Worldbuilding with Proverbs

Whether it is because you need something for a character who is presented as wise to say (or to have written, so their wise book can be quoted), or want to represent common values in a fictional culture by showing what they hold as common advice, it can be useful to consider proverbs as an important part of worldbuilding.

Even homilies that are conceptually the same can carry some cool worldbuilding information. You might start with “Don’t complain about the crust on the bread that holds starvation at bay,” and decide it’s too negatively focused, or too plebian. “Vinegar slakes thirst as well as wine, but is much less commonly sipped” has a very similar core idea, but carries a very different nuance.

You can also add callbacks for proverbs. “A dull sword hurts more than a sharp word” is a perfectly reasonable proverb. But if one culture stops there, and a different one adds “But sharp words are more easily whispered behind your back,” it shows both that the two cultures have impact on one another, and that they have different core concerns.

You can go so far as to have proverbs that are clearly driven by political or religious control, rather than folk wisdom. The novel 1984 is a masterclass on this, and I can’t provide better examples than “Ignorance is Strength” and “Slavery is Freedom,” so I’ll just note adding a little George Orwell to your reading list can go a long way.

Of course, putting this theory into practice can also since you down a rabbit-hole of creating entire books of pithy things your different fictional cutlures say and talk about… none of which may ever come up in games you run or scenes you right. I find that kind of thing fun and useful as mental background, but not everyone has the time or inclination. Since many ttRPG-focused worldbuilders are just looking for some fun things to drop in their campaigns, rather than essays on theoretical ways they could spend more time thinking about things to spend time thinking about things, here’s a short list of proverbs you can add to your home game worldbuilding, or use as jumping-off points for creating your own.

“Cursing your wakefulness does not help you sleep.”

“That a tragedy could have been worse does not make it less a tragedy.”

“A novice who will defend you is of greater value than a master who won’t.”

“The fly does not care how complex the web is.”

“Starting a fight is bad, but tolerating an injustice is worse.”

“You need not be the one to build a bad bridge for its collapse to harm you.”

“It is fair to suspect your motives when you tell only one kind of truth, even without accusing you of falsehood.”

“Do not assume those who are paid to smile enjoy your company simply because they do as they are paid to.”

“To complain a cat’s meow is too loud, when the cock’s crow and dog’s bark go without comment, is to show your complaint is with cats, not noises.”

“Increasing the volume of your voice does not increase the wisdom of your words. But it may convey information about your anger.”

“Those blessed with lives that require no labor can most easily be dismissive of the value of work. But their figs still do not pick themselves.”

“We should not call them wise words because they come from someone accounted wise. We should account someone as wise if we find they have offered words with wisdom.”

“Platitudes cannot staunch bleeding, nor return what has been stolen.”

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About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on March 11, 2021, in Appendix O, Microsetting, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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