This entry is part 4 in the series Distilled Cultural Essence
Monument To The Mother Country, Merida, Mexico

Monument To The Mother Country, Merida, Mexico

This is the final part of a four-part article. The first part gave a relatively straightforward technique for creating a unique society; the second and third parts identified four ways of communicating the uniqueness of the result to the players, selling them on its credibility, and exploiting it for scenarios and subplots, and examined these in detail. This final part will deal with expanding the cultural description into other areas of description.

Adding Colour To Cultural Expressions

If you’ve followed the advice of the earlier parts of this series, you’ve defined a culture in terms of the differences between the ‘normal’ encountered by the party, established a rational basis for that difference, and extrapolated from this basis to determine the effects on the characters experience. But cultural differences and distinctiveness do not stop there, and there is rarely just one point of uniqueness to a culture. If it doesn’t directly interact with the characters, it can be considered a “colour element”, something that the DM can insert into his descriptions and other passing comments, usually without particular significance, but which add to the depth and realism of the culture.


A fairly obvious one, that most GMs will have already considered. No two cultures build exactly the same things exactly the same way. Architectural decisions by the DM reflect the history or character of a culture as well as current cultural aspects and levels of technology. Anything from the shape of the towers (Onion-shaped? Spires? Angular? Flat? Crenelated?) to the shape of the doors. Is bathing public or private, and what does either choice say about the water management of the culture? How does that affect the cleanliness of the streets, the building materials, the pottery, the farming capacity?


An aspect of the culture that a lot of GMs consider only briefly, if at all. It is not uncommon for a single unique dish to be specified (“Chilled Monkey’s Brains”), or for a general description to be applied to virtually everything (“Spicy Food”). It takes only a few minutes glancing through a cookbook specialising in one particular national cuisine – or one viewing of “Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom” – to realise that either approach sells the cultural distinctiveness short. Have a dozen or more dishes worked out, some for breakfast, some for formal dining, some for light refreshment, some for a working man’s main meal. For that matter, how many meals do the locals eat each day? What do they drink? Is there anything they are forbidden to consume?

Don’t try for shock value; this is a common mistake that DMs make in this area when they are trying to be memorable, and it soon makes one culture indistinguishable from another if they all eat something unpleasant.

Trade, Commerce, & Agriculture

What are the implications of the diet for land management? How does this affect what is on offer in the marketplace, and how much is charged? Do they even HAVE central marketplaces? How does the economy work?


This can be a nightmare for GMs as it can bog the game down very quickly, but money is rarely the same from one culture to another, and rarely for very long within any given culture. The problems stem from coin conversions and currency valuations from one culture to another; the usual system is to have some universal currency that can be used as a basis, especially in D&D where the exchange rates – in theory – are fixed by the rules; and any change in those values means a lot of work for the GM and for the party.

It might be more realistic to have coins valued differently from one culture to another, but it gets in the way of play. This is one area where realism should bend to the needs of game play.

But even if this restriction is accepted, there is still scope to express a unique cultural identity through the coinage in common circulation. One face of a coin usually shows either the current monarch at the time of issue or some other national hero; the other shows an icon that is in some way representative of the culture. That’s a lot of information about the culture, and the GM should be prepared to give it all to the party who asks. Your parties don’t ask? Then punish them for their lack of curiosity! Perhaps one of the past monarchs was a lunatic, or from the wrong family, or whatever, and possession of those coins is a criminal offense. Perhaps there’s a clue – or even the solution outright – to a puzzle posed to the PCs in the iconography. Maybe they get obvious – if they look – counterfeit coins in change!

Furniture, Household decorations & Social Practices

Furniture reflects custom and usage. Consider the differences in table styles between an Italian cafe and a chinese restaurant. How many people dine together? Is it customary for guests and visitors to eat at friend’s homes? How does this affect the size an shape of the pots? How does it affect the quantities sold in the marketplace? Is one meal different from the others in some respect? What are the local table manners? What does the local cutlery look like? Is it customary for a guest to provide a dish towards the meal? What is the tableware made of, and how is it decorated?


These are another source of cultural individualism. Do they have them? How are they arranged? Herb gardens, Veggie patches, Japanese stone gardens, Bonsai trees, cultivated lawns, garden gnomes…. which brings us to:


Who and What have the people built statues of? Who are their most famous artists, and what did they do that’s so remarkable? What are the statues made of? What is distinctive about them? Statues are usually idealised in some respect that can be considered important to the culture – what does this culture idealise in their statuary and what does it say about their national character?

Roads & Streets

Narrow or wide, with open sewers or without? Paved or earthen, and if paved, what with? Are streets named, or do the names derive from the people living on them – or something else? Who or What are they named for? What are the naming conventions – do they use terms like avenue, street, place, etc?


Thick sills, or thin? Thick glass, or thin? Stained, coloured, painted, glazed, or clear? Wide or narrow? Tall or squat? High or low? What shape?

