World Building 101 - Creating Cultures

Last week we discussed real world cultures as a shortcut for generating your own full-fledged cultures for use in your campaigns. This week we will examine some things to consider when creating your own cultures for your campaign setting.

As always, remember that your efforts to detail your campaign world don’t need to be directly communicated to your players en masse to be effective—most players find it easier to take in details a little at a time rather than absorb a large information dump all in one go.

There are a large number of factors that influence the formation of cultures in the real world; it’s a long organic process with an astonishing number of variables. Trying to simulate this process fully is largely unnecessary, however, for the purposes of your game world. Still, considering some of these influences can be valuable in the brainstorming process. Remember that these are merely starting points, as well—a culture may expand or migrate well beyond their original location, and may adapt to new surroundings; similarly trade or interaction with other cultures can introduce new ideas or concepts that may outright replace parts of their original beliefs.

What are the geographical influences? Geography can have a variety of effects on a culture. Below are some of the more immediate factors that can impact the way a culture develops:

  • Climate can affect the modes of dress and types of food available. An arid desert does not lend itself to large-scale crop cultivation, for example, and requires a very different style of dress than a frozen tundra.
  • Terrain is another consideration for types of food—a rocky, mountainous region will have less arable land than a fertile plain, and thus different crops and livestock would be common.
  • Natural Resources are important to consider as well. What kind of building material is available can affect the architectural stylings, for example. Other resources can affect clothing materials and colours, weapons and other technology, and textiles, as well as trade goods.
  • Available Food is dependant on geography, and can determine whether the culture you’re creating is a hunter-gatherer society, nomadic cattle-herders, or whether they cultivate crops on farms, or some combination of the above.

What are the supernatural influences? Fantasy doesn’t limit itself to real-world restrictions, and fantastic elements should be taken into account as cultural influences. If a dragon decided to make itself ruler over a primitive people, then perhaps future generations of that people may venerate draconic icons, long after the dragon in question is gone. Perhaps they strive to make themselves more dragonlike, or follow taboos set in place by their original dragon god. Another group might find that the spirits of their dead do not move on to an afterlife, perhaps due to some local magical field or interference, and may build a necropolis far more impressive than the squalid little village the living members occupy, where the dead can reside in style and the living can aspire to join them when they pass on. These fantasy influences can very easily lead to the creation of cultures that your players will remember for some time.

What are the external influences? Who are the neighbouring cultures? What kind of relationship do they have with their neighbours? Goods and ideas can pass even between peoples at war. Raiding the border of a hostile neighbour could bring back cattle or crops, manufactured goods, or even slaves or prisoners, who could bargain with information or technology in exchange for their lives or freedom. A more friendly relationship with the neighbours may see free exchange of information and ideas, or more likely a trading relationship—though intermarriage might still lead to the spread of new technologies.

What ideologies do they follow? Is this culture a warlike group of savages or a peaceful band of gatherers? Do they participate in religious ceremonies to established deities recognized by other groups, or is their worship more cult-like and unfamiliar outside their home? How do they trace lineage—through the male line, the female line, or both? Do they value philosophy and art, or do they eschew words in favour of deeds? These kinds of questions can help establish the culture in your own mind, and allow you to portray members of the culture more smoothly and consistently, which your players will appreciate even if they are not given the information up front at any time.

As with using a real world culture, it is important to avoid stereotypes and shallow representations—even if a caricature offends nobody, it lessens the effect of the character and reduces the value of the effort you’ve put into creating the culture as a whole. Also note that creating full details for every culture in your game world before you begin is inadvisable, as it leaves little room for expansion or adaptation to player ideas, and can easily cause burnout before you even reach the point where the campaign begins. As always, detail what is important to your campaign first, then expand as necessary.

Comments (2)

Guildenstern (May 29th, 2010)

What JD seems best at is quantifying by breaking down the things ‘naturals’ take for granted (even their players take said ‘naturals’ for granted, so nobody asks her how she does it).

Being a member of both groups depending on the weather, this is another great resource for me to peruse during downtime or PC interactions.

There are seven categories of cultural polarity that I know of. The first is how direct or indirect their words (or context of their words) is. To an American it may seem most East Indians speak in riddles, because Americans (direct) say things like ‘it’s raining’ and an East Indian (suggestive) might reply, ‘become like a sheep’ assuming I was complaining about the rain in a roundabout way rather than just directly stating what I’m looking at.

In some cultures, silence means acceptance. In others, it means disagreement. In still others, silence means nothing at all, and is simply situationally polite.

The second category is how open the culture’s most influential members at-large are to the idea of outside influence. Do the greedy tradesman class of Autvain want to conquer with their artistic pride or perhaps gain some of Ch’melta’s bananas so beloved by their wealthy, or are they xenophobic because of historical influences or lack thereof, and build a military to establish their dominance in all trade arrangements? What percentage of the population deals with foreigners?

The third category is…. well I don’t want to bore anyone who has the idea. Wikipedia has a more succinct illustration of the idea of cultural interactions (something that can only really be observed by comparison rather than in a vacuum or case-by-case). Really fascinating stuff, and it sorta belongs here since you’ve started building the skeleton for a process for world building.

Great article JD, love the site.

Brandan Landgraff (May 29th, 2010)

I’m not JD, but thanks for the praise :)

Comments for this article are closed.