Saturday, March 17, 2018

Random Culture Generator Part 1 (LSotN Design Post - Basic Thoughts)

It's been over two weeks ... this blog needs some words! Something I have to tackle at some point for the game I'm writing, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, is a Random Culture Generator. It's something rarely done for role-playing games. Let's find out why. But before we get into that, I'd like to take a look at what I already wrote on the subject and where I'm at with all this.

Ideas about culture

First, check out this post from 2016 reflecting on a post from 2014 (yeah, I'm slow processing like that). I'll also loosely take ideas from Jordan B. Peterson's book Maps of Meaning (or rather, the 2016 lecture about the topic, which I highly recommend checking out). You won't need all this to read the post, but documentation is everything and it's good reading/listening.

One might think the good thing with settings for role-playing games that lean heavily on history is that culture comes easy. It might be somewhat true, as it seems somewhat more archaic compared to what we call "culture" today. Easier, in a way. However, as soon as you look a bit closer you'll find that on the one hand cultures, even 2000 years ago and earlier, had been very diverse. On the other hand, humans will always be humans and we can recognize that over time.

So there is patterns that will always surface and variants that might go in all different kinds of directions, depending on the circumstances. You can define those people exploring, recognizing and reproducing those patterns in an abstract way as artists. And it is an important distinction in as afar as it explains how art seems to be what lasts (here's a good talk on creativity and art).
It also gives those old stories and fairy tales an easy credibility. They touch on something. That said, it's crucial to keep the "abstract" part of it in mind, just as important it is to recognize that our ancestors found ways to comprehend and communicate what they (what we) are. Psychology and biology have proven all of that nowadays, interestingly enough.

There is evidence that fairy tales are very, very old ... [source]
I had a dispute once with a guy about how I believed that there's ultimately no difference between believing that a thunderstorm is the gods making some noise or believing whatever scientific explanation we have come up with. He thought the idea was atrocious. I didn't know then what I know now, but I defended my case (and lost a friend).
Today I'd just point towards the research and advice him to make up his own opinion on the subject. I think it all comes down to pragmatism: it's a philosophy stating that you don't need to know the whole "truth" to construe a working theory for anything.
Here's an example: there's this famous cave found in Turkey that emits deadly fumes and had been worshiped as an entrance into Hades way back in the past. You'll notice that both the archaic and the scientific approach will yield somewhat the same results: they'll tell a story about how dangerous the cave is. The pragmatic part is, that you can tell it anyway you want as long as the result is what you intended it to be.
Reconstruction of the temple at the entrance to Hades! [source]
At their core, cultures are formed around this thinking. We can use that for our games.

OD&D and 10 year olds (intermission)

When D&D came out in the early 70s, it became hugely popular and to a huge degree with very young players. The reasons for this are very much described above: D&D described the world in abstract patterns and even without fully grasping the rules, the concepts themselves are so true to how we analyze, deconstruct and communicate the world around us (brilliantly so, I might add), that the success cannot be a surprise.

I've heard people claiming they had been as young as 8 when they first started playing. I had been 12 when I DMed my first game. Now, after roughly 25 years of playing role-playing games, it's somewhat hard to look back and understand how we could grasp the game back then, being so young and all that.

Again, it can be explained with pragmatism. It's how the mind explores the world in simulations. We all know this and we all know how good children are at it, too. So I'd say, children can grasp the game for those reasons at an almost instinctive level.
Found this great pic over at reddit .. [source]
I once drove with a guy from Leipzig to Ulm. We'd talked about role-playing games, as he hadn't the first idea about it to begin with and I like talking about it. We talked a bit about the basics and he recognized them from a game his 6 year old son played with his friends called "Level". They had a game master that gave a premise (like "you are stuck on an island") and the players had to negotiate their way out of the situation.

They didn't use dice or anything, but rules seemed to emerge naturally as they played along (established from the shared narrative, as I understood it). They'd been camping once and he had an opportunity to experience it first hand (as a spectator, as he had been cooking) and he described the game as fun and creative and as very social.
That's anecdotal, of course, but there are many, many stories like that out there, but it seems to underline the connection I described above: we explain the world in stories and we explore it in simulated stories. D&D is a game about exploration and children grasp that on a very archaic level.

If you look for any "deep" meaning in role-playing games, this is where it's at.


Here's a sentence from that lecture linked above that stuck with me: " You don't resurrect your father, you become the puppet of death." This needs context, of course. The basic idea here is that across time and cultures we have an understanding of duality in the world. Yin and yang, male and female, chaos and order ... it's very well represented in the three-fold alignment system in D&D, actually.
However, you'll have the same in almost all religions and pantheons in some form or another. Tiamat and Abzu are the oldest we know, but you'll find variations of that theme all over the place once you start looking. It's one of those patterns that keeps turning up. The two concepts interacting here are chaos (female, yin, nature, ...) and order (male, yang, culture ...). It's powerful stuff.
The individual and the world ... [source]
To bring the male/female aspect into it is necessary to understand fundamental functions of the genders in human society. Females are allegory for natural selection, so that's the nature part covered. Males are create the conditions and hierarchies in which the selection takes place, and that's culture.

Again, very abstract concepts condensed to pragmatic theories to make interaction work. However, read the stories that stayed around for thousands of years (pick any source, really, the Bible, the Tao Te King, the Edda, Grimm's fairy tales ... you name it) and you'll find them telling you about life in all the detail you can imagine.

Another pattern you'll see emerge on a regular basis is the fluidity of all things. The gods fight and love and betray and create and everything has consequences. It's what that quote above refers to: the father figure represents culture and people have to keep it alive (actually "resurrect" it, as in, making it a conscious act) or they'll become "puppets of death", which is another way of saying "governed by chaos".

