Implementing Culture in Your Tabletop RPG

Today’s #worldbuildingMonday post is all about how to implement the concept of culture into your story world.

Culture is difficult to define. But in the tabletop role playing game sense, at least from the 30,000 foot view, culture can safely be broken down into three foundational elements:

  1. Values
  2. History & Traditions
  3. Spirituality

Together, you’ll weave these bedrock elements of culture into any major society in your story world. And focusing on these three pillars rather than isolated traits allows for the creation of unique cultures with nuance and depth, rather than cultures which simply represent certain ideas like “war”, “peace”, or “art” or “science.”

Values

On Earth, every culture has a set of values. And those values tend to define the gravity of morality within that culture’s society and where the emphasis is placed on certain actions/inactions. While there are universal “human” values like favoring love over hate, don’t kill innocent people, and being kind & respectful, each culture has its own spin both on those universal values as well as the other values it holds dear.

In some cultures for example, revering and respecting the elderly is critically important. In others throughout history though, reaching old has meant your time has come to join your ancestors and not be a burden on the living. Your story may contain many more species and cultures than just humans – i.e. fantasy and science fiction – and therefore the spectrum of values may be far wider – i.e. the Borg in Star Trek assimilating countless worlds on their relentless march to perfection is abhorrent and evil by human standards.

But regardless of where the culture you’re developing for your TTRPG falls on that spectrum, carefully and thoughtfully defining its values will be crucially important to putting a stake in the ground on what truly defines that culture and society.

History & Traditions

With your culture’s values defined, you can move onto its history and traditions. Now obviously, you don’t have to go overboard and write a novel on the backstory for your culture/society/civilization. You certainly can of course but the critical step here is to define your culture’s turning points throughout its history. What were the major events which shaped how it came to be today? And how did those events manifest themselves as traditions within the culture?

The 4th of July holiday in the United States celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and thus, its freedom from Great Britain, hence Independence Day. So the adoption of the Declaration of Independence is the turning point in the United State’s history and the annual 4th of July traditions & celebrations are part of its culture as a result.

Brainstorm ways, good and bad, your culture’s society has been impacted throughout its history and what effects those impacts had on its culture which last until the present day of your story. How were its people’s mindsets shaped? Worldviews altered? Values changed? Be thoughtful here and consider the many ways a culture can be influenced and rooted in its history.

Spirituality

A cultures values, history, and traditions are often deeply rooted in its spirituality. A spiritual life adds rich and nuanced perspective to any culture. Many cultures embrace, interpret, and judge spirituality in profoundly different ways. Some, ultra-conservative “do-exactly-as-the-lord-commands” types and others more free-flowing, “be one with nature” types and nearly limitless possibilities around and in-between.

Whether overt or secretive and hidden, taking the time to diagram your culture’s spirituality will add a critical component to its context, like finishing a puzzle with the missing piece. And whether you take inspiration from history or totally invent new avenues to spirituality, please take the time to discover and diagram out how your culture approaches this important sphere of life. Your PCs will inevitably intersect with this slice of what makes your culture tic and your story will be made all the richer for your trouble!

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