The Culture Burner: Construction

For those of you who have traveled outside of your country of origin, what is it that you remember about the experience? What was it that shocked you or that, when thought about, immediately takes you back there? And most importantly, why shouldn’t your players get the same luxury? One of the reasons we play, after all (or read, or sign into WoW, among other things), is to experience a new reality. To live in a world that still has frontiers and danger, to tread the precipice between life and death, not in a hospital bed or due to bad luck, but because of something way more awesome. So, really, we need to look at our games not in the traditional way of winners and losers, good rolls and bad, but as experiences on par with any adventure this world can conjure up yet requiring far less frequent flyer miles to get there.

I’ve been very lucky in these last few years to have traveled to and through all four hemispheres and over nearly every ocean (curse you Indian Ocean!) and every time I leave the airport something hits me immediately, I’m not in America anymore. It seems like a silly idea, “of course I’m not in America, I’ve been on a plane for 21 hours,” but we are creatures of habit and it takes us a while to absorb the fact that not only are we not home, but very, very far away from home. Now, think of how powerful it could be if you, as a GM, could illicit the same reaction from your players. Exploration and adventure – that is, after all, the reason that we play.

I have the formula. And soon you will too. Over the next few weeks we will flesh out our fantasy world with the three most important and memorable aspects of any exotic location. I had originally started this blog series before I went to Africa ( if you are interested /shamelessplug ) so I had these three elements in mind for the entirety of my trip and I saw them in action time and time again.

I present to you the three C’s of memorable locations:

Now, in my first blog I mentioned that the whole reason for this series was that the Burning Wheel, by challenging players to make more vibrant, deep characters, also indirectly challenges the game masters to step up their role. So, while this method can be applied to any system, it works best and is most deffinitely inspired by the Burning Wheel. That being said, the notion of beliefs will come into play fairly regularly. Also, and I believe this is very important, to create truly outstanding beliefs you must understand what the beliefs are of your real life culture. Otherwise it will be impossible to decide what is novel and what is the expected hegemonic baseline.

To use a very simple example, if a culinary belief of your fictional culture was, “everyone drinks some form of alcohol at bars/pubs” it wouldn’t even be worth writing down. It’s expected because of the world that we live in as well as the world we expect to encounter when we hear “medieval fantasy realm.” However, if, say, one of the beliefs was something to the effect that booze was taboo, now we have something. We have something even deeper if, say, the characters are from the next kingdom over that has no problem with drinking and have to go slinking around, just to get some ale. Or maybe its extremely taboo, even illegal to drink, but everyone does it. You now have a prohibition-type setting. Or maybe people drink but it’s considered a very “low class” thing to do. Imagine that world.

Just from toying with one belief, just from moving it slightly from the expected to the novel, we have created something memorable. To go one step further, lets move the belief from the practical into the philosophical. Lets say that instead of the belief being “It’s taboo to drink” we change it to “Ale is the drink of murderers and prostitutes, where it exists, evil deeds are not far behind.” Now, that is much more interesting and can play out in many many different ways. Maybe that belief is wrong and the characters don’t believe it – they want their booze. Well, they will find themselves in some interesting places if they truly desire it. Then again, maybe the belief is right and in this particular world just one drink can black a man out and make him do horrible things.

So. Many. Possibilities.

And then, as we answer the why for every belief we create (why do they believe this way), we begin to uncover the essence, the story, and the soul of our worlds and the cultures within them.

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

So, lets start with the hardest of the three C’s.


If you haven’t done much traveling you will have to trust me on this, but: Places. Do. Not. Look. The. Same. When I went to Japan I was stunned, absolutely stunned, that the construction looked so different. There were skyscrapers, highways, cars, traffic, trains, but it was all subtly different. I couldn’t put my finger on it but I knew I was in a different place, just because of what the buildings looked like. You want to give your campaign a Middle Eastern feel just describe something with topped parapets like the Taj Mahal. Say nothing else and I guarantee in every one of your players’ minds your campaign and NPCs have become just that much more exotic. Even simpler, if you hear the words “Adobe Brick House” your mind immediately jumps to the border (or if you grew up in the South West, your mind jumps to home). What would the Greeks be without their columns? Romans without their arches? What would the plains-dwelling Native Americans be without their Tipis? What would Turkey or any old-world Arabian city be without their ever-twisting alleyways and stacked houses?

What would any number of horror movies be without the creaky, stooped, encroaching old house?

Construction is by far the hardest of the three C’s but it is no less important. It is subtle but powerful. Come up with three good beliefs here then enforce them in play with periodic and concise descriptions and your game will take on a new and true flavor. One that won’t soon be forgotten.

I could wax philosophical about how much construction affects perception of culture but it’s time to move into some practical discussion. Lets work on how to create these beliefs. A good rule of thumb when creating your characters’ three beliefs is to come up with one that informs or will be encountered in that session, one that will be encountered in that adventure, and one that will be encountered in that campaign. Another technique is to make a belief about where your character is going, where he is now, and where he has come from. In thinking about our culture’s construction we can be a little more passive. Perhaps these guidelines (and they are indeed only guidelines) will help.

What are the buildings here made of / not made of?