It's a great example of the dynamics of culture, as it shows what happens when culture/order is neglected: chaos will rear its ugly head. It could be argued that the rise of fascism in the 20th Century is exactly that.

The third prominent pattern is the hero facing all kinds of challenges to overcome chaos. I that sense the knight facing the dragon could be an allegory for a man courting a woman or a woman facing mental illness or a child facing a bully (among other things, in all kinds of varying scales).
Heroes are agents of order, fighting chaos in an ever changing world to achieve some sort of balance ...

Things that go bump in the night

A word on monsters in that regard. Humans basically think of their surroundings in 3 categories: (1) safe territory (order, routine, home), (2) risks outside the comfort zone (all the things we know we shouldn't do for reasons) and (3) the unknown (chaos).
Monsters are traditionally situated in the unknown. It's the first thing you imagine when you wake up at night in the dark because of some noise. The first thing we imagine is a chimera of possible dangers. Then we start exploring, maybe by listening if the noise occurs again, then by turning on the light, and lastly by getting up and looking for the origin of the noise. It's a simple example of facing your fear, too.
This is all monsters ... [source]
But this applies to the big pictures as well. States work like that, institutions and religion. It's why we have borders, it's the reason for cultural distinction through, say, dialects or local cuisine. Because we can only accept a limited amount of shared safe territory before we decline to risks (the barbarians beyond the border, for instance) and the unknown (climate change, maybe, epidemics, the threat of terrorism ... everything we only have a vague notion of).

Risks and the unknown needn't be bad. So it might be risky to ski down a mountain, but the prestige might be worth it. And the unknown? That's the dragon from mythology and if you can overcome that, there's always a hoard, right (analogue to the idea of fighting terrorism to gain freedom, maybe)? But you might also break your leg skiing down that hill (low risk, low reward) or the dragon might kill you (high risk, high reward).
And here's another thing: people can be destructive forces as well. Agents of chaos, monsters. It's all part of the whole thing ...

Generating culture randomly

All this describes the dynamics of culture. It's the pattern we need to copy to create a credible culture from scratch or even on the fly. Ideally with one roll, right? The pieces we have are the duality of all things, the strive for balance through agents of order, the limits of cultural perception (or range?) categorized as safe, risky and unknown, and the circumstances surrounding and shaping a specific cultural entity over time.

Building something like that is what Part 2 will be about. Lost Songs already has a Random Territory Generator and a Random Narrative Generator (that works exactly for the reasons described above because it is based on fairy tales) that produce entities of chaos and order on different levels, so all I need to do is bring all of that together in a meaningful way.

Next time.

I think I need to close this by stressing that I have no interest at all to have a political discussion about any of the above. I intent to use this for my elf games, yes, and I believe that the assumptions I base the designs on are scientifically proven as much as they are rooted in our psyche. I might be wrong, but even if so, what does it matter if it works enough to make for a better game. Pragmatism, right? If it works, it's good enough.

Might not be true, works nonetheless ... [source]


  1. I touched on some of this myself a couple of years ago - not in anything like this kind of depth however, as usual you go deep beyond the surface to try and get to the workings underneath.

    In my case I was trying to decide what 'the map' (the old B/X-BECMI 'Known World' continent map) actually told us of the (objective) world, rather than what it told us about what map-makers from the south-east corner of the continent thought they knew about the world.

    Taking Thyatis as a loosely Graeco-Roman analogue, and the 'Known World' map as being something a little like Ptolemy's map, how would that impact on what is 'real', the further one gets from Thyatis?

    I still have loads of half-finished maps, and a partially-written Herodotus for the Known World, and am no closer to deciding what is 'real' in terms of geography or anthropology for the distant regions. Is there a civilisation of wizards beyond the Republic of Darokin? Is there a great grassy plain where horsemen ride endlessly? Who are the fierce Children of Atruaghin? Or are these just travellers' tales? It doesn't matter, in my last 3 campaigns (all set in the Known World), I don't think anyone's gone more than about 50 miles from their point of origin. They have barely moved from the known to the slightly-less-known, let alone the really unknown.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Yes, very much the same principles, Red! I think it needn't be precise as long as games start in Thyatis. Not sure if you ever need to specify anything beyond the horizon of expectation the players believe their characters have. I've argued before that as long as the outcome is believable, you don't need to have anything prepared (other than for the peace of mind, maybe) and I think that is because we are so used to connect the dots, we are actually happy when we get to do it. I'll try and explore this whole thing further in the near future.

      That "Sea of the OSR" really had been a nice idea.

    2. I agree. The main reason I as DM 'want to know' now is because I have a vague idea that different areas have different 'cultures'... so if someone wants to be a pseudo-Viking they come from the north-east, if they're a grandiose Imperial they come from the south-east or whatever. But that's just colouring for the player, it has no real in-game effect. Maybe it should, and also, maybe it shouldn't make a difference to me. If the player has and idea for where their character comes from, I should probably let them and work out how it fits afterwards.

      Thinking about this stuff makes me wonder. I've been thinking about the journey from Glantri to Thyatis or the other way. The Thyatians are seagoing, and would probably sail west then go upriver. Boats are a big part of their culture. Their mental map of the journey would be waterborne. The Glantrians live in a mountainous, landlocked country. They'd go round the Great Forest and over the mountains near Selenica to get to Thyatis. Glantrian maps would look completely different for the journey to Thyatis, because they would encapsulate a radically different world-view. The two cultures' mental geography, how they conceptualise space, distance and travel, would be completely different.

      I liked the 'Sea of OSR', it was cool, shame I found out about it far to late (and that it didn't really take off).


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