From The Ground Up – Demography and Populations

  1. Population


The last few articles have revolved around how traditional civilizations exist. I do want to hit on a-typical civilization, like tribalism, nomadism, and other types of pre-modern societies pop up, but I think that is for a later time. Today, I want to talk about Demographics and Populations – less of how the people work, and more of who the people are. 

I’ve mentioned a few times over the course of the articles that there are many differences between our world and its history and the fantasy worlds that we all inhabit. Many times, this comes across starkly in how the games we create treat races, classes, gender and other people that aren’t the leading male. This is a great thing to take on, a fantastic way to peel back history and see the what ifs behind the curtain and see what the world would look in our ideal equality. 

This premise, however, does throw into the spotlight a significant set of ideas and thoughts that permeated the world at the time we are looking at, around 1000 to 1350 that we need to address in how we are building our world be be realistic, but also a solid piece of fiction. 


The First thing to worry about with demographics is what exists within your world. In a typical Fantasy world, you’ve got Elves, Dwarves, Half Orc, Half Elf. Human, Gnome, Halfling. Sometimes you’ll have Half-giants, Half-Dragons, Half-Demons, Lycanthropes and others. Its important, as we talk about races here, to realize that there are breakdowns evening with the racial diversity of the fantasy world even further. Rock Gnomes, Wood Elves, and different cultures of Human. I would not categorize the different versions of each race as separate. They are likely as different from their parent race as the different cultures and “races” of humans are. Which is to say, not at all. 

When you look at each of these different groups, you want to take a look at where they come from, how remote it is, and how populous they are. If the dwarves come from small section of hill country, they are likely to have a smaller population regardless of proximity. Likewise, if they elves come from an area far to the north across a hard to traverse swamp, they are likely to have a smaller population, regardless of population. You’re also going to want to take into account the history of the region, and how it affected the culture. For instance, if the dwarves had a great civilization a while back, then there will either be a larger, or smaller, than normal population of dwarves in the area. This depends greatly on how the civilization collapsed, and what happened afterwards. If it was a great plague, famine or other natural disaster, there is likely a goodly proportion of dwarves in the area. If it happened from conquest and war, there is likely a reduced population. Its not imperative that you look that far into it, but it helps, and if you are trying to setup something surrounding the ancient empire or its treasures. It helps create the feel that your going for. If they’ve been wiped out, then you want to remove them  – to a greater degree, and if they have had a collapse, you want to plant them there, and the tales. 

We take that knowledge, and we use it as a baseline. One thing I would caution against is the Humanocentric population perspective that many of us have, because it is what our experiences are. Humans would be populous, because we spread like a disease, but I would caution against having certain races be rare, or even uncommon. In stories, this is generally fine, but in games, and when creating a campaign setting, your players are often going to pick one of the many available options, and a strong percentage of them will choose things that are not human. Making these options rare or off limits can really restrict the creativity that the players are allowed to exercise.

Additionally, it makes little sense. Almost every other race within the world, with the exception of the evil ones, tend to be longer lived, with the commensurate wisdom and experience that that brings. This may lead to a much more conservative and stodgy way of thinking and reacting, but it will likely not create a removed society. 

That said, Simply pay attention to how you want your society to feel. Often, with the weight of ages that we have in these games, having separate, unconnected societies feels off and wrong. 

Now that we have the thoughts behind what we want to use as a baseline, I would start with a heavily integrated society. Some people will always be looked down on and in the minority, but we should look at it through the lens of the game, and not of history. 

Lets take the following example: 

Races: elf, dwarf, human, gnome, half-giant, half-dragon, half-elf

If we assume an equal share in everything, we are looking at a very diverse society. around 14% per culture. Putting any of those races at 50% or greater would dwarf all the others: Having only 50% of the population to split among 6 races puts each at around 8% each. a 60/40 split is much more likely. 

Lets say, for the sake of argument, that its a human dominated culture. 

