One of the things that brings characters to life is a realistic culture that they’re embedded in. There are many ways to create vibrant cultures; if you are playing in a pre-existing setting, many of the cultures will be defined in the rulebook or supplements. Unfortunately, players often don’t know that much about the cultures of the world- some don’t own the book or have the specific references, some concentrate their reading on the crunchy bits, and some read similar source material and come away with a very different view of the culture.
If your setting is based on novels, the characters of a culture will tend to embody that culture in reader’s minds- no one would confuse Aiel wanderers with Tear’s Defenders of the Stone in the Wheel of Time series. Homebrew worlds often put some of the information down on paper (though the GM may be the only person who reads it), but most of the information is conveyed through the game as the GM introduces NPCs or answers the players’ questions.
In any case, getting everyone on the same page regarding the broad sweep of a culture is a big step forward to creating a more vibrant world. If the players narrate spitting as the Purple Dragons ride by, watch their words when dining in Castle Amber, or the characters mutiny because the cartridges are greased with an unclean animal, you know that the world and culture are vibrant at your table.
Building Cultural Rules
Sometimes you have a well thought out culture- a real world culture you’ve studied or a nation that’s described in a setting book or novels. For detailed cultures, you begin by boiling down the culture to a short list of rules. The extra information is still valuable- you can portray an Englishman with a lot more depth than any 12 rules. Boiling a culture down to the essentials is useful both for describing the culture to players who haven’t read the source material and as a tool to build characters.
If your culture is simpler- a homebrew culture, a culture from the periphery of a novel, or is entirely new, then you’ll be building a culture up. If you are creating a new offshoot culture, you’ll brainstorm the differences- if there aren’t any, then you probably aren’t looking at a separate culture after all. For extensive guidance on creating new cultures and deriving implicit traits from listed cultures, GMs may want to look into Hard Boiled Cultures  for a solid treatment and several examples. (Hard Boiled Cultures is focused on the 4e races and classes, but the general principles can be applied to any game.)
In my group’s current 3.5 campaign, the PCs struggle against an implacable foe- a powerful and determined dwarven empire. Here are some of the cultural quirks that have come up in play, or that have hovered in the background since the phrase “evil dwarven empire” was first uttered around our table.
2. Stone dwarves are superior to all other races, particularly dwarves of clay
3. Clan loyalties are the highest priority
4. Wealth and prestige comes from holding land and owning slaves
5. Warriors of the Black serve the king directly, leaving clan loyalties behind
6. Reverence the clan standard when you first see it each day
7. Build solidly and lastingly, craft for the ages
8. Demonic allies crush our opposition and strengthen our blood
9. Courage and steadfastness are our way
10. Black is reserved for the nobility and enforced with torture
J. The strong eat their fill, the weak get what’s left
Q. Stone dwarf children are precious; mothers who bear them receive honor
K. The word of the King [or ruler] is the word of the race
Now that you have a solid grasp of your culture, you can make characters that meaningfully relate to it. One cool system, introduced by Simon Carryer takes a dozen rules and a deck of cards to spark character ideas.
When you introduce a character, draw a card from the deck to see what rule the character exemplifies or challenges. Here’s what the suits mean:
Hearts: The character embodies, enacts, or enforces the rule.
Diamonds: The character twists, alters, or avoids the rule.
Spades: The character’s life is altered (for good or bad) by the rule.
Clubs: The character breaks the rule.
For my campaign, the PCs are locked in a bitter struggle against the dwarves. Last session ended with them closing on a basalt block fortress on the Plane of Shadow. They are hunting a sect of dwarven assassins. Let’s draw a few cards and see what characters spring from it.
The Head Assassin: Jack of Diamonds. So, our head assassin twists or alters the rule that the strong eat their fill and the weak get what’s left. Aha! Unusually for a powerful dwarf, Asmund Thorrson remains lean and ascetic, even honing his mind and body to hold ki. He is painfully thin for a dwarf with features drawn sharp with hunger and focus.
His lieutenant drew the Four of Diamonds. Another twist, this time to the rule that wealth and prestige comes from holding land and owning slaves. That suggests the lieutenant’s youth was not one of privilege, that he was recruited for his skill and natural talents. Contrary to society’s expectations, he embraces the wealth and lives the life of luxury earned by his stealthy blade. More traditional nobles and merchants are horrified at a “ruffian” throwing around wealth enough to be compared to them.
One last NPC as an example… the night watchwoman. She drew King of Clubs, which means that she breaks the rule that the word of the King [or ruler] is the word of the race. This character smolders against the King after her mother’s death at the King’s hands; she is here at the citadel to learn the arts of death to use against the king. That’s an interesting quirk that I didn’t plan… I wonder how that will affect her interactions with the approaching PCs?
For more examples and guidance, look to Mo’s post Simon Says . Her examples and discussion are what started me along this path in the first place.
Cultures and Rules
How have you built your cultures in your games and communicated them to your players? Do you find that NPCs are the only characters who ever exemplify a culture– that the PCs are always rootless wanderers who turn their back on the salted tea of their upbringing? What tricks do you have for conveying a culture to the players and getting PCs who fit the world? Share your experiences– successes and failures– with incorporating cultures into play in comments.