As much attention is usually given to races, cities, and countries when it comes to fantasy settings, I think the most important thing that has a much bigger impact on the overall feel and dynamics of the world are the power groups and other factions that inhabit it. You rarely have dealings with a race or a country, and these don’t really have any shared goals as a whole. In a work about the politics and wars of kings and other rulers, you kind of have things happen between countries, but in practice it’s almost all happening between members of different courts, which really are just one of many types of factions. There are many classic types of generic organizations in fantasy, such as thieves guilds, wizard colleges, great churches, lorekeepers/spies, or medieval megacorporations (Forgotten Realms has a lot of those.) For the Ancient Lands, many of these standard factions don’t really work, as it’s a bronze age setting primarily inhabited by tribal people living in remote villages in the wilds. Can’t really have a thieves guild in a 200 people village or a continent spanning state church when everyone is worshiping the spirits of the land they live on. Coming up with ideas for factions that do work in such a setting was a bit challenging at first and I had been creating a number of groups that I’ve since discarded again. But taking a count of the groups I already have, I realized that this is already quite extensive and easily enough for a setting of this scale.
Probably as close as you can get to a real good guys faction. The Druids are a lose and informal association of hundreds of shamans north of the Inner Sea. Most of them belong to the elven Falden, but the influence of the group reaches to all the neighboring tribes, which includes the Eylahen, the northern and southern Skeyn, the human Vandren, and even some Brana kaas and Takari dark elves. The goal of the Druids is to fight the spread of sorcery. Sorcery is a very potent form of magic that can defy the normal rules of nature, but its use sickens the lands and all creatures that inhabit it. To the druids that price is much too high for all the great wonders sorcerers can create, and they are doing everything in their power to prevent the sorcerous arts from spreading and if possible end the practice of all sorcery in the Ancient Lands forever. While in some regions almost all shamans are affiliated with the Druids, their actual numbers are relatively low. But all of them can call upon all the warriors of their clans if they feel the need is great enough to risk the protection of their villages, which makes them potentially one of the greatest powers in the Ancient Lands. But usually most druids simply exchange information with each other and only deal with sorcery that directly threatens their homes. However, when the threat seems great, they often call together druids from neighboring clans to face the danger together, before it grows too big to be able to destroy them one by one.
Sorcerers are even fewer in numbers than the Druids and have even much less organization or shared goals. Most of the time it’s just a single sorcerer and his apprentices working entirely alone, with perhaps some friendly but distant contact with other sorcerers to compare their work. As most people fear them and the Druids have a strong presence in many regions, sorcerers are usually very secretive, living in isolation from the rest of society or practicing their art in secret. Few people are able to tell the difference between a sorcerer and a reclusive, but ordinary witch, as long as they keep the destructive effects from becoming too apparent. Sorcerers are not inherently evil, but all of them are highly ambitious and at least to some degree reckless, and very well aware that many people would prefer to see them dead if they could get an opportunity. Fear of their sorcerous powers is what keeps most common people from turning against them, and most sorcerers cultivate a reputation of being very dangerous opponents.
While sorcerers usually live in secret or are feared enough to become untouchable, the elven Neshanen of Senkand are one of the very few tribes where sorcerers have some form of acceptance and often wield considerable respect and power. Almost all sorcerers come from noble families and are frequently involved in local politics and and members of courts. Unsurprisingly, the Neshanen have a somewhat doubious reputation among the other tribes, but are also among the most educated and sophisticated people who produce many of the finest goods in the Ancient Lands. And since some of that knowledge comes from the work of sorcerers, the common Neshanen are much more willing to accept their presence in their towns and cities.
The Sakaya are a kind of monastic order that is most common in the Vestanen Mountains and the surrounding lands. They reject allegiance to clans and accept people from all tribes, though most of them are human Vandren. They place great importance on performing their duties and excelling at all their skills, but are also encouraged to follow their own talents and find their own callings instead of taking the trade of their parents or living a life according to the station of their birth. The sharing of both goods and labor is central to their culture, which makes joining them very appealing to people of low birth, little wealth, or who have been cast out of their clans. (While outcasts are generally mistrusted and closely observed, they are still given a chance to prove their honest will to live by the rules of the Sakaya instead of being chased off at sight.)
