Creating a New Table-top RPG System, Part 13

Neuith Culture

Introduction

I don’t think I’m superstitious. I don’t fear specific numbers, black cats, or walking under ladders. But, these things are so deeply ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to not be aware of them. Is it a coincidence that this is blog #13?

In truth, not really. I have several topics I need to cover, which I enumerated at the end of Blog #12. I chose this topic for this blog because it’s number 13.

I’m not, so I am

I’m not a sociologist or psychologist. I’m not a historian. What I am is a game designer and developer, with access to one of the most powerful tools available in the modern age: The Internet. In this blog, I’m going to make numerous suppositions that aren’t supported by fact. Many of my assertions can and probably should be disputed. The problem is that I’m crafting a fictional world of fantasy that has been technologically stagnant for ten thousand years. While I can compare my fictional world with other fictional worlds, there’s only one non-fictional world I can use for source material. I can’t use those other fictional worlds because they, like mine, are based on the imaginations of their creators. To steal or borrow from them directly is IP infringement. Fortunately, God doesn’t hold copyright on Earth, so I can use His creation for my inspiration.

On the other hand, having read many novels and stories, watched TV shows and movies, participated in RPG and other table-top and computer games, there’s no reasonable expectation that my vision won’t share some aspects of those others. To say “my” world is completely unique would be disingenuous. That said, I neither want to be struck by lightning nor be visited by the Sheriff delivering a Cease and Desist order.

Ten Thousand Years of Stagnation

Way back in Blog #5, I provided a rough introduction to the Neuith setting. I discussed there why, in my opinion, how civilization has stagnated for so long. The primary reason, as I suggest, is the presence of magic. When people have access to a power that can alter reality, why would they ever feel the need to build machines that do it?

This doesn’t mean people don’t change. Civilization grows and adapts, despite forces that intentionally or accidently stifle progress. Parents teach their children lessons based on their own experiences, which expand upon the lessons and experiences of their parents, and so on. Time erodes. Nature is dynamic. Old truths become myths and old lies become fact. The idea that human nature is doomed to repeat itself is relevant, to the point that history can be repetitive. But also consider that no single being, be it sentient or otherwise, can ever truly have a life identical to another. The infinite variety of creation creates an ever-expanding pool from which culture can be formed.

And there isn’t just one culture. Think about the city or town you live in. Is there one single culture or is there a mixture? I, for example, was raised in an affluent midwestern suburb, considered by many to be “entitled.” I joke that I was one of the few kids who, when I turned sixteen, did not get a new car for my birthday. When I graduated in 1982, my school’s football team had won the State Championship three times out of the last four. The hockey team only lost to a military academy team, and “we” were perennial winners in many other endeavors besides sports, like debate, chess, band, choir, and so on.

Yet, within this culture of seeming affluence and entitlement, there were a variety of subcultures. Some were more visible than others. There were the jocks, who were visible wearing their letterman jackets. There were the band and theater people, known as thespians. There were the kids that hung out in the outdoor smoking lounge, between the cafeteria and gymnasium, who became known as Section K. These disparate cultures only interacted when they had to. Inclusion had requirements, and each had their own customs and traditions.

The point I’m getting at is that each city, each region, each country, and each continent is going to be home to a variety of cultures. Each culture is unique. Even if two cultures they worship the same gods, there would still be distinct, recognizable differences. As more time passes, the diaspora grows. Evolving sub-cultures split again and again to the point where they are so different from each other and their “parent” culture that you’d never realize they shared the same origin.

Near-Infinite Diversity

While what I describe is a reasonable approximation of the evolution of culture, I must temper myself. Prudence, Scott. Prudence. I’m writing a role-playing game, remember? I’m not writing a comprehensive study of a fictional world. I have neither the time nor motivation. Consider, Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization is eleven volumes. Great Books of the Western World is fifty-four volumes. In my rulebook, I’ll have room for maybe two or three pages. Not only am I limited in space, but I’m limited by the attention span of my audience.

On the other hand, if I create an outline with highlights and key points, I can insert commentary pertaining to culture throughout the rules. How would I do this? Well, thank you for asking! Remember in the last blog I provided an outline of the rules? I’m going to re-print it here, but with some added commentary. This is something that I may do again for other subjects; don’t be surprised.

Section 1: Introduction

  • What is a Role-Playing Game?
  • What is Role-Playing?
  • A Neuith Primer: The map of the world probably won’t fit in the pages of the book, unless it’s done as a fold-out or inside the front and back covers. A larger version can be made available for special purchase. A map, however, isn’t culture. Likewise, there are too many countries to describe each in enough detail to be useful. Fortunately, the initial adventure and most of the “lower-level” plot hooks center around one specific region, the Wraithscape Realm. A history table is dry. Infused with culture, especially if the story can be told with a voice, brings the history alive.

