Challenge: Sketch a Real Culture

edited July 2007 in Story Games
Posted By: Jonathan WaltonGiven the enormity and complexity of the subject matter, and an admittedly artificially-imposed limit of 1000 words or so, I would be shocked if someone could do much better.
James, is that a design challenge? (Write a "foreign" campaign setting in 1000 words that doesn't promote stereotypes or racism?) Because it certainly smells like one.

CHALLENGE! Describe a real-world culture/civilization/whatchamacallit in 1,000 words or less, for the purposes of a role-playing game.

1. You don't have to be a member of the culture/civilization/whatever, but that should be clear in your entry.
2. But you damn sure better not promote racism, stereotypes, or engage in all that post-imperial bullshit.
3. You also better not cater to fanboy stereotypes, to the extent it can be avoided.
4. Your facts, to the extent you include facts, should be accurate, though I'm fine with some fuzziness.
5. No subcultures, no tiny little regional group, no ethnic sub-groups. I'm talking, like, "China."
5A. Yep, 1000 words.
5B. The absurdity of the project is assumed; you don't have to apologize or defend your sketch.
6. You can pick a historical period, though, including Modern Day ___________.
7. Um, due date is... well, what's a good due date? Labor Day?

And maybe when we get all the entries, that can be a Story Games download like the Names Book? (How did that work out?)


  • Can we use whatever game system we want? Like, can I write for TSOY or The Mountain Witch or whatever?

    Honestly, I think we should save any talk of a compilation or anything else until after people turn stuff in and we can see if there's any interest.
  • This would actually be fun if I could write up, say, the Copper River Eyak, but you've forbidden that for reasons I can't fathom. Are you assuming a very narrowly defined group would be somehow easier to fit into 1000 words?
  • Jason has a point -- the complexity of cultural groups tends to be fractal...
  • It'd be funny if someone did this writeup for "Humans."
  • Yeah, I think this is really neat except for #5.

    I'd totally do Californians.
  • So ignore number 5. I wanna hear about the Copper River Eyak!
  • Word on specificity. I think specificity is the natural enemy of generalization, right? Besides, most Chinese "tiny ethnic groups" are the size of most European countries. There are 8 million Yi people. That is more people than Bulgaria or Switzerland or Honduras and more than twice as many people as Ireland or Lithuania. It's all relative.
  • OK, whatever, here goes:

    The Eyak (pre-contact)

    Disclosure: I am not an Eyak. I have met one Eyak in my whole life.


    The Eyak are a coastal people living in the Copper River delta of southcentral Alaska. They are sandwiched between three aggressive and populous neighbors, the Tlingit to the south, the Ahtna to the north, and the Alutiiq to the west.

    Social Organization

    The Eyak are a small, matrilineal society numbering only a few thousand members. There are two clans – Eagle and Raven, and they are exogamous – Eagles marry Ravens, and vice-versa. Lineage, and territorial and property rights, are traced through mothers, and children take their mother’s family name. Each clan maintains a house in every village. This organization is considerably simpler than that of their Ahtna and Tlingit neighbors, who each have two moieties but many clans. This tends to lead to confusion and hostility, and causes problems with inter-marriage.

    Status is afforded to various families based on tradition and wealth. High status families own property and often employ low status workers and slaves. Slaves are generally captives taken in war, and they are quite rare – the Eyak are more often the victims of raids than the perpetrators. Status groups marry within their own. Sometimes a low-status Eyak man will save up a huge pile of resources and, with the help of family, host a huge potlatch to raise his own status. He’ll then quickly marry a high status woman, and his children’s future is assured. This process can also happen in reverse, when a high status man falls in love with a low status woman or a slave.

    Clans and high status individuals have historical rights to particular streams, river access points, and beaches. These are often aggressively defended and hotly contested. Old grudges constantly simmer across Eyak society, and they almost always begin as property disputes.

    There is no central coordinating body – villages and, in some cases, village clans or even families make local decisions. There are informal provisions for common defense, but every clan decides for itself what action to take. Because clan loyalty is complicated by marriage and status, decision-making is typically a drawn-out process unless a threat is transparently obvious.


