Canon, Your Homegrown Setting, and You

Our lives change constantly, as do our views and levels of creativity. For those of us who construct vast Dungeons & Dragons settings and worlds for our players to place their characters in and explore, this brings a dilemma. How do we stay true to all the wild escapades, heart-racing adventures, and ground-breaking campaigns that occur in our world? We all have an opinion on the role of canon in works of fiction—and we should carve one out for our own worlds as well.

Canon’s origins are holy, and canon maintains its religious meaning across our modern culture. The canons of our favorite shows, movies, and books matter to us. I am sure you have an opinion on the Great Stars Wars Canon Reset launched by Disney. I know many folks dislike J.K. Rowling’s approach to using Twitter to expand and retcon the world of Harry Potter. Of course, even ancient canons like the oral histories and tales of Herodotus or the Bible itself are still fiercely debated.

Presently, I am reading Dune for the first time. I know if, back when he was alive, Frank Herbert suddenly changed the name of Arrakis to Ikonon, gave Paul a third arm, or something silly along those lines, people would be rightly outraged.

With all of this in mind, think about what classifies as canon for your setting.

Is your world based on or literally the Forgotten Realms? If so, is all published material canon? What about novels? Video games? Do you reset the world with every new campaign, or do the actions of past adventures affect the present game?

Do you create your own world? If that’s the case, is everything you’ve written or thought set in stone and canon? Can your players add to your world’s canon? Or is that only something you can do? Similar to the Forgotten Realms question, do you reset your world with each story, or does every story build atop the previous one?

Let’s delve into Eldar and my view of canon in it as an example.

I began my amateur worldbuilding career as a fan of pure high fantasy. Dungeons, dragons, magic, gods, all the pillars of hundreds of other imaginary worlds out there. My dwarves were like the dwarves of Tolkien: sturdy miners who hated goblins and giants but loved forging wondrous weaponry. Over time, my tastes changed. My ideas...they changed.

The thoughts I had about my world in years past no longer appealed to me, but I had run campaigns in it, my players had altered the world, experienced it. I loved it, the world already had a living history! I couldn’t throw Eldar I updated it, following one simple rule.

If the player characters encountered or encounter something in the world, that thing became or becomes canon, with few caveats. 

That’s it. That’s my world’s definition of canon and I'm staying with it.

I’m comfortable with this single rule because I can work within its bounds and continue to follow the vision I have for my D&D world.

I steer the story at the table, and while I let my players construct bits and pieces of my world, I think of them as children building sand castles. Their worldbuilding is malleable by me, the parent, and, if it has a poor foundation, it’s also destructible by me, the tide.

Every campaign, adventure, and moment is a new addition to my world's canon: the actions of past heroes and vagabonds affect the present. Of course, there's leeway on how much, but the important takeaway is that the decisions the players and their characters committed to impact the world and the fragments of the world they experienced exist in the present, though they might be reimagined in the distant future.

For example, when Aku and Cloud in the Eyes halted Yeenoghu's terrifying entry into the Material Plane from the Abyss, that moment was woven into the fabric of Eldar. Its ramifications shot across the world, altering dozens of plot threads and storylines I had planned for the time, in addition to stories I didn't even know I would tell in the future. Stemming rom their actions, gnolls in my world have two distinct factions: the Yeenish and the Hungerless.

The Yeenish are your typical gnolls, spawn of the demon prince who are more demonic than mortal. Then you have the Hungerless, descendants of gnolls who were in the mortal world when Yeenoghu's head was ripped from his bloody body. They don't feel Yeenoghu's hunger inside them and, over thousands of years, formed a culture entirely unique and separate from typical D&D gnolls. All of this is because of actions taken by player characters in a campaign that finished awhile ago!

Wielding that single rule, I've crafted an expansive lore base for my world which will continue to grow for decades. What is/are your rule/rules? Let me know in the comments below.

When crafting canon for our D&D worlds, we must remember that they're for us and our players. We're not molding a vast canon viewable by millions like J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, or George R.R. Martin. The continuity of our realms is a facet for us to explore and expand. We should only care about our own opinions and the opinions of those who venture across our settings. A newly-minted saying of mine is soft worldbuilding at the table, hard worldbuilding at the desk, but that's a topic for another day...

However, know you can set all the rules you want. To truly be comfortable with establishing a set canon within your D&D world, you need to know how to alter it to fit your present visions and desires.

The Right Way to Alter Canon

As I mentioned earlier, our outlooks on life and our fantasy worlds shift and meander as time goes by. At one point in our long lives, we might deeply enjoy gritty westerns and create a world raptured by sandstorms, walked by pistoliers, and ravaged by devilish bandits. After two years, we might dive into the land of pulp, adding fast methods of travel, bombastic villains, and creatures like dinosaurs and aliens to our worlds. Not long after, we may fully immerse ourselves in high fantasy, trading flintlocks and blunderbusses for wands and axes.

If that happens, we have four options. We can:
  1. Create a brand new setting that embodies our current vision for an interesting world,
  2. Add these new concepts to our world without worrying about how they fit,
  3. Talk to our players and retcon the previously established concepts, or we can
  4. Intelligently alter our world’s canon to weave in our new vision with basic worldbuilding techniques, keeping our beloved world intact.
Let's delve into each, with a greater focus on the final option (my favorite). As with any form of world construction, you can always combine all four options, though mastering one is usually favored!

Option One: Create a Brand New Setting

The easiest and most relaxed of the four options, weaving a new world is what you do when you don't want to build upon your past musings. If you're fine with running a campaign in one world then hopping to the next, this is the choice for you. Pursuing this option allows you to experience wildly different themes and topics for each of your adventures without worrying how they all coalesce into an evolving, living world.

