World Building: 4 Easy Culture Creation Tips

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0465

A Brief Word from Johnn

Godspeed by Charles Sheffield

Just finished this older (1994) space opera book. A boy finds a clue about long-forgotten technology that could save his resource-starved world. This takes him into the stars with a tough crew of spacers to deal with.

The leader of the crew would make a great NPC villain. At times you want to see his butt kicked into the vacuum, and other times Sheffield renders a plausible position for the captain, who is seemingly forced to make difficult decisions.

The crew is also given the same treatment. In some books they’d be cut and dry evil, but in this story they’re just stupid or following their own code. Reading this type of stuff is great inspiration for GMing games that aren’t black and white.

The book is ok. I give it a 7/10.

Game master tips for Excel: How to speed up your gameplay

A new article is up at the Roleplaying Tips website written by Sean S. It discusses how to use Microsoft Excel for note taking, map-making, and making combat tables with formulas for dice rolls. Thanks for the article, Sean.

Game master tips for Excel: How to speed up your gameplay

World Building: 4 Easy Culture Creation Tips

Mine your game world’s history to create the basis of cultures. This not only saves you time, but it draws history back into your game instead of being long-winded trivia. It also creates connections between different societies in your world, whether for cities or countries or empires, instead of your cultures being a tossed salad that feels like it was the spawn of a random generator table.

If you are using a published game world, history is often an entire chapter. When making new cultures, even for small entities like villages and towns, you can use the following tips to link them better to the world and put that chapter to good use.

Struggles and Losses Become Fears

The greatest pains and sorrows become future generations’ fears. Fear drives a lot of our day-to-day actions, whether we realize it or not. However, new fears don’t appear daily. Most of them were known or taught to us early on. By the time we’re adults, fears – and our reactions to them – have become habit and unconscious behavior. They are a part of who we are.

Use this to pattern a culture’s thinking and behaviors so the characters experience NPCs who think and act a bit differently from what they’re used to. This will communicate what’s different about a culture quite well and make gameplay interesting.

Also use this tip to pattern various cultural aspects, such as fashion, government, commerce, architecture, art, and so on.

Read through history and note what struggles and losses a particular culture (or previous cultures upon which the current one is built) suffered:

  • Wars and battles
  • Interactions with deities
  • Social class struggles (riots, poverty, rights, etc.)
  • Interactions with technology, magic, super powers (unemployment, dis-empowerment, threats)
  • Struggles against monsters, aliens, and races

Once you’ve identified key points in time that would have made a huge impression on future cultural memory, look at the nature of the loss, what was lost, and how it was lost. Map these things into current day fears. Just make a list: fear of X, fear of Y.

With a list of six or so fears and their roots, translate these into different aspects of culture:

  • Language (cuss words, words that are never spoken, insults)
  • Fashion (colors that are avoided or signify negativity, styles that resemble objects of the past)
  • Government (type, leader types that get avoided, accepted ruling styles, what is illegal, types of punishment)
  • Commerce (the type and design of currency, accepted or forbidden methods, what goods and services are illegal)
  • Architecture (what designs and colors and styles are avoided)
  • Art (what is defined as tragic, hurtful, negative)

For example, World War I is often thought of in the context of massive loss of life in futile efforts that never gained any ground. This might have made some cultures fear stalemate and status quo. Trenches and bayonets became symbols of intense suffering. Stories revolved around heroes fighting against systems and bureaucracies that muzzle change. Architecture avoided trenches or the hap hazard grid patterns of trenches built to face each other and forestall advances. Agents of change are celebrated, such as new discoveries and technology advances, while stalemates are avoided, such as tie games in sports.

Another example: 1,000 years ago a massive battle between dwarves and orcs took place in a mountain. The dwarves lost horribly, and orcs were allowed to bypass ancient defenses and spread throughout the land, setting civilization back by generations.

