GM Advice:
Culture

By Shamus
on Nov 19, 2008
Filed under:
Tabletop Games

I’ve said before that one of my goals in designing a campaign setting is to add a few touches that makes the world seem larger or deeper than it really is. Giving the impression of a strong and robust setting can make the world come alive for players and encourage them to approach things in-character. If done right, those extra details can also serve as a starting point for additional detail when the players dive into the blank areas of the map or engage NPC’s you’ve never written or even envisioned.

The cornerstone of this approach is in coming up with plausible or interesting cultures. It’s also my favorite part of the process. It certainly gives the largest dividends in terms of how much time it takes versus how much (percieved) detail it adds. A few minutes spent adding cultural flavor can make a simple village seem almost Tolkienesque in scope. Culture is a façade behind which the thrifty GM can hide his lazyness and lack of prep time.

And note here that when I say “culture” I’m mostly talking about the customs that surround basic life events like birth, marriage, and death, and daily habits that surround basic activities like eating, sleeping, bathing, and recreation.

Note that I don’t suggest using all of the things listed below. This is just a list of some cultural ingredients that amuse me, or that I didn’t get a chance to use in any of the games I’ve run. I suggest taking the standard off-the-shelf setting and adding a couple of these ideas for flavor. Obviously the more you change, the more strange and foreign the place will seem.

Superstitions & Random Customs

Superstitions are easy to devise and add a nice bit of color to the NPC’s in the world. They’re just repackaged advice, or an effort to influence the outcome of something over which you don’t really have any control. Some of it might be rooted in some sort of truth, some of it can just be random action. It can even be counter-productive! It’s easy and requires no research whatsoever. Just think up something amusing or plausible and have your NPC’s believe it.

  • It’s bad luck for both people to fish out the same side of the boat.
  • Well water drawn after dark is unhealthy.
  • Wear lots of flowers if you’re trying to get pregnant.
  • When the harvest comes in, we take the first loaf of bread and scatter it for the birds.
  • If at all possible, unmarried women and unmarried men should not sit on the same side of the table.
  • At dinner, nobody may eat until all the guests have tasted the food. (This should freak out overly suspicious players.)
Language

I’m no philologist, and making up a fake language (or even the roots of one) is far beyond my abilities. More importantly, doing so would be a lot of work, and hard work is for suckers.

I get a lot of mileage out of seasoning the local language with a few words that might reflect a bit about how the people in the given city think. I don’t generally make up new words, but instead just slap together new ways of using words or new phrases.

I often make these up as I go, but sometimes I’ll jot one down in the margins if it comes to me ahead of time. Some examples:

In a mining town, talking about someone who is a hard worker: Oh him? That fella is a stonedigger. He’ll give you a day and a half of work for a day’s wages.

In a fishing village: I wouldn’t ask the mayor for help, she’s already got more fish than she can fit in her boat.

A Farmer, talking about a brute: Stay clear of that one. He’s all ox and no plow.

A peasant, talking about someone who doesn’t worship any gods: That fella’s knees don’t bend.

In a large city, “Alley-Prince” is a derogatory term commoners use for illegitimate sons the King has fathered with various peasant women. The idea being that these children are born in an alley. I like this because it tells us a lot about the king (hedonistic and callous) and the people. (Concerned over matters of birth and lineage.)

A phrase here and there can make it feel like these folks have lots of phrases or words.

Marriage

Just about every culture has a boatload of customs dealing with courtship and marriage. The players probably won’t run into this unless they hang around for an extended time, but they’re effortless to devise and I like to have them handy. Some of these customs can double as quest hooks.

You can present a more modern view of things if you want players to feel comfortable, but I find it’s interesting to present a more authentic (i.e. blatantly sexist) culture and see how players react. This can be interesting in moderation. (If players run into the “women as cattle” attitude everywhere they go they’ll either get used to it or grow to loathe and resent the world, and you might not want that.) A truly authentic world might be too dreary and grim for most groups, but the occasional dysfunctional (by our standards) town might challenge the players to confront issues like morality vs. law.

