Rogue parties in fiction have a tendency to appear as...filler, which to a certain extent makes sense as they usually form a launching point for the story meaning they aren't terribly important long term.

In building my world I am creating a setting for a specific story, but I am also creating a world that may act as a sandbox for other things down the road. See: How can I make a shared world less restrictive?

My world has a tribal region with perhaps a dozen sizable tribes, they are from a similar cultural background but often fight between themselves so they are certainly different in ways. That leads to this question:

How can I create non-state groups that are not simply stereotypical, living in the woods, (or other remote biome) technologically backwards, spiritualists or bumpkins?

I am looking for a system here as I have roughly a dozen tribes to populate.

What I need to know

  • What traits do I need to consider when defining a tribe
  • How do I ensure that my tribes are not overly similar and don't appear 'flat'
  • $\begingroup$ Do you plan on your non-state groups having their own identity, needs, and dreams? Or are they simply there to full the space? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 16:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon actually I am specifically trying to avoid them just being filler. I want them to have a story of their own (I just don't want to have to create it from scratch...) $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ This feels like two separate questions. 1st, how do I create a set of tribes with interesting variances. 2. How do I create interesting rebel groups? The process is similar between the two but there are some important distinctions. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Green Hrrm...you may be right, that wasn't the intent (the rebel groups part) I will do some modification... $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ I really like the "how do I make a rebel group" question. I'm planning on answering both in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 18:23

9 Answers 9


Building a unique tribal group you can be done by varying some or all of the following attributes. Some of these will answer themselves (such as 'government') but others may require a little bit of inventiveness. And, as @VilleNiemi said, feel free to borrow interesting culture influences from wherever you can find them. Frankly, the richness and diversity of Africa should keep you busy for a very very long time.

  • artifacts
  • arts and recreation
  • clothes
  • customs and traditions
  • food
  • government
  • knowledge
  • language
  • religion
  • shelter
  • tools
  • values

The above list of characteristics is just the basics and the list could get much longer the more one thinks about it.

Keeping some of these attributes the same will maintain cohesion between tribes. Language, food and clothing are excellent candidates for keeping groups cohesive. Addressing as many cultural attributes as make sense will prevent your tribes from feeling flat.


The normal method used by authors since time immemorial is to copy them from somewhere else and modify to fit the setting and story. For tribal cultures, you can pick up data on tribal cultures in the Amazon, Africa, South East Asia, or Siberia. In these areas tribalism persisted until anthropologists had time to study the cultures. Tribal cultures are obscure enough that it will take minimal rewriting to make them unrecognizable. Very few people know anything about them anyway.

So answer to your (second) question use a real world source as a model.

The answer to the first is basically: Whatever your stories need... It is generally best to not be anymore detailed than is needed so that there is space to develop stories and setting.


What are those tribes all about?

  • Many of them will be "full-service tribes" except for a few imports, possibly including new DNA through intermarriage. They farm, they hunt, they fish, they make clothes and tools. If the terrain is similar, they probably grow similar crops and hunt similar animals, with similar tools.
  • There could be minor differences. Perhaps a tribe lives near a lake or the coast and uses fishing rather than hunting. A tribe uses wooden huts, another tribe uses stone buildings. And so on.
  • Tribes with a lifestyle that requires the same ressources could be traditional rivals, hostile to each other and fighting for the lands in between. They might emphasize their differences in culture and technology -- the herdsmen don't fish, even if they had an opportunity. But that won't go far enough to deliberately cripple their economy. Trousers or skirts, bearded or shaven, bows or slings.
  • A tribe might have a monopoly on some non-essentials like dyes, spices, etc.
  • If one tribe was notably more advanced than the others, that raises the question why they haven't conquered the others.
  • A few tribes might be "specialized" to provide some service to other tribes. Traders. Religious centers. Miners and ironmakers in an otherwise low-tech area. Other tribes provide food, possibly also new recruits for the tribe.

In this sort of situation then what you should do is first define a template, the baseline. You might use this as one tribe or never show it at all but that is the starting point for all your tribes.

For example:

  • 100 people. 30 warriors/hunters, 30 wives (gatherers) 30 children, 10 elders
  • Totemic religion
  • Nomadic lifestyle visiting the same places each year
  • No agriculture or grazing animals etc

Then for each tribe you simply choose one or more items from your template and change it. One tribe might have been influenced by outsiders and changed religion, one may keep animals and drive herds of cattle, one may have settled down, etc.


Always write their backstory from their own perspective, not an omniscient third person perspective. For example, Robin Hood's band of merry men is typically described as "a group of thieves who steal from the rich and give to the poor." However, that is a very objective third party description. To make it first person, we need to shift the verbiage. "We see our fellow men undergoing great tribulation under the oppression of the rich. While we cannot resolve this ourselves, we can make our opinion known; we make it known in the way they find most soft: their pocketbook. We take what should never have been theirs in the first place, and give it to those who suffer from their arrogance."

By shifting the wording this way, not only will their actions automatically take on a more lifelike appearance, but it also leaves them room to be anything besides their stereotype. A hungry band of merry men become less merry and may keep the stolen goods themselves. A Robin Hood who succeeds at his goal, actually changing the politics for the better, does not stop at merely continuing to thieve, but transitions into a more applicable role for better instilling his beliefs within the structures of the political system.

Shifting is important. Real life groups must shift to adapt to changing scenarios. When you bring these groups into your story, make sure they are given a history that looks like it shifts from a third party view, but from a first person view appears to hold the same fundamental views (just like Robin Hood adapting to a world where thieving is not needed to prove a point).


Regardless of the actual attributes of the tribes, there are going to be several potential starting points from which the involved tribes occupy the same area.