In current times, the distinctive look of that mountain is a symbol of fear. It is used in the design of armor and weapons to subtly invoke fear in foes. Hats of prisoners look like the mountain. The poor, unlucky and ill-fated are called by a derivate of the name of the mountain. Aspects of the orcs – their language, clothing style and behaviors – have become negative connotations in insults, design and table manners. The name of the orc tribe has become a swear word: kuruk!

Villains Become Archetypes of What’s Evil

Identify the bad guys in history. The winners write the history, so the losers often become the bad guys. In addition, there could be evils that caused suffering regardless of what side, if any, they were on.

List out the villains of history and use them to define what is evil, bad, and negative in your culture.

There is overlap here with using past losses to create negative aspects of culture. While deep grief translates into culture fears, we want to use the personality and attributes of villains to create very specific culture artifacts that influence current day attitudes, designs, and behaviors. To take things one step further, use old villains to create irrational and interesting cultural quirks.

For example, a long time ago a fire giant plagued the world. His story has been handed down in story and song, and the facts have become lost or twisted. No matter, his legacy has left an indelible mark on a city the PCs are currently visiting:

  • Fire is evil.
  • Cooking (by fire) has become a solemn act and no speaking is allowed while making meals.
  • Complex heating systems have been invented so that open fire is never present where cultured people live or gather.
  • Red and orange are the colors of evil.
  • When the red robed priests of a nearby kingdom were first encountered they were immediately attacked. This caused a long war, and city and kingdom are bitter rivals to this day.
  • The name of the order of those priests is now a term of mockery or casual insult.
  • Wood is a holy material.
  • Large people are shunned, assumed to be troublemakers, criminals, or worse.
  • Underground societies, such as assassin and thief’s guilds, use symbols of giantism and the color red in their motifs.
  • If something is hot it’s considered bad.
  • The first time a PC brandishes his flaming sword +1 he is mobbed, then hunted. A purification quest is the only way to save his soul and allow him back into the city.

Know thine enemy

Another important aspect of historical villains is they can influence who a culture identifies as evil and as an enemy. This is apparent in my fire giant example. Pretend the historical villain had a character sheet. Everything on it is a candidate for modern day identifiers as to who or what is an enemy. Equipment choices, high or low stats, notable skills and abilities (or lack of ability in certain areas), personality traits such as likes and dislikes, background elements.

In our fire giant culture, swimming is the sport of heroes. If anyone cannot swim it’s a sign of inferiority and is suspicious. Pools are plentiful. The fire giant also wore magic arm bands. Consequently, arm bands are never in fashion and a certain type must be worn by foreigners as their visiting passports and paperwork.

If you crafted villains and evil NPCs for this city, you would use the traits you’ve defined in this exercise to identify them as enemies. Beware the sign of the torch.

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Victories Become Values

Going to the opposite end of the spectrum, we perform similar actions to determine what the positive and virtuous values of a culture are. We cannot only define what is bad, because that just creates a void, in general. This makes gameplay dull.

For example, if everyone avoids something, that’s going to be hard to pick up by the players unless you call it out, which is sometimes heavy-handed. And you can’t run every encounter with some element of avoidance in it.

You need the good to fill up the space left by the bad.

To figure out what is valued highly in a society, look back in history for victories. What events marked positive turning points? What victories created great gains or pleasure for the culture’s citizens? Make a list of these and use the same process you used when defining losses and fears, only now you are defining what is sought after, honored and praised.

For example, in the year 1082 a battalion was cut off. It never rejoined the main body of the army, which was almost completely annihilated soon after. Instead, the battalion explored the mountains for a defensible location and discovered a pass that lead to a new land. They settled there when scouts brought back news the enemy was victorious, and this region became the city that is rich and powerful today (the same city that fears fire).

Based on this historical event, the culture now values exploration above all else. It also values tactics and sound defense. It does not like taking risks, and it has a long history of fine military commanders who knew the value of not antagonizing enemies into war.

