Challenge And Response: Designing Cultures For Your Game World Using Toynbee’s Principles

From Dariel Quiogue

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0142

A Brief Word From Johnn

I’m pleased to publish another though-provoking article from Dariel Quiogue this week. It describes a simple, two-step process for creating realistic societies and cultures. I hope you find it useful.

I also feel you’ll find Reader’s Tip #3: Roleplaying Economics, from Runester a very interesting read. Thanks for the great tips Runester.

Have a game-full week!

Johnn Four
[email protected]

Challenge And Response: Designing Cultures For Your Game World Using Toynbee’s Principles

The modern historian Arnold Toynbee is best known for his theory of “challenge and response,” which sees cultures and civilizations as dynamic things that evolve to meet the “challenges” presented to them. Toynbee says everything about a culture is either a response to some kind of present challenge or the remnants of a response to a past challenge.

It’s all about problems and the different solutions taken to meet them. This principle can be of great use to one designing their own setting for a roleplaying game by giving a framework on which to design cultures and their various aspects.


A culture is a “communal way of living.” It encompasses:

  • Economy ? how people feed and clothe themselves.
  • Religion ? what people worship, which in itself is a
  • reflection of the people’s greatest concerns.
  • Technology.
  • Law and Government.

Culture also refers to groups that practice that culture. For example, to say the word “Celtic” refers to both the Celts and to the Celtic way of living and believing.

The first step in designing a culture is to come up with a seed idea. Defining the culture’s role in your game world is a good start. For example, the Barracoan tribes in my Twilight Age setting are corsairs.

Defining where a culture lives is another great starting point. For example, the Heorothrim, from the same setting as above, live in the eternal ice fields of the far north.

Step 1: Challenges

Working out what challenges face the culture is the next step. Just as each of us faces things in life that are difficult, so too do cultures face various challenges.Perhaps the culture is challenged by living in an environment of near-eternal winter and ice, or maybe the culture is challenged by frequent barbarian invasions. What challenges does the culture face? Where do they come from?

  1. Environmental Challenges
    These refer to conditions caused by the constants of terrain and climate. Where do the people live? Must they deal with extremes of heat or cold? Do they face aridity or frequent/seasonal storms and rain? Must they cross vast distances to find food?
  2. Technological Challenges
    These refer to restrictions and possibilities brought about by the technology and material economy. This is often seen in terms of deficiencies or scarcities of materials or possibilities.

For example, what if there were no metals available? Would you trade for them or do without and find alternate materials? How about an undersea civilization who cannot make fire where they live? How could such a civilization make pottery and work metals?


What adversaries does the culture face? Perhaps other people or monsters regularly attack or threaten the people.

The manner in which these adversaries attack will dictate how the people defend themselves. Historically, the main response has been to fight fire with fire. That is, to adapt one’s tactics to be similar to those of the enemy.

For example, those kingdoms that faced horsed nomads tended to develop their own cavalry while those menaced by pirates learned to create and use a navy.

How might a culture that is forced to deal with dragons develop? For example, in the Escaflowne anime, the giant Guymelef robots were originally developed to fight dragons.

Societal Challenges

There is no such thing as a society without friction. Where this friction comes from and how society handles it is very important. Maybe the farmers in your culture are discontent because they’re being forced to pay high taxes while the nobles are exempt. Maybe the society consists of a minority race oppressively ruling a native majority.

Cultures often have some kind of “safety valve” that takes troublemakers or potential troublemakers away from the mainstream, or causes them to cease being troublemakers.

For example, intellectuals have always been a threat to authoritarian regimes. One way to “valve off” intellectuals is to get them to bury themselves in academe or in monasteries where learning is preserved. But what happens when the safety valve fails?

Historical Trauma

Sometimes, a disaster overtakes a culture. Perhaps the river they relied on for irrigation and transport dries up or changes course. Maybe climate change makes raising staple crops impossible. Maybe a foreign invasion succeeds and they find themselves under foreign rule. Such a disaster will not only have a material impact but a psychological and spiritual one as well.

For example, you could see the early history of Christianity as a response to the successive disasters that befell the Hebrews–from the Babylonian captivity to the Seleucid attempts at forced conversion to the Roman occupation of Palestine. These disasters primed the Hebrews for a messianic leader.

Step 2: Response

Once you have identified the challenges facing a culture you can start designing theresponses.Cultures are shaped by the way they respond to challenges and by whether their responses were successful or not. Successful responses get worked into the culture and become part of it; unsuccessful responses will eventually be dropped.

Moreover, ways will be found to reinforce a successful response even to the point that succeeding generations continue the response even if they are no longer aware of or are faced by the original challenge that brought it on.One of the best fictional examples of challenge-response world building is the Fremen culture of Dune, from the novel by Frank Herbert.

