The Culture Burner: Culture Example

Thanks to the other two example blogs I’ve done, my culture is starting to take shape, but I really want to bring it home with these last three.  I’ve got some ideas that I think are very interesting, ideas that will make good examples for all of you reading this.  In fact, I have four beliefs I’m going to tell you about.

The first belief, if I follow the script I laid out in the last blog, answers the question of how the inhabitants of this culture view themselves.  With this belief I tried to go with something very visceral and easily recognizable.  And what is more immediately seen and comprehended than the way people dress?  Dress is so important to cultural identity that sometimes, just by changing the expected garb of a race, you can give it a whole new feel.  Which is why I chose:

The beauty of a female is directly proportional to the height of her headware.

It might seem a bit ridiculous at first, but that’s kind of the point.  I wanted this one to be really indicative of the Majika culture, a culture that, if you’ll recall, already believes in order through grandeur.  So, by letting that constructional belief process a bit through the “what if” center of my brain, this cultural belief came roaring out.  And it fits nicely.  It allows me to immediately have somewhat of a set description of every female the characters encounter in this city.  It also allows me to differentiate how the player characters feel about a woman based on where they grew up.  Those born outside of Majika may not see these elaborate hats as beautiful but rather as absurd while a character who has lived his life within the high walls of the city might be so taken that he can barely speak.

So, when I say “height” what exactly do I mean? Well I envision normal everyday women walking around the street with a nice hat, maybe 6-inch high, made of shiny fabric with some embellishments here and there – certainly expensive but not overly so. Every woman probably owns one that they wear whenever they go out in public.  Then there are the more upper-class hats that go a foot or two up and are decked out with feathers, jewels, etc.  These kind of hats serve two purposes. One, they make the location of the wearer immediately identifiable and two, they denote a certain level of balance and grace that the wearer possesses, increasing her attractiveness and fueling comments of jealously and awe from those she passes. Then you have the extremely high-class hats worn to balls and swanky get-togethers.  These are high to a ridiculous degree and use magic to keep the items on a vertical plane.  This type of hat exists for one reason, to be more impressive than all the hats around it.  And because of that they can be decorated with orbiting gems, tall and rare feathers, streamers of fabric, and on and on.

So, now that we have a very tangible standard and foreign standard of beauty (like the makeup of a geisha in Japan) we can move onto something much more ugly, racism.

Dwarves are scum and steal magical talent just by existing.

In this city where magic is literally everywhere, the Dwarves fill an important but misunderstood role.  I wanted to take them back to “crafters” and give them an important place in society, but somewhere my thought process got derailed and ended up in a much cooler place.

The dwarves in this culture are still crafters, but what makes them unique is the fact that they can create “vessels” to be later infused with magic.  See, the Dwarves possess an “inverse” magic, something grounded deeply in “nothingness”. Whereas most magic comes from a place of creation, like a wave rising from the ocean, Dwarven magic comes from stillness, emptiness, like a cold and hauntingly still pool.  Therefore when masters of this art create weapons or amulets, or any number of trinkets, they can “empty it” of all creative energies making it a waiting vessel for enchantment.  If magic is a pencil, they are erasers which is a very helpful skill for enchantments (which is the reason they were brought to Majika in the first place) but its also a terrifying notion for the misinformed masses.

As I said in my post on Culture, racism is misguided and usually based in lies or exaggerations, and this is no different.  Just as neophyte wizards require years of study to understand and tap into the various creative energies, so too do neophyte craftsmen require years of study before they can tap into the calm stillness and learn how to project that into whatever is currently on the workbench.  To the majority though, dwarves are like walking black holes.  See (and I’ll detail this more in the next section) almost everyone born in Majika has a little bit of magical talent, it’s just “in the water.”  Many people can do a few tricks, slightly manipulate a few elements, that sort of thing. It’s what defines them as citizens of Majika.  So you can imagine what happens when word gets out that if you stand too close to a Dwarf for too long your ability will diminish or disappear.  And once an idea like that, intangible and terrifying, starts to spread, no amount of logic will stop it.  Anytime a viable response to ignorance is “Yes, but… what if it’s true” the recipient of that racism has a nearly impossible road to walk to restore their place in society.  So it is with the Dwarves.

Magic is a birthright.

When I mentioned that I would detail the ubiquity of personal magic, this what I was referring to.  To the denizens of Majika, magic is everywhere.  That doesn’t make it any less special but its omnipresence certainly influences the way its viewed.  Or rather the way those without it are viewed.  There is a pretty straightforward analogy to our world that will help illustrate what I’m saying.  In America, freedom is a birthright.  We speed, we challenge authority, we demand to be taken seriously and refuse to sit down when told by “the man”.  In fact, the entire notion of authority is undermined in America because we are free and what right does someone else have to tell us how to live our life?  Of course I didn’t realize this until I went to Africa and saw an almost universal, unquestioning cooperation with those in positions of authority.  One of the jobs of the main characters in the documentary I was there to film was principal at an elementary/middle school.  While sitting in his office, I was surprised by the tacit acceptance of anything he said, any order he gave.  It was always, “yes sir,” said through teary eyes, and whatever he asked was quickly done.  To put it simply, he was the man, and no one was fighting him.  This even extended to the teenagers who came into his office.  Teenagers, those stuck in the most rebellious stage of human development, said “yes sir” and moved on.

When I asked him about this he told me that he has been trying to encourage the children to question his power. At the school there is a dress code, which includes how long boys’ hair should be. Every few months, a boy will be sent in for not having his hair short enough.  The principal then explains to the offending boy that if it is important for him to express himself in this way,  he should write the principal (him) a letter asking that he change the rule (this principal also wants them to know how to navigate bureaucracy). He also makes it very clear that if such an event were to occur, it is almost guaranteed that the rule would change. In his years of working there, he has received no letters.  If your jaw is on the floor right now then you understand what it’s like to live in a culture where something is special yet ubiquitous.

So it is with magic in my culture.  It’s not so much a question of “why can I do magic?” but, “why can’t you?”  This ties in nicely with the view of Dwarves, since they are visibly un-magic (whether or not that means they are actually unmagical is another story), even anti-magic. And this is an alien and scary concept.  It would be like us believing that if we stood next to a certain race in America that we would lose our freedom and want to conform. It’s a scary concept and one not easily discussed with any degree of rationality.

This belief, of course, influences everything from transportation, to learning, to cleaning, to…just about every area of life in Majika is touched by magic.  As my players go through this culture, I look to this belief to continue to flesh itself out.

Well, that’s all for the Culture part of the beliefs.  I had a few more really good ideas, I’ll be saving them for another culture.  Till next time.  Good luck with your worlds and get ready for my next blog, “The Story”.

  1. This is a great way to stay distracted/enthralled as MonCon approaches. It’s like eating an orange before going to a pear contest. Did that make sense?

    You know what, I’m actually going to lead the charge here and start this series. I need a break from MonCon prep.