GM Tips: Cultural Lore Soup
Updated: Jul 7, 2022
This is Part One in an ongoing series on Deities and Worldbuilding. You can catch Part Two HERE.
How are you supposed to write lore? Where do you start?
How do you come up with an entire history, a backdrop to set your world in?
I write lore for a living so I’m going to help you out. Here are some things to consider when making your own Cultural Lore Soup.
A Cultural Lore Soup is what you need to make your world feel real. To make it tasty, enjoyable and full of flavor, it has to have a full set of ingredients: Mythology, Fear, History and Religion. These topics can be sensitive. The lines between them can be blurred. What you should be interested in, is the narratives and stories found within these subjects.
I’m presenting them to you so you can have a fresh perspective on creating lore.
Mythology is a set of significant stories that have persisted over the course of a society. They often explain how things work. Sometimes they just tell us the drama between the Gods. Keeping up with the Titans. They reflect what a society was like long after the era has ended. The Gods might not have lived in Mount Olympus but their characters reflect what Greek society was like.
Think of Mythology as a collection of recipe books. You’re writing your own recipe book so you can’t just rip stuff off. It’s really important to be respectful when you’re looking at mythology. Some stories and Gods are still relevant religiously, culturally and personally for many people across the world. Be inspired. Don’t steal. Stealing is wrong.
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Fear is everywhere. Fear, Chaos, Death and the unknown. We don’t like those things. Fear tends to be the water, making the soup liquid. We fear the unknown so we make up some stories to explain things and make ourselves feel better. Gods are often personified beings who protect and control what a society fears. Giving us back the reigns a little. It gives us an action to prevent something bad happening. If we pray we can be saved. The control is given back to the people.
Town with a Snake God? There's probably some snakes about.
City full of War God Temples? Maybe think before you piss them off.
Goddess of a certain flower? The flower is super magic.
Gods are there to stand next to things with big signs saying: HEY THIS IS IMPORTANT
Our universal fear of certain things is why we see similar myths across many cultures. I bet you £50,000 you know a flood myth. Because floods are scary, deadly and a real problem.
You have to identify what your culture is afraid of, then you can build around it. I’ll go into more detail in upcoming post.
History is something we know happened because we have proof. Since you’re creating a fantasy world, there’s probably a lot of magic.
If magic is evident in your world, your creation myth will probably be more of a ‘creation history’. Points in history can still be debated. Religion, belief and myth can arise from history. That’s why it’s a cultural-lore soup, it all blends together.
You can also use real-life history to draw on events. You like Game of Thrones? That map looks familiar. Whoever could those wild, ginger northern men be?
Religion is a collective of people united in a belief system. The system usually contains Gods (or just one God), rules and practices. Since a fantasy world is often full of magic, you have less reason to doubt any fantastical elements in the stories. If the all-powerful immortal Gods are strolling around, dragons are flying as regularly as the coach service, then there’s no reason not to believe.
You may have a religion dedicated to a God because they believe that if they don’t pray to this particular God they’ll be punished. Dwarves could hoard gold because they believe that an Old Bronze Dragon will return from the East and reward them for their loyalty. Belief has to be the root of the system and behaviors. It can’t be proved, it has to be passed on.
So what about adding cults to your world? What makes them different? It’s hard to find a satisfying definition and distinction but I’ll tell you my thoughts. Religion tends to be a widespread cultural thing- cults are smaller groups that partake in practices that would be deemed ‘counter-cultural’. Nowadays, we think of creepy money-grabbing charmers praying on the weak, but secret rebel cults have existed for a long time. The Cult of Dionysus was all sex and drugs and rock and roll before he became integrated into the Greek Pantheon. If society as a whole is cool will human sacrifice then it’s not a cult but if you and five guys from the pub start convincing people it’s a good idea…yeah, that would be a cult.
Adding religion to your world brings bigger consequences to your actions. Their are rules and beliefs that can be broken and contradicted. You create the structure which can be referenced within the game.
Lore has become a term to describe ‘the background of a fantasy world’ as an easy way of describing this melding of concepts. Some of these subjects are pretty sticky. But it’s important to think about them when you start your world-building.
Mythology, History and Religion aren’t mutually exclusive even in our world. Historical events are also significant religious events. Stories within religious texts can be defined as ‘Myths’ by definition of being a culturally significant tale. Some people believe them as fact and others take them as allegories. They all influence each other.
Lore is all of the above. It's passed on knowledge, usually by word of mouth. You have to assume all your NPCs know your lore.
How do you approach worldbuilding? Let me know in the comments below!