Worldbuilding 101 – Government, Industry, Agriculture and Trade


In our previous exercises, we created out planet, resources, peoples and societies now we need to build the engines that keep food in the belly, clothes on the back, and provide some semblance of order and leadership in our world. That brings us to government, industry, agriculture and trade.
Agriculture – Let’s start with the very basic foundation: food. Every creature needs sustenance. The food must come from somewhere. If your society is a nomadic race of hunters and gatherers, the bulk of their time and lifestyle will be built entirely around the locating and harvesting (through hunting and/or gathering) of food. Anthropologically speaking, hunter/gatherers are among the most primitive of societies. Cultivation of food is higher on the technology scale and agricultural societies are subsequently more fixed rather than nomadic to provide time for the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of crops. Domestication of livestock should also be considered.

If the characters in your novel are going to interact on any level with farmers or ranchers you should have some idea of what plants they farmers cultivate, what animals they raise, where the farms and ranches are located, what degree of technology they have. How big their farms or ranches are. (Incidentally, the Acre which is a long-standing two-dimensional plot of land was devised as being the average amount of land a farmer behind an ox-pulled plow could plow in a single day.) If you have farmers and ranchers, you need to consider water supply and terrain. Mountains can be terraced for farming.

Even if on-page interaction with farmers and ranchers will not take place in your novel, you still need to determine what the peoples of your world eat and drink, how the food is prepared, rituals associated with the preparation or consumption of food, food taboos (if any, such as the jewish taboo against meat and milk products being served together), etc. Don’t forget to consider what effects certain foods may have on the people who eat them, and remember that for all the healthy foodstuffs that may be available, there are also likely alcohols, stimulants and poisons to be found as well.

Keep in mind: Food is a sensory experience. Smells, tastes, visual displays (presentation) all come into play, and you can use those experiences on-page to illustrate all manner of cultural and personal information. Think of two lovers sharing long, slow bites of succulent cherries, prisoners partaking of their last meal, a Spartan soldier eating raw meat from a fresh kill, Roman nobility gorging themselves on food, wine and decadence.

Government – The human race settles itself naturally into social order, and leadership becomes established at a relatively early date on the timeline of civilization. From tribal chiefs and councils of elders to high priests to nobility and kings to elected officials, most cultures must, in order to survive, form, support, and submit to some form of government. Depending on the type of societies you have created, you may have any number of government or leadership roles.

  • Leadership by Right of Combat. This is one of the simplest and earliest forms of leadership. The alpha male. Leadership is won through challenge and combat. Leaders who age or are injured are challenged and replaced (or killed, as was often the case). In highly-contentious societies with great numbers of enemies, the War Chief will often become the leader of the society, simply because effective military leadership is essential for survival.
  • Religious Leadership. This includes Popes / High Priests / Priestesses / Shamans. Typically religious leaders work in conjunction with a more secular (though often “divinely appointed”) leader such as a king or tribal leader; however, depending on your society the religious leader may be instrumental in governing the society. Decide how powerful your religious leaders are and what influence they hold over daily life, decisions of state, and the rulers of your society.
  • Council of Elders. In many societies, age is equated with wisdom and tribes are governed by assemblies of elderly men (and sometimes women) who pool their collective experiences to guide the younger members of their society. In such societies, elderly members of the society are typically revered for their age, not reviled for it, and the society encourages open care of devotion for its aged members. Families are extended to include elderly members. This does not, suggest, however, that younger members of the society always accept the wisdom of their elders without contention. Nor does it imply that the Elders are always right!
  • Feudalism. In a Feudal society, the nobles reign supreme. Feudal societies typically are ruled by a king and a heirarchy of nobles who have sworn fealty to him. Each noble may also have other, lesser nobles, whom have sworn fealty to them as well. The king typically rules by birthright. Serving him are a collective of nobles, who may have earned their titles and stewardship of self-supporting estates (typically agrictulturally-driven estates) through service to the crown. In return, as a vassal of the king, the nobles offer a proscribed number of “knights fees” or months of soldiers’ service to the king on an annual basis, gathering taxes for the king, and dispensing the kings justice on their etates. It is not uncommon, however, for the nobility to rule as kings on their own estates, dispensing justice and governing as they see fit.
  • Absolute Monarchy. In an absolute monarchy, the king reigns supreme. No law and no body of people (noble or otherwise) may oppose him. Typically in an absolute monarchy, the king is thought to possess his kingship through Divine Right (i.e., the will of God). Even in absolute monarchies, however, most kings have inner councils of advisors to help him make wise, well-informed decision
  • Constitutional Monarchy. In this, the most modern, form of monarchy, the king is essentially a figurehead. Real power rests with an elected body of officials (the Parliament, for instance).
  • Democracy. In a true democracy, all governance is performed through majority vote. Beyond a small tribal collective, pure democracy quickly becomes unweildy and anarchistic, not to mention terribly unfair for the unlucky sods in the minority (who lose every vote). In a true democracy, if John was a miner who found and mined a fortune in gold, his less fortunate fellows could gather together and vote to take John’s gold and divide it amongst themselves. And John would have no way to stop them. Pure democracy, which sounds so nice on the surface, is really mob rule. If your character finds himself wandering into a pure democracy, he’d better hope he’s got the mob on his side!
  • Democratic Republic (aka, Representative Democracy). A democratic republic, or representative democracy, is the type of government we currently have in the United States. The people elect representatives to governmental councils called congresses (town councils, county boards, state congresses, national congresses). As part of this election, the electorate empowers the elected official to introduce, develop and vote on legislation on their behalf.

