We’ve done a lot of talking about different cultures and diversity this month. One thing we haven’t discussed though is what does culture mean in a game? Culture is a context that defines the socieities that characters come from, exist in, and deal with. Going a little deeper, culture is a context from wherein decisions are made. The culture we’ve grown up in informs the decisions we make (even if we disagree with our culture of origin, that disagreement still defines us), as does the cultures we encounter or deal with. Customs, beliefs and behavior all come into play.
I’ve often heard that D&D and general fantasy has “no” culture, but that’s not true. There is a default European -influenced culture that we’ve accepted as the default. One way we can fail to make games set in other cultures uninteresting is to not realize that “standard” fantasy comes from an actual viewpoint. When we fail to realize this, we can build settings with many different trappings that still remain culturally different. If I am raiding dungeons and taking loot, does it matter if I am going this in Greyhawk or Nubia?
Once we’ve marked the boundaries of mainstream fantasy, we then are confronted with what I think is the most difficult part in relaying culture in an immediate but still real sense to players. I think the proliferation of status quo settings (derivations on Tolkien-based work) in part is because delivering a variation on the default culture is easier than delivering a culture “from scratch”. There is so much explaining that you don’t have to do because the status quo culture is so well supported and defined. You can describe things with only a few words and audiences can reasonably be expected to fill those gaps in their imagination.
We don’t have that with cultures that stray from the norm. To build new worlds for players, we have to not only present the cultures, we have to educate the players on the significance of cultural elements and the cultural context in which they exist. Gameable culture is the term that I use to discuss the act of delivering culture through the playing of the game. It’s just not reasonable to expect people to read 50 pages of background just to play a game, so our mechanics need to bring culture to them.
I’ve been building tools and experiments to find useful patterns for creating such cultures. I shared the following on G+ a while ago, and am sharing it here as well. I have a followup to this, but try out what I’ve got for now. I’m curious to see what you come up with!
Where I’m From
I want you to make up a fictional culture, and 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 (hello there fruitful void!). Speak as that group: “We do X”, “We never do Y”, etc.
After your five things, then give us three archetypes that might emerge from that place. Keep it succinct – the typical adjective noun works (Vengeful Wanderer) here, as do bold honorifics (Keeper of the Flames). These archetypes can affirm or reject the norms you just established. If it helps, you can make a “personality” that might come out of there, and describe what sort of person he is (succintly).
For Bonus points, make one of your five things about a culture already referenced (“Culture Y worships the same gods as Culture X”) is good mojo.
I will start:
* We never use any tool more complicated than abacus.
* We always take the simplest method of achieving our short term goals if given an option.
* We solve our problems through physical might.
* We go through obstacles, never around.
* We observe the natural order closely and live in tune with it.
Scholar of the Wild, Berserker King, Gruff Woodsman.
Remember: one entry per post, and try to space out multiple posts!