5 Ways to Create Cultures — RPT#468
From: Hannah Lipsky
A question I get a lot is, “How do you come up with this stuff?”
Many GMs want to create unique and fun cultures that affect the game in ways beyond just color. Many players just want to sell their loot in a shop, get drunk in the bar, and head back out to the dungeon, without reading ten pages of backstory on each location.
How do you create a compelling culture that makes a difference in the game, without spending ages crafting something intricate that’s sure to be ignored? I asked myself that question a lot while working on Martial Flavor.
Here are the answers that I found. They aren’t the only answers out there by far, but they worked for me and they can work for you.
1. Twist a Gaming Trope
I ride horses, and I’ve found having semi-realistic horses in a game is a lot of fun. But I’ve never been a huge fan of the “knight in shining armor” archetype when it applies to RPGs. So what I wanted was a culture that revolves around horses, but isn’t a bunch of nobles or paladins.
I took that standard trope and reversed it to come up with the Elessim. They’re a bunch of semi-nomadic savages with little education or money, a loose moral code, and really nothing like what most people would consider to be civilization.
Then I took that base and tried to see where I could go with it. They don’t have a system of writing, but every culture has some way of passing down information, and usually some kind of art. So the Elessim use a complicated system of knots to record and pass on knowledge. Since horse tack includes a lot of knot-able parts, it’s perfect.
Now, how to make the culture relevant to the game? Since the Elessim are semi-nomadic and raid a lot, I created some feats and powers that were all about being maneuverable on horses. It’s a different style of mounted combat than plate-wearing knights, and something I hope will be a lot of fun in-game.
Everything else flowed from those decisions. The simple statement, “Most mounted warriors in games are heavily armored knights and that annoys me” led to a rich, game- impacting culture.
2. Twist a Mythical Trope
As the previous example suggests, I like reversing things. I’ve found most myths and fiction involving gypsies explain that they are nomadic because they made a bad decision. Somewhere in their past they did something wrong, and now they are cursed to wander forever.
My first thought was to have an entire setting where the opposite held true: all the peoples of the world were bound to one place, except for one, which was blessed to roam free. It wasn’t enough for a setting, but it was plenty for a culture.
Whether it’s true or not, the Sijara believe that they alone are free to roam the world at will. Outsiders who travel often encounter misfortune, and the Sijara point to this as signs of their curse. Unfortunately, the same wise choice that led to the Sijara escaping that curse also rendered them unable to claim a craft of their own, and so they became the swindlers and thieves that gypsies are often portrayed as.
There’s an unending supply of mythical tropes just begging to be reversed. What about the belief that humans are fundamentally flawed, which is present in more myths than just the Garden of Eden? What if a culture believed that humans were created to solve some problem, to do something that only they can do?
3. Combine Cultures
There’s a lot of cool stuff out there in the real world. Most of it is pretty recognizable, and a lot of it has already been done. How to make it new and fresh? Take a couple of cool cultures, and combine them.
Take a well-known fantasy staple and combine it with a more obscure Earth culture. For example, my city of Arytis is a combination of Rome, the Eternal City we all know and love, and Gortyn, an ancient Greek town that only the most dedicated classicists have heard of.
While some aspects of Rome show through clearly – the legions and the complicated politics, for example – many of the details are drawn from Gortyn. The stages of citizenship with their own requirements and legal codes are a cool cultural aspect of Gortyn that work well when blended with the more recognizable Roman tropes.
Those two cities aren’t very far apart in time, but what if you took cities that were? Ancient Babylon and modern-day Chicago, or near-future Tokyo and medieval London would make interesting combinations.
4. Grow from an Idea
It’s all well and good if you have a trope or a culture you want to build from, but what if your starting idea is something different? You can still take that seed and grow it out into a full culture, it just takes a little more work on your part filling in the details.
When I came up with the Ikanoi, all I had to start with was the notion that I wanted a culture where tattoos held spiritual importance. This immediately brought to mind two big questions: Why are the tattoos important, and does the culture display or hide the tattoos?
