Five Things about Writing Fictional Cultures

Here are five things I’ve learnt about writings cultures over the years:

1) Cultures are not monolithic.

Cultures are defined by disagreement as much as agreement. There need be no greater example beyond looking at our own modern cultures and divisions within them. Someone from outside the culture would often look at a heated disagreement with perplexed eyes, not understanding why it is even a thing.

Frequently, in fiction and especially in live roleplay games, we see cultures a single homogenous units. It is often because stories need simplicity, but the expectation is that every member of a single culture would be in agreement about any given topic. The spectre of “playing off brief” haunts us.

But culture is more than just a list of things we agree about, it is also a list of things we disagree about. What is central to the culture is simply that this thing is worthy of disagreement, that the subject is of significance. The issue defines us, because we care about it, not necessarily because we are in agreement. To go against the brief is to be apathetic about what it values.

Which is to say, the brief should indicate that members of this culture consider scones and the sequence of condiments to be of great importance. It should also outline what the culturally sanctioned admonishments are the norm.

When writing a brief, I try to outline the disagreements within that culture and what points of contension are. Ragnarok, an event I helped write years ago, saw the meeting of heroes from different ages of history[2]. The brief of each age stressed the importance honour and good deaths, though no age was in agreement about what these terms mean. For the Axe Age, a good death lay in physical combat, the proverbial dying with one’s sword in one’s hand, but for the Wolf Age, a good death was one in the pursuit of vengeance.

2) The Five Things format is Pretty Good

I’ve been enamoured of the “Five Things” format for culture briefs in live roleplay games ever since I read the Odyssey nation briefs[2].

For those who aren’t aware, the format outlines Five Things[3] the culture considers important. It’s usually phrased as “Five Things Every BLANK Knows.[4]”

I’ve changed in how I phrase these over the years. At first I wrote most of them as statements that every character in the setting should know and care about. Such as, everyone from the Wolf Age knew that All true civilisation is based on the threat of vengeance, and everyone from the Axe Age knew that Norsca is the land carved from the frozen wastes by Bjorn and Regna.

Later briefs have shifted from facts about the setting to a pharsing that prompts the player to thinking about what their character values and how they fit in that setting. So every Venetian at Beast Below was prompted to consider what their favourite indulgence was because there is no meaningful existence after death; unique and interesting experiences are what ultimately matter. They are also asked to know Who your enemies are and what they fear. The greatest victory comes not from the deaths of your enemies after all, what is death but an end to their suffering? but from their shame and humiliation as they are forced to endure the torment that their life has become.

This shifts the focus away from giving the player a list of things they need to know about the setting and into how they should define their character, helping them think about the things that matter to the character before they go in play.

3) How to Flatter & How to Insult

Crucial to outlining a culture’s outlook is detailing how to flatter and insult a member of it. It casts a light on what they value and what they take pride in. Furthermore, it’s not always easy to be mean to someone in character, especially when it comes to finding appropriate insults. A few bullet points in this area not only sets up conflict but helps everyone not fall back on lazy out of character insults that end up being about a player and not the character.

At Beast Below, this were the ways a Venetian could be flattered:

  • Commend their taste and discernment in their friends, associates and enemies. A well chosen enemy is as worthy of admiration as a well chosen friend.
  • Suggest that you are willing to fight a duel in their name.
  • Ask about a recent business deal and commend their wiliness and cunning
  • Compliment their clothing for its finery and expense.

At Beast Below, this were a few ways you could insult a Venetian:

  • Suggest are careless with their eating bowl, that they do not know where it is or that they allow scoundrels to wash it for them[5].
  • Insinuate that they are frittering their time away on idleness.
  • Suggest that they are slow or easy to deceive.
  • Challenge them to an unequal duel, such as telling them that you can win with your hand tied behind your back.

4) Who are the Non Player Characters?

Short of setting my game in a post apocalyptic setting where the player characters are the only people left alive, there will be non player characters. There will be a whole world to fill of people and it’s important to think about the relationship between them and the player characters.

Given how the players are the ones with influence and agency in the setting, it might be useful to given them some sort of unique status. The players are those who are chosen by fate, or they are the children of the gods, etc. The player characters will effectively exist in their own subculture bubble, so reflecting this in the setting could enhance it. Such as if the characters all belonged to various knightly orders and the non player characters were the common folk or even the nonmilitant church at large, they would likely have a different outlook on things and have a subtly (or not so subtly) different culture.

5) Funerals and Weddings

Characters are prone to dying and getting married, but more broadly, personal cultural milestones are useful to pace one’s character development to. Coming of age ceremonies, gift giving, declaring one’s intent to court, tests of mettle, rituals of selling laziness[6], etc can all be interesting to play.

Very broadly:

  • Interesting traditions are ones that engage lots of people. Watching something is a lot less fun than doing it.
  • Ceremonies and rituals should also be brief. No matter how charistmatic a speaker is, if they’re talking for more than a few minutes, it will become tedious.
  • Certain actions or gestures are just more physically satisfying to do. They are kinaesthetically pleasing. Kneeling, for example, is very different than sitting. Incorporating the appropriate physicality to a ritual in important.
  • Mourning can get exhausting and the players themselves can get emotionally fatigued. Thing on the death rate of the game and thus how often last rites will have to be performed as well as the importance of public mourning in the culture. One way of sidestepping having to do funerals would be to have the culture possess a taboo about touching corpses.

There are two ways of looking at writing traditions for funerals and weddings. Most players will default to something looking a lot like modern ones unless provided with an alternative. This isn’t necessarily a problem as drawing on the modern can be evocative in that it resembles something the players find familiar. After all, cinematic brides will inevitably wear white regardless of whether or not it is appropriate to the historical era of the film.

On the other hand, a very differently structured funeral or wedding can be fascinating to play. Many player seek to explore different cultures and mindsets in live roleplay, after all .Stepping away from the format of a priest or person of authority presiding over the ceremony is an easy way to give it a very feel.

For example, House Villanova at Beast Below had the following marriage ceremony: Vows are spoken by the couple, but they are framed as a duel. Each promises that if they lose the duel, they will love and be loyal to the winner. Other oaths are added to this, also contingent on the winning (or losing) of the fight.
The couple are then chained to one another and they fight. Sometimes the winner is predetermiend and the fight is just for show.

[1] They were all taken there after death to the setting’s equivalent of Valhalla.

[2] It’s entirely possible that someone else came up with it first elsewhere.

[3] It doesn’t have to be five, of course. But more than ten is likely going to dilute the coherence of the culture.

[4] I’ve seen a lot of variants over the years on how the list should be phrased. Given 1) of this list, I’m toying with the idea of whatever next culture I write open with Five Things Every BLANK Will Argue With You About.

[5] Yes, live roleplay settings I write overwhelmingly have cultural traditions obsessed with taking care of your own washing up.

[6] A real thing, done annually.