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Fantasy Worldbuilding – Ideas for Designing a Civilization

Gate of Babylon by najtkrissThe period in history between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, the period we call the Middle Ages, seem to go hand in hand with epic fantasy. Of course, there are many great fantasy stories that are based on different eras, from biblical times to modern urban fantasy, but the medieval era seems to be the best fit for the sword and sorcery, fairy and dragon, and crusade-type quests that form the basis of many fantasy novels.

To be fair, many fantasy novels have alternate civilizations as a backdrop for their plot. Raymond Feist’s world of Kelewan is one of my favorite oriental based realms. But other than middle age Europe, the main cultural basis for most fantasy stories (not counting urban fantasy) are as follows: the Middle East, the Far East (including Japan), Scandinavia, India, and Byzantine Greece. And yet there are plenty of civilizations that thrived during this same era but are rarely, if ever, touched upon in fantasy lore. It is worthwhile to research alternate cultures, since insight into history can provide a windfall of information and inspiration.

Below are four medieval era civilizations worth researching to help develop various cultures for your world:

Toltec Civilization

Toltecstan IV by Tan YilmazThe Toltecs rose to power after the fall of Teotihuacan. The Toltecs did not last very long. After rising to power at around 900 AD, the Toltec capital of Tula was overrun by the Nahua in 1156 AD, and the Toltecs ended up assimilating into various other cultures, although they were able to transfer their influence and rule to Chichen Itsa, which was finally overrun in 1221 AD. The Toltecs were so influential that the Aztecs considered Toltec descent to be a symbol of pride, and displayed their heritage in the clothes they wore. The xicolli, a ceremonial garment, is believed to have originated from the Toltecs, who were masters at creating colorful textiles. The Toltecs were deeply religious and very into human sacrifice, so much so that when one of their most influential leaders attempted to do away with the practice, he was cast out of Tula.

The Toltec civilization is known best for its Temple of the Morning Star (Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli) and the Atlantes statues atop the temple.

Fantasy World Applications

The Toltecs are a good basis if a past civilization of old is something you wish to incorporate in a world, since Toltec ancestry was highly prized by the legendary Aztec people. It is a good way to show how noble or royal lines may have originated.

The Mound Builders

Cahokia_Ira Block by nextSTLBetween approximately 1000 – 1550 AD, Native Americans in the central and southwest US experienced a cultural shift when their way of life evolved from isolated tribes to larger communities sharing similar traditions. Called the Mississippian period, hunter-gatherers began supplementing their food with agriculture. Around 1000 AD, corn crops spread throughout most of the area, and the abundance of food resulted in settlements. Populations swelled, and complex societies formed. Some of the mounds date back to 1800 BC, but the mounds built during the Middle Ages were ceremonial, called temple mounds, and believed to be a village’s main area and religious center.

This civilization was way more sophisticated than the nomadic Native American tribes, and they incorporated social hierarchies. Yet despite the advances of these various societies, these people did not smelt metal, although they did work with metal found naturally in deposits, such as gold, silver and copper.

The mound builders are well represented by the Cahokia mounds near St. Louis, Missouri, which was built during the Mississippian Cultural period, which coincides with European medieval era. But Cahokia is but a small time frame in the entire era of the mound builders.

Fantasy World Applications

The Cahokia mounds are proof that advances in metalworking are not necessary for developing a sophisticated civilization. Stone, pottery and shells were the materials of note in the region. Cahokia was a massive urban center that dealt not only with trade, but tool and pottery manufacturing and distribution. Farming tools, particularly hoes, were produced. It is a good basis for a society that is unwilling or unable to use or build with metal. Unfortunately there are no written records available, so most of what historians have learned is based on archeological findings.

The Khmer

Angkor Wat by Stefan HeinrichDuring the early ninth century, in Southeast Asia, King Jayavarman II became ruler of a small kingdom named Kambuja by defeating a group of smaller rulers. Soon after, he established Kambuja’s independence from his home country of Java through an elaborate ritual in which he proclaimed himself chakravartin, or universal ruler. This was the beginning of the great Khmer empire, which thrived between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.

The Khmer had a class system in place very similar to the Indian Hindu caste hierarchy. Slaves, farmers, artisans, warriors and royalty all had their own social class group. The kings held absolute power and were considered gods, with grand temples built and dedicated to them. Hinduism and Buddhism were the prevalent religions of the empire, but there were also cults and sects as well.

The temples of Angkor were magnificent, but rice farming was the foundation of the empire itself. Trade kept the empire and its surrounding region stable and relatively peaceful. Farming communities were set around a larger urban hub city. The hub city would import and export goods. Irrigation and water distribution were sophisticated and carefully managed. The government held censuses and was organized in a bureaucracy that was both beneficial and troublesome. Rice and fish were abundant due to farming and allowed the population to boom.

The Khmer are famous for their temples and period architecture. Angkor Wat is a famous temple complex that served as both a Hindu and Buddhist temple during the Khmer era.

Fantasy World Applications

Although there was significant conflict in the region during these times, the Khmer Empire and its surrounding region were generally on good terms due to trade. Designing a culture that thrived or expanded without warfare is not common, and might have a boring history, but the trade relations the Khmers had with China, India, and what is modern day Indonesia might provide good background material for this.

The Bantu Peoples

In the Great enclosure, ruins of Great Zimbabwe by Best of RobThe Bantu is a departure from most of the great civilizations of the era, where grand temples and monuments were built and great rulers have scores of military victories under their belts and scholars documenting their lives. The Bantu migration was a movement that spanned thousands of years, where the Bantu migrated from northern Africa, settling by the rainforests at first, then migrating south to drier climates where they could cultivate grains.

The Bantu are famous for spreading ironworking throughout central and southern Africa, as well as introducing agriculture to the drier lands in those areas. During the Middle Ages the Bantu established the kingdom of Zimbabwe and the building of its capital, Great Zimbabwe. When it was discovered by the Portuguese, it was theorized that the complex was built by Arabs or Phoenicians, since it was inconceivable at the time that Africans were capable of building such a place.

The Bantu is best known for the high quality iron they learned to produce and the spread of the Bantu language throughout much of the African continent.

Fantasy World Applications

The Bantu migration is a perfect example of how a particular custom or language can encompass entire countries and most of a major continent. A similar migration in your world could be an ideal backdrop for a common tongue, or a religion or sect that can be found throughout most of the world.

– – –

One thing to keep in mind when researching societies and civilizations is that since the beginning of history, all civilizations have ended. A few were lucky enough to evolve into better systems, but this appears to be the exception. The societies that humans have not eliminated with war, genocide and assimilation are the ones that succumbed to issues we still face today. Among a few are climate change, overpopulation, mismanagement of resources, famine and natural disasters. When designing a civilization or society, be aware of the threats, but do not focus too much on creating a society that is completely proof against all these matters. The demise of a civilization does not signify that it was a flawed one.

Happy researching!

Title image by najtkriss.



  1. There definitely is a dearth of fantasy based on “New World” civilizations. I’ve been meaning to write a fantasy novel based on ancient Inca/Andead myth… should probably get on that.

    I wonder why fantasy writers tend to focus almost exclusively on medieval Europe as the basis for their worlds? It’s just cultural inheritance, I guess.

    But you’d think it being fantasy they’d branch out more.

  2. This is great information, thank you.

  3. Avatar Chris says:

    Regarding the Khmer, they also developed some very complex canal systems which made boats one of the big transport vehicles to distribute people and goods around them. You could then apply fantastical concepts such as river magic, water creatures etc which keep the empire together or as a means of conflict to drive a story. 🙂

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