Adding a Little Culture to Your Game

Crew DM/Gaming Advice

In re-watching Babylon 5, I have been thinking of two main concepts of RPG storytelling that are quite intertwined, community and politics. The station is essentially a large walled city with a large trading center being governed by a council of five races with a smaller general senate of smaller feudal cities they interact with as the city is a big political center as well.

So, in game terms, this is a metropolis in a neutral area in between the empires of Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Dragonborn and Gnome with a smattering of other races having small cities and small empires, like tabaxi, orc, lizardfolk, triton, kenku, and so forth. These can all meet in their public areas for business and pleasure, as well as use the place as neutral ground to help settle disputes or perhaps to start them. The game series of Democracy and Tropico both put you in the role of a political leader having to use your power to change policies and appease the various citizens, and King of Dragon Pass is a great clan building game with RP elements where your Clan Ring advises you. Take a look at this video from Divinity: Dragon Commander as an example of the sort of diplomatic discussions and votes. based on the personality of the representatives as seen here, and summarized below:

  • Undead: Reactionary, dedicated to upholding the status quo and are highly theocratic.
  • Dwarves: Conservative, support traditional “family values” and often back the military. They also have something of a capitalistic streak, as they oppose most business regulation and have a noted dislike of the taxman.
  • Imps: Technocratic centrists, highly pragmatic and focused on simply looking out for number one.
  • Lizards: Liberal, strongly back the ideals of progressive ideology, to the point of actually having a fairly democratic society. Their councilor even tells this straight to the Emperor, and actively bemoans his ilk’s tendency to curtail the rights of his people for the sake of his own ego. On the other hand, they’re more than willing to pressure others to play along even if their own societies don’t want to, such as advocating that all races have referendums on democracy whether they want it or not, and advocating things like smoking bans and limiting reproductive rights for imps.
  • Elves: Radical, have views everyone else considers “out there” and tend to propose highly irregular legislation. They also have an environmentalist bent.

Political stories can be hard stories to tell, with all the shifting allegiances and secrets as we see in various shows and movies like Game of Thrones, Agents of Shield or pretty much any spy based movie around. There are some options to work with this, as you can see in this Gamasutra article about politics and economy in video games. Probably the easiest way to deal with politics is getting away from trying to tell what some would consider a Machiavellian type of political intrigue story and instead just focus on the simple sides of things, like what would happen if someone took religious doctrine and turned it into extreme political rules, as seen in this review of Ultima 5 or in Ultima 6 which is about a race whose world is coming to an end because of an item you stole from them in an earlier game and neither side even tries social interaction, leaving that route for the player. Secondly, some game settings will give you splatbooks with pages and pages of information on how to work with inter-relations of various groups for RP elements. For example, Shadowrun did a boxed set for the city of Denver which is essentially like Babylon 5 as it is a city split across five governments which each vying for power not to mention the mega-corporations. World of Darkness, A Song of Ice and Fire, GURPS, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the Babylon 5 RPG have some great stuff for figuring out how you may wish to work the political (some may generalize it under social) angle into your games. If you want to get into the mindset of playing a hidden information game like politics, you can also want to look into video games like Civilization, The Guild, and Town of Salem and board games like Diplomacy, Munchkin, Resistance, Twilight Imperium, even old school games like Poker and Chess. Pretty much any competitive multiplayer game involving either resource management as a way to a victory condition or player versus player confrontational mechanics will help understand the detailed thought processes you have to consider. At every stage, there will be questions like:

  • Do you ally with this person, given the only information you have is what the game shows and what they say?
  • If you do ally with them, will they give you what you want when you need it?
  • If someone has what you need, exactly what are you willing to give up to get it?
  • Are you willing to go to war with someone over this issue?
  • Are you able to defend yourself if someone else decides to go to war with you?
  • Do you believe you could reasonable bluff to get out of a tight spot?
  • How many favors and debts are you willing to rack up?

