The Nile River turned the deserts of ancient Egypt into a blossoming oasis, springing forth the first great civilization of recorded time. Similarly, the roaming buffalo herds of the Great Plains brought some of the most well-known Native American cultures to prominence. On January 24, 1848…in a small mill near central California, a man by the name of James Marshall discovers shiny metallic flakes. Over the next few years, over 300,000 eager prospectors and their families flocked to the fledgling colony in hopes of striking it rich. By 1849, the Gold Rush was on, and cities with populations in the hundreds swelled to tens of thousands. The resources available to a civilization make or break its future…and in the case of California, forever change the landscape. This article goes into detail about the types of resources used in creating a new world and how access to those resources will have a lasting impact on the nearby cultures.
He who controls the spice...
In today’s terms, the concept of ‘available resources’ is somewhat vague. After all, what is there that you need that you can’t get from the nearest Wal-Mart? But that’s not what we’re really talking about today. Rather, we’re talking about the resources that a society needs to function. One farm may produce wheat while another produces dairy, but collectively, the community needs access to multiple resource streams to survive. The resources available to a town along the New England coast today are drastically different from those in Colonial America. And the resources available during Colonial America are drastically different from what the Pilgrims had…so technology, trade, and politics have a lot to do with it.
For the sake of today’s argument, we’ll again assume we’re referring to your typical ‘Medieval Era’ civilization. That’s a common timeframe for a fantasy setting and it’s a good mixture of technology and trade. We’ll go over the 4 basic principles of resources, as outlined below:
“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one” - Jacques Cousteau
Schools of fish just off the coast, wandering herds of Bison across the plains, or acres and acres of corn and wheat. Food comes in many forms, all of which are crucial to the survival of any civilization. Some will stake their claim to land and farm it for as long as the crops will grow while others prefer the nomadic approach, following the herd wherever it decides to take them. The end result is the same…families are fed, warriors are strengthened, and empires thrive.
In world building terms, there must be a means of providing food for settlements of any size, otherwise its inhabitants would have to wander until a source is found. As majestic as it sounds, you won’t find an enormous Cliffside castle overlooking the rocky shoals below. Sure, it makes a picturesque scene, but its inhabitants are either dead, starving, or have left long ago. Any society large enough to build a castle will need hundreds, if not thousands, of cultivated acres of land to farm. Likewise, a fishing village would need…fish!! The placement of your water resources should come first, but after that, it’s time to determine how that water will bring life to the region. Will a forest crop up teaming with deer, boar, or elk? Will several streams converge into an inland lake, fully stocked with trout? Or will a marshy bog become a watering hole for a large herd of buffalo?
Whether it be iron ore for farm tools, marble quarries for statues, or salt deposits, minerals help define the function of a settlement. Nearby precious metal deposits such as gold and silver can bolster the local economy, or even cause a population explosion, as seen in places like Colorado, Alaska, and California. Likewise, spices can be harvested to provide valuable exports to neighboring cities. It’s one thing for a town to sustain itself through farming and fishing, but local mineral access takes a small village and turns it into an economic stronghold. In many cases, trading posts or forts are set up near mines far away from civilization, providing defense and much needed supplies to the workers.
The concept of trade and trade routes becomes very important once you determine the types of minerals accessible to a kingdom. Let’s say you have a capital city, two or three large cities, and a few dozen villages and hamlets sprinkled across the countryside. They’re not ALL going to have access to a gold mine. Maybe there’s only one in the whole kingdom…maybe they don’t have one at all! So how do those precious minerals make it back to the capital city? After all, all roads lead to Rome, right? The answer, trade routes. Everyone knows of the ancient pyramids of Giza, but did you know that some of the limestone was transported nearly 600 miles? By using barges and navigating the Nile river, the seemingly impossible became a reality for a civilization so early in human history.
Once you discover the power of resources, the landscape really begins to take shape. Have an open area of plains with no lakes and only a small river? Odds are, you’ll never have a village with more than 50-100 people. Why? It lacks the necessary resources to sustain a larger settlement…limited shelter, limited water, and limited access to minerals. What about a lush grassland at the base of a mountain chain with several glacial lakes? Odds are this will be a very sizeable settlement. Why? Mountains and Lakes mean trees, which means shelter, wildlife, an abundant source of water, and mineral deposits, all within reach.
Be intentional with the placement of your world’s resources. Allow access to some parts while denying it to others. Create economies, trade routes, and conflict merely by carefully placing resources that are in high demand. As your world unfolds, you’ll be able to plot storylines from the global dynamic that they have created. After all, everyone knows that ‘He who controls the spice, controls the universe.’
Continue our World Building Series: History
Hello, my name is Scott...I'm a husband, father of 3, and work full-time in IT. If that's not enough on my plate, I'm also tackling the biggest 'creative' project of my lifetime, bringing the world of Mists of Kel Doran to life. I hope you like what I'm trying to pull off and I truly appreciate all of those who have supported this dream of mine. Here's to following your heart and having the courage to put your ideas out there for the world to enjoy :)
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