Some examples of marriage customs that amuse me:

One day a year is “Wedding Day”, and all engaged couples get married on that day. (You’re not truly engaged unless you plan to get hitched this coming Wedding Day. Otherwise, you’re just “courting”.) It takes place in a single large ceremony / banquet, and is presided over by the mayor / chief priest / sheriff / judge / innkeeper / richest guy in town / etc. You can have lots of fun devising what that ceremony would look like and what the procedures would be.

Men take two wives. One they take on as they enter adulthood. This wife is chosen based on intelligence, skill, and work ethic. She’s expected to help her husband get rolling as he begins his career. The second wife is taken on once he’s established himself financially. (Usually around thirty or so.) She’s chosen based on looks and breeding potential. Men who only take one wife are viewed as a failure. Fathers tend to work to get their beautiful daughters married as a Second Wife of a wealthy man, and unload their ugly daughters as First Wives. Note that for this to work women have to outnumber men by a good portion, which is common enough in warlike societies where lots of men die in war.

All marriages are arranged by parents, except that women (and only women) are free to leave one husband and take another after five years. (Perhaps the custom was originally designed to keep women from starving in the company of a man who just couldn’t feed her, but later evolved into a system where the woman could leave any time she thought she could get a better deal elsewhere.) If a woman leaves her man, he is disgraced as a failure. This leads to women having all sorts of unseen power in what is otherwise a stringent patriarchy. Men in unhappy marriages end up bribing their wives to stay to protect their reputations and business relationships. This would make a town where men hold all the offices but the real power is wielded by the wives of those men, which would make things very “interesting” for any visiting adventuring parties who wanted to conduct business with the local government. Doubly so if any of them are [un]lucky enough to be attractive to the wives of those leaders. Do try not to grin when your players realize the trouble they’re about to get into.

Eating

Nothing says “We’re not in Kansas anymore” like being invited to diner by some crazy foreigners. If you want your world to feel different or strange, give the people some unexpected eating customs. A historical example might be useful:

No disrespect to The Last Supper, but Jesus and his followers almost certainly did not sit around a banquet table with dishes and utensils. In that culture, tables were low to the ground, and they didn’t use chairs. You propped yourself up on your left arm and ate with your right. Diners would tear off bits from a loaf of bread and dip it into whatever they were eating. (Some sort of meat or sauce, one assumes?) Hence the phrase “breaking bread”. The bread did double-duty as a utensil.

Suddenly all those customs about foot-washing before meals make sense: The guy to your right was going to be very close to your feet, and simple decency would suggest that you get the funk off them before you recline at the table. This also explains odd-sounding situations where it talks about someone “reclining” on Jesus. That sounds goofy for guys in chairs, but when you’re propped up on the floor it’s perfectly natural. You’re done with the meal, your left arm is probably tired, you want to lean back and have some conversation, so you lean against the legs of the guy to your left.

You can come up with lots of interesting behaviors and customs by just changing a few assumptions about how people eat. Note how just changing something as small as the furniture led to a completely different experience. The low table makes for a very intimate setting and brings about the need for foot hygiene. It changes the food itself, since it has to be something you can eat with one hand.

This is a pretty good approach to making your own culture. Change something about the tools or furniture the people use to eat, and see how that would impact everything else. Maybe people eat from a common trough with great big spoons. Maybe there is no table, and people sit in a chair and eat with their hands from a bowl in their lap. Maybe they sit on long benches around a fire where everyone throws their bones and scraps.

But really, almost any change from the “generic village of stock peasants with an Inn” is likely to make a world a lot more interesting. It might even get your players to stop quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail for a few minutes. (But probably not.)

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201737 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Strangeite says:

    A post after my own heart. Defining culture in a meaningful way is the very core of what Anthropology is about.

    If you want a simple checklist of features to include when designing a world, Unesco’s definition of culture comes in handy, “Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

  2. Nilus says:

    Really good article. Especially the stuff on superstition. I had an ethic/history professor in college who use to say you can tell a lot about a people by looking at what they are irrationally afraid of.

    Speaking of the Last supper, Jesus and friends probably didn’t even have a table. They probably just ate dinner off a blanket or some such ground covering. Even today in the middle east and other places in Asia families will eat on the floor(and even in the US). Especially when its a large family gathering. My Wife is half Pakistani and whenever that side of the family is having a big party I can expect to be sitting on the floor eating.

