There are certain words whose literal translation can be considered telling when defining the mindset of a nation or culture. Most of these are identified after the fact, when a scholar matches a literal translation with a key insight into the profile of a particular group, but for roleplaying purposes we can define and redefine as necessary to employ selected terms as key indicators and giveaways to the psychology of a group or race.

There are 15 words that I use more often than any other for this purpose, choosing only a few and providing a literal translation that matches something I want to convey about the personalities, cultures, or attitudes of a particular group within a campaign. This is not a technique that I employ all the time, but it remains one of my favorites because it provides me with a touchstone and a central pillar for my thinking about a society.

In other words, by choosing an appropriate literal translation of a selected key word, I gain:

  • a tool to assist in the development of other aspects of the source culture, race, or group;
  • a tool to facilitate a better understanding of the source culture, race, or group for my own use;
  • a tool for the determination of prejudices and race relations of the source culture, race, or group;
  • a tool to assist in the roleplaying of generic members of the source culture, race, or group;
  • a tool to assist in the development of NPC representatives of the source culture, race, or group;
  • a tool for the generation of the history of the source culture, race or group;
  • a tool for political analysis of the reactions to a given event of the majority of members of the source culture, race, or group;
  • a tool for social analysis of the opinions of a given event or person of the majority of members of the source culture, race, or group;
  • a tool for the in-a-nutshell communication of a foundation element of the source culture, race, or group to the players;
  • and sometimes, even more.

i.e. what makes the race tick, what makes them distinctive, how they will instinctively react to various things that may occur, and a shorthand summary of the race that makes them easier to roleplay. That’s a lot of value for a relatively small investment in creative effort.

The sixteen words that I use predominantly (and I don’t use all of them for every culture, race, or group, just selected ones that are especially telling/informative) are: Home, Stranger, Friend, Neighbor, Enemy, Promise, Wealth, Leader, Evil, Magic, War, Safety, Horizon, Mine (possessive), Gift, and Politics.

Of course, there can be others, and sometimes I’ll pick one of them, but these sixteen are the most heavily-used for this purpose in my toolkit. If talking about a desert people, I might add Water to the list, or Green:

Example
The Iximital word that is generally used to refer to the color “Green” literally translates as the word “Life”.

From this I could then derive all sorts of relevant facts about this invented population, “Iximital”:

  • Green is a sacred color to this desert tribe because it is the color associated with plant growth and hence sources of water, i.e. food and oases.
  • Only priestesses are permitted to wear clothes died green. It is sacrilege for any male.
  • Copper is the most highly-prized metal because of the green patina (verdigris) that it acquires, and because its malleability permits it to be easily reshaped into whatever is required.
  • Adaptability is a national trait and many of the cultural maxims could be summed up “be like copper”.
  • Impermanence is a cultural and social trait. What is good and useful today may be useless tomorrow, to be reshaped to answer new needs. Change is a way of life.

… and so on.

Another key term to be applied in this fashion is always the name a group uses to identify itself collectively. The name “Iximital” might be the rendering of the word that the natives use for this purpose, or it may be derived from the name applied to them by another culture; either way, a literal translation from the appropriate language carries significance. If the Iximital don’t use that word to describe themselves (except perhaps to strangers), indicating that this identity has been foisted on the race or group by a third party, whatever name they DO use internally will also be significant, especially in terms of the contrast in literal meaning between the two terms.

  • Who decided that elves should be called “Elves” in your world?
  • What does the word “Elf” mean?
  • If the words “Elf” or “Elves” is not what they call themselves, what word do they use?
  • What does that word mean?

In my Shards Of Divinity campaign, for example, “Elf” in elvish means “focus, intensity, or concentration”. But the term itself is similar to a Draconic word meaning “student” or “pupil”. In modern times, this is considered nothing more than a coincidence, and that’s all that it might be – but if a past connection between the two species were to be established, suddenly the name would assume a whole new relevance. The term is also synonymous in Common with “single-mindedness” and “obsession” and “distraction” – does this indicate that humans learned the term from Elves, or from Dragons, and then applied the perceived qualities of Elves to the meaning of the term?

Having established and demonstrated the value and utility of the approach in various ways, I’m going to spend the rest of this article examining the 16 terms and why these are so ubiquitous in my repertoire.

