Making up cultures--how and what?

edited April 2009 in Game Design Help
Hi! I'm playtesting and refining my 2008 Game Chef entry, Spectre of the Beast, which addresses the tension between violence and hope in human history by sort of playing Shock: mashed up with Sid Meier's Civilization. In the game everybody makes their own fictional Culture and plays through successive eras as mini-arcs with historically pivotal protagonists, and we see how their actions grow their culture and the world at large

So! I'm trying to get a good handle on a framework for making up cultures according to the above specs, quickly and engagingly. Right now all I have is "Uh, come up with something," and I need a structure and context that'll flesh out the process and especially give shy or creatively-blocked players (like, uh, me, in half the playtests so far) some kind of scaffolding on which to hang their ideas.

I'm thinking of a series of questions that'll sketch out the broad scope of a culture, like:

* What kind of government or leadership do they use?
* What religious beliefs and cultural values do they hold?
* What professions, gender roles, and social classes are prominent?
* What sort of technology do they employ?
* What styles of dress and artistic preferences do they have?

What I'm wondering is:

A) Are these good questions to ask, and
B) Are there other good techniques for doing this?

All bearing in mind that what I want is:

1) Quick and broad concepts that don't take forever to hash out, and
2) A solid focus on the social issue of violence and oppression vs. peace and justice.

Thoughts?

Peace,
-Joel

Comments

  • I think Josh Roby is also designing in this space. He may have ideas.
  • Are you asking what makes a culture the way it is? There are all kinds of ways to answer that. I'd start with their relationship with water, personally.
  • I'd start with, "What kind of place did this culture get started in?"

    And then, "How did they make a living in that place?"

    Then you can get to:

    How did their religion develop to help them make a living there?
    How did their government develop to help them make a living there?
    How did gender roles and social classes help them make a living there?
    What kinds of technology did they develop to help them make a living there?
    What kinds of artistic styles developed from living there?

    Especially if you're taking cues from Sid Meier's, I'd really advise you try to avoid the usual fallacy of the unilineal trajectory. Cultures do not "advance," because "advance" means there's one, universal measure of achievement that they all agree on. There isn't.

    If it were my game, I'd probably also make increasing complexity (more government, more social classes, more technology, etc.) subject to diminishing marginal returns, a la Joseph Tainter. Tie the bell curve to resources available, but ultimately, you'll always reach a point where further complexity gets you less and less.
  • Cultures might also be defined by how they are different from others living in the same area/time.

    For that I'd recommend taking a look at One Bad Egg's Hard Boiled Cultures. Although it is DnD based, it has some quite good ideas about making cultures unique.
  • edited April 2009
    I'd also take a look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

    First you have the physiological needs. Water, food, clothing, resources... Where do the people in your civilization obtain what they need to cover that need? Weather, terrain, isolation, that sort of stuff affect the way they have to adapt to cover their needs. Do they adapt to their environment or do they adapt their environment to them?

    Then you have the safety needs. Shelter, work, trade, law. They are the bases for the order of your civilization. What is the norm? On what can we rely upon? How can we relax of our worries and issues?

    Afterwards you have social needs. How do people interact? Relationships, duty, love, diplomacy. What sort of behaviors are accepted and which ones are scorned? People tend to gather in groups. The larger the group, the more complex their interactions get.

    Related to that one are the esteem needs. Sense of belonging, acceptance, justice, value. How can I belong to the group? What sort of things are valued the most? Which kind of behaviors are admired? What do people do to fit in?

    The tricky ones are the improvement needs. The mass is content with fullfilling their other needs, but a civilization that doesn't evolve, gets stale. There are always individuals that strive to self-actualizate, and through them the civilization gets its sense of morality, prejudices, creativity, art... They are more ideologic than practical. Luxuries, you could call them. They are pretty much arbitrary, yet they depend (and shape) the people's way of thinking. What is considered beautiful? What is considered "good"? What is considered the standard?

    Lastly, you have the trascendence needs. The desire to last. To reach a higher understanding of the universe. Saints, illuminates, geniouses, leaders, revolutionaries. For what I understand of your concept, they are probably those historical protagonists that have a saying in how things will change in their civilization, one way or another. And there is also Death and what people think it means, what happens afterwards and whether they consider it a good or a bad thing.