The biggest element I can think of in making a believable political style campaign is making each side fleshed out enough to be able to decide what their motivations and goals are and how they would achieve it. You will probably need at least three or four groups to work with; the player’s side, the enemy side, and then allies and red herrings to use on the players. A classic is the Cold War USA versus Russia style where both sides are waiting for trouble and people’s loyalties are questioned in effort to keep secrets safe from the opposition.

You will probably only want to have a few specific representatives to deal with when running a political side of things. Rulers, ambassadors, guild leaders, these are the representative heads the players will interact with.It keeps the personalities small, as you see on shows like Game Of Thrones, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. Less NPCs for you to keep track off, less for the players to remember to deal with. You might include a random member for some covert meetings and such but usually they fade into shadows or do a coup of leadership in question.

Just remember, if you’re going to decide to try a political style game, you are going to want to have rewards available that the players can tangibly interact with. Sure, favors may be a really powerful tool as RPGs like World of Darkness show us with their Contacts/Allies type of Background. These are the reporter that you call for the inside track on the news, the police chief you ask to get you out of trouble, the doctor who patches you up on the sly. However, player characters will want some sort of rewards that they would get by going out into the dungeons. They want to see their characters getting powerful by getting rewards like gold to their treasury, a residence, maybe some weapon and armor for the rank in the military they are supposed to have. Things that they can use as benchmarks to show their path to success, unless you can get them to buy into this idea of a political campaign focus. You could always use it as a backdrop and have them have tangential interactions with it, but then it isn’t as important since they don’t see the inner workings.

Getting away from politics, which I can expound upon things like implementation in campaigns later posts if there is interest, we come to the idea of community. With all the species and cultures intermingling on Babylon 5 you get to experience different religious beliefs, choices of entertainment, even what might be considered simple things such as what and how they eat or even hand gestures and color choices in clothes. Look at some examples of culture difference:

  • In China, if you eat everything on your plate your host will believe they did not provide you enough, while in North America leaving food on your plate can be taken as a sign you didn’t like it
  • The V for victory sign can be an insulting gesture in British culture
  • The Islamic women that need to cover themselves up in burqas while a lot of popular fashion designs elsewhere seem about showing as much skin as possible
  • The concept of the sacred cow in India compared to hamburger chains through North America
  • Eating kosher in Jewish belief or eating raw fish in Japanese culture compared to other cultures
  • The hand that you eat with is important, as in Muslim countries the left hand is believed to be dirty so they eat with the right hand only

In a setting with different species, we start getting into even larger examples like how do they deal with their dead or do they eat live food. Klingons in Star Trek eat a food called Gagh that is essentially eating live worms and that is normal to them. Perhaps your Orcs are a shamanistic religion that bites the head off a chicken and pours its blood into a bowl to see the future and maybe the Gnomes have a belief to cook and serve the dead as a meal at a wake so everyone will be able to leave with a piece of the deceased. These are things that you can pepper into your campaign to help set the races apart beyond just their reactions and their backstories. Anyone who played Pathfinder should have encountered the Bleaching to some degree, where Gnomes who stopped experiencing new things lost their color and became morose and were distanced from Gnome society, and they were now dying. Dragonlance Kender with no fear and an uncanny ability to ‘find’ other people’s things in their possession (usually due to them having the attention span of small children) was another great racial detail to make them stand out from just being stat bonii.

One great example of the differences of cultures being a key plot point can be seen in Enemy Mine, where pilots from two warring species are stranded on a planet and must get over their hatred for each other and start working together for survival. This allowed them to have to deal with each others’ cultural habits. We also see this in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darmok which has a race that speaks only in allegory and the troubles of understanding with the race. The differences that you decide to focus on may be the smallest little thing, as Babylon 5 shows us with the Drazi about the color of their sashes, sort of a more modern take on The Original Series Star Trek’s ‘The Last Battlefield’ Black and White aliens. You just need to make sure that the differences are of enough importance to the parties involved that they will be interested in reacting. Things that affect their way of life, such as their safety or source of income are great examples, so encroaching on their hunting lands or disrespecting a holy site are great examples. Even just a chance meeting in the marketplace, with one culture having a reaction over the simple displaying of hanging animals at the stall, like we see in a stroll through Chinatown today.