To build a country is hard.
I’m not just referring to making maps, where I’m garbage. I have been writing Cobrin’Seil as a setting for twenty years and I have drawn three maps. There are some of y’all gifted with an ability to craft a visual representation of all the different things you could want to visit. Me, I get in a weird space where I worry if I don’t put things down on the map right, when I need to come up with a location for things, my players may go ‘well it wasn’t on the map.’
Which is dumb.
Anyway, I also don’t mean the way that it’s a very challenging thing to invent countries – which is part of what I’m doing, to fill out my world. That’s going through stages, which I’m not sure about yet. Mostly it’s things like ‘would this be a cool place?’ based on a picture, then struggle to come up with names.
What I’m thinking about right now is how, in universe, it must be challenging for countries to even get to exist.
What’s a country?
In the real world, a country is part of an established list of agreed-upon political entities, and what counts as a country is a byproduct of who on that list you agree with. China, for example, does not consider Taiwan a country. Here in Australia, Kosovo is considered a country, and in India, it’s not (though I imagine that’s because India, largely, does not care). That’s a byproduct of empire and the United Nations (but I repeat myself). Nations, in this sort of agreed-upon set of bookkeeping details are very much a way of regarding who owns what when there are governments and kings.
Here’s my thinking for Cobrin’Seil: There are Nations. These are large, old, and agree with one another that they are Nations. These almost certainly got founded some time ago and the list of proper Nations is probably pretty small. I fortunately already have two that I think of as both the biggest and smallest in this category; Dal Raeda, which is a typical European fantasy kingdom divided into a set of provinces, is the largest, and the smallest is the Eresh Protectorates. The Protectorates spans an enormous amount of area, but its area of control in that span is small. The Eresh Protectorate is a set of city-states connected to one another by the King’s Highway, which represents its biggest piece of infrastructure. The Highway is a well-patrolled, well maintained road system that reaches from the most distant parts of the continent and through almost every single country, and also it’s very well-defended.
So if Dal Raeda is the largest, and the Eresh Protectorates are the smallest, then we create a range for these big, well-established old Nations to work from. We have another one in the concept space, Amenti, which is probably small, because it’s mostly coastal but definitely has a reason to be old and respected: The place was originally built by a dragon, and has a big fancy schmancy palace that was so big and elaborate when the dragon left, the palace was refitted as a city.
But that is a layer of the geography.
It’s a layer that implies a layer further down, though. I mentioned that there are city states across the Kings Highway. That immediately asks the question, are all city-states on the Kings Highway? And if they’re not (they’re not), then what about those other city-states? These are probably the smallest ‘major’ unit of Place; a single city, surrounded by some sympathetic territory, that may technically lie within the border of a ‘Nation’ but not really, because that Nation is more conceptual than actual at that level.
If there are other city-states, their probably primary political question is: Do we want to be on the Kings Highway? Do we want to join the Eresh Protectorate? The answer to that may vary, for a lot of reasons. The Eresh Protectorate brings with it its church knights and church soldiers and also its church. Plus, if you have a city state, odds are good, you probably have a few Chardunists hanging around in there, who may even be trying to make sure you don’t join the Eresh Protectorates to keep your psychic population safe.
But then there are layers below that, and layers between ‘city state’ and ‘Nation.’ These middle places may have terms for themselves based on a unique vision of their political system – things like Principality, Holdings, Lands, or even Kingdom. It’s important to note that these places probably exist in territory that’s considered ‘Nation’ owned, but since those Nation boundaries were established, other power centers grew, far from the centre. After all, Dal Raeda is split into multiple provinces with their own capital cities and networks of power.
It’s these states that get to fill in the variety of the setting. This is where you’ll find elven kingdoms whose entrances are actually portals in the woods, or the Dio Baragh communes, or a small country of glowing mushrooms instead of trees. In Exalted there’s this idea of the Thousand Kingdoms, which are – well, it’s a area where about a thousand kingdoms are next to each other. The setting of Exalted is very very large. The notion of these countries forming coalitions to if not protect themselves from the Nations nearby, but at least make themselves inconvenient to deal with is a good way to handle the scaling of the setting, and giving these spaces ‘places’ to be that makes the map more detailed as you zoom in.
There is a unit of power above the Nation, of course, which is ’empire,’ and well, that’s when a country has power over other countries enough to make them behave in a particular way to the benefit of the dominant country. There’s a good case to be made that the Eresh Protectorate is a ‘soft empire’ by this metric, too. But Empires suck ass, so it’s a term I’m mostly going to attach to people who I want to signal are shitheads.
But making a country is hard and takes time. Infrastructure is important, as the Kings Highway suggests.
In the ‘now’ of Cobrin’Seil, one of the most important things that’s coming up is the Iron Line: A plan from a group of people who have no Nation who want to try and establish a new version of something like the King’s Highway. The halflings and goblins and kobolds have developed technology that they can use, and that they can find ways to use, and they want to do what the King’s Highway already did.
They want to build a network of trains.
This gives players another layer of ‘power’ – forces that move through the world that aren’t state actors, but still have their own goals and large ranges of power and control. Guilds that distribute magical items are one element. Trade houses that want to move things on the King’s Highway and that also are interested in expanding the rail network. And of course, the Iron Line itself, which is primarily going to be represented by smaller heritages that don’t have ready access to the power of the other states.