    Note that Religion (whether there really are "true" gods or not) is a very important aspect of every culture because they have a saying in each one of the levels. You pray for food, shelter and descendants, you seek assurance about what you can rely on, you gather with people who share your believes, you can get validation about what you love, do or achieve, you (directly or indirectly) get told about what is worth more, and about what sort of things you should aim to improve about yourself (be it physically, socially, spritually, intellectually...), and one of its more important goals is to reach that higher understanding about the universe, thus shaping and relating to historical developments.
  • Posted By: Melinglor1) Quick and broad concepts that don't take forever to hash out, and
    2) A solid focus on the social issue of violence and oppression vs. peace and justice.
    Use a chinese menu. Write a list of twenty statements about how a culture might approach violence/oppression/peace/justice. In 'character creation,' each player picks three. If players really want to, they can write their own, but if your list is evocative and exhaustive, they won't need to.
  • I second Jason's developmental approach. Cultures are shaped by environment and history.

    Also , Josh's idea of multiple choice is great for speeding up culture creation.
  • edited April 2009
    I prefer to integrate cultures and characters with your thematic and narrative interests from the beginning, rather than creating lots of cultural material in the abstract and then adding themes. Here's how I'd approach it, though I don't know how much of this fits with the rest of your game. And though it's probably less practical than Josh's idea. :)

    -Ask just a few basic questions about the society: What's our land like and how do we make a living? (including what resources are scarce) What are our basic social and economic units, and what kind of people are in charge of each of them? (e.g. what gender, age, and ethnicity are they, and do they have to be accredited by any particular institutions?) What values and beliefs support / are supported by that type of socio-economic organization? What internal or external groups does the dominant culture define itself against, and what makes them worse people than we are?

    The answers for these questions may be basically discursive, but also pay attention to any flashes of imagery that come up. If you're thinking of any real cultures or a combination of them, that's also useful to talk about and can make your culture more intuitive for the rest of the players.

    Beyond that, I don't think you need to flesh out the whole culture, just the parts you'll be using. Coming up with more culture in the abstract is likely to dilute the thematic focus of play, and you can flesh out much of the rest of the culture by asking questions about how they look at violence and social hierarchy.

    -What aspects of violence and oppression vs hope and justice are you as players most interested in exploring? E.g. internal or external to a society? Institutional or private?

    -Tell a myth about the first act of violence, or else tell a myth about how whatever group is in charge got to be there.

    -More culture creation questions: What does the kind of violence you're interested in look like and where does it happen? When is violence considered mandatory? What are the culturally sanctioned limits on violence? (e.g. are some lives worth more than others? what kinds of violence are most honorable / popularly supported and which are most condemned? is violence prohibited at certain times and places?)

    -Now create cultural practices that embody and dramatize the thematic issues you want to deal with. For example, if you want to explore the personal ramifications of violence, create cultural practices or beliefs that will let characters externalize or express their feelings about it (e.g. ghosts of the dead and the shamans who exorcise them, the therapist who treats your PTSD, the practice of keeping one's hair military style or letting it grow, the yearly meeting of the warriors' fraternity)

    For creating dramatically useful cultural practices, you might also ask: What are the culturally sanctioned paths for escalating to violence? What are the practices for reincorporating those who practice violence back into society? (e.g. confession of sins and penance for readmittance to the church, rituals honoring successful warriors, parole) Who controls and benefits from the various practices, and who doesn't? Do particular institutions or social groups (e.g. the church, warriors' wives, merchants) have the primary role in de-escalating?

    ETA This tends to suggest that societies are more monolithic and homogeneous than they actually are, since even the elites in small scale cultures tend to have differences of opinion. Not sure how much of that to figure out in play versus pre-play, though.
  • Posted By: MelinglorHi! I'm playtesting and refining my 2008 Game Chef entry, Spectre of the Beast, which addresses the tension between violence and hope in human history by sort of playing Shock: mashed up with Sid Meier's Civilization. In the game everybody makes their own fictional Culture and plays through successive eras as mini-arcs with historically pivotal protagonists, and we see how their actions grow their culture and the world at large

    So! I'm trying to get a good handle on a framework for making up cultures according to the above specs, quickly and engagingly.
    Not being familiar with Spectre of the Beast, this may be a dumb idea, but...given that it's for an existing game, maybe you could reverse-engineer a culture generator that meshes well with the actual gameplay.

