What Is Your Species’ Society Like?

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Oct 122017
 

What kinds of government does the species typically have? Monarchies, dictatorships, or republics? These are discussed more in Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2), but those are three of the big ones that can imply levels of sophistication and concern with what we’d call human rights. A society where people can vote government officials in and out of office is markedly different from one where people are executed for dissension. Get a feel for this now and flesh it out later; each of those sovereign power types has varieties we’ll examine in Volume 2.

Do your species marry? Do they ever divorce? Their religion might forbid or allow this. There was a time on Earth when the former was expected quite young and the latter almost never happened; we can assign one pair of viewpoints to one species and the reverse to another (having a reason is always a plus, and in a world where armed conflict is common, war can be that justification for either). Are big families the norm or does no one care much about their family? Perhaps they’re more like animals in that young are born, raised a few years, and then go on their way, never reuniting. Maybe a child is reared by the whole community and they honor their parents but don’t live with them for long. Or maybe they never move out and a home and business is passed down generation after generation.

In modern times, some parts of the world allow some gay marriage, but what about our species’ typical society? Is it okay, a crime, or somewhere in between? Do they have abortion? Is abortion government sanctioned and paid for by health care? Are weapons allowed or forbidden? How sophisticated are laws and criminals? This list could go on for forever and we needn’t invent everything or we’ll never have a life, so choose what you might want to comment on. You can always add to it later.

Our species’ habitat will affect their society. A forest-preferring species will likely love plants and woodland animals. A sea-dwelling species is the same for sea life. They might have less contact with other species, being more innocent, ignorant of their evils, and trusting; this might be true of an underground species. A flying species likely has more contact with everyone and is very social, maybe acting as messengers or scouts in human society. These will affect society and the overall outlook of a species.

What is Your Species’ World View?

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Oct 092017
 

One challenge of creating humanoid species is that there’s only one here on Earth and we tend to conceptualize invented ones that aren’t much different from us. This is natural but maybe not ideal. Many aspects of humanity are taken for granted but can be questioned, turned on their head, and varied to create a world view different from all of humanity, not just one human civilization. We can look to different cultures for inspiration and will do so in Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3). If we want to comment on human assumptions, this affords a great opportunity, especially when human characters on our world encounter our species; it’s been noted that fantasy in particular tends to be based on a European model of civilization. The humans are seemingly transplanted from Britain.

To create a different world view, we should avoid having characters react in ways that are identical to humans. While that’s a storytelling issue, its roots lie in species conception, or a lack thereof. If we accept that humans are prone to jealousy, and that’s how we envision a human character reacting, this can be fine, but if we give an identical reaction to a species that’s supposed to be different, this seems like a poor concept. We should question stereotypical reactions of humanity and possibly not give them to our characters at all, not to mention characters of different species.

A good example of this is Spock from Star Trek. He reacts differently than the human crew members to almost everything. It often drives ship mates crazy. He gets misunderstood, some calling him arrogant, cold, or worse. It hurts his badly suppressed feelings. It’s as much a species clash as a cultural one. The judgmental aspect of humanity goes on display as they vilify a guy they’re trying to make sense of, making the human failing of trying to understand another species in human terms.

Decide what your species is like in broad terms. How do they view themselves vs. other species? What is their imagined place in the world? Do others disagree with it? Are they peaceful or a threat to be reckoned with? Do they keep to themselves or travel extensively, and why? What is their reputation? Do they jump to conclusions? Do they react emotionally? Do they trust emotion more than logic, which is viewed with suspicion? Do they take offense at stupid things or overlook them? For all of these things, are they worse or better about it than us? Try not to just make them the same because you haven’t thought about it. Make a list of all the stupid aspects of humanity that you’ve experienced or witnessed (even if it’s just in a story), and then figure out how your species would react instead.

Here’s an example of the sort of things you might want to write: Diaden see other species as weak both physically and in ability to pursue and realize goals. This has made them disdainful and snobby. Worse, it makes them routinely conquer other species in a belief that it’s their job to lead others to a better life. “An unarmed Diaden is a dead one,” they’re proud of saying, as they’re always prepared for battle and put up a terrible fuss if a city has an ordinance against openly carrying weapons, in which case they’ll surrender theirs only because more are hidden on them. They disrespect ideas that go against their own. They practice “a good offense is the best defense.” Most other species find them pushy, warlike, and confrontational. They seldom have friends among other species, and humans in particular are thought to be evil, for lack of a better word, if keeping company with Diaden.

