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Gameable Culture

I’ve enjoyed Quinn at Thoughtcrime [1]‘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!

Gameable Culture

Let’s start with his pair of Gameable Culture posts. The first post, Gameable Culture: Where I’m From [2] 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 [3], 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 [4] 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 [5], 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 [6] 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.

Borrowing History

Also at Thoughtcrime [1], 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 [7], 2 [8], 3 [9]), it was the third that proved particularly interesting to me.

Part 3 [9] 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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Gameable Culture"

#1 Comment By BryanB On March 7, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

I’ve certainly had a lot more success with western minds understanding western cultures that have been ported over into my RPGs. It gets kind of tricky when the cultures I borrow from are eastern ones.

This is probably to be expected given our own heavily western influenced American culture, particular as most of my fellow players have been male caucasians with a variety of European ancestries.

I tried for years to incorporate Japanese culture and parts of history into my fantasy role playing games, very much desiring to have a great Samurai epic that Kurosawa would be proud of. It never worked out, largely I suspect due to the disinterest in other cultures by most of the group or what was considered by some to be a bit of a hassle to have to learn a little about the social aspects of living in such a culture.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On March 7, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

That’s part of what makes his posts work so well; while the cultures should feel very different, they are just five bullet points and ten traits the culture views as positive. Getting that level of buy-in–rather than a common understanding of hundreds of years of history, fashion, and detailed culture–seems easier to accomplish, even if it’s not the full depth of realized cultures.

#3 Comment By gamefiend On March 8, 2013 @ 8:55 am

Thanks for the link Scott!

One quick correction: Ryven Cedrylle did the really awesome Ethiopia articles on the site.

I love the breakdown! You really got the point I was aiming at in those. I plan to delve a little deeper with the culture with more steps/exercises in the near future.

For many of our games, the level of depth we need to be playable is much smaller than we’ve traditionally been led to believe. I am not at all against getting all the details of a culture you are interested in, but I found that I learned about cultures and history after being provoked by RPGs. Saying to myself “this is neat! I want to know more” got me to do a lot of reading that I wouldn’t otherwise do. I don’t see it as an RPG’s job to do but so much teaching; I think an RPG’s main job is to put you in situations that make you want to know more and go deeper. You can bring that knowledge back in your sessions and deepen as you go.

I love that depth that you can go into in world-building, but increasingly I’m a fan of what I can get player investment for. I like the notion of focusing on what players will see and deal with first so that they can experience something immediately about a culture.

Anyways, I’m rambling. Thanks again for the link and discussion!

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On March 8, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

Updated the main post to reflect the proper writer of the Ethiopia articles. Thanks for the correction!

I’m very much with you on “Increasingly, I’m a fan of what I can get player investment for”. When I read about the Otori, [10] to figure out how much I’d be able to share with my players.

It’s fascinating to try to figure out, and to strive for, even when you sometimes fall a little short of capturing a whole culture.

#5 Comment By Svafa On March 8, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

Thanks for the article and link! I checked out Quinn’s posts and quickly started trying to apply it to the cultures in our home game. It was fun to learn some new things about them, even about some of the cultures I already have fleshed out fairly well. Primarily because I’ve gone the route of “what they believe” rather than “how they act”.

As an example, I discovered our Dragonborn traditionally pay the groom’s family, as labour and crafts are traditionally male domains but accounting and finance are the female’s. Thus, a prospective wife can both prove her financial acumen and compensate the groom’s family for their loss. I already knew women managed finances while men supplied labour, but expressing that in an action added an interesting wrinkle to their culture.

In another example, inspired unabashedly by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Goblins trade wives and children to resolve major conflicts. Our game has a tribe of goblins and village of humans tentatively cooperating at the PC’s behest, and the two have traded ambassadors to keep the peace. Now I find room for a difference in perspective on the trading of ambassadors: the goblins expect the ambassadors (both sides) to join their new society, becoming loyal to it.

Anyway, all that to say I’m excited about how the exercise has changed my way of developing cultures. And it gives some very tangible examples to use. It’s one thing to say that Halflings are held in suspicion and another to have them speak a private language among themselves.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On March 8, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

That’s very cool! That’s one of the fun things about it; just settling down to write down how they view themselves can really create a more realistic feeling culture.

Your dragonborn sounds particularly interesting–did you borrow that from a specific real world culture?

#7 Comment By Svafa On March 8, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

Not exactly, no. The idea presented is based on bride prices, which are a real world thing, but the concept is inverted due to in-game cosmology. I took the Bahamut-Tiamat relationship of 4E and expanded it into a dualistic system more similar to yin and yang. So, neither Bahamut nor Tiamat are good or evil, but have certain attributes assigned to them instead. So, Bahamut is still Justice and Order, but also encompasses Tyranny and Wrath; Tiamat is still Greed and Chaos, but also encompasses Stability and Freedom. That last bit seems odd as I write it, but they don’t have to be mutually exclusive; it stems in part from her association with both Earth and Water. I’m also wary of removing logical contradictions, because… well, logic is not the aim.

In creating a Dragonborn culture, I tried to extrapolate from the duality of their natures. Granted, Dragonborn in general would favour Bahamut, but I wasn’t a fan of prohibiting the worship of Tiamat (at least during their Empire).

Another interesting aspect of their culture that sprang from the duality: temples of Bahamut may have priestesses (as they can’t hold services, maybe deaconess would be a better term?) who handle their finances, but temples of Tiamat have no need for priests (and have none).

#8 Comment By Kitchen Wolf On March 9, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

An inverted “bride-price” is called a dowry:


Paying it is more than a bit of a burden for families on the low end of the economic spectrum. Leads to infanticide and a shortage of women in extreme cases.

#9 Comment By Svafa On March 9, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

A dowry isn’t exactly the same as a bride-price. A dowry is goods or money brought by the wife to the marriage; that is, it is something given to the groom. The opposite of a dowry is a dower, not a bride-price. The aim of the groom-price is that it’s something given to the groom’s parents, not to the groom, and thus is not a dowry.

And, yes, it can lead to problems in society (and also prevent other problems). That’s part of the upside to including practices like it into an in-game culture: it adds conflict.