Fremen culture is shaped by two main forces:

  1. The harsh environment of planet Arrakis (Dune).
  2. A history of oppression, most specially by the Harkonnens.

These were the challenges facing the Fremen people. Their response was to create the Fremen culture that is described in the novel. Because water was so valuable, the Fremen developed highly innovative ways to reclaim and conserve water, like the stillsuits that they wear and reclaiming water from the bodies of the dead.

Because they were continually threatened by the great sandworms, they learned techniques to avoid them and distract them. Later, they even learned how to capture and ride them. Because they lived under the shadow of oppressive forces that they could never defeat directly, the Fremen organized and trained themselves to become formidable guerilla fighters.

To ensure their perpetuation, these responses were worked into the fabric of Fremen religion. Rites were created around the use and distribution of water, the sandworms became venerated as holy, and religious tradition was used to keep alive the flames of hatred vs. the oppressors.

Obsolete Responses

Sometimes, a culture will retain some practice or traditional belief that was a valid response to a challenge in the past but no longer exists. These can help make a culture more interesting and peculiar, and can be a means to introduce plot hooks and complications to your story.To use a familiar example, long, long ago an elven king asked some dwarves to make him a magical necklace, but would not pay them afterward.

The angry dwarves then raised an army and sacked the elves’ kingdom, to the great grief and anger of the elves. Now the elves and the dwarves cannot trust each other, even when faced by a common enemy. Yep, this is taken from Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth, and it was used to enrich the plot of Lord of the Rings.

An obsolete response need not be so extreme though:

  • Prayers to a forgotten god in a language no one understands any more.
  • Refusal to pass by a certain part of the woods that used to be haunted.
  • Insistence on wearing traditional clothing even where it is no longer comfortable or practical.
  • Refusal to use iron because of an ancient superstition.

All these could be obsolete responses to challenges that no longer exist.

Putting It All Together

When designing a culture for your world:

  1. Come up with a “seed” idea.
  2. Work out the challenges that face this culture.
  3. Design the responses.
  4. Design the reinforcing mechanisms. i.e.
    • Ceremonies
    • Holidays and celebrations
    • Military units
    • Religious institutions
    • Academic institutions
    • Peasant rituals, obligations, training
    • Curses, praises, special sayings
    • Fashion, arts, symbolism

For example, I’ll go over the process that led to the creation of the Barracoan Corsairs in my Twilight Age campaign. I began with a seed idea: a nation of corsairs. Then I started working out the implications of this seed idea. Each time I came across a challenge, I designed a response around it.

Challenge: Corsairs need a secure base.
Response: The Barracoans live in the Stormholds, tall basalt cliffs overlooking the sea.

Challenge: Corsairs need to be able to catch merchantmen; and Barracoan ships must be able to survive the rough waters of the Stormholds.
Response: The Barracoans have a warship design that is light and fast and with a shallow draft so it doesn’t get cut to pieces on the rocks. The Barracoans have also developed a system of winches and cables to lift their ships from the sea into secure boathouses cut into the cliffs.

Challenge: The Stormholds are high and steep.
Response: Barracoans learn to be good climbers. Children practice by going out to steal seabird eggs from cliffside nests.

The seed idea itself could be broken down in terms of challenge and response. Fact: the Barracoans are corsairs. Why must they be corsairs? What is the challenge that made them respond by becoming corsairs? I came up with two answers to that one. First, the Stormholds are poor for farming or fishery.

Second, trade in the Barracoan’s world is highly restricted and monopolized by another people. In other words, the Barracoans have no other means of making a living unless they give up their homes, which they won’t.

Finally, I had to design the reinforcing mechanisms that kept these elements of Barracoan culture in continuation. That wasn’t too difficult–the conditions which the Barracoans are responding to are perennial, so they mostly reinforce themselves. It was also easy to see that this society would become organized around the ship captains and that a means for young men to join the crews had to exist.

Also, there would need to be a means for advancement. So I decided to create a social system wherein boys apprenticed first to senior sailors to learn the rudiments of seamanship and fighting, then got the opportunity to enlist under a corsair captain.

Advancement through this society would be by performing exploits and winning challenges. Inept captains get replaced quickly, as inevitably they get deposed or fall to the sword of a challenger.

And voila! I have my nation of sea-roving wolves.

Best of all, the method for coming up with them was really easy and can be applied to the creation of any culture. You can go into as much or as little detail as you think you’ll need for your campaign (the longer the campaign, the more detail that is usually necessary). The important thing is that since you’re working from a cause-and-effect framework, the cultures you design will make sense to your players, and so feel all the more real.