Section 2: Characters

  • Personality Aspect
  • Knowledge Aspect
  • Social Aspect
  • Physical Aspect
  • Other features and abilities: Many racial abilities and features are associated with culture. If players select a playable race other than the standard fantasy set, they will need to understand a little about those cultures.
  • Ongoing Development
  • Supplies and Equipment: While most items are generic, some can be influenced by culture. Certain weapons may only be available to characters if they hail from certain regions.

Section 3: Magic

  • The Six Knowledges Facets: Magic is, in a lot of ways, a culture in and of itself. The six types of magic are sub-cultures within that. Since magic is entwined with the planet, understanding the culture around it is important to understand the ability.
  • Specializations: As another layer of sub-culture, magical specializations are a near-direct result of divergent culture.
  • Spells, Rituals, and Powers

Section 4: Mechanics

  • The Universal Resolution Chart
  • Common (Non-Combat) Interactions
  • Combat Encounter Sequence
  • Action Card Description: If there’s room on the cards for flavor text, this is a link to culture.
  • Other Rules
    • Special Combat Situations
    • Conditions
    • Crafting

Section 5: Conducting

  • What is the Conductor?
  • Group Dynamics and Leadership
  • Running the Game: There are two major tools in the Conductor’s toolbox: Mechanics and Culture. Mechanics dictate how the game is played, such as when to roll dice, how to manage numbers, and all that dry, boring stuff. Culture, on the other hand, gives life to the framework. Culture provides the foundation for all the reasons. Why are the characters on this adventure? What are their goals? How do they measure success or failure? All these questions are related to culture.
    • When to Narrate, When to Role-Play
    • Agency versus Scripting
    • Running an Encounter
    • Downtime: While it may not be well represented in the mechanics, Conductors should consider the local culture when characters choose to spend non-adventuring time somewhere.
  • Running a Session and Running a Campaign
  • Conductor Utilities
  • Antagonists: Who are the bad guys? Why are they bad? What motivates them to do what they are doing? Guess what: the answer can be found in Culture!

Section 6: Neuith

  • A Brief History: This entire section is about culture.
  • Current Affairs
  • A Bit of Technical
  • Major Personalities
  • Gods Old and New

Section 7: Adventures: These five adventures represent a microcosm of what can be done. The plan is to publish two or three full-length campaigns. As characters travel from one location to another, the Conductor needs a resource to help understand the various cultures found in those regions. Without this resource, everything becomes homogenized and generic. Even though these shorter adventures are limited in scope, I still want them to be alive. The NPCs should be unique and dynamic. The locations should be recognizable.

  • Four One-Shot adventures
  • The Heir of Linne, the Introductory Adventure

Section 8: References

  •  Character Sheet
  •  Reference Page
  •  Glossary
  •  Index

A Monumental Task Made Easy

I wish.

Neuith is home to fifty-three countries, six city-states, and thirty-nine islands large enough to be named. Not all the islands are populated, but we’re still talking nearly one-hundred named regions, each of which may or may not contain multiple sub-cultures. For my D&D campaign, I created a 60-page reference book that lists some useful demographic information, including city population, dominate races, and the major exports. Where available, I disclose the type of government and the names and personalities of the leaders.

I’m afraid my imagination isn’t up to the task of coming up with (easily) two- to three-hundred unique cultures. Possibly more. I’m already going to hit this with history and religion, but this is a little more detail that goes beyond those topics.

And, since culture is constantly evolving, I can only represent a snap-shot for the current era.

Alternatively, what I might do is try to do is identify unique features of culture and list those. I can start with what we have in the real world. Using these as prompts, I can explore possible variants for Neuith. What I really need to know is how to describe a culture in a manner that’s meaningful?

Google to the Rescue

Searching on Features or Aspects of Culture, I find there’s an established listing of Seven Elements of Culture:

  •  Social Organization
  •  Customs and Traditions
  •  Language
  •  Arts and Literature
  •  Religion
  •  Forms of Government
  •  Economic Systems

I’m going to add one to this list:

  • Magic

I found several articles and publications listing aspects or elements of culture with more entries than these seven. Most are just variations or subdivisions. For example, one listing has Music in its own category, but it’s easily rolled into Arts and Literature.

Of course, I also found a useful discussion on one of my favorite blogs, J.S. Morin’s Worldbuilding: https://www.jsmorin.com/category/world-building-2/. While his site is primarily designed for authors, the crossover is obvious. I think I need to spend some time reviewing this before continuing…

Even Easier? Not Really

I’ve bounced around numerous sites and articles looking for useful resources for coming up with fantasy-world cultures. There’s a lot of advice, but not much detail. The advice tells me that cultures need to be organic, internally consistent, and logical. The seven (er, eight) elements are interrelated to the point where I can’t just create a lengthy list of stuff and play random mix-and-match.  Fortunately, I already know some of the bits about some of the countries. It’s enough to build on, but what I lack is the lengthy list of stuff to choose from. Use your imagination. Use your creativity. Yeah. Not today. Not now.