What Are Your Races’ Characteristics?

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Oct 052017
 

Anyone familiar with gaming systems has seen a list of characteristics like intelligence, wisdom, charisma, strength, constitution, agility, dexterity, and morale. Each will have a number from one to ten, for example, and a species is rated in each category. The numbering isn’t needed for authors, but assigning one can tell us at a glance what we’re thinking. We only need a few sentences about each trait and these can be things we never tell our audience. The exercise gets us thinking, and as we write it down, more ideas can occur to us. This example, invented on the fly, demonstrates the kind of work that will be useful to do:

“They aren’t the smartest species, having no formal schooling and only learning by word of mouth; their grasp of history is poor. Their street smarts are better, as they can read situations, learning from experience. They lack wisdom, being unable to realize consequences until learning them the hard way. They also don’t understand psychology except for how to be menacing, and can be easily lured into traps. They lack charisma, their twisted minds being as repulsive as their bodies, though a certain gleam of excitement does come over them in battle, though only evil people find this attractive.

“Their strength is considerable, allowing them to wield two-handed swords with one hand without fatigue or loss of dexterity. Their constitutions are generally strong in that they have endurance, but they don’t heal well and catch sickness easily. Their agility is better than people expect, for they can jump farther and faster than anticipated, but they cannot do acrobatics due to their large size. Dexterity is excellent and they can not only fire all manner of bows with skill but are even gifted musicians, though their music is hideous to other species. Their morale is superior because they have little to no respect for life, whether theirs or someone else’s, and feel assured of their place in the afterlife, which is not to say they court death, but dying in battle is an honorable way to go.”

Who Are Your Species’ Gods?

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Oct 022017
 

We arguably need to invent gods before deciding which ones influence our species, but we can start with a general sense of a species disposition and then decide later which deities are likely on their minds. We can be predictable in this, such as deciding that a warlike species worships the god of war, and we likely need to do that, but we can also decide they worship less obvious gods. Maybe they love fate and worship that god, too, despite that god also being the god of truth and integrity, good qualities. This can suggest our species values honor in combat and doesn’t do things like stab an opponent in the back. Interpretation is where the fun lies. To think more “outside the box,” invent gods first and then your species, then assign them gods and find these conflicts you can resolve in ways that enrich a species.

An important consideration is whether the attributes of our gods influenced the resulting species and their outlook. This not only justifies many aspects but ties different creations together. It also allows us to leverage our existing work, such as the deities. If our gods are organized and those deity groups created a species, then perhaps that species is dominated by the character of those gods. The gods of deception, greed, jealousy, and fear might produce a very different species than the gods of truth, vitality, courage, and intuition. Those examples (daekais and karelia, respectively) are from my work on Llurien, a world with seven groups of gods and seven resulting species. A look at my approach with them on Llurien.com can provide ideas for your world.

What Does Your Species/Race Body Look Like?

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Sep 212017
 
Humanoids

If our species is humanoid, our body design work is largely done. Areas needing description are mostly those of overall size, height, mass, and fitness standards. The prevalence of facial hair on males and average cleanliness of all genders can also characterize them, but these are partly cultural, too, and result from behaviors. A species that does messy work, like farming, might become less careful about cleanliness so that their slovenly appearance characterizes them. Deciding on some bodily issues can come before or after we form an impression of world view.

Females will be different from males in usually minor ways. Human females are more feminine than males (hence the word), but we can reverse this, making the females brutish and the males delicate; this will benefit from a good reason. Do females wear jewelry or otherwise try to appear more attractive to males, or is the species too brutish for that? Is mating like humans or do females go into heat like animals? Is there a mating season? Much of this is cultural.

Standards of beauty have changed in human history, with larger woman having been seen as better bearers of children long ago, but now thinner women are all the rage, so how are the females? Is it the women who pursue the males, who must try to attract them, and if so, what affect does this have on both genders physically? Making a humanoid body different from those of humans (in more than superficial ways) involves thinking about other aspects of their lives.