One campaign might involve the pursuit of a renegade spelljammer hopping from plane to plane, encompassing voyages into the Plane of Fire to the Far Realm and beyond. Another might be low-magic and based on survival, set in a world where huge dinosaurs are the most dangerous beasts around. The next could oversee the politics of a back-stabbing kingdom of frivolous halflings, all yearning for power and relaxation at the same time.

With Eldar, I've conjured up how I can continue adding layers to my setting while creating an entirely new setting. The advent of spelljammers in Eldar will, very soon, allow its peoples to access the only previously unreachable realms: the eight moons. The lizardfolk of Eldar are already aliens from one of these moons, I think it's about time to take adventure to these otherworldly, non-planar locales of my setting, while crafting brand new settings in the process. Each of these moons could represent a different method of exploration for me and my players: one could be similar to Dark Sun or other survival-based settings. Another could be completely civilized, a city the size of the moon itself. I could go on, Eldar has eight moons, but you get the point!

With this approach, the possibilities are endless, but the worldbuilding stops after every adventure. The old world retires and the new one takes center stage.

Option Two: Add Without Thought

All the carefree folks out there, this option is for you. If you don't want to ponder over how everything fits together in your sprawling world, just drop it in and, if your players ask how it makes sense, you can remind them that it's your world and it's a fantasy game where anything is possible. This approach isn't for everyone, and it takes a particular type of group and worldbuilder to see it succeed.

Option Three: Retcon and Talk

If there's something major in your world you want to change and it has been introduced over and over to your players, simply retcon it and speak with them. Explain why this part of your world is changing. With a minutia of evidence, they'll likely nod along and thank you for explaining it to them. It's imperative to keep the verisimilitude of our worlds intact, and talking to our players about major changes that, if we're making them lackadaisically, might shatter their sense of immersion and investment in our worlds.

Even though I prefer the method we'll discuss in a moment, I've practiced this approach before. Originally, my world had five moons, each unique in color and shape. I'd incorporated them into my second campaign, the Frozen Expanses of Iskryn, multiple times. Quite recently, I changed that number to eight moons (plus a ninth moon that crashed into the world quite some time ago). To retcon it honestly, I reached out to the players involved, both people who still play in my world weekly.

If you don't want to cleverly integrate huge alterations to your world (or they're just too large to weave in seamlessly), go with this approach.

Option Four: Intelligently Alter Canon

I want to elaborate on option four.

Although I try to refrain from touching my world’s canon, I can if needed, but careful justification and handiwork is necessary.

Let’s look at a simple, high-level example.

If the player characters stay at an inn owned by a fire genasi and her daughter, when they descend into the depths of the city’s sewer system, it should be there when they return. If it’s not, there should be a reason. Maybe it burnt down, targeted by foes of the party. Perhaps during their adventure the local temple seized the establishment and it’s under new, dictatorial leadership. Or maybe everything is fine and dandy, with a few slight alterations to the inn’s decor. I’d like to see it under new leadership, with a dramatic flair. The fire genasi owner was taken, her daughter left behind, and the daughter’s father is now in the picture—and he runs things differently.

That was simple enough, right? I wanted to change something, the owner of the inn, so I went ahead and did it and properly justified the alteration of canon. Even something as small as the owner of an inn classifies as canon in my book!

Let’s supersize it.

If the player characters encounter fiercely territorial, demon-worshiping halflings in one campaign, and peaceful, agriculturally minded halflings in the next—and they’re supposedly of the same people—you need to ask some questions. How did the halfling’s culture transform in the past 100 years? Do remnants of the old culture remain? Will the newer, relaxed halflings speak of their ancestors? Do they still ride dinosaurs? Do demons still haunt their heads?

Easy, see? I sought to create another halfling culture in my world that stands in stark contrast of the old, slightly altering and greatly expanding my world’s canon. To accomplish this, I gave myself two starting points, then asked question after question to ensure the new canon made sense. This is an excellent strategy not only in the alteration of canon, but worldbuilding in general.

Okay, let’s amplify this as much possible.

If the player characters learn that airships are scarce in your world, let’s say only nine exist, but then you become enamored with the ideas of massive airship battles, soaring from exotic locale to locale, and crafting a faction of sky pirates, you might need to incorporate some new facets into your world. Oh, look, this powerful faction just discovered a huge supply of aetherwood in the depths of the Plane of Air, and they’re constructing a permanent gate to the place! On top of that, a peculiar mark that allows people to fly and control the wind is manifesting on certain individuals. How strange!

You get the point.

Truly, the keys to altering canon are asking questions, fleshing out the path from point a to point b, and convincing your players this “discovery” or “story beat” was always present and in your mind, just waiting to break out into the setting.

Let me know which parts of your canon you have altered, for better or worse, in the comments below. Let’s see whose canon has experienced the most changes.

Time Skipping

There is also another, secret option for “altering” canon: skipping forward in time. If you are like me of say, three years ago, and you want to keep the same world but also radically change it without proper methods of justification, zip forward 5,000 years! If you take this route, you can include whatever new funk you want in your current world, while building on the prior foundation.

I’ve done this with Eldar, though I won’t be anymore. My first and second campaigns took place thousands of years before my third, fourth, and current fifth and sixth ones’ beginning. I vow: time skips will no longer be used to update my world, only for dramatic events and radical, post-campaign effects!

The old Eldar needed to be changed, and I wasn’t clever enough to reinvent the setting without zooming forward in time. It’s a strategy I’d only recommend as a last resort—never begin your thought process with time skipping.

