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Wildly Different Culture Settings

Posted By John Arcadian On April 22, 2009 @ 3:31 am In GMing Advice | 15 Comments

Recently, I had a chance to play in a one-on-one game with a friend of mine who is just starting to get into Game Mastering. He has been world-building for a novel he is working on, but wanted to run some of his ideas as a game, in order to flesh out aspects of the world that don’t relate to his main plot. He’s been prepping and learning the system he wanted to run, and once he felt comfortable enough we sat down to play a session.

The setting is fantasy themed in a desert area which pulls exclusively from Arabic and Muslim inspirations. Common conceptions about anything I’d previously called fantasy had to be thrown out the window. I played a character who was a thief/assassin type, but who adhered to the written laws, felt motivated by certain religious impulses and lived and breathed the life of a person on Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

It was highly different from any playing experience I’d ever had. The person who ran the game was very familiar with the culture and built a detailed and vast environment for me to play in. I had enough knowledge about the cultural mores to be dangerous in my misinterpretation. I kept getting corrected on how certain things worked in the society. Trying to gather information on the streets was a completely different process than I’ve tried in a medieval fantasy setting. Understanding the class structures and societies expectations of my character was an interesting new dilemma.But . . .

the game was Awesome. Because I couldn’t rely on the assumptions I carried about how things operate in a setting, I had to learn  many new things about the world in which I was playing. Since they weren’t just made up facts to support a particular person’s way of thinking, but actual facts and details pulled from an existing culture, I had more of a sense of connection to the world as well as avenues of research that could help me flesh out my character.

It was an incredibly fun and interesting experience to play immersed in another culture without the common stereotypes about it. I also picked up a few things about how to make a different culture feel real and alive, and feel like it was more than just the stereotypes we get from the mass media.

Understand that the culture isn’t that different from your own, except where it is
One thing that struck me about gaming in an Arabic and Muslim-ish setting, is that it didn’t feel all that different from gaming in a medieval society setting. People still ate, slept in houses, gathered on the streets, etc. The NPCs were still the NPCs and the PCs still saved the day. We tend to think of wildly different cultures as composed of the most extreme or different elements, but in reality the exact same functions of life happen in every culture. Not everyone in Japan dresses in kimonos or knows swordplay, nor are they all shopkeepers or wise mystics with a role to play in regards to the PCS. The stereotypes we build about foreign lands obscure the commonalities that we share. Just like the stereotypes we take for granted in games. Eating food in a foreign places isn’t always exotic or has to adhere to certain unbreakable rules. People fart and it doesn’t cause holy wars. Workers work on constructing new buildings that are as bland, in their own ways, as any house or hovel.

Learn the language, speak the dialect
While you probably won’t set about learning a new language in order to play a game in a different culture, picking up a few phrases and words can help immerse yourself, or your players, into the culture. The same holds true for adding a bit of an accent. A simple google search can bring up all the basic traveler’s words and phrases, and a youtube search can find examples of foreign languages for you to listen to. You don’t need to go overboard, but just a little will make a huge difference.

Understand that there are thematic differences which can help make the setting feel more real.
One big difference between cultures, with regards to gaming at least, is that a lot of visual elements are going to be different.  What is the clothing like? How are the building’s built? What effect does the environment have on the play or the people?  Generally you only need to describe one or two major elements in detail as being wildly different. One good solid description of a unique element up front will help de-rail the player’s minds from thinking of the inn as being a square building. Once the players minds are derailed from their stereotypes, you have to watch and try to prevent them from getting back on the rails of the game settings they are used to.

Different names help, even if they’re in English
A inn in a different country might be called a common house. A church would be called a temple. Even if you don’t use the correct foreign language word for something, using a non standard word will cause people to think of it differently. The thesaurus is your friend.

Food, Food, Food
Nothing defines a culture like its food. Download a menu or recipes from the culture and describe what smells and tastes those might have. For a true experience, order some takeout or visit a restaurant that serves that cultures food before the game. It will leave some tactile memories that can be called up during the game.

All in all, playing in a different culture set me a bit off balance, but left me open for new ideas about gaming. It was good to play with someone who wasn’t an experienced (read long time, deep set in their ways) gamer. In my opinion, one of the most incredible things about gaming is that it is incredibly interactive and gets to the deep thinking places of a gamer. Throw in a realistic touch of cultural immersion and you have a great avenue for getting interested in learning about another culture. It was also a great way to get me thinking about ways to make fantasy or unreal cultures seem less one dimensional.

So, what experiences have you had in another gaming in another culture? What are some of the  ways that you’ve used to bring out cultural (real or made up) themes in games?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Wildly Different Culture Settings"

#1 Comment By nodens On April 22, 2009 @ 7:44 am

Hello

I am a native Californian and I spent 10 months in Egypt. Awesome leaps to mind. It is cheap to live there so if you can afford some time off, then look into it. The people there, in the residential districts especially, re-define what it means to be great people. I don’t know Arabic and they don’t know English but we got along, in all aspects of life, very well. I am not Muslim but I did see the beauty in the people of that faith. I didn’t play any games there, due again to the lack of language, but I was certainly inspired by the history, archetecture and people of that ancient land. Reading Dune is not enough.

