How can you encourage players to role play in line with their culture, either fictional or realistic?

For example in a campaign with American players playing mainly European characters, I've noticed that the players show no signs of being anything other than American.

In fantasy settings elven characters are often indistinguishable in culture from the human characters.

What can be done through the GM's role-playing, rules, and incentives to encourage the players to accurately represent their character's culture (at least a little).


12 Answers 12


Show them. :) It's always best to lead by example. Have your Non-player characters use specific references and attitudes that can be easily copied -- however clumsily at first! -- and keep on hammering them with good examples until they get the hang of it.

If and when players lapse into American-speak or other characteristics you don't want to encourage, again rely on your NPCs. Have them misunderstand, react poorly to innocent comments, and provide other negative reinforcement (tho as little as necessary) to illustrate the worst-case scenario.

As noted in other responses here, reward it when they try. Keep the rewards small at first, but specify clearly exactly how much they're getting for which comments, attitudes, and actions. Then increase the rewards in response to more and better attempts. Next thing you know you'll have started a trend... and the better players of such roles will be getting bigger and better rewards. They'll keep leading by example, taking a lot of the load off your shoulders.

Finally, find written works (if you can) that can supply both ideas and one-liners that can be used or copied by the players. Such things will vary widely by setting and culture, else I'd recommend specific examples.

Best of luck!


Provide incentives to do so. IRL, a culture provides its members with ways of navigating their way through the world and models and examples for dealing with complex situations. This isn't all culture gives us, of course, but it's useful for thinking about how to structure incentives for paying attention to it.

One possible method for providing incentives is to structure some mechanical element of the game so that it reinforces the concerns of members. For example, the 40K RPGs do a very good job with corruption and insanity points of providing reasons for PCs to fear and hate their enemies - trying to be more merciful or accepting can actually warp and twist their bodies, minds and souls.

Runequest cults are another good example of this. Only members of certain cultures can become members of certain cults, and cult members who wish to gain access to more powerful magic and assistance from the cult have to demonstrate their knowledge of and loyalty to the cult.

Another possible method is to design situations in game so that they are comprehensible only by demonstrating knowledge of the culture and the world, or so that PCs are rewarded for demonstrating this knowledge. For example, I have a homebrew setting called the Dawnlands that has nomadic tribes of elves and humans. The tribes are split into two related but slightly different and hostile cultural groups called the Hill People and the Kadiz. The Kadiz have domesticated horses, while the Hill People have not.

My Kadiz PCs recurrently ran into situations where they had to distinguish the allegiance of one settlement or another. One simple way to do this was to look around at a distance and check to see if they had horses. While not surefire, it really reinforced the division in their minds, and it helped them avoid trouble and navigate the plains more effectively.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for this: "Another possible method is to design situations in game so that they are comprehensible only by demonstrating knowledge of the culture and the world, or so that PCs are rewarded for demonstrating this knowledge." Spot on. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 28, 2012 at 0:23

The answer is the same no matter which behavior you wish to encourage:

Immediate reward with some token. That token should be good for either experience, rerolls, or snacks, but it should be redeemable by end of session. When you give it, say nothing, but hold up a card saying why, eg: "Rolplayed Cultural Stuff"... and hand him the poker chip which has a "200XP" sticker, or "20% chance of a Mountain Dew on the GM" on the sticker, or whatnot.

But the reward needs to be tokenized at the time of the behavior, and the token needs to be redeemable quickly for maximum effect.

(While this is firmly grounded in educational theory, it really does work quite well. Even if it's only "Note a bonus XP"...) Several games now have explicit "reward immediately" mechanisms. While they do interrupt narrative flow at times, they also strongly reward desired behavior.


I often run Steal Away Jordan, a game in which players play slaves in the Antebellum South. In that game, roleplaying the culture is pretty essential.

To encourage it, I often ask leading questions. For example:

Player: "So I go and talk to the overseer." Me: "Right. When will you do that? Do you just break off from your work and walk towards him?" Player: "Yeah, I think I would." Me: "OK. So all the other slaves watch you as you walk towards him. Are you making eye contact with him?" Player: "No, staring at the ground."

I try not to directly block an idea. For example, I don't say: "You can't just walk up and talk to the overseer!". Instead, I ask the questions.

Oh, and I tell them the consequences, too. Sure, they can talk back to the landowner, but he likes using his whip. Are they OK with that? Then go ahead.

So perhaps there is something similar you can do in your game. For example, if a dwarf wants to talk back to his father, you could say: "What, you're going to say that to his face? You know that could destroy the family honour?". And, if they're OK with that, then great. But you've asked the questions and pointed out the consequence.

Hope that's useful. (Steal Away Jordan can be a controversial game, but it's a good one, and useful for this thread, I think.)


Your expectations may be too high - what makes you think your players know how to roleplay other cultures? Speaking in my capacity as an American and a former anthropology major, I'm honestly uncertain how I would roleplay a European character differently than an American character. I simply don't know what the differences are; I think I could probably do a reasonably competent portrayal of a character from, say, the Kalahari desert or Baluchistan, because I happen to have read books about cultures from those regions.

