Using Real World Cultures as Inspiration

I’m currently running a Zweihander game, loosely based on the game’s default setting. One of the things that I’ve done with this setting is to expand it past the traditional mythical Germay to include more of Europe. For example, in the area where the players are starting, the general theme is based more on that of a late medieval Poland.

This got me to thinking more about adopting real-world cultures into games. This is a topic we’ve covered previously, but I don’t want to talk about specific cultures, but rather the sorts of things that allow a GM to incorporate the flavor of a culture without actually using it as a setting.

A word of warning: this topic comes really close to cultural appropriation. I’ve tried to steer clear of falling into appropriation as much as possible, but I’m sure some of this advice could be taken in a manner that would seem to edorse appropriation. With that in mind, please think before adaopting a culture – are you using it as a flavor or are you picking up a culture and making minor modifications (or worse, are you just trading on tired and/or potentially racist stereotypes)?

So with that out of the way, let’s jump into a a few pieces of advice:
Accents/Voices – Don’t. Seriously. Unless you’re a voice actor, there’s a strong chance you’re going to fall into one of two traps. The first is accidentally dropping the accent. I’ve seen lots of people comment on how dropping the accent causes a loss of immersion, but this isn’t my problem. My issue is that it’s just confusing! Any time you have players asking “Wait! Which NPC was that?” you’re making the game harder than it should be. The second issue is that it’s just too easy for most people to slip into fairly offensive stereotypes. Why risk any of these issues?
Think About Why – Think about why you’re inspired the culture you’re looking to use. What about the culture gets your attention? Is it the culture as a whole or a handful of stories set in that culture? Sometimes, it isn’t the culture itself that has your attention, but something you associate with the culture. Focusing on your reason and what you really want to adapt to your own game can make for a more authentic (and more unique!) approach.
Names – Names are a great way to add a bit of extra flavor to a setting. For my Polish-inspired area, I am using traditional Polish names. Somewhat. Some names are harder for some cultures than others. Polish is a great example – I’ve learned a fair bit of the language and it’s definitely the most challenging language I’ve encountered as a native English speaker. Rather than forcing my players to spend time going through repeated lessons in pronunciation, I’ve tried to stick more closely to names that are easier to pronounce and generally simpler in construction.
Architecture – Architecture is a very distinctive cultural element that can create a lot of flavor for a RPG. It’s very easy to drop in the occasional description or reference to architectural features of buildings and structures, creating more depth for a setting. For me personally, I find this doubly true when talking about play-by-forum games where the flavor of a setting can easily be lost from posts on one day to the next. Having a firm concept of how buildings look can help center the players in a very subtle fasion.
Weather – Cultures don’t have weather. Weather does however influence cultures to a very large degree. The Innuit populations of Alaska have definitely adapted practices and customs as a direct result of the cold climate and snowy weather. By the same token, many Arab cultures are directly influenced by the ruthless sun and scarcity of water. Try to think about the weather surrounding your region – does the culture have a mismatch? Does it make sense? Are there opportunities to further distinguish your setting by applying a weather change to your original concept.
Customs – What we often think of as culture is really a set of customs. While this isn’t really what defines a culture, it’s the surface level that is visible event to a casual observer and so tends to be synonymous with culture in our minds. These customs can be sometimes be used in a manner similar to architecture – acting as flavor that helps to reinforce the setting. However, it is vitally important to understand the reason behind the custom. It is far too easy to simply take a custom and slap it onto fictional culture X without realizing that there is a spiritual or historical reason for the custom (i.e. you’re appropriating, not being inspired). Try to do some research and understand why the custom exists before using or adapting it to your own setting. You may find after researching it that it’s not really a fit after all – or it may inspire you to develop a unique custom for your culture!

This is just a few thoughts I’ve worked through in my own game. I’m sure there are many, many others that come into play. If you’ve got approaches you’ve used for your own games, share them with us!

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