I decided the tattoos were important because they told the story of the history of the Ikanoi as a tribe, and also the history of the individual Ikanos who wears them. Each member of the tribe dreams of adding to this collective history, having their own story inked onto the skins of their descendants.
But do the Ikanoi show these markings off, or hide them away like a sacred relic? The Ikanoi hide them at all times, which brought two climates to mind: the desert and the arctic. Both places require people who live there to cover up. I went with the arctic.
The rest of the culture grew from the foundation of tattooed, arctic-dwelling ancestor-worshipers.
Take an idea, find a couple of ideas that it leads to, and the rest will come.
5. Fill A Gap
Sometimes it’s not enough to sit around and dream up a culture. Sometimes, there’s a blank space on the map you need to fill, a menace you need to build, or a backdrop you need to paint.
Instead of starting with an idea, you’re starting with a big empty space with sharply defined edges where it’s supposed to fit in with the rest of the puzzle.
I say, let those edges be the inspiration. It’s similar to growing from an idea, but instead, you’re growing from a restriction.
When I was working on Martial Flavor, I had four cultures done, and I needed another one that had rangers and warlords. What group could possibly be composed of rangers and warlords?
Well, what do rangers and warlords do? Rangers are a little bit stealthy and a little bit nature-y and deal a lot of damage. Warlords lead people, but they can also do some damage themselves, and they can heal. What sort of group needs both of those traits? A group of mercenaries.
That’s how I came up with the Daikort Pack. I figured a group with a lot of rangers would probably specialize in hostile terrain, so now the Daikort have some elemental abilities. Continuing on with that led to the pack-animal theme, and everything else grew from there.
Whatever’s missing in your world, you can fill it in by asking, “What could possibly go here, and why would it be that way?”
Want more characters from cool cultures, and all the information you need to make your own? Check out Martial Flavor: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/martial
A Brief Word from Johnn
Congrats to Hannah On Her First Product
Roleplaying Tips Editor Hannah Lipsky published Martial Flavor today, a D&D 4E compatible supplement that features five martial cultures you can drag and drop into your campaign.
I read the book and it oozes with flavour and roleplaying hooks. Even though it’s 4E, I’m scooping a couple of the cultures for my upcoming Pathfinder campaign.
Congrats Hannah! You did an awesome job.
Readers, this week’s feature article is written by Hannah. It should give you a hint of the great stuff inside Martial Flavor.
New RPG System – Free to Download
Past RPT contributor Scott Compton has published a new roleplaying game called 100% Fantasy. He writes:
“…At minimum, it makes a great resource book, gives new ideas and has a comprehensive compendium of fantasy-elements for anyone that desires additional ideas and design concepts.”
Gamer Lifestyle Coaching Program Re-Opens Soon
Yax and I are putting the final touches to an exclusive one- time partnership with Men with Pens. We will open the doors to our RPG publishing coaching program to their readers for a short time this week.
The coaching program shows you how to live your ideal lifestyle and earn a reliable income from RPGs. Maybe not full time, but definitely something you can rely on.
Visit Men with Pens later this week for more news: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/menwithpens
If you haven’t read our 70+ page free report on creating a reliable income from RPG work, you can download it here: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/gl
Reader Tip Request
Large Scale Sci-Fi Battles
Just wondering if you have any tips on large-scale battles where the PCs can influence the outcome. My entire campaign has been to get to the point where my players can be part of a battle that they could possibly do different things where the outcome is not pre-scripted. It’s theirs to win or lose.
I GM a Star Wars Saga game, so it’s likely to contain big starships and Starfighters, as well as ground forces with blasters and Jedi. What’s the best way I can manage this without going insane? Splitting the party is bad enough.
If you have any advice for Melissa, email me at [email protected]
Game Master Tips & Tricks
1. Realism Tips
Hello Johnn! Long time reader here.
Dungeon Master Video Game
When making proper ecologies in dungeons, I recommend every GM plays a game of Dungeon Master video game from Bullfrog. The DM learns that he has to keep food, leisure and payment in steady supply, unless he likes his guards rioting.
Another option is How to Host a Dungeon, a solitaire pen and paper toy that simulates the creation of a dungeon.
