Part of creating an immersive world is creating a wide variety of people to live in it. Variety which extends beyond accents and alignments. If you’ve ever had any kind of significant encounter with another culture, you begin to understand how very different humans can be. Things which you take for granted, things which seem fundamentally true, simply do not occur to someone raised on the other side of the world. Your fundamental beliefs about society and identity might even seem ludicrous to them. You may feel as though your way of thinking is the correct way, you may even be right to think that. I, personally, refuse to accept the profound sexism which is inherent to many cultures as a simple difference of opinion. But whether or not I accept it doesn’t mean jack shit to the ten million, or two hundred million, or two billion people who were raised in that culture. The fact is that culture defines us in ways that we cannot even comprehend. It’s something I’ve touched on before.
When creating a unique culture for a game world, it never hurts to throw in a quirk or two which will help the players connect to just how different these people are. It’s not too terribly hard to come up with this kind of stuff, as sources for inspiration are plentiful. If you watch Star Trek (and lets face it, you do) there are plenty of episodes where cultural oddities are a plot point. This is a good source for inspiration on genetic oddities which would influence culture as well. You can also look at lists of wacky laws. The Internet has been in love with these since the earliest days of elderly folks forwarding emails to everyone they’ve ever met, so it should be no trouble to find them on google. And, as always, reality is a wonderful sourcebook. I just finished explaining how unusual human culture can get, and ten minutes of research will likely turn up a dozen things your players will find pretty damned unusual. No need to limit yourselves to humans either! Animals have their own cultures, and the mating habits of the angler fish would make a wicked awesome cultural quirk.
To get you started, here’s a list of some stuff I came up with. Some of these are inspired by reality, others are straight up lifted from science fiction. Anybody who can guess where I lifted the third one down from gets a cookie.
- Either as a baby, or during a coming of age ritual, a child is bitten/stung by a poisonous animal which is sacred to the culture. The poison is allowed to fester, and the pain is seen as a spiritual test. The oddly shaped mark left by the experience will be interpreted by a religious figure within the culture. Generally the meaning will be derived from the scar’s shape.
- Each member of a culture has a riding creature with which they form a special bond. If the two go into battle together and the riding creature is slain, but the rider is not, then the rider is sent alone into the wilderness. If they bond with another companion, then that creature is said to be the original creature, reincarnated. If the deceased companion instead wants its rider to join it in death, he or she will be unable to find a new companion creature.
- A culture believes it is arrogant to use personal pronouns, because using one implies that everyone should know who you are. Instead, each creature uses its personal name whenever it needs to refer to itself. If a member of this culture is ashamed or embarrassed, they may seek anonymity by using their surname to refer to themselves (or in extreme cases, their clan, or even species name.)
- The dead are buried in graves, but a small hole is left in the ground so that relatives may reach into it and touch the forehead of their loved ones.
- This culture prefers dirt floors. Even if their civilization is advanced, with paved roads, and high towers, the floors of their homes will be dirt and plantlife. Even floors above ground level will have high enough ceilings that a couple feet of dirt can be piled onto the floor.
- Most of a culture’s males are eunuchs. Depending on the size of the group, different numbers of breeding males will be allowed. Once a year, all males of a certain age gather for some form of contest. Either they fight for the right to breed, or the breeding males are selected by the culture’s females.
- Male and female members of a culture live completely separately, coming together only occasionally to trade, and mate. As an example, the women of the culture build cities, and represent their culture to others, whilst the men of the culture are nomadic, and spend their lives hunting and patrolling the culture’s territory. The males return to the city perhaps once a year.
- Certain tasks which are necessary are considered taboo, and cannot be performed in a direct manner. For example, a cleric can only examine a patient’s back by looking at it in a mirror, because the back is considered taboo.
- Children are married to one another within the first few months of their lives, and one child is given to the parents of the other child. The “married couple” are then raised together by a single set of parents. Their upbringing focuses heavily on learning to function together as a unit.
- A culture’s leaders are brought back as a special type of undead which exists primarily to give advice to the current leader. The leader of a small tribe might have a small council of 5-10 previous leaders to call upon. While the monarch of a long-standing kingdom might have an elaborate crypt filled with former rulers extending back dozens, or even hundreds of generations.
- A certain day of the year is considered extremely unlucky, and any children born on this day are killed.
- The wedding ceremony is a ritual combat between the bride and groom. The victor is the “head” of the relationship, and the other must swear to obey them.
- While a mother is engaged in labor, the father must leave to search for a precious stone. This stone will be fashioned into a piece of jewelry which the child will wear throughout their entire life. He must return either before sundown, or before the child is fully born (whichever comes last), or the child will be given a simple piece of stone. Purchasing a stone, receiving help in finding the stone, or hiding the stone away before labor begins, is grounds to execute both father and child. The value the stone holds within the culture will determine the child’s social standing for the rest of their life.
- One gender owns all property, but is not allowed to govern it themselves. The other gender may own no property, but governs over the property of their mates. The property-owning gender is at liberty to switch mates at any time if they are unhappy with their partner’s ability to govern.
- All crimes are punishable by death. With such a steep cost, who would break even a simple rule? You’d have to be stupid to do something like step in somebody’s flower garden.
- Ears, teeth and scalps are common “trophies” for savage races, but why stop there? Hands, tongues, noses, big toes, even internal organs like kidneys could be dried out and made into keepsakes.
Any thoughts of your own?