D&D World Building Week, Part IV: Culture

This post is fourth in a series on creating a “homebrew” setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II and Part III before continuing here.

Thus far in this series, the dungeon master (DM) has established the general concepts and scope of the campaign, developed a working map of the campaign region, designed a few major conflicts which will unfold at the start of the game and created a historical timeline, which can be used for both internal consistency and a guide for placement of settlements, ruins and adventure sites.

The next step in this process is to come up with a handful of memorable campaign cultures.

These cultures accomplish a variety of campaign goals, including:

  • Cultural traits usually transfer to people of those cultures. As a result, the traits can serve as a role-playing aids for players; all the DM needs to do is inform the players what the traits are. Characters with traits running counter to their cultures of origin have a ready excuse for departing and taking up adventuring.
  • The traits help connect players with the setting. If the players are told that the elves of Tanglewoode are a xenophobic lot that attack intruders on sight, they’ll probably be apprehensive about crossing a stretch of the elves’ territory. If they encounter a group of what they believe to be Tanglewoode Elves, but the elves act in an overly friendly manner, the heroes will justifiably be suspicious. In both cases, player knowledge of campaign culture has impacted game decisions.
  • These traits serve as sources for potential conflict, and conflict is what drives stories (and D&D adventures). Mutually exclusive goals and misunderstandings between cultures can cause villains and neutrals to act against the heroes’ cultures or government, giving rise to adventure opportunities.

Designing the Cultures

It isn’t necessary to write a volume of text about every culture in the campaign; a page or two of rough notes is usually more than players will ever need or want. In order to design cultures, the DM needs to decide what makes each culture unique, and how people from that culture view the world. Often, these views express themselves in:

  • Prominent religions and mythology, or lack thereof;
  • The “social alignment” of the area, be it good, neutral, or evil;
  • Type of government, and the popularity of that government;
  • Predominant occupations in the culture and the values they embody (a farming culture may value patience and hard work, while a mercantile society might value business acumen and amassed wealth, for example);
  • Common equipment used and carried by people from the culture;
  • Type of housing;
  • Forms of art; and
  • Preferred entertainments.

An Example Culture

One of the cultures in “the example campaign,” used for this series was the Atherites, the human culture loosely inspired by the Riders of Rohan from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. The overview of this culture provided to the players at the start of the campaign follows.


Drawing its name from the Old Nuric province of Atherix, the plains of Atherton are well-watered and fertile. Not surprisingly, the humans who dwell here are famous for their quality horsemanship and husbandry; it is rumored that their horses have been cross-bred with fey mounts belonging to the Elves of Tanglewoode. Many jest that there are four horses for every two-legged inhabitant of the province; much of that jest is rooted in truth.

Atherton’s equine heritage traces back to the days of the Old Empire, when the Imperial Legion drafted its finest cavalry from this province. It was that same cavalry that defended the area after the imperial withdrawal. The provincial history dates to the withdrawal; records of Atherton’s early years as an independent nation are kept in the Temple of Avandra, where the faith held its headquarters in the days of the Old Empire.

In recognition of the pivotal role played by the animal in Atheric defense, commerce and agriculture, the horse enjoys a near-sacred status in the culture’s art, literature, architecture and religion, as the Atherites view the horse as a gift from Avandra.

The Atherites are a fiercely independent people, who value individual freedom above all else. Like the horses they venerate, Atherites embody an untamed spirit, and they view their considerable military capability as the means to provide that freedom to weaker people. Atherites view long-term incarceration – the taking of freedom – as a more severe sentence than death.

Not surprisingly, social status in Atherton is enhanced for those involved in equine-related trades. Horse breeders are considered among the social elite, and all noble houses have extensive stable facilities. Cavalry soldiers form the rest of the upper class, with farriers, grooms and stablemen chief among craftsmen. Merchants, infantry soldiers and most townsmen form the middle class.

The province – the boundaries of which are somewhat vague – is governed by a syndicracy of noble houses, each of which is descended from one of the Nuric cavalry heroes who ultimately founded Atherton. Ever suspicious of permanent authority, the houses select one of their number to serve as Lord Protector for a five-year term.

Slavery is legal in Atherton, although that fate is typically reserved for debtors or humanoid prisoners; most slave labor involves maintenance of military installations and repairing the network of Nuric roads, which are in much the same condition as they were during the days of the Old Empire.

Culturally, the Atherites are suspicious of authority, viewing the Draconic legal code of the Nurites as a confining, corrupting influence that ultimately led to the fall of the empire. They are similarly suspicious of ancient magic and artifacts. A popular adage among the Atherites is that “there are laws that enslave men, and laws that set them free.”

There are a number of social customs unique to Atherton, including:
* People are expected to ride mounts of a gender matching their own. While most Atherites can know a horse’s gender from hundreds of feet away, it is customary for the manes of mares to be braided as a courtesy. It is a common practice to humiliate male criminals by making them ride mares to court or sentencing proceedings.
* Although the legal code in Atherton is a loosely-defined conglomerate of precedent-setting case decisions, the law is highly protective of horses; while using horses as mounts or beasts of burden is an acceptable use of Avandra’s gift, cruelty to a horse in punishable by five years of imprisonment – the same sentence as an assault upon the person of the Lord Protector himself.
* Women wear their hair tightly braided, because (1) noble women always ride horses, and loose hair quickly becomes unmanageable after a ride, and (2) Women keep their hair braided to prevent any distractions or vulnerabilities during combat. Only promiscuous women publicly wear unbraided hair in Atherite culture.

Atherish fashions are very distinctive. Fur linings and earth tones characterize Atherish dress. Virtually everyone wears pants – a necessity for riding – and other garments tend to be long and flowing, with extensive draping. Elvish styles and horse motifs are common themes in Atherish clothing.

Atherish exports include grain, horses, leather goods, peat and ales.

The province is the only human civilization to have diplomatic relations with the Elves of Tanglewoode.


The next – and last – post in this series will describe how to connect the heroes with the new setting and how to track campaign information as the game grows in scope.


3 comments on “D&D World Building Week, Part IV: Culture

  1. ClefJ says:

    Bravo sir! Very nice indeed, cultures are always my favorite yet most difficult facet of a campaign to create. Good priorities listed!

  2. […] Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV before continuing […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s