Or, A Funny Thing Happened At the Border
This is the first Gnome Stew article written and posted entirely from a foreign country, while I’m on vacation. In honor of that occasion, and of the “no problems” attitude of the Caribbean, I’ll try to make it useful but lighthearted.
When travelling internationally, and crossing borders in the legally approved manner, a few things may trip up the unexpected adventurer:
- It is entirely possible for two people to speak the same language, but be largely unintelligible to each other.
- “Not only did my familiar have to get a license, but he also had to spend 10 days in quarantine at the border.”
- Don’t drink the water without rum or a cleric. Trust me on this one.
- “The customs agent would only let me bring one potion back across the border. On the plus side, it could be a whole liter. Now, where’s that Potion Miscibility Table?”
- ‘Island Time’ is the same as Eastern Standard Time, plus about 1d6 hours. (Please note that this die roll may or may not explode.)
- “We made a haul on our first international adventure, but ended up spending most of it on international roaming charges…”
- On the immigration form, does ‘Adventurer’ fall under ‘Self-Employed’ or ‘Other’? Both?
- “The list of contraband items did not mention arcane artifacts. I checked.”
- Scuba diving is the applied sciences of gas and biology under pressure. At least, it is until the first shark shows up.
- “Wait, in order to enter the country, we have to convert how many gold pieces to copper at a 1:1 ratio?” (Yes, this really happened.)
- Foreign cultures may have strange rituals. (Okay, sorry for making you watch my vacation footage, but it is kind of surreal, isn’t it?)
- “Who knew that guns are pretty much illegal outside the USA?”
- Sand gets in everything.
Anything you’d like to add, especially anything dealing with international travel, and how the process might be applied to gaming in any genre? Sound off in the comments and let us know!
Until then, I’ll save a place under the umbrella for you…
Yes, yes, guns are pretty much illegal outside of the Excited States. And sand does indeed get into everything. Most immediately noticeable, bathing suits.
Looks like a fun trip, and judging by your article, you’re making the most of it!
Playing roleplaying games is always pretty much going abroad: you go to exciting new places and meet interesting new people, all the while trying to cope with the culture shock that genre and system cause.
Traveling abroad is invaluable to a GM. By bringing to the fore the peculiarities of another culture, it also highlights the odd little customs we live with without ever paying them any real attention. You start noticing the little things that make places and people unique, and that makes it so much easier to pass on the same feeling of estrangement and discovery to your players.
For example, I could never understand radical feminism before I visited the US. I was there for an academic conference with a female colleague, and I was quite bemused by the assumption that a) we were married, b) my friend’s opinion was less important than or subordinate to mine, and c) I was paying for everything. When I explained that she’s a colleague and my best friend’s girlfriend, people wondered how my friend would allow her to travel with another man.
I’ve since used that experience to depict sexism in my games. The sexism I saw was not malicious, I even hesitate to call it ignorant, but seemed to be more of a vestige of chivalrous or gentlemanly behaviour. They were simply being polite in a strange and somewhat distasteful way.
Fortunately the science fiction and fantasy scholars at the conference provided relief from such customs. Getting to know the off-mainstream of another culture helps to avoid over-generalization, which is always a pitfall in game worlds; it’s just so easy to fall back on stereotypes without noticing.
The trip was indeed excellent, thank you very much. (
You make a good insight into the nature of customs and the ‘little things’ that make a difference. In the Caribbean, the second syllable is commonly accented, so the word ‘character’ is pronounced ‘kha-RACK-tah’. Since the resort has Sesame Street characters on it, we heard that word dozens of times a day… It is one of those things that makes you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
(It just occurred to me that reggae music emphasizes the second beat. Coincidence?)
Some comments in no particular order.
I’ll confirm that some currencies pay only in coppers or fractions of coppers (1Yen = .01CAD, 1Kwon =.001 CAD). Also you can have currencies that aren’t in denominations of ten compared to Canadian/American currency. British pounds are worth two Canadian dollars (if I remember right). Even in a fantasy setting you can do that to muddy up currencies when traveling.
Also never forget that the prices of common goods in D&D are not fixed and that some items can cost more or less in other countries. A can of pop would cost about four times as much as in North America. Have the players try and figure out if they’re better off purchasing a new sword where they are or waiting until they get home.