Tracking Canon

Okay, you have defined canon in your world and learned how to alter it if needed. How do you track it? Succinctly, it depends on how passionate you are about your world.

You can do what I do and keep a massive setting companion, available to players whenever they need it. In addition, I keep campaign compendiums that chronicle the events of all of my campaigns—summarizing them.

You can create an online wiki editable by your players and you.

You can simply rely on your notes and the notes of your players, piecing parts of your world together when needed.

You can use a worldtracking tool like to craft an actual representation of your world on the internet.

You can try out an app recently brought to my attention, DungeonMastery, to keep a comprehensive, combined repository of your in-game canon and important beats.

Or, you can be bold and care-free, deciding to rely only on the world as you gaze into it from your mind’s eye.

Whatever you do, I recommend you dedicate yourself to one. If you want to keep a companion and set of compendiums like I do, focus on that. Love the idea of an internal wiki for your world? Work on it, but don’t also try to build your world on

Concurrently as you track your world’s canon, keep speaking with those who venture into it.

Talk to your players about their experiences, their favorite parts, what canon inspires them, and makes them want to return.

Also remember to dive into the actual folk of the world. Try to immerse yourself in their lives and think about the world’s canon from their perspective. What does the half-orc lumberer think about the Dragon Empire? Does the halfling noble from the rugged plains know the world’s creation myth? Does Suta Hyrgdaught know all the names of the moons in the sky?

It might sound silly, but it’s effective. Try it and let me know how your adventure goes.

Lessons Learned

When it comes to canon and your D&D setting, remember the following:
  • Form a definition for canon in your world. What is it? Who can alter it? How extensive is it?
  • Always follow your vision, whether it requires you to make a new setting or alter your world.
  • Try to create compelling reasons and/or methods for your canon to change.
  • Constantly ask questions to help connect the dots between old and new canon.
  • If all else fails, skip forward in time.
  • There are plenty of ways to track your canon, dedicate yourself to one of them.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

First time reading RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out my first released supplement, Villain Backgrounds Volume I.

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @rjd20writes on Twitter or

Art in Order of Appearance:

  • White Dragon Fight from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Dwarven Warrior from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Sly Rogue from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Airfight from DMs Guild Creator Resource - Eberron Scenes & Symbols Art Pack
  • Eberron Heroes from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Black Dragon by Lucio Parrillo

Two Ready-to-Use Demonic Villains For Your TTRPG Game

Who drives our Dungeons & Dragons games forward? Boiled down, the drivers are two conflicting sides: the player characters and the villains. The PCs are usually heroes, though they can be mercenaries, out-of-their-element individuals, soldiers in a great army, or adventurers of necessity. Those that oppose them can be anything from vicious, starving wolves in a dreadful forest to destroyer gods rampaging from world to world.
Every successful D&D campaign contains compelling PCs and interesting villains who conspire against them. Sometimes, our imaginations falter and fail to provide our tales with antagonists. I know mine does. However, today I'm here to help.

I used to have problems with villains. Mine weren’t unique or gripping; they were people the PC's needed to fight and kill to end the adventure. That’s uninteresting. Over time, I evolved how my villains interact with the PCs and the world. They live. They breathe. They entice the PCs to pursue not only their own goals, but goals that affect the greater world.

A good villain reacts to the actions of the PCs and causes them to react to their own consistently. A good villain is also at odds with the party: their goal not only conflicts with the PCs’ primary goals, but their personal ones as well.

The adventurers of Caught in Galen might seek an end to the Worldshift Crisis carried out by their enemies, but Jason Urso wishes to understand the Accursed Archive that caused his house’s downfall. The villains want the opposite: they want Jason to remain unconnected to the Archive—and they want to wield the Archive for their own gains, while continuing their spree of worldshifting.

Caught in Galen's villains are diverse and cunning, acting against the PC's and their other competitors in unison. Among them are Loogodramin, a slaad of immense power and premonition, Marenzo Katel, an abominable drow aberrationist, and Nailen the Ancestral Cleaver. Each of them personifies the tenets outlined in this article, as opposed to my past villains.
  • Loogodramin plays with the PC's minds, jumbling their memories, personalities, and much more from a space outside the Material Plane.
  • Marenzo Katel puppeteers far more powerful players from the background, pitting personal friends and formerly friendly rivals against each PC.
  • Nailen the Ancestral Cleaver slyly corals the PC's goals with his own, leading some of them to believe in the path of the villain.
A bracharian humanoid with a staff in his green hand and a large pack on his back.

I've learned how to create compelling villains, mostly with the help of others. You can learn as well!

This article outlines two villains of extraplanar origin, beings outside the bounds of the Material Plane or mortal world. Their names are Taruga, the Wise Dretch and Poxa Nesh, the Dracofused Destroyer

They are fully-fleshed out, ready to drop in your campaigns as foils against your PCs. Assuredly, they will help you pit enthralling foes against your PCs and can even form the basis for an entire D&D campaign! In the end, their designs should assist you in creating compelling baddies all on your own.

Let me know which villain of the two is your favorite in the comments below! 

Now, let’s get villainous.

Taruga, the Wise Dretch

Most demons of the Infinite Abyss pursue fulfillment of primal desires. When their brute strength and gluttonous drive turn to ulterior wants and needs, all mortals should tremble. This fact especially applies to the weakest demons: dretch. 

These disgusting, self-loathing fiends usually gather in great mobs and tear apart what they can find in their abyssal homes. They lack sharp minds and a sense of wisdom, but they are strong of body and usually large in number.