    Eyak live in clan groups of around twenty, in villages of perhaps 300.

    In the summer, most Eyak move to fish camps and follow the salmon upriver. Winter dwellings are made from cedar and spruce planks with shingled roofs and central smoke holes above a fire-pit. Protection from enemies and weather, as well as access to fresh water and salmon-bearing streams, determines the location of permanent settlements. Villages consist of a single row of clan dwellings facing the water, book-ended by clan houses where feasts, communal activities like net making, and feasts and potlatches take place.


    Living in a temperate rainforest, the Eyak have plentiful access to wood, and wood is the central feature of their technology. Dwellings, canoes, and even clothing is made from wood (beaten and woven cedar bark, in the case of clothing). Ceremonial items, hand tools and jewelry are also made from wood. Sweet-smelling cedar mats are used as floor coverings.

    When Eyak fight, they use heavy clubs studded with beaver teeth, barbed spears, and vicious harpoons smeared with aconite. They have a reputation for being clever warriors, striking without warning and setting traps that employ tripwires and deadfalls to cover their retreat. The fact that young Eyak men hunt bears earns them a measure of respect, particularly from the Ahtna.

    Light sources include seal oil and ooligan, small fish so oily they can be lit like candles. Woven baskets are piled high everywhere, holding everything from dentalium trade goods to dried bull kelp. Animal bone and fur is used extensively, as are valuable artifacts made of Ahtna copper. The Eyak live comfortably.


    The Eyak have a rich seasonal round that relies heavily on salmon. Harvesting salmon involves considerable innovation – elaborate fish weirs and holding ponds are constructed, as well as all manner of nets, spears, and hooks. The salmon run in such astonishing profusion that catching them isn’t as challenging as processing, preserving, and storing them. Sea mammals, intertidal organisms, seaweed, berries, birds and their eggs, and mountain game like deer supplement the fish-heavy diet. Although they are a maritime people, the mountains above to the Copper River are also their home, and they hunt and trap throughout them – even trapping bears.

    The Potlatch

    High status Eyak, like their Tlingit neighbors, hold potlatches, which are social events designed to display conspicuous wealth and cement or elevate status. Potlatches are event-driven, coinciding with births, funerals, victories in battle, or an auspicious date honoring a dead ancestor. Potlatches are complex multi-day affairs that include feasts, speech-making, contests, and the display and squandering of wealth. The wealthiest Eyak might shatter copper artifacts, burn valuable tools, or even murder slaves to display their social power. Guests at potlatches are expected to reciprocate, each according to his ability.


    The Ahtna are known as the “copper diggers”. They live in the mountains and are the source of all local copper, which is a precious commodity to the Eyak, Alutiiq, and Tlingit. The Eyak often find themselves serving as middle-men, buying and selling Ahtna copper. The Ahtna themselves have a reputation for violence and are greatly feared.

    The Aluutiq are a true maritime people inhabiting Prince William Sound. They are rapidly expanding, and are experts as seaborne movement and navigation by baidarka and kayak. Aluutiq raiding parties are a frequent terror along the Eyak coast. They are the most foreign of the Eyak’s neighbors – strangers from the west who wear the skin of birds.

    The Tlingit speak a language that is easy for the Eyak to learn, and they are strong trading partners, eager for Ahtna copper. They have little respect for the tiny Eyak nation, however, considering them cowards, and Tlingit are easily offended. Culturally they are very similar, which is a blessing and a curse. They outnumber the Eyak fifty to one.
  • edited July 2007
    That is fantastic, Jason. Meaning both "really good" and "outside my everyday experience." Question: how long ago is pre-contact?
  • 1760? The first Europeans started messing with the Tlingit around then. Certainly they had access to all the benefits of western culture - smallpox, alcohol, Jesus - by 1820.
  • How about writing about your own culture?
  • Info-packed, interesting and compact.

    I would have liked to have seen some more explicitly "game setting-y" stuff (at least a summary with suggested Character Types and/or Story Hooks.) There's certainly a wealth of implicit stuff, but as written it reads like it could be in National Geographic or a non-RPG reference book. This may have been your intent.

