Searching for My Neo-Fantasy: Culture and Laying Down the Foundation

Posted: August 3, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Campaign Design, Roleplaying Games

The thing with making a setting inspired by real-world cultures is that you need a lot of vivid detail, but have to be careful to not overwhelm your readers (and players!) with too much texture.  After all, not everyone has done the backbreaking amounts of research into real world cultures as you have, so it’s your job to make that information accessible to them.

So for my upcoming fantasy campaign, I’ve decided to see if I can put something together that uses real world cultures for inspiration.  Having had a chance to read up on Guy Gavriel Kay’s excellent Under Heaven and Lions of Al-Rassan, I find myself encouraged to take steps to making a fantasy setting with solid foundations on the real world.

As such here are a few early key points of the campaign (which will in turn, influence the options in terms of which system to use):

  • Humans only – I’d like to keep things in a level where humanity is the race in the setting.  There’s plenty of diversity with regards to culture, and I feel that adding more races into the mix will muddy the appreciation of that.  I’ve seen other fantasy settings where humans run a huge spectrum of cultures… only to be let down when the elves and dwarves fall into monoculture stereotypes.  As such, I’ve decided to stick to humans for this campaign setting.
  • A clash of faiths – Religion and ideology is very much a central part of a civilization’s culture… inspiring art, literature and music in all nations.  Even those countries who do not necessarily have a religion have some other ideology to take its place, whether it’s the worship of a central father-figure of a country, or the virtues of freedom and liberty.  As such the clash of such forms of Faith should be central to the setting.
  • Magic exists – This being a fantasy setting, I’m inclined to allow magic.  That said, I’ve always believed that magic should be a slow and deliberate process.  Rituals and ceremony is the norm, while “fast-casting” should be rare.  Magic should also be the purview of a given social class, often those of the priestly castes or the intellectuals.
  • Strong visuals – The greatest draw of a setting with strong cultures would be having a strong visual identity.  The look of warrior of an Asian-inspired culture, for example would be very different from one with an image drawn from that of an African culture.  I’ll have to really work hard on this as I tend to be less “visual” when I describe things.
  • Different, but the same – Cultures enjoy cross-pollination.  Even those who are at war learn to pick up tricks from the other side if it works better.  As such it’s important to have some common ground between certain cultures, whether it’s loan-words in their vocabulary, to similar technologies.
  • Regional scale – I’m no genius at world building, so my focus will be to a regional scale.  At this point I’m considering using a small region of the world, leaving the rest of the planet relatively unknown, or at least handwaved to obscurity until I’m confident enough to expand further.
  • Loyalty to Home – Each culture that I build will have to be one where it is easy to generate a character with a reason to like being part of that culture.  Biases and stereotypes will abound, but in a fashion no different from real life.  Not every culture will enjoy wealth or power, but will have that special something that will make them interesting to play.
That was a longer list than I was originally planning, but I think that this adequately discusses the Culture aspect of the setting I’ve been thinking of.  With regards to system, there’s still plenty that can do all of these, as the culture often does not depend on system to execute.
  1. Hikkikomori says:

    Magic is always a tricky subject.

    I like my Magical settings to have limitations on the use of such, and/or a policing body – tangible or otherwise, that keeps magic users in check. Fast-casting or ritualized, the presence of magic always adds another layer of difficulty with regards to maintaining status quo.

    Because if there is no one keeping the balance – then we’d all have dead Aeriths.

  2. dbro36 says:

    Interesting thoughts. As I am working on my own game system, these are thoughts I should take into account as well. Then again, I deliberately decided to write a game system, and not a game world. So in all fairness, I should include “stereotypical” Dwarves and Elves for those people that wish to use them, even though I myself am of the same inclination as you are, to use Humans only. Cultural differences are just as interesting as different races. Perhaps even more interesting, as I have grown to become jaded with the ever odd combinations of adventurers we have to deal with. Good luck on the world building. It sounds promising already, taking fantasy in a different direction than the trodden path.

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