View Full Version : Defining culture

10-28-2009, 07:25 AM
Ok, firstly, a little question. Is the General Discussion forum the right destination for 'applied theory' on how to think stuff up for world building (and thus the basis of the map)?


On to the main topic. I was curious about how you guys define culture. I heavily borrow cultural elements from real civilizations and it's more like I ADAPT those civilizations, than making up new ones.

Now when for a change I actually am making up something entirely unique (still mainly by looking at real world references) I try to establish a feel for the culture. The first thing I would often think off is architecture. But when designing buildings (more or less, I'm no architect, I just want a feel, and something to show) I have quite some issues with getting a somewhat consistent architectural style. Another problem is getting other style elements, such as clothing, and cultural habits all to conform to one another.

Am I the only one thinking so much about this, and if not (probably) how do you keep cultural consistency? How do you define a culture for a country you made up?

I can't draw that well, so I mostly draw some examples of buildings (or find pictures of them if they are based on real buildings) and just stick to describing food, agriculture (or not), clothing and a few other cultural significant things. It's hard to keep it consistent though. So I was wondering if other people just skip this, or use cultures based on real ones, or think as much about it as I do.

10-28-2009, 10:15 AM
There are a few traits of culture that I try to define in my world-building.

Language, religion, subsistence pattern, social/political organization, kinship, art, economics, and it seems like there are more, but I don't have my worksheet handy.

For the purposes of mapping, many of these elements are relevant.

Subsistence: Where does the community's food come from? What percentage of the community is involved in food gathering? How is the food distributed? Is any food imported or exported? Related to this is water supply: Where does the water come from? How is it distributed? Do any members of the community have special rights over the water?

Does the community's food or water supply force it into a nomadic lifestyle, following herd animals or hunting or moving to new fields?

Religion: Are religious services communal, requiring temples or other meeting places? Or are they individual, such that each household will have it's own shrine, and public shrines tend to be smaller affairs? Are there monuments to gods or kings? Are these monuments holy places, or do the people treat them casually? Does religion have any influence over where or how people build their homes?

Kinship: How do people consider themselves related to other people? Do men go to live with their wives' families, or women to their husbands'? Do families live in large extended households, or do they break off into nuclear families, building a new home? Who helps in the building of new homes?

Social/Political Organization: Who rules, and how is that decided? Does the ruler have a designated dwelling place, and is it distinctive from other buildings? Are there distinct social classes? Is there some kind of economic leveling system that keeps most people at similar levels of wealth? What mechanisms exist for dealing with abnormal people or the mentally ill?

Economics: How do goods move into and out of the community? Other than food, what goods does the community produce, and how does it produce them? Who receives the benefits of trade? Is there taxation, and how is it administered? What physical spaces are necessary to support this economic system?

Class has started now, so I don't have time to continue, but I hope that gives you some things to think about. If you're getting into some heavy world-building, then a worksheet where you can keep track of details like these is very handy. Also, bear in mind that many of these qualities will be heavily influenced by the culture's environment.

10-28-2009, 05:49 PM
I start with how the environment affects the race....you'd never find Vikings in Zimbabwe and vice-versa (dark skin evolved for a reason). Right there you can see that I use real-world examples to draw upon. Similarly, you'd never find a race of lizardmen in a cold area because lizards are cold-blooded...they could evolve into something human-like in a hotter place, though, like a swamp, jungle, or desert. You could have bearmen or elkmen in the north, though. :)

Placing cultures like Japanese right next to a culture of Greeks doesn't work too well because of the racial spread throughout a region...both sides will affect one another so things will tend to bleed together a bit but if there is a giant desert or big mountains in the way then there is less blending. Here, the environment affects culture.

I also think about what sort of resources are available to a region. A region that is loaded with herbs and berries will produce a different kind of being (in terms of evolution) than an area where one has to overpower others for food. In terms of culture a race based around mining is going to favor strength and a culture based around picking spices is going to favor agility or intelligence. Consequently, an agile race is going to be better at something like music and art because their fingers are nimble whereas a strong race is going to get big and throw their weight around.