Style and design are subtly influenced by secrecy and narrowness, hearkening back to the discovery of the mountain pass. Clothes are tight fitting with clever pockets. Buildings are packed close together, creating winding alleyways only the locals know how to navigate. Ambassadors and merchants are highly regarded, especially if they are adept at secret dealings and negotiating shrewdly.

Heroes Become Archetypes of What’s Good

As you did with villains, identify heroes and famous people in the past who contributed to the current success of the culture. Their traits will be emulated and identified as positive attributes, counter balancing what villains have caused to be regarded as evil and to be avoided.

Create one or more archetypes that represent good, success, or holiness. Then create cultural quirks based on the heroes’ attributes as exotic flavors to entertain players with. Use these quirks to base NPC roleplay on, potential quests and missions, and culture profiles.

For example, St. Albadeen is the city’s protector against snakes, which unfortunately, plague this side of the mountains. Years ago, the farmer Albadeen saved a prince from a poisonous snake. Using tricks, he learned as a child working the fields, he charmed the snake and lead it far enough away from the prince so the guards could safely chop it up. The farmer asked to keep the meat for the night’s dinner, and the prince, after laughing long and hard, invited the man and his family to be the royal snake keepers. So the story goes, at any rate.

Albadeen performed many other heroic acts in his tragically short life, and at his funeral the water priests named him a saint. Each year a long parade is held that winds through the narrow alleys and corridors of the city. People dress up as snakes or as Albadeen, and thousands of mock charmings and slaying are played out all day long.

When the PCs arrive, there will be many opportunities for them to be hired on as explorers, snake hunters, scouts, ambassadors, caravan guards, fire guards, and swimming champions. They’ll have to learn quick to avoid handling fire and speaking orcish, and to make themselves seem smaller if they’re big. If they can’t swim they better hide that fact as well.

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These techniques are not the only way to flesh out cultures, but they sure do tie in world history well. The benefit of this is more relationships between details, creating a tighter, closer world for players to experience.

Also, mining history is a great source of inspiration, and doing it for culture building is just the beginning. How else can you use history for other parts of campaign planning and design?

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Waking Up Is Hard to Do

From Foltor

Sometimes things happen during the night that can throw off your whole day – even without getting attacked or standing watch. Here are some (mostly) mundane sleep events to add flavor to your campaign.

Always describe dreams in some detail so the players are unsure if the dream is significant or not.

These things shouldn’t happen every night; maybe just a 5% chance per character per night. Basically, the PC critically failed at sleeping.

  1. The PC wakes up with a zit.
  2. The PC wakes up with abnormally bad bed head. Even with access to a shower, he will still have a bad hair day.
  3. The PC wakes up with a cramp, charley horse, crick in the neck, or other persistent stiffness or discomfort.
  4. The PC suffered from insomnia and tossed and turned all night, possibly from heat, stress, something he ate, disturbing insects, or just an uncomfortable bed.
  5. The PC had to get up to relieve himself a few times during the night.
  6. The PC wet his bed.
  7. The PC had an episode of sleepwalking.
  8. The PC rolled out of bed.
  9. The PC tossed and turned, perhaps disturbing other nearby sleepers.
  10. The PC talked nonsense in his sleep.
  11. The PC talked in his sleep, revealing a secret.
  12. The PC snored heavily.
  13. The PC had a nightmare. He feels unsettled for the first few hours of the day.
  14. The PC had a mundane dream that seems prophetic.
  15. The PC had a prophetic dream that seems mundane.
  16. The PC was visited by a ghost of a loved one in a dream, or dreamed about an unresolved issue from his past.
  17. The PC had an erotic dream.
  18. The PC had a really weird dream.
  19. The PC had a lucid dream.
  20. The PC wakes up temporarily disoriented about where or when he is.
[Comment from Johnn: haha, these are great ideas for adding flavor. Thanks Foltor.

Does anyone want to take a stab at _good_ things that might happen? A critical success at sleep? 🙂 ]

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The Appeal of Ruins

From Logan Horsford

I’ve been asked, “What’s the appeal of ruins?”

