This is the third part of a four-part article. The first part gave a relatively straightforward technique for creating a unqiue society; the second identified four ways of communicating the uniqueness of the result to the players, selling them on its credibility, and exploiting it for scenarios and subplots, and examined the first two, Expression and Behaviour more closely. This part will deal with two more communications channels: Reactions and Appearance, and the fourth will detail methods of extending the cultural description into other areas of society.
People from a unqiue culture will react to what the PCs say, and do, and to what they DON’T say and do, and often in ways the PCs were not expecting. It’s always both entertaining and realistic to have a variety of reactions that conflict with each other, in front of the PCs. This immediatly raises the value that they will place on getting to know the culture, as they will usually want to pick their fights rather than being blindsided by them!
For example, let’s say that the PCs emerge from the tent in which they have been bartering for some knick-knacks to give away to people in other locations as “exotic gifts”, or meeting the civic leader, or whatever. The GM describes a religious procession taking place as they reach the streets. The women in the crowd of bystanders are covering their faces and looking downcast, while the men all turn to face the sunset and drop their headgear to the ground at their feet. The PCs have a choice; they can either do as the locals do, or not. If they do as the locals do, some zealot can take offense at the mockery they are making of a sscred rite, while another defends them as attempting to show respect. If they don’t, they can be accused of disrespect and sacrilage by a hothead, and defended by one as being barbarians who can’t be expected to know better. Either one sucks them into a deeper relationship with the society – and ensures that the PCs will make the other choice the next time!
Ignorance is no excuse
The point about the outsiders being considered ignorant barbarians who don’t know how to behave deserves recapitulation. This is something that explorers in strange cultures had better get used to, because it’s near-universal; at least some members of any given crowd will think that way, no matter where the visitors are from.
The strongest reactions will stem from the things that the culture most cares about. Smart PCs will learn to identify these so that they can use them as levers to persuade people to do what the PCs want them to do, and to get the PCs out of trouble.
The Yokel Factor
The other factor to be always borne in mind when describing incidents and reactions is what I call “the yokel factor”. PCs tend to use logic and attempt to argue their way out of situations, taking advantage of their arm’s length remove from the action of the game instead of reacting with emotion; to the local yokels, any arguements that are over their heads are just a load of bullsh*t, and will arouse anger, if anything. If the PCs attack something that the locals feel strongly about, they won’t often react with logic or arguement – they will usually consider the words to be a trap, attempting to seduce them over to “The Dark Side”. A crowd of Yokels can turn into a mob at a moment’s notice, and a mob’s behaviour is dictated by it’s least-stable members!
Are the GMs in the audiance having fun yet?
An example from the Seeds Of Empire campaign
In one of my campaigns some years ago, the PCs were captured and locked up by the priests of the local religious movement by being overconfident. Knowing virtually nothing about the society in question, they attempted to use logic on their guard, who was being played as a guest character by a player who could not attend regularly. The player made the mistake of being persuaded by the PCs words when they attempted to undermine his religious beliefs,
and those of his society – a temple guard should never be so willing to betray his faith, but the player was off his game that day! Nevertheless, he ended up joining the party and helping them escape, saddling me with an NPC that was never intended to be there. Even the players said afterwards that they didn’t expect their tactic to work!
As soon as I took over the resulting NPC for the following sessions, he began actively but surreptitiously working against the party. He was giving the party enough rope in the hopes that they would lead him to other heretics, while secretly carrying an item that would enable the military to track him, all the while doing his best to appear a loyal and convinced member of the party. All that the PCs had succeeded in doing, as I reinterpreted events after the fact, was convincing him that the PCs were too dangerous to merely execute; less-devout members of the society might be swayed to heresy by their evil arguements.
This worked because the PCs only ever saw and reacted to his behaviour, not what was actually going on in his head. His Behaviour did not change – only the motivation and purpose behind it.
Naturally, there were small hints and clues in that behaviour – the occasional slight hesitation while he thought of the correct way to respond to a PCs statement or question, for example, or the occasional misplaced expression. Over time, the PCs began having second thoughts about trusting the turncoat – not that they were ever fully convinced to start with! Much later, it was discovered by all of them that the religious practices of his society were eroding the boundaries between dimensions. The NPC was convinced by this startling revelation, delivered by a Celestial messenger from the Gods, came clean, and redoubled his efforts to be a valued member of the party, working toward their goal with all his strength and ability and knowledge.
