31 Questions to Define a Culture

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0296

A Brief Word From Leslie

Going to a GenCon or Origins has long been an unreachable dream for many gamers, but it isn’t necessary to save up and wait any longer – chances are there is a gaming convention in a city near you. These smaller conventions can be even more fun than the granddaddies. They are a great way to make new friends, try out new games, and possibly pick up new players.  Coming soon to a city near you:

Jan 27: VeriCon in Cambridge, MA
Jan 28: ComuniCon in Fredericton, NB
Feb 03: Winter War 33 in Champaign, IL
Feb 03: Winter-Vention in Potosi, Missouri
Feb 04: PAW 2005 in Plymouth, England
Feb 04: Just a Game Con in Corvallis, Oregon
Feb 10: UberCon VII in Secaucus, New Jersey
Feb 10: OwlCon XXV in Houston, TX


31 Questions to Define a Culture

I often compile a checklist of questions to be answered when creating something new, be it a magic item, setting, or society. The more exhaustive and complete this checklist is, the better visualized and more complete the item in question will be.

I recently had occasion to generate such a checklist for the creation of a new, intelligent species, and thought it might be useful to other people as well. In some ways, this article is a companion to my previous one on Customizing Common Races, though this one is going to focus more on technique.

Customizing Common Races, Part 1 – RPT#290

While it might not be necessary to write a response to each checklist item, at the least its presence ensures you will have thought about the subject matter. If you take the time and trouble to write a short paragraph or two for each, at the end of the process you will have a solid foundation for play. Be warned, this can take a long time!

It’s important not to be inventive and creative in response to every question, else the resulting race/culture will be too alien, hard to comprehend, and impossible to play. It’s better to craft a couple of unique points early on and explore the ramifications and consequences of those points.

It’s also helpful to use a known society as a basis; it will become something unique once your creative ramifications have made their impact felt. That’s the function of Question #1 – to explicitly state the key concepts and ideas that will form the basis of the answers to the questions that follow.

When using a checklist such as this, start by reading each question and jotting down one- or two-word notes on any points that are affected by the core concepts (ignoring the last question). This gets your mind exploring the ramifications. Self-discipline is important here because it’s too easy to start writing whole paragraphs or more to discover you have run out of steam – or time – before you get to the end. Try to spend no more than ten minutes on this first pass in total.

A first pass acts as a warm-up exercise for the imagination. Keep notes brief and simple. Once you’ve finished, take a 5-minute break. Next, run through the questions again, looking for secondary impacts – the consequences and ramifications of these brief answers on other aspects of the culture. Again, skip the last question. As you look at each question, glance through the list of answers given so far and ask, “how is this subject affected by the answers already decided?”

For example, if you started with three or four core ideas, and generated a dozen one-word implications, that’s roughly 15 things to think about for each question. With 30 questions to consider (you don’t have to worry about the first), this should take an hour or two.

Step three involves one more pass through the list of questions looking for additional consequences. With luck, you will now have 30-60 ideas and notes to work through. Take a little more time on this final pass. Get all the ideas down that occur to you, but move on after a few seconds if none do. I allow an average of about 10 seconds per item in this step, and that means that it will take close to 4 hours to do the lot.

By the time you have finished, you should find overall culture ideas have started to get into a firm visualization. Summarize, in two to ten sentences, the overall concept in response to the last question.

Take a break. Then, explain and expand on the rest of the one-word answers you’ve written in response to the other questions. That might take a sentence, a paragraph, or even a page or two, though the shorter the better. If you manage 5 questions a day, the whole thing will be done in a week. If you can only do one or two at a time, it will take a month. I would generally try to get this lot done in a day, as keeping the schedule tight means that I don’t have time to get sidetracked into unnecessary detail.

Then comes the final stage – assembling all of this into a useful format. You can either expand on what you have, giving explanations, examples, and the like, or you can take these notes and use them as described in the article on Customizing Common Races, which contains additional thoughts and considerations. For that matter, there is nothing to stop you from retro analyzing the available source material on a common race – boiling the information provided down into single-sentence answers to each of these questions – to get a summary of the existing materials for use in that article.