Hope this helps,

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Announcing A New Book Series:
GM Mastery A Collection Of Game Master Help Books

Our first book: NPC Essentials is a collection of tips, techniques, and aids designed to help game masters inject detailed NPCs into any role-playing campaign. Inside, readers will find advice on designing, role-playing, and managing NPCs during the entire lifetime of their campaigns. Also included are NPC archetypes, charts, and an example NPC-centric adventure. Written by that hack writer Johnn Four. Now available!

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

12 Ceremonial Tips

From Neil Faulkner

[Comment from Johnn: a reader sent in a question about ceremony suggestions and ideas that could apply to various character races and deities. I forwarded the request to frequent Tips contributor Neil Faulkner, and I thought you all might be interested in his comprehensive response as well. (Thanks again Neil.)]

Eeek! This is a big field, and one that deserves more coverage than it usually gets. It also requires a bit more comparative anthropology than I can lay claim to.

This is all off the top of my head:

  1. How important is the role of the priesthood in governing the arrival, initiation, union and departure of members of the community? Do such things have to be authorised by the priesthood, or are they the province of the community or just the family? Is the approval of god/the gods important?
  2. Are ceremonies for birth, marriage, etc., private or public? Does this hold true for every ceremony? (i.e. public weddings but private funerals, or vice versa).
  3. What is symbolically enacted in a particular ceremony, and how? You can get quite inventive on this one.
  4. Is the individual marked in any particular way by the ceremony (incisions, tattoos, mutilations like circumcision, etc.)?
  5. Does the individual acquire any particular token representing the ceremony (like a ring, brooch, or pendant)?
  6. Are any colours associated with a ceremony (like we have black for funerals, though other cultures have different colours for mourning)?
  7. Is there any stigma attached to failure to undergo the proper rites? (Improper burial, for example, or social ostracism for not passing through the prescribed rites of initiation.)
  8. Do members of the individual’s family (or nominated stand-ins) have a particular role to play in the ceremony (like best man/bridesmaid at a wedding)?
  9. Must the individual meet some necessary precondition before undergoing the ceremony? i.e. should brides be virginal or pregnant? (Apparently this has been a precondition for marriage in some cultures, the woman having to prove her fertility before she can marry. I don’t have any details on this, though.)
  10. Are particular seasons or dates associated with a particular ceremony? People can die or be born at any time of year, but marriage and/or initiation might be restricted to a particular time of year.
  11. How might cosmological outlook affect such ceremonies? A culture that believes in reincarnation might have a very different perspective on births and deaths than a culture that does not. If reincarnation is assumed, then a birth could be a call for a ‘welcome back’ ceremony, whilst a funeral might have a ‘see you again’ mood and could be quite celebratory.
  12. How do ceremonies differ among the various strata of society? The richer classes could obviously enjoy something more lavish, to the point where their ceremonies are fundamentally different to those of the poor. Are particular professions/vocations more or less favoured? A warrior’s funeral might be very different to that of a priest. Different classes/professions might have their own unique ceremonies.
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Floorplan GM Binders

From Joachim de Ravenbel

By the way, I just finished your eBook and my only comment is “Whoa, when will the next be released!?”

And here is a tip for your readers:

As you recommend two binders for NPCs in your eBook, consider using two other binders for floorplans: one for already assigned plans and a second for random locations and encounters. Your PCs want to explore all the rooms of the latest inn they slept in and you don’t have any map? Don’t panic. Just go for the Random Location Binder and open to your Inn section to get a floorplan.

Where to get those floorplans? In a few days of active Internet browsing, I got hundreds of them. Here are the top sites I found, and they’re FREE!

The huge Map a Week archive from WotC:

A few interesting floorplans here:

Historical plans:

Three castles and tens of city houses:

Some free samples from their products: [Comment from Johnn: does anybody have any other links with free maps and floorplans for RPG use?]

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Roleplaying Economics

From Runester

For anyone who works a job and/or pays for the things they need like food, clothing, and shelter, economics is an important part of their life! The same may be true in many RPGs. Here are some tips on roleplaying economics.

Don’t Just Discuss the Economic Outcome of an Action, SHOW it to the PCs.

If a ruler has been over-taxing the peasants, then have the PCs ride through a small village and see the abject poverty and hardship caused by people who must work all day to survive, and give a good portion of their earnings to tax collectors who ride through. In fact, arrange for the PCs to witness a tax collector taking a man away from his family in chains for not paying, or seizing a home and driving the family out of it, etc. Include lots of weeping children and the like. It shouldn’t be too hard to motivate the players to help when they witness the human suffering firsthand.

Remember the First Law of Economics, “Supply & Demand.”

If you want an equation it would be something like, “Current Price = Demand / Supply.” If the demand for an item increases, its price will increase. If the supply of a commodity were to increase, its price would drop.Note, demand is very hard to control! Most efforts are in controlling the supply side. This could be played as a pirate who stops grain shipments before they reach a port, and then sells the grain at an inflated price to the starving people who desperately need it. The local famine has created high demand, the unscrupulous pirate is now controlling the supply, thus the inflated prices.

