This entry is part 1 in the series Distilled Cultural Essence
Uru Island, South America

Uru Island, South America

This post is being simultaniously posted here and as the feature article in Roleplaying Tips issue #433. Subscribe to the e-zine here if you haven’t already, and check out some of the GMing Articles (including three by yours truly: ‘Dragon Characters For Eberron’, ‘Putting The Fear Back Into Disease’, and ‘On Feats’) while you’re there.

It’s relatively easy to create a new culture for your game. Creating one that makes sense is more work, but also more worthwhile. Expressing the difference is a lot more work, and apt to be boring as hell unless you enjoy lecturing our players and they are in love with the sound of your voice. Bringing the culture to life in your player’s minds WITHOUT droning on or giving your players all the answers from the back of the book is harder still – unless you know how to cheat! That’s where this blog series comes in.

Step 1: Point Of Distinction

The first step is to create the new culture. In order to do that, you have to pick a point of substantial difference between this culture and the usual one within your game. Write it down at the top of a very long list, which you’ll spend some time adding to. Put a big “1” next to it.

Step 2: Causation

The second step is somewhat trickier: explain WHY the culture is the way it is, in a new paragraph labelled “2”. If the difference is a form of behaviour, explain how and when and why this behaviour arose. If the difference is a philosophical one, who first articulated the difference in philosophy, what events in his life equipped him to conceive of it, how did this philosophy become dominant in society, what did it replace, are there those who still follow the old ways, and so on and so forth.

Step 3: Consequence

The third step is more difficult still: with one numbered sentance each (from “3” to “whatever”) to explain the difference, identify as many areas of everyday life as you can in which the difference in culture makes a difference to the manner in which the ordinary action is carried out. What are the ordinary things that happen to ordinary people on an ordinary day? They rise, they bathe, they dress, they eat, they travel, they work, they purchase goods and services, they play games, they come of age, they marry, they bear children, they raise children, they celebrate, they mourn, they show respect, they show disrespect, they argue, they are arrested, they are tried, they are convicted, they are punished. One or all of these may be affected by the change in society. Once you’ve finished, you can put a tick next to “1” and “2”.

Step 4: Ramifications

The fourth step is even more arduous: identify the ripple effects. Each of the sentences numbered “3” and higher might itself affect one or more of the others. So for each one, go through this list again, looking for secondary effects. Number these “something-A” “-B” or whatever, where “something” is the original sentence number. When you’ve finished with a sentence, put a tick next to it (so that you can always tell where you are up to). If the ripple effect stems from sentence four on your list, the first of the ripple sentences will be “4a”, the second one will be “4b” and so on. DON’T REPEAT SOMETHING THAT’S ALREADY ON THE LIST. You will find that there are far less of these than there were original sentences. You’ll also discover that your concept of the new culture is ‘gelling’ in your mind as you go.

Repeat step 4 until every sentence on your list has a tick next to it. Don’t neglect the original topic, either: one difference in the way the members of this society eat may inspire a different one on the same subject. don’t be afraid to add to the list either – “they dress” implies laundering of clothes, and clothes for different occasions, and the farming of whatever the clothes are made from, and so on.

You may also discover the need for extraordinary capabilities, or perhaps that was the initial difference that you came up with. A society in which guilt or innocence is automatically and infallably recognised in its members through some form of mental link would be very different from anything else out there.

Step 5: Compilation

Step 5 is to take all of these notes and rewrite them, forming a paragraph on each of the ordinary activities (and any extraordinary abilities). By numbering the sentences in the way that you have, you will find that all the “Threes” relate to a single topic, all the “fours” naturally group together, etc. In essence, you are using these notes as guides and reminders to help you articulate what you have in your head as briefly and succinctly as possible.

Along the way, you will often find that you identify a different “key difference” as the one responsible for everything, or may add further differences to explain and justify it. Make a note of these, highlight them, but don’t start over! These really are the key – starting from these core concepts, you should be able to recreate the society even if all the other notes you have made get lost. Reading these back to yourself should be enough for you to ‘place’ yourself, mentally, within the new society – a handy trick when the time comes to GM them!

Step 6: First Reactions

Step 6 is append a key paragraph describing how this culture reacts to strangers of different types and reputations. In other words, to the PCs. This has been left to the very end of the process because that’s when the new culture is clearest in your mind.

Step 7: GMs Primer Notes

Finally, step 7 is to take the highlighted sentences and write a one-paragraph introduction/summary of the society that you’ve created. This is your primer, designed to remind you of the ideas behind the society, so that when something comes up that you havn’t translated into the cultural idiom of that society, you will have the tools you need in order to do so.

This article will continue in parts 2, 3 and 4.

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