Don’t drink the water is universal. And yes, sand will get everywhere. It’s not even worth trying to keep it from getting somewhere. Just say “screw it” and do laundry as soon as you get back to the hotel.
I’ll also confirm that two people can speak the same language and still not understand each other. If you didn’t grow up watching British television then try watching Coronation Street or East Enders without subtitles. If you did then try calling a major corporation for tech-support.*
*In case I get nailed for it being culturally insensitive, I do work for a major corporation and provide tech-support. At least once a week I talk to someone who complains about not understanding the agents that work overseas. Remember: it’s not a racial slur if it’s true.
The can of pop costs about four times as much in England as it does in North America.
My parents dragged me across half the globe when I was a kid (they really love traveling), and one thing I’ve observed is that food varies a lot more than you’d think. Even something really basic like say, a grilled steak, will be handled in a myriad different ways, ranging from how it’s spiced to how long it’s cooked to what is served on the side. Even stuff you buy in cans tastes subtly different. The same even goes for “exotic” foods like Chinese food in America or American food in China; they’re both quite different from Chinese food in China or American food in the US (except for Hard Rock CafÃ©, which somehow manages to be remarkably same-y wherever you go).
In a fantasy setting, of course, there’s far less globalization and it’s much harder to ship exotic goods which means some meals might not at all be available even in a bordering country. This is something you can easily highlight in a game for a bit of exotic flavor. It doesn’t have to be “people eat snakes here” – it’s really enough to add a small odd touch, like “The innkeep apologizes, but he has never heard of this thing called ‘potato’. Is it some kind of bird?”
I used to run a lot of modern espionage stuff, and the differences in culture were often apparently, but moreso was thenpropensity for stupid bureaucratic nonsense, troubles with shipping, scheduling, language (we had a group almost killed because there were no Portuguese linguists on duty for a holiday weekend back at HQ [based on a similar real situation]), and of course, legal differences.
The two that jump out at me:
1. Hide your cash. Better yet, sew some emergency funds into your clothing.
2. Carry a pack of cigarettes and some bubblegum everywhere you go. Non-monetary bribes are often safer than monetary bribes, and well, bubblegum and cigarettes are common commodities that are acceptable bribes.
Both of these are based on travel in Africa. Bribes weren’t as big a deal when in Europe, but are still commonplace at least in Italy. And trust me on the no cash part; first, you can’t offer enough cash (a guy holding an AK is quite likely going to insist on all of it), and second, cash looks like a bribe and is easier to construe as an insult to honor or similar (which may or may not be a big deal).
When I was in Europe in the late 80s, a travel guide pointed out that JFK half-dollars were an excellent ‘bribe’. It worked beautifully; everyone knew who JFK was, and even the East Germans were glad to get one.
I guess the point is, know your audience and bring whatever will make them happy without making them greedy.
Another thing to note is that things don’t change instantly at land border. Food on one side of the border will be similar to food on the other side, but both may be very different to that in their respective capital cities. This is partly because both sides of the border share a common climate, and as these borders change from time to time the inhabitants are likely to be related to each other.
A thing I find is fun to play around with is the reaction of the locals to you as a visitor.
On one side of the spectrum is rudeness. I forget what it’s called, but there is a psychological diagnosis specifically referring to a state of depression Japanese tourists sometimes enters when, after saving up travel funds over an extended period of time in order to visit Paris, they get to France and realise what we Europeans have known for centuries: The French are A-holes.
Honestly, there should be a CAUTION-sign at the airport or something.
At the other end, there is the weirdly over-enthusiastic hospitality. I went to South Africa once on a Business(-ish) trip. Upon meeting a cow at the edge of town, I mentioned my generally favourable disposition towards bovines (cows are among my top five animals). My hosts took this to mean I had a general interest in livestock breeding and the following day we spent two hours visiting a large chicken farm belonging to some guy one of them knew.
Also, every independent and developed civilization will have its own method of producing alcohol, The Xhosas of South Africa make some kind of runny porridge which actually tastes pretty good (IMHO), the Tibetans, as I understand it, ferment yak milk etc.
The local cuisine and said home brews, be it snout soup served with beer made from bark, or spit-roasted intestines served with wyvern-blood wine, is often a point of pride. If you find yourself invited into someone’s home you had better gobble up, or things might turn… awkward