A guild-based economy can provide a rich setting for your fantasy world. Guilds influence not only the market, but also the political landscape, religions, and the social issues in a given culture.
In this article, I’m going to go through some notes about how guilds can influence your fantasy culture. I’ll talk a bit about the different types of guilds and their real-life historical context, give a few reasons why you should consider implementing them in your worldbuilding, and then go over their impacts on the economy, their role as a political power, how they can tie-in together with religion, as well as reflect social issues (such as various prejudices), and finally, how a magic system could influence guilds. At the end of the article, I list a few examples of possible guilds you can have, and show you can example from my fantasy world, Eledris.
Guilds and their types
A guild is an organization that oversees the production or trading of a certain product, or the providing of specific services. They’re an association of merchants and workers, usually formerly recognized by the government of the country or city. Their goal is to control the economy in a given sector, thus ousting competition and gaining power, effectively building a monopoly on their products and/or services in a given region.
A guild can regulate the minimum and maximum prices, worker hours, or amount of people in the trade. However, they can also turn out to be beneficial to the common people in certain cases, as a guild can serve as a regulator of product quality.
You can differentiate three main types of guilds – those providing practical goods (bladesmithing, hat-making…), those providing services (chimney sweeping, painting…), and those administering long-distance trade. Throughout this guide, I will be heavily focusing on the first two types, as trading between countries and regions in fantasy worlds deserves its own separate article.
In fantasy worldbuilding
In your worldbuilding, guilds can serve several purposes. They can provide interesting settings for stories – opening up possible themes of corruption, plots of political intrigue within a guild, or just give your characters a realistic backstory.
When it comes to creating cultures, as discussed below, a guild economy might influence several areas. The economy of your country will be limited by their monopolies and by providing services like banking. They can influence the local politics of a city (or in cases of larger guilds, even a country) via corruption; political figures can get preferential treatment by the guild masters (in a few historical cases, this even lead to uprisings). Religion(s) can have severe impact on a guild’s inner workings, impacting its values, rituals, and even new member policies. And speaking of, guilds might only accept or promote people from certain demographics, thus highlighting your fictional culture’s social issues such as misogyny and other prejudices.
Finally, a well-crafted system of guilds can give you a great way to explain and expand upon your magic system. Guilds of mages providing magical services, alchemists, or simple merchants and artisans selling the goods required to do spells can all add to a feeling of an established culture built around a realistic magic system.
Now that you know the basics about guilds, let’s look into detail how they might impact the individual components of your cultures, starting with the most obvious one – economy.
Impact on the economy
Scholars argue on the actual impacts of guilds on their regions’ economies in history. From my point of view, the effects were mostly negative. However, when worldbuilding, you don’t have to take inspiration from history directly – the nature of guilds does lend itself to negative effects, but, under certain conditions, guilds can actually be positive to the larger economy. In this section, I’m going to discuss a few effects, both negative and positive, that guilds might have on the economy of a given region.
The monopolistic nature of guilds allows them to drive up prices for their own benefits. This practice can increase the wealth gap, as already rich guild masters increase their profits. By legally controlling who and in what amount can sell a product or service, a guild can effectively eliminate any competition. By influencing politicians using shares of their income and offering favours, or by having guild masters directly occupying high political positions, guilds can help pass laws preventing non-members selling their products or services. Furthermore, by limiting the competition, in some cases, a guild’s standards for quality of product may drop, resulting in poor products reaching the consumers.
Furthermore, the practice of implementing specific entry-barriers (discussed below when highlighting the social issues around guilds) can lead to the lower classes being restricted in their craft, thus limiting the vertical mobility of the economy. All of these factors can be very detrimental to the open market of a given city or country.
Let’s look at some of the positive effects a guild might have. By taking young apprentices, training them, and providing them with the often-expensive tools to hone their craft, they add new talent into the economy. This practice might be supported by the government as a way to improve their society’s overall skill level and improve the quality of the products.