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Observe the old world grandeur – speculate on what was. To this day, people still visit ruins to get more insights on their past or the past of others.
  2. Ruins are dangerous to travel in – you must be careful of collapse, old dangerous stuff left around, etc.
  3. Ruins have dangerous inhabitants.
  4. There are strange mysteries to uncover.
  5. Strange artifacts might lie around, waiting to be discovered.

Ruins have a lot of danger and potential loot.

I think that, to do ruins well, all of these factors must be dealt with. Not all of the buildings need to be detailed out – most are just piles of dangerous rubble that can be quickly and easily dispensed with by narration.

But there are a few things which can be put in to make things interesting and help with the exploratory feel of campaigns.

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Dark Heresy and 4e Necromunda

From Jamie I.

If someone is looking to start a Dark Heresy campaign, my first suggestion is: Don’t.

The system can be very frustrating at times, and it seems like all the PC’s are clumsy amateurs who can’t get anything right. Most of your stats begin in the 20% range, which when challenged with an “easy” task, takes the odds of success to just over 50%, as easy gives a +30% bonus.

If someone is set on starting DH, I would advise that the PCs start somewhere well above 1st level, to give them some sort of satisfaction that they can get things done. After all, they have been selected as “chosen” of the Inquisition.

Lastly, if they have a copy of 4th Edition D&D, I have re- skinned D&D over to Necromunda, also in the 40K universe. They will still require all the core D&D books, and I would suggest several 40K minis, for sure, but the system seems to be a bit more heroic.

While I haven’t written anything for Inquisitors or Space Marines, it could be a start. I’ll be expanding the writing as I buy more of the PHBs and so on. The classes translated over rather easily, fighters became brawlers, rangers became bounty hunters. Races translated to gang affiliations, etc.

The trick was inventing a set of firearms rules that weren’t too complex, and an Armor Penetration system. I think the end result went pretty well.

The website is

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From Bryan Jonker

In my last few campaigns, I’ve been using Scrivener for the Macintosh. It’s a word processor specifically for screen writing or novels. You can create and search through text fragments easily, and load graphics and PDFs into it. I have a folder that has PDFs of each character, plus a graphic of the world map.


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Free Castles

From Joachim de Ravenbel

Summer being a game-less period for me, I used the time to create those two guides to Castle Frankenburg and Castle Riche-Guet that, thanks to JimP, are downloadable here:

There’s also a lot of other interesting goodies at

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Beating Burnout with Funny One-Shots

From Michael Beck

I am a GM who always goes for the epic, for big adventures with PCs having a lot of backstory. We take it seriously and this is fine; everybody is having fun. But after a while something happened to me that I think happens to a lot of GMs: it’s just not as thrilling as before.

This kind of burnout had been described before me a lot of times so I won’t go into detail. Long story short, I was running low on creativity. But I found a solution at an unexpected point.

A friend of mine and I went to the student-cinema and watched The Gamers I + II. As usual it was very funny, and after the movie an idea was born: I wanted at least one session of gaming like in the movies. No, “Yeah, please let’s focus” or “Try to think as your character, please.” It should be just, “Yeah, have fun!” So I did something very unusual for me.

I decided to run a one-shot, just one evening of amusing gaming, with PCs we were not going to use ever again, a storyline that was completely closed, played by people who probably will not game in this constellation ever again.

The whole thing about this was to make the players (and myself) laugh as much as possible. This isn’t possible in a classic setting. So I decided on a setting that takes inspiration from Terry Pratchet, Munchkin, Shrek; whatever is funny and has a medieval-fantasy background.

Never had adventure writing felt so simple and fun. In two days I had a 17 pages long adventure with fleshed out NPCs, interesting locations and magic items with background, a nice hook for the adventure, an unexpected twist and nice rewards. In short, everything an adventure needs.

