Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions: Commerce, Trade, and Public Life

By Patricia C. Wrede

  1. General

    • Which peoples/countries/races fought, allied, traded, or were traditional rivals? Where are there still hard feelings about old events?
    • Is there a “trade language” that facilitates commerce between countries that don’t speak the same tongue? Is there a “universal language” spoken by educated or noble persons, as Latin was in the Middle Ages?
    • What does this country import? Export? How important is trade to the economy? How is currency exchange handled, and by whom?
    • Why did people settle in this country in the first place — strategic location, trade route, water transport, minerals, good farming, etc.?
    • Have things changed much since, or do they still depend on whatever brought them in the first place?
    • How much do official attitudes toward other countries affect commerce and trade? Do merchants pretty much ignore tensions between government as long as they can make a profit, or will this get them into trouble? Are there Customs inspectors or their equivalents at border crossings? Is the export/import of some technologies/magics/commodities regulated by the government, or by non-governmental cartels? How does this affect political relationships between countries?
  2. Business and Industry

    • How is business organized? Are there trade unions? Guild structures? Multi-state corporations? International cartels?
    • Are people able to cross-craft, I.e., learn or perform different trades? Does cross-crafting require guild permission, a write from an overlord, or is it automatically guaranteed by law? How strict are craft restrictions — are carpenters the only people allowed to build houses?
    • What types of trades would be represented in a small town? A middle-sized town? A large city?
    • Is currency and coinage standardized, or is there a system of exchange? What are typical denominations? What types of currency is a traveler or merchant likely to carry on a trip? What are different coins called, and what are they worth?
    • Are industrial processes (e.g., swordmaking, weaving, etc.) considered “trade secrets,” or are they common knowledge?
    • What is the process a young person goes through to enter a craft or trade? An apprenticeship? Four years of college? Are the craft requirements for various skill ranks (such as apprentice, journeyman, master, or med student, intern, doctor, specialist) standardized, or does rank depend more on the good favor of a master craftsman than it does on skill?
    • Do different regions/cities specialize in specific crafts, processes, or products (examples: Damascus steel, Bordeaux wines, Chinese silk, Wisconsin cheese)? Do different races specialize?
    • What regulations, if any, has the government/ruler placed on business practices? Are there antimonopoly laws? Anti-pollution? Are there standardized systems of weights and measures, or does a merchant have to specify “a London bushel” of grain rather than “a York bushel”? How do differing systems affect shipping and trade?
    • Are any new industries developing? Which old ones do they compete with or make obsolete?
    • How are records kept — tally sticks, parchment, clay tablets, beads?
    • Is there a merchant class? Where do they fit in society? Are there trading guilds? If so, how are they organized? How much power do they have to control trade? How much infighting is there among them?
    • Are there trading organizations that transcend countries (like the Hanseatic League)? How large a presence do they have locally?
    • Is this a money-based economy, or mostly barter?
    • What goods are commonly available in small town markets? In large towns? In cities? How do goods get to market?
    • What industries — mining, fishing, shipbuilding, lumber, farming, manufacturing, etc. — are important, and in which areas? Which depend on materials from other areas (as shipbuilding on wood, or weaving on wool)? What happens if supplies are disrupted?
    • Who is responsible for coinage: the ruler, local barons, someone else (merchant guilds)? Are there generally acceptable standards? How easy/common is counterfeiting?
    • How much smuggling is there? Of what, from or to where?
  3. Transportation and Communication

    • What are the common domesticated animals used for transportation at various levels of society — e.g., oxen, horses, donkeys, camels, etc.?
    • Are there magical means of transportation (teleport spells, magic carpets, dragon-riding)? How do they compare in speed, safety and expense to non-magical means? Are there any drawbacks to magical travel (for example, teleport sickness)? How commonly are they used, and for what purposes (industrial shipping vs. travel for fun)?
    • For traveling short distances within a city, what are the alternatives? Can people hire a cab, a litter, a rickshaw, or do they have to walk or rely on their own servants or horses?
    • How are messages sent when necessary? Is there a public/private postal system, or does everyone of importance have to send messengers? How fast can news get from A to B?
    • How available is water transportation? How reliable? How dangerous? How expensive?
    • How common is travel (for any reason)? Does the concept of travel “to see the world” or for fun, even exist? How dangerous is travel? How large a group is considered safe? How much traffic is there inside and outside the main cities? Which areas are best/worst?
    • What is the fastest means of traveling long distances over land? Over water? Which methods are safest?
    • What is transportation like? Are there good roads? Who built them? Who is responsible for maintaining them?
    • Where would a traveler stay at night? Are there enough travelers to support inns, or do people have to stay at some equivalent of medieval monasteries?
    • Are some classes of people (slaves, peasants) not expected to travel at all? Are some (heralds, messengers) expected to travel constantly?
    • How do people find out what is happening in the world — rumor, town crier, newspapers, TV and radio? How slanted is the news they get this way, and in what direction? Is there freedom of the press? If not, who controls/censors it and by what means?
    • How are books produced? Are they common (has the printing press been invented) or are they rare, valuable, expensive, hand-written objects? If the latter, who has the time and skill to produce them?
    • Where are the great libraries or collections of books/scrolls/manuscripts? How accessible are they to scholars, wizards, the general public? Who supports them?
  4. Science and Technology