In some cases, guilds can exert their powers to regulate the quality of products and services, meaning that the number of scams and the amount of subpar goods in the economy might drop (this is directly opposing the point I made a few paragraphs above, about the lack of competitions driving quality down; both cases may occur, it’s simply a case-by-case basis). And finally, guilds internally sharing their knowledge, tools, and resources, can also decrease the price of labour for them. If you choose it so, you could take this to the extreme and build a culture where guilds are forced by law to share their knowledge publicly, thus benefiting the culture as a whole.
As a political power
Guilds inherently need the support of the political scene to function as guilds – without legislature, they could not restrict the prices, the market, and the barrier of entry into it. Is it then no surprise that often, guilds can hold massive political power. Their economic importance and corruption can lead to guild masters being in high political positions themselves, or living in a symbiotic relationship with political elites. Guilds could offer politicians a share of their large profits and favours; politicians would in turn offer the guilds exclusive legal privileges, allowing them to manipulate the economy, as discussed above. In extreme cases, a city or a region might have a council wholly built out of guild masters, effectively turning the region into an economic superpower in exchange for the rights and privileges of common people.
Furthermore, the interfamilial essence of some guilds can lead into what could be described as wealth dynasties. Guild masters often accept new members from their own or closely related families, and guilds promote intermarriage. In turn, this causes the wealth that comes with being a guild master to be passed down only within a very small number of families within a certain craft. Over a few generations, this can give the family notoriety and more political power.
Naturally, this sort of political influence, when driven into extremes, can provoke uprisings. People might revolt against draconian restrictions, or low-level guild members might go rogue and sell their products on the black market. Depending on the severity of the guild’s power, punishment for actions like this include fines, banning, exile, or even execution.
On the other side of that spectrum, in occasions when the interests of a powerful guild and the government don’t exactly align, guild masters can themselves revolt against the political elite. This conflict can be literal, with guild-based militias fighting city guards and other official organizations, or more political, with guilds bonding together to attempting to overtake a part of the government internally. And on a related note, if an internal conflict arises within a country (such as a revolution or a civil war), certain guilds might choose a side to aid in order to support their own interests, providing goods and services for cheaper, and thus skewing the conflict to one side.
Overall, if you decide to implement guilds into a part of your world, don’t forget to consider how their inherent influence over the political scene can shift the game of power in their regions. You can come up with creative plots and make your world seem more alive.
Reflecting social issues
As mentioned above, guilds often hold very strict entry barriers for new members. A worldbuilder can use these barriers to showcase the social issues a given culture is facing. Guilds can refuse or severely limit memberships for people of a certain gender, religion, social background, place of birth, economic class, etc. Let’s look at some of the more general types of entry barriers a guild can have in more detail.
Demographic and group affiliation restrictions were historically very common and can help you reflect the social issues of your culture the best. Guilds can limit memberships to people only born within the city or based on ethnicity or the language the worker speaks. In a fantasy world, demographic limitations might be imposed on the species of the worker (if the world has multiple intelligent species). Age can also be deciding a factor, as well as religion.
Religion is a particularly notable barrier of entry for worldbuilders. Depending on your lore, you can impose different restrictions based on religion in different regions, or even within the same region to create an economic and political rivalry between guilds of varying faiths. Guilds of an affiliation to one religion might refuse to supply their products to officials (such as priests) of another religion, while donating their products for free to affiliated churches. In some cases, whole new guilds may arise to support a given religion (especially if the religion’s faith is real; more on that in the next section). Use guilds to reflect how a region’s culture views various religions and subtly communicate relationships of the religion to the reader.
Finally, guilds can limit membership economically directly, by requiring a member to have a certain income threshold, or indirectly, by implementing membership fees or selling operating licences.
The influences of magic
In most fantasy worlds, the magic system will have a massive impact on practically everything else. Naturally, the exact influences on guilds will depend largely on your specific magic system, but there are a few general tips and ideas to keep in mind.