    If I were flipping through a book that contained many such write ups for role-playing purposes, skimming the "game setting-y" might make me more likely to read the rest.
  • Posted By: James_Nostack5B. The absurdity of the project is assumed; you don't have to apologize or defend your sketch.
  • I think it's sort of sad when game players can't read over a National Geographic-style summary of a culture and see the character types and story hooks.

    I see that in what Jason wrote.

    Hey, Jason, any chance of a "post-contact" version? I'm curious what these people are like these days.
  • edited July 2007
    They aren't.

    The last native speaker died a few years ago.

    EDIT: Not dead? Not sure. I thought I heard Marie Smith died.
  • edited July 2007
    That's sad.

    Yeah, wikipedia tells more about the language, and its extinction.

    Edit: Hey! Can you tell us about the time you met an Eyak person, Jason?
  • edited July 2007
    Posted By: KynnI think it's sort of sad when game players can't read over a National Geographic-style summary of a culture andseethe character types and story hooks.

    I see that in what Jason wrote.
    I see that, too, hence my reference to the "wealth" of "implicit" stuff.

    The challenge is not just "describe a real-world culture/civilization/whatchamacallit in 1,000 words or less" but to do so "for the purposes of a role-playing game." I guess I'm just asking: what difference does the "for the purposes of a role-playing game" part make to the final piece?
  • I served on a grand jury with a half-Eyak guy. It just came up in conversation, he was like "I'm from Cordova, and I'm half native." And I was like "Eyak?" and he said yes, and I was all "huh, I read about you guys." That was the extent of it. I learned about them in an anthropology class and they just seemed like a cool, interesting culture, like the Luxembourg of south-central Alaska, surrounded by aggressive neighbors.
  • Hey Jason, I'm not sure what you want. I actually went back in there and described the weapons, as fan service. Write up another culture the way you'd like to see it.
  • edited July 2007
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarHey Jason, I'm not sure what you want. I actually went back in there and described the weapons, as fan service. Write up another culture the way you'd like to see it.
    I may give one a shot.

    For the record, I wasn't trying to be critical of your particular piece (which I think was well done.) Reading it in the context of the challenge made me ponder writing about a topic in general v/s writing about a topic for use in a role-playing game and if there's any difference.

    *ends thread hijack and goes off the caculate the damage dice for a +1 Beaver Tooth Club*
  • Yay, Eyak Adventures.
  • Sorry for not being responsive on this: my workplace firewall shuts off Story Games. But I like what everyone has said so far! That Eyak stuff--terrific! (Though it's too specific for the original spec. But hey, I'm soft.)

    The reason I wanted big, broad stuff is because that's how this material is usually presented in RPG supplements. Instead of material devoted to the Eyak or one of their equally worthy neighbors, your game store carries Teepees & Tomahawks - Peoples of America Culture Supplement--with 50 pages devoted to spells, 20 pages to monsters, and maybe 3 pages of anything resembling cultural information that's actually useful at the table.

    If we're going to sit in judgment on the imaginary authors of Teepees & Tomahawks, I think we should appreciate the difficulty of that design spec: "Hey, explain an entire civilization, including numerous subgroups with almost nothing in common, in three pages. And make it respectful!" Teepees & Tomahawks is lame, but by definition it must be lame: the only question is how to make it the least-lame it can be.

    So, the Eyak stuff isn't quite on point. But I like it anyway, and I'm happy to continue the project ignoring the "broad civilizations" rule.

    More in a little bit, when I figure out what's meant by "outlines" and "licenses."
  • Yeah, but...

