How to Build a Unique Culture for D&D

Atop the harrowing heights of the Isen’s Maw, frost giants peer over the vast sea of grinding ice floes, whaling ships, and winter wolves on the hunt. They know an invasion from the depths is coming, they saw the future — a blessed boon handed to them by their mysterious oracle. In the nightmarish Usanni Fissure, battalions of sahuagin ready their chilled tridents, dragonscale armor, and trained narwhals. The frost giants’ grip over them is already strained — this assault will be their undoing. A clash between these two distinct cultures is moments away.

Who will emerge victorious? Being unique cultures, each has their own set of strengths and weaknesses developed over many years of growth and destruction. Whether we know it or not, we all strive to create unique cultures for our Dungeons and Dragons world. Rarely do we directly tear a group or people from Earth or another setting and toss it into our games. Instead, we subconsciously take what we like and mesh it with aspects of different things we love.

In the end, we end up with a unique culture.

In this article, we are going to do just that: create a unique culture for D&D and outline a process for easily doing it in the future.

Let’s roll.

An Initial Concept

We need an initial concept. What are we trying to create? A clan of tabaxi who roam the desert? Multiple tribes of halflings who rule the jungle? A dragonborn city-state built in the Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia? As we can see, we need a creature and a region. These two building blocks are the foundation of our culture. Of course, we could create a culture that contains a plethora of creatures or spans across multiple regions; however, we are going to start simple.

Here is a table we can use to match a creature to a region. Feel free to make new ones, pick from the table, or roll randomly! For our unique culture, I am going to roll two d12. What I get is what we will create. 

Nine and nine! We will be creating a unique culture of goblins who live on the tundra. This is going to be interesting; ideas are already forming. With our creature and region duo decided, let us continue to the next section; it is time to add interesting aspects to our goblinoids.

Three Aspects

Let our minds roam freely, without boundaries or inhibitions. We need to add three interesting, flavorful, or crazy ideas to our culture. Our ideas can come from anywhere: our own minds, real-world cultures we have read about or been a part of, and cultures from books, video games, or movies.

For example, we might want to draw on the Egyptian’s construction of pyramids, the Mongol’s mastery of mounted combat, or the Native American’s rich nature-inspired mythology for a culture in our world. Or, if we want to stray from using history, we could lift the industrialism of Saruman and his uruk-hai, the mysterious elegance of the Others or White Walkers, or the regimented society of Baldur’s Gate and use any of them in our world. The possibilities are endless; and remember, we do not necessarily need to rip ideas from our sources and use them as is — we can alter them as we see fit.

I have more than a few ideas for our tundra-roaming goblins.

Instead of keeping ogres or bugbears around as stronger bodies or meat-shields, our goblins trick and train yetis of the icy steppe. They use them to hunt, guard their lair, haul large objects, and even to ride them into battle. However, they are only allowed to do this if they continue to appease the abominable yeti that lurks in the hills nearby; if she becomes upset, it will be the end of the goblins. They bring her sacrificial animals and humanoids and she allows her spawn to serve the goblins. That’s our first aspect.

Our second aspect delves into the structure of our goblins’ society. In the majority of goblin cultures, the strongest goblinoid rules: a bulky gobbo, a hefty bugbear, a domineering ogre. Our goblins are different — their leader must be dexterous, crafty, and strong, powerful enough to overcome a trial their ancestors constructed decades ago. They must survive Glacial End, a twisting labyrinth carved from the inside of a nearby glacier. Whoever survives Glacial End leads the Tundra Teeth goblin tribe.

This goblin culture only needs one more aspect to finish it off; why not bless them with psionics? Their ancestors were capable of constructing a labyrinthine dungeon and striking a bargain with an ancient Psionics. These old goblins were originally tormented by mindflayers — but they escaped! With them, they took powerful psionic abilities, remnants of the torture. They used these powers to dominate the land around them and carve out a culture. As all goblin cultures do, they succumbed to infighting and though their psionic abilities remained, their unity shattered and their strength faltered. They lost their ability to construct great structures, dominate the landscape, and roll over other creatures.

With all of this knowledge in our minds, now we must write a brief history.

A Brief History

With everything else in place, it’s time to write a quick background for our culture. We don’t want to create a history book or encyclopedia on all aspects of it, just a blurb we can use to remind ourselves what it has gone through. Here’s our goblin’s brief history:

The Gorfneki goblins were forced into the Subterrane many thousands of years ago by barbaric tribes of shifters roaming the icy tundra of Iskryn. They continued to delve further into the foreboding darkness of the world below. Alas, their descent was abruptly halted when they entered the domain of an illithid colony and the Subterranean denizens quickly enslaved the Gorfneki. For hundreds of years, the illithids tore apart, stitched together, and breeded the Gorfneki with other monsters — and themselves. Thanks to the illithids, some of the goblins strangely gained psionic powers. Using this newfound strength, an elder goblin named Northank forged a rebellion against the illithids as they waged war against an invading dark elf force. Barely, Northank lead his goblins out of the illithid’s domain, slowly ascending to the icy tundra of Iskryn — their original homeland. Upon their return, the goblins showed no mercy for the shifters who drove them to darkness, murdering entire tribes of the barbarians and using their bones for terrible idols. The Gorfneki carved out an entire region of Iskryn as their own — Gorthenk. At their leader’s behest, the goblins built a test of skill in a massive glacier called Glacial End. Using this trial of ascendancy, the Gorfneki would choose their next leader when Northank passed on. Eventually, Northank died and a new leader took control of the Gorfneki and Gorthenk. Then another and another and another. However, with each leader’s death, the unity of the Gorfneki broke a bit more, until it broke irrevocably. What was now a collaborative and powerful pseudo goblin nation is now a broken order, roaming the tundra of Iskryn in the shadow of the past.

There we have it: our goblin’s history. With that in place, we have a culture ready to introduce to our players in our D&D game. Over time, it will surely develop further. Who leads the Gorfneki now? Do the illithids wish to enact vengeance upon their escaped experiments? Could the goblins be reunited? What’s their role in the region’s current politics?

In Summary

We all strive to build unique cultures for our D&D world and games. Using this quick but thorough strategy, we can accomplish that with ease. Remember the steps:
  1. Form an initial concept.
  2. Think up three aspects.
  3. Develop a brief history.
As our game and world progresses, the culture will develop further, perhaps until it represents a full-fledged culture like the ones we find in our own world!

Good luck building a unique culture, farewell!

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  1. Lord Caduceus29 May, 2020

    Just came across this blog about a week ago and loving your content! I actually just used this to make an island nation of kobold artificers for my home game, and it was a lot of fun seeing how I adapted to the kind of unusual results I got from the dice.

    1. Good to hear! Let me know if there is anything in particular you would like to read about. I love interacting with other DMs and worldbuilders.

  2. Lord Caduceus04 June, 2020

    I would love to see something, whether an article or Youtube video, about how you organize your world's lore. I'm one of those people who has a lot of great ideas but is really only able to elaborate on them when they're down on paper, but my OCD doesn't like disparate notes.

    1. Added to the list! Expect something soon...