Home

“Home” can symbolize a raft of different things, from patriotism to comfort to the relaxation of cultural restrictions from the standards that apply when one is a guest. Some of the significant literal meanings that can be applied to “home” are terrains (the forest, the desert, the ice-sheet, the mountaintops, riverfolk), locations (the emerald isle, the roof of the world), or cultural attitudes (temporary residence, chosen land, promised land). It can be about the race’s self-perceived place in the universe, their history, the kind of places they feel comfortable, their territorial ambitions, or the type of activities that they only conduct when truly comfortable and secure in their surroundings. “Home” can identify a race as seeing itself as a part of nature, or as rising above it, as part of a wider society, or as a persecuted minority. A literal meaning for home as “place of toil” or “place of the masters” can indicate a slavery deep in the race’s past whose influence is still felt today – even if the events themselves have long been forgotten.

Above all, “Home” is about the identity of the group as perceived by the group, and what location, type of location, or circumstance is/was perceived by that group as its natural habitat or environment. It digs into the self-image of the group – and that’s what makes this a particularly useful term.

Stranger

If “Home” speaks to the self-image of a group, “Stranger” speaks to how they see others. Probably the term that I use in this respect most often, this was the origin point for this entire concept, derived from a section of Spock’s World by Diane Duane.

“Stranger” might translate from Halfling to “New Friend” (speaking to their gregarious natures) or to “cake thief” or “pantry raider”. To an Orc, “Stranger” might be “threat” or “prey” or “danger”. A plains-living race might translate “stranger” to “neighbor” or “Cattle-rustler” or “horse-thief” or “possible future relative”. Other possible meanings include “shadow”, “guest”, “trader” or “gift of understanding”. In any polycultural reality, how a member of a given group or culture sees newcomers who are not part of that group or culture is so fundamental to the overall perceptions of and relations with that group or culture within the whole that this is almost always a key concept in defining them.

Friend

One of the least-used examples, and possibly one that I underuse, “Friend” goes to how the race or group perceives and treats its allies. In Abyssal, I almost always have “Friend” translate to “opportunity”, “mark”, or “sucker”, for example, but on at least one occasion I specified the translation as “trusted confidant” – which not only implies that the term is not used very often (other than sardonically or sarcastically), but packs a huge meaning when it is employed. Other choices for this term include “brother/sister”, “parasite”, or “weakness”.

Neighbor

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your neighbors. How they view the people who live alongside you, day after day, week after week, can be fundamental in defining a culture. It’s often the case that strangers may be welcome (because they came from somewhere else and will probably go back there after a while) but neighbors will be unwelcome (because you’re competing for the same resources). It is also often the case that neighbors are viewed as allies against strangers. The combination of this term with any of several others describing relationships with others is more effective than those items on their own.

Enemy

Which brings me to the term “Enemy”. Aside from all the obvious choices relating to who the enemy is perceived to be, this term can be used to define how a race sees itself and it’s ability to ally with others by contrasting the definition of the “Enemy”. If the elvish translation for “enemy” is “Orc” (or “Yrrch” for the purists) it doesn’t really tell us very much; if the translation is “blight”, “tree-feller”, or “underhanded”, we learn a lot more about Elves than we knew before – though “tree-feller” is also pretty lame and obvious. But how about “Enemy” meaning “maverick” or “unpredictable” or “philistine” or “cultist” or “rebel”?

Promise

“Promise” is usually intended in terms of a commitment, but occasionally I will also use the literal translation of the term for “potential”. Only in English would two such different meanings be encompassed by a single term, making it symbolic of this entire concept, and probably worth keeping in the list for that reason alone. Think about that for a minute: in the English language, “potential” implies a “commitment” to explore, develop, and harness that potential. This equality is buried deeply within the heart of modern western culture and the society that has been built up around it. Much of our scholastic approach is rooted not in preparing the students to live productive if generic and bland lives, but in identifying the few with vast potentials and identifying pathways for them to pursue that potential. English classes don’t teach how to comprehend agreements that people are likely to have to sign – if we were intent on truly preparing students for adult life, at least a year would be devoted to such things. Mathematics doesn’t look at the practical applications, but at the concepts of proof and the abstract manipulations of a symbolic reality. In fact, most classes are geared toward those with a talent in those areas and not at the general student.

I like to employ “promise” as a translated term in one of its two meanings firstly because it’s a useful exploration of part of the mindset of the group being explored, but secondly as an acknowledgement of the principle of symbolic meaning itself – but I’ll talk some more about that in the conclusion.

