Using ‘third places’ to add cultural depth to your D&D campaign or character

The trope that starts every Dungeons & Dragons campaign is “So, you meet in a tavern.” Which is fitting. For most campaigns start with a diverse group of characters who don’t have strong connections throughout the group. They are a cross-cultural, cross-class, cross-Class, cross-everything group that wouldn’t meet at most places in the medieval-Renaissance-ish fantasy world that is D&D.

But the tavern, via the trope, has become a third place. It’s not home (though it often becomes that). It’s not work (though it often becomes that). It’s the place between. And these places between are frequently where subcultures within a society connect.

Various cultures have had different third places. For modern America it is now the coffeeshop and used to be bowling alleys. In the Ottoman Empire in the classical age had its cafes, where philosophy, music and political debate occurred.

In New England during the American Revolution public houses were the gathering point, for many at that time the first place was a co-located home with work and the second were churches.

The Greeks gathered on the steps of temples. Finns and Russians gather in bathhouses.

Sporting venues have been third places, before they became economically stratified. Travelling carnivals and festivals can be a third place.

No matter the type of third place, it tells you a bit about the culture.

Using third places as a character backstory tool

When creating a PC think about the place where you mingled with peoples unlike you. Where did your dwarf first meet an elf? Where did your farmer first meet a noble? Where did your follower of Lathander meet an unbeliever?

This decision will help tell you about your own history.

It will connect them to a place and associated behaviors that aren’t mechanics, but are fuel for the social pillar. Their own stories about a trip to watch a great debate between philosophers, a visit to the library, or the type of ale they enjoyed at the pub are stories that add more depth to the shared story that is D&D.

Adventurers have the place where they sleep (a cave, a cove, an inn), the place where they work (dungeons), and the places where they spend time meeting strangers with odd quests. Once they start their adventure they have the third place that was cross-cultural communication when they were growing up and now the place between — and that’s up to the whole party of different peoples.

Using third places as a world building tool

Dungeon Masters generally are more active in creating the world. There are a few ways they can use third places in that world.

  • Collect each players’ third places in your notes. Give them the opportunity to revisit them in new lands.
  • Start the campaign at the typical third place for the origin culture of the campaign. “So, you meet on the steps of the temple.”
  • When the group comes to a new land and looks for their comfortable third place (the tavern) demonstrate how that locale is different from their expectation and what the unfamiliar culture would use as their non-stratified place that welcomes outsiders.
  • Use maps of abandoned third places to show how different the older ages were from the one in which you campaign.
  • Have an NPC name-drop their favorite third place. This can show how they are familiar to most of the group, or different. Each NPC can have their own place, they should!
  • Have two third places in the same town share similarities but still be unique beyond their name. Maybe the Rusty Clam is a working pub and the Silver Nail is for the merchant class — and yet the players are welcomed at both.

These are flavor elements, but flavor is story in D&D. And story is what tables build together, usually because Dungeons and Dragons is now our third place.


One thought on “Using ‘third places’ to add cultural depth to your D&D campaign or character

  1. Great post. In my world we have a couple third places that come to mind.

    In Kosantia (modeled loosely after Tukey) they have a great outdoor market where all manner of things can be bought & sold. Locals and visitor congregate here at all hours of the day.

    Gowandia (with surroundings reminiscent of West Africa) is know for its scholars. The great library there along the coast is a center of knowledge and a destination for those who seek it out.


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