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Deep as a Puddle: Characters and Culture

Posted By Scott Martin On October 1, 2009 @ 3:47 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 13 Comments

One of the things that brings characters to life is a realistic culture that they’re embedded in. There are many ways to create vibrant cultures; if you are playing in a pre-existing setting, many of the cultures will be defined in the rulebook or supplements. Unfortunately, players often don’t know that much about the cultures of the world- some don’t own the book or have the specific references, some concentrate their reading on the crunchy bits, and some read similar source material and come away with a very different view of the culture.

If your setting is based on novels, the characters of a culture will tend to embody that culture in reader’s minds- no one would confuse Aiel wanderers with Tear’s Defenders of the Stone in the Wheel of Time series. Homebrew worlds often put some of the information down on paper (though the GM may be the only person who reads it), but most of the information is conveyed through the game as the GM introduces NPCs or answers the players’ questions.

In any case, getting everyone on the same page regarding the broad sweep of a culture is a big step forward to creating a more vibrant world. If the players narrate spitting as the Purple Dragons ride by, watch their words when dining in Castle Amber, or the characters mutiny because the cartridges are greased with an unclean animal, you know that the world and culture are vibrant at your table.

Building Cultural Rules

Sometimes you have a well thought out culture- a real world culture you’ve studied or a nation that’s described in a setting book or novels. For detailed cultures, you begin by boiling down the culture to a short list of rules. The extra information is still valuable- you can portray an Englishman with a lot more depth than any 12 rules. Boiling a culture down to the essentials is useful both for describing the culture to players who haven’t read the source material and as a tool to build characters.

If your culture is simpler- a homebrew culture, a culture from the periphery of a novel, or is entirely new, then you’ll be building a culture up. If you are creating a new offshoot culture, you’ll brainstorm the differences- if there aren’t any, then you probably aren’t looking at a separate culture after all. For extensive guidance on creating new cultures and deriving implicit traits from listed cultures, GMs may want to look into Hard Boiled Cultures for a solid treatment and several examples. (Hard Boiled Cultures is focused on the 4e races and classes, but the general principles can be applied to any game.)

In my group’s current 3.5 campaign, the PCs struggle against an implacable foe- a powerful and determined dwarven empire. Here are some of the cultural quirks that have come up in play, or that have hovered in the background since the phrase “evil dwarven empire” was first uttered around our table.

2. Stone dwarves are superior to all other races, particularly dwarves of clay
3. Clan loyalties are the highest priority
4. Wealth and prestige comes from holding land and owning slaves
5. Warriors of the Black serve the king directly, leaving clan loyalties behind
6. Reverence the clan standard when you first see it each day
7. Build solidly and lastingly, craft for the ages
8. Demonic allies crush our opposition and strengthen our blood
9. Courage and steadfastness are our way
10. Black is reserved for the nobility and enforced with torture
J. The strong eat their fill, the weak get what’s left
Q. Stone dwarf children are precious; mothers who bear them receive honor
K. The word of the King [or ruler] is the word of the race

Fit Characters

Now that you have a solid grasp of your culture, you can make characters that meaningfully relate to it. One cool system, introduced by Simon Carryer takes a dozen rules and a deck of cards to spark character ideas.

When you introduce a character, draw a card from the deck to see what rule the character exemplifies or challenges. Here’s what the suits mean:

Hearts: The character embodies, enacts, or enforces the rule.
Diamonds: The character twists, alters, or avoids the rule.
Spades: The character’s life is altered (for good or bad) by the rule.
Clubs: The character breaks the rule.

For my campaign, the PCs are locked in a bitter struggle against the dwarves. Last session ended with them closing on a basalt block fortress on the Plane of Shadow. They are hunting a sect of dwarven assassins. Let’s draw a few cards and see what characters spring from it.

The Head Assassin: Jack of Diamonds. So, our head assassin twists or alters the rule that the strong eat their fill and the weak get what’s left. Aha! Unusually for a powerful dwarf, Asmund Thorrson remains lean and ascetic, even honing his mind and body to hold ki. He is painfully thin for a dwarf with features drawn sharp with hunger and focus.

His lieutenant drew the Four of Diamonds. Another twist, this time to the rule that wealth and prestige comes from holding land and owning slaves. That suggests the lieutenant’s youth was not one of privilege, that he was recruited for his skill and natural talents. Contrary to society’s expectations, he embraces the wealth and lives the life of luxury earned by his stealthy blade. More traditional nobles and merchants are horrified at a “ruffian” throwing around wealth enough to be compared to them.

One last NPC as an example… the night watchwoman. She drew King of Clubs, which means that she breaks the rule that the word of the King [or ruler] is the word of the race. This character smolders against the King after her mother’s death at the King’s hands; she is here at the citadel to learn the arts of death to use against the king. That’s an interesting quirk that I didn’t plan… I wonder how that will affect her interactions with the approaching PCs?

For more examples and guidance, look to Mo’s post Simon Says. Her examples and discussion are what started me along this path in the first place.