  3. Predarek says:

    The thing you are describing is something I love to do in my campaign and is probably the thing I take the most time out of the main adventure to think of. Instead of slapping words together I normally use words from other languages to describe something similar (my first language is French). In example in my current campaign, they reached a new town where living armors are helping the living and they are called “Geist” which means something like ghost or spirit in German. They are free-willed spirit who wishes to spend some bit of extra time in the world of living before their last departure.

    I never really thought of putting different eating habit in my games, so I’ll definitely use this next week!

  4. Nixorbo says:

    “being invited to diner”

    I assume you mean “being invited to dinner” rather than “being invited to a diner,” but, honestly, either works for me.

  5. Hal says:

    The one I really like to flesh out for any city is industry. It is, almost always, the defining answer to the question, “Why does anyone even live here?” Is everyone mostly a farmer? Do they work as merchants and dockworkers or fishermen?

    Most pre-industrial societies (largely what you see in D&D games) are farming centered. I’ve had fun putting together cities that buck that trend, because it means the culture of the city is going to be very, very different.

  6. Tom says:

    Great post! Thinking about culture this way can also get you away from “Oh, these guys are the Viking stand-ins,” “Oh, these guys are the ‘horse culture'” etc. Another couple of interesting tidbits would be a culture’s attitudes about gift-giving and the obligations of being a host/guest. The latter can be especially useful for GMs. NPC Farmer: “Now that you have slept under my roof and ate of my table, our custom requires that you do a favor for my family…”

  7. Samrobb says:

    Now, this would make an interesting RPG random generator… culture. Pick a couple of parameters to set the general attitude (tolerant, militaristic, frugal, etc.) and have the generator give you a template for the different aspects of the culture: habits, traditions, superstitions, conventions, and all the other social niceties that add up to what it means to be from “here” or “there”.

    Or does something like this exist already?

  8. McNutcase says:

    I probably shouldn’t admit just how little of that I’ve done for my world.

    Ignore the sawing and hammering noises while I shove some of that tasty flavour into the starting city. The rest is still barely developed; it’ll “pop” to full colour and high-poly modelling as the players head there…

  9. Tommi says:

    There’s an excellent tool for creating NPCs in relationship to a culture without being caricatures in <a href=”http://www.story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=7789″this story-games thread.

  10. Jeremiah says:

    (I should preface this by saying I really don’t like the standard GM/players paradigm wherein the players are in a world solely created by the GM)

    I just don’t really see the point in having a lot of details like this fleshed out before you start playing. For one, the players may never even encounter these things. Two, even if they do come across them, there’s no guarantee they’ll even be interested.

    I much prefer leaving lots of gray areas (by gray areas I mean things lacking much detail) in a world. And once it’s necessary to know more details about those areas then the entire group, not just the GM, can have input into the setting. That’s not to say I don’t want the GM to come up with details of their own, but I want to have some say in the world I’m playing in. If I don’t, I may as well just be playing a video game.

  11. Eric Meyer says:

    Also, don’t forget that one of the most important things in any pre-paper culture is the hand you use to eat and shake hands, and the one you use to wipe yourself after defecation. If the players come from a left-hand culture and visit a right-hand culture… well, wouldn’t you get offended if someone tore a piece off the communal loaf of bread bread using the “dirty hand”?

  12. Joe says:

    One thing to note: You note that in warlike societies, lots of men die in war. It’s also worth noting that, in medieval times, and really up until quite recently, a whole lot of women died in childbirth. Interestingly, I *think* that these two factors have generally balanced each other fairly well, resulting in a mostly 1:1 ratio of the genders throughout much of the world, throughout much of history. I kind of wonder how much that’s coincidence. Perhaps a lack of available women makes men tend towards belligerence, thus forming a nice negative feedback loop resulting in a stable dynamic equilibrium.

    Also, long ago I found a web page detailing likely population demographics of medieval societies, geared for gaming. I found it absolutely fascinating.

  13. Oleyo says:

    Wow great post Shamus. I kept imagining uses for these cultural snipets to get the players into a little trouble, as I am sure you did as well, when you thought of them :)

    Keep it up, I love your GM advice!

  14. BlackJaw says:

    Love the advice! I will be using some of these in a future game, and I thank you very much for it.

