Over the last few years, I have run into quite a number of discussions about how to design cultures for fantasy games. To me the most interesting of these have centered on questions like, “How do you design a fantasy culture so that it isn’t Eurocentric?” And I’ve posted bits and pieces of a personal response to such things, here and there, especially on The Forge but also in other places. I keep pushing around this notion that someday I’m really going to lay it all out in one place, clearly, from beginning to end.
The problem is that it very quickly becomes huge. So I decided that maybe the thing to do is to compose a series of articles about it, dealing with various issues and problems as they happen to occur to me, but attempting along the way to present a reasonably clear method.
Then, of course, I realize that explaining a 12-step method is not really my forte. I am far better as a critic and analyst. When I propose something new, it is usually of a theoretical nature, not a practical one. So I’m not convinced that this experiment will be entirely successful.
Nevertheless, people keep emailing me and asking when I’m going to get somewhere on this. Apparently there is an audience, surprisingly enough.
Now the difficulty is also one of presentation in a more simple sense, i.e. in the sense of packaging. I hate most RPG packaging of text. I dislike the presentation and structure commonly used. But I can’t say that it’s because such packaging is bad: clearly it works pretty well for a lot of you, for example. So how the hell am I supposed to lay it out when I don’t even like or understand the usual way of doing so?
And then it hits me.
Those of you asking me to write these things aren’t asking for me to present a nice clean package. You’ve read my posts and articles, and you know that isn’t going to happen. You want me to present it my way, more or less, and then you want the fun of taking what works for you and packaging and composing in your own way, for your own purposes, for your own worlds.
So, with this spirit of liberation moving me, I’ll write things the way I usually do write them, and let you do what you’re best at. As always, discussion and response is very welcome; in addition, if you start a thread about it somewhere, please post the link as well.
It’s pretty obvious that the readership here, especially with the aggregators or squids or whatever they’re called, is very disparate. I can’t speak to you directly: I don’t know most of you. But I can make some guesses, and I want to lay these out clearly so everyone will have some idea where I’m coming from.
First of all, I think when we say “fantasy world” we mean something where the baseline technology (including communication, transportation, industry, and everything else) is vaguely akin to early modern Europe or earlier. Movable type and gunpowder seem to be about the limit of development, if we were to assume (wrongly) that such developments are linear and consistent.
Second, I take it that we have a number of landmark examples in mind: The Lord of the Rings, most of all, but also things like Greyhawk, Harn, Glorantha, etc.
Third, I assume that we are interested in broadening our horizons more strongly away from European or Europe-like models. If you have no interest in this, you may find a lot of what I’m doing in these articles not only strange but pointless. Another way to put it, though, would be that we’re interested in designing cultures that don’t seem like the usual old run-of-the-mill fantasy cultures.
Now on this basis, it seems to me that the most efficient way to cut through the horrible complexity that is human culture is to work with the academic study of culture, particularly the study of what they used to call “primitive” culture. There are a number of serious methodological problems with making this connection, but I will deal with those considerably later in the series.
Finally, I want to note that my academic specialties are magic, science, and religion, to use the phrase made famous by Bronislaw Malinowski in the eponymous article (really a short book). Thus I tend to refer everything toward these bases, whereas someone else could quite reasonably do it all from a different direction. Furthermore, I have pretty strong likes and dislikes, as I suppose every academic theorist has, but I incline toward great classics—I’m not one to leap on the hot new thing, because I usually feel I first need to master most everything that precedes it.
Now the problem where audience is concerned is that I cannot reasonably assume that you have all read the same books I have. Some of you have—I’ll bet some of you have read a lot more in some areas of cultural anthropology, for example. But I have to assume you haven’t. On the other hand, I can’t sit here and lay out huge lectures on academic scholarship, because we’ll never get to the point, and besides it’ll be boring as hell.
So what I’m doing is walking through issues and concepts as they occur to me, thinking of my classroom experience as well as what I imagine to be your concerns. It is true that at times I will have to step into some academic texts, but I will try to do this such that (a) it is clear, (b) it is brief, and (c) I only deal with one, very famous text or thinker at a time.
