By Jonathan Wooley– July 19, 2011
Today, in this final entry of the Culture Burner, I’d like to discuss a few things that were too small for their own entries. We’ve spent almost two months now hewing out a new and exciting culture. And, I think, its a safe assumption to say that even though we have just written down nine beliefs, maybe a few words of new language, and perhaps some of the social groups within that culture, we have a far, far greater understanding of our culture, whether it be tied to a city, a rural area, dotted with villages, or a disparate tribe wandering the continent.
I mentioned early in these articles that other questions you may have will be answered by the time we get to the end of this series. And even though I have not mechanically addressed climate, for instance, your imagination should have already filled in that blank spot. If that has happened or if any other question has magically answered itself, congratulations, your culture is so well-crafted that it has begun drawing details to itself. If you are a GM like me (one who likes to go in with big plans but minimal planning) you will find this kind of automatic detailing a boon as you unleash your players on your new culture. Two things are likely to happen, you will either be able to answer your players’ unpredicted questions about the setting with minimal pause or those questions will be held to a minimum due to the fact that the setting is so visceral.
There are of course ways to encourage that second behavior.
Remind, Remind, Remind
One of the greatest failings of any GM is expecting the players to envision perfectly what is in that GM’s mind, and over a long period of time. The shining example of this being when changing scenes or returning to a previous scene. If the characters walk into a tavern, chat someone up, and leave, we as GMs don’t really expect to have to set up the scene outside again. This is a mistake. Some things need to be constantly reiterated.
Just like in reality, there are a few things that remind us of themselves constantly. It’s folly to think that people need less of these reminders when trying to cultivate group imagination. Take the weather for instance. If you work inside, what is the first thing you notice when you get out of your office? The weather. Even if you have a window, even if you’ve been watching the temperatures climb on that digital thermometer all day, the moment you walk out that door a big ol’ dose of weather slaps you in the face. What makes us think that as GMs we need to do less than nature? How the weather feels should be the first thing out of your mouth when your characters take a step outside. It doesn’t have to be much but the difference between “You walk out of the tavern” and “You walk out of the tavern and into the depressingly hot day” is pretty large. Also, think about all the chances for roleplaying that the second description opens.
But even in reality, some weather reminds us of itself even more often. Think about walking in a rain storm, every rain drop is a suble reminder of just how wet you are getting. Every puddle a new obstacle. Rivulets form and run down streets, spouts of water shoot off roofs and onto the heads of the un-weary. The entire landscape changes because of this new weather. “It’s raining” doesn’t really capture it. Remember what we talked about early on, that the first step to describing what is novel in a setting is understanding what is default in reality. Rain is unusual and even if it isn’t an unusual weather pattern, doing anything other than watching it from the safety of a dry shelter is. So use that to your advantage. Remind the players where they are at every opportunity. Extreme weather is annoying because it constantly reminds you of itself, don’t think you should do any less. Remember, you are trying to get a bunch of people sitting in a climate-controlled room to feel the sting of uncomfortable weather, a little reminding goes a long way.
In the same sense, all of our beliefs need to be reinforced as often as tact dictates. In the above example, we talked about all the descriptors that hit you when you exit a building. Weather is just one of them. If you’ve done any traveling, one of the coolest moments is whenever you step out of a building where you let your guard drop and get smacked in the face by the newness of your environment as soon as you step out of the door.
That is usually the time when people say “I can’t believe I am actually here.”
It’s that response we want to foster. And your descriptions don’t have to be wordy or overt to convey this. Some examples:
“You walk out of the tavern and into the depressingly hot day, the tall towers of Majika are distorted by the heat waves.”
“You walk out of the tavern and a clock tower chimes, clear in the hot summer stillness”
“You walk out of the tavern and THE clock tower chimes, clear in the hot summer stillness”
Sometimes just one word can make all the difference.
But there are other opportunities to sneak in unobtrusive descriptors. Small examples that help flesh out the scene like, “you hide in an alley, the smooth coating that usually covers the bottom half of the buildings here is crumbling.”
You don’t have to go out of your way to achieve a visceral environment, but you do have to be ever vigilant for places to sneak in cultural or environmental references. I recommend keeping your list of beliefs and the current weather at the top of a piece of paper so that you are always conscious of the things that need to be reinforced. And if you do this I will guarantee you that your players will respond with more visceral and situational responses and interactions.
Oh and don’t forget that the number one conversation starter is talking about the weather.
Purity and Abstraction
This harkens back to last week’s blog but it deserves some extrapolation. There are grey areas within a cityscape. That is to say, some places aren’t as culturally pure as others, especially in a metropolitan area. As a GM you can choose to ignore or increase those grey areas, a true culturally pure city could be very interesting, especially how it got that way. In the same way a crazy diverse city could be cool as long as it didn’t lose its identity. The exercise here is for you to be conscious of where those grey areas may appear. Whether it be an out-of-place house or a whole district, abstractions make for interesting landmarks. We mentioned districts last week when we discussed cultural pockets so lets talk a bit more about single buildings.
Sometimes because of war, diaspora, or wanderlust, people emigrate far away from their homes. And sometimes those people, having nothing left but their memories, carve out a little nook of culture and refuse to let it go (at this point I can’t get the opening scene of Up out of my head). Those people are always interesting characters and those nooks, interesting places. Keep this in mind as your PCs roam the world, or if you need an interesting tavern, or if you can’t figure out what an eclectic shop should look like, or even that famous restaurant, or that informants house. These places of abstraction serve both as a memorable location and a foil to the greater setting. When you use them sparingly but effectively, it will benefit not just your setting but your players’ interaction and responses within that setting.
With all that said, it’s been really fun writing these articles. Thank you so much for your comments. For all of you that have decided to participate, now or later, a great thanks to you. I love seeing the ideas this community can generate and look forward to seeing more and more Burning Wheel-based content on this site. I’ve had great fun writing this blog and hope that its exercises have and will help you create a better setting, scenario, and, above all, story for and with your players.
These are powerful ideas, and I hope they serve you as well as they have served me.
Please feel free to post any suggestions or tips you have, I am always looking for ways to weave a more engaging tale. And if you have any questions, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
and above all
List of completed Culture Burner blogs: