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To begin this discussion, I think a working definition of culture may be in order.

The Following is Adapted From Wikipedia and my own ideas

Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge and inquiry, beliefs and rituals, material possessions - especially art, morals, laws, festivals, and customs, as well as any other capabilities and habits acquired by members of particular society, as well as how these change over time.

In one sense it doesn't matter what the cultural item is, but the point of it is several fold:

  1. To be able to add richness to the gaming world.
  2. To be able to give clues to both the PCs and NPCs "something's not right"
  3. To be able to let them know what's appropriate and what's not
  4. To allow the players (if they think something's not right with it) to have a chance to change the world in some significant way by educating the populace.
  5. To be an allegory to the real world.
  6. It doesn't necessarily have to come from me. It can be partially (tho not completely) player based.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain more about why “how” is stumping you? We need to know more about the problem that you're running into that's stopping you, so that “… just do it?” isn't a valid answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 13 '16 at 2:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ World immersion is the concept. IRL, we grow up knowing how to act appropriately, because we see it modeled; those who don't commit Faux Pas. In RPGs, such things need to be drawn out w/ descriptions, skills checks, & the like. But I shouldn't describe what the characters' actions should be so they don't offend others in XYZ social setting should I? Xavon has the gist of it, but his answer seems like a lot of work, but also lacking rules. (Take for instance an innocent gesture that is polite among one group, yet would deeply offend another.) \$\endgroup\$ – Jesse Cohoon Jul 13 '16 at 3:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ What exactly are you getting stuck on? Is your question something like “how can I convey to the players their PCs' cultural behaviours without telling the players what to do?” or is it something else that you're stuck on? Additionally, “his answer seems like a lot of work, but also lacking rules” indicates that you have a few other specifics that you want, which the question doesn't mention. (In general: if we don't know the crux of the problem, any answer is going to be unhelpful.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 13 '16 at 3:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments are for clarifying content, not posting small or incomplete answers. Please use answer posts to submit answers instead. Prior comments containing answers have been removed. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 13 '16 at 3:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JesseCohoon, it seems like a clear, concrete problem you're asking about. It's one I've struggled with myself over the years. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Jul 14 '16 at 1:38
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Here's what I usually do -- it seems to work well enough:

  • Give the players different short writeups.
  • Model the cultural behavior with NPCs.
  • Tell the players outright when their characters would know something the players don't.

Player Writeups

I like to give each player a short writeup about their hometown culture/environment at the start of the game. To do this well, however, seems to require that it be tailored to the particular character, different for each player, and brief.

Tailored

So if someone's playing a nobleman's son who's joined the musketeers, give that player a writeup about the feuding noble families and the allure of the musketeers.

If someone's playing a horse nomad, give them a writeup about life on the open plains, raising (and possibly stealing) cattle, and the names of a few of the tribes of that region.

If someone's playing a thief from the big city, give them a writeup about places where you can usually find an easy pocket to pick, what sorts of things the guards actually crack down on, and how one usually fences goods in that sort of town.

Different

Even if two people are playing similar characters, give them different writeups. Two horse nomads? For one, write about the time the Scythians came through on a raid. For the other, write about the natural seasons of the horse-raising year.

When the game starts, each player has something to contribute. That little writeup becomes theirs, something special that no one else has. They get to be a contributing member of the team right from the start.

In my experience, players are eager to feel useful, and this lets them be useful in a way that does your job for you.

Brief

Most people don't want to read a book before playing the game. The ideal handout is a half page of solid text -- long enough to have some meat, short enough to leave them wanting to know more.

Also feel free to throw in a picture or two. One painting of a sailing ship in a storm might get across the idea far better than your paragraph about life at sea.

Model with NPCs

Use NPCs to show cultural behavior that the players wouldn't know (or wouldn't expect). Show those NPCs using the culture to their advantage, and the players will have a model to follow.

The last game I ran used a gift economy, where no one bought or sold anything, but instead people gave gifts to cement relationships and gain status. To players used to coins and stores, this was a very foreign concept. So I let them see NPCs giving away valuable items, then later they saw those NPCs command great loyalty from people. I had NPCs give the party valuable things when they asked, then had those NPCs turn around and expect the relationship to continue later on. After about two or three sessions, the players understood the concept quite well. (I was so proud of them the time they gave someone a priceless gold artifact as an insult.)