But Taruga wields all four facets: an inquisitive mind, a semblance of foresight, a powerful form, and a horde of beasties at her disposal. Taruga is a dretch summoned to the Material Plane by an evil, dying wizard. A party of adventurers in the wizard’s crumbling home, he flung a host of dretch from the Abyss at the would-be heroes. As his tower collapsed, it crushed his body, killed the adventurers, and smashed all but one of the dretch—Taruga.

A dretch.

Taruga scoured the tower’s ruins. She looted treasures of all sorts, some held by the wizard, others by the fallen heroes. Of import was an amplified circlet of intellect, designed to boost not only the intelligence of its wielder, but their wisdom as well. The minor demon affixed the circlet to her head and attuned to the item, becoming a hyper-intelligent and wise dretch.

Inside the tower ruins, Taruga carved out a lair and gathered followers. Her command of words drew two goblin tribes to her side, all of the crag dwellers worship her as a lesser deity. Her sheer strength bent four fierce ogres beneath her. Her foresight enabled the capture of a pack of blink dogs from the Feywild, all in the process of domestication. 

The minor dretch is becoming quite the force in the hills around the wizard’s tumbled tower. But what is her plan?

The Traits of Taruga

Taruga is of the Unexpected villain background, a sneak peek into Villain Backgrounds Volume II, the sequel to Villain Backgrounds Volume I. Before her plan becomes clear, let’s list her special character traits.
  • Personality Trait: Lots of people underestimate me and I always take advantage of it.
  • Ideal: Destructive Xenophobia. One day, the world will burn and I will rise as the only survivor amongst the ashes.
  • Bond: An artifact of great power created me. I can never lose it.
  • Flaw: I hate what I can not understand.
With the help of the roll tables in Villain Backgrounds Volume II, Taruga evolves. We spoke of her past, let’s arrive at her present.

Despite her huge intellect and power, people still underestimate her. She’s fine with this. Every time another tribe wanders into her domain or an adventuring party in search of glory seeks out her abode, she enslaves, imprisons, or kills them with ease, usually because they assume she’s a glorified green mass. 

Each of these idiots adds to her eventual goal: the domination and reforming of the world. She knows every conquest begins somewhere. Hers starts in the rolling hills a dozen miles from the nearest settlement. 

Under her leadership, her hordes will grow and she will achieve her goal. However, if the enhanced circlet of intellect ever leaves her slimy head, she knows she is doomed. Time after time, she has reinforced the bindings of this artifact, both physically and magically. She is confident it will never be removed. 

Amidst all of this intelligence and foresight, though, a semblance of Taruga’s demonic soul remains: she despises what she can not understand and will lash out at whatever it is, even if it’s the wrong move for achieving her ultimate goal.

As previously stated, she lairs in the ruins of a wizard’s tower in an isolated hill range. She commands about 60 goblins, four ogres, five blink dogs, and a willing human cultist, a woman who previously followed the commandments of Orcus. 

Taruga’s eyes lurk on the town of Edgewater, a lakeside settlement about 12 miles from her lair, where a beautiful temple of Tyr leads the townsfolk forward—and safeguards a relic of the mythic past, when demons ruled the Material Plane. The hyper-intelligent dretch wants the relic in her clawed hands and Edgewater to burn.

Taruga's Monster Stat Block

Taruga’s origin, background, and current goal defined, it’s time to look at her in-game presence. For Taruga, I am using the dretch stat block in the fifth edition Monster Manual (page 57) as a basis and Matt Colville’s action-oriented monster as an enhancement. Huge thanks to CritterDB for making these stat blocks possible to craft.

Use Taruga, the Wise Dretch, at your own risk. She’s sure to terrify any low-level table.

Poxa Nesh, the Dracofused Destroyer

In the pits of the Abyss, plenty of balors strive to become demon lords. They follow in the steps of Yeenoghu and Orcus, Demogorgon and Zuugtmoy, enslaving their lessers, conquering entire abyssal layers, and spreading corruption across numerous realms. Some turn to dark arts abandoned by even the most wicked denizens of the evil worlds, such as soul fusion.

Following this sinister path created the formidable balor Poxa Nesh, called the Dracofused Destroyer. Poxa Nesh served dozens of demon lords and princes in the Abyss and survived battles beyond number. His hunger for dark ascension never sated, he leaped at every opportunity to surpass his greaters. One day, during an assault on an angelic citadel in Celestia, his destiny arrived.

A balor.

Alone at the apex of the structure dueled Poxa Nesh and Yenariel. Sadly for the solar lord, Poxa Nesh’s galvanic sword sliced him through, electrocuting his shivering shell. Dead, the angel’s secret unveiled—a page from the Book of Vile Darkness. The balor snatched it, flew over the remaining battlefield, and commanded his horde back to the Abyss. 

Swiftly, he began to study the page and learned it detailed a spell of fusion. If cast correctly, the spell could weld two souls together, with the caster maintaining control but gaining the knowledge and strength of the secondary soul. After decades of practice, Poxa Nesh perfected the spell and sought a second. He knew just the place.

Orcus’s dead fortress imprisoned an ancient blue dragon, Igyrnakithask, and Poxa Nesh knew how to access her. Through wits and power, he reached the old dragon, shackled with abyssal chains. In the depths of this vile lair, the balor conducted the ritual and fused his soul with the dragon’s. He gained information known only to this draconic creature, various spellcasting abilities, the resilience of a wyrm, and much more.

With great ease, he escaped Orcus's rotting fortress and became a wanted enemy of the demon prince. Immediately, he began work on overthrowing the Prince of Undeath. But where does he go from here?