-JoMo

#2 Comment By Argalek On April 22, 2009 @ 8:23 am

I’m currently running a game with a heavy Japanese influence. Amongst the NPC’s is a group of elite warriors whose members are only referred to by their unique titles, rather than name. When speaking amongst themselves, they use their true title in Japanese. When speaking to the PC’s or commoners they refer to themselves in their English translations. I think it’s a nice touch to try and show my players how the elites think of themselves on a higher level of class then everyone else.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On April 22, 2009 @ 10:17 am

I like the advice– it sounds like just enough to shake you out of stereotypes and playing in the culture. The traveler’s phrases are a great tip– and are useful when you’re playing a character from another culture even in a standard game.

Did he have a good method for corralling you when you went off on the wrong path based on faulty assumptions?

#4 Comment By Barvo Delancy On April 22, 2009 @ 11:30 am

I love hearing about this sort of thing. Little details like food make EVERYTHING, even in basic western fantasy. If you use Europe as a rough template, the culture, language, cuisine, and climate are all drastically different between say, England and Greece and should not be treated as one. It sounds like your friend went to huge lengths here and it’s a lesson all of us GMs can pick up. Describing a dungeon room in detail is all well and good, but making a city come alive is what really gets things going.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On April 22, 2009 @ 11:33 am

@nodens – It’s cheap to live in califonia?!?!?!?!?! :)

Egypt would be an awesome place to spend some time. One of the biggest differences that I’ve seen between countries is how they arrange their living spaces. A lot of the countries that I’ve visited have had a much more communal layout to their cities. If you lived in a neighborhood then you generally knew most of the people around you, and heard buzzings about what went on in the neighborhood. While I’ve found this in some big cities, its never quite there to the same extent.

@Argalek – Culture differences in rank and caste are always interesting. I know in the couple of oriental themed games I had played in, the class differentiations were done away with in the same way they are in medieval games. The party meets with the king, even though they are just a bunch of hired soldiers, technically. I like the way you differentiate with the titles.

@Scott Martin – I think you’ve definitely hit it with “just enough to shake you out of stereotypes”. It’s hard to see outside of our stereotypes when we sit down to play a game. The assumed standards help us play. An NPC gives quests, is a foil for the PC, is an enemy or is a shopkeep. I used to have the PCs find “wrong numbers” every so often. Some guy who looked like their target, but really wasn’t. They’d chase him down while he was just running to get home to his wife and kids.

To keep me in the culture, he pretty much just corrected me or provided details. Also, since I knew he was open to questions, I asked a lot. “What would be the appropriate thing to order? If my character wanted to find information on the local criminals, where would he go. I know in a fantasy world he would start looking for rogues and beating them down, but that seems like I’d just be hauled off here.” and then he would make some suggestions or fill me in on some details, but only when I asked and seemed interested in how it would work. That guaranteed that I would get enough information about the current situation, without being overwhelmed. It definitely helped that he had done his research and was familiar with the setting.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On April 22, 2009 @ 11:41 am

@Barvo Delancy – You’re right. Even using european fantasy as a template, there are lots of local differences that can make a locale seem alive. Describing general trends in architecture (gables or flat roofs, tiles or straw and wood?), food (roasted cauliflower soup or potato, tomato and basil soup?) and dress (leiderhosen or long pants, flat tipped or fluted shoes?) can really get the players immersed.

I definitely like describing cities more than dungeons. It seems like it will be remembered much better by the players, and thus a better use of my narrative detail.

#7 Comment By sonipitts On April 22, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

I had enough knowledge about the cultural morays to be dangerous in my misinterpretation.

Yes, well, while I agree that misinterpreting civilized eels could create a lot of danger in a game world, I think the word you’re looking for is ‘mores.’

:-D

#8 Comment By John Arcadian On April 22, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

@sonipitts – Quite right you are. All fixed now. Although, the idea of civilized eels is one that I might have to look into. . .

#9 Comment By sonipitts On April 22, 2009 @ 9:54 pm

Yeah, it gave me some interesting ideas, too. lol

#10 Comment By Bercilac On April 25, 2009 @ 5:23 am

I’m guessing, from your description that your friend is “very familiar with the culture” that he’s either Muslim or has lived in a Muslim country for some time. The thing to remember about this is that Islam in the 21st century has changed a lot since Islam in the 8th or the 13th centuries (despite the rhetoric we hear on the news about these being cultures “stuck in the middle ages” or other nonsense). So while I’m guessing that this was a great introduction to modern Islam, it probably didn’t give as good an overview of a Medieval Islam. Then again, maybe I’m wrong, and your friend is actually an historian of Medieval Islam (professional or amateur).