Trade is an Important Aspect of Macro Economics.

If one region were able to produce a surplus of goods, they will seek to trade the surplus to another region. This may sound overly simple, but trade is vital for both local and regional economies.Fortunes can be made in opening or controlling trade routes. Playing opportunities abound! PCs can protect shipments that have been threatened; they can explore and open new trade routes through dangerous areas (mountain ranges, wilderness regions, dangerous seas, etc.); they can negotiate for trade between kingdoms; they can help impose a trade embargo in an effort to win a war or sneak shipments past an embargo if they are fighting for the other side.

Economies Are About Much More Than Gold.

Remember, some of the most (historically) valuable shipments include grain, rare spices, works of art, wine, olive oil, etc. The major advantage of shipping consumables is that demand stays nice and high! So, even though players like to hear about the treasure of gold and gems their characters find, remember there are other options that make for much more interesting roleplaying.

Don’t Underestimate The Power of an Economic Fad or Craze.

Holland went through a tulip craze that made many people very wealthy and when it passed it caused many people to lose everything. Sound familiar? We recently saw a similar boom & bust cycle in high tech stocks (here in the US). So, it’s perfectly possible for a certain spice, perfume, cloth die, material (like silk), or food (like a certain nut or fruit) to be taken up by the royal family and then become a local fad by the merchant class.Riding the upsweep of a fad can make you very, very wealthy. But, when interest wanes and the next fad comes along, speculators can find themselves with a very costly warehouse full of (now) worthless tulip bulbs or rancid oil barrels.

Wars Run on Money

It’s not a very patriotic sentiment, but it’s a fact of history. In order to wage war (or defend a nation) a king must rely on professional soldiers. Professional soldiers need to be paid. Sometimes that means raising taxes, secretly working with “illegal” pirates, and/or taking certain economic targets before military ones.Of course, another method (which everyone hates!) is to borrow the money. Sometimes that means the king loses power to the wealthy nobles who loaned him the money he needed to win a war. Sometimes, it means the king finds a sneaky way to seize all their property and assets and execute or exile them. Accusations of witchcraft usually work well, and many so-called witches or sorcerers were actually unlucky people who had something the crown wanted and didn’t want to pay for.Low level PCs can find ways to help fund a war effort by capturing valuable shipments or protecting the king’s shipments of gold. Of course, they can also be pirates, raiding enemy treasures as privateers but secretly sending the wealth back to their king. At a higher level (especially if the characters have amassed wealth through adventuring) they can loan money to a worthy war and work at the eco- political level to win it.

Depending on The Theme of the Campaign and the Actions of The Characters

You may also want to show them the consequences of their actions. If they reroute grain shipments, let them see what happened to the village that was depending on it. If they back a king who ruthlessly demands ever increasing taxes from his people, show them the results of his policy. If a dragon torches fields and leaves a village with no means to feed itself, then killing the dragon is only the beginning of the solution. For the characters to leave at that point would be leaving the village in quite the bind. Make sure the characters know that and face the consequences of their actions. Of course, you can make the efforts to help a plot hook for the next adventure.

Finally, Remember That People Typically Support or Rebel against their Leaders Based on Economic Conditions.

In a nation that is affluent, the majority will back a corrupt government if it means maintaining their lifestyle. In a nation where the people are starving, they will risk their lives fighting the government, even if that government is good (albeit unlucky or inept).This is good to keep in mind if the PCs want to foment rebellion or help quash a rebellion. Rerouting food and causing economic unrest while speaking out against the current rulers will build rebellious followers among the disaffected. If people are rising against a good king the PCs want to protect, then finding the source of the economic problems and fixing those could go quite a long way to stopping the rebellion. This would include stopping the rampaging monsters who are destroying crops and eating cattle or fighting against the warlike neighboring kingdom who is raiding border regions and “taxing” the residents.

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Deck Of Many Things Online

From Anarchy Scott

Heya. I’m converting my programs to Java Script and I decided to put up an online version of the Deck of Many Things, available at:

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Random Number Table

From Brian R.

re: using random number tables to generate random results when no dice are available.

All this talk and no one just posts a table? Well, here you go!


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Player Locator

From Alex van D.

I don’t know if you know about this site or not. It’s an RPG player locator and has already helped me find two players. Maybe if you can help spread the news about it more people will sign up.

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TV Show Plots

From Paul N.

An invaluable list of story seeds:

Comment from Johnn: this is an awesome site. Find a show that you like, click on the link, and click on Episode Guide for brief plot descriptions of episodes.

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Find Your Pirate Name! Arrr!

From KC

I know it’s been a while since all those find-a-name posts, but I just found this last week. Enjoy.