This is the second part of a four-part article. The first part gave a relatively straightforward technique for creating a unqiue society; this part and the next (which were originally intended to be the whole article) gives some techniques for conveying the uniqueness of the resulting culture to the players, selling them on its credibility, and exploiting it for scenarios and subplots. The fourth discusses how to extend the technique and results into other areas.
A different society makes itself aparrant to the PCs without a lot of briefing material in 4 ways: What the locals say, How the locals behave, How the locals react, and What the locals and locale look like.
In other words, through Expression, Behaviour, Reaction, and Appearance.
A brief snippet of dialogue in another language, no matter how poorly rendered by the GM, helps to cement in the player’s minds that this IS a different culture. Translating key nouns and names into appropriate language enables them to be inserted into normal speech and acts as a constant reminder, and as a spice to encounters and scenes.
The best approach is to select an appropriate human tongue and find an online translater, then render the result back into something more-or-less phonetic. Thirty minutes spent compiling a list of terms and names and place names, and translating them, is time well-spent. Instead of describing something as a sword, referring to it constantly as a Tetsashi (an invented psuedo-oriental term I came up with on the spot) not only serves as a constant reminder that it is not a sword, but that these are not your fuedal Europeans. It SELLS the difference to the PCs.
It also provides a slight accent to your voice that also helps in making the new society real. “Tetsashi komo ka buku sa” is gibberish, but it SOUNDS very impressive, and repeating it to yourself each time one of these people goes to say something will bring a distinctive lilt to your voice. To get in character with the Psuedo-Hungarian accent that he used in Babylon-5 as Londo Mullari, Peter Jurassic had only to say to himself “Mister Garabaldi” in the unique manner of Londo to be able to deliver pages of dialogue in character, with accent.
Dealing with Tongue-twisters
If the phrasing doesn’t skip off the tongue easily – and sometimes it won’t – work with the result, extending the vowel sounds to fill the gap until you can get your tongue around the next consanent. One of the characteristics of the language might be that it is slow to speak!
Or you can introduce an easily-pronounced one- or two-syllable extra phrase into the language that you insert whenever your tongue starts twisting, Baroom-ba-doom! This should be part of the Key phrase already, or appended to the phrase following a comma or dash. It should feel like part of the key phrase – the “baroom-ba-doom” wouldn’t fit with the “Tetsahi” example phrase, but something like “Ka”, which is present in the middle of the existing phrase already, would.
A useful tool In-Play:
I like to create an index card with the key phrase on it, or to put it in the page headers when writing a scenario based around the society. That way, I always have it at my fingertips.
The generation method for new societies focussed on perceivable differences and the social imperatives, history, and pressures, that had created them. The whole point of this approach was to determine how the behaviour of this unique society could be made obviously, visibly, different to the PCs.
The result should be a number of different behaviours that can be simply described – without explanation – to the PCs each time they hit the streets. There will obviously be some aspects of the behavioural uniqueness that will be better saved for private conversations, so pick and choose from amongst the consequences you’ve identified.
Emotional Responses to Stimuli
It has been pointed out by philosophers a number of times that we can never know exactly what is going on in someone else’s mind; the best that we can do is to observe behaviour and reactions, equate them with our own experiences, and by inferance and association, make assumptions about what the other person is feeling. If you see a character’s nostrils flairing, his eyebrows lowered, eyes tightly focussed in an unblinking stare, teeth gritted, and cheeks flushed, we can infer that they are angry. But even then, the human tendancy to seek self-control gives rise to a number of opposites. Some people become ice-cold and rigidly controlled in anger, others have no self-restraint at all and immediatly act on their rage. It is often quicker and easier for the GM to simply state “He’s angry,” but for the players to be able to really feel the anger, the full list of expressions has to be recited.
That said, over-use weakens the effects. A good compromise is to use just one of the expressions each time (a different one), and to do the rest with tone of voice, either by description or by the GM’s performance. Reserve the full list for when it really matters, or when the reaction will be unexpected.