Size and mass influence not just strength and endurance, but capabilities. A species with hands that are much larger or smaller than humans will have trouble wielding weapons or using tools designed for us. If they aren’t sophisticated enough to invent their own, then is someone creating these for them? Do they just steal the items? Or do they capture people with the know-how to make them, then force these slaves to do that work?

Size also affects relationships with enemies and allies. If our species is three feet tall, do they just run away from something over six feet tall, or do they swarm while attacking? Have they developed great endurance from all that running or are they just faster than everything and then good at hiding? Being encumbered by possessions makes running harder, so do they travel light? Does another, taller species protect them? Is there a flying species who knows this running species will drop everything and flee, so they follow along hoping to pick up the discarded items, like carrion birds circling a battlefield? If they’re larger than everyone, are they fearless? Is that overconfidence that can be used against them?

In SF in particular, many aliens have skin like reptiles, not only with scales but similar coloring. This should have a biological basis, such as protection from the elements or predators. Making their skin poisonous is another option, which can introduce some cultural issues. They’d need to avoid touching humans, for example, and might be wearing gloves or other gear to protect others.

Non-Humanoid

If our species is not humanoid, basing it on an animal can help realize its body and avoid something unintentionally silly. Gigantism is an option but is arguably the least interesting because it’s a run of the mill creature except for its size. If we also modify our analogue, this is more attractive.

Combining features of animals and humanoids is benefited by having some understanding why an animal has a feature so we can decide if it makes sense for our species. If our species has a tail, what do they use it for? A weapon is a good answer; that suggests protecting their rear but that they might also be a predator and prey. Is the tail is long enough to strike forward? Can that tail sting? How venomous is it? How fast acting is the poison? If it’s designed to use against those with weapon skills and not just animals, a poison would be fast acting to neutralize a threat quickly, even if it sedates instead of kills. All of this is true of poisonous teeth and claws.

Research every feature to see why it exists. Why do turtles have shells? Why don’t snakes have legs? Tails are often for climbing, but clearly that’s not true for a horse. Horns and tusks are used for fighting and even digging in dirt. Coloring may be for camouflage or warning. Wings are obviously for flight, but there are flightless birds, so understand why that happens before inventing one; they typically exist on an island that has no predators, so creating a flightless bird that lives amid many predators doesn’t make sense unless it has developed another way of surviving, one that rendered their wings less important. Not only will a little research turn up useful info to make our creations better, but it can give us other ideas and enrich our life as we understand the world around us more.

What Does Your Species/Race’s Head Look Like?

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Sep 182017
 
Head

When creating a head, think about every last facial feature, as described next, but when describing a species to an audience, it’s often best to comment on the most important features rather than overwhelm with detail. It’s even better to do so while describing a character’s mood at the moment, as evidenced by the effect of that mood on those features.

Humanoids

Below are some features to write about and the options that are easiest to describe with a word that most will recognize; if we have to explain a facial feature too much, maybe it’s better to just go with something easier to envision and convey. An example of this problem is the word “monolid,” (listed below in text about eyes) because while we’ve all seen this, we’ve likely never heard the word.

Other names can be used in our files but not in our writing because they’re of Earth origin, like “Roman nose” or “Cupid’s bow,” unless Earth figures in our work; we’d need another name, but then no one will know what we’re talking about and we’ll have to describe it. To see images of many features listed, do an internet search.

FeatureOptions
Face/jawlineround, oval, square, heart-shaped
Browprominent (often caused by deep set eyes) or shallow (monolid)
Eyebrowsrounded, arched (and to what degree), mono brow
Eyesround, slanted, deep set, up/down turned (at the outside corner), wide/close set, hooded (as if hidden behind overhanging eyelids all the time), protruding (the opposite of hooded), and monolid (the opposite of deep set, where the brow appears less prominent, as in some Asians)
Irisshape (vertical/horizontal slit, round, cat’s eye, crescent) and typical colors
Cheekbonessunken/indented or high/prominent. Low is average and not typically mentioned
Nosestraight, long and wide (like blacks), hawkish, snub, thin and pointed, bulbous, upturned, aquiline, broad with large nostrils, and the basic large nose
Mouthaverage, wide, small, full or thin lips (sometimes each is different), rounded/pointed/absent Cupid’s bow
Teethstraight, crooked, missing, stained, pointed, serrated, poisonous, tiny, large, and multiple rows (like a shark)
Chinprotruding, cleft, thin and pointing, round, square, jutting, receding (i.e., almost no chin), and long (often points forward)