  • 40% human
  • 10% Elf
  • 10% Dwarf
  • 10% Gnome
  • 10% Half Giant
  • 10% Half Dragon
  • 10% Half Elf

This is a pretty good start to any sort of culture. Six predominant minorities that outnumber the majority, each on equalish footing. From here, I would start tweaking it based on the flavor of the world. Things like: 

Human dominated culture living over the ruins of a plague devastated elven empire from years ago with a strong, dwarven neighbor. 

  • 39% human
  • 18% elf
  • 15% Dwarf
  • 11% half Elf
  • 7% gnome
  • 5% Half Giant
  • 5% Half Dragon

Its not perfect, but you see what I did. Half-elfs, elves, and dwarves all have a higher percentage. Gnomes, often a part of dwarven society and in a similar vein as they are. Half Giants and Half dragons suffer, as their spot gets eaten up by larger groups. 

That is the problem with trying to do demographics in this type of situation. It is a zero sum equation. you can’t simply add more of a given race or another, without reducing the population of a different group by a like percentage.  


now that we have the basics – very basics – of demographics, we should take a look at how large those populations actually are. 

This is something that we, as a people living in one of the time of unrelatable numbers of people that we interact with on a daily basis, often have trouble wrapping our heads around. 

Lets look at London. 

Today’s population is 8.6 million. 

The numbers here are really telling. London, if the city was attacked, could not send out a defense force of some 50,000.  Data suggests that it takes 15 people to support a fighting individual. That means only around 6% of any given population in the middle ages would be part of the fighting strength. London, then, supports just under 1600 fighters. Thats a hell of a drop from the days of Rome. Given that this is a total population, and it was booming from about 1100-1350, we can expect maybe double that, or a bit more, from the surrounding areas. That puts an army at about 3000 fighters. 

Its hard, from our world view, to understand that armies are likely to be small affairs – hundreds of warriors, and sometimes a few thousand, but none of the grand scale armies that we see from the classic period, the Industrial revolution, and modern times. The scale was just simply not possible. The total population of England at the time was somewhere between 3.7 million and 7 million. To put that in a simple perspective, all of the English population in 1200s could fit – and then more, into modern London. 

Whatever your thinking of doing, especially with war, be aware of the scale your creating. While it might not sound like too much to us in the modern period, the second crusade was 50,000 warriors and considered extremely sizable. 

While urban centers were large, most of the population lived on rural estates, villas, manors, villages and towns. A great many of these institutions controlled the vast majority of people in the world, because sanitation, health and risk of invasion and warfare were constant in urban locations. This, it is to be assumed, would be similar in a fantasy world, consistent with the points of light theory. There are large spaces of darkness, remoteness and wilderness between lands dominated by people. 

This also brings us to the conclusion that most of the people are farmers, serfs and subjects. They are called common folk not because they are lesser, but because they are the most numerous. There are few fighters, merchants, sailors and other specialized professions. This adds a form of rarity and uncommonality to the adventurers and main characters of most tales. 

This rural propensity, though, does leave a lot of room for areas of single, or at least sparse, racial makeup. A small town well off of a trade route deep in the center of a fairly human dominated area is likely to be all, or nearly all, human. This contrasts with the urban centers, which are likely highly diverse. 


In many of the fantasy worlds, based in the common middle age periods of 1100-1350, most populations will be small and spread out. Though ruraLareas are likely to be homogeonus, they will have had interactions with many races of intelligent life. Armies and wars are likely small, unless they are completely worldshaking or are of large conglomerations of forces, with forces numbering in the low thousands on either side. Make sure to scale back whatever your doing to make it more impactful and likely to have happened. Its hard, beyond a doubt, to convince the players that a force of 100 soldiers bearing down on their position is a large force that most would flee from when we have been raised on stories of Roman conquest and D-day invasions. The world is different, and taking the time to look up a relevant area to what you are creating will always be worth it. 

Till next time!