Though most Sakaya are farmers, craftsmen, and scholars, they also have warriors who are needed to protect their settlementa from bandits and other clans. Often these form their own communities who wander around to help other Sakaya wherever they are needed, but in peaceful times many seek work as mercenaries in other lands.These warrior companies are who most people in other lands encounter most often, and since they have no farms of their own and always go where there is war, they are among the best trained and most experienced warriors in the Ancient Lands. But in recent decades companies have increasingly banded together for great raids against major towns and cities instead of doing the same thing in the pay for other lords. Though generally considerably smaller in number than most marauding hordes, they are really good at it and almost all chiefs snd kings are highly concerned that the Sakaya warriors have begun to take over some of the towns they raided and turn them into fortresses from which they are taking tribute of neighboring clans and merchants passing through the area. The biggest problem with the Sakaya warriors is that they can’t really be appeased, as fighting is what they are really after. The Sakaya in the mountain communities don’t approve of any of these, but the marauding warriors care very little for what the mystics say. The are now almost a completely separate faction in their own right, but few outsiders know or care about the difference.
The lizardmen kingdom of the Mayaka is controlled by the priest of the Temple of the Sun, but the defense of the city, the temple, and all the Mayaka people is in the hand of a king, who is selected and appointed by the priests. As leader of the armies he has their complete trust, and as long as he does not go against their explicit wishes, the king has always had great freedom to rule the people as he sees fit. In additions to tens of thousands of ordinary warriors that can be called from the many villages of the kingdom, the king also has a large troop of elite soldiers who guard the capital city and the royal palace, and also form the heart of the armies in times of war. In all of the Ancient Lands, they are one of the few armies that are considered equals of the Sakaya.
While the Royal Guard is primarily an army, they are also tasked with many important missions to other lands on behalf of either the king or the temple. Temple guards never leave the Temple of the Sun and priests who have to travel are given an escort by the king. Royal Guards on a mission travel either as whole companies, or sometimes in pairs or alone, depending on their task. Usually these task have something to do with the naga, as the king and the priests have few other things beyond their borders that are of much interest to them.
The naga are one of the three races of spirits that ruled the Ancient Lands many centuries ago. While the shie and raksha are now rarely seen in the mortal world, the naga still rule some of their ancient kingdoms, though in much smaller form than they used to. The land of the naga lies to the southwest of the Mayaka kingdom and is one of the most remote regions of all the Ancient Lands. Once their control reached far to the east, including all the lands of the Mayaka and beyond. Like the other spirit races their former might had faded a long time ago and when the Mayaka rebelled, they were able to conquer many of the half abandoned naga cities, forcing them back into just a few remaining cities in the western parts of the jungle. Though nothing like the great race that once ruled half of the Ancient Lands, the naga are still very powerful, being unaging and creatures of great magical powers. Most of their cities and armies consist of lizardmen slaves, who are utterly loyal to them and almost never allow themselves to be taken prisoners by the Mayaka to join their lizardmen kingdom. To the Suji the naga are gods, and in many ways they actually are. The naga also have a race of serpentmen slaves, who many believe to have been magically created by them as elite warriors for their armies. The naga and the Mayaka are almost permanently at war, as the naga want to reclaim many of their old cities and the Mayaka see it as their sacred duty to keep fighting until all naga slaves are freed. But most of the time the war consists of frequent border skirmishes in the jungle, with either side attempting larger invasions every few decades.
Many of the naga lords are sorcerers and their power and knowledge exceeds even that of the Neshanen by far. This makes the two groups great rivals, as each seek to steal each others secret and find any artifacts left behind in old naga ruins throughout all the lands of the Inner Sea before the other does. Neither naga nor Neshanen sorcerers have high regards for their peers, but sorcerers from both side would never consider working together with the others. The great interest of naga in sorcery might be one reason why the are still in the mortal world while all the castles of the shie and raksha have been abandoned thousands of years ago, since the summoning of demons is impossible in the Spiritworld where all the other spirits reside.
Cults of the Old Ones
Though most people consider the ancient spirits of the Underworld to be demons hostile to all life on the surface world, there have always been some who see them in a very different light. Small cults exist in many remote villages which regard the Old Ones as spirits of great power, who are an older generation of beings that preceds the spirits of the Spiritworld and whose powers are both greater and more pure. They fear the demons no more than other people fear the spirits of the land and revere them with great respect and devotion. Many such cults see the Old Ones as perfect beings that have existed since the beginning of time and have been unaffected by the changes of the ages, existing in the Underworld as they always have and always will. Through their worship, these cultists hope to be elevated to more perfect forms of beings themselves and, so their gods will, become immortal spirits at their side in the Underworld.
