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When I want to populate a fantasy world with different regions and their cultures, I have problems knowing where to start.

Recently I used a quick-and-dirty technique that I could call "cultural mash-up". I note down that a particular area is a (-n unlikely) mix of e.g. renaissance Italy and medieval Japan (and my poor understanding of them at that), and use that to ad-lib and improvise features of the people and culture. It works OK at the gaming table, in that I can often generate an answer to a question.

However, it is hard for me to generate more structured source material based on that. The problem is not a lack of ideas, but a lack of structure to decide what should be relevant, when I want to present a view of the culture as a whole to someone else. I don't really want to present the mashup idea directly ("this place is like a mix of Italy and Japan"), as it is an idea generator, not the right level of descriptive information to get someone immersed in a game or story.

I would like to be able to generate 3 or 4 pages of source material (from 1000 - 2000 words) as a short introduction to each fantasy culture. Assuming I have less than 10 "major" cultures to document, this seems like a good compromise between amount of work to produce (maybe 40 pages), and benefit (someone could read a brief introduction to one culture in under 10 mins).

What sort of information should be in that introduction? I suspect a lot will depend on genre, and the world setting - so, if it helps narrow the question, this is for a fantasy RPG world, and I am a fan of Glorantha and other non-Tolkein-but-still-fantasy worlds. I expect I will also need to set general norms for the world, against which different cultures might be considered more or less friendly, open, religious, organised etc etc.

To avoid the answer being a list of subject titles, I am looking first and foremost for an organising principle. Without having qualifications in History or Sociology, how do I tackle describing the nature or "personality" of a culture?

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    $\begingroup$ This is a thing that exists in the real world. Look at some tourist guides to foreign countries, especially the quick reference section that some of them have at the very beginning. They provide a quick guide to salient features of a place that a newcomer would notice, ranging from how people interact on the street to how laws and governments function. $\endgroup$ – octern Oct 1 '14 at 5:01
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I like start by answering the worldview questions for my culture. This lays a foundation for how my cultural generally thinks.

How did we get here? Was it a god or gods, accident, evolution or what? How did the cultures around us get here? Is there any perceived superiority on one side or the other? The determines how you culture sees itself and feeds into the next question.

Why are we here? Is your culture here to serve a purpose, fulfill a gods will, to enjoy itself, reproduce, or is it meaningless? What drives your cultural and individuals forward other than raw desires?

What is wrong with the world? Everyone knows there is something wrong with the world. Otherwise, why would you have a story/adventure here? You could have sin be a problem, or desires, the material vs spiritual or society itself. Over the course of human history all these have been proposed and they have dramatic effects on how a society sees itself and operates.

What is the solution to this issue? Once you know what the culture sees as wrong with the world, then you can figure out how they will strive to overcome/address the issue. This drives how they interact with other cultures, what career paths are encouraged, and the choices they make.

What is the final end for an individual and what can the individual due to affect it? Is it heaven or hell and can good deeds or giving to a powerful church change that? Is it reincarnation where you always have another shot? Nothing, so enjoy life now? Valhalla, a warriors paradise, so break out the ale barrels and battle axes boys?

Once you have answered these questions you get a general idea of our cultures outlook on life. You should know how much they value life, their general outlook on life, and have ideas on how they could clash with other cultures.

Then I like to ask setting questions. Where do they live and how hard is it to live there? Dessert, mountains, fruitful valleys. Do they scratch out a harsh existence on the world making them frugal or do they have plenty of food and a generous disposition?

What do they eat and how do the produce it? This plays off on the last question but gets more specific. Meat, grains, fields, or gathering determines how a culture works.

Then onto how society forms: What family structures form and how strong are they? Is family the foundation of any person, with all their relatives living together and forming a clan or do people spread out and care more about common purpose than blood?

What are the major cultural rifts within your society? Rich vs poor, educated vs ignorant, warriors vs priests, conservative vs liberal, noble vs common?

What government type runs your society? Feudalism, monarchy, democracy?

What is the general attitude toward other cultures? Are they to be feared and avoided, traded with, looked up to, ignored, or conquered?

