This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Eighty Four on 6th October 2021.
Ryu (with maternal authority): Lennon!
Ryu: I know you’re not trying to pickpocket from me, are you?
Lennon (sighing): I… I thought I was getting better at this.
Ryu: As you keep reminding everyone, your Charisma score went up when you became a Warlock. I think your Dexterity is still what? Twelve?
Ryu: Okay, yeah, so why did you think you were going to steal my coin purse? It’s next to the hat, by the way, so good luck if you happen to grab that by mistake.
Lennon: Why do you have the- okay one thing at a time. Firstly, that coin purse was mine in the first place; secondly in the Feywild they like to steal things. Well, some of the beings there do, the rest of them have…different greetings.
Ostron: Wait, they steal things as a greeting?
Lennon: Yeah, I don’t know it’s just the way they do things there. I mean, so many of the creatures are like hyperactive children; they get distracted by anything shiny and they want it as theirs.
Ostron: Don’t some of the feywild creatures get kind of…aggressive if you steal from them?
Lennon: Did I mention I don’t like visiting my patron?
Ryu: That seems like a weird way to say hello.
Lennon: Eh, no weirder than any other way if you look into it.
Most people don’t think about it in modern society because the advent of things like telephones, email, and other worldwide, instantaneous communication devices have mostly standardized the practice, but the simple act of meeting someone, getting them to acknowledge you, and indicating you are not going to hurt them is actually a more complicated process than you’d think.
There are many anecdotal stories from history of cultures meeting each other for the first time and running into problems because of misunderstandings about language and gestures. It’s also a fairly common trope in science fiction; most shows that involve contact with an alien species spend a lot of time and energy worrying over doing something that an unknown party would assume is hostile.
So what does this have to do with Dungeons and Dragons? Well, as mentioned all of the standard greetings we have today come from somewhere in our past. A culture with a very different background would probably have greetings and customs for saying hello that are markedly different from ours. If you’re a DM and need a way to add more flavor to an unknown group of creatures or a remote civilization, changing up the way they greet people is an immediate way to set them apart. If you’re a player, having a unique greeting be a result of your origins or upbringing can give your character more flavor and uniqueness right away.
But it wouldn’t really make sense to just say, “my character’s tribe threw rocks at each other as a way to say hello” without explanation. If you look into the history of our greetings, all of them served a very practical purpose at one time. Even if one specific character doesn’t know that origin, it’s good for someone to know what the logical reason was so it can either be discovered or explained later.
Let’s start with some of our greetings and where they came from, then move on to how you might be able to translate that into D&D. We can start with the easiest one: Hello. The actual origins of this one are a little hard to place, but some etymologists point to early Renaissance English. Halloo was a verb that meant to pursue while shouting and the theory is that it evolved into the greeting we have today. The reason it became so widespread, however, was the telephone. With so many different areas suddenly able to communicate and sporting dozens of different dialects, companies doing business pressed for a standard greeting to be established. Alexander Graham Bell wanted “ahoy” but “hello” won out.
From one of the more common spoken greetings, let’s move to a physical one. The handshake has been around for a very long time. There are ancient carvings from 5 BCE that depict Greeks greeting each other by shaking hands, and it was certainly a common practice in Medieval Europe. Almost everyone agrees that the main purpose of the greeting was to convince each other that no one was going to start something, because their fighting hand was busy gripping yours. Some think the actual shaking came out of the Medieval times and was meant to dislodge any hidden weapons. It may have also helped contribute to the bias against left-handed people; a southpaw shaking with their right hand still had their dominant hand free to use a weapon.
The military salute is another interesting gesture dating back to the Middle Ages. At that time knights and nobles wore armor that included helmets with full face guards. Many of the helmets had visors that could be raised to display the wearer’s face. When greeting others or verifying someone’s identity, standard practice was to raise the visor, which was ususally done with one hand catching the bottom of it and raising it to forehead level. Similarly, after full helmets had fallen out of fashion but hats were all the rage, it was customary for junior ranks to remove their hats in the presence of a superior, which again required them to put a hand to their forehead.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, though, hats were getting complex; some of them were starting to be buckled on and some of them were large enough that incautious removal stood a good chance of knocking out anyone nearby, so a lot of militaries changed policy so everyone just had to touch the brim of their hat. Eventually that turned into the salute most people are familiar with today. It also somewhat harkens back to the origins of the handshake; most rank and file soldiers’ primary weapons require two hands, whether you’re talking about a modern rifleman or an ancient spearman. Having one hand not gripping the weapon again means the person isn’t about to try assassinating their commanding officer.
If you want to go very recent, look at people riding motorcycles. Many of them will acknowledge or greet other bikers by dropping their closer hand palm out, rather than raising and waving. That gesture is pure practicality; since you need to maintain balance while riding, suddenly taking your hand off a control and raising it above your head throws your entire center of gravity off, as opposed to just basically straightening your arm a bit.
Starting from a premise of the greeting having a practical purpose can tell you what kinds of other greetings might make sense in D&D, where there are extra considerations. For example, building off the handshake idea, it’s plausible that a society of wizards or one where spellcasters had a lot of influence on the culture for a while might develop a greeting that ensures hands are both visible and immoble, such as having fingers interlaced and in front of the person’s body. That position would theoretically ensure that the person wasn’t about to or in the process of casting a spell when they greeted each other.
For verbal greetings let’s imagine a village or city in a remote area. You walk up to someone and rather than hello, they smile and say “skies!” The origin there is that the area used to have a large population or wyverns, griffons, or other flying predators. The people on watch for the settlements during that time would report “clear skies” to people to reassure them no predators were around. Similarly, when speaking with each other the populace would wish each other “clear skies to you” as a blessing or prayer for good fortune. Over time it was just shortened to “skies” and the original meaning is less well known as the population of wyverns and griffons dwindled.
Digging into the origins and histories of things like that can also make for interesting quest fodder, particularly if you have an intrigue plot going. Say you have reports of demons in an area, but there’s a village that seems weirdly unaware and untouched by them. Obviously the cult is there, right?
Except the party comes in and starts interrogating the creepy old lady in the woods and the corrupt mayor and guy whose cows keep producing sour milk and find nothing. The creepy old lady is allergic to her bevy of cats so her throat’s always a mess and her eyes are always red, the corrupt mayor is just doing your standard overtaxing of the populace to pay for his secret mistress in Waterdeep, and the farmer is just really bad at taking care of cows. You spend a night at the inn expecting everyone to eerily traipse off into the woods or a cave for a midnight ritual, but everyone going into the woods just has basic insomnia and the only people sneaking into a cave are young and paired off and very…excitable.
Then someone notices every single member of the village greets each other with their hands in a weird shape, and if you ask about it everyone says they’ve just always done that. Five or six disintegrating books later and a few arcana checks and you discover the strange symbol everyone’s making with their hands looks kind of a lot like the symbol for Demogorgon, and if you go back a couple hundred years there was a temple somewhere near here…
There are a lot of different ways you can run with the idea of unique greetings, both as a player and a DM. A weird greeting can suggest a very foreign culture, a hidden secret that needs to be uncovered, or just a humorous backstory item. Just remember that if you want to keep it believable it helps for the greeting or the gesture to have a history of being practical.
Ostron: So given that context it would kind of make sense that theft is a greeting in the feywild; so many of the creatures there are narcissists the only way to get their attention would be to take something of theirs.
Lennon: I’m okay just sticking to the theory that most of the things in the feywild are professional pains in the ass.
Ryu: Speaking of pain, we should probably go to the scrying pool so RaeRae doesn’t start threatening with her stick again.