Your responses are entirely up to you. Please don’t troll or flame or whatever, but you can respond as you like. Do not expect, however, that I will always be around to reply immediately. This is a hobby for me, and my profession and family come first.
On a related note, this series will be quite irregular. When something appears, that’s when it appears. I make no promises in advance: they keep not working out, and I hate that. I’ll shoot for once a month, but again, no promises. I’m also posting a bunch of these things at the start, but I don’t know when the next one will appear.
Just a brief note, but one that I think is crucial. Bear with me.
Some of you, taking a cultural anthropology intro course or something, have run into a distinction between an emic [pronounced “EE-mick”] and an etic [“EH-tick”] perspective.
The distinction, first formulated by the linguist Kenneth Pike, derives from the linguistic division between the phoneme [adj. phonemic] and the phone [adj. phonetic]. To oversimplify somewhat, the study of phonetics examines sounds in spoken language as sounds, as constituent units of language, looking at the ways in which they are put together, interrelated, and so on—without reference to what they mean in a given language. By contrast phonemics looks at how sounds intersect meaningfully, that is to say with reference to how meaning is constructed in a given language. Pike proposed to generalize this distinction: the etic dimension of language would be that analyzable statistically and scientifically without reference to meaning; it would look at how certain elements or aspects of some language, language-group, or even language itself works, but not focus on how these same elements are used to construct meaning by users of the language. An emic perspective would consider elements or dimensions of language precisely insofar as they are constitutive of meaning. Necessarily an etic approach could be more objective than an emic one, because in the former case it makes no difference what the language-users think or believe about their language.
The anthropologist Marvin Harris proposed to extend Pike’s distinction to the study of culture. Essentially the idea is that structures, symbols, and whatnot of a given culture can be studied externally (etic approach) or internally (emic). For example, let’s suppose the members of a culture tell us for absolutely certain that a man’s mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s daughter is considered the man’s sister, and therefore for him to marry her would be incest. By contrast the same man’s father’s sister’s husband’s brother’s daughter is a preferred marital choice. (This is by no means far-fetched, for those of you who don’t know much about kinship systems.) Now we do the numbers and we find that there are quite a significant number of the first type of marriage, and not a particularly large number of the second. So the etic approach reveals that there is a disparity between what the natives say and what they actually do. The emic approach would be less interested in the actual statistics of marital practices, and would be more focused on why the natives consider these two types of marriage so radically different.
Now this is all a rather simplistic way of explaining the issue, but if you sort of remember this from a class, you may have had your mind jogged. For those who don’t know this, the short version is simply that an etic perspective is a kind of “outsider’s perspective” on what goes on in the culture, and an emic perspective is an “insider’s perspective,” to oversimplify grossly—actually, this is not at all what the distinction means, but it’s how it’s usually presented.
I have my problems with this distinction in academic scholarship, but this is not the place to rehearse them. For the design of fantasy cultures, however, I think it is crucial to annul, at every level, any value in an etic perspective.
From my reading of RPGs and far too many fantasy novels, I think there is a tendency to think that if there is something “weird” going on in a culture, it has to have a “real explanation.” This is etic thinking, loosely speaking. And furthermore it is, quite simply, crap. If there is something “weird” going on, it is only weird because you aren’t in the culture, chances are. And if there is some cultural element that has a single “real” explanation, it is an extremely transient and probably transparent phenomenon.
Culture is a vast web, woven across centuries by everyone who lives it. When you grab hold of one string, the whole thing comes with you. Culture is not a bunch of independent bits and pieces. And if you try to design a culture by thinking of bits and pieces, of “explaining” why they are there, you will probably end up with something transparently shallow.
It can be done, of course. The obvious example is allegory. But my focus here is to think about designing fantasy cultures that are living, breathing cultures in their own right, not allegorical Star Trek-style analogies to teach us all a little life-lesson on a very special episode.
Well, enough preamble. Let’s get cracking.