Above all, have fun, because this is an awful lot of work to do if you don’t.

The Questions

  1. What key concepts describe these people?
  2. What is their genetic legacy and how does it affect them?
  3. For what tasks are they especially suited/unsuited?
  4. How might they use their strengths?
  5. How might they compensate for their shortcomings?
  6. Where do they live? What is their primary habitat?
  7. What are their homes like? How does the habitat affect their dwellings and lifestyle?
  8. What is their level of civil construction and what are its characteristics?
  9. What is daily life like?
  10. What do they eat and drink? How do they react to other foodstuffs?
  11. How do they express themselves artistically? What are their styles of music, sculpture, poetry, painting, plays?
  12. Do they farm? If so, what? For what purposes? How is food distributed?
  13. What does a farm look like? How is a farm organized?
  14. How do farms operate? What farming techniques do they use?
  15. What are their primary enemies, natural and cultural?
  16. How do they defend against them?
  17. What is their culture? Their government? Their politics? Their economy?
  18. What is their history? What’s the real story, and what is misunderstood or misremembered?
  19. Who are their allies?
  20. What are their dreams, goals, myths, legends?
  21. What is their religion?
  22. How does it affect their daily lives?
  23. What crafts have they mastered? What special abilities or knowledge do they have? How do these impact their lives?
  24. What is the criminal code and how are crimes punished?
  25. How do they travel? Do they trade? With whom? For what? Are they good or bad at it?
  26. Do they use magic? What is their attitude to magic?
  27. Do they use advanced technology? What is their attitude to science?
  28. How do they react to outsiders?
  29. What weaponry do they use?
  30. What are their personality archetypes? What are their cultural blind spots? What are the unspoken absolute beliefs that give society its foundation?
  31. 31. How can you sum up these people into a first impression?

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Knights of The King’s Loyal Brigade

From Michael J. Schmidt

(This is an entry from a game worlds contest held in Roleplaying Tips Weekly, long, long ago.)

The King’s Loyal Brigade is an elite troop of soldiers whose sworn duty is to defend the King (and the royal family) at all costs. Knights of the KLB are assigned as bodyguards inside and outside the kingdom. They are also responsible for arranging palace security, and for security whenever the royal family is visiting a city or town.

The KLB also acts as the highest policing authority in the realm and have powers of arrest. In times of peace, they keep watch over citizens (and make sure there is no unrest brewing), and in times of war they ride into battle with the King. The KLB are also sometimes sent to regions in the kingdom that require help and whose own militias are incapable of handling a situation.

Members of the KLB are selected from the ranks of the armed forces who have come to the attention of their commanding officers, or are regular citizens who have been noticed by the KLB and drafted for their exceptional abilities.

Every KLB member receives a knighthood and the noble title of Sir or Dame. They are expected to follow a strict code of honor, much like a paladin. Sometimes, they are required to rule over a small area of land in a region as directed by the King, and sometimes upon retirement a knight of the KLB is granted permanent lands and an increase in noble title.

A knight of the King’s Loyal Brigade is usually garbed in full plate armor of shining steel decorated with gold trim and the brigade’s coat of arms. Each is trained to use a bastard sword one handed so they can use a shining shield on the other arm. Knights who have been assigned as bodyguards usually dress in clothes similar to other members of the noble court to blend in, but fully armored knights are never far away.

Knights of the King’s Loyal Brigade are devoted to the royal family, and would give their lives in an instant in defense of the realm. Their work is demanding, with no room for error, so the requirements to become a member are rigid and high.

Roleplaying Idea:

One or more of the PCs are drafted into the King’s Loyal Brigade and sent to restore order in a lawless border town as a test of their abilities. When they arrive, however, things aren’t as they seem. Their superiors believe the lawlessness might be self-defense against the machinations of a merchant attempting to control all trade to the neighboring country. Can the PCs restore order, provide justice for the town, and stop the merchant without falling foul of the King, their superiors, and the code of conduct?

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People for Ethical Treatment Of Monsters

From Jay P Hailey

(This is an entry from a game worlds contest held in Roleplaying Tips Weekly, long, long ago.)

