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Just read through a great question (on getting players to play in line with their characters' cultures) and it got me thinking:

What do you do to make the cultures in your setting differ?

Let's say you have only two cultures in your setting that the PCs will run across. These cultures are found in the same climate region, and they have the same general sort of technology, so those aren't the differentiating factors. What do you do to make them completely different?

Edit: I'm particularly thinking about how cultures vary in behavior.

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

For this I like to start in the same place that I approach new cultures in real life. Food!

Everything about a culture initially developed around means of supporting the civilization that the culture infests. Usually this is very very very food-centric.

Imagine if one of these two cultures you mentioned is focused around grain. They make a lot of bread then, right? Probably then they would make dips; like hummus and lentil based dips for proteins and fats. Figs, grapes (for raisins) and other good fruits for putting in bread would follow. Suddenly we have a fairly vegetarian culture growing out of this.

Now make the second culture start off as herders that used their animal-husbandry to create flocks of livestock that can support their population. They would obviously eat meat, but also (with cows, goats, sheep or similar animals) get milk for cheeses and creams and such.

Now these two civilizations popped up in the same area so they have similar resources for technology. They bump into each other. The animal people need space for grazing and see grain and plants as something that mainly goes to animals while the wheat people need that same space for large fields of crops. Seems like a pretty standard resource/space conflict brewing and it should be pretty obvious at any dinner table which side of the line you are on.

This is a super simplistic example and by no way perfect. But think about other differences the two civilizations would have now, just because of the food they eat. The Wheat people could grow cotton in their fields. The Animal people would wear a lot of leather and fur or wool from sheep for example. It just grows from here.

I hope this helps give you some ideas!

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Lots of good ideas! It seems like food comes up a lot (along with climate and technology) as a factor that distinguishes one culture from another. – Joe Sep 26 '11 at 5:00
+1 geopolitics is a major factor in shaping cultures. – Sardathrion Sep 26 '11 at 7:27
Just to springboard off this: the herders would be more likely to use staves and spears in combat, while the farmers would be more likely to use bladed sickles or thresher flails. The herders' armor would be fur and leather in natural colors, and the plant-based civilization would use thick layers of quilted cloth stitched with small swatches of plow-beast hide. Plant-based dyes could be almost anything, but the hunter/herders would shy away from using blood as a dye because of its scent. – Jurph Sep 27 '11 at 15:05
Differing relationships to resources gives differing property rules, which in turn influence inheritance, which on turn influences marriage rules, which in turn influences extended family structures, which in turn influences politics, morals, social order, gender roles… – SevenSidedDie Sep 27 '11 at 15:10
This is a very good approach, as it can easily be generalized into a bottom-up way of defining culture regardless of where you start. – evilcandybag Oct 2 '11 at 9:33

You can base them on existing cultures that you're familiar with. For example, southern China, western Africa, and northern Argentina have vaguely similar climates (very vaguely!), but radically different cultures. You probably don't want adjacent cultures to be quite that different.

Alternatively, pick different choices for:

  • Hair style. (Short hair or long for men or women? If long, up or down? Facial hair? Dying? Beads, clips? Hats, skullcaps, veils?)

  • Clothing. (Cotton? Leather? What colors? Elaborate, dressy, revealing, plain? What jewelry worn where, if any? Skirts? Dresses? Kilts? Boots, shoes, or sandals?)

  • Weaponry. (Swords? Spears? Heavy armor or light? Sword-and-shield or two-hander? Displayed openly or considered bad form?)

  • Food. (Spicy? Lots of stews/curries/soups? Long noodly things, or grains, or flatbread/tortilla/crepe?)

  • Social interactions. (Reserved or exuberant? Are there many rituals or few? Bow? Shake hands? Kiss? Are there many layers of formal address, or one, or none?)

  • Animals and pets. (Are any sacred? Which are kept as pets? Are animals common? What are they used for?)

  • View of different ages. (Are children revered? To be seen but not heard? Are the old venerated for wisdom? Are the youthful praised for vigor? Who should show deference to whom?)

Try to make these all fit together well enough for each side, and they can't help but feel different. ("Those barbarians don't even wash apples before eating them!")

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+1 for the simple phrase "Who should show deference to whom?", tons of potential right there! – Joe Sep 26 '11 at 8:21
I love playing with cultural reactions to race and gender -- there is a nomadic culture in my campaign that reveres the eladrin as 'ancestors'. So my party's eladrin ranger, who is a refugee from the feywild and has no idea what's going on in this wacky mortal plane, is treated as the Most Worthy. Whenever the party meets someone from that culture, they immediately clear a path to her character and he becomes the party 'face' for that social encounter. – Jurph Sep 27 '11 at 15:07

One thing that worked for me is to let the player come up with a set of rumours about their culture. Most have to be true, if seen from a certain point of view. Add exaggerations and weird modifications of the truth and you will get something quiet nice. Stereotypes of real life cultures will help you there. I would strongly suggest read The History by Herodotus. It will give you a clear idea of how a Greek saw the rest of the world and how the rest of the world saw the Greek at the time. Plus, everyone should read it. It is that good.

