Culture in Gaming

Let’s talk about culture. I’m not talking about races (though race plays a part in the definition of culture), I’m talking about what makes societies click. What makes them work? What makes them seem realistic? What makes certain groupings of humans different from other groupings, and what makes certain races different from humans, other than their physical features?

This thinking process (re-)started with me recently when I read a particular article on my current favorite blog, Exchange of Realities. The article in question, posted on August 13, 2008, titled Iron Chef World-builder: A Creation Process focused entirely on music within a particular dwarven society in the author’s campaign setting, and through the process of determining the music of the society, several other important key concepts pertaining to the dwarves’ culture arose. So, being a musician myself, it got me thinking.

In Memory Fading, I have so far not focused too much on various cultural aspects that would really help define and distinguish different people in the setting. I have been working a lot recently on various religious aspects of certain races (which is a key part of different cultures), and I have mentioned in a few of my races and societies that “honor,” “family,” “courage,” etcetera are defining characteristics of various peoples, but that’s about as far as I’ve gone. Now though, I’m starting to develop ideas on what really defines these people as people, and not just race names with statistics on them.

I have decided that the sydhi have a unique cultural take on language and oral tradition. They believe (and have always believed) that the only true way to appreciate and respect a subject -whether it is art, music, history, or anything else of the like – is to pass this subject down completely orally, and never write it down. The sydhi believe that the act of writing down music, stories, mythologies, or history causes the writer and reader to then take for granted that the information will always be available, and thus they lose respect for the subject. Every sydhi child, from the day they are born, is taught by his or her parents of the long, tragic history of the sydhi, and is sung all the songs the parent knows. As far as anyone knows, the sydhi have no written histories anywhere on the planet.

Similarly, I wanted the sydhi to have a very different style of music than what is typical in our western culture, and decided that sydhi musicians are solo artists, and have no ensemble playing. This stems from another particular cultural quirk that I came up with – the sydhi never interrupt another person speaking, and always give their full, undivided attention to whomever is speaking at the time. This translates to music in such a way that a sydhi performer will always have the full, undivided attention of all who listen, and thus, no other musicians will play at the same time as the musician in question. This leads to a question of instrumentation. I need an instrument (or several instruments) that can play melody, harmony, and accompaniment all at once. There are many instruments that do this, such as guitar, piano, organ, vibraphone, and other stringed instruments, but they mostly all have a distinctive “western” flavor to them. Then I listened to the koto, a Japanese instrument that has in the past few weeks, become one my new favorite instrument. I had heard koto playing before of course, but had never really thought about it in a way that lent itself to role playing games. Now I am picturing a group of sydhi, sitting in a circle by a stream on the outskirts of Tusai Viil, with a performer playing this koto-like instrument, harmonizing with the tinkling of the creek, the singing of the birds, and the whistling of wind through the trees. The sydhi call their version of this instrument the tayo tu, which roughly translates to “song of the trees.”

So now with this first little tidbit, I have begun thinking about other aspects that define cultures that are rarely focused on in role playing games. Music often leads to performances of theater, as well as dance, so those are the two aspects I focused on next with my sydhi.

For this, I decided that the most common form of dramatic art amongst sydhi would be an actual combination of those two aspects. I began picturing a non-choreographed routine that involves two dancers, often in the role of opponents to each other, whirling around and mock-fighting with wooden staves. However, I don’t want there to be any sort of element of true violence to this, so instead of being like wushu or Kabuki, I’m looking more at a stylized version of Canne de Combat, a French sport that involves two opponents fighting each other with canes. Now, I picture the sydhi being very fluid, with lots of spins, twirls, and fantastic leaps, either accompanied or not by a tayo tu player. They call this dramatic dance art form stris bu, which means something like, “the trees’ strike.”

The last cultural aspect I want to focus on today is visual art. The sydhi, being forest folk, and living often times out of doors, probably don’t do a lot of art that would involve the ruination brought upon by a summer storm, or wood-and-paper eating bugs. Taking from the elements of Tusai Viil, the only sydhi city not within the bounds of Nalimoseo, I believe sydhi visual art is very cloth-based. Sydhi will take portions of silk cloth, and using special dyes from various plants they know of, will make broad strokes of colors on their cloth tapestries, and when done, will hang these tapestries in the trees. The dyes immediately bond with the silk, creating something of permanence that the inevitable thunder storm or blizzard won’t damage. And since silk is not the common diet of most bugs, hopefully we have something that has some of the longevity of the sydhi themselves.

So that’s all I’m going to focus on for now. However, I know I’ve missed some very important aspects of culture that should be discussed. Not to mention, I could do this same process with all the various societies and civilizations across Alsa Eru. What are some other defining cultural aspects that are rarely (if ever) focused on in role playing games, but are most important here in the real world?

3 thoughts on “Culture in Gaming

  1. Greetings.

    Are you building the world for roleplay, fiction, or for the sake of world-building?

    In actual play, I have found it useful to not specify details ahead of time, but rather give players the power (and responsibility) to add them while playing.

    Sydhi are basically elves, right? The culture sounds pretty interesting, especially the concept of always letting people speak their mind and never interrupting.

  2. Hi Tommi,
    Mostly I have always for the sake of world-building. I use it as a writing exercise to flex various aspects of my creative muscles. However, recently, I have started a campaign in this setting, and that is taking up most of my creative resources at the moment. I plan on writing about this campaign, as my next post (tomorrow) should show you.

    Sydhi have similar qualities to elves, but my goal for them was to make them more resemble the celtic fey mythologies than standard Tolkien-esque elves. They are largely based off the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, with a bit of Hindu and Japanese culture thrown in (such as the concept you mentioned about politeness, which is very much a part of everyday Japanese culture).

    When it comes to actual play, I do tend to focus more on what is important to the players, but since this project originally started as something other than a “for-play” world, that is why I have focused on a lot of things that may not be common in a standard RPG fantasy world.

    Thanks so much for reading, I hope you will read more as I get this blog going!

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