Something I've considered writing for a very long time is a system-agnostic, largely setting-agnostic tabletop sourcebook that's just descriptions of fantastic cultures and peoples, intended as fragments that could inspire new, interesting worlds instead of prescribing a specific concrete world. I've had scattered notes on this for a while, but I've now decided to start putting pieces of it out into the world in the form of blog posts instead of waiting until it's “complete”. These posts will all be small pieces of pure fantasy worldbuilding, not tied to any particular story or game, describing some small part of the cultures of fantastic peoples in a fantastic world. My current working title for this project is Tir-Bhahat, so these posts can be all read under the #tir-bhahat tag.
I also want to give the story of why I was inspired to do this, because this is a very old idea of mine: its origins come from my high school days, and arose from the collision of three things:
- An awkward, poorly-planned, terribly-run Dungeons and Dragons 3E campaign I put together for my high school friends
- My budding interest in natural languages and high-school habit of buying cheap grammars and phrasebooks for languages I had no intention of ever speaking fluently
- My lifelong penchant for worldbuilding and constructing languages
One thing I discovered as I was reading the Dungeons and Dragons player's handbook was that I was really dissatisfied with fantasy naming. The Dungeons and Dragons books had a set of suggested names for each kind of fantastic humanoid—-elves, dwarves, halflings, and so forth—-and these names felt by and large uninterestingly English-like in phonology. They differed from each other mostly in terms of consonant distribution: that is to say, a Dwarvish name would have more k's and g's, while an Elvish one would have more l's and q's, but you'd rarely find other major differences in terms of the kinds of consonants and vowels that would show up, or overall shape of the words. And beyond that, while you could usually distinguish an Elvish name from a Dwarvish one—-possibly because they were all Tolkien pastiche, anyway—-you'd have a much harder time distinguishing a Gnomish name from a Halfling name, because they all read so similarly.
I immediately set out to rectify this. I sat down with a set of natural-language inspirations for each fantasy language, and then came up with phonologies and tendences, and then wrote programs so that I could generate names that adhered to those phonologies. My intention was that a player who had played in my games for long enough could, from just the impression and sound of a name, tell what sort of person it belonged to, in the same way that an English-speaker who speaks no other languages can nonetheless often tell a German name from a Hindi name from a Mandarin name.
Many of these phonologies were based loosely on real languages, often chosen somewhat arbitrarily. For example, the language of the gnomes, I decided, had a deeply Slavic flavor to it, resulting in Gnomish names like Ussybneča Kadrey Ažbardzo, while the language of the halflings was loosely based on Romance languages, resulting in Halfling names like Pégno Telbasci. Importantly to me, none of these efforts were intended to be constructed languages like Tolkien's Elvish languages: they didn't feature grammars or vocabularies, but instead were just guidelines about how words should look and sound. I did eventually write up phonologies for every major language mentioned in the Dungeons and Dragons books I had at the time.
Over time, though, the scope of this project got larger as I realized my dissatisfaction about the sounds of fantasy languages extended to other aspects of fantasy cultures such as food. What do fantasy peoples eat? Many of those sourcebooks would tell you that Elves eat fruits and probably a nourishing cracker-like bread, while dwarves eat mushrooms and drink ale, and halflings eat lots of bread. But when you look at real-world cultures, you find cuisines which are much deeper and more varied. You might find a dish of noodles and mushrooms in Italian cuisine as well as in Chinese cuisine, but even then, those dishes will surface with wildly different composition, flavor, and focus. Compared to the richness and variety of foods that appear in the real world, the fantasy standby of “elves eat fruits” feels remarkably simplistic and boring.
Since then, this idea has been on my mind sporadically, so I've accumulated a lot of notes on possibilities for fantastic languages and names and foods and clothing and family structure and cities. However, despite having considered doing so on a number of occasions, I've never taken all these notes—-some of the oldest dating back more than a decade—-and turned them into a cohesive whole.
Consequently, my plan is now to start polishing them piece-by-piece, with no particular focus or order, and start posting these scattered notes as blog posts instead. The current drafts are no longer deeply tied to Dungeons and Dragons, or any specific fantasy world. They make some cursory efforts to be compatible with existing fantasy cliché—-stipulating that dwarves live underground, for example—-but also try to avoid the worst and most problematic parts of fantasy cliché, such as the concept of intelligent, sentient beings who are “always chaotic evil”. These posts are exercises in world-building for its own sake, vignettes of fantastic cultures that ideally should be simultaneously grounded and yet fantastic.