To those people who see the Old Ones are horrible demons, those thoughts seem horrifying and utterly mad, and so the cultists seek lives of reclusion, being found most often in the Tavir and Vestanen Mountains, far away from the influence of the Druids. Their rituals are no more violent or terrible than those of clans who are worshipping spirits of ferocious and bloodthirsty beasts, and some are even mostly harmless to outsiders. But all who worship the Old Ones know that there are many who fear and wish to destroy them, and are always extremely cautious about strangers and will go to great length to keep their existance from becoming common knowledge. Some cults are lead by sorcerers and these are usually prime targets for both the Druids and Demon Hunters and also the most dangerous.
While sorcerers are regarded as highly dangerous and evil in general, almost all people have even much more fear of anathema. Anathema are demons who have possessed mortals, devoured their spirits, and have claimed their bodies for themselves. Many anathema were created from sorcerers who sought great power from a demon and dis not know what exactly they were being offered, but any living person who has been touched by sorcery can potentially become possessed by a demon, in some cases even by accident. Not only have anathema the ability to look entirely like mortals, they also have all the knowledge and memories of the mind they consumed, allowing them to walk among normal people almost undetected. Only druids, demon hunters, and sorcerers are able to identify an anathema as what it is, but anyone who knew the person who has been possessed can tell that something has changed them greatly.
Like all demons and sorcerers, not all anathema are evil and destructive, but almost all of them are throughly selfish, vain, and reveling in excess. Smarter ones are able to indulge their cravings in secret and rely on minions to remain undetected, but they almost universally mean trouble for anyone near them. Like all demons, anathema are driven by basic but very powerful cravings that compell them to all manner of nefarious ploys. While newly created anathema often seek out simple thrills of mortal existence, older ones usually come up with very elaborate plans that can span decades as the targets of their cravings become more sophisticated. Particularly the most powerful kinds of demons often seek to create their own kingdoms or religions with themselves as a god. Often these plans seem needlessly convoluted and highly unlikely to suceed, but as immortal beings with no true material needs, demons are often enjoying the struggle much more than the eventual fruits of their labor. To anathema, the excitement of defeating their enemies and overcoming obstacles is often the main goal of all their work and so many of their plans appear outright insane to mortal minds. Thankfully there is even less organization between them than between sorcerers and almost every anathema works completely alone and relies entirely on mortal minions.
The Demon Hunters are a small group of warriors who share the belief of the Druids that sorcery and demons are a great threat to the world and that sorcerers must not be allowed to continue their dark research. However, the Demon Hunters also belief that there is no other weapon as effective in fighting demons as their own sorcery. They are under vow only to use their magic to defeat demons and sorcerers, but generally they consider it better to have one great battle of sorcerous energies than allowing a sorcerer to continue practicing his magic for decades or centuries. Unsurprisingly, the Druids do not agree and regards the Demon Hunters as just another cabal of sorcerers.
While most traders are running modest businesses and travel between towns with a few wagons or a small ship, trade in the great port cities is almost entirely within the hand of a much smaller number of very powerful and outrageously wealthy merchants. Usually their power is based on their ability to get anyone who trades in certain goods to either work for them or to stay well away from their cities. Many of them are well connected with each other, which enables them to have almost complete monopolies on certain goods throughout the Inner Sea. Anyone trying to sell these goods independently gets quickly shoved out of business or over the railing to the sharks.
Since there are generally very little laws about what can be sold and traded in the ports of the Ancient Lands, much of the business of these merchants is not really illegal in any way. But there are always people who try to smuggle goods into the cities without their knowledge or harbor officials who are not responding to the usual bribes for mishandling tax calculations, so most of them have gangs of enforcers in their pay who ensure business is running smoothly. Their contacts allow them to get hold of even the rarest and most exotic things, which regularly serves very well to get city nobles into their debt. In most towns and villages of the Ancient Lands the merchants of the Inner Sea are basically unknown and have almost no influence. But to anyone who has business in or with any of the port cities, they are an extremely powerful group that can get almost anything they want.