In the meantime, let’s consider this specific term. “Promise” in terms of commitment relates to the inherent honesty of a culture, both promises made to its own members, and how they perceive promises made to others. This is a subject that is key to understanding Orcs in Fumanor, as the download offered two weeks ago in Inventing and Reinventing Races in DnD: An Introduction to the Orcs and Elves series part 3 (Part 3 of the “Orcs and Elves” series) makes clear. Protection of the tribe is a cultural and psychological imperative for that race in that particular campaign, overriding anything else including commitments, promises, oaths, external loyalties, and friendships. A Fumanorian Orc can absolutely be taken at his word – provided that this commitment never threatens the tribe, or not to the same extent that breaking it would threaten the tribe. One could say that a literal translation of “Promise” is “Commitment of convenience” or “Agreement in principle” or “bargaining position” or “proposition”. Other meanings that might be applied to other races include “resolution”, “perspective”, “custom”, “inconvenience”, “investment”, “opportunity”, “blood oath”, “commitment”, “concession”, “voluntary enslavement to principle”, and many others – and that’s before we get into the more abstract possibilities!

“Promise”, in the sense of having potential, is similarly useful for exploring how a group views the future. ‘Potential,’ after all, is about what might be, and how the roots of that possible future extend backwards in time to the here-and-now. In order for this term to have any concrete meaning at all, the race/society/culture/group must have a sense of temporal continuity. Since there is the implication that promise can go unfulfilled, there may also be times when “Destiny” is the more appropriate term, but that can be achieved simply by using “Destiny” as the literal translation of “Potential” or “Promise”.

I find that when I employ this version of “Promise” as one of the terms that the best translations are always fairly abstract and require some explanation. “Soul” implies that the definition of an individual is what they can become. “Value” implies that the worth of an individual to society is not what they can do now, but what they might be able to do in the future. Both of those are at considerable variance to what we are used to in modern Western society. “Not-yet” is a clumsy translation that implies the exact opposite – that what matters is not some pie-in-the-sky potential for tomorrow, but what the individual can do right now. “Fantasy” or “Imaginary” suggest that the culture believes that “all [X] are created equal” in terms of potential, and that the only difference between someone with obvious ‘Potential’ is how hard they will have to work to achieve the same level of capability. There are many others; they all encapsulate a key philosophy or attitude of the group, society, or culture.

Wealth

“Wealth” is more mundane in many respects, but is capable of just as much philosophical subtlety – because it is all about what the race or culture values. In our society, wealth normally means money, to such an extent that we have to qualify it in order to have it mean anything else – “a wealth of memories”, “a wealth of anecdotes”, “a wealth of opportunities”, “a wealth of the spirit”, “a wealth of wisdom”. If the most valued attribute or commodity is something other than accessible financial resources, it completely alters what the group will choose to do, which opportunities they will seek out and which they will ignore, what they will sacrifice, and what efforts they will view in other financial terms like “investment”, “dividend”, “savings”, “debt”, and so on.

Side-note: “Debt” should probably be on this list as well. But it’s long enough as it is – so I’ll leave it as an exercise in the technique for readers to apply.

“Wealth” is most often and most easily translated into whatever the basis of currency happens to be – whether that’s camels, or water, or gold. But currencies are usually readily exchanged and hence interchangeable; unless a particular type of economic wealth has implications far beyond the norm, I would pass on using this term-translation for these purposes if that was all that it meant. It’s when intangibles and social attitudes are the meaning of the translation that things get more interesting. If “Wealthy” translates as “Criminal”, for example, it speaks volumes about the attitude to material wealth. If “Wealth” translates to “peace” we get “peace at any price” and a people that will always yield to aggression – a race that was born to be subject to somebody. If “Wealth” translates literally to “Peer respect”, Arcane Power”, “Children”, “Education”, “Wisdom”, “Family Unity”, “Self-Sacrifice”, “Opportunity”, “Passion”, “Rationality”, or “Liberty”, we get entirely different cultures and races developing from these roots.