As far as changing things up, say like Viking architecture with nomadic clothing, it can work but people will automatically draw a real-world correlation no matter what you do so I try to keep things consistent across the board...Vikings wear fur and live in thatched huts and nomads live in tents and follow camels around. There is one caveat, though...this only applies to human cultures. Your elves and dwarves and cat-people can be anything you want them to be and that's where the fun and fantasy starts for me. For example, my dwarves are almost always like Vikings so I don't need to have any Vikings in my world. Since they're short anything tall could be a giant or a troll so that's the sort of monsters I put there...certainly no djinni or efreeti.

It's the blending of the mundane with the fantastical that sets fire to the imagination. If I'm doing a swamp then the things that live there are the things that will evolve...like frogmen or lizardmen or snakemen or even dragonflymen and mosquitomen. A race of mosquitomen ravaging their neighbors for blood would be truly terrifying but they could also trade the herbs and spices they have for human slaves to drain of blood. Sounds like an idea...hrmmm

10-30-2009, 08:26 AM
Do you draw out examples or descriptions of those 'cultural features'? I'm mainly wondering how to keep things consistent. For example: if people see an Ancient Egyptian styled building, they immediately associate it with the pyramids etcetera. That's because the style is consistent. I'm struggling to keep that kind of consistency.

Perhaps I think too much about it, but I like to give people at least a graphical description in a game (the current world-building project is for a D&D campaign). So the players get a good feel for the world.

10-30-2009, 11:28 AM
Hmmm, how do I define culture. That is a good question. One of the nations I developed quite extensively was the Nation of Naxmor.

Here is an Excerpt from the NAXMOR book I wrote (and no it was never published):

People & Culture

“On a whole, the people of Naxmor are pleasant, but one must wonder if the bleakness of their land and existence has not driven every last one of them batty.”
Hurn, Merchant of Entiny, Debor

By and large most Naxmorians are of nearly pure Orlien blood, while mixed Orlien/Asterian heritage takes a close second. Naxmorians have mostly brown wavy or curly hair, and eye colour is predominantly blue, grey, or brown (in order of occurrence). Men and women both grow their hair long, and often braid it. Often they will braid strips of coloured cloth into their hair to signify certain information about themselves. One who braids their hair with red ribbons is in mourning for a spouse, while white ribbons signify a child. If the person’s hair is braided with blue, they are seeking a mate, and may be freely courted by others. If their hair is plain or unadorned, it is generally conceded that the person is married, or not seeking a spouse. Those who choose not to grow their hair long (considered an oddity amongst their kinfolk) are not looked down upon, but will often wear a small badge of the same colour on their breast.
The people of Naxmor are often characterised as being amiable and polite, regardless of their isolated and threatened position next to the Brighton Empire. It has often being attributed in tavern talk, that the ever present winds of the Naxmorian plains has blown any trace of common sense from the heads of the populace, and as a result they have been left daft.
This is hardly the case, as Her Noble Grace Odette has proven quite capable of political dealings with not only the courts of both Brighton and Debor, the courts of Torgan and distant Shimark. Naxmorian merchants also use this preconceived notion to enter into a few shrewd business dealings grant more benefits to Naxmor than given to their partners.
Most Naxmorians who live outside of the two major centres (Arely and Abbott) are either herdsmen or farmers, eking a scant living from the unforgiving land. As a result, they tend to lack more of the refinement of their “cultured” peers, and concern themselves little with the rules of etiquette. Most rural dwellers are uncouth, little concerning themselves with such pleasantries as bathing; they eat out of communal plates without utensils, and generally dress with little regard to fashion. This does not mean they are unhygienic. Most Naxmorians will bath at the very least once every week or so.

