I posted this to the players in the current campaign, it's kind of a draft campaign setting primer. I also named the island empire Avalon, it seemed cool.
Every character in this campaign is from the empire of Avalon. Avalon is an island, roughly the size of Madagascar, about 800 miles off the coast of Tirnakaur, where the campaign is set. Despite having been founded by refugees fleeing the apocalyptic loss of their original homelands to a mixed horde of humanoids, undead, and extra-planar creatures, the Humans of Avalon have formed a somewhat homogeneous culture, with a couple of very minor exceptions.
Most Humans are descended of Celtic stock, and consider themselves to be the heirs to the great, ancient High Kingdom of Garnia (Gwarynica Riga in the old tongue), these people comprise roughly 95% of the Human race in Avalon, so most of this document will discuss them.
Certain norms of Celtic culture have shifted in the millennium since their flight to Avalon, so I will endeavor to highlight these.
Celtic culture was always one of the most progressive in terms of women's rights, this is no change, but even the ancient rights of Celtic women are expanded here to include nearly complete equality between the sexes.
However, there is still a fairly rigid social class system, and, while mobility between the classes happens, it is still uncommon. The social classes are not entirely unlike the caste system of India. Priests and Nobles are at the top, then skilled workers, then farmers, then merchants, then the unfree. Standing partially outside this social class system are the roughly 5% of humans not culturally Celtic, and the various demi-humans that share the island with them, mainly Halflings, Dwarves and Elves. Half-Elves generally fall into the category of their Human parent1.
It should be noted that Humans make up the vast majority of the population of Avalon, at roughly 80% of the total. Halflings are the next most numerous, followed by Dwarves, then Elves, then any other sentient species.
Celtic society was somewhat top-heavy, the nobility and the priesthood making up up to 20% of the population, this is somewhat less in Avalon, with the rise of standing armies during the civil war period and the extermination of some noble lines as a result of the devastating century of conflict, but there are still a great many members of the privileged classes than you would find in Medieval Europe, for example. Many lesser ranked nobles have given up the rights and privileges of being a member of a hereditary warrior aristocracy to pursue various trades, or even become merchants. Some have even opened fighting salons to teach the arts of defense, at first these skills were only taught to other members of the aristocracy, but some have opened up to teaching members of the lower social orders as well. In Avalon it is not uncommon for there to be public exhibitions of martial skill, or even for various schools to compete in tournaments. In some places these are held in large public arenas, in others they are held in more exclusive venues, often for the exclusive viewing pleasure of the nobility.
Most noblemen do not have a warband of their own in modern Avalon, they content themselves generally with a chosen champion, or a few Henchmen; the expense and extravagance of having a small private army at your beck and call is now beyond the means of most landed nobles even, and the central government frowns on the practice and has all but outlawed it in most of Avalon. Rather they pay a special tax from their estates called “scutage” which helps support the High King's standing army and navy. In times of great need nobles are required to levy men to support the High King.
In contrast, many cities and towns have standing militia units, often used as a police force. In times of national crisis these units are added to the High King's army. This also provides a place where low ranking members of the nobility (or even former members of the nobility) may find themselves employed in leadership and/or training roles.
Traditionally the nobility has been somewhat fractious, often feuding, with the upper ranks considering the High King to be simply the first among equals, this is no longer the case following the last century of war, now the people of Avalon are more united in their purpose, and the High King is far more powerful than even the next highest ranking noble in the country.
Celtic priesthood is descended from the ancient order of Druids, which included Bards and Vates (Seers). The people of Avalon, like their Garnian forebears, are a deeply religious people. The priesthood is seen by the lower social classes as a method of social mobility, members of the priesthood have certain rights and powers, and high ranking priests are de facto members of the high nobility.
The priesthood performs a number of services for the community at large. They are empowered to perform intercessory acts on behalf of the populace to ensure divine favor. They perform the necessary rituals and sacrifices, they maintain holy sites (such as certain springs or wells, or even sacred groves) and temples, they purify the unclean, they also act in a legal function, as judges, and interpreters of the law, as lawyers, and sometimes as the penal system.