That last one brings up a key point that’s worth mentioning: sometimes, these meanings can change with circumstance. “Give me liberty or give me death” – which can also be interpreted as “agree with me or I’ll kill us both” – subordinates every other value and principle to the cause of victory. I find it astonishing that the Western World was able to transition from “Peace at any price” to this position in only a decade or so during the lead-up to World War II, a severity of attitude readjustment that really indicates how threatened the rest of the world felt by Nazi Germany. The Cold War – and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts – redirected this paranoia (perhaps justifiably, perhaps not) to the “Communist Menace”, to such an extent that it was permissible to sacrifice principles, values, and ideals in order to achieve security. The result was the Anti-communist hysteria and consequent witch-hunts of Senator McCarthy. The inevitable counterculture was the exact opposite – the Hippie movement was a new expression of “liberty at any price”, and demonstrates how far from their original values the rest of society had been driven at that point. Then values changed again, with commercialism and the profit motive becoming top dog – until the tragic and reprehensible attacks on 9/11 brought a new climate of “victory at any price”. But while various international leaders then transitioned into a new “Security at any price” campaign with the Second Gulf War, the rest of the world weren’t entirely convinced that their security was at stake – and hence that conflict and those that followed were less popular than other conflicts had been. In essence it was the same pattern repeated. Which means that we should emerge from the current economic instability with a renewed focus on domestic economics – unless someone pokes the sleeping bears with another stick.

Which wanders slightly off the point, but still makes the central principle clear – the value placed at the top of the list of desirables changes with circumstances. Did the definition, the meaning, of the term “wealth” change as a result? No. Instead, these values were simply ranked as more desirable than wealth. Throughout, the goal of prosperity continued to exist under this changing superficial ambition as a core principle of the societies in question. THAT is what is revealed by the literal translation of “Wealth” – not the short-term changes, but the long-term secondary objective that persists despite these short-term changes. Only when seriously threatened will the fundamental be set aside, as it was in World War II, and then only temporarily.

Leader

“Leader” is one of the more obvious ones, and offers a means of redefining how the society or group deals with issues like responsibility and authority. Because of the various flavors of democratic government that the western world enjoys, our politicians like to contend that the term means “chosen humble representative” or “public servant”, and to suggest that what they do involves a personal sacrifice. Sure, they may give up the potential for personal income, but they all had to be nominated, and that requires the key attribute of ambition – whether that be a noble ambition to achieve something or a less-noble personal ambition to authority over others. Leadership of a winning team always feels good. But there are other systems of government, both that have been in actual existence or that have been mooted as theoretical constructs, and they would all have a different interpretation of the meaning of Leader. In a theology, it might be “Chosen By God” or by “The Gods”, or it might be “Voice Of God” (or of “The Gods”). But those are only the most obvious choices.

The more interesting options all tend to sound like grandiose titles. “Most Noble” is the example that springs most readily to mind, followed closely by “Most Holy”. “Most Able” is the meritocratic equivalent. Often, the meaning of this term may actually be a grandiose title, such as “Your Wisdom” or “All-conquering”.

But all of these still do little more than reflect the system of government. The most interesting choices go beyond the political structures and speak to the preferred qualities of leadership, responsibility, and authority in a more abstract way. “Greatest Hunter” implies all sorts of things about the profession most valued in the society, or at least most valued in the past. “First Warrior” gives quite different implications. “Landowner” gets right to the point. “Thought Guide” is an interesting choice. “Shepherd”, “Guide”, and other such translations offer insights. “Speaker to outsiders” (or simply “First Speaker”) can spark some interesting ideas.

The generation of more abstract translations for this term is more difficult than it has been for many of the others. I only employ it when it makes a reasonably profound contribution to the identity of the group; if it’s obvious, it can be better stated bluntly (“this country is a theocracy”) and left at that. Only when a suitable abstract term does suggest itself, or where the translated meaning is at odds with the system of government, is this worth including – and those are the times when this translated term is most useful and insightful.

Evil

If, as gamers, we can spend as much time as we do (or, at least, have done) debating what “Evil” means in an RPG, how can it not be relevant what the populations within the game view as “Evil”?

There are so many interesting possible literal translations of this term that I’m afraid that I won’t be able to stop once I get started. Here are just a few: “Meek”, “Corrupt”, “Fallen”, “Stranger”, “Meddler”, “Sinner”, “Irreverent”, “Thief” (and variations), “Deceiver”, “Parasite”, “Impious”, “Pious”, “Disloyal”, “Traitor”, “Unclean”, “Devilspawn”, “Fiend”, “Ambitious”, “Magician”, “Wizard”, “Frenchman”, “Englishman”, “American”, “Middle-Eastern”, “Terrorist”, “Libertine”, “Hedonist”, “Pomegranate” (okay, I slipped that one in to see if you were still paying attention), “Seducer”, “Pond Scum”, “Flea”, “Vampire”, “Bloodsucker”, “Shark”, “Monstrosity”, “Imperial”, “Emperor”, “Artificial”, “Polluter”, “Apologist”, “Master”, “Owner”, “Capitalist”, “Communist”, “Socialist”, “Liberal”, “Fascist”, “Monarchist”, “Revolutionary”, “Dalek”, “Stranger”, “Viking”…

Defining what a culture thinks of as “Evil” defines what the culture thinks that it is not, and at the same time speaks to past oppressors or betrayers, its theology, and/or its philosophy. Remember, this goes beyond what they see as criminal – this is what they consider the ultimate wickedness, the very definition of evil, to be.

