D&D, Story, Writing

Worldbuilding: Thinking about Cultures

So you’ve created a world full of adventure for the heroes to explore, populated with a diverse cast of beings, and now you have to determine what day to day life is like, and how the different cultures feel.

It is easy to fall into the comfortable tropes: dwarves are miners, elves live in forests, etc., but to make a world feel “lived in”, try go a few levels deeper. Surely not all dwarves are miners! While there is nothing wrong with adopting the recognizable cultures from fantasy lore, you want to avoid the pitfall of stereotypes and tropes, otherwise your world– and the characters within– may become stale and repetitive (I discussed this a bit in this post about Diverse NPCs).

In reality, the world is full of incredibly diverse people and communities and while there may be some unifying characteristics between people within the same region, country, or kingdom, to generalize by saying “All people from XXX are like this” diminishes the more complex interplay of perspectives, languages, and values that make a society interesting. So how do we do this when writing for D&D? Well, this is something that can’t be tackled in just one post, and I’m still figuring it out myself! It’s hard to create something that, in real life, takes thousands of generations, experiences, and events to shape…and culture is ever changing! Today, the cultures that we identify with are still dynamic and will likely look different after even just a few years! The things we value shift and evolve, events (both good and bad) force us to constantly redefine our sense of collective identity, and the more we interact with people from other cultures, the more our own continues to grow!

As daunting as this task is, there are still ways to break it down…think about the basic things which can shape a culture in its early stages. Here are a few things that can help you get started: Geography, the Transfer of Knowledge, and Worldview…all three of which are interrelated and build upon eachother.

Geography

This is perhaps the most influential aspect of an early culture. The landscape shapes the lives of the people who live there, from how they sustain themselves, to the houses they build, and even to their outlook on life. People who live in the mountains might build their homes into the rocky cliffs themselves, and look upon the world with a sense of permanence or stability. Even the literal height at which they view the world can shift their perspectives of events. If they live within the valleys of the mountains, their lifestyle will shift yet again, and they may find themselves more isolated from outside influences. Coastal villages will have an intimate connection to the sea, for both the bounty it brings and the respect it demands. The sea is dynamic and ever-changing. Their houses would be fortified against the storms and high winds.

Cuisine, crafts, and trade would likewise be shaped by the natural resources around the community. By the sea, look to fishing and shipbuilding. In a more heavily forested region, goods made from hard and soft woods will be prevalent. Buildings and shelters would be constructed from native lumber, or perhaps even built into the trees themselves out of a desire to preserve and protect their home. In rolling hills and planes, most communities would rely more on farming and animal husbandry, and therefore produce goods related to that lifestyle (i.e. wool, dairy, etc.).

With all of these considerations, remember that not everyone will be a fisherman, farmer, or woodworker. It takes a diverse set of roles to keep a community functioning, and rarely will you have someone who is skilled at all available jobs and crafts. Who makes the sails and nets? Who weaves the wool into textiles? What is done with the leaves and branches from the felled trees? Surely the forest doesn’t just pile up with tree trimmings!

Transfer of Knowledge

How is information passed down through the generations, and what kind of information is valued? Is the knowledge of history, crafts, etc. physically recorded in parchment or stone? Or do young ones learn the lessons of their elders through art and music? Cultures that place significant value on the lessons of the past will carefully preserve their records, and possibly keep archives of important information. A culture that embraces “the now” might focus more on lessons and stories that are relevant to life today, and could range from more practical methods of sharing information to vibrant song and dance. If the literacy rate isn’t incredibly high, oral storytelling traditions will still be strong.

Next, think about how these different elements might influence cultural celebrations, like festivals and holiday observances. What do the people celebrate, and how do they celebrate it? Just about every culture has some sort of harvest celebration and a festival of light in the darkest days of winter, but each one has a unique story that highlights the common themes! What sets the storytelling and festival practices of one community apart from the other cultures in your world?

Worldview

This is a pretty big concept that can be broken down with this question: What do people think of other cultures? Are they open to interacting with other communities, or is their environment a bit more isolated, and therefore contact from other cultures is few and far between? How does this shape their sense of purpose and the concept of their role in the world? A village on the sea will eventually have access to trade routes that people farther inland won’t experience. How does this shape their perception of themselves and others?

Just as important as determining worldview is deciding whether or not everyone in the community feels the same way…chances are they don’t. Realistically, there would be a sliding scale of different perspectives within the same village, depending on their role within the community, individual experiences, etc. Would a woodworker have the same sense of purpose as the woodcutter? What about the fisherman and the person who makes the nets? Do these differences in worldview cause conflict or debate within the community? Think about how individuals and groups identify with their differing perspectives.

Like I said before…culture is an incredibly complex and dynamic part of life– something that can’t just be neatly summarized into one blog post! These are just some initial thoughts on how you can start creating cultures within your worlds. We’ll definitely revisit this topic in the future!

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