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14 June 2021

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.

Eberron


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.

Eldar


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 rjd20writes@gmail.com.

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

4 comments:

  1. I first saw this method for helping players access the imagined world described by Ray Winninger in his excellent Dungeoncraft series which ran in Dragon Magazine back in the 90s. I guess it's part of the skilled fantasy author's craft too. Thank you for sharing your take along with robust examples (something I've not seen done to this extent before).

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    Replies
    1. Good to hear. By chance, do you remember the issues of Dragon this series was in? I'd love to go through the archives and read it.

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  2. Great article! It is so well researched and put together. Keep up the great work!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, of course. Looking forward to everything in the future, especially more content like this.

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