It takes you from primordial activities, through some civilization digging first tunnels, to monsters entering and humans coming and building a castle above them. It finishes with a resourceful individual becoming the Dungeon Master – the Big Bad enslaving the monsters and trying his luck with world domination, all with varying degrees of success.
How to Host a Dungeon?
How to Host a Dungeon creates a vague blueprint for the whole dungeon, leaving DMs with some knowledge of how the rest of the underground system works, even if he doesn’t make individual floor plans for everything straight away.
The game is rather ingenious in having the inhabitants conflict with each other and create a rich, plausible history for the dungeon. Battles are remembered, Delvers still have a grudge against the Ants for stealing their holy relic, elders remember jokes about the weak dragon that came to the dungeon but couldn’t bully anyone into paying tribute, so he ran away….
The mechanics are simple once you get through one game. It only uses paper, 2d6 and two-colored markers. It’s short and sweet, just the way it should be. It being solitaire anyway, no one minds if you improvise where stuff gets bogged down, although sticking to the rules can create cruelly realistic stories.
For example, my dungeon started out rich with diamonds, an average gold vein, some fate caverns.
Dwarves came, mined all the gold, didn’t detect any diamonds nor did they strike fate caverns, so they left. Monsters came, a swarm of words to the left, earth devils in the middle, and a single minotaur to the right.
Humans established a castle on top of it all, but it takes them a long while till they join the fun.
Many memorable conflicts were had. The dragon came, failed miserably for 3 times and left, the earth devils whom I secretly rooted for slew the minotaur in an ambush.
The swarm divided into two hives, improving their looting odds but significantly weakening their defensive power. The first swarm made a ceremonial grave for their queen…lots of history, many opportunities. The game suggests keeping a history record, it’s worth it.
Often monsters modify the existing tunnels to accommodate loot and population, creating even more dungeoneering opportunities. With a bit of creativity, everything gets its own flavor.
The abandoned yet preserved dwarven barracks is probably professionally carved and terribly dusty by now, and I imagine the earth devils as being particularly fond of smooth, round corridors, something adventurers don’t see nearly as often as they should.
The game doesn’t give you a perfect dungeon as in 100% complete. You still have to add some fluff, personality to the inhabitants and historical events.
One-or two-word descriptions are usually good creativity boosters: “smug nobles”, leading human expeditions into the deeps; “detail-freak” earth devils, demanding everything be as smooth as possible; “clumsy hivemind” leading the surviving ants.
What I’m saying is, learn to make reasonable dungeons. Think of dungeon making as a computer game, with limited resources and lax rules. It will give detail-freaks like me more peace of mind.
Personal, finishing note: Do not resort to “it works because it’s magic” for anything. (Not even magic.)
2. GMing Tips For Dark Heresy
From: John WS Marvin
I’ve been GMing Dark Heresy for over a year, starting with beginning characters, and the campaign and game system have been very successful.
You start with low scores, forcing players to find creative ways to improve their odds. In combat, they ambush, fire from close range, use automatic fire and gang up in melee. During investigation they role play, find the right piece of high tech, and assist each other. All of these things add hefty bonuses.
Take Silent Move. A starting player may indeed have a 30%, and an easy (stone floor) gives only a +30%. But the tech device known as a Stummer gives another +30. So you’re at 90%. And you haven’t even improved your character yet.
Players looking for higher level challenges might find Rogue Trader more to their liking. It is a compatible game that starts out with skills in the 30s and 40s. Players will still need to figure out how to improve their odds, so that might still be too low for some.
Here’s my review of Rogue Trader: Game Book Review: Rogue Trader RPG: Core Rulebook
I love Here are a few tips Dark Heresy I’ve come up with that help me GM this game.
1) Grim and Gothic.
The most important aspect of GMing Dark
Heresy is to get the atmosphere down.
Some of your players may have read every 40k supplement and book ever published. You don’t have to. But you do have to evoke the 40k background, which is a great draw for your players.
