Thursday, April 11, 2019

Creating original cultural features in OA settings

A semi-random thought hit me earlier today. Thinking about my original Zhongyang Dalu setting, I was considering ways to merge elements of various Asian cultures (and sometimes non-Asian cultural elements) into original cultures. That's basically what Gygax and Arneson did in their campaigns, just with mostly European historical cultures as the basis of their ideas.

In simpler terms, using discrete cultural elements as LEGO bricks and using them to construct a fantasy culture.

Then, something I'd thought about last year came back to me. In 1E OA (and in the 3E book's setting of Rokugan), social status is defined by the Japanese cultural caste system. Originally Confucian in origin (and possibly being influenced by the Indian caste system despite its differences), you get what I used in Chanbara. Nobles at the top, the "buke" (samurai caste) of warriors next, then commoners (in theory anyway), artisans, merchants (money for nothing [interest/mark-ups on goods] makes them rich but gets them no respect), and untouchables at the very bottom.

But in Korea, while there was a hereditary aristocracy, the Yangban, the real movers and shakers were people who could pass the Civil Service exam (in some eras of Chinese history this is also the case). Bureaucrats, functionaries, auditors, inspectors, governors, tax collectors, historians -- these were the influential members of society in Joseon Korea. Well, them along with the Military Service, which was also exam based.

It didn't matter how low-born you were (again, in theory), if you could pass the Civil or Military Service exam, you were made into an agent of the crown. In practice, low-born members like the Korean hero Yi Sun-shin, the admiral who helped defeat the Japanese invasions in the 16th century, faced discrimination and plotting by officials of aristocratic birth. But social mobility was possible.

I think this sort of social structure might be more conducive to an RPG setting than one where you're pretty much set in your social status at birth. Granted, in Japan's Warring States period, commoners who fought well could be granted samurai status. And in the same era and later in the Edo period after the wars were over, merchants with enough cash could purchase samurai status for themselves or more often for their children.

But in Korea, if you studied hard enough, you could rise easily through the ranks.

So, one thing to think about when designing fantasy OA cultures is to consider the social hierarchies and how people moved (or were prevented from moving) within them. The Mongolians had a more egalitarian society. Anyone who was a good warrior and leader could become khan, and you only remained khan as long as you were militarily successful or politically savvy. I'd need to study up a bit more on Philippine and SE Asian cultures, but I would bet the Thais, Burmese, and others may have had different structures as well.

Of course, in addition to politics and social structure, religion is important. And synchretism is the order of the day. There were many native animist practices in most regions of East Asia. There were Hinduism and Buddhism influences from India. There are Taoism and Confucianism (not originally religions, more just belief systems but made religious over time) from China. There is Bushido (again not really a religion but sometimes treated as one de facto) from Japan and Legalism from China. And in practice, they all blend together to some degree or other.

The Chinese conception of Buddhist Heaven isn't Nirvana, it's basically the Taoist conception of the realm of spirits and immortals, just with Buddha added in as the top boss. Shinto (animism) blends with Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan. In Korea, Buddhism was seen as an unwanted foreign influence by the government, who pushed a version of Neo-Confucianism as the primary philosophy for the people. Christian and Muslim missionaries were in China during the 8th or 9th century, maybe earlier.

Take elements from the above (and other belief systems, or made up elements that don't feel off) in various amounts, mix and match, and voila!

With the social/political system and religion of each culture spelled out, it's just a matter of adding some small, unique touches. And since this is fantasy, with magic and monsters and non-human people, adding in some unique touches helps make them feel different than humans. This is something I tried to do in the old 3E OA Zhongyang Dalu setting of mine, before I started retro-cloning Dragon Fist and needed a world with primarily Chinese influences.

As I said before, in most D&D settings, sometimes there are cultures that are very obviously drawn from one primary real world source -- the Known World setting has a lot of these, but other times the cultures don't handily map to a real world culture. And that 's a great thing for a game.


  1. Looking at something like Oerth (Greyhawk) or "the Known World" (Mystara) the inspiration for many of the various cultures is quite obvious. In the case of the Known World, X1 is even explicit regarding these references (Thyatis for example, is modeled on the Byzantine Empire). Mashed into these mixes are, of course, wholly fantastic societies...there is no earthly equivalent of Iuz or Rockhome, for example (though both might be drawing on Tolkien's world for their model, now that I think of it).

    The real world is like this: a mass of people, living side by side, but with different traditions, cultures, and beliefs. I think the issue/problem that folks have with OA and similar (say 2E's fantasy Africa, "Chult") is that don't emphasize or give as much weight to distinguishing these differences, instead centering on a stereotyped "monoculture." Darokin, Ostland, Thyatis, Glantri, and Karameikos are all VERY different places, despite using swords and magic. Kara-Tur, on the other hand, was divided into four fantasy empires, two of which were "China" and two of which were "Japan." As YOU well know, there's a lot more difference than that between the various cultures of east Asia.