Group Name: People For Ethical Treatment of Monsters. Pronounced Pet-’em by members. Pronounced You stupid *&^%&$$!! by Bureau 13/Department 7/Delta Green/Initiative Agents/various encountered Scoobies

Number of Members: Fluctuates. Drops rapidly until there is a supernatural encounter near a major university, or in Berkeley CA.

Nature of Members: Fluffy headed people who feel that monsters are an ecological response to the depredations of humanity, and a natural control for humanity’s over- population. Sentimental people who feel that, just because a creature wants to suck out your insides and wear your skin for a disguise, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings, too.

Organization: Loose cells, organized by local enthusiasts, often quickly exterminated.

Game Role: To make your players spit things all over the table, to make ruthless fun of “people for the ethical treatment of animals,” or other people who see humanity as a blight and wear Birkenstocks.

World Role: McVictims.

Relative Influence: Slight, although they can get into delicate situations and make them worse/stupider/weirder.

Public or Secret? Public until members of B13/The Initiative/Delta Green/Department Seven/various Scoobies get a hold of them.

Publicly Stated Goal: To ensure that vampires, werewolves, demons, face-huggers, brain-eaters, bone suckers, and everything else nasty and brutal is treated fairly by society and gets its day in court.

Relative Wealth: Not much. Often, members eschew materialism and capitalism.

Group Advantages: Earnest belief in silly things.

Contacts: Very often a cell of this organization will crop up after a potential member (probably already a PETA supporter) encounters the supernatural. In this case, he may already be in proximity to agents of B13/The Initiative/Delta Green/Department Seven/various Scoobies.

Special Abilities: Members of this group can rationalize the most fatuous, slap happy, and self-destructive ideas, and act on them sincerely.

Group Disadvantages: McVictims!

Special Disadvantages: They tend to pursue monsters that see them as food to try and explain their cause. Many monsters take this as a request to be eaten.

Who Belongs: People who believe humanity is too numerous, arrogant, and inherently destructive, and that horrifying creatures provide a valid ecological balancing mechanism.

Who Doesn’t Belong: People who value human life.

Those Who Favor Them: Monsters (incredulous, but supportive), PETA.

Public Face: Clueless hippies and ultra-liberals somewhere past the bounds of sanity.

History of the Group: First started in 1983, when members of a PETA organization were attacked by a vampire and then saved. Realizing the implications, the original members of the organization researched monsters and such, and soon formed Pet – ‘Em. Not long afterwards, they were all eaten by vampires.

Apparently, despite all efforts, their notes and writings keep turning up. (Agents suspect that vampires with nasty senses of humor preserve them and reintroduce them to vulnerable groups.)

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Tracking Consumable Items

From Loz Newman

Getting confused about consumable magic item use, duration, and effect? Players succumbing to temptation and forgetting to scratch items off equipment lists?

One of my players recently came up with a neat idea to squash the temptation and simplify equipment use. Every time a player gets a consumable magic item (potion, scroll, etc.) the DM hands out a small square of paper with the item’s name and details on (dice to roll, duration, etc.). To use it, the player hands it to the DM, who rolls effect dice and bins the chit.

This ensures the DM is fully aware of the item’s use, and makes sure items are removed from equipment lists and adjudicated fairly.

We also use pre-printed A6 ‘note’ sheets for in-game tracking of:

  • Hit points
  • Willpower points
  • Lost missiles used
  • Luck re-rolls used
  • Karma points spent

Here’s an example Excel file I print out for tracking purposes. I often print/photocopy this sort of stuff on the back of scrap paper just to keep the recycling conscience gremlins and paper costs down to a muffled roar.


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My Rolemaster Game

From John Scanlon

Hi Johnn! I started GMing about a year ago when I was trying to get a group together, and everybody else had less (often no) experience even playing. So, I became the de facto GM. As I had problems getting started (your newsletter has definitely helped with those!), I thought I would write in my own experiences in case anyone else is in a similar boat.

