During the course of the past several decades, fantasy games and literature have established associations between certain archetypical fantasy creatures and their equipment. Legacy and current editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game, for example, have linked elves with bows and longswords, connected dwarves with axes and hammers, and associated halflings with slings and daggers. Such archetypical armament is so deeply ingrained into gamers’ minds that it is the exception, not the rule, that makes D&D players suspicious: arm an elf with a two-handed war hammer, and many players will think it is an illusion or shape-changer.
Fortunately, the connection between campaign cultures and equipment doesn’t have to begin and end with dwarves, elves and halflings. A Dungeon Master (DM) can create similar associations for all cultures in a D&D campaign, thereby improving sense-of-place without radical changes in game mechanics; this post discusses several approaches for accomplishing the task, resulting in greater dramatic flavor in the game.
The types of weaponry carried by characters can speak volumes about the cultures from which they hail. When deciding the typical weaponry of a given campaign culture, the DM may consider the following:
The impact of profession. The predominant terrain of an area can dictate common occupations, which can affect a character’s choice of weaponry. Mountain-dwellers, for example, often engage in mining; since they work with picks and hammers throughout the day, it is logical that characters from hilly or mountainous areas may favor military versions of hammers and picks. For the same reason, plainsmen who subsist by hunting would likely employ “occupational weapons” like the bow and spear.
The functionality of the weapon for the terrain. In an age when few people travel more than a few miles from home, it is logical to assume that they will carry weapons suited for their home environments. Swamp-dwellers may favor maces for crushing large insects, centipedes and other “creepy-crawlies,” while few forest-dwellers carry greatswords, since there is seldom enough space in their home terrain to wield such weapons properly.
Availability of superior materials. In our own history, certain regions became well-known for exceptional craftsmanship of different weaponry types. Steel weapons from Toledo or Damascus were highly valued during the Middle Ages, and English longbows were especially feared during the Hundred Years War. If the DM concludes that superior raw materials for weapon-smithing can be found in a certain area, the locals are probably famous for creating exceptional weapons of the appropriate type.
The impact of cultural values on weapon type. A culture’s attitude toward combat can affect typical weapon choices. In this writer’s campaign, for example, the Clurgish Warbrides, known for their vicious fighting style, prefer to face foes hand-to-hand; they consider the use of ranged weapons to be an act of cowardice. The entire Clurgish military echoes this sentiment, as only the very young or very old serve as archers in the Clurgish army. Other cultures may favor weapon types wielded by deities or famous historical figures. Cultural attitudes about warfare can also impact weapon quality; for example, a longsword issued by an empire that mass-produces its weaponry would be very different from a longsword forged by an elite group of warrior-monks.
Apart from decorative motifs – such as carved dragon images visible on equipment belonging to a character whose nation’s battle standard depicts a dragon – campaign culture can have a deeper impact on the selection and appearance of a character’s equipment. Consider the following:
Availability of materials. In a swamp setting, for example, quality leather is hard to find. Fortunately, swamp-dwellers don’t need quality leather, since it quickly deteriorates and grows mold in damp conditions. Thus, it is unlikely that any of the locals would own a leather backpack, but packs made from serpent hide, wicker or reeds will be much more common in the area. Although there is technically no difference in game mechanics between a leather pack or wicker pack, a hero’s choice of equipment can tell others whether he or she is one of the locals.
Cultural values. From what has already been written about the Clurgish Clansmen, it’s easy to imagine that they produce some of the finest weapon sheaths and baldrics for hundreds of miles. It’s also easy to imagine that their pottery might not be very good, since so much of the society’s attention is devoted to preparation for and conduct of war. In fact, people with unfit or asymmetrical physiques are sometimes described as being “shaped like a Clurgish pot” as an insult. Cultural values affect more than just quality of certain items, though; sometimes, they lead to the creation of entirely unique items of equipment. Characters from a mercantile society, for instance, may routinely carry a type of hand tool useful for cinching loading straps on beasts of burden.
Admittedly, accounting for these details won’t affect the mechanics of game play, and individually, they won’t matter much in a D&D game. But the sum of several of these small changes can have a lasting impact upon the way players see a D&D setting.