Poxa Nesh's Traits

Poxa Nesh is of the Rebel villain background in Villain Backgrounds Volume II. Let’s learn his traits before discussing his current status.
  • Personality Trait: I try to prepare for every misfire and fume if something does go wrong.
  • Ideal: Aspiration. I pursue my goals because they’ve never been accomplished before.
  • Bond: I will die for supporters of my cause.
  • Flaw: Deep down, I know I’ll never achieve my ultimate goal.
Assisted by the Villain Backgrounds Volume II roll tables, Poxa Nesh grows! We explored his past, let’s peer into his present.

Poxa Nesh is like a beholder: he prepares for everything. Also similar to a beholder, he goes wild if a part of his plan goes awry. Luckily, he’s aspirational and never gives up. He seeks Orcus’s downfall because Orcus has never been surmounted. Poxa Nesh, the Dracofused Destroyer, will be the first demon to knock Orcus off his throne and tear apart his wand. 

Alongside this, Poxa Nesh is a unique fiend. His supporters hold his complete devotion, he will die for them and with them if the situation demands it. Perhaps this is because the balor believes he’ll never overthrow the Prince of Undeath. He will never admit this fear to anyone—unless forced to.

The creatures who know of Poxa Nesh's soulfused status quietly question how much of his personality is that of Igyrnakithask, the ancient blue dragon he fused his soul with. None of these entities in the know would say this to Poxa Nesh directly.

As it stands, Poxa Nesh resides on the 79th layer of the Abyss. He lives in the massive, hollowed out skeleton of a corrupted tarrasque, presiding over thousands of demons from within. In addition, he has a large draconic following in the mortal world, including priests of Tiamat, some dragonborn, and even a few true dragons who take demons as consorts. 

The adult blue dragon Iqarithanya and the adult green dracolich Sithgirakonus are two such dragons.

Poxa Nesh yearns to strike soon at Orcus, and has planned an invasion of the mortal realm to recover a vital creature for his battle with the demon prince: a twin-headed red dragon fanatic of Poxa Nesh captured by servants of Celestia. The soulfused balor will not let the dragon go.

Poxa Nesh's Monster Stat Block

Now, let’s overview Poxa Nesh’s statistics, using the balor stat block from the fifth edition Monster Manual (page 55) as a foundation.

Poxa Nesh should be quite the challenge, even for a high-level group. Have fun running him!

Lessons Learned

Good villains are essential for good D&D games. It took me awhile to learn that, don’t be like me. Steal these demonic villains and use them in your campaigns—or look at how they’re crafted and take bits and pieces to place in your games. Remember:
  • A good villain has a big goal that conflicts with the party, and several smaller ones that go against the minor goals of each PC.
  • Every villain needs a background, however short. They give context to the villain’s actions and motives. Don’t skimp out on villain backgrounds!
  • Demons are terrifying.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

Art in Order of Appearance:

  • Belaphoss and Tasyllys Ch'fyr from Sword Coast Legends
  • Green Slaad by Rudy Siswanto for Conceptopolis
  • Dretch from the fourth edition D&D Monster Manual
  • Dretch by Muhamad Faizal Fikri for Conceptopolis
  • Balor by Conceptopolis
  • Balor by Arnie Swekel

The Best Method to Highlight Unique Cultures in Dungeons and Dragons

It’s Thursday night. No, we’re not watching Critical Role—we’re gathered around our table playing our D&D campaign, Caught in Galen. The party rows a shaky boat to an occupied beach, a host of soldiers from the Zarbou Islets upon it. At their lead is a lithe minotaur dressed in the colors of his fledgling nation, his horned head topped with a jarring red tricorne. Believing him to be a potential ally, the party approaches and speaks to the minotaur, who willingly leaps into conversation. He praises the party, formally introducing himself and his people as Zarbou Isleters. As the talk progresses, he asks what he can do for them, what he can do for the world, where he might fit and why everything ill from the aberration invasions to the barrier crisis might be happening. The minotaur represents what the infant nation of the Zarbou Islets really is: a place hungry to fit in a world much bigger than itself.

While we strive to make our worlds' cultures unique, sometimes it is lost on the players. However many hours we might spend tirelessly toiling at the intricacies of nationalistic dragonborn culture, the tenets of a reformed minotaur religion, or the unadulterated zealotry of the final bastion of humans in the world, our players might not grasp the cultural concepts we try to espouse for our Dungeons & Dragons races. Whether you’re a proponent of sprinkling enticing lore throughout your campaign, dropping lore bombs every few sessions, or combining the two practices, this newly-crafted but well-tested strategy of setting representatives will appeal to you.

Concisely, a setting representative (or setting rep) is a member of a unique culture in your world that highlights everything important to that particular culture at once. It’s the ideal member of that culture, or, the ideal manner in which you would like that culture to be portrayed in your world and game.

In our tumultuous Dungeons & Dragons games, we have precious little time to introduce the various peoples of our world. We have to make every interaction count in D&D and leave our players wanting to learn more.

This article thoroughly explains what setting representatives are, how to wield them well, and provides numerous examples of them from multiple D&D settings! By its end, you should have an arsenal of useful NPCs to represent your world and we should all understand why setting reps are effective and efficient methods of showcasing unique cultures in Dungeons & Dragons.

Unique Cultures

All our D&D worlds are filled with unique cultures, it’s one of the most important ways to make them our own. From xenophobic elves who wield psionics and arcane magic in tandem and dwarves who betrayed all for power and security to kobolds who rebelled against their superiors (much to their chagrin) try to create cultures that incorporate classic elements with a twist or three. For the purposes of this article, we are going to assume we have already created at least ten cultures of varying complexity. If you’ve not crafted any yet for your world, check out my article on building unique cultures for D&D races, it will help!

