With the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything for D&D 5th Edition, we’ve got some official rules that break characters away from race-based abilities and let us customize based on the society the character grew up in and the skills they acquired during life before adventuring. So no matter what race you've chosen, the culture you're a part of is giving you that ability score increase or that weapon proficiency; that language or that religion. What does this mean for your character’s outlook on life, their values, their favorite foods, or style of dress? All this is culture, an expression of this society's joys, struggles, creativity, and hopes. Rather than just creating analogues to existing cultures though, how do you create a unique culture for your world?
The template provided here abstracts four main factors that define a culture: climate and resources, religion and values, family and social structure, and the arts. (Two example cultures are provided below are also available in the template as defaults).
1. Climate and Resources
Clothing, food, and homes: the climate and terrain your culture exists in establishes a lot. Clothing will be appropriate to the temperature and weather. The fabrics, leathers, or furs available will be determined by what plants and animals are in the area, with other materials having to be brought in by trade. The food the people eat will likewise be determined by what they can grow. Is seafood available? Spices? What’s the staple grain in this area? And similarly for architecture: what’s available to build with? Are the buildings designed for keeping cool, or handling monsoon seasons?
2. Religion and Values
The major thing to keep in mind in this section is that each culture will bring its own traditions and expressions into the local religion. This may result in different sects or denominations of a more broadly followed faith. There will be some common constants in the culture, the main tenets of the faith itself, but also present will be a unique set of social norms and values. To establish our unique social norms, we can steal some categories from Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. Now, we don’t want to use exactly what he said because his metrics are colonialist and problematic in several ways, so I'll change some of them into descriptors instead of judgements. This gives us the following set of six attributes:
- Stratification: Is your culture more hierarchical or egalitarian?
- Sense of Community: Is your culture more collectivist or individualist?
- Sense of Self: Does your culture value ambition or modesty?
- Tolerance: Does your culture value social harmony or are libertine attitudes accepted?
- Change: Does your culture favor adherence to traditions or encourage experimentation and adaptation to new ways of doing things?
- Indulgence: Does your culture encourage a stoic or moral restraint, or is bacchanalian indulgence celebrated openly?
3. Social Organization
Think about the social and political organization this culture finds itself in. Is this a feudal kingdom? A merchant republic? Independent tribes that cooperate or compete in an area? Cultures can span borders so treat culture and politics as separate factors. What are the social classes, are there nobles and peasants or perhaps a caste system? What does the typical family structure look like? Are these small nuclear families or multiple generations of couples living under one roof? Perhaps large clans living throughout the area, all tracing their bloodline back to a progenitor ancestor? What about inheritance? Do all children inherit an equal share of the family’s wealth and land or does the culture practice primogeniture, or perhaps ultimogeniture?
Also, what does this look like for the military? If there’s a caste system, is one of those castes born into military service? Is there a standing professional army or are commoners called up to serve when needed? Perhaps a population and resource imbalance means various leaders emerge and conduct disorganized raids on surrounding peoples. Perhaps there is a religious obligation for the military.
4. The Arts
What type of instruments are commonly played in they culture? Is music traditional or formalized? Is there an artist caste or organized guilds that regulate the arts professionally? What are the songs and dances everyone knows? Are there theaters and professional actors? What about authors and poets? Are artists supported by powerful or wealthy patrons? Think of how artistic and cultural values relate to to each other. Is clothing elaborately decorated or plain? What about jewelry and hair styles? Is architecture utilitarian or done with artistic flair?
I’ve left language out of this completely so far because this is for D&D and we typically don’t want to deal with more than a handful of languages. Your culture may have its own unique language or be simply a dialect of Common or Elvish or whatever makes sense in the history of your world. Everyone of a certain culture may speak a shared language, or it may include peoples who speak different native languages but share the same cultural identity.
Extra: Culture Groups
A definition of culture like I'm using here is pretty broad. Minor variations on the choices we’ve made can give you internal cultures for more specific groups. Think of European culture vs French or Italian, or even more granular: French vs Burgundian or Occitan. While the broad cultural group is recognizable to outsiders of the culture, small variations marking internal cultural divisions, such as the Elves of the Western Wood vs the Elves of the Eastern Wood may be only noticeable to those in one of those two groups and a matter of great pride for each one. Have fun with it.
I’ve designed 31 cultural groups for my world, so here are two of them that you can use in your world. To see how the template works, compare the values there to what that gives you here.
- Climate and Terrain: A sea-faring people, living on a tropical/sub-tropical island chain with settlements on nearby continental coasts.
- Religion: The majority of Cressians follow the Aimariel religion. The deities of this religion are overseers and protectors of specific places like cities or natural formations. There are two primary gods and a pantheon of lesser gods with dominion over natural phenomena (rivers, fire, life and death) and professions (farming, sailing, etc) The values of this religion are focused on The Seven Virtues: Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, Honor, and Loyalty.
- Social norms: This society is Hierarchical and Individualistic. Cressians are ambitious, placing great importance on achievement and heroism as well as having a libertine attitude where results count for more than principles. This tempered however by a steadfast adherence to strong traditions and disdain for self indulgence.