    1) They have 75+ pages of space.
    2) I think it's also worthwhile to question that entire premise. Can you really present a diverse group of cultures in a meaningful way in 1000 words? Why would you want to?
  • edited July 2007
    Posted By: Jonathan Walton
    1) They have 75+ pages of space.
    True, but I suspect that solely for the purposes of role-playing there's a limit to how much cultural info goes into a person's RAM. I'm guessing it's around 1,000 words, give or take. Totally anecdotal here, but I suspect more than that and either play bogs down completely, or players redact/forget stuff to get it down to a more handy size.
    2) I think it's also worthwhile to question that entire premise. Can you really present a diverse group of cultures in a meaningful way in 1000 words? Why would you want to?
    It's an absurd premise (see Rule 5B of the challenge) because it's impossible. I know nothing about the role-playing game industry, but it sounds like people thought it made more sense to create one $30 book than thirty $1 books. And then, since a lot of your fans are people who want to see monsters and magic systems and weapons, rather than read an anthropology treatise, your cultural info section is going to be pretty small--especially if there's a limit to how much people can meaningfully process. But I'm guessing.

    Still - heck, for our purposes I'm fine going with tribes, or ethnicities, or whatever people want to do. I just want to avoid, "Culture of Alphabet City, New York, from January 3, 2003 to February 10, 2003."
  • Umm, forgive me for being a bit humourless here, but this project makes me a bit uncomfortable. Rule 5B is all well and good, but I think it's worth noting that this is an absurd and potentially harmful notion. Writing cultures is a language of power. It's saying "this is authentic" and "this is not authentic", it's creating "otherness", and it's presenting dynamic, fluid and temporary communities as monolithic, static and permanent. Cultures are contradictory, experiential, and possibly non-existant. Writing cultures is impossible, in one or a hundred thousand words. They don't work like that. I'm down with this project as a way of demonstrating the absurdity of communicating culture in the written word, but it feels like that's not the way this is being taken. I'm especially uncomfortable with the idea of publishing anything that comes out of this thread. Writing about cultures, especially endanged cultures like the Eyak, is a very risky thing.
  • edited July 2007
    Posted By: Simon CWriting about cultures, especially endanged cultures like the Eyak, is a very risky thing.
    There is the flip side thought which says the not writing about changing cultures is dangerous as well.

    I do agree however, that try to write about a culture, even in a "moment in time" sense is about on par with trying to hold the ocean in your hands...
  • edited July 2007
    Posted By: Simon CI'm down with this project as a way of demonstrating the absurdity of communicating culture in the written word, but it feels like that's not the way this is being taken.
    1. Writing about other cultures is absurd
    2. And it's all we have.

    Simon, I completely agree with your comments and concerns; I share them. At the same time if we are paralyzed by these concerns, then it becomes impossible to converse about culture at all. I believe that having dialogues about culture (by playing Story Games, for us folks) is very important, and I hope embarking on a necessary and useful task can compensate for unavoidable or well-meant flaws in execution.

    Naturally I say this as a member of an absurdly over-privileged group, but if other people are offended by this challenge they're welcome to do it better. And I will fully support those efforts, because it's worth doing. But I do think the effort should be made by someone, somehow. To not engage in it, is to confess we can never understand one another--if that's the case, we might as well go back to the caves.
  • Hmm. I think this is a pretty difficult subject. I think that story games can be a really great way of exploring cultures, precisely because they expose the way cultures are shifting, negotiated, and temporary. They make cultures about people, rather than generalisations. They expose stories, rather than stereotypes. They also make little claim to "authenticity", which I think is a valuable standpoint. I guess that what I see with this project is a move away from what is so great about how story games can explore culture, and a move towards the more violent definition of (old fashioned) anthropology. In other words, this challenge is kind of doing the exact opposite of what I think would be most valuable. I think a cooler way to structure this challenge would be to take advantage of some of the awesome tools provided by story games. For example, writing a relationship map that explores issues of power and status in an Eyak village. Writing some TSoY Keys that portray masculinity in New Zealand culture. Heck, even writing some demons for Sorcerer that represent the old culture of Japan conflicting with the new. Cultures, like story games, are built on conflicts. I'd like to see that represented here.
  • I think a cooler way to structure this challenge would be to take advantage of some of the awesome tools provided by story games.
    Working on it. There's a lot of different things one can do with 1000 words, and I think waiting to see a few more of them is probably a good idea before you start booing this challenge. Personally, I'm looking forward to learning from the variety of ways people choose to write about culture as much as learning about various cultures and perspectives on them.
  • edited July 2007
    So, here's my entry, sadly quite outside the allowed 1000 words. I believe that delivering a proper picture of American culture, of which I am a native member, or of Japanese culture, into which I was a transplant, in so few words is beyond my ability. Thus, I present the following:


