Culture Gaming

May 29, 2017

One of the key problems for roleplaying games is figuring out how much interaction with the broader society in your setting matters or doesn’t.

To give a simple example – if you’re playing a modern supernatural game – does your vampire have to hold down a job? Do they have to interact with the landlord?  How about their family or friends from before they got turned into a vampire?  Or is it all “Politics of the Night Court” and fighting werewolves and such, and we don’t think about the rest?

This question ends up being one of the places where people feel lost when they first start getting into gaming and you give them D&D or a sci-fi game – you need to have an idea of what the fictional society is like and how your character fits into it, if you actually are to roleplay out that interaction.  A knight, a nomadic clan warrior, and hired muscle for a criminal merchant all might fit the “Fighter” class but they certainly will approach the world very differently and be treated quite differently, depending on where they are.  Without specifying that context, it takes a few sessions to even figure out how the world works in the broadest sense for the characters.

This not only is critical in terms of setting up your characters for roleplaying – it sets up what values they hold, what things they’ll fight for and so on.  It gives people options for negotiation – status is a critical thing people struggle for and use as leverage every day.  It creates ties and relationships between player characters and NPCs – and also ties the players into the desires of those NPCs in ways that are reasonable and consistent.

The 3 Questions

What is your role in society, what is expected of you, and what can you request or demand and reasonably expect to receive?

The 3 questions form the basic set up of what you need to know for how things operate in your setting.  Of course, these questions are the sort of thing you could write whole anthropology courses on, so it’s not so much about detailing every possible space, but giving sufficient direction that people can have a good idea and the negotiation/question and answer at the table during play is short and easy.

Specified Roles

Some games handle this by limiting players to specified roles in society – Dogs in the Vineyard, Legend of the Five Rings, Pendragon, Paranoia, for example, all work on the idea that the player characters are from a specific group for the most part, which means the answers to those questions are mostly the same, and the players then create their characters within that space.

This turns out to work pretty great for the sake of getting people into play quickly, and also reliably hitting certain aspects of play.

Massive Setting and Negotiation

Another design strategy is to give a wide setting with a lot of different possible answers and the group having to pick a society/space to focus on and narrow down the roles from there.  Glorantha, Shadowrun, D&D campaign settings, and most of the White Wolf games fall into this category.

While this does provide a lot of options, I have found the process of groups negotiating down to the actual scenario and characters is rarely quick or smooth unless the group has already done a lot of pre-negotiation about what they’re looking for.  A lot of the hurdles start with, “But did you read ALL of this setting material?” and then happen into, “And how did you interpret those ideas?”

Fuzzy Outlines & Negotiation

D&D is the game that exemplifies this design choice.  In baseline D&D, you get some features of things that exist in the setting – dwarves, clerics, deities, but it doesn’t tell you how society really works – are dwarves normal people? Are they discriminated against? Respected and treated with awe? Are clerics rare and amazing like saints? Can anyone get their broken leg healed at any local temple? Do deities demand prayer, blood offerings, incense, what?  It’s really fuzzy for the most part.

So, as a group, you have to either take these elements and form them together yourself, or leave it open and then find bumps when you discover that one player expected one thing and another something completely different.  (“Wait, I’m a cleric, shouldn’t people treat me with respect?” “Wait, people treat half-elves poorly?”)

This choice often has complications, since a lot of the assumed expectations usually will be what someone is drawing from a previous campaign or a setting or series of books and so on, and without clarity, the disconnect can be quite steep.

Practices and Meaning – pre-loading vs. in play

Consider someone doing something insulting without using words.  What do they do? Do they spit on the ground?  Scowl?  Chuckle?  Throw an object instead of handing it over? Bump your shoulder? These things are meaningful, and the context of the situation and culture are what make them hold that meaning.

Since most RPGs are set in fantastical and futuristic settings, far from whereever you happen to be, the meaning of practices might be very different, and the question is how much is this going to matter for your game, and how do we, as a play group, get to a shared understanding?

You can pre-load all of that with lots and lots of chapters of expected behavior to read up on.  Or you can, as a GM, explain as you go what the implications are (“They kneel, but it is only about a second before they look up to you.  They’re respectful, but clearly in a hurry.”)

I’m fairly certain that this language of culture and implication are why game groups seriously invested in a setting-heavy game, tend to have a slow recruitment and deeper investment in long term play – the time it takes to learn this and fluently apply it in play, can take months or years.

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