The special class of priests known as Vates (or Seers) are a conduit from the gods, prophecy is given through them. They also act with other priests to divine through various rituals and read the omens and portents sent by the gods or other lesser powers that can affect people every day.
It is noteworthy that to maintain their purity, and thus, their power, these orders of Priesthood (along with the order of Druids) are celibate.
Next come the Bards. Most people think of Bards as entertainers, this is, at best, a secondary function for them. Bards are foremost historians, particularly in a less literate society then our own. Bards also serve as legal advisers. Training a Bard takes 20 years, there are different types of Bard, depending on their exact training, but a Bard's training is largely history and law, music is the mnemonic device they use for the enormous amount of rote memorization required. Composing music and poetry is a way they can record new events as history. In the past every lord had a Bard in his Dun (Castle), these days they are getting rarer, and only very traditional lords or the very wealthy keep them on as retainers. Bards are not celibate, and many Bards are partially trained as Bards by their own Bard parents, before they attend the “official” Bard training, usually starting around age 15. Bards traditionally eschew literacy, believing that it makes the memory lazy.
Standard D&D Clerics (and Paladins, Rangers to a lesser extent) are a reaction of the culture to being in a world that was filled with so much danger. Priests were often sworn to pacifism in the old world (Earth), as their persons were sacrosanct, and their position made them above the petty rivalries of clan or kingdom. In this world though, there were many fantastic threats that did not abide by the agreed upon rules of conduct, priests were slaughtered, temples and holy sites despoiled. So the various priesthoods developed military orders to protect the temples, priests and holy sites, and these evolved into “crusading” orders that brought the fight to the enemy.
The “standard” difference between Clerics and Paladins is that Clerics are generally ordained priests (albeit low ranking) and can be trained from among the population at large, providing the trainee meets the minimum basic requirements. Paladins, on the other hand, are called to service by the gods themselves, to be their chosen warriors.
Rangers, to round this out, are not actually associated particularly with gods or temples, but the ancient order of Druids was integral to their training and organization in the early days.
Rules wise, I actually like the 2nd edition AD&D Specialty Priests, and the use of divine domains for spell purposes, plus the granted powers and such. I have integrated this into the setting as a whole, but for purposes of the campaign, since we're playing first edition, I think maybe I'll make that an unlockable.
Continuing on with the subject of social classes, skilled trades are the next rung down the social ladder. There is considerable difference in the esteem of the various trades, metal workers (including jewelers) rank highest, fishermen may be the lowest, it's hard to say, but anyone that has a skilled trade is in decent shape. Trade guilds take care of their own, and ranking guildsmen have become de facto noblemen in some large towns or cities.
Farmers make up the next rank down, it's honest work and all, and necessary, but none too glamorous. There is some disparity in social status between farmers, a farmer that somehow holds his land free of any feudal obligation or debt is high up the ladder than one that pays rents, wealthy farmers are clearly better off than poor ones.
Merchants are the lowest of the free born. People are supposed to despise wealth, and they spend their entire existence trying to gain it, and not from their own labor, but by just being middlemen for others. Most people consider it somewhat dishonorable and/or dishonest. That said, becoming a merchant has been one of the things the warrior nobility started taking up after the rise of standing armies. They often had no other skills but their martial ones, and banditry would get them hanged (also taken up by all too many petty nobles). They had bargained with merchants in the past though, so, while there was a learning curve, it often worked out, especially if their family had enough seed money to get them started properly, or they worked out some sort of partnership (or apprenticeship) with skilled merchants. Merchants are certainly the most moneyed class of people, and often wealthy enough that they can ape the tastes and pursuits of the nobility. Mercenary soldiers are considered to be a type of merchant, for social class considerations too.