Starting a Group

I played a fair amount in university and after with the same group of people, but when I wanted to get back into it, none of them wanted or had the time to play. However, I got some advice on how to start a campaign and run it successfully from the two great GMs I had. (Oh yeah, if anyone from FOW is here, read no further! Spoilers are ahead!) I wanted to play, and didn’t know who to play with. Few of my friends wanted to commit to a weekly game without knowing more about it, so I decided to set up the campaign in a way that people could try it out if they wanted, but so that they didn’t have to be there every week.

One of the ways I did this by giving them a fair amount of leeway in their characters. The only real guideline I made was they all had to be devout members of the Church of Justice and Righteous Anger. So, basically, they’re a set of papal assassins. This way, as I explained it to them, they would have the same character week after week, and would get all the benefits of playing their character through different levels, but if they couldn’t play for a week or two, I would just design the next mission to ensure their character’s attributes weren’t needed as much.

With this in effect, people were more willing to sign on. I got a group of six people who were willing to play fairly regularly, along with a few others who wanted to fill in occasionally. The players were under the belief that they were just going to play a series of totally unrelated missions.

The system I chose was Rolemaster. Although it is fairly complex (meaning number-intensive), I quite like the realism of it. Rolemaster has three kinds of magic:

  • Channeling, which comes through the gods
  • Essence, which inhabits all of nature
  • Mentalism

I told my PCs they were not allowed to use either Essence or Mentalism as I was trying to make it easier on me as a novice GM. However, the real reason was that I had an over- riding story they weren’t privy to: Essence was coming back into the world, and being religious followers, the PCs would be against it.

The Original Setup

With Rolemaster, character development can take a long time, and I wanted to make sure that my players went through the whole process of developing actual characters, as opposed to shallow versions. Each person spent about eight hours on just developing their first level characters. On the first night of playing, I had everyone bring two copies of their character, supposedly so that we could each have a copy.

The way I set it up was that two days a year (the equinoxes) people could enter the Church from wherever they were in the land. With a Church of this nature, there are many different roles to fulfill, such as guards, priests, servants, lictors (law-givers), and the justicars (law-enforcers). Rumours also claim a secret society, the Fist of Wrath, also exists, whose members are papal assassins sent out on missions to deal with evils so heinous the average person shouldn’t know of them. However, such rumours are usually mocked, and those who do speak of it are soon found in less than perfect health.

On these two holy days, after a night of purification, all of the supplicants throughout the land gather at their nearest Church, where they await their turn to be called forth. When called, they answer a few questions and then step forward into the Eternal Flame. If they are of pure heart and worthy of serving Theon, they are unharmed and the fire blazes around them in the colour of the different roles (red for priests, white for Lictors, black for justicars, blue for servants, and green for guards), which decides their calling. However, if they are unworthy of the honour of serving Theon, then the flames swirl around them and they die a painful, horrible death.

After spending hours on creating characters (often for the first time, as some had never played a roleplaying game), the players sent their characters to local temples (they were all scattered across the country, so none of them knew each other). I took each player aside and went through the ceremony. I then rolled the dice for effect, but hid the results (which were meaningless anyway). I acted shocked, upset, and unsure what to do.

I said, “You can see the flames around you – a bit of blue to your left, some black straight ahead, some green swirling into white to the right, and you start to feel the pain, which gets worse and worse. You scream as you feel the flesh melt off your bones until everything goes mercifully black!” I ripped up their character sheet about six times in front of them, gave a half-apologetic shrug, and asked them not to say anything to the others as I took each aside.

Each player was convinced they had spent all that time creating a character, only to have him killed before anything happened. Naturally, the characters woke up in a temple far from where they had started, and were told that they were going to be members of the Fist of Wrath. Their characters had to die to the world at large, as they had to leave their old life behind to properly serve Theon.

Anyway, aside from making a great story for all of us, this start focused everyone’s attention on the game, and made them even closer to their characters.

Overall Game Plan

As previously mentioned, I had secretly come up with the overall game plan for the campaign at large, although they were all convinced it was a bunch of individual missions that were totally unconnected to each other (although I did give some secrets to different members at different times).

For Essence to properly return, six pieces of a statue had to be put back together. The six pieces represented fire, earth, water, spirit, air, and organic. Their missions, interspersed with Dukes of Hazzard episodes (those that are brainless and fairly formulaic, but fun) involved gathering these pieces and bringing them back to the temple where one of the members is secretly trying to overthrow the power the gods have over the world.