    • Is the level of technology in this society comparable to that of ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, what?
    • What important inventions or advances have been made (the wheel, gunpowder, printing, flush toilets)? Have any of them reached the point of affecting the daily life of the average person, or are flush toilets a luxury for the nobility only?
    • What inventions or advances have not been made that you would normally expect to see at this stage of technological development? Which ones are about to be made?
    • How much is known about the laws of nature, physics, and magic? How much of what is commonly known is wrong (e.g., Aristotle’s ideas about human anatomy, which were wrong but accepted for centuries)?
    • Are the laws of nature and physics actually different in this world, or are they the same as in real life? How does magic fit in? How do magical beasts fit in?
    • Where is scientific and/or magical research done — universities, private labs, under the auspices of the ruler/government, etc.?
    • In what areas might magic replace technology, and thus suppress its development (example: if a spell to keep food cold is easy and cheap, there’s no need to invent refrigerators)? In what areas might magic cause more rapid technological or scientific development (example: common use of crystal balls might lead someone to think of inventing the lens or the telescope sooner)?
  5. Medicine

    • What customs surround death and burial? Is there a special class of people (doctors, priests, funeral directors, untouchables) who deal with dead bodies? What things must be done and why (burn hair to free spirit, burn body to prevent necromancy, coins on eyes for ferryman, etc.)? Are the dead feared, revered, or ignored?
    • How accurate is the diagnostic process? Do healers have ways of telling two diseases with similar symptoms apart? Do they depend on standard physical medical tests — reflexes, temperature, contracted pupils — or do they normally use spells for diagnosis?
    • How expensive is a healer? How available are such services to ordinary people?
    • How much is known about anatomy, physiology, pathology, etc.? Are treatments based on purely practical experience (“We know this works but we don’t know why”), or do healers understand at least some of what they are doing?
    • How much training does a healer normally get? Where? From whom?
    • Is healing generally a magical process? If so, how does the magical healing talent work? Does a magical healer have to consciously direct the healing process (meaning that lots of knowledge of anatomy, etc., would be required), or does magical healing simply speed up the normal, unconscious healing process in the patient? Is there more than one kind of magical healer (as there are surgeons, eye doctors, etc.)? Are there both magical and non-magical healers, and if so, are they rivals or simply different specialties?
    • Is there a reliable method of birth control? Who normally handles births — midwives or doctors? What is the mortality rate for pregnant ladies, new mothers, and children?
    • What level is medicine at? Who are the healers? Do you have to have a talent to heal, or just training? Who trains healers, herbalists, apothecaries, surgeons, magical vs. nonmagical healers, etc.?
    • How much need is there for healers — how much sickness, plague, injury, etc. is there in this society? Are there enough healers to meet this need?
    • What kinds of treatments are available — herbal brews, vaccinations, acupuncture, spells, etc.? How effective are they?
    • Is it possible to resurrect/resuscitate someone who has died? If so, how long does it take before this becomes impossible? Before serious brain damage sets in?
    • How is insanity treated? Are there asylums or treatment centers, or is it handled case-by-case? How effective are treatments for insanity?
    • How much do the physical differences between humans and non-humans affect their medical treatment? Are there diseases that only affect non-humans, or only humans? Are there diseases that affect everybody, but with different degrees of severity — a mild cold in a human is galloping pneumonia in a dwarf? Are some treatments lethal to one species but effective for others? Do doctors or healers have to specialize to do a good job of treating non-human patients?
  6. Arts and Entertainment