    I'm thinking of questions like:
    What sorts of cultural features are actually meaningful in the kinds of conflicts/challenges/stories/scenes/whatever that take place in the game?
    Are there mechanical differences between the features that get used during the game?
    Can the types of features best suited for this game be summarized in a short list, and are there particular archetypal features that can be called out (patriarchal versus matriarchal, or whatever)?

    Once you've got a little primer of "stuff which works" put together, I think you're already halfway towards the goal of preventing deer-in-headlights paralysis among players. (The problem is rarely that people can't think of something, but that they don't have any guidance on what's worth thinking about; tightening up the connection between culture generation and actual play can provide that guidance.)
  • edited April 2009
    By no means perfect but the questions I ask myself about cultures in my fantasy worlds are:

    - where do they think they come from, what is their "story of themselves"
    - what is their system of government/political authority
    - what is their kinship/social structure (who is your family, how important is that)
    - what are their religious beliefs
    - what is their legal system (jury by trial, ordeal, view of death penalty, exile, punishment vs restorative vs rehabilitative)
    - what is their economic system/view of property (how does that relate with other factors)
    - what is their military system (how do they muster military force, what laws about possessions of weapons)
    - what are some sample names (which includes naming structure, which may flow from/connect to any of above)

    Rob
  • There's something else, something a few of the questions sort of got close to, but is a little hard to define. I'll give it a try, but you'll have to excuse me if I don't get it quite right the first time.

    How is their worldview different from others'?

    - an offshoot of this question (or perhaps a different way of answering it) is, "what words do they define differently?" and "what words do they have for which we have no exact equivalent?" and, finally, "what words do we have for which they have no exact equivalent?"

    To understand this better, let me point you to one of the TED talks by Wade Davis.
  • Thanks so much, guys, lotsa great stuff. Gimme time to digest, OK?
  • edited May 2009
    OK! So one thing I'm seeing from all this is that there are a lot of different starting points you can use, that can lead to kinda the same place but from different angles. And the angles are important, because they determine what stuff gets emphasized.

    F'rinstance there's the process of reasoning from cause to effect, and the process of starting with the effect and reasoning back to the cause. And then there's pure effect-focus, where we don't really worry about how such a situation came to be.

    I'd like to focus on cause to some degree without getting really detailed with it. And it's got to take a backseat to the effect--it's the actual circumstances our protagonists find themselves in that provide the thematic grist for the game. I'd worry that if we spend TOO much time going step by step through stages of cultural genesis that that would become the focus. And I want to get play rolling quickly. Also, if you start "from the top" it might be harder to arrive at a specific result you want, like people sometimes complain about with lifepaths.

    I think the various frameworks like Maslov's heirarchy and such might be very useful as auxiliary tools for when your stuck. A sidebar to the effect of "stuck for an idea for a culture? Try this series of questions. . ." could be verrry helpful. Another tool I've already found invaluable is the Story Games Names Project--it doesn't help with the meat of the culture, but it's a great color generator. I've found that using the fantasy lists for naming your country and the Historical lists for naming characters works well.

    Right now (and I mean right now--I'm running the game for roleplaying virgins tomorrow!) I'm thinking of a simple 3-question prompt, like:
    1. Where do they live?
    2. What do they do?
    3. What do they care about?
    Will serve as a great starting point, with questions like Maslov's fleshing things out as needed.

    Thanks, everyone!

    Peace,
    -Joel
  • Posted By: jasonEspecially if you're taking cues from Sid Meier's, I'd really advise you try to avoid the usual fallacy of the unilineal trajectory. Cultures do not "advance," because "advance" means there's one, universal measure of achievement that they all agree on. There isn't.
    No worries there--the Cid Meier influence is at the general conceptual level, having nothing to do wityh all that tech tree stuff. And the "Advancement" of Cultures in the game (actually I just call it Development) is all narrative and subjective, based on protagonist goals. If the Champion scores a Development point, then Culture develops favorable to their ambition; if the Nemesis gets a Dev Point, then Culture develops contrary to the Champion. There IS an endgame metric where, for simplicity's sake, the Champions' successes score Hope points toward a better world (matched against Beast points generated by use of violence), regardless of the nature of their Ambition. But I take that as merely a necessary abstraction.

    Peace,
    -Joel
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