Let’s talk about culture and history, and how the two are almost always intertwined. When homebrewing a campaign setting, culture is something you cannot ignore. However, I think it’s one of the toughest things to consider and create. Because, honestly, cultures begin and evolve so naturally that it’s difficult to manufacture. But let’s try anyway.
History influences culture. This cannot be ignored. Author Elie Wiesel said, “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”
So let’s start with the history of a city in the northern region of Vost, Felgate.
Centuries ago, horrible, destructive monsters would roam all over Caldon. They brought death and destruction to all in their path, and stood in the way of the progress of civilization. The call went out for great heroes to rise up together and fight these creatures and to defend the lands.
The last group of heroes to fight discovered a portal beneath an ancient volcano within a cluster of mountains. These mountains grouped together within the Bosk Forest at the end of the Aldar Mountain range. The heroes promised to cross the portal and attempt to seal it to keep the monsters from coming through anymore. They succeeded, but barely.
Upon the last hero’s return, the bittersweet victory was announced, but she was unsure if their success would last. Therefore, a fortress was constructed at the mouth of the underground path leading beneath the mountains to the portal. This became Felgate.
Over time, specialized military training took place at the fortress, and the Vostan army was formed and housed here. More time passed, and the families of soldiers in the army settled around the fortress at Felgate, never-minding the potential danger should the portal reopen.
Felgate eventually grew into a city of its own rite.
Today, it is well-populated with people of all walks. It is overseen by a group of military leaders in a “junta” style of leadership. These leaders perpetuate the fear that the portal may someday burst open again, and they will be the first line of defense for Vost and the rest of Caldon.
Therefore, the people of Felgate see their rule as necessary, due to the possible danger beneath the mountains. Felgatians live with an “at the maw of death” outlook on life – even the children understand this – and though it seems bleak and morbid to outsiders, Felgatians embrace this way of life and live it to the fullest. They feast at every possible opporunity and occasion in order to celebrate the wonders of life. That’s the culture that has evolved out of the fear from the history.
Another aspect of the Felgatian culture is food. This goes along with their attitudes toward feasts, but it goes deeper than just that. Growing food and preparing food is considered an art form in Felgate. See, due to the proximity of the portal’s energy, the soil and rocks around these mountains is too acidic and full of sulfur. It’s impossible to grow anything.
Felgatians import rich soil into the city for their own gardens. Nearly every home has a garden to add green to the white stones of the city. In these gardens, Felgatians grow fruits and vegetables, food to contribute to these huge feasts, as well to feed their families. It brings them joy to grow things. To cook things. To plate a meal. The presentation of the meal or the feast is just as important as eating it and enjoying it.
That’s the culture that has evolved in Felgate through its history.
Further, there is practically no crime in Felgate. It’s simply not tolerated. The people there hold the values of community, togetherness, and brotherhood above all else. It’s unthinkable to steal from your neighbor. In fact, ask your neighbor, and they will likely give you what you want. Felgatians don’t care about the pettiness of greed and selfishness. The portal could erupt hundreds of monsters at any moment, so it’s best to live happily, and ensure that everyone is fulfilled.
That’s the culture of Felgate.
Here’s some behind-the-scenes information about how I developed Felgate and it’s culture. The first thing that I do when I make a city is I place it on the map. On the Caldon map, I saw that I had placed a volcano-type mountain in a forest.
So I thought it would be interesting to have a city near that volcano. That always goes well, right? Just ask the people of Neverwinter. So then, I thought, what if there’s a reason the city was built close to the volcano? What if there’s something wrong with the volcano, and the city is kind of a guard against it? That’s where the portal idea came from. That also helped me to explain a LOT of the history of Caldon.
Allow me to elaborate. The northern region of Vost and the southern region of Qurn don’t really get along. The exact reason why was lost to time. However, Vost seems to think it’s because the people of Qurn are bitter at Vost, or ungrateful toward them, due to the heroes sealing the portal long ago and stemming the influx of destructive monsters into Caldon. Many of the political leaders of Vost have, to this day, not let Qurn forget this.
So a lot of the simmering conflict between Vost and Qurn has to do with this portal, and with Felgate seated atop it. So this city that guards the portal came to mind as I was figuring all this out, and I named it Felgate (like a gate that guards against fell creatures). The term “gate” had already been a recurring theme in Caldon, and I liked it.
Now that I had the purpose of Felgate and its location, and how that all ties into the history of Caldon, I could build the city itself, and the people within. That led me to really consider how these people live – now. It didn’t matter as much how they lived a hundred years ago. Just as long as I know how they got to today.
So I asked myself, what would it be like, living in proximity to something so horrible? To live among the specially trained army built just to take care of that horrible thing should things go sour? What kind of culture would evolve around that feeling? Sure, you could go the “it’s all hopeless” route, but that kind of attitude doesn’t last long, I feel. Because either you succumb to your own hopelessness, or you move away.
Sorry, Gotham City, you’re a smidge unrealistic.
Why not the opposite, then? Joy. Happiness. Life. Celebration. Yes, yes, yes. I loved it. These people are so Mediterranean in their lifestyle. They party like it’s the last party they’ll ever have. They stand together. They enjoy life as a big middle finger to the portal. That’s perfect.
So how does one enjoy life and celebrate in a fantasy setting? Festivals! Feasts! Big, huge, city-wide parades and joviality! But maybe we can add another angle to this…maybe make it not so easy for them. Well, usually volcanic soil is very rich and lush, right? What if the portal soured that aspect? Made the land around these mountains barren? Now Felgate has to import soil in order to grow their own food. Now it’s a task. Now it’s a feat. Now it’s an accomplishment to grow something. Take it a step further…. it’s an art.
And everything else trickles down from there.
There you have it. A city wherein the culinary arts are highly valued and celebrated, and all because of a nearby portal to some awful unknown that used to spit out horrible monsters.
How have you built cultures in your homebrew worlds? Where do you start? What influences the cultures the most? What kind of interesting turns have your cultures made due to outside influences or the influence of the past? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time, Well Met!