    • What is the status of the arts (dance, music, theater, etc.) in this society? Are artists revered or mistrusted? Are they considered noble or immoral? Who supports the arts? Which arts are most highly valued and why?
    • Are there permanent theaters or concert halls for the performing arts? If so, who owns and runs them? Are they profitable? Are there also traveling troupes of players/musicians/dancers? How do their performances differ?
    • What do people at various levels of society do for fun?
    • Can magic be used in the arts, and if so, how — paint that glows, pictures that move, flutes that play themselves, etc.? How do “normal” artists feel about this? Is there a separate branch of purely magical art, such as illusion?
    • What sports or pastimes are common (hawking, hunting, skiing, baseball)? Which ones take skill, money, and/or leisure time?
    • Is magic a profession, an art, or just a job? What is the status accorded to magicians in this society?
    • What games are commonly known — chess, dice, poker? Which are common among everyone, and which are limited to the peasantry or nobility? Are certain countries/cities known for a passion/expertise for particular games or pastimes?
    • Have paper-making and the printing press been invented, or are books and scrolls rare, expensive, handwritten items?
    • What things are considered appropriate subjects for representational arts such as painting and sculpture? Which are not? (Examples: some cultures/religions forbid the painting or sculpture of the human figure, and have abstract art; some have limited painters to doing only “uplifting” religious works, etc.)
    • Are there non-human races who tend to be naturally talented painters, dancers, etc.? How does this affect human practitioners of these arts?
    • Do non-human races have their own games and leisure pastimes? How do they differ from human games? How do they reflect the physiology and/or particular magical talents of the various non-human races?
    • Are certain races/cultures considered better at some arts than other races/cultures? Where do the best dancers, painters, musicians, actors, etc. come from?
    • What are the standards of beauty for people? Paintings and sculpture? Clothes and furniture? How do they differ from the standards in your culture (example: a country which considers fatness a highly desirable beauty trait)? How do standard of beauty reflect the physical traits of the various races (examples: dwarves might consider excessive height unattractive; werewolves might be attracted by long teeth or a particular scent)?
  7. Architecture

    • What is the most common building material? Why is it used (availability, cheapness, legal requirement)? Does it have any major drawbacks (e.g., the Great Fire of London)?
    • How tall a building can be constructed at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time?
    • What are typical floor plans like — can people afford to waste space on hallways, or do they just have a series of rooms opening into other rooms? Are buildings normally built square, triangular, domed, what?
    • How many people usually live in a typical house? How large is a typical house?
    • What are the differences in materials and appearance between a lower-class, middle-class, and upper-class type house? How do people decorate buildings (e.g., carvings vs. paint vs. patterns resulting from the use of different building materials)? Are there differences in ornamentation depending on the purpose of the building (e.g., gargoyles and carvings of saints used mainly on cathedrals)?
    • Has technology or magic progressed to the point of making window-glass? If so, how expensive is it? If not, what do people use to cover windows necessary for ventilation and light?
    • How are living quarters arranged? Are bedrooms on the top floors for privacy or on the ground floor for convenience? Are parlors or libraries common? How are houses heated/cooled?
    • Are wars and insurrections common enough that castles and cities are built with an eye to military defense first and appearance later, or are palaces and wall-less towns the rule?
  8. Urban Factors

    • How many people are there in this country? How does this compare with world population? What is considered a small town/large town/city in terms of number of people?
    • Is population shifting from rural to urban, south to north, mountains to coast, etc.? Why — invasion, plague, gold rush, etc.? What effects has this had on the places being left? The places gaining people?
    • Does city layout reflect some philosophy (religious or otherwise), such as that the “head” of the city must be at the center or at the highest point or at the most strategic location? Or were layout considerations mainly practical? Or did most cities “just grow”?
    • Are there public or private parks in most/any cities?
    • Are cities generally laid out on a square-grid system of streets, or do they just grow? How wide are the streets and alleys?
    • What are the landmarks in each city? Where are the interesting neighborhoods, like Chinatown or the dwarvish section, and what gives each its special character? Do the neighborhoods have names?
    • Where do people go to shop? To eat? To have fun? To do “touristy” things? What sorts of goods/food/entertainment are available in large cities that are not available in the country?
  9. Rural Factors

    • Is population shifting from rural to urban, south to north, mountains to coast, etc.? Why — invasion, plague, gold rush, etc.? What effects has this had on the places being left? The places gaining people?
    • Given the magical/technological level of this society, what is an appropriate ration of farmers or food producers to urban residents? If farm production is based on magic, how many urban residents are going to starve if the spells supporting farming (weather, land fertility, etc.) fail suddenly?
    • Are peasants/farmers/yeomen/serfs tied to their land by law or custom, or can they move to town if they feel like it? Can they own their farms and property, or is it all “common land,” or is it rented from a lord or landholder?
    • Given the state of roads and transportation, how much food is it possible to ship to a given location before it spoils? (This limits the size of cities.)
    • Are rural areas primarily farms, forests, fields for grazing, or “waste land”? In outlying areas where there aren’t many people, how many roads are there, who builds them, and who maintains them?
    • How reliable is the weather from year to year — is crop production relatively dependable, or do people have to cope with regular famines due to drought or floods?
    • What kinds of catastrophic weather are common — tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, waterspouts, dust storms? How do people cope? How do non-humans cope?
    • How are farming/food-producing areas divided up between humans/nonhumans? What kinds of conflicts are likely to result? (Example: Expanding human farms encroaching on a forest that dragons or werewolves use for hunting.)
    • Can peasants/yeomen own their own land, or does it all belong to the lord? What kinds of rights over land, crops, game, etc. does a lord/landowner have? Is poaching a problem?

Copyright © 1996 Patricia C. Wrede. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.