If you can’t draw, then your decisions may look different than you intended when someone like an artist you hire assembles them into a face. There are various games, such as Wii, or online tools that allow you to create a character or avatar that looks like you. You can experiment with these face generators to give you a head start on this. A quick Google search for face avatar generators turned up these free, online programs I experimented with:

  1. Pimp the face: http://www.pimptheface.com/create/
  2. Face your manga: http://www.faceyourmanga.com/editmangatar.php

The second allowed me to generate several images in a few fun minutes of poking around. While I wouldn’t use it in my work, it gives me a good reference image in my files and can be handed to an artist to draw something similar.

Non-Humanoids

The heads of non-humanoids can be based on animals or invented from scratch, but you’ll want an understanding of why a feature exists or it might not make sense. In a monster, an explanation isn’t necessary; after all, the creepiness of things that don’t make sense are part of why it’s a monster (the bizarre and nonsensical frightens). The bar is set higher for a species. We needn’t ever explain it, but having the species use the feature in a way that makes it clear there’s a rationale behind it helps us.

For example, sharks have jaws that can distend for a wider bite, with rows of replaceable, serrated teeth for ripping meat. If our species also eats something (on land?) raw and with high fat content (like a seal), then it might have this as well. If it eats a different prey, then it won’t. A crocodile drowns victims by holding them underwater, so it doesn’t need shearing teeth. Also, such teeth wouldn’t make sense if our species eats plants or cooks all meals.

Predators tend to have eyes facing forward, while prey tend to have them on the sides to see predators coming more easily (usually from behind). If our species is truly only prey and never predator, consider this option. Prey also tend to have ears that can independently swivel, but a hunter might also have this skill. A wet nose is designed to catch particles for dissolving and smelling, so if we say our species has a great sense of smell but don’t say they have a wet nose, that’s less believable, though most people won’t know that.

What Does Your Species Look Like?

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Sep 142017
 
Appearance

When creating a species, start with physical characteristics; bodies influence the minds that develop. Like it or not, appearance plays a crucial role in life, even if no one’s likely to draw our species or otherwise see it. The overall impression and details combine to add characterization opportunities that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s okay to start with envisioning a specific character, but try to get a sense of how the species generally looks, too. This allows us to not only define them all, but then comment on how our character matches or defies expectations, without which, our audience has a limited understanding of how this person fits in (or not) with their own kind or others.

For example, if your species is generally slovenly but this character is neat, maybe he gets more respect from other species. And what does it say about him? Do his kind find him arrogant? Does he care? Why is he like this? Does he aspire to be better? Or does he dress neatly to keep people from suspecting his character is bad? Does this provide him better opportunities?

A neat species but a sloppy character can have the opposite effect. Maybe his own kind think he’s a slob in personal and work habits, but other species find him more down to earth. Maybe he’s a gambler and wants to fit in with lowlife friends. Or he’s disguising himself like an undercover cop. Is he so consumed by his work that he doesn’t pay attention to his appearance (a cliché)? He’s just clueless or indifferent to the consequences?

Are They Humanoid?

There’s a tendency to create humanoid species like elves and dwarves instead of spider-like ones, for example. This is preferred for most species because otherwise things might get too weird for our audience, or too much like a cartoon. While there’s always room for these, non-humanoids have their challenges.

With humanoids, we don’t have to decide what they eat, how often they sleep, and other biological basics. They mingle well with humans, being able to live in similar buildings, use horses, and need fewer unusual physical things. By contrast, would a giant spider sleep in a bed, or eat with utensils, or consume the same food? How would one travel if not on foot? Such considerations might be needed if we go this route. It could make things more interesting for both us and the audience.

With a non-humanoid, our ability to quickly and skillfully describe them matters because readers have to imagine them, unless we’re in a visual medium. While it’s great to have explanations for anatomical features, audiences are used to bizarre things without getting one iota of explanation. Be forewarned that such creations have a tendency to be monsters, or viewed as one, a subject discussed more in Chapter 5, “Creating Monsters.”