Remember that this is a one-shot adventure. There is no reason why you should game this with your normal group of players. It’s a perfect opportunity to get some people on the table you normally don’t get together.

I said to the players, surprise me with your characters; I don’t want to know too much about them, and remember it should be funny.

During the session I had the one thought in mind: “Is this funny?” Minor errors, the game pausing for anecdotes, all of the usual things that can derail a game; they all just added to the spirit of the evening.

In the end I even learned some lessons as GM from all this:

  • We don’t need the big long-scope story-arc. Small ideas (in particular for low level characters) have a lot of advantages. And by the way: If you have not mastered the art of short/small adventuring, how can you expect to successfully run long campaigns?
  • The most important is the setting or the tone you want to create when writing on an adventure. The rest will come naturally to you, just by asking “is this contributing to the tone I want?”
  • Far more important than supervising the actual PC creation process is to let the players know and understand what kind of setting/tone you wish for. They will come up with characters which fit in your adventure, because they fit the setting.
  • Actually playing the adventure there is again just one question: “Are we still contributing to the tone?” Relax as GM; there is no big need for you to be active except when something happens that leads away from the atmosphere you and your players agreed on.
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What Good Is a Hook Without Bait?

From Ian Winterbottom

GMs think a lot about plot hooks. But what good is a hook without bait?

How many times have you come across someone or something that made you uneasy, without necessarily knowing why? And perhaps when you think about it later you realize why, but by then it is too late to do anything about it. The moment is gone.

And guaranteed it will nag at you for ages. “What did he mean by that?” “What if I’d…?”

It’s a feeling you can use successfully in RPGs, by introducing things or people that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot, but are designed to make your PCs think they might be.

Suspicious Strangers

How many times have you been buttonholed in a shop, bus queue, library, or pub by the weird person who just wants to talk incessantly about something completely off-the-wall?

He just wants someone to listen. He might have some strange view of the universe, have just had a Close Encounter – or thinks he has – have just seen Elvis, anything. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t, maybe it matters and maybe it doesn’t, but it will make the PCs think.

How about the man in a crowded city street who stops and stares at you, for no apparent reason, without speaking, before moving on? It wouldn’t be so bad, but his eyes were the most piercing ice-blue gimlets you have ever seen.

Or maybe he had a low hat or hood, a patch over one eye, or lord help us, a raven perched on his shoulder. Nah, couldn’t have been!

The Half-True Tale

Your players pay attention to detail because they don’t want to miss anything. Give them half a conversation or story so they are frantically trying to get hold of the rest.

My players once encountered a drunk burbling generally in a sort of word association manner. He overheard a chance reference in the party’s conversation to treasure and dropped a pebble into the pool of conversation with “Treasure is it? Ah, and wouldn’t ye be likin’ to talk with me friend Mikal, and him knowing where all that great treasure is (hic).” At which point he passed out.

Cue players frantically trying to wake him, getting him to remember, and getting a coherent story out of him. To get him to talk they had to ply him with drink, befuddling him still further.

Eventually, after much hilarity, they managed to discover that Mikal had just been taken hostage by attacking goblins in a raid on the caravan he and the drunk had been traveling with. Hence his drinking, since he was holding a private wake for his buddy, who was about to be sacrificed to the goblin deathgod, Gruumsh, on the morrow’s full moon.

This led to a raid on the goblins, but it got a lot more exciting when the PCs found that the goblins were actually orcs, and mob-handed at that. There were other denizens in the cavern complex, as well, including ogres!

Another example: people at a neighboring table are having a raucous conversation when there is a sudden lull and the PCs hear someone say, “I never thought he might have had the diamonds!”

If you don’t know they’re describing a card game it could be interesting, huh?

Or perhaps the same men are deep in discussion, in low tones, over a scrap of scruffy parchment. One of them glances up, makes eye contact with a PC, and takes note of them eavesdropping. Perhaps he smiles, very slowly. It could be a map, it could be a knitting pattern, but it is intriguing – and finding out which could be dangerous!