Lastly we come to the unfree classes, the lowest of the low. There is no outright slavery in Avalon or it's dominions, but there are unfree people. Mainly these are a class of serfs called “Bondmen” (Also “Bondwomen” or “Bondfolk”, occasionally “Bond-servants”). Most Bondmen are born to their status, although most nobles in Avalon have freed their hereditary Bondmen. Priests have spoken out in recent generations against the practice of hereditary servitude (much as they did about collecting the heads of enemies) considering it outdated and barbarous. However, becoming a Bondman can be a punishment, either for a (non-capital) crime, or for debt. Occasionally children are sold, or given over to bondage to cover their parent's debts. (Which brings us to a curious bit of Celtic tradition, people are responsible to and for their kinsmen, and shame has a strong social value) Celts in general, and the people of Avalon are no different in this respect, are strongly against corporal punishment. They see it as demeaning, and it is usually reserved as a prelude to capital punishment for crimes. Often the justice system imposes fines, and kinsmen of the convicted are expected to help pay the fines, otherwise the shame of having a Bondsman as a kinsman is severe. Obviously this affects the lower orders more often than the nobility, even a poor country nobleman usually has a 3rd cousin that's a Vergobrete (roughly equivalent to a Duke), so someone in the family will save him.
Religion in Avalon is generally Celtic, which is pantheistic. Human sacrifice has become rarer than he's teeth in Avalon, which is a difference from what you all may know about the ancient Druids. Most modern people get pantheistic religions wrong, they see it through a modern monotheistic gaze, but it doesn't work that way. It's a pet-peeve of mine, but most of us just aren't familiar with, say, Hinduism or Shinto, so we pick a single god from the pantheon and worship that one monotheistically, as though the rest didn't exist. In reality, it's a lot more akin to the way the Catholics have the cult of the saints (and a tripartite deity), God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit may all be aspects of the same god, but the Virgin Mary or Saint Christopher are who you pray to to intercede for certain things. Likewise Ogmios may be who you pray to for knowledge at some point, but Taranos is the one that's most useful to make it rain, or Arawn to pray for the dead. Even priests that are dedicated to a single god respect and pray to the others in the pantheon. A priest dedicated to a specific god may work in their temple for instance.
Also noteworthy, some gods appear to be universal to all Celts, just under slightly different names owing to linguistic differences, but some are more regional or local even. The Tuatha de Danann are specific to Ireland on earth for example, but their mother goddess Dana (or Danu) is a pan-Celtic goddess found across Europe (and into Asia Minor). So Cleric (or specialty Priest) players can pretty much choose from across the spectrum of Celtic gods (although my thinking is that Clerics are generally not specifically devoted to a single god), read up on them anyway.
What do they eat? The people of Avalon have a fairly rich variety of food crops, and a number of livestock food animals too. Their diet is not substantially different from our own, with a few exceptions. First, lack of refrigeration means that there are more cured meats and crops that store well through Avalon's mild winters are a staple until the first harvests. Nobles enjoy wild game fairly often. Sheep and cattle are commonly raised. Fish and seafood are a big part of the island nation's food, especially near the coasts. There is a bit of classism in the diet, nobles eat a more protein rich diet in general than commoners. Fish, seafood, and pork are considered (mostly) to be poor people's food. There are no potatoes or tomatoes or many of the varieties of squash that we commonly eat, no yams (or sweet potatoes), or maize (or quinoa), or rice. Commonly grown grains are wheat, oats, barley and rye. There is a greater reliance on turnips, carrots, cabbage and onions than we have. Beers and ales are common drinks. Wine is a rare treat, mainly for the wealthy, as grapes are only grown in the far south of Avalon. Mead is a more common drink for the nobility. Apples, pears and peaches are grown there, as are strawberries. Hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts are commonly eaten. Currants and lingonberries (similar to cranberries) are cultivated there. Acorns are used by the poor, or as a food source for swine. Geese, ducks, chickens and other poultry are an impotant food source for their eggs as well as their meat, their feathers are used as mattress stuffing for the wealthy. Some fish are prized as a food source, Salmon is high on that list.