    Some other interesting cultural aspects to spice things up:

    Funeral Rites:
    how do the worshipers of different gods, races, cultures, and economic/social standings deal with their dead? This can also lead to interesting ideas about how to populate tombs or the nature of graveyards, or even views on Necromancy. Example: In a game I ran, the local elves had fought a tough war cs and army of the undead (mostly vampire spawn) in their history. As a result, they commonly burned their dead to protect them from rising again. Names of the dead were inscribed in a shrine, and the tomb under it was full of urns. True heroes (like those from the war) were captured in sculpture, as the elf god was a god of art.
    For some interesting ideas, track down the Sandman issue with the funeral city story (#55 “Cerements”) as it covers a large number of funeral concepts. Also the 3ed setting of Ghostwalk was a setting based around a fantasy funeral concept.

    Legal System:
    The nature of the legal system and it’s laws can be very interesting, and have a large impact on player behavior. I always enjoy making players Peace bond their weapons in Lawful cities, as a hint to them that this is a place that that take violence with a dim view. I also enjoy using citizenship documentation to imply a society with a bureaucratic class. There are other options as well… are their judges? Tribunals? Juries? Are you guilty till proven innocent? Are their lawyers or other council or do you defend yourself? Is the churches (and magic) involved? The Mage’s guild? If you plead innocent, is their a harsher penalty if you are found guilty? Does your legal council suffer punishment if you are found guilty after pleading innocent?
    Ancient Legal “Code of Hammurabi”

    Punishment:
    How a society handles punishment can also add a lot of flavor. You can go real world old school with Eye for an Eye, but other ones include Blood prices (if you kill someone, you owe their family money). Does the kingdom have prisons, or debtor’s prisons? Are people placed in stocks in the middle of town for other crimes? If you are to be executed, does it happen at a gallows or in the dungeons? Is their a specific time or tradition for this? An example I really enjoy is from Morrowind, where the local assassin’s guild is a licensed official body. Writs of Honorable Execution are issued to the Assassins for those that have committed wrongs. Assassins kill the target in public and in the open, and when guards arrive, they simply hand over the writ of execution and walk away, as the killing was legal and authorized. The targets are generally unaware that they were targets (IE: caught in their crimes) until it is too late.
    Another example I used in a game was the magic heavy elven court didn’t bother with prisons. Instead, criminals were imprisoned with magic, generally in the local shrine/temple, where they would be forced to see and listen in to each sermon and prayer for the duration of their penance. Variations include waking petrification, trapped as a reflection in a fountain, or embedded into old trees.
    Assassins Guild of Morrowind

  15. Taellosse says:

    @Joe #12: That’s a good theory, actually. But it’d be easy enough to explain away and still maintain the ratio Shamus is after: the region has fairly well-developed healing magic/medical tech, but it often isn’t available in battlefield locations, or is much less robust there (which is actually true–soldiers throughout time were a lot more prone to dying of injuries that were curable by the available technology if they could be brought to better conditions, but a battle is a nearly impossible place to have a good hospital). Much of the reason (though certainly not all) why death from childbirth remained historically common is devaluation of women, and thus a lack of interest in developing medical techniques to ease childbirth and make it safer. All it would have taken was one particularly nasty war a number of generations back to start a culture like Shamus describes, and once its established, there’s a lot more imperative, socially, to maintain it.

  16. Roy says:

    I just don’t really see the point in having a lot of details like this fleshed out before you start playing. For one, the players may never even encounter these things. Two, even if they do come across them, there’s no guarantee they’ll even be interested.

    Because there’s no harm in being prepared, and plenty of benefit.

    If you’re running a game, and your players never encounter the cultural quirks you’ve developed, there’s no loss. Maybe they’ll encounter them next time. Same thing if they’re not interested (although, if they’re not interested in the setting of the game, why are they playing?).

    But, by having these ideas fleshed out ahead of time, you provide the opportunity for the players to benefit if/when they do eventually come across the culture. If they end up being interested, you’ve provided them a new experience and you’ve enhanced their experience of the world.

    I much prefer leaving lots of gray areas (by gray areas I mean things lacking much detail) in a world. And once it’s necessary to know more details about those areas then the entire group, not just the GM, can have input into the setting. That’s not to say I don’t want the GM to come up with details of their own, but I want to have some say in the world I’m playing in. If I don’t, I may as well just be playing a video game.

