Culture in RPG

While vacationing in Maui, Hawai’i, I spent an afternoon at a local game store and participated in that group’s D&D session.

Swan, the DM, created a homebrew world that I believe to be somewhat unique and clever. Basically, in a post-apocalyptic Earth, an alien force has “gathered together” many of the Pacific Islands, including Hawai’i, Polynesia, and others, into a single landmass.

During the session, the player-characters had two encounters dealing with an infestation of Yuan-Ti, which are snake-like humanoids. For a few short hours I was immersed into another’s world as Swan wove the story and guided the players through the adventure. The players were relatively new to the game and unfamiliar with most of the mechanics. Swan cast me as the warlock’s Patron, allowing me to provide guidance to that character as appropriate. A few times I verified rule usage before passing a message along, like “do you use flanking?”

It was fun. But something that happened within the scope of the session struck me as very fascinating, and it’s something I want to explore a more in depth here in my blog: the use of culture in a homebrew setting.

Those of us who have been around D&D are familiar with the various culture tropes. We use these when building and understanding characters. The books gloss over them with just enough detail that we can infer the rest, filling in the blanks with bits and pieces of mythology, fiction, and our own experiences. For example, when I say, “Mountain Dwarf,” we often think of a stout man (or woman) with a long, thick beard and ruddy skin who lives in a mountain and is familiar with mining, caves, rocks and gold. For some reason, a lot of players associate them with Norse gods, and like to give them a pseudo-Scottish accent. If I say, “Halfling,” people think of short, friendly folk who live underground in hill-country.

So, what exactly did Swan do that sparked my fascination? Simple – when the party defeated the Yuan-Ti warriors, they recovered their “Tiki” shields.


For me, this was an epiphany. And as I reflected on it, something Swan did in his game, which was perfectly natural for him, is something I do in my game without realization. I inject my own culture into my game. Heavily. Deeply. It’s ingrained. And as I participate in other peoples’ games here in my local area, aka, the Midwest, I don’t experience anything significantly different. My dwarves, elves, tieflings, and even dragonborn are inherently Midwestern.

Is it wrong. Surely not. But is it right?

I’ve seen many Facebook posts and read numerous articles on how D&D other RPGs, can be used as teaching tools. They teach things like cooperative teamwork, listening skills, decision making, and problem solving. But there’s one thing that’s missing from this list, and I think we, as designers, writers, teachers, and Game Masters may be missing the boat. Exploring culture within the game more effectively can not only enhance the game experience, but also open players’ eyes to different ways of thinking.

I spent a week vacationing with my wife in Maui. Even though Hawai’i is part of the United States, there are still significant differences in culture. The problems Hawaiians face are drastically different than those Hoosiers face in my home state of Indiana. I can spend an entire article enumerating the differences, but I’ll spare you. If you’re interested, spend some time researching Hawaiian history. Understand why “native” Hawaiians have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. government, and why former president Obama despises colonialism. But I digress.

We all have different experiences and have been exposed to diverse cultures. Mine is distinctly Midwestern U.S. (white) suburban, hailing from a relatively affluent area. Locally, I’ve gamed with city people, rural people, folks from other regions and countries, and so on. From them, I grow in my experience and exposure. I read novels and study histories and books about other cultures, religions, and regions. Naturally, this works its way into my game. Sometimes I try to put an emphasis into the distinct cultures within my homebrew world, but, unfortunately, a lot of the minute details that make them come alive are left out and forgotten.

This opens the door to a lot of questions that can should be asked. When the characters enter the gates of a new city, what will they see, hear, smell, and taste? Do the common people wear dull colors or are their clothes bright and vibrant? Is there music playing, or does everyone go about their drudgery in silence? Does the fresh scent of exotic flowers fill the air or something else? Not only should we know the answers to these questions, but we should know why things are the way they are.

In terms of game mechanics, these details make little or no difference. A Tiki shield gives the same bonus to AC as a knight’s shield, a Viking shield, a Nguni shield, or a Pavise. Yet, saying the name of each suggests cultural differences with distinct meanings on how they were used, decorated, and who carried them. Long swords, short swords, and other weapons have countless variations when you think of the infinite possibilities in our homebrew worlds. Rather than saying “you find a dozen scimitars” after killing the orcs, perhaps you should say, “you find a dozen Caldock swords, which are about three feet long, gently curved, with a pair of barbs made from warg tusks along the back edge.” Mechanically, these are the same as scimitars. However, if you try to sell them in the nearby town, no one will buy them because of what they represent. Conversely, carrying them to a far-away land where no one has ever seen them, they can be sold for a tidy sum.

As a game master, it requires keeping good notes, not just in preparation, but during execution. I can suggest numerous ways of doing this, but whatever system works for you, use it. Going forward, I shall endeavor to remember the details. In my planning and preparation, I want to explore each culture’s uniqueness and determine how to bring them alive in my story-telling. Additionally, I want to expand my own knowledge of what our wonderfully diverse world offers. I firmly believe that, as game masters and creators of homebrew settings, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves so that this diversity can be brought to the gaming table. I believe our games will be much more rewarding and our players will be far better immersed into the settings if we take these extra steps.

What experiences have you had in your games with regards to culture? Please share in the comments below.



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