Not that having a randomized mix-and-match list wouldn’t be fun. And I’m not the first person to try; I found two online culture generators: http://www.chaoticshiny.com/index.php and https://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/. Both sites have numerous utilities I’ve used before. What I’d really like is access to their databases. However, that risks IP infringement and all that. I’m better off doing this on my own. It doesn’t mean I can’t build off their ideas. For Neuith, I don’t want to use random generation. This world has a clearly defined history where each culture and sub-culture can be logically (at least somewhat logically) explained and described.

Let’s look again at those eight elements and try to understand what they mean.

Social Organization

This isn’t government, because that’s one of the other elements. This element covers how people interact with each other. Who are the leaders? Who are the followers? Is there a pecking order? Also, we think about family structure. Is a marriage something between one man and one woman, or is it something different? Do people live in single-family homes, or is it an extended family dwelling, where grandparents and cousins are living together? Do neighbors band together and work together as a community, or do people tend to fend for themselves?

Customs and Traditions

We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way. Do you pray to the gods before a meal, or after eating? Do you take a bath daily, weekly, or some other interval? All those routines are founded on some sort of custom or tradition. This category also covers superstitions. One of the online generators presents randomized superstitions, but is this something that should be random? Perhaps, on Neuith, children are never allowed to play with toy magic wands. This category also bleeds over into how laws are applied. Governments set the laws. Religion establishes morality (usually). Customs and Traditions dictate how the laws are applied, including how punishments are meted out.

Language

For ease of play, I generally say that everyone speaks the “common” language. I can justify this in that the original gods imposed this common language. However, time changes things. Dialects develop and diverge to the point where they may as well be different languages. But this element covers more than just language, but idioms, colloquialisms, jokes and riddles. When writing a novel or story, this can be used to lift the story off the page and enhance the immersion. It’s not as easy to do in a table-top game.

Arts and Literature

All types of art, music, poetry, and prose are covered in this category. We could easily include craft-based artwork, such as quilting, weaving, carving, and more. In a lot of cases, and this is true of our world, you can study a piece of art, in whatever form it’s in, and determine when and where it was produced, and possibly who created it. For this category, we must consider resources. One can’t be a sculptor of marble statues if there’s no marble available. Also, cultures will have different musical and poetic styles. One might enjoy rhyming couplets while another considers them trite and annoying.

Religion

I’m covering this topic in much more detail elsewhere, but there’s no question that religion is a huge influence on culture. Even those that shun religion and faith, be they atheist or agnostic, or whatever, are affected. Religion typically establishes a moral code. Customs and traditions derive from rituals and ceremonies. It’s interesting to note, however, that while the original pantheon of gods imposed specific laws and rituals during their reign, anything that has developed since that time is strictly derived by men and women. Philosophers on our world and long referred to religion as a means to control or appease the masses. It’s no different here.

Forms of Government

Not all the governments in Neuith are classic monarchies. For the sake of variety, and to add depth to the role-playing experience, I included numerous forms of government, including the dreaded magocracy. How people relate to and perceive their government is a huge influence on culture, as government can either strengthen or weaken the divide between social classes, be in alliance with or conflict with religions and traditions, among many other things. A major aspect of government in a pre-industrial society derives from the strong overcoming the weak. Individual monarchs and their families may not be strong or powerful, but they have the loyalty of those that are. The ability to rule doesn’t necessarily correlate with the desire to rule. Either way, the application and perception of the “ruling class” is a huge impact on culture.

Economic Systems

This is one of those things that we keep simple for the sake of game play. Whether I go with the standard gold/silver/copper model or come up with something commiserate, it’s likely to be nearly universal. Currency facilitates trade, not just locally and regionally, but internationally. A common standard, even if it’s unregulated, gives everyone an equal footing. This doesn’t mean there isn’t barter, or black markets, or regional differences in prices.

Magic

This goes beyond the idea of six different manifestations of magic. Those skilled and trained in using magic may not be common, but it is ever-present and part of daily life. To say that it’s not a key element in the evolution of culture would be wrong.

Next Steps

The task that lies before me, and for those willing to help, is to create a basic outline. I may do this in an Access database where I can create queries and reports, even though the editing tools in a text box are severely lacking. That’s okay. I’m used to it. I thought I’d need to outline the post-curse religions first, though it looks like I need to work on these side-by-side.

This also begs for me to create a master time-line (another Access table?) to track when and where key events occur. Kind of like this: https://www.amazon.com/Timetables-History-Horizontal-Linkage-People/dp/B001B1B132. Excel? Ugh.

The hard part for me is to not write an unfinished novel about each of these key events.

I’m two thousand words short of my usual goal for blog-length. However, I think I’ve sufficiently covered this topic and I want to move on. Jon suggested I take a break, create some characters and Action cards, and play-test the game mechanics. Good idea, Jon!

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