I’ve enjoyed Quinn at Thoughtcrime‘s recent posts about developing cultures in play–and his efforts to bring historical cultures not part of the western mainstream to light, with a particular focus on using them in gaming. Sounds perfect to me!
Let’s start with his pair of Gameable Culture posts. The first post, Gameable Culture: Where I’m From provides you with a process that will produce cultures and people whose expression of their culture feels natural. The process is simple–but it hinged on introducing a limitation that I hadn’t thought about, but whose value now seems obvious.
Say five things in about five sentences that people from that place do
The important thing is not to tell us what they value or believe. The actions you use should show us what that culture believes and values by inference
I really liked that idea, and immediately thought about it in relation to other culture building ideas. Mo adapted Simon’s idea for a Culture Builder, where you create a set of rules for a culture and draw cards from an ordinary deck to see how a specific character relates to her culture. I liked the idea so much I built a set of rules for The Dwarven Empire in my then current D&D campaign. While many of the cultural points can be viewed as from the dwarven perspective, I defined the culture as an outsider looking in–not the strongest approach.
My second stab at the idea, using a culture from Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, is closer to the ideas that Quinn advances in his post. In NPC Tricks: Characters and Culture, too many of traits of Temur’s people are still written passively (they’re beliefs or thoughts), but trying to capture a culture encouraged me to make more active traits, and to keep the viewpoint within the culture. Using Quinn’s formulation above, I’d rewrite the traits to all be things they do, rather than including thoughts as traits.
For more cultures, the comments to Quinn’s post has cultures that are ready to introduce to your game world. The Auroch would be particularly interesting to run into; nomadic, with quirky secrets that set them apart from their neighbors.
The Next Step
Now that you know what the people of the culture do and strive for, we can turn out attention to who they are and what they value. Gameable Culture: What I am leads us to the next step, defining traits for the culture. These traits are expressed positively by people within the culture, describing themselves and their neighbors. This helps us to keep from building cultures that live as they’re labeled by outsiders–and introduces a space for us to see the new culture through their own eyes. As a GM, it’s too often easy to label a group negatively, from the outside. Even Kender, with their pouches constantly full of other people’s goods, aren’t just thieves or kleptomaniacs–though, given the cartoony nature of their world, they’re a little closer to stereotype than you’ll want to build your cultures.
Also at Thoughtcrime, Ryven Cedrylle, posts aiding your development of fictional cultures. He spends some time sharing research on cultures that haven’t been extensively mined for gaming yet. In particular, his series on Ethiopia caught my eye. While that series is three great articles, (1, 2, 3), it was the third that proved particularly interesting to me.
Part 3 is a history of middle ages Ethiopia. Reading about Ethiopia’s relation with Europe made for interesting thinking about variant faiths, and cultures seen through a distorted glass in traditional fantasy games. For example, in the article Quinn points out that the local branch of Christianity has different books in their bible, which would be fascinating religious angle to work into a D&D game. It makes meeting this familiar but different culture in game incredibly appealing–I’d love to work an analog of Ethiopia into my next D&D campaign for the characters to run into just when they think they’ve got the world figured out.
Your Cultures, of Game and Net
Have you had much luck introducing interesting cultures into your game worlds? Did you offer them as PC options, understood by your players? Do you present them differently when you’re introducing them in play, portraying NPCs as players’ first experience meeting strangers?
Along a different line of thought, have you read anything particularly interesting recently around the web? If you’ve got a post from the roleplaying world that provoked thoughts, please share the link and what it sparked in comments.