The Culture Burner: Culture

We’re rounding the corner (a phrase left over from when horse racing was the dominant American past time) on the three elements of memorable travel.  Today we have to deal with the most intimidating due to the sheer volume of choice.  This element basically acts as a catch all for anything we haven’t covered so far.  Specifically, it deals with people and their interactions.  So, whereas construction dealt with buildings and the “who, what, when, why, and how” of their place in society, and cooking dealt with food and the “who, what, when, why, and how” of its consumption, culture will deal with sentient beings and the “who, what, when, why, and how” of their interactions with each other.

Because of its more intimate nature, this is probably the most difficult element to roleplay effectively.  It’s fairly easy to insert a strange building or food custom and wrap our minds around what it would be like on a daily basis.  When your players ask about a certain construction custom, a brief description and periodic narrative reminders will be sufficient to plant the idea in the collective mind of the group.  With cultural customs, it must be reinforced on a cultural level and depending on how subtle the belief is, it can be very hard to shake your players from their generationally ingrained beliefs.

For example, a good friend of mine and American History scholar once told me that the biggest difference between most Native American cultures and European/American cultures was that Native Americans “weren’t afraid to be heroes.”  He told me that many years ago and I still can’t quite wrap my mind around it.  He pointed out, as an example, the American tradition of demurring when called a hero.  Look at any news story, whether it a man risking being run over by a train to save a child’s life, a soldier taking a bullet for his platoon, or even just some passer-by saving a kitten from a drain pipe.  The first thing out of their mouth will be, “I’m no hero, I was just doing my job/in the right place at the right time/anyone else would have done the same.”  Look at any politicians’ speech.  There is a reason political posters say things like “Yes, we can” instead of “Yes, I can.”  We are not a culture of heroes.  We do heroic things, yes, but we are not heroes; we won’t let ourselves be.  I understand that part, but I can’t wrap my head around the society my friend was hinting at when he told me about that difference.  I can’t fathom what it would look like to live in a “heroic” society, in a “Yes, I can” society.  The “humble citizen” model has been too ingrained in me.  Even if I could roleplay it properly, I don’t think I could comprehend it.

This is the danger with cultural beliefs.  Sometimes they are too foreign.  Now this can be a good thing or a bad thing, if you are up to the challenge.  If you can truly and consistently play a strange cultural belief and are able to put your players in the proper mindset to accept that belief, your world, your culture, will become immediately memorable.

So, we have an all-powerful element for which we need to create three beliefs.  Deciding the level of foreign-ness you want these beliefs to create is challenge enough, the sheer berth of topics that the term “culture” can cover is another thing altogether.

To narrow things down, lets concentrate on three questions that will help us create our beliefs by focusing on a few narrow but far-reaching sections of “culture.”

How the inhabitants of this culture interact with/view themselves.

What is acceptable dress to this culture?  In Tanzania, it was dresses that fell below the knees for women.  In European countries men in Speedos on the beach is a common sight.  There is the Scottish kilt and the Japanese kimono.  What about decorative traditions?  One of the reasons trade in India became such a worthwhile endeavor is because they were willing to trade their olive oil for adornments of all kinds of precious metals.  If the Indian culture hadn’t had such a love for personal adornment, the silk road might never have happened.  For instance, if, say, they were like some of the early American settlers, where any kind of “fancifying” made you appear a whore and a person of loose morals.  There is geisha make-up and war paint.  Ceremonial outfits and standing naked in front of the spirit.  But beyond all of these cosmetic things, there is also beliefs like Native American heroism (and I should mention Greek culture had strands of this, as well)  as well as the old Japanese belief that a certain amount of “melancholy” is necessary for a balanced life.  The old characters of Japanese folk lore were generally men of great power and occasional great sadness.  It was because of this belief that anti-depressants found few buyers when they came to Japanese shores.  However, thanks to a very long and expensive campaign by the makers of Paxil to rebrand “heroic melancholy” as “a cold of the soul” i.e. something that seems insignificant but can kill you if left untreated, anti-depressants went from pitiful, nearly non-existent sales, to an over $1 billion industry.  All of this due to a change of personal cultural belief.

