Brave New World 8: How do you roleplay in a different culture?


Related to question 7, how do you encourage and support RPGs that revolve around a different culture? Do you need to have PCs as outsiders, or can you start with characters embedded in that culture? How do you ensure that everyone at the table understands the cultural background and assumptions of their characters?


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    PCs don't need to be outsiders, and for my interests it's better that they're mostly not. But the culture needs to be briefly summarised in a few bullet points and maybe deepened with play. And getting smaller details wrong has to be okay.

    I'm thinking here mainly from a historical roleplaying point of view. For fictional cultures, accuracy usually matters less to me.
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    I've done this both with PCs as insiders and as outsiders. It's much easier to have the PCs be outsiders because that way you don't have to rely on the players reading background material. But it's much more rewarding when the PCs are insiders, I find. Or rather I should rephrase that - the roleplaying experience is much more rewarding when the players have integrated their character culture into play, regardless of whether that character is an insider or an outsider.

    The wonderful thing about having character be outsiders is that the game world retains its sense of wonder and mystique. I think you want this most when playing fantasy. One of the main complaints I hear these days is that fantasy worlds lack that sense of wonder - and I'm not surprised, given the proliferation of the usual fantasy tropes (because it's easy or expected), which means that they tend to move toward a common fictional language. D&D is a game with a huge number of wondrous things, but because of the familiarity of the product and the ubiquity of the monsters and items in the game, there's little mystique for the players.

    So I like to run fantasy with outsider characters. They can walk into a town and wonder at the strange behaviour of the locals. They'll be prompted to ask them about this behaviour. And before you know it, the game is about exploring strange cultures, rather than about what kind of magic sword you can buy or how many hit points to BBEG has.

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    I've mentioned this before, but looking back at teenage efforts to play Empire of the Petal Throne, with its flamboyantly rich and diverse inner world, we totally failed to do it justice, and were just geeky south-of-England kids wandering round.

    I do think we did a better job with a game run by a friend who based the world on Pavane (which of course we read together a while back)... either he was a more accomplished GM or else we could relate to smaller levels of difference better than larger ones.
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    One thing I did for StarCluster 4 - Sweet Chariot is to do a tl;dr - a single page summary of the setting segment just described. Not only can this be used in lieu of reading the chapter, it can be used as a quick refresher.

    As always, the secret of running games in a rich culture is player buy-in. Once the players become invested in the concept, it becomes a joy, but if they are not 100% behind it, it can turn into a hateful slog.

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    Related to this, someone on the Indie Games Reading Club slack posted this old StoryGames thread on detailed settings and story games. There's a lot of chatter, but there are some gems in there.

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