Use local and regional customs to create a ‘sense of place’

The Village of Timberstead is a quaint little settlement, built between three lightly-wooded, large hills that offer protection from the weather. The Ambercreek flows through the valley between the hills, its current gently powering the mill’s waterwheel. The narrow roads are generations-old, paved by cobblestones near the square and lined by flowered embankments in spring. The town boasts a single inn and a detachment of the king’s soldiers, who keep the peace and take tolls for crossing the arched, stone bridge outside of town. The folk of Timberstead are honest, hard-working, pious and friendly to travelers; in fact, as your group approaches, a small band of children run up to your party, bearing gifts of flowers and freshly-picked apples.

In most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, the description of Timberstead could also be the description of Bear’s Hollow, Ambershire, Ferondale or a thousand other town settings. In campaigns where heroes only use towns as bases of operation between the real adventures, uncanny similarlity between settlements is perfectly acceptable, because players tend to care more about whether or not they can find an herbalist or blacksmith than what might make the current town special. With minimal work on the part of the dungeon master, though, each location can be made special to the players and add more believability to the setting by adding social customs that affect how residents interact with each other. 

In much the manner that holidays can be used to give a settlement a distinct identity (as discussed in this post), social customs can set towns, provinces or nations apart in your players’ minds.

A brief period of Internet research yielded some intersting customs from our own world. Since the following list is presented for inspirational purposes only, no effort was made to check these reported customs for factual accuracy; this writer begs the Gentle Reader’s forgiveness for any errors in fact appearing below.

  • One British village reportedly has an annual “cheese rolling,” during which a large wheel of cheese is rolled down a steep hill and event participants chase after, hoping to be the first to capture the cheese. Apparently, this race is a full-contact event, and broken bones and concussions are common among competitors.
  • In Indonesia, it is a grave insult to point at someone or something with the index finger. People point with their thumbs in polite society.
  • A common wedding ritual in India involves the groom’s brother dumping flower petals on the heads of the newlyweds, in order to ward off evil spirits.
  • In the Appalacian region of the United States, doors that won’t stay shut, chairs that appear to rock by themselves or a cock crowing at night are all considered to be death omens.
  • In the British Village of Haxley Hood, an annual event is held to commemorate the way a group of villagers recovered a silk hood, taken from a noblewoman by the wind.
  • Brides in Morocco bathe in milk before their wedding ceremonies.
  • In Thailand, it is an insult to enter someone’s home while wearing shoes.

Judging from this short list alone, it is clear that, even if the heroes are recognized as outsiders by the inhabitants of a settlement or region, that players can still easily offend someone by breaking social norms. The importance of wearing certain colors (or what colors symbolize), various social gestures for greetings and farewells (and gestures normally required by honor) and respectful ways of making requests and offering thanks can all influence how inhabitants view the party. Even local idioms of speech can carry very different connotations from place to place.

Of course, it is entirely possible for especially well-traveled or very diplomatic characters to have a realistic chance of knowing some local customs in advance. In such cases, it is likely that the heroes will impress the locals with their social grace, and have a very pleasant time interacting with the locals, who may very well overlook other social infractions in light of the party’s obvious effort to learn their ways.

Heroes who offend must live with the consequences of their actions, which can range from being overcharged by townsfolk to being followed by the guard, up to and including being chased out of town under a hail of rocks and rotten fruit.

Just by adding a few local customs, a dungeon master can change the way players look at campaign settings. When one player says, “Timberstead – is that the place with the waterwheel?” and another replies, “No, that’s the place where they won’t sell ale to a person with black hair unless the person swears they’re not from Karath first,” you know local customs have done their collective job.

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4 comments on “Use local and regional customs to create a ‘sense of place’

  1. Max.Elliott says:

    Other weirdness examples:

    Soldiers in Germany with local civilian girlfriends often run into a common cause of teasing…. in Germany, polishing shoes is womans work. So when the S.O. comes over to see her G.I. shining his boots, the giggling starts.

    There’s a German word that sounds a lot like the word for bread when spoken with an American accent that has to do with some extreme form of copulation. I could never get the ladies at the bakeries to explain it to me in detail.

    In many countries, counting on your fingers starts with the THUMB, not index finger. It took a while to figure out why I kept getting TWO more beers…..

    And if you’re truly bored and want to see a fun example of how mistranslations happen, head over to http://babelfish.yahoo.com/ and type just about anything in. Then have that translated to Chinese (or any Asian language really). Then translate the result back into English. Optionally, one can rinse with Spanish or Latin before heading back to English. This can also yield turns of phrase to make a location feel “strange”.

    • Alric says:

      That’s hilarious, Max.

      About the bread thing, though – I’m not sure if I’m more disturbed about the fact that people have found a way to be that intimate with bread, or about the fact that there’s actually a word for it. We live in interesting times…

  2. Ameron says:

    This is a great idea for adding flavour to otherwise mundane towns. In the situations you’ve described above regarding characters breaking local laws or customs, I usually allow opportunities for the PCs to make History or Streetwise checks when they first arrive in a village to avoid these social blunders. Of course if they don’t think to do this I never volunteer the idea. Yes, I’m a mean DM, but having the PCs get in to trouble makes a setting, and an adventure, more memorable. Good post.

    • Alric says:

      Sounds like your players really need to be on their toes. I don’t think it makes you a “mean” DM, though – rather, I’d say it makes your players more aware that every action they take can bear a consequence.

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