How do they dress? Commoners dress as they have for centuries, a tunic and breeches for the men, and dresses (with kirtles) for the women. Upper class fashions for men have become more tailored, sometimes quite form-fitted to the body and are often layered with fine fabrics. Women, on the other hand, have gotten more voluminous garments, but are for fitted to the upper body. Women in some trades dress the same as their male counterparts. Priests often wear robes. The warmer climate of Tirnakaur has caused some exceptions to be made, but the wealthy are quite fashion conscious. The materials used are mostly wool and linen, although there is some cotton imported into the empire, and silk as well.
The fabrics are often dyed with bright colors (at least for the wealthy) and as a people they favor checks, stripes and plaids. Sumptuary laws prohibit certain colors from common use, as does tradition. Only nobles may have plaids woven from more than 3 colors for instance, with higher ranking nobles being allotted more colors. Priests often wear solid white robes, although some orders wear solid black robes. Bards wear light blue shirts. Most people wear bright yellow shirts of linen traditionally, if they can afford it, otherwise plain, undyed linen is preferred.
What else? Getting fat is considered a character flaw, they are serious about this. Going bald is is also considered mock worthy. Any physical defect or deformity is considered a sign of divine disfavor, any disfiguring scar, or a serious injury leading to any amputation is also. Loss of a hand can make the High King step down, no one who is not whole is fit to lead the people. Short legs, or bow-legged people are mocked. Laziness is mocked. People are expected to be physically fit and athletic.
They spend an awful lot of time grooming, the nobles grow their hair long, the women even longer. Noblemen have well groomed, extravagant mustaches. They bathe all the time, they use soap and bother genders use make up and perfumes.
They love to gamble. They love to drink to excess. They love music and dancing. They love to fight.
They all have certain taboos (called Gessae or Geas) The higher ranking you are the more likely it is a serious one, and the worse it will be for breaking it. These were imposed by the priests when a person was young, sometimes shortly after birth,, sometimes when coming of age (13 to 15 years old). Some are common maybe attached to a profession, like most priests are vegetarian and celibate, or how Bards refuse to become literate. Some are unique to the individual, and could be something as simple as “must never eat oats” or as complex as “must always enter a building only after dark, while walking backwards, being careful to not step on the threshold with your right eye closed, whistling”. The odds are if it's something weird and complex, you are a warrior noble and, at least in the Bard's tales, you will somehow be forced into breaking it, much to your lament.
How do you feel about Demihumans?
Generally any given species of Demihuman in the empire is considered to be at roughly the same level as their human counterparts would be. Dwarves, for instance, are prized as craftsmen. Halflings are often exceptional farmers (and the only ones that can successfully cultivate tobacco, which is a prized luxury crop among humans, for smoking, chewing or snuff) and are valued members of human farming communities they join.
Elves2 (and Half-Elves) are an exception, there is a certain degree of institutional racism against them, although it fades more with each generation. No Demihuman has the same degree of civil rights as a human in a similar position, but Elves have it the worst. Elves are absolutely forbidden to own property. Some professions are forbidden to Elves. All Elves are descended from slaves, back in the days of the High Kingdom of Garnia, when slavery was abolished, Elves received their freedom last. Elves are considered somehow corrupting; it probably comes down to their affinity for arcane magic, and the fact that most humans find them irresistibly sexually attractive.
Elves alone, of the Demihuman races, can interbreed with Humans. (Humans can also interbreed with Neanderthals, because they are a close cousin species, and Orcs, who have the distinction of being the only Humanoid (monster) species with which they can interbreed, curiously Orcs and Elves can not interbreed, despite both being able to breed with Humans)
That said, all Demihumans can (and many have) serve in the armed forces of Avalon. Elves particularly find this to be a method of social mobility. Elven units are generally irregular warfare, forest troops, very often individual Elves, or small groups will be attached to Human units as scouts. Dwarves tend to be heavy infantry. Halflings are usually skirmish troops.
1Many, but not all, Half-Elves are not born in wedlock, this negatively affects everyone, but it is noticeable in their population.
2This is actually a revanchist policy dating back to before the creation of the High Kingdom of Garnia. Elves had a lot to answer for when the Humans finally overthrew their empire.