Creating a Habitat for Your Species

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Sep 072017
 

Does your species live in settlements with other species or keep to itself? Learn why and when each scenario makes sense. If living in joint settlements, consider the factors affecting their integration, or lack thereof. What sort of terrain and climate do they prefer and how does this affect their choice of settlement?

5 More Tips for Creating Species

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Sep 072017
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #10): Species

This is the tenth in a series of world building articles I’ll be sending you! Today’s theme is species. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 2, “Species,” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Don’t Give a Species a Uniform Disposition”

Much of the tension in life, at least among us humans, is not knowing whether someone is good or evil, to be simplistic about it. Making invented species be uniformly one way or another makes them predictable, which is less interesting, but if we invent multiple races of them, this variety makes them more entertaining.

Tip #2: “Use Avatar Creators to Invent a Head”

A free, online avatar creator can help you invent faces that are typical of your invented species. This can help visualize something and be provided to an artist if we want someone to draw our creation. It also helps us avoid being unintentionally ridiculous.

 

Tip #3: “Create Races for Variety”

If all the elves, for example, look the same, that means a wood elf and drow can masquerade as each other. This gives us opportunities for mayhem that don’t exist if every race of a species looks the same. Besides, why not surprise other characters and readers alike?

Tip #4: “Decide How They Get Along With Everyone, Not Just Humans”

It’s easy to overlook how two invented species get along with each other because we’re trying to figure out how each gets along with humans. More thought given to this makes our world more believable and engaging. Envision each race’s viewpoint on how people should behave and then what they think of another race’s behavior. Read Creating Life to learn more.

Tip #5: “Determine Their View of Magic/Technology”

We should decide how educated a species is, as this may impact their ability to do magic or invent/use technology. If they can’t read and spells are hard to learn orally, they may be unable to cast them, unless they can do it without a spell, like a god. Even uneducated species can steal a space ship, for example, and those need janitors, too, so be clever in finding ways that the less fortunate can have power that maybe they shouldn’t!

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating a Species

Audiences are familiar with using “race” to distinguish between humanoids, especially in fantasy, but species may be a more appropriate term. This chapter explores the meaning and implications of both words, with some examples of which one to use, when, and why.

Creating a species is challenging and time consuming, but the risks and rewards can be navigated and achieved, respectively. This chapter helps us decide on our goals and if the effort is worth it. SF writers might have little choice but to create species because there are no public domain species available like the elves, dwarves, and dragons of fantasy. The benefits of creating something different can outweigh the investment and help our work stand out.

An invented species must compete with legendary ones like elves, dwarves, and dragons; this chapter helps us achieve this. Starting with habitat helps us decide on physical adaptations that affect their minds, outlook, and society, and what a typical settlement might be like and even whether or not they live in jointly formed settlements. Their disposition affects their relationships with other species but can also limit their usefulness to us unless steps are taken to avoid this. Characteristics like intelligence, wisdom, and dexterity all play a role in how they can be used in our work, as does their society and world view, both affected by a history we can invent to integrate them with our world. Their familiarity with the supernatural and technology influences their prominence and how they compare to other life in our world.

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Why Create a Fantasy or SF Species?

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Sep 052017
 
Creating Something Different

Inventing unique species can help our work stand out (hopefully in a good way) and even invigorate love of the genre for both us and our audience. With so many people using public domain species, there’s probably little we can say about them that hasn’t been said before. How many authors have used the long lives of elves to comment on how impatient humans can be? There are constraints on us from these species, possibly making us long for our freedom. But there’s also safety there, in the comfort of familiarity, and an assurance that if our audience doesn’t like our work, the species won’t be their reason. There’s risk to invention, but reward, too.

If our species will be alongside public domain ones in our work, comparisons are inevitable. Doing a good job is even more important. The standard species are high quality and set a high bar for us. This chapter is designed to help us get over it.

How Often the Setting Will Be Used

It doesn’t make sense to spend many hours developing a species for a short story. We’ll never have a chance to reveal much of our work. If we’d like to develop a detailed species anyway, then we should invent for a setting we’ll use repeatedly across multiple works. Creating a thinly developed species for shorter works on a single-use world is another good approach, which can work especially well if the species is bizarre and might face resistance from an audience.