    When I was living in Japan, one of my professors, an American, asked his wife, a Japanese, to deliver a lecture for a class he was teaching on Japanese culture. The structure of the class was such that we would read an essay or paper by a particular scholar on a rather narrow topic, such as the debate over "weak legal consciousness" in Japan, and then the author or another scholar in the field would be invited to visit the University and speak. A goodly number accepted, which was rather nice. This professor's wife was a linguistics specialist, if I recall correctly, and she was to give a lecture related to a recent reading on "deep Japanese culture" - culture as perceived and experienced on a fundamental and essentially unconscious level by insiders of the culture (a mountain of a subject, to be sure). She delivered a lecture on some extremely specific and narrow topics in Japanese linguistics, making no reference to the subject beyond stating it in the title.

    On a later occasion, I was speaking with this professor, and this event came up. He mentioned that he had been surprised by the apparent mismatch between the topic and the lecture that his wife had delivered. Her reply (and I must apologize here, for I cannot help but recall his telling of it as being more illuminating than the pale reflection I am offering) was that she had approached the topic as directly as she could - that the material she had lectured on was, in her expertise as a linguist, as close to "deep Japanese culture" as she could imagine. She did not feel it appropriate to draw conclusions linking this material to the lecture's stated subject matter. Rather, she thought it best to present the example that she had in mind, and then to trust that those in the audience with the necessary background would draw the proper conclusions and connections on their own. Those who lacked the proper background would not benefit from hearing the conclusions.

    With this in mind, I present a link to Kenzaburo Oe's Nobel Prize lecture. I read it shortly after reading Oe's Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. Please read it as a few words by a man of great skill describing a particular facet of his experience, and take from it whatever your background allows. For those of you who prefer voice to text, please note the link to the audio recording at the top of the lecture.
  • Posted By: Simon CWriting some TSoY Keys that portray masculinity in New Zealand culture
    Key of She'll Be Right, Mate:
    Gain 1 XP when you express possibly unwarranted optimism.
    Gain 3 XP when you treat a significant task as trivial.

    It's actually more difficult than it looks at first. The more so since masculinity in NZ is changing, and varies depending on who you are. I wouldn't like to try doing it in 1000 words or keys, actually, which is probably your point, Simon.
  • So, I wrote 1000 words... but I'm only halfway done. I'm writing for Shock:, though, which I think is a really good system for capturing the dynamism and complexity of a society in transition, even if no science fiction is involved.

    I should have this finished up in a few days, hopefully, and then maybe I can try it out next week.
  • That sounds cool, Jonathan.

    Mike, yeah, it is hard. I'm working on my own thing for NZ, a Sorcerer supplement where the demons are long buried secrets from the past. Kind of like "The Sentinal", which is the creepiest movie I've ever seen. It's very much about pakeha New Zealand though. I think the key (?) to the Keys would be to make them a little broader, and to think hard about the counters, as well. I guess the reason I think Keys are a better way of doing it is because it doesn't assume masculinity is the same for everyone, and it presents it as a series of (possibly) conflicting goals and motivations, which is more useful, I think. But you're right, pinning down those Keys is super hard. Here's my own take on your Key of She'll Be Right, Mate, which I think is an awesome idea:

    Gain 1 XP when you avoid dealing with a problem.
    Gain 3 XP when you deal with a problem by yourself, when outside help is available.
    Counter: Allow someone else to significantly help you with a problem.