Of course, as Barvo points out, this applies equally well to “our” “Western” culture. GMs tend to put a blanket “fantasy” template onto campaigns, rather than really evoking the middle ages. Perhaps your friend was more conscious of this, as I admit may have been the case. It’s worth remembering that Tolkein, for instance, was largely writing an allegory of 20th century Europe, rather than a medieval work as such. (And the political ideology of LOtR is somewhat scary when you think about that!)

I always struggle with this in my games, as I studied history in uni. I try to convey a radically different mindset, but so far can’t say I’ve succeeded. My friend, who actually did Medieval History as his degree, did a much better job in his campaigns, stressing strongly the distinction between noble and peasant, the regionalism, etc. His biggest weakness was probably the distinction between church and state, as he got a bit 20th century cynical, and his characters did too, whereas regardless of their private beliefs every 15th century European would at least PROFESS Christianity (Catholicism in this case, Orthodox Christianity in the case of some), except Jews, Muslims, and that catch-all “pagan” (none of whom tended to fare terribly well in European society).

My most ambitious attempt was my “Goblins” campaign, in which I stated that goblins reproduce asexually. I tried creating a culture without families, inheritance, kinship, et cetera. I may have succeeded, but the you get into weird debates. In human society, kinship is the basic grouping on which all others are based. Could goblins have armies, if they never had families? I solved this by saying that they were originally quite anarchic happy little buggers, living in the jungle without a care, but learned all of this behaviour from other races, without understanding the cultural bases of it.

Hmmm. Much food for thought. Can we ever really escape our Western mindset, or do all of our attempts to get into another really end up as Western interpretations of other cultures? Or, in your friend’s case (and here, again, I’m guessing he’s a Muslim), a modern interpretation of a Medieval culture?

#11 Comment By peter On April 25, 2009 @ 5:57 am

I al about to start the legacy of fire pahtfinder campaign which takes place in an arabian flavored part of Golorian. so I’m gonna try to take these suggestions to good use.

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On April 26, 2009 @ 11:52 am

@Bercilac – My friend is actually an Episcopalian priest whose primary field is to study religious cultures. He’s well studied in biblical cultures and times, and in other religions and their influences. We have a Muslim friend that we spoke with and are going to see his thoughts on the game. It’ll be an interesting experience. You’re definitely right about placing a fantasy template over any game played. Many things are left out of movies, books and games when you apply the fantasy label over them. For one, everyone is much cleaner than they actually would have been.

@peter – I always loved Arabian flavored settings and was sad that there weren’t more games that made use of them. I may have to check out the Legacy of Fire campaign.

#13 Comment By Starvosk On April 30, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

I’m going to come in from the other side of the curtain and say that the OP’s post sounds like a refreshing change from your typical highly ethnocentric Western European Fantasies.

Speaking as someone well-traveled and holding a degree in history, it is sometimes a little shocking at how hidebound gamers are culturally. Take them out of their suburban western american lifestyle and they just get all shellshocked.

It’s really surprising that none of you came through any of these revelations through.. well, real life? You’ve never lived in another culture, had to deal with perceptions, rituals and traditions vastly ‘different’ and yet quite the same as your own?

Not being white or raised in a western household, some things I learned in school and from friends continue to perplex me.
Why is it that you cannot put you elbows on the table? Why the hell are there so many forks and spoons in proper ettiquette? What is an esquire? When a lady leaves the table, exactly what is the point for all the men to stand?

Obviously, as an American I know that most people don’t do that anymore, but in ‘proper society’ they still do. Quite frankly due to globalization, most young people in first world countries are equally uncouth.

Anywhere you go where they still have access to ‘popular culture’, people more or less act and dress the same these days.

Anyway, back to gaming. I run a 4e game set in a fantastical version of medieval China, and my players have taken quite a liking too it. They’re some differences, but frankly we’re all humans, and the stories we tell are largely, quite the same.

#14 Comment By Bercilac On May 5, 2009 @ 3:01 am

Ha ha! Didn’t see that coming. When you ASSUME…

#15 Comment By Bercilac On July 6, 2009 @ 2:04 am

Ho hum.

I attempted to run a WDCS, based on a small-scale hunter-gathering kinship-based society with an exchange economy (look up “Onka’s Big Moka” on YouTube for a great example). My players had difficulty adjusting to it, to say the least. One of the advantages of a medieval Islamic society, from a Western perspective, is that you can at least assume hierarchy, private ownership, and a tendency towards the accumulation of goods. Two moments, post-game, really bring out the difference.

Moi: How’d you find it?
Player: There was a lack of tangible rewards.

To be fair, I hadn’t emphasised the rewards that were there. But this was a bit more worrisome:

Moi: So you realise that since (your rival) has given you a gift, you now owe him one?
Player: Oh for F’s sake…

It wasn’t apparent that one could express one’s superiority through the means of generosity.

I found the best way to “train” my players was to have them witness events in which they were directly involved, then running through similar circumstances again and giving them and opportunity to perform as they had seen others perform, though it times it felt a bit like lecturing.


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