While interesting in and of itself, it’s the implications that hold the most value. What behavior is outlawed, what is suspect, what is customary? How are rituals impacted? How is everyday life impacted? How is society in general impacted?

This is so ubiquitously valuable that its’ almost always one of my choices.

Magic

This term, on the other hand, is rarely a chosen one because it often doesn’t yield a lot of insight. Only when I know that magic is going to prominently be displayed or involved will I consider it – those are the times when it can be most useful.

“Trickery”, “Deceit”, “Unnatural”, “Satanic” – negative translations are relatively easy to come by. Positive ones are a lot harder, which usually means that if you can think of one that applies it is probably going to be extremely useful. “Wonder”, “Gift”, “Revered Ability”, “Holiness”, “Genius”, “Weapon”, “Tool”, “Craft”… not much else is occurring to me off the top of my head, but that’s enough. In a fantasy world, any one of those could be synonymous with “Magic” to a given race or society and would profoundly alter that society and it’s relationship to the Arcane. In a non-fantasy world, magic is more often going to equate to a negative (Horror) or simply be another type of ability (Supers). In a sci-fi campaign, all magic is either trickery and deceit, or you apply Clarke’s third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic” – in which case the subject is ignorance and industrialization, and the potential for a cultural cringe.

War

“War” is a term whose literal translation seems like it would be useful more often than it actually is. The problem is that no-one thinks of themselves as “the bad guys” – at best, they will acknowledge that others might perceive them that way. That means that a translation of “War” doesn’t usually tell you very much. There are exceptions, which when applicable, provide genuine insights: “Purification”, “Liberation”, a “Revolution” of some type (Cultural, Social, Popular, whatever). It’s when the term War can be rendered equivalent to some other activity that it begins to really tell you things about the culture from which the literal translation derives: “The Hunt”, “Weeding”, “The Art Of Violence”, “The Final Solution”, “The ultimate measure of diplomacy”, “The regrettable necessity”.

Safety

When “Home” doesn’t speak to the attitude of the culture to Security, this term can sometimes fill in the blanks. There isn’t a lot to add to what was discussed in that entry.

Horizon

“Horizon” is one of those lovely terms that can often carry more meaning than might be initially apparent. Distance, Remoteness, the Future, Mysticism, and The Unknown are all topics that can be touched on by this seemingly literal term, especially in reference to what might lie beyond the observable world, i.e. Beyond the Horizon. It is not often that one of these won’t be relevant to a particular world-view. An occasional variant that I use is “Beyond”.

Possible meanings for the literal translation of “Horizon” include “boundary”, “limit”, “unknowable”, “irrelevant”, “the extreme”, “outside”, “unreachable”, “world beyond”, “gateway”, and “mystery”.

One campaign element I once considered but never found a use for was a world in which the horizon was literally the boarder to the Astral Plane – but, of course, if you simply travel across ground, the horizon keeps moving. Only by moving in a completely different way could you ever actually reach it. However, the converse was not going to be literally true – strange beasties and abominations and what-have-you could emerge from the horizon to trouble residents. Accordingly, high places (mountain tops, etc) which moved the apparent horizon farther away were preferable to living on plains or in depressions/valleys, which had quite close horizons. The campaign concept was to be very existential with the lands beyond a visible horizon (a mountain ridge or other physical phenomena that formed a ‘permanent boundary’) potentially being an entirely different world with different “rules” (i.e. different natural laws, different planes of reality, etc). I never finished work on the concept, though parts of it have turned up from time to time in other campaigns that I’ve run, including the concept in Shards Of Divinity that if you climb high enough, you can and will reach Heaven (Elysium), and if you dig deep enough you will emerge onto one of the layers of Hell, which is essentially the same concept oriented vertically.