Defining Our Cultures

Before we mold our D&D setting reps, we must define our cultures. Take the ones created prior, about ten, and summarize four key concepts of them. Try to stick to a sentence. Of these four concepts, try to include a common creature type (human), a psychological element (arrogance), a twist about the culture and the world (they breed aasimar), and something every member of the culture fervently believes or spreads (the tenets of the Seven Heavens are paramount without question). With this sentence, we will craft NPCs who will assist in drawing our players into our world and introducing its myriad cultures to to their characters.

Here is my list:
  1. Waalnite: Most Waalnites are halflings who are vociferous, specially connected to their dinosaur companions, and relentless in their pursuit for greatness.
  2. Aralian: Aralians are primarily human or aasimar, haughty, advocates of breeding the half-angels, and view themselves as extensions of the Seven Heavens of Celestia.
  3. Jhaerosi: Few Jhaerosi are non high elves, all regard the people below them with disdain, they practice psionics and arcane magic in tandem, and believe they’ll be the final bastions of civilization on Eldar.
  4. Ghidosin: No one creature dominates Ghidosin culture, most are flamboyant and forward-thinking, quite a few wield magic in some form, arcane, divine, or artifice, and every Ghidosin follows Ioun and seeks the betterment of their minds in all they do.
  5. Imixian: The plurality of Imixians are fire genasi, many are zealots and proud of their people, they willingly age themselves to harvest eledue, and they think their dominion over all the Enoach Desert is inevitable.
  6. Emarian: The bulk of Emarians are orcs, half-orcs, or humans, they are calm and fluid, most don’t worship gods, but the Wild Spirits of Eldar and nature itself, following druidic practices, and all seek the molding of civilization with wilderness, not the loss of wilderness for the growth of civilization.
  7. Duuvenite: There are under 100 non-minotaur Duuvenites, most are respectful and traditional, they follow the just ideals of the Radiant Father, who ushered them from the darkness of the demon lord Baphoment, and all believe others could learn from their former terrible selves and bathe in rejuvenating light.
  8. Kothian: Almost all Kothians are dragonborn, kobolds, or true dragons, they are nationalistic and battle-hungry, masters of planar lore and traveling across them, and all participate in the great draconic game of Suun'githald.
  9. Tarseti: Tarseti are primarily humans, awakened, and half-orcs spawned from spuriction pods, they are subservient to their artificer queen and fearful of other peoples, all are imbued with a dark spark, and all regard themselves as the undeserved losers in history.
  10. Kla: The majority of Kla are rock gnomes, most are affable and genuitive, they are excellent innovationists and created modern wonders like airships, lightning rails, and the practice of artifice, and believe peace is only attainable through unity of all people.
List in hand, ponder over exactly what you’d want your players to think after an encounter with a particular culture.

Example: A Waalnite

For example, an encounter with a Waalnite in my world would typically see them as a halfling, involve the little one speaking vociferously, referencing their dino companion at least twice, and the tale of Waalnite creation and their eventual rise from the darkness being told.

Walking away from the Waalnite, I’d want my players to think the following:
  1. Most Waalnites are halflings.
  2. Waalnites are loud and insistent on their opinions, even if they’re wrong. However, they’re not necessarily rude, just aloof and confident.
  3. Waalnites feel a special connection to their dino companions, greater than that of man and dog.
  4. Waalnites take every chance they get to remind the world that no matter how poor the odds, they will be able to rise and beat them.
When our player characters meet a setting representative, after the conversation or battle, they should be able to understand the most important facets of that culture and how it differs from a culture or race in other Dungeons & Dragons settings. We defined these facets as four pillars earlier, now it’s time to form our NPCs.

Creating Our Setting Reps

Our setting reps have three goals. They must represent the culture they are apart of. They need to engross the players in the world and fascinate the characters someway. Finally, they should be adventure agnostic. We’ve already explored the first idea above, let me further explain the latter two.

No matter how well the setting rep showcases its culture, if they are not interesting, your players will not care about the unique culture. We need to ensure that the PCs will care about them and that the players will be entertained by them. Don’t simply craft them to communicate the tenets of a culture to your players, make them with the intent of them serving the story & showcasing the culture. Building on this, we must ensure this character can be used in multiple adventures so we can easily reuse them. It’s fine if they evolve into a key player in the story, but when you first create them, create them with the intended purpose of dropping them in future campaigns and adventures.

To create a setting rep NPC, use the flavorful descriptions found in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide on page 89 onward. If they’re a villain, give them unique personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws found in Villain Backgrounds Volume I. Or if they’re a normal individual, use the roll tables in the Backgrounds chapter of the Player’s Handbook to craft a compelling character. While rolling them up, keep the four fundamentals of the culture they’re representing in mind, and try to weave each of them to the bonds, flaws, and other traits they have as well. Ignore any rolls that might destroy what you’re trying to accomplish.