Religion & Worship

What sets the temples and churches apart from other buildings? What is the local policy regarding church expenditure – do they decorate, or are the churches unadorned? Do they even HAVE churches in each town, or is it customary for each home to have a shrine? Remember that most of the parish churches of England started out as private property, for the exclusive use of the priests and major political figures – though the locals paid for them!

What are the local religious icons? How does religion influence day-to-day life? Do the religious figures have a particular costume that they wear, distinguishing them from the everyday citizen? How are local prayers different? How are local services conducted? How often?

Sports and Recreation

I once set about writing an article on nothing but sports in RPGs and how they can be used to express a particular culture, but it has never been finished. Sports reflect the culture’s attitude towards fairness and justice, they reflect the value placed on organisation, they give the masses things to get excited about and things to make small talk about. GMs should be able to put many, many, words into the mouths of NPCs on the subject. More, different social strata often enjoy different sporting activities – polo is usually associated with the social elite, as is yachting, it used to be that only the upper classes (English gentlemen) and wealthy could play ‘professional’ cricket, and so on. The various forms of football, on the other hand, are all designed to, and come from, the more ordinary folk of society.


These are just the tip of the iceberg, there are many more. Music; Writing; Bathing customs; hairstyles; clothing styles; jewellery; systems of measurement; vices and addictions; law enforcement; laws; personal rights; tattoos & distinctive markings; gambling and games of chance; marriage customs; funeral customs; property ownership; inheritance law…

None of these HAVE to be detailed unless they are influenced by the fundamental difference, as described in part I of these articles. But having a page full of 1-line summations of the cultural uniquenesses that are expressed through these everyday ramifications, guided by the major point of distinction and its ramifications, gives the GM a wealth of material he can drop into descriptions and NPC statements. The cumulative effect can be enormous.

A Caveat

There is a problem: having one distinctive culture in which the PCs immerse themselves for a period of time is one thing, but having a whole bunch of them show up at once can get confusing. At this point, it’s worth analysing the Lord Of The Rings as a blueprint for how to utilise the “cultural distinction” information in practical terms.

The Lord Of The Rings as a Blueprint

Tolkien knew what he was doing when it came to structuring his story, there can be no doubt about it. We start in the Shire and re-introduced to Hobbits and to the plot device that will shape the rest of the story – the One Ring. Through the Hobbit’s eyes, we encounter the Old Forest, then are introduced to elves, and then the world of peasant-class men at the fringes of society in Bree. The Hobbits meet Strider, and the opposition is introduced through its servants, the Nazgul. Finally, at the end of the first part, we reach Rivendell and encounter the society of Elves in greater depth.

Hit the High points and Foreshadow

At the Council of Elrond, we meet Dwarves and Numenorians and Forest Elves for the first time, but only the most overt descriptions of their cultures are given. We are introduced to the Rohirrem, but they don’t even make an appearance; the descriptions are second-hand and again, only hit the high points. Most of the story at this point is given over to the backstory, and the only culture in focus is the society of Wizards through Gandalf, Saruman, and Radogast. Even the Eagle who came to Gandalf’s rescue and the Uruk-Hai can be described as an aspect of the society of Wizards, allies most races would not consider approaching, and who would not accept approaches from. This view that everything is awake to some degree, hinted at in the Old Forest encounter, also serves as the foundation of the scenes on Carhadras (I think I’ve misspelt that).

Present cultures-in-depth one at a time

The Fellowship are then immersed in the culture of Dwarves through the mines of Moria, even though Gimli is the only Dwarf present in the party. This is followed by Lothlorian, and are immersed in the culture of Elves. The Fellowship is then broken. In the second volume, Merry and Pippin are immersed in the society of Orcs, and then in that of the Ents, while Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf are immersed in the society of Rohan.

The same pattern is repeated throughout the books (and the movies, to a lesser extent) – a culture is introduced but not in any great depth – in effect, giving the reader a touchstone to the culture – “The Horsemen Of Rohan,” for example. We then encounter each culture one at a time, and each time, the only non-members of the culture present are the members of the Fellowship. In RPG terms, the only elf in Moria is Legolas, the only Dwarf in Lothlorian is Gimly, and so on; the PCs are immersed in each foreign culture, one at a time. This both gives the author (the GM) the capacity to deal with the culture in depth, and makes each a self-contained unit, avoiding confusion of one with another.

This is the blueprint that GMs should try and emulate when utilising cultures in their games. Of course, once one is known in some depth, it’s fine to have two or more of them interact at the same time, just as the Elves can come to Rohan’s aid at Helm’s Deep.


Each campaign world proceeds from a different foundation. The Elves in my Fumanor campaigns are different to the Elves in Shards Of Divinity, because I answered the questions posed in the first part of this series of articles differently. In game mechanics, they are virtually identical, and there is even a superficial resemblance; but the more closely they are examined, the more different they become. It is in the expression of those differences that one campaign distinguishes itself from the other.

The cultures you create express themelves behind the scenes, but they can bring a campaign to life.

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