Sometimes what is not used is as important as what is. For example in America, what would happen if you saw a house made out of mud? It would be novel, out of the ordinary. Just like in Africa a log cabin would be novel. This brings us to an interesting place. Once we fill out this belief we will know so much more about our culture. Why is that log cabin an interesting sight to Tanzanians? Because they don’t have the kind of trees to support such construction. The environment doesn’t allow it. The elements you build your city out of must be local (well, I guess they don’t have to be, which could lead to a very interesting explanation as to where the elements are gathered, how they get there, and why). Why don’t we see grass roofs on our houses? We come from a culture that doesn’t value that. Why? Because, by and large, we trust machines over nature. Man’s hand must intervene a certain amount before we, generally, believe it to be safe. See how we got from “no grass rooves” to “don’t trust nature”?  With one subtle belief we now know much more about our culture in areas both pertaining to and having nothing to do with construction.

What necessitates a home?

To a tribal people apartments seem ludicrous. How could you live in so cramped a space? To someone living in Tokyo or New York, an apartment the size of my bedroom could be considered more than adequate. To a nomad, walls probably aren’t all that desirable. And to a Hobbit a hillside works just fine. All of these are vastly different ideas of a home and all of them are something people remember when traveling. You ask someone from the midwest about their trip to LA – guess what they will say? “My friend’s apartment was so small, I don’t see how they live like that, I would go crazy.” That’s what they remember, that is what makes it different.

You can cheat a little bit here if you want. Maybe a totem is what makes a home. Maybe unless you have a shrine to the local deity or your ancestors or whatever, your house is considered “empty” by that culture. I created a culture recently where every house had to have an atrium, some kind of sacred space in the middle of the house. This reflects itself in the wealthier denizens houses as an actual atrium complete with trees, a few rocks, and a well-groomed garden, if they are very rich even a little pond. But not everyone can afford such things, in fact most of the population are poor fishermen, but they have their pride and won’t abandon their cultural mandate just for a cheap dwelling space. So even in these fishermen’s shacks there is a recessed square, always kept clean. They use it for sacred occasions, blessings, holy days, and holy rituals. From there I began to think what would happen if there was no access to a sacred protected space, say if they were soldiers off in war. Then I thought, “how cool would it be if even though these soldiers have nothing, hiding from the enemy, the rest of their force dead or dying, they draw a square in the dirt and give each other some sort of last rites, then go off to meet their fate. What an awesome scene.” All made possible by, of all things, construction.

What do the buildings/streets look like?

Not what are they made of, not what do they have in them, but generally, what do they look like? What would it look like to walk down the street? It’s one thing to have towers on your castle. It’s another thing entirely to have them topped with Taj Mahal-type spindles. Or for them to branch out like trees at the top, each branch going to another floating tower. Or what if they are painted with murals or carved into vignettes of heroic deeds? Or even just painted white. What about the doorways? Are they square like we see every day? Are they arched, pointed, rounded? Are they just a circle like ol’ Bilbo’s house? Do they have strong wooden doors or swinging saloon gates? Do the windows have stained glass or bars or nothing? Each of those options gives a vastly different feel. Just think if you were driving down the road and saw building after building with beautiful stained glass. Now what if instead of stained glass those windows were barred and dark. Different culture, indeed.

Those are just some ideas of the many hundreds of thousands. What are the roads made of? Are they raised or lowered? Do people live above or below street level? And on and on.

If you asked me at this moment what America/Oklahoma’s beliefs are I would say they would be something like this.

A building built with primal elements is a building that will fail.
A house must have a roof.
The grid system is the most efficient system ever devised.

For confirmation of the first belief look at the resistance that Straw-bale houses have received, or think of what would happen if you drove by a mud hut. For the second, I look back at Tanzania where the only part of someone’s house that had a roof was the pantry and the bedroom. Everything else was outside. And for the third, when our friends from overseas came to visit Steven and I they bemoaned our highway system saying how inefficient it was and how their system took people where they really wanted to go.

Now, especially with those last two beliefs and their supporting examples, the alternatives are nearly unfathomable. A life spent mostly outside doesn’t seem right, how can you have a house without a roof and how can you have a road system more efficient than the grid system? An alternative is unfathomable. Remember what your mind is doing at this very moment because it needs to be what happens in the mind of everyone living in your new culture. Beliefs are not suggestions, they are facts to those that believe them. Alternatives are unfathomable, blasphemous, dangerous, and strange.

If you would like to join me on this cultural journey, I invite you to write up a blog about your new culture’s beliefs on construction.  If you get stuck, you can always wait for my “example blog” to come out next week.

Until then.

  1. The only difficulty I would have with that is I use my RPG campaigns as fodder for my work… you might see something more generalized but I have been using material from my RPG campaigns to get paid, and if it’s up here I am not going to get paid. But I will try to contribute something.

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  2. The more I think about this the more I love it.

    Every single campaign I’ve ever played in, or book I’ve read, that incorporated construction and architecture in this way was a delight. Every time you ventured into the setting it was noticeably easier to become involved in the story/plot than with those that didn’t. Obviously it made the experience better, but also much more memorable too.

    Also, I gotta say, having beliefs for non-character elements of the world itself is nothing short of brilliance. Bravo!

  3. Yeah, this is really exceptional. When I start thinking about different construction types that I could come up with for future games I just get lost in this wave of imagination. Using the 3 C’s I’m pretty sure I can catch my players in that same wave.

  4. Heh. This is remarkably similar to a process I already do for my novel building (aspiring author here). Culture, fully developed, is so hard to do right, but it certainly can make a huge difference.

    Having their own materials as well as architecture is a big deal, but city planning is something that I always like to do when I sit down and actually draw out a map. Heck, I often will start with a map and see what happens from there.

    Most overlooked thing in my experience? Food. Every culture has their own food. Why do fantasy nations always eat the menu from Medieval Times? Really interested to see what you write on that.

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