Cultures should not have a one-to-one relationship with countries or states in your game world. Many provinces will have more than one culture and in many cases the cultures may overlap. In some cases where they overlap, one of the cultures may be oppressed by the others.
Likewise, some cultures may span multiple countries. Perhaps one area was conquered by another country. It will take generations for the customs of the people in that area to dramatically change and to some degree they may not change at all. Perhaps some aspects of a culture spread to a nearby country or state.
With those points out of the way, below are 10 aspects of cultures. (More will be discussed in another article in the near future, but feel free to comment with your ideas.) Consider defining a few cultures for your game’s local campaign area. If you’re doing a top-down approach to building your world, jot down a couple of brief notes about the cultures in each of your game world’s countries. (Keeping in mind that as mentioned above some cultures may span multiple countries and other countries may have more than one culture.)
(See also the follow up article: 10 More Ways to Vary Your Game World’s Cultures.)
- Social Classes: What are the social classes of the culture? Perhaps in a culture that is related to a kingdom (or several) you have the nobility, followed by priests, then soldiers, then some merchants, artisans and tradesmen of respected industries, followed by merchants, artisans and tradesmen of other industries, then peasants and finally serfs or slaves. Another culture that is very militaristic may value soldiers the most (with commandeers held in even more esteem) followed by merchants, artisans and tradesmen in industries that help the military, and so on. Once you’ve established the social classes, consider how they treat each other and how easy it is for someone to move into a different social class. Do the priests shun to poor or care for them? How easily can a slave buy his freedom? If he does, can he become a merchant or is being a peasant the best he can hope for.
- Religion: One key attribute of a culture is the religion of the people. If a religion has a pantheon of gods, people in that same culture may worship different gods. But generally a culture will not have active followers of multiple separate religions. (More on designing a fantasy game religion.)
- Language: Generally the people of a culture will have a common language. They may share it with another culture, and a culture may occasionally have more than one but their will still be a predominant language. In your game, it is hard to go to the extreme of creating a new language, but consider using some common tonal inflections when speaking as a character from that culture and try to use some consistent sounds in name from that culture. Perhaps they have long names, names with many consonants, names that are very soft and flow nicely, etc.
- Appearance (Natural): Most of the people of a culture will have some common traits regarding their appearance. Perhaps this is eye, hair, or skin color, nose size, how their earlobes hang, wide feet, etc. As with all of these factors, all people in the culture won’t have these properties, but variances will not be common.
- Appearance (Additions): The factor applies to clothing, tattoos, piercings and other physical traits such as the deformed skulls of some South American Indians. What is a common outfit for the common and rich/noble people of a culture? Do the people typically have tattoos, piercings, etc.? If so, are tattoos for specific classes of people? Are some only for people who have achieved certain lifetime milestones or success in battle? Maybe women only pierce their ears when they are married. Perhaps people lose a finger if they commit a crime. Or after a battle a warrior receives a mark of achievement.
- Education: How valuable is education in a culture? What is the typical level of education for the different classes of that culture? Is a university-level education available anywhere in the culture?
- Views on Magic and Religion: Some cultures (like the Puritans in early America) make religion the center of life. Everyone is expected to attend church, pay attention during the service, say prayers at mealtimes and bedtime and more. Other cultures may be much more relaxed. The culture’s views on religion will certainly impact the power of the religion in that culture. Likewise, how does the culture view magic? Are they afraid of magic? Treat it (and its practitioners) with respect? Shun it and outlaw it? Why? Perhaps there is a good story behind their views on magic. In any case, the culture’s views on magic will impact how magic users do their work. Maybe there are several mages in every city who cheaply sell potions and minor items that will keep food cold, water the fields in a drought, illuminate an area at night, etc. Or maybe mages live in secret afraid to show their power.
- Technology: What is the technology level of the culture. Not all cultures in the game world will be at the same technology level. Is a culture still in the stone age or bronze age? If they’ve past the bronze age, have they discovered the plough? Suspension bridges? Magnetic compass? Crossbow? Gun powder? Watermill? Catapult? See Wikipedia’s History of Technology page for more.
- Buildings and Structures: Many game worlds simply have the elves living in elegant woodland homes that don’t affect the environment and have dwarves live in mountain dungeons. With the exception of a tribal human group or two, many game worlds ignore the structures used by most cultures.
- Military Service: How does the population view their military? Some populations might respect their military because they are always threatened by neighbors, or perhaps they are respected because they are incorruptable or maybe the military is led by a very personable leader. Another aspect of military service to consider is who is in the military? Are they the made up of the lower classes? Or is the nobility very involved? Does everyone have to perform some military service? These anwsers may vary by country, but the country and the culture imact eachother. If the culture in one country highly respects their military for some reason, the people of that culture in an adjacent country are likely to have somewhat similar feelings.
This will serve as one part of a larger article on cultures in fantasy game worlds. I’ve already written about designing religions (with a couple of example fantasy religions), local campaign area design (also with examples), and fantasy world timelines.
More Ways to Vary You Game World’s Culture will be coming soon.