Over the top grim and gothic is what you want. Play it straight and your players will laugh anyway. Mine do, the sickos. It’s a miserable world, the people suffer, and the only things worse than the Empire are the enemies of the Empire. Look at the critical hit tables and read the descriptions to get yourself in the mood.
The man didn’t get hit by the gun. He is torn apart by the heavy stubber, splattering bits of bone and gristle over everyone nearby and polluting the already foul air with the stink of perforated bowels.
The woman didn’t eat lunch. She shivered as she choked down cold, congealing grey gruel, stopping only to cough and whisper obscenities from time to time.
The rich and powerful may bathe more often, but depths of depravity they sink into can put the under-hivers to shame.
The nobleman didn’t mistreat his servants. The nobleman’s manual laborers had it easy; they were outfitted with explosive collars and got to spend most of their time out of his sight. The house help, however, reflected the nobleman’s passion for silence. They no longer had vocal cords, tongues, or mouths. Just a flat piece of skin below their nose. They ate via a tube on the side of their neck.
And yet there is great heroism as well, often tragic. The guardsman didn’t die helping the acolytes. His broken body lies amid scores of slain mutants and spent shell casings. He looks up at the acolytes, and coughs up blood. “Did I do right?” he pleads. “Did I slow them down enough to please the Emperor?” He looks up at the acolytes hoping for a final blessing.
When things aren’t grotesque, point that out. It’s the new weird. The Empire is vast, and there are some worlds that are not dying, some people who love and help each other, and some lives that are worth living. While most adventures will focus on the bad places and people, allow your acolytes to see who and what they are fighting for from time to time.
2) Skills and Talents.
Note your player characters’s skills and talents. Their choices tell you what kind of game they are looking for. If they choose Forbidden Lore (The Warp) bring that into the game from time to time.
Look at the level of their skills. If they are trying to use a skill, ask them how. With new players, help them with getting modifiers to increase their chances. Let them assist each other.
If the players have access to the core book, tell them where to look for modifiers. If not, type up a cheat sheet with at least the combat modifiers.
Let them know about equipment that can improve their chances. The players start out with skills in the 30s (out of 100), so they need to work on getting modifiers. That is by design. The players shouldn’t just roll dice to succeed, but they should describe how to do a task in a way that maximizes their chances.
In combat make sure they know about range modifiers and how to aim. Remember that semi-automatic and automatic fire get bonuses to hit and can hit multiple times.
Almost all ranged combat will be in close range when they are inside a building or starship. Point blank happens. In melee point out whenever people have bonuses for outnumbering opponents.
It’s OK to ask a player you’ve just hit if they want to Dodge.
A good way to teach your players combat skills is to call out as you use the rules against them. “The three mutants covered in orange scales swarm around your character, creating a three on one combat.”
3) Fate Points.
Spending fate points to re-roll or heal is part of the game. I like to hand out fate point markers (glass beads or poker chips work well) at the start of every game. The players put them in the pot as they spend them.
Burning Fate Points to avoid death allows the GM to really go after the players in furious combat. As long as they have fate points to burn, you won’t cause a TPK.
A little meta-gaming for the GM here: if you clobber them hard enough to kill one or more of the players at the start of the session, and they burn a fate point, they are unconscious and out of play for a while.
Having an NPC on hand for the player to play while the rest of the gang tries to win the day for the Emperor helps a lot. If they avoid death by burning a fate point at the end of the session, consider allowing them to wake up soon during the next session. Since it’s a new session, if they have any fate points, they will probably want to use them to heal right away.
Awarding fate points: too many fate points create characters who are hard to challenge. The sample adventure in the core book gave a fate point at the end of the adventure. That’s not a great model unless your players are burning them left and right. Pay attention to how many points your players have, and how it affects the game. Five or more fate points is too much for me. One or zero can make an intense game, but over many sessions it can also be a drag. I like to keep them in the two to three range.
Guilty GM secret: Yes, I do gun for the guy with the most fate points.
You can play with just the core book. The adventure in the back is good for starting players and GMs. The free adventures are free, so look them over.
There are free adventures on the Fantasy Flight web site for Dark Heresy. Click the Support tab.
GM Kit. I always buy the GM shield, but you don’t need to.
