Many years ago I wrote a book for another company called Beneath the Waves. I don’t think it is in print anymore, but I think they did fold it into their world. So I thought really hard about it at the time and I still think about this today - How do mermen live? Or how does any aquatic race live? Here’s why I think it is so important:
At some level (I know this is an exaggeration, but it is at least partially true) - all technological advancements were based on fire. What do I mean? Well, the Stone Age became the Bronze Age became the Iron Age because of the smelting of metals - fire based. Pottery - mud bricks are OK, but the kiln is what makes them strong - fire based. Glass blowing - fire based. Steam engine - fire based. Go back farther - fire allowed for warmth, light, protection from animals, and cooking of foods. Yeah - not much technical advancement without those. But think about it differently - how many things could have been accomplished without metal? Nearly every tool commonly in use is metal - axes for felling trees, most weapons, nails, rivets, saws, etc. I’m trying to avoid saying hammers, because you can have wood or stone hammers, but not for real construction.
Let’s try to be fair. The American Indians (hope no one gets offended by that term) did pretty darn well without metal working, but they still had fire. They had pottery (fire based), they used flint weapons (no fire needed), they were skilled leather workers (probably no fire needed), and they even farmed to a degree (with non-metallic tools). But they still had fire. You think I’ve gone completely off topic, but I haven’t. So without being able to light a campfire under the water - how do mermen live?
Well, I gave them some tech - I figured they could still use shells or some other containers to do alchemy. (This is a high fantasy game!) I allowed them a manner of tanning that could be done underwater, so they had a form of tanned “leather” fish skins. (Been a while, but it may have required whales.) They had ropes and nets that they could braid and could also make other textiles out of them. Most importantly, they needed to rely on animal parts. They used sharpened shells for knives and even something resembling a macana (those Aztec swords with obsidian embedded in the sides), though I think that used shark’s teeth. They used a lot of sharp and pointy objects, that were recovered from dead sea creatures, to form their weapons, but also their tools. They couldn’t make chisels; they pretty much had to find them.
So what’s the punch line? Why should you care as a game master and world builder what the mermen are doing? Well, you might not. You might never care what the mermen do because your characters aren’t going in that direction. Or you might assume that the mermen can trade pearls for everything they need from the surface folks (but then you need to consider that trade in your economy). I prefer to think that not every culture in my game world needs to be based on something out of Medieval England or the Lord of the Rings. Nothing against LotR, but it’s not like JRRT fleshed out the orcish culture. Legend Quest has a race of winged humans called lurians. I’ve had to wonder - do they have any smiths? Wouldn’t the heat of a forge or smelter singe their feathery wings? So are they basically metal-less too? Maybe they would have pottery and baking, but not metal working. What about lizardmen? (OK, LQ doesn’t really have those, but many games do.) Are the swamp dwellers smelting metals? probably not. I’ve even thought through dragons and whether or not they should have smiths or craftsmen. I have usually thought they would have an easier time of maintaining slaves to do that work for them, but you never know. Maybe your elves, dwarves, humans, halflings and orcs can all live roughly the same lives, but not the more exotic races. If you don’t have fun thinking your way through how these different folks would live, are you really building your own world, or are you just drawing maps?