[Runequest] cultures

Paul Cardwell carpgachair at yahoo.com
Thu Apr 23 03:56:05 EST 2009

by Paul Cardwell  copyright reserved

	Steve Jackson Games, has a line of game figures called "Cardboard Heroes".  These are strips of cardboard with the front and rear views of game characters; the strips are folded and weighted.  Many gamers with artistic ability make their own.  They have the advantage of low cost and light weight, but the disadvantage of being hard to recognize from the side.

	Rather than these figures representing the characters, a lot of RPG player's characters tend to resemble these figures.  They are easy to generate, even when min-maxing, but they still turn out to be the same two-dimentional rehash of bad Tolkein, Roddenbury, Lovecraft, etc.  Some game systems try to force a little variety by having charts of advantages and disadvantages to be chosen, but unless there is care in those choices, the characters can still come out as a collection of often contradictory statistics, rather than living individuals.

	There is a fairly easy approach to this problem: base your characters on real cultures in history.  This automatically brings in distinctive features in weapons, armor, trades, view of life, physical size, religion, hobbies, diet, musical instruments, and all the other features that make one character distinctive from another.

	As with anything else to achieve this, it is no magic formula.  The player pursuing this method may have to spend a little time in the library to get the finer points of the culture.  I found this out myself when my northern plains Indian PC advanced to the point of becoming a shaman.  Even though I had a graduate course in the field taught by a professor whose specialty was Lakota religion, I still took a few days working out how this occupation would affect the character in game terms.  All that work was saved and became the basis for the temporal plane shaman data in the revised Mythworld rules, currently in testplaying.

	Anthropological role-playing does have a couple of advantages: the character is interesting enough to be worth the effort, and a lot of this work is already done by the culture itself.  This still takes a bit of research, but when my booklet series reaches the publishing stage, a bibliography will be supplied with each culture; and the work will provide a basic outline of the culture's features.

	This system not only provides a source of playing characters, but NPCs and plot hooks as well.  How would the group react upon seeing some NPC from that culture?  More importantly, how would they react about coming on a whole village of this culture?  Would they be try to conform, or remain aloof?  Would they make faux pas according to the etiquette of that culture, and what would be the repercussions?  What if there were no common language; how would they communicate?  What about trade?  The possibilities are endless.

	I am quite open to additions to the outline which may have found use in your games.  Likewise, don't automatically think some are of no use at all - in one particular game, of course, but different situations bring different needs.  Let's remember that the Corps of Discovery would have had a much harder time if it weren't for Sacagewea and Jean-Baptist Charbineau showing this wasn't a war party (quite apart from meeting her long lost brother when they needed horses) and York's black skin impressed several tribes.  In WW-II, many Japanese soldier was killed while leaving a foxhole to defecate.  Examples of "minor" details becoming important are literally numerous.

	Currently in process are: Anasazi (and similar groups of that region), Anglo-Saxon, Arab (just before Mohammed), Australian Aborigine, Aztec, Celt, Crusader, Dyak, Eastern Woodland tribes, English/Welsh (100 Years War), Etruscan, Gaucho, Germanic tribes, Highlander (Stirling Bridge to Culloden), Indian (Vedic), Inuit, Israelite (Judges to United Kingdom), Ituri, Khmer, Landsnecht, Masai, Minoan, Mongol, Mushashugyo (an unemployed samurai interested in gaining proficiency in martial arts as a religious discipline), Norse, Pacific Northwest tribes, Plains Indian, Polynesian, Quilombos (Brazilian fortified communities of escaped slaves modeled on their African cultures), Roman (during the decline and splitting of the empire), Saami, San, Saracen, Shuar, Songhai, Yamabushi (Japanese temple warrior), and Zulu.  Since I am dealing primarily with fantasy, my criteria are: a wide geographical range, pre-gunpowder (or at least predominant use of firearms),
 sufficiently different from others in the series, and enough reliable information exists from history or the archeological record to fill the outline.

	These will be detailed according to the following outline: 

Correct stereotypes: what the culture was really like where different from usual concepts of what it was like
Problems adapting to game: can someone from this culture be a player's character or what changes must be made
Place of PC groups in NPC society: if only part of the culture can be a PC, how does that subculture differ and still fit into the society

Form of family: nuclear, extended, multigenerational, etc.
Marriage and divorce: monogamy or polygamy, divorce easy or difficult, attitudes toward adultry
How infants were carried: arms, cradleboard, sling, front, back, upright, horizontal, etc.
Women as adventurers: feasible or not under that culture's attitudes
Social rank and government: class, how leaders are selected, decentralized or centralized
Etiquette and enforcement: how elaborate are social behavior codes and how are they enforced
Slavery: extent, oppressiveness, and possibility of freedom

Cosmology and pantheon: gods and their remoteness, place of spirits
Liturgical form: of what did worship consist
Magic: was there a concept of magic and how restricted was its use, shamanism and nature of shamans
Funery custom: how did they dispose of dead including body position, grave goods

Graphic and sculpture: paintings, carvings, etc.
Music and dance: instruments, dances religious or secular
Sports and games: types of recreation other than work related
Tattoo and scarification: art extended to living bodies
Other: that which did not fit the above

Housing: architecture, materials, permanence, sleeping facilities, cooking inside or out
Sanitation: water supply and storage, waste (organic and trash) disposal
Clothing: by sex and season, and sometime status
Food: what did they eat and how did they get it
Packs and containers: how did they pack things for transport or storage
Fire-making technique and fuel: how did they make fire and what did they burn
Land transport and types of mounts: how did they cover distance on land and what powered it
Boats: how did they cover distance on water and what powered it

Missile weapons: type and how made, how used
Melee weapons (mounted): type and how made, how used
Melee weapon (dismounted): type and how made, how used
Weaponless combat: what did they do when unarmed and attacked
Shields: type and how made, how used
Armor: type and material

Military: how did organized groups use weapons
Individual: how did individuals or a small group (hunting party or raiders) use weapons

Modification to rolls: changes (usually in size) needed to conform primary rolls to physique
Availability of magic: could everyone use magic or just shamans, how did one become a shaman if limited
Cutural skills: any particular ability unique to that culture

What mythical animals did they believe were real, which symbolized what

What are the sources for this article

To remind one of the meaning of unusual words, which would interrupt the text to define there.

	The bibliography has been chosen with an intentional predominance of references which contain an abundance of pictures and/or major coverage of those activities which would relate most to the game situation (hunting, warfare, life on the move, etc.).  This will enable the gamer to have the proper miniature figures for the character (by conversion or scratch-building), as well as give an additional "feel" to properly design and play this type of character in the game.

	It is strongly encouraged that the reader examine as many of these books and articles as possible in order to see the variety within the basic outline presented in these monographs.  While not as frequent or severe, there were changes in style during the periods described, just as in our own time, the difference being more one of our rapid communication than anything else.

	This should provide a suitable starting point for the discussion. Unless participants want to go in a different direction, my next posting will be an appeal for information on the gaps in my own coverage of the listed cultures, with the hope that someone can provide the details.  Likewise, I will be glad to supply specific details for any questions for which I have found the answers - short of posting the entire booklet, of course.  :-)


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