    One thing you might consider, instead of a thoughtful monolithic culture (a Chanbara or the Zhongyang Dalu of Flying Swordsmen), is to model an Asian "Known World" that features cultures based on Korea, Laos, Tibet, Malaysia, the multiple regions of China and India, etc. It doesn't have to (and probably shouldn't) map directly to Earth: make the Mongols an island nation that are the greatest (and most feared) sailors/raiders of the coast. Put an Edo-period Japan in a northern landlocked region, separated from other cultures by a gigantic, monster-filled mountain range rather than a sea. Do different dynasties of China as different countries, pick your favorite city-states and make them whole cultures, and don't worry that real world China is a monstrous sprawling mega-country. And, of course, add fantasy regions drawn from various regional folklores, the same as D&D's "western settings" have elven forest kingdoms (Alfheim, Qualinost, etc.) and dwarf mountain ranges.

    Create a world to adventure and wander in. Use basic classes and game conceits, and then customize them based on region (if necessary)...same with magic, monsters, and fighting techniques (if you want unarmed combat to play a major role in the game...and why wouldn't you?). Yes, I realize a whole multi-decade campaign could be set in a single culture, in a single time period, but aside from the fact that it's kind of "been done" (Legend of Five Rings?) the great thing about an eclectic mix is that it has a wider appeal. Some people will want to play the jungle-living, elephant riding magicians...some people will want their character to come on horseback with a bushido code of honor. Draw a map, scribble down some names, write a BRIEF overview of each region (just to jog your memory of which culture is inspiring it)...and ONLY THEN do your "deep dives" (as necessary) to flesh out regions: their inhabitants and their relationships with each other.

    This, to me, is the "D&D approach" to building a campaign setting. Rather than model a sensical "real world" culture, allow its "fantasy sensibilities" to grow organically based on your mash-up (and the direction your players take the campaign).

    Just makes sure you add in an evil (fantasy) empire or two and some sort of faerie land (plus several "Here There Be Monsters" regions). Because, you know, D&D.
    ; )

  2. That's more or less what I was getting at (or trying to, in this stream-of-consciousness post). Start with a baseline real-world culture. Switch a few things around. Borrow a few ideas from another culture. Mix in some anachronisms and don't forget the fantasy/magical whimsy and/or dread.

    And like in Isle of Dread, I don't mind if some fantasy cultures are more closely modeled on real world ones, but not all of them should be. In X1, plenty of the nations -- Glantri, Karameikos, Minrothad, Ierendi, Autruagin -- aren't given a real world antecedent. Of course, some can be implied. Minrothad is probably similar to the late medieval/Renaissance Dutch or English. Autruagin was developed as Native American-ish, but from the description it could just as easily be based on Biblical era Hebrews/Canaanites/Philistines. Or it could be a mix of both!

    And yes, Kara Tur could have done much better. But at least the two Chinas and two Japans are representing different eras. Shou Lung seems to be Tang Dynasty China while Tu Lung (was that the name?) is more like Southern Song Dynasty. And the two Japan-based nations are Warring States period analog (Kozakura) and Edo Period analog (Wa).

    You're right that it would have been fun to see Silla Korea (Hwarang could be like Knights of the Round Table), or ancient Khmer kingdom, or some island cultures like Philippines or Indonesia/Malaysia, etc.

    One more point I should have brought up, thinking of Mystara and to an extent Greyhawk (although I don't know that setting as well). Both, like R.E. Howard's Hyborian age, mix things up geographically as well.

    Ylaruam is this little pocket of Arabian Nights sandwiched between vikings and Greeks. Italian mercantile city-state culture controls the largest nation on the map rather than a few cities.

    If we can have Vikings next to Mongols next to Italians next to Arabs next to the Dutch next to Native Americans/Hebrews, why can't we throw in a samurai nation with all these others? Add a dash of Timbuktu or Zimbabwe while we're at it. Maybe this last thought is an idea for its own blog post...

    1. Looking forward to it.
      : )

      Personally, I think it would be a pretty cool project. I’d be tempted to take a stab at it myself...if I had any sort of background or real knowledge of the area (which I don’t).

  3. Hmmm I'm going a different way.

    Not trying to approximate real world cultures beyond the barest impression.

    The Celestial Empire (China-ish) has suffered a cataclysm (lost the Mandate of Heaven) so is in a warring states period.

    But the campaign begins on the margins of all that, with a Governor absent fighting the wars. -Fall of Whitecliff reskins beautifully here. The Castlellan is selling arms to across the sea Not-Japan (U1/U2, FishFckers, etc) in hopes to strengthen his coup attempts.

    So we have feudalism but also a strong/independent Beaurocracy which allows me to send in witch-finders/ Departmental agents (which I will call Regulators). All fairly within historical bounds with a nice confusion of loyalties as befits a post apocalypse/points of light setting.

    Basically the edges don't know it but the interior has become Kingdom of the Ghouls/ Hells Pinesmen (ten foot pole comments rescinded gave me an idea).

    If they decide to escape the ruined Not-China-Empire rather than restore the Mandate of Heaven then across the Sea is Japan-ish (Jeff Rients Asian setting) meets Lovecraft/Chinese Ghost stories. (aforesaid U1/U2/Fisgfuckers modules).

    In the middle is the 10 00 Misty Isles- if you've ever spent a few days around Halong Bay, it's the perfect inspiration for pirate /smuggler isles + Isles of Dread + random island crawling/Hanoi /Hue temples/ Anghkor + Yoon Suin if they need some mainland action.

    Merging into South is jungle + 10 000 Islands merged with Malay mashup (been living in Singapore/Malaysia last few years has opened my eyes to the sheer size of this- in between Arab World & China was a vast malay trade world) + Qelong + Drohnsesia (Z Smith D&D With Pstars).