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Creating Cultural Notes for DnD Settings and Characters

by Jae
cultural notes

In DnD having cultural notes on your settings can be both a tremendous time saver and a functional tool. When doing any amount of world building these things can get overwhelming quickly. Trying to hold on to too many details makes it hard to create and organize thoughts in a useful way. A little bit of structure can help you get through preparation much faster and cultural notes can be a real lifesaver.

Why Use Cultural Notes?

Culture is an important detail for world building as a whole. While cultures can be rich and complex and change from area to area, they can provide a lot of structure and reusable elements that can help you reduce your mental load when building any setting for DnD. A good cultural note sheet can cut down on the time it takes you to build an area as well as improve your ability to improvise in a pinch.

What is Culture Anyway?

Culture is broadly defined as the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a people or nation. This covers everything from greetings to great works to be proud of. It’s the unifying thread that people use to associate with that group. When building out a DnD setting, all of these little things form a sort of template you can use when describing an area or location without having to reinvent it every time.

Basic Cultural Identities for Story Telling

Because we’re telling a story and playing DnD we can strip down a lot of the complex intricacies of what a culture is. While in real life a culture is a rich tapestry full of history, for our purposes we can start very simple. What type of food do people eat? What types of clothing do they wear? Does a region have a particular accent or way of speech? Even things as simple as greeting conventions can help make an area feel like it has a unique culture.

Additionally, you might have a few other basic items that the real world doesn’t have. A culture in your story might have population mixes of different fantasy creatures. A culture might have traditional spellcasting styles or schools of magic. Weapon choice could also be something of cultural significance that in real life we rarely see today.

Cultural Set Dressings

Cultures also tend to have a lot of traditions. Religious preferences, festivals, ceremonies, styles of governance- these are all culturally significant. These facets of culture in DnD might show up less frequently and don’t need complex design, but cultures that subsist on farming might have a harvest festival or a planting ceremony. Cultures that focus on trade might worship dragons and their tendency to accumulate wealth.

All of these things are perfect set dressings for you as a DM because once you have them listed out, you can lay them over any general setting and get a much more exciting scene. If your players show up to a town on the day of a festival, you can describe how people are dressed, what they’re eating, and why they’d celebrate in the first place. A few simple notes make it far easier to tie once disparate ideas together into a cohesive piece for your players to interact with and learn about.

Ideas and Belief Systems

Culture is not just about the way people are presented outwardly. It’s also about how they think and feel overall. Knowing if a cultural group in your game is for or against magic, trusting of outsiders, or has any taboos can be invaluable to the overall story.

Just by jotting down that a group is more conservative and reserved can change how you roleplay all the NPCs in an area dramatically. Knowing that casting magic flippantly is taboo might also be a good way to get your players in trouble they couldn’t see coming. Creating tension with these different cultural beliefs can create all sorts of interesting and dynamic stories between your players and the world without any major planning or railroading.

How to Take Cultural Notes the Easy Way

When you’re ready to put together some notes on a culture you can break the cultural notes into a few categories:

Each one of these sections can be filled out as much or as little as you need for your campaign, but each should have enough for you to quickly produce an NPC that players could identify as being a part of that culture without you telling them that.

The basics will include items from the following:

  • Common Cultural Food
    • Everyday meal
    • Fancy/Special Occasion Foods
    • Any special eating implements, cookware, or dishware
  • Cultural Dress
    • Common Colors
    • Common Styles
    • Clothing Restrictions/Requirements
  • Greetings and Mannerisms
    • Common Sayings
    • Handshake or Gestures
    • Niceties (what they say when you sneeze or if/when they bow)
  • Accents and Languages
    • Common with any accents
    • Other spoken languages
  • Common Jobs or Types of Subsistence
    • Any cultural specialties (like weaving or fishing)
    • Farmers/Nomads/Hunter Gather/Traders/ etc.

Events and Histories could contain:

  • Recent Wars
  • Arts, Achievements, or Monuments
  • Defining cultural moments (escaping disaster, throwing off oppression, etc.)
  • Festivals
    • Simple Seasonal Festivals
    • Complex condition based festivals (return of a hero, end of a battle, etc)
  • Ceremonies
  • Gods or Religions
  • Population Racial mix
    • One race or many?
    • Half-Races common or Uncommon?

For Ideals and Beliefs you could use the following:

  • General Disposition
    • Are they welcoming?
    • Are they chatty?
    • Are they trusting?
  • How do they feel about Magic?
  • How do they feel about Religion?
  • How do they feel about other cultures?
  • List out things that are Taboo
  • List out unique goals or beliefs
    • “Make money at all costs
    • “The world is an illusion”

Once you’ve got a good portion of these jotted down, it’s easy to organize them into a cheat sheet that you can go back to whenever you need to create a new character or set a scene. If you’re really ambitious you can add in a lot of other reusable details like notes about architecture or crafting styles, types of art they’re known for, and so many other things. Since you’re making a cheat sheet out of these notes, the work you do here isn’t lost and ends up being an efficient use of your session planning time.

Cultural Notes Are A Simple Timesaver

Creating cultural notes helps you avoid writing so much from scratch when you’re working on your settings and sessions. Putting together a sheet can help you create fantastically robust characters and places on fly as well. You still need to remember that a culture is a guideline for NPCs and setting creation and not everything is dictated by it to the letter. But having a cheat sheet will help you focus on what makes a character or a location unique. Try out a culture note sheet and level up your world building!

Happy DMing!

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