We might invent a species to tell a specific story, which allows us to tailor our invention to our use. This keeps down unwanted or unneeded invention but might also restrict us, when freedom is one reason we’re creating species. Conversely, we might invent a species first and begin to think of story ideas or ways we can use it. This latter approach might yield more material than intended, but having ideas is never a bad thing. We can end up with multiple stories while retaining the freedom to invent. Regardless of our approach, we shouldn’t feel that building a species is a waste of time because it can take our work to unexpected and great places. Everyone benefits.

Scope

How much effort to expend on creating a species will depend on intentions, but there’s a range of possibility from extreme world building to hardly any.

The Minimum

At the least, we must decide on physical appearance and an overall disposition that’s shared across members of a species. Such life forms are often used as little more than a beast for characters to overcome in their quests. Ogres, orcs, and other henchmen types from fantasy are good examples. They seldom talk or do much more than get killed by the heroes. A more benevolent species can also have limited use, like Chewbacca from Star Wars.

He’s a Wookiee, but in the original three films, we never see another Wookiee (George Lucas may have added more in the background when he altered the films later). That we only saw one Wookiee made Chewbacca synonymous with his species. We had no Wookiees to compare him to and his personality traits might as well have been the traits of all of them. That he never spoke a word we could understand eliminated cultural, societal, and other issues that minimized the effort needed to create him. He is useful primarily as a constant physical companion who can fight and do things while Han Solo has conversations without the distraction of doing Chewbacca’s tasks.

It is Harrison Ford’s acting talents that make Chewy work as a character; his funny responses to Chewy’s nonsensical growls are what really characterize the Wookiee. The same can be said of C-3PO’s responses to the unintelligible R2-D2. Despite all of this, Chewbacca works, but this approach arguably succeeds onscreen better than on paper, due to the inflections, body language, and tone used by actors. In books, a character or species with such limited use is hard to make memorable; our readers may forget the character is there or wonder what they’re for. The character is little more than a henchman, albeit a positive one.

As a side note, Wookiee is capitalized for some reason but your species or races should not be; that’s not a title or proper name. You never see “human” capitalized unless it’s the start of a sentence. One justification for capitalizing it is when the name is synonymous with a region. For example, Germans are from Germany so we capitalize it. Wookiees are from Kashyyyk so this rule doesn’t appear to apply, which just shows you we can get away with things like this.

Continuing with Star Wars as an example, there are countless other species shown but never named. They are extras on the set, many with compelling appearances, and that is all we experience of them. This works better onscreen than on paper; a picture really is worth a thousand words, which we don’t want to waste on a multitude of characters who have minimal impact on our story.

The Maximum

At the other extreme is a fully-developed species, including their habitat, climate, settlement preferences, appearance of head, body, and clothing, their gods, society, languages, customs, history, relationships with other species, supernatural and technology talents and attitudes, and combat skills. It can be easy to go overboard inventing things we might never use, but it can also make a great impression of depth and believability.

A major issue with this is not only hours but months, even years of refinement, weeding out the lesser aspects that don’t stand the test of time while rounding out and improving the good ideas. As with most things, world building skill grows with practice, making this culling part of the process; this book is designed to give you a head start. As we go on to invent sovereign powers, monsters, animals and plants, we’ll continuously update our species, integrating everything and improving realism.

In Moderation

If done right, splitting the difference can be a sensible choice. The next section and species template (in the appendix) can help you can make an informed decision about which areas to work on. I recommend deciding on habitat, whether the species lives in joint settlements, overall disposition, appearance, and their relationships with each other and your other creations. Areas to skimp for now can be clothing, gods, characteristics (like agility, intelligence, and morale), language, customs, history, combat, and details on their supernatural and technological level.

“Skimping” ranges from overlooking a subject altogether to jotting down a few words about it. You’ll have to decide what is skimped based on your needs, but it’s worth it to think about every subject to see if you have any concepts. Sometimes ideas beget ideas, meaning that the act of writing down one subject causes you to think of other details. This happens more often as you develop other aspects of a world, resulting in an integrated setting that could stand out in the crowded marketplace.