But the preceeding paragraph is all about creatures that are basically human, and western in cultural orientation. Most RPGs feature characters that do not fall into those categories, either constantly or occasionally. Many asian cultures express anger with increased calm and emotionlessness; their sentences become shorter and more declarative, and their phrasing and manner less emotional, but those are the only outward signs of anger. They may be seething inside, but do not show it lest an enemy gain advantage (perhaps the most perceptive PC might notice the slightest hint of narrowing of the eyes, or something similar).
And that’s still within the range of ‘human’ – how do Elves express anger? Biologically, they are NOT human. How about Orcs? These differences should, as much as possible, be extensions of the fundamental concepts of the races – so Orcs, who are prone to violence, might express anger by becoming restless, shifting from foot to foot, ready to charge.
Some of this work does not have to be done by the DM; if a player is running an Elven character, a pleasant evening (or a long email corrospondance) can be spent discussing how the Elves will express different emotional states. This then becomes part of the ‘Bible” for that race in this particular campaign, to be used as the basis for other elves.
Show, Don’t Tell
But we have wandered slightly off-topic, so let’s get back on track. The PCs, through the GMs description of NPC behaviour, observe activities and reactions that are – in their experience – abnormal or unusual. They can ask their local guide (if they have one) why certain things are being done, or a bystander – but often few of them will know the answer, and even if they do, they may struggle to articulate it. At best, the PCs should be able to discern the subject matter of the cause.
When they meet someone who is better educated on the relevant subject, they can ask them – but a better education usually brings with it a personal perspective on the world and a personal agenda to go with it, either or both of which can, and usually will, colour the response.
On the other hand, the PCs can ignore the behaviour – which can create problems for them when they expect people to react in certain ways and don’t get the expected reactions. A character attempts to start a fight by insulting an NPC, only for the NPC to respond in kind, laughing harder and harder the whole time. Or perhaps a joke is a mortal insult to a grim and humourless populace.
Orcs: An example
The slightest difference can have a huge impact: Orcs are often portrayed as violent, hardy, resistant to disease, and – by human standards – disgusting. They are also often viewed as poor, living in wastelands where life is a constant struggle (and where no others could survive). That impies that food is hard to come by, and that waste would be a huge affront. Perhaps, like the Innuit, they would use everything and waste nothing. A rabbit would be dressed, and the intestines used for crossbow strings or laces or glove fingers; the fur would be used for clothing; everything edible would be consumed, then the bones used in a soup, then they would be dried and bleached and carved into bone needles and small daggers and jewellery and cups, and heaven knows what else. Perhaps the use of a metal sewing needle is perceived by Orcs as a rejection of the bounty of the earth? But more importantly, how does the concept of “waste nothing” and the characteristic of “resistance to disease” impact funerary habits? I would submit that it might well be accepted and acceptable practice to consume the bodies of their own dead, and that a social custom would rise around this. Since this practice would enable the tribe to survive otherwise impossible times, it would be a time of celebration, a feast commemmorating the dead and thanking them for the magnificent gift of fresh meat, bone, and worldly posessions. The practice would also have religious overtones – the death might be viewed as a gift of the Gods, a noble sacrifice made to strengthen the tribe.
If the PCs were to rock up announcing the death of the Chief’s son, “but we gave him a decent burial”, they would hardly be expecting a warm welcome, but would probably be enormously surprised when every Orc tribe in the vicinity swore blood fued against them and their species for ‘desecrating the dead’. Or, if they were on a diplomatic mission, they might find themselves in a very awkward position on being invited to a feast!
The more the GM understands the behaviour of different cultures in his game, the more scenarios will emerge naturally from in-game events. This gives a campaign a foundation and depth that money cannot buy!
This article will continue in parts 3 & 4, to be published here soon. Subscribe now if you want them delivered straight to your inbox!
- Distilled Cultural Essence – Part 1 of 4: Creating a different society
- Distilled Cultural Essence – Part 2 of 4: Expressing a different society, Section 1
- Distilled Cultural Essence – Part 3 of 4: Expressing a different society, Section 2
- Distilled Cultural Essence – Part 4 of 4: Expressing a different society, Section 3