Expanding Fantasy Worldbuilding With Research: Clans of the Reisende
Too often, fantasy worldbuilding seems to be designed primarily to fill in the pre-existing name slots on some universal chart of what already commonly exists in fantasy literature. Obviously this is far from universal, and I’m not trying to claim I am the first (or best, or most important) person suggesting bucking this trend. But when I see worlds with a dwarven mountain nation, and an elven forest nation, and human kingdoms mostly ruled by monarchies with one example each of exceptions that have recognizable modern governments, I often wonder if the creator’s research began and ended with names and style. There have, in the real world, been SO many other forms of community organization, government, family, relationship, kinship, identity, association, rulership, authority,
These notes grew out of research I was doing for two different projects that never happened. The first was to update two “Viking-like northerners” kingdoms from my longest-running campaign, the Sovereign Kingdoms to 3.5 d20 rules. The second was the Runepeaks, a setting I was creating for a project to update a 3pp’s company (not one I have ever ended up working or writing for) from 3.5 to Pathfinder. (That was going to be an ongoing project hand-in-hand with that publisher, and it fell apart for various reasons). At about the same time I was exploring the history of some of my own Norden heritage. I found a lot of information abut clan structures, various Nordic mythologies, fylgja, Nordic fauna, and so on.
I got inspired to lean into some of the more interesting elements of that material to create something more interesting to me than just “Kinda-not-Vikings-have runes-and-axes.” While I never finished the write-up of that area, I did pull together a “first draft” with some key ideas I wanted to build on if I ever got to really explore these ideas in a fantasy setting.
Below is a slightly-cleaned-up version of notes for that fictional culture, the Reisende.
The Reisende are also called Northfolk, because they live further north than the biggest land-trade empires (which are generally the ones with the maps that include the most countries, and who thus have their names for everything used by many other nations). The Reisende themselves consider themselves “Travelers,” rather than “Northerners,” with a strong tradition of naval trade and exploration and of spending winter months gathered in roving bands of explorers, but who also sometimes act as merchants, couriers, raiders, or hired mercenaries.
Reisende culture is heavily influenced by their belief that each of their souls is created by one of the Ancestor Beasts, the original godlike examples of specific animal species. Reisende form clans based on which Ancestral Animal they are descended from, and these clans are cross-regional societies more important than territoriality, feudal allegiance, or even religious affiliation. The most powerful or well respected member of a clan generally settles intraclan disputes near them, and is often called to serve as an advocate for members of their clan with disputes with members of other clans. Local Jarls are landowning military and spiritual leaders who directly own enough land to make them self-sufficient, and generally serve as protectors of outlaying towns overseen by borgers–senior members of same clan as the jarl who convey the clan’s wishes and concerns to other town members. While a borger of a different clan might make an alliance with a powerful jarl if no strong leader of their own clan is close enough, it’s much less common.
Nearly all significant matters are handled through clan channels. Each clan has a reputation to maintain, and no matter what else they may be seen as by their neighbors (strong, or fierce, or crafty, or sly, or even cowardly), it is important to ever clan to be seen as honest and competent. There is no formal policing or court system–a person who commits a crime is rebuffed and if necessary punished by other members of their clan to ensure the clan’s own reputation is not ruined. If others are not satisfied with the can’s handling of their own members, complaints are elevated to senior clan members, borgers, and jarls.
Within any settlement, the more members of a clan there are the more strongly that clan’s behavior is considered to be enforced. A settlement overseen by a Seal Clan borger will certainly have more Seal clan members than any other, and often half or more of the population will belong to that clan. When only a very small percentage of people in a settlement belong to a clan, they often must depend on either the reputation of the nearest major member of their clan (even if that is weeks of travel away), or a strong alliance with local members in a clan with more influence nearby.
While it is often the case that a child is of the same Clan as one of more parent, it is not always so. The Ancestral Animals are divinities, of a sort, after all. If two Bear Clan parents give birth to a Sea Eagle Clan child, well, that’s Ancestral Animals for you. However, everyone has some ties to the clans of their parents, though it is not as strong as their tie to their own clan. Even so, if a Seal Clan daughter of Bear Clan parents was in a warband that took up arms against the Bear Clan, the warband would not expect her to join in the fight. Much rarer, some Reisende are strongly tied to two clans all their own, a state often known as “having an ancestor on each shoulder.”
Indeed, such cross-clan connections are often the way major issues are settled. If a town under a Reindeer Clan jarl has a territorial dispute with hunters under the banner of a Forest Cat jeger, someone with strong ties to both clans (even if not as strong as someone with an ancestor on each shoulder) is most likely to be the mediator that both sides trust.
(Being Northfolk, such issues are often formally settled by a Nærkamp–a ceremonial fight between two small groups of combatants the two sides agree are equal to one another, whether that’s three warrior to a side, or one mighty warlock for one side, against twenty farmers on the other. In some cases, other challenges settle disputes, such as drinking competitions, pig-wrestling, races, swimming contests, thread-spinning matches, butter-churning events, and so on).
Clan membership is not restricted by heredity. While most Northfolk are dwarf, elf, goblin, grendel, human, orc, or ulvemann, each of those is equally likely to belong to any given clan. A Bjornung dwarf and Bjornung orc are likely to be much closer to one another than a Bjornung dwarf and a Havorning dwarf. And if a gnome, or cyclops, or half-dragon centaur shows up and is recognized as descended of the bear (perhaps bya clan member in communication with their fylgiur–a kind of divine prophetic animal guide who likely appears in dreams), they are a beloved member of the Bjornung as well. Clan-kinship can also be extended by members of a clan who are willing to be responsible for the actions of the person they bring into the clan. Spouses, shield-mates, and hearth-bonded groups of any size often include members of numerous clans, and the most respected member of that joining (who is usually a woman, who are considered to be wiser on matters of family, but less often may be a man, especially in families of choice that do not have women as members) can petition the most respected local sage or wise-one of their own clan (also most often a woman) to accept all the members of the family-of-choice as clan-kin.
Of course just as people of the same nation or same family may feud in other lands, two members of the same clan may dislike, mistrust, or work against one another. But such animus is the exception, rather than the rule, and is almost never allowed to go so far as to damage the clan as a whole. If someone within a clan is considered to have committed crimes not great enough to deserve death, but too great for the clan to ever vouch for them, then are generally branded with a severed-head sigil indicating they have been cast out of the clan. It is difficult for such outcasts to be find a home anywhere but with brigands or in lands far from the Reisende, though it does occasionally happen (usually as the result of performing some legendary act of heroism, kindness, or crafting), and the tales of Ulfathe Thrice-Branded proves even someone outcast more than once can earn their way into a new clan.
There are dozens of clans, and the prestige, reach, power, and size of each varies as the fortunes of their notable members rise and fall. The following are the most powerful, well-known, widespread, and respected of the clans.
Bjornung (The Descendants of the Bear)
Hafgufang (The Descendants of the Leviathan)
Havenselung (The Descendants of the Seal)
Havorning (The Descendants of the Sea Eagle)
Lintormeng (The Descendants of the Dragon)
Moskusing (The Descendants of the Musk Ox)
Ratatosring (The Descendants of the Squirrel)
Reinsdyrung (The Descendants of the Reindeer)
Reving (The Descendants of the Winter Fox)
Skoggkattung (The Descendants of the Forest Cat)
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