How the inhabitants of this culture interact with/view others.

This is probably my favorite question of the three because it has to do with what has the potential to be a very powerful mechanic.  There are many ways to answer this question.  Are the people friendly, or are they mean?  If your characters are waiting for something, or utilizing some kind of public transport, do the people next to them in line strike up a conversation, or look blankly ahead?   Do they make friends easily, or is friendship considered rare and nearly intangible.  In Japan, after drinking, joking, and talking with a man named Nagashima at the bar, he was amazed when we started referring to him as “friend.”  He literally could not believe it.  This was made more clear later that night when one of the bartenders came in for her shift and from the moment she entered the door to the moment she went upstairs, her and Nagashima were conversing.  When she finally left, we asked if they were friends.  “No, no,” he said, confused.  We explained to him that in America, if you know your bartender (we came to this particular bar at least three times a week) well enough to talk from the moment they enter the room to the moment they have to leave, you are friends.  Not so to Nagashima.

Then there is the guest/host culture.  In other words, what is a the role of a guest in that society and what is the role of a host?  In America a guest, generally, is supposed to take as little as possible, help out as much as possible, and be gracious for every moment.  This really complicated my trip to Africa where if you are a guest, you eat first, eat as much as possible, and don’t make a big deal out of any of it.  It’s so ingrained in their belief system that when my friend was “welcomed” to dinner and she said “oh no, you go first, I’ll take whatever is left,” she was just looked at… then welcomed again.  When she protested again, after a moment of trying to comprehend what was going on, she was more forcefully welcomed to dinner, with the matron making it very clear that they would not eat until she ate.  In an effort to be the best guest she knew how to be, American style, she had offended the host’s African cultural beliefs.

Another element that I think goes overlooked in most fantasy campaigns is racism. I don’t think any society is truly free from genetics-based discrimination.  Above most other emotions, racism still fuels most of the violence, large and small scale.  I have no reason to believe fantasy worlds are any different.  Racism (or sexism, or religious intolerance, etc) is illogical and for the most part the differences it sees are either purely cosmetic or completely false… in reality.  The trick with racism is that no matter how provably inaccurate it is, the belief remains intact.  For instance, early Christians were branded as cannibals because of a gross misunderstanding of what the Lord’s supper was, and this belief allowed the public to support their mass murder.  Muslims are suffering a similar fate at the moment.  Beliefs are powerful things especially when they are stronger, culturally, than facts.

How the inhabitants of this culture interact with/view the world.

Is their culture the best?  Is it a closed culture like China was for so long?  Or is it more Spartan in nature, seeing others as weak?  This question deals with everything from xenophobia (or racism against those outside of the society), as well as things like agriculture, land ownership, and even pet ownership.  A lot of us grow up with the story of the Natives being tricked into selling their land to the whites.  That’s because the whites won.  If the Natives had remained in power, the story would be that the stupid Europeans traded all of their worldly goods for the clouds in the sky.  That was the ephemeral nature of “land ownership” to the natives.  “You want to buy this land, sure thing!  Oh, and there are some clouds I’ve been looking to sell too.”  As I mentioned, in this category falls general pet and animal husbandry beliefs.  Does the standard family in the culture come with a dog, like in America, where the pet is basically part of the family, or like  in many other countries, is a pet something that helps out with chores for table scraps.  Or perhaps, in your culture pets have a wholly different purpose.

Those questions should help you in your quest for cultural beliefs.  Usually, this is the point in which I would list my take on the American cultural beliefs.  But they are too ingrained in me to see properly.  If, as I go through the next week, I come up with some, I will post them in the comments.  If you think you know some, please post them.  I would love to see what you think.

I look forward to your blogs.  We are almost done, with the final installment coming in two weeks.  The thing that wraps all of this together… the Story.