In reality, he had cottoned on to their feelings about his loyalty, and their intention to betray him when he was most vulnerable. By throwing them into just a little confusion about where his loyalties now lay, he had distracted them into making a tactical mistake – the energy psuedo-plane where he was most vulnerable was now behind them, and the energy psuedo-plane where he was strengthened and reinforced was now approaching. They were quite surprised when he attacked from behind! In his dying declaration (I try to give one to all PCs and ex-PCs, and to significant NPCs), he told them that their words were clever, and plausible enough to be dangerous, but no matter what his head told him, this was a question of Faith; he had seen through the deceptions and past their lies, and had given his life in the service of his people.
The character was originally conceived as a religious zealot, a Temple Guard and Junior Priest – and that’s what he remained until the end. But his reactions were never quite what the PCs were expecting: philosophy and treason (against his people) and heresy (from the point of view of what he had been raised to believe) when in a position of dominance, honesty and self-sacrifice and loyalty (to the party) when he was most expected to betray them, and most vulnerable to attack – a form of moral judo that has kept the players guessing until the end.
You can tell a lot with someone’s appearance through the principles of symbolism and iconography. Making the people’s costumes representative of some aspect of their cultural foundations permits the description of the character to do double-duty: not only describing the individual, but ‘sneaking in’ bits of the culture. Take a close look at the DVD extras on the Lord Of The Rings concerning subjects like designing the costumes and weapons for the Riders Of Rohan, and the Elves, and so on, and you will catch on very quickly.
…of objects and architecture
But it’s not just the characters whose appearance can inform the players. ANYTHING of the culture can be designed into a clue from the information generated when creating the culture, from the shape of the candlesticks to the architecture. There is a BBC series called Time Team about a group of archeologists that travel to a different archeological site with each episode and investigate it over a three-day period; the reconstructive methods and detective work that they demonstrate in interpreting what they find is a masterclass on this aspect of informative description. Sadly, the series has never been released as a DVD boxed set – I would buy it in a heartbeat. But there are a couple of DVDs out there featuring selected episodes, and these are a strongly reccommended investment. It’s quite amazing how much can be determined from so little; if it didn’t happen right before your eyes, you would not not believe it. The same principle can inform and educate your players, without you ever needing to lecture them.
A source of scenarios
You can create a detective-style subplot, with spot rolls and knowledge rolls as appropriate, and let the PCs draw conclusions from the snippets of description that you provide. This is generally a purely role-playing scenario, and not enough to stand alone, but integrating it with a more general plotline is fairly easy. The outsider who is the only person everyone trusts (or mistrusts equally) to solve a politically-sensitive crime is an obvious example. Something strange going on down in the sewers is a tried-and-true classic. Having an enemy creature present as a diplomat, protected by the word of honour of the local chief, busy running around stirring up trouble, is an entertaining choice that I’ve used in the past; before the PCs can begin undoing the problems he or she is causing, they have to get to grips with what is acceptable behaviour and why. This is especially effective if the troublemaker has spent some time in the culture and learned what ‘levers’ to pull – the players can actually see knowledge of the society working against them!
Benefits to players
The culture itself becomes a source of inspiration, enriching the campaign both directly and indirectly. By creating scenarios that directly derive from the campaign setting, the entire campaign becomes more tangible to the players. Further, by showing that the outcomes of those scenarios will become the building blocks apon which future scenarios can derive, it gives the players a sense of ownership of the campaign and a deeper level of involvement.
Benefits to GMs
On the other side of the GM Screen, having a culture defined this solidly makes it far less work during play to bring it to life. It shortcuts some of the creative processes for the future by simplifying cultural desciptions into root causes and practical ramifications, while sustaining and concentrating the uniquenesses that distinguish this society, and this campaign, from any other run using exactly the same rules set. And, as free bonus, it helps bring scenarios to life and offers opportunities and suggestions for new ones!
This article will conclude in part 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