Mine (possessive)

Possessiveness is a subtle but powerful concept to vary. The literal translation of “Mine” (in the possessive sense) is the key to formulating and expressing those variations. Like “Promise (potential)”, these often need additional expansion to be understood. “Custodian of the [object]” suggests that ownership is considered temporary and comes with an inherent responsibility to care for the possession. “I belong to the [object]” reverses the usual ownership relationship and suggests that the species sees the world in an animistic or anthropomorphic way in which a given tool “chooses” who may wield it – some tools just “feel natural” or “feel right”, others seem to fight the wielder at every turn.

Applied less globally, to specific construction materials or types of objects, generates exceptions to the normal human concept of possessiveness which can be equally profound. “Piece of wood” might translate from Elvish as “belonging to the tree” – again, the custodial relationship, but restricted in application. A very different view of Dwarves can result if they consider the minerals and gems they extract as “the flesh of the world” – suggesting that they see the world itself as a living thing (and not merely its surface as environmentalists do). Expansion through volcanic action might literally indicate the world ‘breathing’, earthquakes are literally the world moving, and so on – once again, an example of animism but one that is restricted to a specific topic of relevance.

An alternative is to employ a global term as the literal translation when usage would normally suggest a specific or singular one. “The Sword” might translate to “Weapon in the service of [x]“, implying that all swords (and other weapons) are seen as being in the service of [x], who might be a leader, a philosophy, or a deity – the latter choices providing still more contextual information. “Weapon in the service of Peace” or “Weapon in the service of Trade” or “Weapon in the service of Justice” all have very different implications.

Gift

This touches on similar ground to “Mine (possessive)”, above, but can sometimes be enlightening when nothing in that entry is helpful. “Gift” might mean “debt”, “obligation”, “loan”, “trust”, “donation”, “favor”, “treasure” or “bond”. Additional subtleties are possible by narrowing the field to specific types of object – a gift of water might have exceptional meaning, or it might be the gift of a weapon. This meaning might be symbolic or literal.

But “Gift” itself can have other meanings, just like “Promise” – and the other meaning refers to capability, both current and potential, and to opportunity. I find that I get the most interesting results when I translate “Gift” as used in the material sense and then interpret that for other meanings of the word. If a “Gift” is a “Loan” then a “Gift (ability)” implies that someone has given the skilled individual that capability – and can take it back. Having a “gift” would then require the individual to continually justify the worthiness to hold it, prompting a very socialist society, and a very civic-minded one, in which the possessor of a skill could never refuse any reasonable request to utilize that skill. “Donation” carries a similar implied meaning but the responsibility is to use the gift to improve the world as perceived by the source of the donation. Both these also suggest that there is a limited amount of talent to go around, and that for every individual who receives such a “gift”, someone else has missed out – implying the responsibility to be worthy of their sacrifice.

Politics

The final category is one of the most obvious – and therefore, like War, it is one that I only use when it has something unique to contribute. Literal translations of Politics might be “force”, “trade”, “exchange”, “ransom”, “conflict”, “deception”, “violence by covert means”, “idealism”, “fanaticism”, “obligations”, “respect”, or “faith” – or many other things. Politics is how different groups get along and relate to each other – and that’s never relevant to a racial, ethnic, or social grouping, is it?

The poetry of meaning

Much of my high school English classes, especially in the senior years, focused on “poetry appreciation”, which usually involved dissecting poetry to understand the meaning. Too much of that part of the course seemed to focus on contrivance and triviality, to such an extent that it detracted from appreciating the artistry of language. There can be a poetry of meaning, in which layers of attitude and philosophy and description are condensed into a few artfully-chosen words. This technique can be used as a blunt instrument, a blunt summation of key attributes; or it can be used with symbolism, nuance, subtlety, and artistry to encapsulate depths of description and serve as a guiding light into those depths. The more abstract and symbolic the terms that are chosen for the literal translation, the less opaque to ready understanding, but the lower the value that they contain. Striking the right balance can leave you with enough material that years can be spent exploring the profound subtleties of a race while retaining the quality of accessibility. Each GM must find his own balance on this continuity of expressionism and abstraction, but is well served by doing so. By enhancing your command and employment of language, it can make you a better writer, a better communicator, a more insightful person, and a better GM. That makes any investment in this area time well spent. Why not give it some thought?

Where to from here?

I couldn’t conclude this article without pointing the reader at one of the first series here at Campaign Mastery that is full of techniques for taking these starting points and progressing from them to the creation of a full culture. The series is Distilled Cultural Essence and it’s still one of our most popular – check it out if you haven’t done so before.

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