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Apr. 1st, 2007 | 11:01 pm

Enough about Ron's post as such. My point about stories, though...

Start here with this link and read several pages of this stuff. This is quite raw data, direct from the Kwakiutl when they still existed in a fairly solid way. A word of advice: don't allegorize -- this material is a great deal more difficult to interpret than it looks, and as you'll see, that's saying something.

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death_by_monkey

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from: death_by_monkey
date: Apr. 9th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC)
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This is something that I've been thinking about for a while and in particular since I finished reading Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. This is a great example of how without understanding the culture and the world of these people we don't have the context to really get the most out of the story. This makes the story seem all the more foreign - all the more alien.

I've been thinking about this recently in terms of fantasy cultures. In the vast majority of fantasy (both literature and gaming) out there, the differences between cultures - and even races - are largely superficial. Okay, dwarves are misers that love gold and live in mountains, elves are tree-hugging hippies that are really good with bows, gnomes are dextrous little folk that like to eat...blah, blah, blah. And each have their own language. And maybe elves don't get along with dwarves so well. But in most examples of fantasy, these races aren't that foreign to each other - aren't that alien.

In our own world, we have cultures that just cannot comprehend how the other works due to the differences in the bases of those cultures. How is it, then, that in worlds where you have multiple intelligent and sentient races you don't have more of this stark, uncanny alienness? Other than a few Dying Earth fantasy series where the "other races" are actually alien species, I can only think of one example of a fantasy novel where the other races are truly alien to each other - and for the life of me I can't even remember the title or author of it anymore.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 19th, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
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This is something I am most definitely going to be getting back to in the series on designing fantasy cultures, but I don't know quite when. It's THE big hairy question, if you ask me, and I agree with you that it has been almost universally addressed poorly.

One example that starts well and goes bad is Orson Scott Card's Speaker For the Dead, where the "piggies," intelligent aliens, have a culture that is so alien that there is an almost total failure of communication. Only in the end, it turns out that there is an explanation, a key: once you understand their relationship to the trees, everything is neatly solved. So it turns out they're really just like us, except for this one difference.

Blah. Doesn't work that way. Human cultural difference is a hell of a lot bigger than that, and these people are supposed to be aliens!

That said, you can't go too far. I mean, if the other "race" (I hate that word here) is really as different as it should probably reasonably be, it's going to be impossible for players (including the GM, if any) to play them, because they cannot be understood.

I do think there are two really quite sane solutions to the problem, though. First of all, the elves and dwarves have been in contact with humans for quite a long time, after all, and thus there has been considerable cultural borrowing for millennia. Second, forget monolithic cultures: elves and dwarves aren't cultures, any more than humans are, and there ought to be just as much variation.

The problem with that is that I know just where it's leading: reductionism. The elves have all these wildly different cultures, but they have some common element that differentiates them from any human or dwarf culture. Really? If so, and if we're going to maintain some sort of analytical integrity, the difference in question has to be so deep that there is once again no real possibility of understanding. For example, the only real difference that is absolutely consistent is that elves don't age, sleep, dream, or die -- in which case you can just forget about understanding them in any serious sort of way.

Another option is to rule these people out as PCs and work on developing systems that produce constant hints of alienness. Tolkien tried this, with some success. Here you would encounter the elves, and all goes along fine (because, thinks the GM, the elves know about humans and act toward them in particular ways they think will be understood), but then something happens that is simply incomprehensible. When questioned, the elves respond variously: initially, some people deny anything has happened, others seem confused that there has been a failure of communication, and others again will provide wildly varying explanations. After a short time, say a day or two, suddenly there is a "party line" from which there is no future deviation: this didn't happen, or it did happen and it's an elven cultural thing that means X and don't ask any more, or it did happen but it's sacred and we can't tell you.

This could get old fast, of course, but done gracefully it might have the effect of a constant reminder that these people aren't humans with pointy ears. My worry, though, would be that I know how players think, on the whole, and like everyone else they're reductionists -- so they will grab hold of this oddity and decide they have to "figure it out." But the answer for all their pains will be no answer at all, and that will piss them off; the best you could do there would be to have the Elrond/Galadriel type, i.e. the big powerful leader, warn them off in no uncertain terms -- and then if they keep being stupid kill someone. I can't believe that the average group of players would lose more than 25 or 30 characters that way, at least not in one weekend. :p

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death_by_monkey

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from: death_by_monkey
date: Apr. 20th, 2007 03:43 am (UTC)
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Cool - I'm glad to hear that others are pondering on this issue, too.

I agree with the solutions you've posited here, though neither are really optimal. Most RPG players (unfortunately, in this case) are curious - continually looking for the clues that will lead their characters to success and wealth. Consequently, if you have them running around in a world where elves are doing things that are just incomprehensible to them, you'll have the players constructing conspiracy theories about something as mundane as elven dental hygiene. These types of situations will, at best, strain their relations with the elves, and at worse, get them killed.

And as you also pointed out, the other solution (and the solution to the above situation) of having the other "races" interacted such that there's enough homogeneity of culture that everyone can understand each other (which somehow gets me thinking about how all the aliens in Star Trek just had funny ears or foreheads and all spoke English).

I've started giving some thought, though, to a world where religions cross "racial" lines - you don't have human gods and elven gods and dwarven gods - you have a religion that is largely followed by the population of a geographic area, regardless of their "race".

Also, I rediscovered one of the series of books that very nicely deals with elves, dwarves, and particularly gnomes as rather alien creatures. It turns out I was remembering Elizabeth Moon's "Deed of Paksenarrion" trilogy. The wiki entry for Elizabeth Moon points out the similarities between the book and the AD&D adventure The Temple of Elemental Evil. While I hadn't picked up on this the first time I read the book, as I re-read it in this new context, some of the similarities were nearly laughably glaring. It's still a fun read, though, and I do like the way she's re-imagined some of the basic AD&D concepts.

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