    Doesn’t the player have a say in the world of the game in-so-much as their actions impact it directly? And I’d imagine that’s something you can work out with the DM, but it seems like it’d really break the flow of the game if you had to stop at every town and have a meta converation about whether this particular town has any unusual cultural quirks or customs unique to the area. It also takes some of the mystery out of the game if you’re going through a nation or city-state you’ve never been to before, but you keep stopping to have the meta conversation about the culture. Why should you, the player, know the cultural quirks of a society you’ve never interacted with? Isn’t there some enjoyment to be had in discovering those customs in-game?

  17. Huckleberry says:

    I read Asimov’s Caves of Steel, Naked Sun and Aurora recently, and he uses agoraphobia really well to characterize the City-Earth culture; the reason it works so well, I think, is because this single trait/fear shapes so many different small aspects of behavior. He tries to do something similar with the solaris-culture that is primarily shaped by a feeling of complete repulsion when confronted with human contact, but (to my mind) not quite as convincingly as it needs far more explanation, such as a very specific and unlikely upbringing on “farms”.

    So all I’m trying to say: I think Shamus is right when pointing out that introducing one principle or aspect may quite naturally evolve into a detailed and convincing world.

  18. Huckleberry says:

    @ Roy
    I think (and I’m guessing here) what Jeremiah alluded to is a form of rpg where the players get to narrate (without previous meta-discussion) part of the background as long as it doesn’t interfere with what has been stated about the world already. This also means that the players don’t mind that they do not explore a world that is “there” but rather help make it up as they go along, while their characters certainly act in a world that’s just “there”.
    The closest I’ve ever come as a player to influence the background is saying something like “I pick up the stick” without any stick having been mentioned previously, thereby introducing the stick into the world. But then I do like to succumb to the illusion that the world is “there”, ready to be explored, although I know deep down that our GM is making it up, and large chunks of it on the fly (but very well…)

  19. krellen says:

    World building is the best part of GMing, and things like this can really fire up the imagination. For fun, think up one of these quirks before you design the society, and then design the society to justify the quirk.

  20. Telas says:

    Just a few highlights and tweaks will imply that there are vast cultural differences between the peoples. It’s like theater, just imply something on the surface, and the players’ minds will make up the rest.

    I tend to borrow and steal from real (existing or historical) cultures.

    They’re already complete. I don’t need to come up with (and troubleshoot) dozens of quirks when they already exist. The Baklunish in my Greyhawk game are middle eastern (which is a broad range of cultures, actually). The ancient Suel borrow from the more militant Roman cultures. Flan were/are a mix of Native American and ancient Celtic cultures. Oeridians are Germanic/nordic.

    It’s easier to identify the cultures when everyone has a common touchstone. When I tried to run the cultures “as written”, I found myself correcting the players more than I liked, so I just found real world analogues that worked for me.

    That said, I do modify the heck out of the core cultures. Pureblooded Suel tend to wear black and royal blue togas, and the true aristocrats will have someone else (like a valet) deal with ‘dirty bloods’. Baklunish are a virtual monotheistic culture, interpreting everything through Al’Akbar, who was a revolutionary religious figure on the level of Jesus or Buddha.

    Don’t let me tell you how to run your game, though. The best part of a pen and paper RPG is that you can truly make it yours.

  21. Roxysteve says:

    [Dining] Used to be that there were no plates either.

    One story I heard: People in the middle ages ate directly off a table that would have a loose top. You ate off one side and played Thud or Cripple Mr Onion and drank from cups placed on the other when you were done. The table top would be flipped to indicate that the host considered the eating part of the evening over, which is the origin of the term “to turn the tables” on someone.

  22. theonlymegumegu says:

    “It might even get your players to stop quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail for a few minutes. (But probably not.)”

    That’s near impossible. It’ll get quoted even if it’s setting inappropriate (even in deep space, no one can hear you bang together two ‘alves of a coconut…)

  23. kat says:

    Oh, I am *so* stealing the “two wives” thing. There are just so, so, *so* many things I can do with that….

    I adore culture, and tend to spend tons of time on it. Way too much, since I then have this tendency to get annoyed at my players for getting stuff wrong or being interested in different things than what I spent all that time on. Ah, novel-writer’s brain, you have led me astray again! But I am learning to mellow.