The GM kit has a GM screen, an adventure, and some other useful information, such as how to make new creatures and a nice selection of poisons.
Inquisitor’s Handbook. This is a player friendly supplement, and your players will love using the stuff in here. The GM will hate not having an index. It has useful character customizations and equipment plus a powerful career choice: Adepta Sororitas.
If a player chooses one of the Sisters of Battle, be sure she plays as a strict puritan or create some dire consequences.
Purge the Unclean is a set of three adventures. I liked the first two better than the third. I modified the third and enjoyed how that played out: RPG: Scenario Modding on Baron Hopes for Dark Heresy
Disciples of the Dark Gods is one of my favorite supplements for any gaming system. Amazing building blocks for the GM to construct challenging adventures with. Cults, conspiracies, mysteries, heresies, and more. Drips with “Over the Top Grim and Gothic.” Has a nice higher level adventure that showcases the cults and creatures found in the book. My free adventure “Scrivner’s Star” references Disciples of the Dark Gods, so you’ll need a copy to run that adventure.
Creatures Anathema is a creature’s book, full of xenos and chaos badness. It’s not just a monster stat book, there is plenty of flavor text to help you use and describe the creatures. It also introduces the use of Mooks (minions in 4E speak) to Dark Heresy. I use the “2 hit point Mook” extensively. It’s a mook you have to hit twice, unless the first hit was a big one.
Tattered Fates is a high level adventure with plenty of room for GM customization. It references some of the same themes that the adventure at the back of Disciples of the Dark Gods does, and could be played just before or just after that one. Tattered Fates is the first part of a planned trilogy, but the other two adventures aren’t out yet.
The Radical’s Handbook is about members of the inquisition using forbidden and heretical knowledge and tactics to fight the Emperor’s enemies. It is still at the printers, but the previews look good. It might be useful to have at the start of a campaign, especially if your players want to work for a radical inquisitor.
3. Introducing One’s Family to RPGs
I realize the loop may be closed on the topic, but I just wanted to chime in and say that I disagree with Dragon Dave’s advice. D&D is one of the worst games to introduce new gamers to because of how everything is numerically represented. Without learning what the numbers mean, it all looks like jibberish, and if you have to completely explain a system to someone for them to play it, you’ll lose them. You have to be able to show, not tell.
Hell, it would take 10 minutes to explain to my mom what all the D&D dice are for, and lots of time lost every time a roll was needed due to having to remind her.
Indie or small-press games are generally easier for new gamers than established, “800 lb gorilla” RPGs simply because there tends to be less emphasis on expressing everything with a number, or if they do, there are far fewer numbers.
Angela’s suggestion of Dread is fantastic, and it’s a great game to start people off on. Another good one is Dogs in the Vineyard, especially for Western movie enthusiasts (like my dad).
Dogs in the Vineyard allows almost everything to be expressed in phrases with minimum quantifiers. Number of dice and dice sizes represent how good something is. It doesn’t take a genius (or veteran gamer) to recognize that “I’m a good shot, 2d6” is better than “I’m a good shot, 1d4.” The entire premise is moral decision making, and the conflict resolution system is very much like playing poker, simplified.
Both Dread and Dogs in the Vineyard easily support one-off games.
As soon as something looks like more work than fun, parents will usually turn off and stop engaging the system. They want to spend what leisure time they have doing something they enjoy and not learning a new complex system. For that reason, I would keep D&D and similar systems out of the picture entirely.
4. Be Enthusiastic
From: Kev Dash
I wanted to make a quick comment in addition to those made by Glenn in the “More Advice For Game Masters” section of issue #466. Specifically:
“You, the GM, have a product (adventure, dungeon, etc.). You have to sell it. You have to get the party interested in the story or adventure.
You have to hook ’em and reel ’em in. It’s easier said than done.”
There is another tool at a DM’s disposal – enthusiasm.
In character – If there are NPCs who are enthusiastic about the (continuing the example) Caves of Chaos, the PCs will pick up on that.