  1. A single tribe has many off-spring. Enough so that there is an entire group of people who are not necessary for the working of that tribe, and have enough people to start their own. They could split under either good or bad terms.

    • The tribes who do this will have a number of similarities to start with
    • They will also have working relationships (either good or bad), unless one migrates out of the area for a long period of time.
    • As they continue to grow and split, you could end up with many similar, but not the same, tribes in family groups - each may have feuds or alliances with other families.
  2. A tribe migrates into the region. This could be simply because the migrating tribe was following their food source, or it could be because of a natural disaster or other shortage in supplies, or maybe the grass is just greener here.

    • A migrating tribe is under a lot of pressure to find resources and provide for the tribe. Depending on their views, and the amount of hostility between them and the local tribes, will determine how the relationships turn out. (I don't have any facts on this, but I would imagine a migrating tribe entering the area is usually frowned on)
    • A migrating tribe is likely to have very different attributes from the ones in the area it is entering. The larger the physical distance traveled, the more likely that they are different.

With those two types of tribes, you could imagine how a group of tribes might occupy an area and suddenly another, very foreign, tribe shows up. The foreign tribe migrated due to a disastrous storm and hurricane which pushed them out of their normal habitat, which is essentially destroyed.

Seeing people in distress, the tribe who first came across them may help, and the migrating tribe might pick up some survival tactics from the natives for this new habitat, completing a friendship. However, the migrating tribe settles down nearby in a different local tribe's area. This other tribe doesn't take kindly to the strangers and is offended by their worship/fear of storm gods, so try to push them out.

You can see how eventually, the migrated tribe might have officially moved in and taken over one of the other tribe's spots, yet have good relations with that first tribe who is totally different from them.

You could also see how the first tribe might align with their neighbors, and the migrating tribe might be forced onto lands that can't support them - so are required to raid for their food at times.

It's all going to come out of how the tribes split up when growing, or how they first migrated into the region. The farther back you flesh out a tribe's history, the more you'll come up with various beliefs and traits for that tribe, making it less and less flat the farther you go. It is the history and the "why" a group is the way it is, that makes it less flat. Even if, story-wise, you tell this difference via their myths or beliefs rather than explicitly stating the history.


From a sociological and historical perspective, tribes are ways for related family groups to ensure they have access to enough resources to survive in a fairly hostile environment. In richer environments, the population can grow fairly rapidly due to agriculture, making family/clan/tribe groupings somewhat less important, while the smart people organize to gather and distribute the surplus wealth of the farmers (polite way of saying "steal it for themselves so they don't have to toil on the farm").

Looking at the real world, you see that areas where tribal affiliation is still the dominant form of social organization is indeed the more marginal regions of the world, like sub saharan Africa, or Appalachia for that matter. Since the environment is hostile or marginal, it is vitally important to ensure that the people you share the environment are trusted and trustworthy. Family, clans and tribes are organizations where the trust is based on kinship and shared relationships. Even if "others" come to steal your women/cattle/resources, you can always round up brothers, cousins, nephews and other kinsmen to protect your stuff and fight to get it back, seek revenge etc.

This also suggests (and is demonstrated in the real world) that tribes are suspicious of outsiders, and outside influences. Your roving band of adventurers/merchants/missionaries are going to have a rough time interacting with close knit and suspicious tribal groups, especially if they are advocating changes to traditional mores or means of doing things.

In historical terms, tribes could often be turned against each other by Imperial forces with access to greater riches they could offer selected tribes (divide and rule), and tribesmen were also often coveted for their fighting and tracking prowess (Indian scouts for the US Cavalry, Ghurkas in the British Empire), so tribes can provide lots of interesting background and story material for you to work with.


Start with What Divides Them

Why have these tribesmen not integrated with the surrounding cultures?

Why have these tribesmen not integrated with each other?

Once you answer those questions, a lot of other world-building info is going to just naturally fall out.

Historical Examples

The Eurasian steppe was full of nomadic horsemen - think Tartars, Mongols, Huns, Turkomen, and others. They didn't integrate with the surrounding empires or cultures at least in part because those empires were agricultural, and that live-style was at odds with nomadic herding.

The nomads generally didn't integrate with each other because the herds naturally drift apart in search of forage, which places a kind of upper limit on the size of a political body.

Choose Your Division

So for the Eurasian nomads, the key division was a society built around the horse. Pick something similar - a difference that sets these tribes apart from their neighbors. Then keep asking about the implications, and looking for ways that this key issue sets them apart.

All the quirks and details will flow from the source of division.


Think of Europe

The countries of Europe are from similar backgrounds, but fight among themselves, so they're a decent model for how much you might want to differentiate your tribes. Now, imagine how you would differentiate your tribes if each of your tribes was a European country. Probably not much, until it became relevant to the story you're writing. It's hard to describe how (say) France is different from Germany or Greece. Any explicit description of the differences would be clunky and simplistic (although people try in real life, so your characters might try as well).

Instead, you could explore each tribe with your characters. If your character had a list of an engineer, a musician and a farmer to meet different countries in Europe, you could convey some idea of the different countries by the way you describe each character and each meeting. You will add details as you do this (e.g. France has big concert halls or Austria has lots of street musicians) which will help characterise each place. It doesn't matter what details you choose - the future writers will pick up on what's there, and invent what isn't, as long as they are inspired by their idea of the country.

Be aware that you don't need to describe all of your tribes, either. It's fine to have some tribes which you never describe in much detail (e.g. France might only ever be mentioned in connection with champagne). What makes a tribe "filler" is when you talk about it unnecessarily (e.g. listing all the tribes present at a meeting, or saying which tribe a character is from if that isn't important).


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