These are the questions I find useful. While I gave many examples of individual questions, to summarize, I am trying to answer the following big picture questions with all my little questions: How does the culture think about itself and others (worldview), where does this culture live and what does it force them to do (setting), and given the answers to the above questions, how does the culture choose to organize itself (society).

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  • $\begingroup$ All the answers helped me a lot. I have picked this one as suitable for me, because it means for me I can use my mash-up "ideas generator" to help answer the questions that this answer lays out. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Nov 15 '14 at 13:37
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There are of course many ways of going about things, but if you're looking for a mashup effect, I'd start by making a list of which characteristics of your two chosen cultures you want to keep. Why did you choose those cultures? Now think about what you know of each source culture that makes those things happen, or in some way guides or informs or undergirds those things. For example, the whole "warrior culture" thing in Japan was significantly an effect of a very long period of continual warfare and minimal (or no) central control; samurai were warrior vassals of a local lord, and often had no higher loyalty whatever. If you want to buy into later tropes, you can go further and say that these warriors staked their honor on this loyalty to the near-exclusion of everything else. OK, so if that's what "warrior culture" means to you in choosing Japan, think about what's going to happen if you link that up with Renaissance Italian phenomena like city-states or whatever. (For example: maybe that honor and loyalty thing is dedicated to the city and not the current rulership?)

To my mind, the crucial step comes slightly later: once you've got those desirable bits and pieces in some kind of broad framework -- using a template or sheet or whatever if you wish -- come up with the "meta-narratives" of this culture. These are the things that, if backed into a corner by a bunch of foreigners asking weird questions about the culture, a native would sort of reel off. So for the US, you might get "apple pie, mom, freedom, democracy, melting-pot." That stuff. Now the crucial thing is that every one of those bits is entirely true in a sense, and entirely untrue in a sense. And any intelligent native knows this, but probably doesn't really think about it all that much while at home.

So come up with that little list for your created culture. What do they (claim to) believe in, believe makes them special and who they really are? (This assumes that the culture has a self-identity at all, but if they've been in contact with other cultures they probably do.) What makes these things true? What makes them false? Why is it these things that are so important to these people?

With that in hand, you have a kind of "feel" for the culture, for how these people think, for what they think is normal and obvious and right and proper (and the reverse). Spinning out material from that point is relatively easy, because you can always come up with an idea and think, "yes, that works for these guys," or "no, that totally doesn't work," or "well, that kind of works, but I think they'd look at it this other way, and that now works for these guys."

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I think the best way to approach this kind of documenting of imaginary cultures is to establish:

Causality

Try to make a rough history of how these cultures ended up as they are. Given enough history, what makes them special should stand out enough and also give you some perspective of what defining characteristics they have within the setting which is really what you want.

Start from an arbitrary point in the past and come up with a timeline - or start from how you want them to end up and move backwards slowly until you have cultural justifications for nearly everything you want to include. This way, you'd focus, in your documentation, on those characteristics important to the story first and the in-universe cultural mashup second.

The advantage of establishing causality for your cultures is that it becomes easier to later gauge how important different cultural aspects are to different people and making identities clear and interesting while avoiding the big trap of a planet of hats which will make your job harder and will be less interesting to anyone reading your descriptions.

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    $\begingroup$ This is good advise. Any characteristics of real-life cultures are the product of their history and their environment. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Sep 30 '14 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ An addition to this: emergence. Not only should there be causality, but it should feel like new things are emerging from the history. Rather than a sterile chain of mere causality, a history should appear bubbling with life. There should be a great deal of interdependency. Rather than "X was caused by Y" think "X naturally occurred because Y, Z, W, A, and B were all happening at that time" $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 10 '14 at 8:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp I love that these two concepts boil down to where and when, environment and history. Ultimately we are all defined by the space around us and the time we experience. $\endgroup$ – sydan Nov 12 '14 at 9:09
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As I cannot comment on posts yet, for organizing in a RPG-Way, I generally use this sheet, it's not complete but it helps me starting at some point and develop "core" concepts later.