But any kind of adequate documentation about cultural customs and norms are actually fairly rare in fictional settings, and it can be especially difficult for "generic" races like dwarves or elves, and in the absence of setting-specific cultural information, a player's ability to role-play a fantasy race is going to lie somewhere between "exactly like a generic human" and "like a generic stereotype elf/dwarf" (all elves are vegans and archers and live in forests and frolic in the spring and are immortal; all dwarves have beards and speak in thick Scottish accents and are alcoholic and love money and gold and are miners.)

But even in the absence of how dwarves behave in any particular setting, I can fall back on my knowledge of Warhammer Fantasy dwarves and Pratchett dwarves and D&D dwarves (as described in Races Of Stone, although god knows that even most D&D dwarves don't adhere to that information.) If I'm playing, say, a German character? Well, then, damn - I don't think I've ever seen a sourcebook for German characters in my FLGS that can advise me on how to act German.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ The trick is for a few clear cultural tags. Some games have excellent such tags; Arrowflight, Traveller, Torg, and Talislanta provide excellent sketches which make it rather easy to understand the cultures. A few other games have cultural differences mechanically, such as Pendragon. In those games, the different cultures work differently, so they are easily played by just relying upon mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Oct 10, 2010 at 3:32
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ More of a comment than an answer. A more useful answer-y way of stating it might be to "seek out sourcebooks or other sources that explain those cultures more in depth and refer your players to them." \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 10, 2010 at 15:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, the problem is that, to the best of my knowledge, those sources often don't exist. I suppose you could say that my answer is "Don't expect so much from your players about this matter". \$\endgroup\$ Oct 10, 2010 at 18:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, Pratchett's dwarfs are quite clearly Welsh, look you. (At least, the ones from Copperhead are. And the low king of the dwarfs, who's from Copperhead, is even called Rhys.) \$\endgroup\$
    – TRiG
    Dec 28, 2012 at 18:52

It starts with "don't penalize them for it." Many times, I've seen GMs promote/insist on culturally diverse PCs but then, in the game, penalize them for not behaving like they think someone (usually a white male American) should act, or look down on it when it is causes disjoint goals amongst the players. "Yes, I know your culture says that is taboo or whatever, but stop acting up, let's go in there and get the treasure."

Many a scenario is based on modern assumptions. "Well of COURSE slavery is bad, and cannibalism is objectively evil, and class distinctions are just silly." Even many RPGs that try to be "authentic" fall into this trap, trying to justify PC groups of varying classes, races, and genders in, say, Victorian England where that is just not realistically on the table. But I often see adventures whose rewards and hooks are based upon NOT really thinking as a different culture. (D&D is a particularly bad offender here, as the alignment system often is wielded as a brickbat and makes a mess of attempts at nuanced roleplay.)

On a more positive note, you as the GM need to understand the culture and reinforce it from time to time. In my current Reavers on the Seas of Fate game set in Golarion, most of the PCs are exotic - a Mwangi (African), Ulfen (Viking), Chelaxian (devil and slavery loving European), and halfling (slave race in Cheliax). Bringing in elements from their culture and stressing others' perceptions of them helps. (Whenever a Chelaxian navy ship pulls them over, they alway assume the halfling is a manservant/cabin boy... When confronted with weird voodoo, I give the Mwangi a bit more inside information...) NPCs seek out PCs like them and shun ones unlike them. A little bit of that gets it on the players minds, and then they tend to explore it as a way to get more leverage in the gaming world.


An interesting method might be to borrow Mouse Guard's "Beliefs, Instincts, Goals" model. Write up at least one Belief, Instinct, and Goal for a culture, then hand it to the players as a "fact sheet".

What are Beliefs, Instincts, and Goals? They're general tendencies and character-shaping traits. In the game, they're the primary spark points used to generate conflict.

Belief: Something that a character holds to be true, and generally sticks to, though it will sometimes conflict with their Goal in some situations. That makes for interesting drama. A sample cultural Belief might be "Strength comes from military might; we survive by conquest."

Instinct: Something that a character reflexively does, much of the time. It's there to cause trouble. Something such as "When things get complicated, start a fight."

Goal: Something that a character hopes to achieve. There can be long-term goals, and also temporary goals. A goal could be "Become the strongest of my friends."

Transpose these onto cultures, and suddenly you have all sorts of fodder for interplay. Amusingly enough, this also reminds me of Hetalia: Axis Powers, an animated show that personifies the nations of Europe during WWII as humans...


The first question is whether you and your friends are all on the same page. If they aren't interested in representing cultural differences, forcing them to is not a great choice.

Assuming culture is something you all want to explore, as GM you have unlimited opportunity to lead by example. Create situations and challenges that can only be addressed through manifestations of culture. Send them to a diplomatic feast where meticulous adherence to decorum is essential. Make them negotiate a peace treaty because they, themselves, represent both sides. Create a "crime" that isn't a crime by certain cultural mores.