If your magic system requires its users to consume ingredients (such as when making potions), guilds making and selling these ingredients are going to be popular. In cases of magic systems that aren’t widely available (meaning that not everyone can do magic), guilds of mages can offer their services to common people, sometimes for ridiculous prices.
If, on the other hand, your magic is common, it will get utilized in the day to day lives of guild members, even in guilds not specializing in magic. Spells will be used to speed up the manufacturing process of many products and make services easier for the guild members to carry out.
Depending on where your world lies on the low to high fantasy spectrum, guilds dealing with magical fauna and flora will pop up. If your world features monsters and other magical creatures, there might be guilds specializing on hunting them and harvesting their bodies for ingredients. Or, on the other hand, some guilds might breed these creatures and sell them to customers, offering their services later to heal ailments these magical pets might have, etc.
And finally, make sure to take into consideration how the society of the region you’re worldbuilding views magic. Are there any types of magic that are seen as taboo or strictly forbidden? If so, guilds might avoid supporting magic users who practice this magic, or even implement entry barriers (as discussed above) to keep those magic users out of their ranks. In the extreme, if some (or all) forms of magic are forbidden by the law, witch-hunting guilds might surface to serve the government and profit on this prejudice.
List of possible guilds
As you might know if you’re a long-term reader, I usually prepare an exclusive resource for people subscribing to the Eledris newsletter for new articles. In this case, I prepared a list of 300+ possible guilds you can include in your world, inspired both by real historical examples, and various possible magic systems. I’ve included a few of them here below as a preview – you can access the rest of them in the Exclusive Resources library (along with all other resources I made for the other articles) after signing up for the newsletter.
Here’s a preview of the list, with the fantasy guilds marked in italics:
Feel free to use the list for your worldbuilding, and if you have any suggestions for new guilds, please suggest them using this form, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to discuss some of your guild ideas!
The Alchemist Association of Carran
As usual, I’m now going to add a little example of my worldbuilding around guilds from my fantasy world, Eledris.
The Alchemist Association is one of the guilds in the capital city of Carran. They work on chemical innovations, as well as brewing some basic potions to sell to the public. The guild currently counts 16 members, with most of them working on the potions part of the guilds business. The Association is funded in no small part by the crown, in exchange for weaponized chemicals as well as heavy discounts on all the potions.
The guild has an intense rivalry with the Potionmakers Guild, who were forced to shift their business to more complicated potions since the Alchemist Association started selling the ones they can manage to brew for lower prices. Furthermore, the guild master of the Potionmakers Guild is quarter Dwarf, leading to a hatred of the Association, who, being funded by the crown, has a strict no-Dwarven-heritage entry barrier.
On the other hand, the Association buys many of its ingredients from the Cryptozoologist Guild, who study and hunt magical fauna. Because of this, the two guilds have a very positive relationship. It also purchases herbs and other plants from the Guilds of the Royal Gardens, a company of several guilds tending to Carran’s gardens and growing much of the flora required to brew the potions.
As far as its research capabilities go, the Alchemist Association is the kingdom’s leading force in innovating new chemical processes related to weapons, protection against Demonic forces, as well as general daily life modernization.
Conclusion and further reading
Ultimately, guilds can serve a multitude of purposes in your worldbuilding. They can provide a solid setting for a story full of political intrigue, or just add a lot of detail for a world’s region. Guilds, if widespread, have a huge impact on the economy, the politics of a city/country, and the society as a whole. Use your guilds to reflect social issues and to subtly elaborate on the complexities of your magic system to instil a feeling of a real, deep world into your readers.
If you’re ever short on inspiration, make sure to consult the list of guilds over in the Exclusive Resources library – there’s over 300 of them to choose from. And if you feel like talking about guilds, my email is always open at email@example.com.
Lastly, I’d like to recommend a book as further reading on the topic of guilds; the majority of the historical context for guilds in this article has been sourced from the amazing book The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis by Sheilagh Ogilvie. It’s a very comprehensive book on the impact of guilds in Europe in the medieval and early modern era, and I’d highly recommend it to everyone who wants to get a deeper understanding of the topic and its historical background.