In this four-part blog series, I’m covering my top tips for running large metropolitan areas in your tabletop games. My current campaign is totally centered on the biggest city in my homebrew world. It’s been a challenge keeping track of everything happening behind the scenes… But it’s honestly been my favorite campaign I’ve DM’d so far. I feel like all that hands-on experience has given me some useful insights into the complexities of city settings! I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned.
In the last blog, How To Run Big Cities In TTRPGs: Framework, I shared some thoughts on how to establish the bones of your city. For this week’s article, we’ll dive into how to create seamless and unique cultures to enrich your cities…
Why Create A Unique City Culture?
Could your players explore a generic big city and focus only on your story’s plot points? Sure. However, you would be doing them a disservice as the game master. Creating a rich and unique culture for your locations adds an extra layer of complexity to the game. People respond to culture and players enjoy delving into it head-first through their character’s perspective. And giving the party an experience they could not replicate in real life is a great benchmark as a game master. It’s this level of detail that makes your setting memorable.
A Note On Referencing Cultures
It is generally a good idea to avoid directly referencing real world cultures when writing campaign settings. This is especially true if you’ve got no personal experience with those cultures. However, if you’re tempted to pull aspects from existing cultures, think critically about how you’re portraying them. It is not acceptable to portray real world cultures through a lens of appropriation, stereotypes, misinformation, fetishism, racism, etc. If unsure, ask yourself: “If I was watching a documentary about this culture on public television, would they mention this?” The last thing you want is to be unintentionally offensive.
Maybe the most important question to ask when establishing a city’s culture is: What do people value here? Maybe your society is centered around the importance of family and tradition. Is the pursuit of wealth and status paramount to the culture’s idea of success? Perhaps it’s a survival of the fittest situation, where only the strong thrive. You can have one set of values or multiple amongst different groups of people across your city. What’s really important about values is that they influence how your NPCs react to different events or knowledge.
Cultural Attitudes & Identities
With values established, you can explore how they influence the attitudes and identities of the culture. Internally, you can have your NPCs assess themselves to determine their own perceived ‘societal value’. How do they measure up in their society? Have they bought into the culture or do they consider themselves counterculture? Externally, how do they feel about foreign cultures? The easiest (and most fun) way to explore this is to determine what they feel when they encounter player characters who are not native to the city’s culture.
Celebrations & Traditions
Now for the fun stuff! What events do the citizens find culturally significant? And how do they celebrate those events? Celebrations can be exciting festivals filled with people, somber religious ceremonies in significant locations, private gatherings amongst smaller groups, etc. So long as they focus on what’s important to the culture or history, pretty much anything goes. Immersing your players in cultural celebrations is a fun way to draw them deeper into the lore of the city and make them a part of it in a meaningful way.
Don’t Forget The Food
During the action of combat and exploration, it is easy to overlook food in the game. But food is one of the most defining elements of a culture! Think about what the people of your city eat, and why. What dishes can be made from the types of raw food that come into the city? What is the standard fare versus delicacies for special occasions? Is the food’s preparation culturally important? Are the flavors universally tasty or more of an acquired taste? Every citizen needs to eat… so why not make their food fun, colorful, and significant?
Fashion, Art, & Pop Culture
Everything we’ve discussed so far is about traditions passed down through generations. But what about your society’s trends? Fashion, art, and pop culture are fluid and impermanent in culture. What the people wear fluctuates based on available materials, wealth, and style trends. Art is reactionary to culture and tends to document or admonish society. Cultural icons and entertainment are constantly changing. When worldbuilding, consider what is popular and trendy in your culture at the time that the players explore it.
Playing With Culture Shock
A fun way to reinforce the culture you create is to give your player’s characters culture shock. In fact, it’s a good idea to take their character’s viewpoints into account when worldbuilding. Even if for no other reason than to turn them upside down! Presenting characters with truths or viewpoints that oppose their own creates conflict and growth, essential for story and character progression. When exploring a different culture, they should feel the need to at least question their opinions, prejudices, and ideals. After all, heroes are on a journey of self discovery.
Cultures Within Cultures
Culture informs the overall values and attitudes of the inhabitants of your city. But it doesn’t represent every citizen’s viewpoint. Once you’ve worked out the specifics of the culture you’re creating, you can dig into the subcultures of that culture. How do different groups interpret the culture? What variations or spins do they put on it to make it their own? The people can follow the culture of their city to the letter, modify the traditions and values to suit their needs, or reject it completely. It really all depends on what the story or NPC calls for.
Next in the city series, we’ll go over populating your city with exciting NPCs! Until next time, stay creepy and happy gaming.