Example: A Duuvenite Minotaur

I’ll follow this process with a Duuvenite, described above as:
  • Duuvenite: There are under 100 non-minotaur Duuvenites, most are respectful and traditional, they follow the just ideals of the Radiant Father, who ushered them from the darkness of the demon lord Baphoment, and all believe others could learn from their former terrible selves and bathe in rejuvenating light.
Using Villain Backgrounds Volume I and choosing the Misguided Fool background, I rolled the following:
  • Manipulator: A passionate vampire.
  • Creature: Not applicable, going to be a minotaur.
  • Personality Trait: I’m not afraid to call out those greater in power than me.
  • Ideal: I conjure up the grandest plans, though they rarely come to fruition.
  • Bond: The cult that took me in is my chosen family. I’d do anything for any one of them.
  • Flaw: Me and my manipulator’s souls are intertwined: if they die, I die with them.
I’ve decided this Duuvenite is a minotaur named Radimea Yikodias. Though she deeply respects the clerics who guide her town with the light of the Radiant Father, she is being manipulated by a sinister minotaur vampire and the cult he created in the shadows. Radimea follows all Duuvenite traditions with the ferocity they deserve, but she also sees her land going down a dark path of conquest in good time. As such, she serves as a voice against them, arguing that conquest will lead to the darkness of Baphomet again. Meanwhile, her manipulator carefully positions himself as an advocate for her position, when he really seeks the downfall of the town’s leadership and the gain of a powerful relic it keeps. Radimea, guided by the vampire, is conjuring a grand plan to eliminate the town’s leadership and ensure they don’t go on a killing spree in new lands, knowing the ways of the minotaurs of older days. 

As the plan lengthens, her devotion to the Radiant Father and the cult grow; using foul magic, the vampire has also twisted his soul with Radimea’s, preparing for the ultimate battle and Radimea’s possible betrayal if she realizes her folly. The PCs will meet her as a passionate radical, someone who loves her people and doesn’t want to see harm done to them. However, she is capable of great evil despite her truly just intentions. Easily, she can be placed in other scenarios at different stages in her life. In one adventure, she might be preparing for the revolution. In another, it might have already occurred. In another still, the minotaur might be on the run, fleeing the consequences of her attempted coup. The possibilities are endless.

Radimea Yikodias touches on everything we’ve discussed already. She makes a compelling setting rep for the island nation of Duuven and the Duuvenite culture. Now try to make your own! When you do, comment below with their description, I’d love to read them.

Other Examples of Setting Reps

Before we close out the article, let’s take a gander at a few settings and a bad and good setting rep from each.

Toril/Forgotten Realms

Bad Setting Rep: Drizzt Do’Urden

Regardless how much he is loved or hated, the drow Drizzt Do’Urden is a terrible setting rep for the dark elves of Faerun. He admonishes everything the mostly evil drow of the Forgotten Realms represent and should not be seen as the typical drow of Toril. Drow in Faerun are manipulative, god-fearing, and consorters of demons, while Drizzt shows compassion and vulnerability to others, worships Mielikki, and pursues the ideals of good. If you'd like to learn more about Drizzt, there is an entire series of books about him written by R.A. Salvatore; I recommend beginning with the Dark Elf Trilogy.

Good Setting Rep: Bruenor Battlehammer

Despite his odd relationship with Drizzt Do’Urden and relative isolation in Icewind Dale for part of his life, the shield dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer is an excellent setting rep for most shield dwarves of Faerun. Stubborn, strong, and traditional, he is the quintessential dwarf of this setting. His signature piece of gear, his one-horned helmet, was built to last, as are many of the creations of Faerun's stoutest short folk. And even though his relationship with the drow Drizzt is strange, it was formed as most relationships with shield dwarves are: slowly. You can learn more about shield dwarves in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide on page 103.


Bad Setting Rep: The Lord of Blades

The warforged are presented very particularly in Eberron, and the renegade devastator lurking the Mournland called the Lord of Blades is a poor setting rep for most Eberron warforged. He gives destructive purpose to all warforged, trying to sculpt the fate of all his people with his vile blades. However, the majority of warforged are seeking a greater purpose than war and bloodshed after their well-earned freedom in the wake of the Last War and the Treaty of Thronehold. Learn more about the Lord of Blades and warforged in Eberron: Rising from the Last War on pages 300 and 35, respectively.

Good Setting Rep: Prince Oargev ir'Wynarn

Building atop the ghostly ashes of his devastated nation, the human Prince Oargev ir’Wynarn is a terrific setting rep for the remaining Cyrans of Khorvaire. He aspires to rebuild his lost nation and safeguard what traditions remain in its grey wastes. He represents what most Cyrans want: to hang onto the past. Their ancestors lie within the Mournland, as do countless secrets. Unlike very few Cyrans and the rest of Khorvaire, Prince Oargev wants his land back and will stop at nothing to restore it. Learn more about New Cyre and its vengeful prince in Eberron: Rising from the Last War on page 109.


Bad Setting Rep: Handil ce’Iliun

An escapee of Jhaeros, the high elf Handil ce’Iliun is a horrible setting rep for the mystic Jhaerosi, deriding almost everything they religiously practice. Their xenophobia is replaced with love of others, their intentional arrogance replaced with constant compassion, and even their least studied school of magic, necromancy, is his most practiced group of spellcasting! Handil spat in the face of the Mindhunters who tried to bring him home, and continues to do so everyday, but he in no way represents the stereotypical Jhaerosi.

Good Setting Rep: Calastis Starcloak

Once the most powerful person in Ghidos, the human Calastis Starcloak was a great setting rep for the building Ghidosin culture. He pursued all knowledge and meshed it together best he could, led with an eye for the future of his people and his country, as well as the rest of the world, and never retreated from a stance near to his heart. His death in 206 AK rocked the nation, as did the worldshift crisis, but he will remain a steadfast Ghidosin icon for decades to come.

Lessons Learned

Setting reps are adventure agnostic NPCs we can use to show our players and their characters the unique cultures and races of our Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. We can wield positive stereotypes about these cultures to showcase the most prominent or relevant parts of them to our players. Eventually, we should have a comprehensive list of setting reps for every nook of our setting.