    I like it this way, because it captures the reticence to talk about emotional issues, as well as accepting help with physical tasks.
  • You see? Two Kiwis, two very different - almost opposite - takes on one of the iconic bits of slang and the attitude it expresses. Both accurate.
  • Yeah, absolutely. I find this stuff intensely interesting.
  • So from James' original comment:
    Posted By: James_NostackYou know, just to be semi-serious for a second, at the back of Gygax's 1985 "Oriental Adventures," he does a fairly nice 2-page summary of the basics of Chinese & Japanese feudal culture. This isn't meant to excuse the general wrongheadedness of "Oriental Adventures" as a concept and as a product, but as far as that particular setting material goes, people have done much worse (viz., Kara-Tur Campaign Setting, which is 100x bigger and utterly useless).

    Given the enormity and complexity of the subject matter, and an admittedly artificially-imposed limit of 1000 words or so, I would be shocked if someone could do much better.
    I'm wondering how to judge the contest from the original mandate. I'm looking at my 1985 copy of Oriental adventures, and I'm not sure what you're talking about. Do you mean the 4-page section from page 138 to 141 entitled "Daily Life in Kara-Tur"? That would be around 7000 words.

    Can you confirm that this is what you're talking about?
  • Posted By: DanielSolisIt'd be funny if someone did this writeup for "Humans."
    "Mostly harmless."
  • Yeah, the Daily Life thing -- 7000 words? Really? Wow. Okay, so, we'll stick with 1,000 words and allow smaller groups than "All of the Far East."
  • edited July 2007
    OK. I've entered in most of that online, missing some of the long coverage of law and justice.

    I'll quote the sections on manners below as a sample:
    The people of Kara-Tur, it is noticed by gajin, are extraordinarily polite as a rule. They often go to meticulous pain to behave in the correct manner. Indeed, among the higher classes, incorrect or poor manners is virtually as great a crime as murder and severe punishments can be levied upon those who knowingly or unknowingly commit some social faux pas. Correct manners mark clearly the differences between various social classes and, perhaps more importantly, help prevent the possibility of embarrassing oneself in public. This latter is of great importance, since there is perhaps no greater sin than to be laughed at by others.

    The bow is the most obvious expression of manners. It is not just a way of saying "Hello." It measures the respect one has for the person bowed to. Those of lower status bow lower to their superiors than their superiors do to them. Indeed, a high ranking official may barely nod to those under him. The greatest deference one can make is to kowtow -- kneel and touch one's head to the floor. This is normally done only in the presence of emperors and extremely powerful lords, but is sometimes necessary when apologizing to or begging forgivenes from another. Except in the presence of a powerful lord, kowtowing is an extreme act, since it represents the debasement and surrender of the person to another.

    Manners also extend to what one says to another person. Statements, even when spoken in jest, can be insulting and offensive. Comments about another person's honor, courage, dislikes, fears, family, dress, behavior, friends, and even his possessions can be cause for insult. Insults are seldom taken lightly. Truly generous people might be able to ignore one or two words spoken in jest, but even they would surely not be able to abide more. Therefore, to prevent insults, conversations are often stilted or phrased in extremely polite terms to avoid offence.

    It is the great concern over insults to honor and the risk of public ridicule that prompts so much of the politeness. Thus, the DM is allowed to cause player characters to lose honor when they do things that would bring them ridicule or make them look foolish. Player characters cannot be cavalier in their attitude, they must be careful of all they do and say.
  • Call me crazy, but that segment seems to describe medieval Europe just as well as anything else...
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarThere are two clans – Eagle and Raven, and they are exogamous – Eagles marry Ravens, and vice-versa.
    Hey, I get to be a stickler! They're not clans but moieties (super-clans), each comprising several clans (moiety --> clan --> family). That organisation is shared by many neighbouring, related cultures.

  • Don't stickle me! 1000 words! I had to make some tough choices about what to include and explain and what to leave out. My coverage of the potlatch is both a travesty and insulting to boot, for example. At least I mention moities elsewhere!
  • {Sticks tongue FIRMLY into cheek}

    Key of the StoryGames Poster
    1 XP: Accuse someone of vastly oversimplifying a complex subject
    3 XP: Vastly oversimplify a complex subject
    5 XP: Vastly oversimplify a complex subject in such a way as to imply that you've captured its essence
    Buyoff: Admit subjectivity
  • Now you're just oversimplif... ahem. Carry on. ^_^
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