Naxmorians are very friendly, and have many rituals regarding friendship and hospitality. It is considered rude to turn aside a stranger in need, and every effort will be made to at least offer them a small amount of nourishment. When two strangers meet on the open road, it is considered polite to offer a drink from ones wineskin, and most travellers carry a special wineskin for just this purpose.
Another custom that Naxmorians take to heart, is the sanctity of the land. Structures will only be built on the most useless of land, leaving arable land for crops and grazing. Further every family takes great pains to maintain a small plot of land within which they grow some plant which is considered sacred. Any ill that happens to this plant will be considered an ill omen for the family, while a plant that blooms out of season, or acts in some other beneficial way would signify good fortune. Even the poorest peasant will try to have a plant, though while lacking land, would keep it in a pot. Only the homeless are incapable of owning and maintaining a plant of some sort, and as a result are looked upon with pity by the majority. Sometimes, temples will maintain a small plot with a plant there dedicated to the poor and homeless.
Naxmor does observe some laws of sumptuary. The wearing of fine furs (ermine, marten, and vair, while the petty nobles are limited to otter, fox, and wolf furs, commoners may wear anything not mentioned here), and certain fabrics (most notably silk, and any velvet) are reserved for the nobility, and only the military may wear fabrics dyed with orange. This enables all to quickly recognise a member of the watch, guard, or military when needed.
The life of a peasant in the March is fraught with hardship and peril. Little advantages for children exist, and most can expect to live the same lives as their parents. For those few who show some talent or are offered an apprenticeship, their parents will do what they can to make this opportunity come true, even if it means virtually selling their child into service to the new master. Such instances are quite common, more so in the outlying villages where life is at it’s harshest. These sales often grants the parent a small sum of money sufficient to hire a servant or two to take over the chores the child has vacated, and if the parents are diligent enough, possibly even improve their lot in life.
It is not unheard of (though certainly not common), for a family in low standing, through fate, to acquire enough wealth to buy themselves into the ranks of the middleclass or even more rarely, the lesser nobility. While these families, are often looked down upon by their new equals, there does exist a certain respect for those who are capable of achieving such a feat.

In addition to the regular religious holidays and feasts that are observed by most other countries in Euros, Naxmor has a few additional holidays that are also observed.

Feast of Independence:
The most important of all holidays for Naxmorians, this holiday held on the 18th day of Malstef, celebrates Naxmor’s victory in her war for independence from the Brighton Empire. This is a day of feasting and a gathering of the community. Communal feasts are often held at a local keep, or temple, or communal hall. It also often a day of reaffirmation at the church or to one’s lord, as people prepare for the winter months and year ahead.

Celebration of the Hearth:
This weeklong celebration begins on the first day of Endwinter and concludes at midnight of the 6th. This holiday celebrates both the family and the end of winter. On the 1st, families bring green plants into their house, with holly and ivy the predominant two. If holly is brought into the home first, the man will rule the house, while if ivy is the first, the woman will rule. Careful couples ensure that the two plants are brought into the house together to ensure harmony for the year. While the Feast of Independence is a celebration of the community, the Celebration of the Hearth centres on the family. The week is spent visiting and feasting with others in the community, and is a day when infants receive blessing from the local church, and are announced to the community. The 6th is spent with family, and is a joyous feast shared by the family and extended family if any are present in the community. The greenery that was brought in by the heads of the household is taken down and burned in the hearth after the sun sets, while ghost stories are told, and pastries and sweets are consumed.

Reading through, those with a keen eye, may notice I have 'stolen' much of the cultural aspects of the Naxmorian People, and the Celebration of the Hearth is very much akin to the early celebrations of Christmas as celebrated during the dark ages. A good location for the history ofChristams and it's myths/legends can be found here: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/superstitions.asp

I think I have another country that I did a lote of write up for, and I am trying to find it becuase it shows a definte difference in theother culture.

11-01-2009, 01:28 PM
This week's Roleplaying Tips newsletter has an article on this topic. http://www.roleplayingtips.com

And, coincidentally, it also has an ad for Kaidan: the Gift.

11-01-2009, 05:20 PM
Lol, here I was reading and thinking... 'where's the culture stuff...' turns out there's a new post already ^_^

Anyway, thank you very much for the tip. Giving styles a reason/cause makes a lot of sense actually. I've already been doing it without thinking I guess... :P

I still find it hard to put together things like architecture and clothing... For something as downright easy as fire it works wonders. A fantasy society famous for building gliders and airships would love kites, that's easy...

It's mainly how I connect things like colour-choice in clothing with architecture, without making it look silly or weird.

11-06-2009, 08:01 PM
I try to develop architecture, clothing, lifestyle, religion, and language.