While you’re deciding on the type of government your society has in place, also consider the benefits and perils of how the succession is decided. In monarchies, rule is passed by birthright. The eldest son of the current ruler becomes king after his father’s death. Can women rule? What happens if the king dies without issue? What if the inheriting son or daughter is not up to the task of leadership? What if they are still a child when the king dies? Is there a regency? Is it a single person? Are successions peaceful or times of great tension and upheaval?

Do not forget how the governments support themselves (taxation, goods and services donated by the governed, etc.). Also do not forget how the government establishes and maintains law and order.

Industry – Next comes industry. What goods do your peoples make? How advanced is their civilization? Are they pre-industrial? Do they manufacture machines made of metal, have automation?

Is each individual self-sufficient, or do members of your society specialize in particular crafts or industries? Types of crafts / industries can include metal workers, glass blowers, carpenters, woodcutters, tool makers, furniture manufacturers, shipbuilders, sail makers, buggy / carriage makers. The list is virtually endless. If you need a little help fleshing out types of industry to create, consider lookin up the Standard Industrial Classification codes (SIC codes) used to classify companies in the US. You’ll get all manner of ideas.

Don’t forget all the industries involved in the production of items. For instance, if your world uses metal swords, the metal ores must be mined and smelted before the swords can be made.

As part of early craftsmanship often comes the establishment of Guilds which are used to train and “license” individuals in the production of quality goods. Guilds are usually industry-specific. A woodcarver’s guild, for instance, would have different members and rules than a blacksmith’s guild. What are the stages of apprentiship and mastery in the guild? Apprentice, Journeyman, Master is a common, three step process of training, but you may choose to make up your own stages.

Trade – Last but not least, you must consider trade. How are the foods and fruits of industry and agriculture disseminated amongst your populations (or between cultures, for that matter)?

Distribution is key to any productive form of industry. What goods you harvest or manufacture must be taken to a market of some sort. Are there trade routes (land, sea, river, etc.)? How well established are they? What are the perils of those trade routes (piracy, highwaymen, etc.)?What goods does one society manufacture that are most desirable to other societies? What is traded in return? How fair is the trade – and might certain societies attack another to capture their valuable resources?

What types of people are your merchants? Honest men, or sly hucksters selling snake oil remedies? (Note: merchants who offer exotic goods for sale are usually far wealthier than the individuals who produced or delivered those goods.) How are tradesmen paid? What must they do to defend their trade routes and markets?

These are just a few of the many questions you can ask yourself when fleshing out these aspects of your society. Where possible, consider each decision you make with an eye for how it can affect your plot or your characters.

Happy Worldbuilding! In the next article, we’ll talk about Warfare and Technology in your societies.

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