by Wanderer Werewolf
©2009 Wanderer Werewolf

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   In real life, every race and nation becomes famed for some part of their culture—those performances and crafts that are considered typical. The Irish are famed for their lace, their crystal (Waterford), their folk music, their whiskey, and even their corned beef. Scotsmen are famed for shipbuilding (there’s a reason Montgomery Scott of Star Trek was Scottish), their kilts, their bagpipes, and a little dish called haggis (a sausage made from a sheep’s insides and oatmeal). Russians? Pysanky (decorated Easter eggs, including the ones created for the Czar by Fabergé), Russian dance (the cossack dance), vodka, and borscht (a rich beet soup traditionally made with a unique Russian liquor called kvass). Even America, young as it is, has become famous for soap operas (Dallas was watched worldwide), fast food, and movies. (Well, if you count Hollywood as part of America… ;) )
   But in most fantasy, science fiction and role-playing games, culture is rarely, if ever, seen. Dungeons and Dragons made a nod to elven textiles and dwarven carving back in 1st Edition; Star Trek made Klingon Opera, Vulcan gaming (kal-toh, for example) and Talaxian cooking famous. (Or infamous, in the case of Talaxian cooking; leola root, anyone?) But out of countless races and forms of culture, that was it. Nothing more was shown.
   To an extent, this is unavoidable in books and movies. While writers in the Golden Age of science fiction could get away with having a highly-intelligent character spout paragraphs of exposition about important devices and scientific principles, note that these information dumps focused on the science in science fiction. Most readers weren’t interested in a discussion of Martian architecture, Venusian cooking or Saturnian gas-shaping. In fantasy, it’s even harder to squeeze in without making at least one character sound like an intellectual prig; having a character digress on Elven statuary for a few pages is guaranteed to have the reader tapping his fingers, frowning, and muttering, “When is this going to be over?”
   (Movies can be notorious for omitting cultural references of any sort because of the cost and time constraints of the medium. George Lucas may be the most notable example, with culture in Star Wars limited to music and pod racing, but he’s far from unusual or extreme.)
   But it doesn’t have to be this way. It really is possible to have references to a culture for a race or region without dragging your game or story to a halt. The secret, as Lewis Carroll once said of adjectives, is that a few brief references, “like pepper, lend zest to what you write”. But too much, too many or too long can “spoil the matter quite”.
   The first rule is jokingly called the ATM rule: Avoid The Monologue. Unless your character is a high-flown intellectual or a tour guide, he’s not going to produce an hour-long digression on Elven textiles or Aldebaran ice sculpture off the top of his head. This is also known as the Roddenberry Rules of Dialogue:

  1. In the real world, people don’t stand around talking about how cars work. Why should the characters in your story stand around talking about how their vehicles, weapons or scanners work?
  2. Have people talk like people. Listen to an average conversation, and you can identify five subjects of discussion in as many minutes. People’s minds don’t sit still.

   The second rule is the Blurb rule: Keep your references short and interesting. In stories, this can be as simple as “he noticed the flowing lines of traditional Elven work”, or “the armor was forged in the plain style of the Deep Dwarves”. In games, this can be, “while you don’t understand the language, it looks like Klingon runes”.
   (Note that this can develop into running gags very easily, as was the case with Klingon opera in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise. Aside from one brief passage sung by Worf (played by the musical Michael Dorn), we never actually hear any Klingon opera. Yet we certainly hear about Klingon opera from a lot of people who don’t like it; Johnathan Archer compared it to the cries of an animal called a sehlat, while Riker half-joked that it made his ears bleed.)
   This can become particularly amusing in cases of ‘cultural bleed’, where one culture copies another’s crafts and styles. In real life, this has led to such things as badly-translated kanji tattoos, ersatz pysanky, and non-tartan kilts. Not that all cultural bleed is bad—fusion cuisines such as Tex-Mex, Japanese-Thai and others can be very good when done well. But in any case where someone is trying to copy something from a culture alien to their own, the possibilities for error are almost without limit.

   “Yes, the inscription on your mirror is very nice, but those Dwarven runes translate as ‘This shield costs twenty gold’.”

   This is before you consider purposeful fraud, of course.

   “What do you mean, it isn’t a real Elven cloak?”
   “Don’t get me wrong, it’s very nice… but it’s wool. Real Elven cloaks are made from woven vegetable fiber. If you paid even five gold for this, you’ve been swindled.”

   The final rule for cultural references is KISS: Keep It Simple, Sirs. (I like my readers.) This means not only keeping it short, as above, but also consistent. Decide ahead of time what different cultures are known for, and write it down. You can refer back to it for side notes and scene-setting, thus allowing you to keep the culture the same from one campaign or story to another. Two classic examples would be:
   Elves are known for woven textiles (made of vegetable fibers), wine, magic, and living in the forest.
   Dwarves are known for forging metal, carving stone, brewing beer and ale, making jewelery, and living in caves.
   (An important side note, which I’ve saved for last: Remember that what a culture is known for depends on the culture of the viewer. Bagpipes are stereotypically Scottish, but originated in Ireland; corned beef wasn’t originally an Irish dish, but just a means of preserving meat; French cooking is highly regarded because the cooking schools are French; and vodka, meaning ‘little water’, was originally an adjective meaning ‘diluted’, applied to ‘bread wine’… a Polish invention. This tends to blow the minds of those with little exposure to real members of other cultures.

   “I’m an elf, and I don’t live in the forest.”
   “Well, yes, but I mean traditional elves.”
   “… you realize that makes no sense, don’t you?”

   Remember: Culture as viewed by others tends to leave out a lot. You wouldn’t argue that there are no English chefs, so don’t forget that there are probably Elven styles of carving and jewelery-making, as well.)
   Now, how can this be incorporated into games? Consider:

   “A fine weapon you hold. She is from the smiths of Treverre, is she not? I shall treasure her all the more when I take her from your hand.”
   “Um, no. It’s a meng knife that I carved myself. Are you insane?”

   The same factors apply in science fiction: The Vargr of Traveller may have canine color vision (red-green colorblind), thus limiting the appeal of their fashions… but with their keen hearing, their weapons tend to be quieter. The Tellarites of Star Trek may be porcine and argumentative, with a love of mud baths… but their fashions translate well to other humanoid races (Deep Space Nine once showed a wedding gown in Tellarite Modern). Even Larry Niven’s Kzin, pure carnivores with attitude, produce an emergency medical foam that’s renowned throughout his Known Space setting. It does tend to produce scars, mind you—but to a Kzinti warrior, that’s a feature, not a bug.
   (This even works both ways. Vargr love Human-style spices, though not in Human-style combination; and Tellarites enjoy whiskey, while Kzin love a glass of warm bourbon. This can be amusing, and unsettling, when combined with the previous rule. It’s always a bit surprising to realize you’re the fascinating alien creature…)
   By giving even minor races something to do outside of adventuring, you make your world, whether in story or game, just a bit more believable and three-dimensional. In a way, it’s the same thing as TriTac Systems’ style of making sure your hero has a hobby skill; it gives the hero, and the culture, more of a personality when they do something besides fight.

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