The biggest part is the environment. For example, with a desert people, there are some things to note:

Sun protection - clothing covers the whole body, and is light to keep people cool (like traditional Arab dress)

Horse or camel culture (especially if nomadic in origin) - pants, especially for men (from cavalry soldiers) like traditional Steppe, Persian dress

Little water and food supply - smaller villages, nomads, large population centres are around any lakes, rivers (especially deltas) and seasides

Natural vegetation - likely few trees, most available plants are reeds and such by rivers, therefor housing would be primarily mud walls, wicker, leather, and stone (mostly the wealthy or for military structures)

Architecture - smaller buildings, close together - most people don't have plots of farmland separating the houses
Walls - none, open landscape makes for far vision, distant villages, only walls are made to keep livestock or mounts together - except for forts/castles

Climate - relating to earth, people often worship the sun when it is a powerful force, and pray to the gods for rain when they live in areas that lack it. With most boating having to do with fishing, and the area not having lots of islands, water gods like Neptune would be unpopular. So we develop our religion true to that


Religion - for a people like Muslims, where idoltry has been forbidden, architectural design goes away from the statues, gargoyles, paintings, and mosaics that we see in France. Rather, their buildings would rely on unique architectural elements, such as domes, fanciful edges, towers, ornamental pools and gardens, and colourful stones for mosaics of abstract design.

Language is really random - there doesn't seem to be an environmental connection for this; languages are more about the migration patterns and dominance of certain civilizations

So just from analyzing the environment and a few other things, we can draw a bunch of ideas for the culture that seem very reasonable to the reader.

We probably shouldn't have a Sun-worshipping clan of half-naked people living in stone houses in a remote wooded area with a climate like Norway.

11-07-2009, 06:58 AM
Horse or camel culture (especially if nomadic in origin) - pants, especially for men (from cavalry soldiers) like traditional Steppe, Persian dress
A great deal depends on what kind of domesticable animals are available in the region. Camels for example where not originally found in northern Africa, they were imported from Arabia.

Little water and food supply - smaller villages, nomads, large population centres are around any lakes, rivers (especially deltas) and seasides
Not to mention oases!

Walls - none, open landscape makes for far vision, distant villages, only walls are made to keep livestock or mounts together - except for forts/castles
So long as they have reasonable access to stone, you can bet there'll be walls to any settlement of importance. It's no good when bandits can just ride into your town...

05-17-2010, 06:31 AM
I realise this is an old thread but this is still interesting, and hopefully this topic can be revived.

Language is really random - there doesn't seem to be an environmental connection for this; languages are more about the migration patterns and dominance of certain civilizations

There is some patterns connected to language. In places where alot of different cultures meet and trade are plentiful there is usually a simplification of the language (like the ancient middle east, where west, east and south met). People tend to shorten words, simplify grammer and exchange new words when they meet foreigners. Isolated people are more prone to develop complex and difficult languages

An example are the Scandinavian languages. Before the viking age the Norse where isolated in fjords and there where big distances to travel, which resulted in a very complex grammer system, and very long winded words. With the increasing connection to the continent during the middle age and afterwards centuries (with new boat technology and economic growth), the scandinavian languages are now grown more simple and more similar to continential languages. However, the isolated Iceland has kept their Norse heritage and they are quite difficult to understand (and a hard language to learn, have I heard).

Geography and climate might also influence temperament in humans. I belive there are more introverted behavior in northern-lying places in Europe (Russia, Scandinavia), where people are (or at least historically have been) inclined to be a bit more silent, perhaps more thoughtful but also more restrained in showing intentions and emotions, then their more southernly european brethren. I speculate that this might be because of longer, darker winters, and therefor less social stimulation. Small population numbers because of harsh growing conditions might also contribute to this culture of less socialization.

05-18-2010, 10:35 PM
It depends on why exactly i am making them up.

I have basically three pillars. Depending on my purposes, i may have more or less development in each of these.

* Geography. According to Germs, Guns, and Steel (and i believe it, though not quite to the degree the author does) the geography and available plants and animals have a huge role in what kind of society can develop. You won't find a great civilization on a tiny island with little food-- people who spend all their time avoiding starvation don't have the time or energy to build great civilizations. Navigable rivers knit areas together, while mountains divide... etc.

* Technology. This naturally has a huge impact. Weather a people can thrive in particular geography or not depends on their technology. Each major invention brings along it's own advantages and new problems. How the culture responds to these challenges involves the next

* Philosophy/Religion. This is where the culture takes what it's been given and decides what it should do with it. The cultural beliefs create a distinct personality.

And then if you start tracking these things over time, you have History.