Breathing life and enthusiasm into NPCs is easy and it is infectious! The PCs will be much more interested in the Caves of Chaos if the old man that tells them about the caves nearly falls over when describing “Treasure as far as the eye can see!” Or if the barmaid bursts into vengeful tears, shaking her fist, when telling how “The caves took m’husband! I can’t stand the thought of those vile things w’their slimy paws all over his dead body!”
If the NPCs are moved by the Caves of Chaos, then the PCs will be too – don’t be afraid of hamming it up a bit, it’ll only serve as a reminder to the PCs when they’re down in the Caves getting their asses handed to them – “Stupid barmaid! Slimy paws my ass – that thing had claws dripping poison!”
Out of character – As a DM you need to show enthusiasm in the physical world, too. Sit up straight, raise or lower your voice (as appropriate) and use the players’ senses. If the old man is a little creepy, get up from behind the screen and invade one of your player’s personal space.
Don’t *read* the flavor text you’ve prepared as the heroes approach the caves – *paint* it! Practice reading it out loud, gesture with your hands and use the tone of your voice. Show some enthusiasm and your players will pick up on it and get more excited themselves.
5. Another Book Recommendation
From: Nate Lee
Loved Gillian’s list! My 2 cents – Leo Frankowski’s “Conrad Stargard” series. It is SF rather than fantasy, but Leo’s portrayal of (accurate) day-to-day in 12th century Poland (at least for the first couple of books; you’ll see why not so much later, but I doubt you’ll stop reading!) is useful and eye-opening.
Also, John Bellairs (an author that started as an adult fantasy author (“The Face In the Frost”, excellent), and then due to bad editorial advice went solely into children’s (pre-teen/young teen) work. But all good stuff anyway.
6. Long Term Campaign Tips
re: The secret to a long campaign: Ask The GMs: In it for the long haul
I run almost exclusively games of this nature and length.
Here are a few tips to help long campaigns last.
1) Choke points for personal power.
I created a keypoint system where characters could only advance in 5 level increments until they achieved certain levels of heroics.
For example, you can’t top level 10 till you save the world, level 15 until you change the fate of gods, demonprinces or whole planes, etc.
This allows more lingering at different play levels (being a king at level 5 vs. level 20 is a big playstyle change; at level 20 your kingdom only slows you down).
2) Slow Down.
You don’t need to adventure constantly. Have turns pass as seasons. What are you doing during the winter? Earning some more trade income? Getting married? Building a tower?
Military campaigns can take years or decades to complete. Slow the pace to a realistic level. People don’t constantly jump from adventure to adventure and never slow down to rest.
From: Loz Newman
Hidden truths are the secret to a long campaign.
A Champions superhero campaign of mine lasted ten years. PCs came and went, sometimes killed off, but mostly because the players adopted a multiple PCs per player approach that allowed them to spread out the XP (i.e. slow levelling-up) and vary the gaming experience. Changing characters as a new concept appealed, leaving ready-made characters available for new players.
N.B. There where only three levels of power available to players: Starter hero, Veteran and Powerful, with *hard* initiation solo scenarios required to pass to the next level after approximately 15, 30 and 50 scenarios respectively. (After those levels came Demi-God, God and Pantheon head – NOT available to players.)
Criminal organizations were a must (allowing individual villains to be defeated yet have some support/help). Hidden truths about the sources of powers in the game (and NPC motivations, and PC families, organization founders and true objectives) became the basis for sub-campaigns and mega plots.
Each organization had its own projects, and if the players let them advance too far then the projects came to fruition and became that much harder to stop/undo.
Also, I sometimes challenged assumptions and changed supposedly stable elements.
For example, during a fight defending their U.N. Manor, the team strongman rolled a critical on his ground-shockwave attack, pulverizing the enemies and the manor!
Unknown to them, the organization chief was a power-hungry manipulator already unhappy with their success. Two sub-campaigns later the players were shocked to find themselves to be outlaws running for their lives from the NEW U.N.-sponsored super-teams (plural!) and the full ponderous might of the U.N. propaganda/legal machine.
Their support system turned against them, their backup super-gadgets (and ammo) confiscated, their families in prison….