Setting reps are an effective method of immersing our players in our settings. You should definitely add them to your toolbox! Always remember:
  1. Unique cultures are vital to our worlds. Put love and care into crafting them.
  2. Setting reps showcase what we want our players and their characters to know about and see in our cultures. Choose what you show wisely.
  3. Setting reps must also be interesting and relevant to the current story, not just blatant pieces put into play to illuminate a culture. Put time into ensuring they’re compelling.
Please let me know in the comments who your setting reps are. I'd love to read about them and so would many others, I'm sure. In a follow up article, I'd even enjoy discussing and dissecting them.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

Provide any feedback or inquiries to @rjd20writes on Twitter or

Art in Order of Appearance:

  • Post Mummy Attack by Irina Nordsol Kuzmina
  • Draconic Demon by Steve Ellis
  • Warrior Art by Zoltan Boros
  • Minotaur by Dominic Reyes
  • The Lord of Blades by Marcel Budde

Patterns in Dungeons and Dragons

When we build our worlds and craft our games, we regularly want to shock and impress our players and their characters with dramatic battles, unforeseen twists, and flamboyant personalities. We yearn to see them reel back in their chairs in dismay as the true villain is revealed, shout out in terror as their orc ally decapitates a prisoner, or let out hearty laughs as the stocky halfling innkeeper tosses yet another rude vagrant to the street. Surprising moments are important in D&D, and they are made possible with patterns, something many of us probably utilize without realizing it—and our games are better for it.

Understanding what patterns we use allows us to change them up to make our games better and more exciting.

First and foremost, patterns help us feel comfortable. After DMing for awhile, we tend to design things in a certain way: dungeons, boss battles, NPCs, etc. The patterns we create allow us to easily improvise at the table, one of the most important skills for DMs.

Let’s dig a bit deeper.

Story Structure

D&D is all about telling a story with friends. Whether our game spans many months & years as a down-on-their-luck adventuring party evolves from hunting giant rats in a dank sewer to knocking down fiery citadels in the Nine Hells, or a single day with a brief battle between rampaging goblins and hearty dwarves, a clear beginning, middle, and end are defined. Almost everyone follows this pattern, flowing seamlessly from one section to the next. Players expect it. They are comfortable with it because it’s familiar and accepted, but we can always improve on it.

Once we’ve mastered this pattern, we can manipulate it to greaten our games or just experiment.

In the beginning, players expect relatively simple villains and lesser stakes. Shake it up! 

Don’t begin in a village with a bandit problem, start in a hamlet terrorized by a portal to the Plane of Fire—and the PCs are the only ones capable enough of somehow closing it or driving off the fire newts and magmin who emerge!

Here are a few more ideas of how to change up a story’s start.
  • Reveal the primary antagonist immediately, instead of placing subtle hints at their presence and plans
  • Draw from A Song of Ice and Fire and begin each adventure or campaign with a brief story with characters of brief mortality to set the stage
  • Begin with a flash forward, then whizz back to the present; somehow the story reaches the flash forward scene, it can make for some interesting play
Much of the same can be done for middles and endings, though they’re a bit more difficult to tinker with. Starts have little build up behind them, while middles and endings might have dozens of hours and a few adventures of foundation. Twists work during these points—they’re expected—but be careful to not invalidate the groundwork placed beforehand.

Orderly Dungeons

Lots of advice I’ve read over the years advocates for the creation of dungeons in a very specific manner, and I’ve come to adapt much of it for my own campaigns. And while this dungeon design pattern might be good for us, it’s not for our players. If our players realize every dungeon has the potential for 2 combats, 1 social interaction, 2 exploration rooms, 1 secret passage, and a boss battle, they might begin to meta-game, or, even worse, become bored.

Thus, once we’ve established a pattern we’re comfortable with, we need to mix it up, not remain complacent.

Let your dungeons flow together. 

They might begin rigid: a room with false floor traps and a goblin archer, a prison with an exhausted but sassy ranger, and a pit filled with grey ooze. What we might see at first is a combat encounter, a social encounter, and an exploration/combat encounter, but we can mold them together to make something new.

What happens if the goblin is absent, feeding her grey ooze “pets?” Perhaps the ranger freed herself earlier in the day, and tries to escape as the party engages the skilled goblin archer! Maybe the goblin forgot to feed her pets and they turned not only on her, but the prisoner too and have spread across the tiny cavern complex, tapping into a magical spring in it, becoming sentient.

We want to build living worlds for our players to explore. We can build them using familiar patterns, lots of times on the fly, and because of our comfort with these patterns, twist them to surprise, impress, and invest our players in the game and world.

Silly Coincidences or Mysterious Plans?

When worldbuilding, it’s a fun, maybe meaningless practice to place patterns across our worlds. Keith Baker’s Eberron, for example, constantly shows off thirteen minus one: 13 planes, 13 dragonmarks, 13 moons, etc. My own world, Eldar, has a recurring pattern of eight: the Champion Octet, the Dark Eight, originally eight moons, etc. While we don’t necessarily need to have reasons for these patterns, it’s fun to think about why this might be. Think about what your world’s pattern could be and why it exists. If nothing else, it adds a bit of mystery for our players; perhaps they’ll think up an amazing idea and leave it ripe for picking and placing.

Lessons Learned

Patterns in D&D are powerful and we use them constantly.
  1. We develop patterns as DMs that help us improvise as we grow wiser at the table.
  2. Players notice patterns often and that allows us to pick the perfect moment to surprise them!
  3. Sometimes patterns don’t need to mean anything, they’re just a fun addition to our worlds.
Until the next encounter, farewell!

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