Modeling the behavior you'd like to see is a powerful thing.

Direct

Don't be afraid to tell players things that their characters would know. Susie might not know that this is a day of silence in the church, but her character would. So when the party comes to town and the players are about to make an announcement in the local cathedral, let them know what their characters already know.

But -- and this is important -- don't tell them what they're allowed to do. Just tell them what they know and let them make the decision.

For example, if this happens:

Party: We walk into the cathedral and call out, "Hey, does anyone know where Mr. Jacobs lives?".

Try saying this instead of having the world around them respond:

DM: Just a heads-up, today is a solemn event where they keep silent vigil in the church all day.

Don't tell them they can't call out, but leave it to them to decide if they really want to or not.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This does not rise to the level of a full answer, but if you get tired of just directly telling them things, you can add a level of indirection with "reference" NPCs, e.g., "Now at this point, your uncle would have probably thought X, Y, and Z. But his wife, who was always a bit an outsider might have argued W about X...." (And, hey, if they ever visit the ancestral home, you've already got a few NPCs fleshed out!) \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jul 14 '16 at 3:37
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Make up a game 'bible' with the information you want them to have. Mark sections based on what classes or skills would have the knowledge and/or are expected to observe them.

For example everyone knows that Thor holds a Festival of Duels the last full week of September. During the week, his follower cannot reject a martial challenge. However only Thor's followers (Fighters, Paladins, his Clerics or anyone with Knowledge Religion of 10+) know that, it is forbidden to fight to the death. And they also know that Thor rewards his follower who win their fights, and punishes the ones who reject a duel. And only Clerics (and past victors) know that there is a special tournament at Thor's main temple, with the winner being granted one wish by Thor.

Distribute the bible to your players, make sure they are aware of the in game date, and that they can read it or not, practice it or not, but that there may be in game bonuses or penalties based on the knowledge there-in.

Of course, that is only if you can trust your players to separate player and character knowledge. If not, you may want to make customized versions of the document that only have the knowledge that each player would have.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Such a document would be a massive undertaking! Even covering the basic races, classes, and geographical regions would be 100s of pages. A calendar of holidays (and planned events from a story aspect) might be a better option, with a listing of appropriate knowledge to bring it to mind, and let them know what's appropriate, maybe? I dunno. \$\endgroup\$ – Jesse Cohoon Jul 13 '16 at 3:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ It can be as big or as small as you want to make it. You don't need races and classes (or at least they were not mentioned in your original question). And if you are planning so many, and such in depth festivals and religious events for the players, you might want to have the document yourself, just to keep it straight in your own mind. \$\endgroup\$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Jul 13 '16 at 3:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you think the document is going to be a massive undertaking, it's probably too much for your players to reasonably remember. If you wanted, you could get the players to write their own bible for their own race/class/religion and submit it to you. That way it would be easier for them to remember and easier for you to manage. \$\endgroup\$ – gaynorvader Jul 13 '16 at 9:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for being the answer. The only way to tell your players about your setting is to tell your players about your setting. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jul 14 '16 at 1:02
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What I found effective for a very detailed world with a lot of cultural/historical stuff that characters should know (and players generally didn't) was pretty simple. I found that writing up long books of world notes, history and culture was futile, since most players are not interested in spending their off time doing "D&D homework". Those sorts of things didn't get read.

Instead, what I would do is prepare my notes before a game session and I would just add a "parenthesis" after a description, usually starting with "by the way". This would be my own little narrative notation giving context. For example:

"You see a beggar woman. By the way, in Ornithalian culture, it's considered good luck to pat beggars on the head." (Or whatever).

That way the player gets the cultural info in context right when it is actually useful for them in order to make a decision. Obviously, this can definitely signal when the DM wants the player to do one thing as opposed to another, but that can be controlled by keeping the "parenthesis notes" very matter of fact and to the point, with as little bias toward one course of action as possible.

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