I have found this sheet a long ago, in a RPG site, but at that time I didn't worry about author rights. =(

Added an overview of the sheet contents

The sheet covers such topics as:

  • Biology and Family: average species parameters, aging speed, special abilities (magic, ...), reproduction type (children, eggs, cloning, ...), family type and structure.
  • Theology and Moral: system, rituals, cornerstones.
  • Government and Social Structure: government type, description of various branches, key professions/classes, castes.
  • Technology: general level/age, what they have for communication, fighting, etc.
  • Economics: economic model, valuables, how they trade.
  • History: key events and figures.
  • Food: what, where and in what circumstances they eat, favorites.
  • Fashion and Architecture: styles and materials.
  • Language: the way people speak, common idioms.
  • Education: institutions, social limitations and lifts.
  • Recreation: typical entertainment.

Edited to better explain how I use this

Keep in mind that all aspects of a culture are linked someway and involves along the time due to cultural shock or self "evolution" - normally they go together as well.

Given a starting point, that can be whatever you feel more confortable with (for me are language and a bit of spirituality), how can you explain how their culture got there? Does your world have more than one "civilized" spicies? How different thinking beings live in the same culture? Or don't they live together at all?

Goverment-wise, I think that small cultural-groups, would have a multi-task leader whom knows a little bit about everything, meanwhile larger ones will have a bunch of leaders, each one specialized in something/someplace and one of them'd the main chief.

The govermnet wil do laws, the laws will regulate education, recreation, politics and economics, but the goverment is made by people who are influencied by their own culture (education, language, recreation, personal structure, social-structure). The provided sheet can help you thinking about it.

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    $\begingroup$ that link is a very useful tool, and would be my suggestion for the question as well. Expound on your answer to say, i create a worksheet with xyz on it. We avoid links as answers here because links end up rotting. (keep the link in your final answer too) $\endgroup$ – James Sep 30 '14 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ @James I'd rather post this answer as a comment, but I made my account today. It's not a worksheet I made, I had found it on the internet long ago (before I had idea of what author rights means), so I can't put the author. Should I mention this on my answer? $\endgroup$ – MVCDS Sep 30 '14 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ That sheet looks very useful, if you pull out the relevant information from it and post that it would be an excellent answer to the question. Unfortunately as already mentioned we can't accept link-only answers...and as you say yourself there are issues of copyright. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 30 '14 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ At the risk of piling on, I do hope you'll write up some of the key points from that sheet. It's not plagiarism if you summarize in your own words (and that's summarize; you don't have to include everything). Thanks and welcome to the site! $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 1 '14 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MVCDS That's much improved. It is still a bit reliant on the external sheet though. If in the future someone came to this question and the evernote.com website was down how much use would this answer be to them? That's the problem with external-link questions. The answer needs to stand by itself even if all the links are dead. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 1 '14 at 12:23
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The way to approach this is to think what do people need to know. In this case, it's the players of your RPG world. When you're playing an RPG what sort of information do you want about a place you're just visiting for the first time to get a feel for it and have a basic understanding of how things are run?

From that you can start with a basic description of the land, noting important geographical locations. If I don't know anything about the area I'm playing in it's hard to make decisions that are based on locations of things or places. Along with that would go a brief description of the type of people who live here and the type of government (if any) that is present. This is a good time to name important people and recent history.

Recent history can link into a more in-depth history of the area if you feel it's appropriate in the initial description. It won't always be but in some cases it might be. After I'd start going into more details on specific locations and people relevant to those locations. If you're writing this for people in general, keep it fairly broad. If you're writing this for a specific campaign then you can be as specific to your campaign as you like, introducing key characters etc.

If you're doing this regularly pay attention to what questions you get when you present this information to people. The types of questions they ask will help you identify areas of information that they want but you've missed out. It's free feedback on your descriptions, and you can then incorporate that in future descriptions / introductions.

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Start by Making a Wikipedia Article

Not a real one, but create a Wikipedia Article. I randomly entered "Hungarians" into Wikipedia to get an example. Design their history; define their geography, or, if this culture is imagined to be on Earth with us, then what regions have their population? More from the "Hungarians" article as a prototype.

  • Where did their name come from?
  • From the history you created, create their notable characters.
  • What are their languages, religions?
  • Any influences on the greater world you created.

And so on. Your story can always be supported by your article, and you can always expand it if necessary.

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