A game's system reinforces cultural values, either implicitly or explicitly. Generic fantasy reinforces a particular world view and code of behavior (feudalism, racial exceptionalism, the absolute reality of good and evil), even when these things aren't called out - they are baked into every assumption. A good example of a game with explicit reinforcement of cultural values is How We Came To Live Here, which puts culture front and center as part of everything the characters do.


A lot of people focuses on external details of a different culture. Things like the funny clothes, different manners, and different customs. That is hard to do because it involves memorizing details. If you try to simplify things then you wind up with caricatures which can be also unsatisfying.

My opinion is that the heart of having different cultures is that they have different motivations. That what you need to focus on. The High Elves have different concerns from the Grey Elves, who have different concerns than the Mountain Dwarves, who have different concerns from the humans of Imperial Ghinor and so on.

The way I implement this in the backgrounds for player character. Before each campaign I sit down with each player and together we work up a background for their character. The player throws out some ideas and I give her some choices as to how they would work in my setting. We go back and forth until we have a background that both of us are happy with.

The key element is in the choices you give the player. I know the cultures and societies of my setting in detail, the player generally doesn't. The choices are tailored to reflect the origins of the characters. An elf focused on revenge for orcs killing his family is going to look different than a dwarf with the same issues or a human. All of this comes out when developing the background.

Also this processes teaches the player how you implement different cultures. Even they don't pick certain options you give them just the fact you presented them and talked about them teaches the players how that culture works.

Ultimately the reason you put work into this is that because cultures have different motivations they may come in to conflict when they conflict. This conflict is fodder for an adventure which is the heart of tabletop roleplaying games.

I am not too enamored of mechanical rewards for roleplaying. I find that mechanics for roleplaying often lead to unrealistic results as players game the mechanics. The best one I seen are traits system, like in Pendragon. What they are in effect are short concise descriptions of the longer verbal descriptions I talk about above. They help players remember what important to their character.


(Adding to all the answers above) I'd try adding / weaving in cultural details instead of my players for a while - interesting(!), noticeable differences that would sometimes result in minor advantages, sometimes in minor disadvantages. I'd keep doing this until either I grew tired of it (and decided to run a different game :)) or until they get the hang of it.

Examples: 1. Say, your players are eating in a restaurant. The scene would have nothing special, in fact it would be no more than this sentence ("You get some food in a posh local restaurant before heading out to find the nightgaunt's lair"), but you turn it into a culturally interesting minor scene: "While you're eating, you notice that a man at the next table keeps giving you more and more irritated looks. After a while he rises and steps to you, asking you foreigners bluntly to be so kind and stop making these disgusting noises, eating in silence as well-mannered people do? Do you explain to him that in your country munching is a sign of being appreciative of your food, or do you ignore or perhaps dismiss him in some manner? (...) While doing so, you notice that three tables from you another man is watching the events with great interest - he seems to be of the same nationality as you, and he's got a weird old tome open beside his plate." Repeat this (not word by word :)) a few times, and soon hopefully your players will announce by themselves how their characters eat in various "environments."

2. You're playing a fantasy setting with a dwarven PC in the party. The players announce that their characters call it a day, go to sleep and will continue their journey tomorrow. You don't have any encounters planned for the night - yet you tell them that when it's the dwarf's turn to stand guard, he semi-consciously (out of habit, not realizing he's doing something unusual) takes small, hot stones from around the fire they built for the night and places them right on his companions chests... Waking and surprising them. When questioned about his bad joke, he, a bit hurt, explains them that he was just trying to give them good dreams, warming their heart - an ancient dwarven custom out in the cold caverns. Next time they prepare to go to sleep, if they don't remember this by themselves, have the dwarf PC roll an IQ test (or something) to avoid repeating it... or ask his player whether he wanted to repeat it on his own."

Things like these should stick in your players minds. Make culture a meaningful and significant part of the story. Make differences count, turn them into (minor) plot devices.


Make the differences as explicit as you can, and then demonstrate those differences by showing the members of the culture behaving that way to each other as well as to the PCs. As a blunt tool, you can always increase the difficulties of social checks to reflect "inappropriate" in-group behavior.


Well the first suggestion I would use is to heavily reward those who do. make it obvious that those wgo are worst at not doing it were loosing out on XP or bennies or hero points or whatever. Might seem heavyhanded but the more players do this, the better the experience for everybody and thats the very reason to reward players.

Second I would work with the players to create a idiot card or role-playing hints paragraph perhaps, soemthing they could glance at to remind them of character traits specific to a culture or trope. Things to jog thier memory and their portrayal. This can be used to remind us Americans say ass instead of Arse, that us Brits say Bollox instead of damn, etc.

Third, have the GM ask a player guilty of particularly bad examples something like - "... and how would your character say that? Being as he is a [insert culture]." If tied to the first hint this will just be the Gm helping players out with an oportunity for rewards rather than having a dig at their Role-playing tecnique.


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