We’re now just over halfway through the campaign, and the PCs are only starting to realize that it is actually a connected story. (About three episodes ago, I was both insulted and secretly pleased at the same time. The players were starting to piece things together. They questioned the idea that everything was unconnected, and started putting together a few of the randomly scattered bits of information that had been put out there, and one of them said something like, “It can’t be all that connected! John isn’t that smart!” Needless to say, revenge is a dish best served cold…)

Why It Worked

The players really enjoy it, I have a bit of a lineup of people wanting to play now, and I’m the one that gets in trouble when I can’t play as regularly as the players want. I have a bunch of people who were originally hesitant to play that now want to, and I credit all this to a few things:

  1. Setting it up so that players felt able to play around their schedules.
  2. Setting it up with a well-thought out backstory, but not letting them know there was one.
  3. Getting them invested in their characters right off the bat, in a dramatic, unforgettable, and unorthodox manner.

Oh yeah! If anyone did read this who shouldn’t have (meaning my players), let me know, as I already know how I can work it into the story!

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Online Dice Roller

From Jason

I am a long time reader of your newsletter and I just read a recent issue about PBEM and PBP. I’ve recently stumbled upon a valuable resource for online roleplaying:


It’s a dice roller that saves your results in a database so you can still use dice rolls when playing long distance games. It rolls any kind of dice you could possibly want, and it allows you to make sure all rolls are correct and legal. Thanks, and much continued success to Roleplayingtips.com!

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Another Online Dice Roller

From Alexander Ljungberg

I wrote a nice little dice roller for use when I roleplay with friends without any dice around, which for some reason has been happening a lot lately. Maybe you’ll find it useful too.


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Party Name Ideas

re: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=295

From Jeff Wilder

In the Forgotten Realms, while investigating an orc-mind flayer slavery ring, we stumbled upon an isolated valley and ended up battling a Tyrannosaurus Rex…at 4th-level!

Despite two of our number being swallowed, we (barely) emerged victorious. My dwarven cleric and crafter suggested the ranger get what hide he could from the beast. At the next village, my dwarf crafted masterwork boots out of T-Rex hide for the six of us, and suggested we call ourselves the Scaled Company.

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From Mike Bourke

Auralla’s Chorus (many voices in common purpose)

The Silver Palms (mercenary attitudes)

Tajik’s Misfits (characters from society’s fringes, drawn together to protect the society that marginalized them)

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From Edge

The Strangers

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From FredEberron

We are playing an over-the-top Eberron game. To serve this purpose and to make sure I was free in sending the characters wherever I wanted, I had a relic seeker called The Boss hire them. The Boss is eccentric, so it was easy to give the party a cheesy name.

Before giving away the name, I must say that I’m a big GI Joe fan, and that I wanted the game to reflect the kind of actions and plots \we saw in GI Joe, especially the comics by Devil’s Due. Over-the-top action, a bit of spying, strong villains, deceptive allies; that’s what I wanted for this game.

Inspired by the new GI Joe animated series (Sigma 6), I named the team Stygma-6. At that time we had six players, so the 6 fitted well with the name and the Stygma is cheesy enough for my taste (and I can always tie it to a plot later on). It took a few games for the name to be accepted, but using it in e-mails and during the game, it became natural.

Now, the team even has a cool 3D logo, and one of the players, a warforged fighter called BruteEnFer (IronBrute), was even renamed Adam Stygma to be able to add a new player to the game while keeping the 6. So the team’s name is now Adam Stygma’s Six and almost has the Ocean’s 11 feeling….

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From Arthur

The name that stands out most in my mind was a party set in Ravens Bluff (Forgotten Realms). The opening module assembled the PCs and a room full of NPCs to sign up for night patrol in the city. All of the characters and NPCs were down on their luck and in need of coin. The module called for all in attendance to draw a colored disc from a bag. All of those who drew the same color were one team. All of the PCs drew blue discs. This is a heck of an improvement over the “you all meet in a tavern” start. After a couple of adventures, they started referring to themselves as Group Azure. The name stuck for the rest of the campaign.