Cultures and Rules

How have you built your cultures in your games and communicated them to your players? Do you find that NPCs are the only characters who ever exemplify a culture– that the PCs are always rootless wanderers who turn their back on the salted tea of their upbringing? What tricks do you have for conveying a culture to the players and getting PCs who fit the world? Share your experiences– successes and failures– with incorporating cultures into play in comments.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Deep as a Puddle: Characters and Culture"

#1 Comment By Rafe On October 1, 2009 @ 6:33 am

I love that set-up! It reminds me of the Oracle in the game, In A Wicked Age, where you draw four cards at random to determine the scenario, characters and NPCs for the session.

I’m so stealing this idea. *yoink!*

#2 Comment By LordVreeg On October 1, 2009 @ 7:22 am

Scott,
Thanks for a useful and relevant post. I’m at work, so I don’t have timr to give it the time it deserves, but kudos.

A few quick notes.
1) Race is not always culture. So basic we sometimes forget, but the larger a culture becomes, the more it ‘assimilates’.
2) We make character backgfround and culture context part of character creation. An initial tweak years ago in our ruleset brings this into the initial character build.
3) If you want it it matter, make it part of the remuneration. No matter how hard a GM works, if the world is just a backdrop for a series of encounters, all the work in the world won’t matter.
However, if knowing how an NPC feels about your culure, if knowing their mores and code makes a difference in the success of the PC’s, they will learn.
Penalize them socially for not remembering the right form of address od a pertinent day of the week, or if the country inherits on the patrilineal or matrilineal side…Culture will matter then.
Like everything in our games, it only matters if the GM makes it matter.

Thanks again.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On October 1, 2009 @ 9:12 am

@Rafe – Glad you like it– Mo and Simon pioneered something very cool.

@LordVreeg – Excellent points. Many of the issues you bring up are dealt with at length in Hard Boiled Cultures. He gives running examples of offshoot cultures of a couple of races in 4e, how that affects the stat, skill, and other bonuses granted, and how the separated races may come together and interact in an overall culture. There’s a lot packed in 16 pages.

#4 Comment By Swordgleam On October 1, 2009 @ 9:21 am

I like the card idea, though it seems unlikely that fully half of society knowingly disobeys, at least in part, its fundamental rules.

I’m actually working on a book of cultural backgrounds that players and GMs can use in their games, so this is particularly relevant to me. One thing I’m hoping will make PCs want to use the cultural backgrounds is that there are associated feats and powers. If you’re from a culture of wanderers, you’re better at improvising, and your feats reflect that. So it’s hard to forget that your character is a wanderer when it comes up every time you realize you have as many bonuses to swing on a rope and hit someone with a bottle as to just fire your hand crossbow.

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 1, 2009 @ 11:52 am

@Swordgleam
I suppose you can play with more than one deck, as it were. Start with your standard 52, then add cards of a suit to approximate the mix you’re looking for.

For example, we want the society of the dwarves above to be rigidly enforced, but full of sneaky bastards who twist those rules to their advantage and step on those they can, so we add another full deck, sans clubs, and then a further set of Hearts and diamonds.
Thus, the normal mix of rules applies, but there’s a three times greater chance of being a paragon, or twisting the rule to your favor than disregarding it, and twice the chance of being impacted by it than disregarding it.

For a simpler setup (ie: you don’t need 4 decks of cards), set up a table for the 4 attitudes fitting how you want your culture to pan out:
1d10
1-3 Paragon
4-7 Bastard
8-9 Effected
10 Breaks

and roll that die in conjunction with a d12 to see what rule it applies to.

#6 Comment By Child Progeny On October 1, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

I don’t want to get all grammar nazi-ish, but I think the word you’re looking for is “affected.”

#7 Comment By BryanB On October 1, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

I like the core ideas of this article, even if the method might need a few tweaks. :D

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 1, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

@Child Progeny
Well, no one’s twisting your arm are they?

:p

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On October 1, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

@Swordgleam – Have you been outside recently? There are dogs and cats living together. Crazy. ;) More seriously, there are a lot of traditions and morals that get squeezed– Dogs in the Vineyard is centered around what happens to communities when people start breaking the rules.

Alternately, you can write up more minor breaks and twists. So there might be a lot of people in the society who twist the rule, but the twists might be minor– more eccentric than blatant, if you get what I mean.

@BryanB – Combine it with other tools and you’ll soon have a complex character. It’s one tool for the box; if it gives you a starting place for a character or helps you communicate a culture more succinctly, call it a success.

#10 Pingback By Friday Links for October 2, 2009 | Moebius Adventures On October 2, 2009 @ 9:08 am

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#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 4, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

How many people would cheat on their taxes if they thought they could get away with it? How many people don’t drive the speed limit? OK, enough pouring fuel on the fire… ;)

I like the idea of defining culture, and tracking it. The cards are a cool idea, but I don’t know if I’d ever use it. (Then again, I’ve disliked random generation since AD&D 1E.)

I use existing cultures. Everyone knows a Northman is one of the Nordic cultures, and a Saracen is from an Arabic culture. There’s plenty of room for detail, though… a Rus and a Norman are nowhere near identical.

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