    Probably the best “little detail” experience I had was an alien culture where females were bigger than males, and the society was, naturally enough, a matriarchy: the males were generally seen as disposable little aggression-fonts and shooed off whenever there was serious discussions. This turned out way funnier (and more fascinating) than I’d intended, since my group had decided to all play males. So they went out and hired the biggest girl they could find as a spokeswoman. She was a stripper. Things went… uh, well, they went *somewhere* from there….

  24. Sempiternity says:

    Two words: Friendly Cannibals

  25. Jeremiah says:

    Huckleberry (#19) is correct in what I was talking about.

    Furthermore, in the games I play the players and GM create the world together. Decide on the setting. What different people’s are like. What races are available? Only humans? Only Dwarves? Decide on what conflicts are going on, what the players will immediately be involved with, etc.

    I see no difference in playing in a published setting as opposed to playing in a setting a GM has come up with on their own. Either way, I had no say in the creation of the setting, so I may as well be playing a video game, as far as I’m concerned. By having a say in the setting I’m playing in I can assure maximum buy-in on my part.

    Not everyone plays that way, and that’s cool. Do whatever works for you. The important thing is having fun. That’s the great thing about this hobby. There’s so many different ways to have fun and play.

  26. SolkaTruesilver says:

    Or, if you happen to have a freakish interest into a real-world ancient culture, just use it as a base :)

    “You encounter a group of people, and one of them is opening a bird while saying things about a “Jupiter Maximus Optimus””

    “They ask you why you do not cut the tongue of the woman with you, since she speaks without being adressed”

    etc..etc.. lots of fun

  27. Avilan the Grey says:

    This is what culture really is; as I have explained repeatedly to people in my surroundings:

    “Forget what we mean when we say ‘Culture’. Future archeologists etc will be far more interested in the Graffiti in the subway, and the local dress codes and diner habits than what the Opera was playing on a particular night”

    The one thing is our culture. The other is “Culture”. The thing that people who are “cultural” do.

    This is definitely something that interests me a lot.

  28. Lain says:

    Well I used Hohn Normans Gor additionally “culture” of enslavement foremost ladies. In a bunch sexistic overgrown teenies always a success. Surprisingly also for female players!
    Some more infos:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kajira

    John Norman uses this concept in his stories while describing most part of earthly cultures and meld it.

    Also I had some successes while using the Warhammer World with all this depressing, dangerous, mindaltering brutal feeling, that there will come somthing evil in masses in short time.

    (In my stories sometimes never, but keeping the feeling and therefore the the altering of the culture is useful.) Its like you describe the village near Graf Dracula. It has a quite normal everyday life but the fear is everywhere.

    Much more colorful with a lot of more or less funny species is the world of Alan Burt Akers. He works with more creatures, living next to and in middle of human beings. He uses clichees of them to get a feeling about them and its funny then to see the players interact with strange humanoids, what arent Orks.

  29. Anonymous Botch says:

    Great post. Culture is something that can add masses of depth and rolepleying opportunity with minimum effort. I find that adding unexpected customs etc to non-human populations is particulalry effective as players nearly always expect them to be mono-cultures as opposed to a variety fo human cultures.
    There is also likely to be as many customs and taboos about species in a world with loads of sentient species as there is about gender and race in our own world.
    Cultures who consider all half-breeds abominations, even where both parent races are tolerated is a possibility.
    Caste systems are also a rich possibility. In a rigid caste system players may have to renounce a high caste in order to be come adventurers (mercenary caste?) and would therefore find it hard to deal with higher caste NPC’s, possibly having to use intermediaries.

  30. Kevin says:

    Anyone who saw The Passion of the Christ knows that Jesus invented chairs. Duh.

    (Awesome article. There is so much here to mine. I was already needing to write an adventure for tonight about a Thanksgiving-type “Harvest Feast.” Now I shall be covered in Shamus tinted glory for my wonderful session. Thanks!)