- Social organization: The Cressians are primarily humans, but sizable populations of Tortles and Sea Elves are Cressian as well. The Cressians have a tribal tradition, where the major areas of their lands are each controlled by extended families under a council of elders and elected leaders. The oldest child inherits the entirety of the family’s wealth and land but provides for siblings as tenants when possible with each family living in separate homesteads. This is frequently not possible however, and the Cressians are known as both fierce raiders and shrewd traders as those individuals with no fortune or lands of their own raise either arms or caravans to seek it in other lands or other seas. There is frequent conflict between the Cressians and the Shahuagin in this region.
- Food: The climate and soil of their lands is good for growing grapes, olives, and rice. Mint and dill are commonly used herbs. Small animals and seafood are common as is honey. A characteristic dish features diced meat and vegetables wrapped in grape leaves and baked, as well as pieces of fish or octopus placed on long skewers with onion, mushroom, and tomato and then grilled.
- Fashion: Leather sandals, shoes, or medium boots. Medium to long robes of wool or linen with silk for those who can afford it. Collarless tunics over a white or gray under-robe, plain with embroidery along the bottom long and long sleeved. Cloaks over top, more elaborately embroidered and bound at one shoulder. If not robed, billowy tunics, colorful vest and sash. Men typically wear beards. Formal or ceremonial dresses are light, angle cuts, over the shoulder or halter cut. A light cape attached at the elbows. Lots of wide, metalwork jewelry worn everywhere possible: on arms, legs, necklaces, in the hair, rings worn on fingers and toes.
- The Arts: Noble or religious patrons employ painters, sculptors, musicians, and poets for status. Guilds regulate their production. Taverns may employ musicians, or theaters may have house companies. Traveling bands and performers are common.
- Languages, Proficiencies, Skills: Cressians speak a dialect of Common. A significant portion of Cressian society is dedicated to sailing and trading, so many have skills relevant to these tasks as well as fluency in another language.
- Climate and Terrain: The Ezheltauri live in a cold northern region of boreal forests and taiga.
- Religion: The Ezheltauri follow the god Ilúvorn, whom they believe is the one true god with the right to rule over all the world. Prominent in their myths and iconography are carvings of a four eyed green man, foliage, and a tree which bleeds and whose blood renews the land. The tenets of the faith are focused on right thoughts and actions that will let the soul sprout new life after death.
- Social norms: Egalitarian and collectivist, Ezheltauri society prefers tight-knit social bonds and for power to be distributed as much as possible. Cooperation, care, and providing for a high quality of life for everyone are prized over individual achievement. Though espousing a reverence for time-honored traditions, the Ezheltauri choose reform over orthodoxy if the end result is closer to what they believe the “true meaning” of the tradition to be. They maintain strict rules however about what is acceptable behavior in public.
- Social organization: The Ezheltauri are majority wood elves, but include forest gnomes and firbolgs as well. They are but one people in the great Voldrani Empire which spans most of the northwest of the continent. It is a feudal system of duty and obligation covering everyone from the lowliest serf to the mightiest king. The family structure is communitarian where all children that get married bring their spouse to one or the other of the family homes and raise the next generation there. Inheritance of land and wealth is divided equally between all children. Ezheltauri lords frequently find themselves in conflict with the Orc kingdoms of this region, despite worshiping the same god.
- Food: Rice and rye are staples, as is an abundance of freshwater fish. Rye bread, blueberry pie, cheese, and cured salmon are common as is sautéed reindeer meat. A signature cultural dish are meatballs made of beef, pork, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, gouda cheese, and allspice that are oven baked and the covered with a heavy cream.
- Fashion: Silk, wool, fur. Fur hats with feather or jewel. Cross collar under-tunic and fitted trousers under high necked medium length tunic with belt. Brown, red, black, white, gray Strelets-style outer-coat with narrow sleeves, sometimes ribbed shoulders. Fur trimmed at collar, sleeves, and sometimes bottom. Closure of several pairs of buttons in rows down the chest and a sash. Women wear wide draped sleeves and wide coverings for neck and chest. Cloth covering around neck, sides of head under headdress. Motifs of antlers, branches, vines and leaves. Jewelry is necklaces, bracelets, rings, fasteners, brooches. Hair is typically covered under hat or veil. Lacquered shoes with heels or silk slippers. Leather boots either short to medium.
- The Arts: Artists practice their skills to a high degree. Music, theater and dance practiced individually or in small groups. Art decorates common tools and items as well as the interiors and exteriors of buildings. Writing favors history and non-fiction unless it’s romantic or fable poetry demonstrating religious values.
- Languages, Proficiencies, Skills: The Ezheltauri speak the Northern Elvish tongue as well as the Common tongue of the Voldrani. There are many hunters and trappers in this society.
- Nintendo’s need for control might be a due to culture clash
- LF deity for char concept
- If religion is implemented as a mechanic, materialism/spiritualism should be rebranded to not be associated with it.
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Culture Building Template" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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