have done — albeit by promising safety and prosperity as well as honest and competent government.

As an exercise, you might look at a country’s description in the CoTD books and see how each social force operates within it. If you want to use a country as the core setting for a campaign, the Pentangle of All-Encompassing Power can suggest areas to develop your own material.

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