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+1 for Herodotus, really worthwhile read. – Joe Sep 26 '11 at 8:22

Encourage each player to develop the details of one culture.

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Could you elaborate on this a bit more? – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 19 '12 at 15:48
I'm not sure there's more to say. Make each player a mini-GM with respect to the details of a culture. Distribute setting creation to your players. – okeefe Jul 3 '12 at 0:34

Remember that cultures in your game are really only different if they are different to the players. Cuisine is a distinct cultural element in the real world, but it's not guaranteed to be noticed by your players; they might not look at the menu in the restaurant, and even those who do might not notice what's unique about it.

In order to make cultures differ in the eyes of the players, there are two approaches you can take:

  1. Choose a cultural difference and design an adventure around it, or
  2. Design an adventure and then derive a cultural difference from it.

The two approaches have the same goal: Making cultural differences important enough to the players that they cannot avoid noticing them.

As an example of the first approach, let's continue with the idea of cuisines as important cultural differences. How can we make this relevant to an adventure so that they players are sure to notice it? We could invite the PCs to a banquet in a foreign land where an assassin kills important figures using poisons and ingredients unique to that land. Solving the mystery requires a thorough look at the banquet's menu, rummaging through the kitchen, and learning about the peculiarities of the nation's cuisine.

The second approach is the reverse of the first, so we start with the adventure and try to extract a cultural difference from it. Let's say the party is searching for a wizard in a foreign land. We could make the culture of this nation very hostile towards wizards, which will make the search more challenging: Some will refuse to help because they are afraid of arcane magic, others will tell the authorities about a hidden wizard operating in the land, and a few might even become hostile toward the PCs for asking.

In both cases, the players are guaranteed to pick up on the cultural difference because they're important to the adventure itself. This can in turn prompt the players to find out about other cultural differences, including those that might not have an impact on the adventure.

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I found in my own game that having a fairly long back story as to how each part of the world came to be, who sailed there and why they went, why the Orcs like this forest and settled there, the islands people tend to have more to do with the sea. Many cultures bring their past with them, while the Thuskin people live in the tropical clime of the islands they still have 32 different words for snow as they once lived in the arctic circle. Differing systems of coin or wealth and what each actually values comes from the history of the group. The more back story the world has the simpler it becomes to know the difference between a local and a visitor.

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Great answer! I'll give you a bit of info from real life linguistics: when a group loses some feature of their world (like snow, moving to the tropics), the words referring to that feature either change what they refer to or disappear. For example, the Navajo moved from an area with canoes to a desert area without them. Their word for the gliding of a canoe through the water turned into a word for the gliding of a bird through the air. – Joe Sep 30 '11 at 16:46

Cultures are large, and come from many sources. It is not like a line drawing, more like a weaving. And one of the hardest things to create is the feeling of a natural cultural bleed, especially in areas that are between 2 cultural-bases.

In addition to some of the other good ideas above....

  • Culture is best understood and expressed through language. If you don't believe me, google "Culture Language" and prepare for the anthropological onslaught. So in game, create some language-behavioral ties and facts. Creating extra words and emphasis on violence and vengeance in warlike culture, some special food terms for a gastronomic culture, etc.

  • In this vein, map out the languages of each area to understamd cultual ebb and flow. Think of all the words we use that were taken from other cultures...and use that idea to show a culture that has bled into an area. Street toughs and the underworld in Igbar, a capiatl in my main setting, use a lot of Orcash slang, which signifies the recent entry of the orcash cultures into the underworld of that city.

  • Culture is huge. Take the time to create a central repository of this knowledge (wiki, website, googledoc, etc) so that you can add onto it and layer on it. It gets more real as you do this, and this also stops you from making silly mistakes.

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Differences between cultures evolve over time. Lets say two cultures co-exist on two sides of a wide river (east and west). The Eastlanders are exposed to other cultures on a regular basis, while the Westlanders have a far border on a rough ocean. The Eastlanders are more than likely to have very intimate relations over time with various invaders, more likely to be exposed to different customs related to food, marriage, cross-generational issues etc. If ocean travel is particularly challenging, the Westlanders may only have limited contact with other cultures that are capable of braving the ocean travel. Or, they could have many traditions that effectively remain unchallenged for a very long amount of time, except for the limited communication across the river with the more worldly, tough and "unpure" Eastlanders. Something that becomes widely used for efficiency purposes (such as the fork) by Eastlanders could be viewed with suspicion for some time by the Westlanders.

It really helps to have some extended experience trying to "swim" in an alien culture. Submerge yourself in one and you'll get lots of ideas.

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