  31. Joe says:

    @Taellosse:

    My theory is more that the lack of women (or excess of men, depending on how you look at it) due to death in childbirth leads to belligerent men, which leads to war, which leads to higher death rates among men, which restores balance. Assuming this theory is correct, you could end up with a serious imbalance if a particular culture came up with, for instance, the germ theory of medicine, and used it to drastically reduce the childbirth death rate, while not sharing it with their neighbors. The resulting preponderance of women ushers in an era of local peace, but unfortunately the neighboring cultures, without the advantage of the low childbirth death rate, maintains a belligerent influence at the borders, thus sapping the men from the society.

    A fascinating book on the subject of strange cultural customs and their origins (I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but it’s fascinating nonetheless) is “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches” by Marvin Harris. I understand that some of his other books are equally as interesting.

  32. Badelaire says:

    Some really good ideas here. Sometimes it’s the little details that make the campaign “pop”. Who cares what the type of government is or the major industries, if every village is the same sleepy hamlet with the same cautiously friendly, salt-of-the-earth peasants?

  33. Telas says:

    I blame my current sickness (it’s not the flu, but damned close to it) for my failing to mention some of the cultural changes I’ve wrought to my Greyhawk as I convert it to Savage Worlds.

    Only 25% of Dwarves are born female. This results in a rigid social structure that is both matriarchal and polyandrous. Single Dwarven men generally spend the first part of their lives building up wealth, talent, and/or fame in order to bring a bigger dowry to their marriage. (This explains the dour nature, the fascination with gold, the lack of Dwarven women, and the “Lawful” tendencies.)

    Elven culture is decadent, in the sense that it’s entirely popularity-driven. Elves live about 300 years or thereabouts, and don’t have many kids, so all the Big Things are already taken care of (food, lodging, etc). So the bulk of them spend the rest of their time playing popularity games like… Well, like spoiled little high school students. Some give up on this and pursue other things, and others get so unpopular that they take some time off and go adventuring.

    Halflings have a symbiotic culture with Humans, and are genetically related to them. Halflings are generally artisans, farmers, and ranchers, most of whom live within ten miles of a Human settlement. Yes, they’re more like Tolkien’s Hobbits than roving gypsies… It’s acceptable to “plow foreign fields” before settling down, but it’s a bit questionable to keep doing so.

    Gnomes are gnerds. Gnomes are the technicians and engineers of the world. They are NOT tinker gnomes, but they are very interested in efficiency over aesthetics, and absolutely fascinated with clockwork. Gnomes also run the only true bank with more than one branch (The Bank of Bilderberg), and they also often act as information brokers. The Gnomish appreciation of practical jokes lives on, albeit oftentimes a bit inappropriate.

  34. Evlkritter says:

    Very good advice! I hadn’t considered the cultural differences from nation to nation, how did I miss that?

    Out of curiosity, if i use a might-makes-right culture with Klingon style usurping (“I challenge you for rule of the entire ‘friggin empire, in the middle of a meeting, using only these conviniently placed melee weapons!”) what would the effects be?

    Beyond the obvious fighter-PC taking control of every town the party goes to.

  35. Deoxy says:

    Historically, a significant gender imbalance with too may men leads to war – that’s not a “theory”, it’s history. This is why the “one child” rule in China (combined with a VERY VERY POWERFUL cultural need to have a boy to pass on your name) is a very troubling thing to those paying attention.

    A significant gender imbalance in the other direction results in polygamy, even Western/Christian societies, though it then reverts quickly (historical examples available!).

    Here’s an interesting reason why the whole Klingon thing has always struck me as ridiculously stupid: real world example of a society with a similar standard (natives on a pacific island, forget which one). Leadership and standing were determined by how quickly one could chop down a tree – with the available stone axes, this was almost entirely skill-based, and resulted in the older men being in charge. When metal axes were introduced by outsiders, the young men quickly got the reins of power and completely screwed everything up.

  36. wakela says:

    I would add Saving Face to the above list of cultural treats. Since this is something that Westerners usually have no clue about and non-Westerners cherish, it could have great foreign hilarity potential for a game.

    At some nice ryokans in Kyoto you have to beg to receive a bill. “So what’s the damage?”
    “Oh, I couldn’t take your money for such meager service.”
    “No, really. I’ll pony up. How much?”
    “Please. the food I served wasn’t fit for dogs. I won’t hear of receiving anything for it…”

    Of course you still are expected to pay. You just have to get the manager to give you a price without offending him by having him give you a price.

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