Welcome back to the column that breaks down gaming into what’s really important, ten things at a time!
The best civilizations in D&D have a very different feel from anything in the real world. A simple urban adventure could happen anywhere, but the exotic environments in these races’ cities open up much stranger options.
The hierarchical, cutthroat, slave-driven society of the drow is one of the most unique and fully realized in D&D. Rival noble houses, the powerful priestess caste and the weaker males, and the fervent worship of Lolth all add unique color to a drow city setting. Drow cities make perfect settings for power struggles, demonic rites, and intrigue-based adventures.
The city of Tu’narath, home to the lich-queen Vlaakith, serves as the center of githyanki civilization. But the githyanki’s culture is monolithic, and extends to every astral vessel they pilot. Putting your PCs in such a xenophobic, warlike society usually means a big battle, but you the githyanki sometimes make deals—deals they plan to honor until the day they can conquer the ones they’ve made the deals with.
Tyranny and violence define the societies of the evil giants. They exert brutal control over their subjects and try to dominate others’ settlements. The giants’ strongholds can provide plenty of variety and interesting set dressing. Different kinds of giants inhabit outposts in the borderlands, massive keeps, volcanic lairs, and icy castles.
Wild jungle and swamp adventures can bring adventurers into the territory of the lizardfolk. Their tribes enact primitive rituals and revel in cold-blooded savagery. A group of adventurers stuck in the midst of a large tribe of lizardfolk will find that their social graces and reason won’t protect them.
5. Mind Flayer.
Alien architecture and the utter domination of thralls by their illithid masters mark a mind flayer settlement. Mind flayers only rarely gather all in one place, but their far-spanning schemes and dark alliances create the sort of civilization that can span a campaign arc rather than be confined to one location.
The mazes of the demon-worshipping minotaurs trap their foes. The minotaurs themselves can be difficult to understand and deal with, and adventurers stuck wandering a minotaur maze might feel very much alone as they struggle to find anyone sane within.
Cold, damp underground lairs of the kuo-toa combine the otherness and strange worship of the lizardfolk with the slavery and religious hierarchy of the drow. The seeming order of their society holds a dark secret: Madness lurks just below the surface of the kuo-toa psyche.
The hierarchical society of the goblins stretches from the domineering, warlike hobgoblins to the bugbear enforcers to the desperate, squabbling goblins. All these contrasts within one group make a layered civilization where adventurers might be able to turn factions against each other or exploit the flaws of their goblin enemies.
The domains where efreeti dwell are hostile places for outsiders, both because of the flaming environments they prefer and because of the firm control efreeti assert over their servants and slaves. Gleaming spires and domes of brass and gold show off the wealth the egotistic creatures possess.
Like a dark mirror of the dwarves, duergar build immaculate underground castles and strongholds. Like the devils they worship, the duergar like to command slaves and keep them on a tight leash.