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Building a Culture

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue.


“Humans in rubber suits”. “Two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional) characters”. “Flats for the main characters to act in front of”. How often have you heard these phrases or similar used in descriptions of stories or minor characters in them? Or in games?

Truthfully, it’s more common – at least in my perception – among older games and stories than in more recent ones, but even in modern stories and games, it’s all too common.

The biggest offender, in my experience, is “alien” cultures, which for the purposes of this article includes humans who are not of the prevailing assumed culture of the setting. The most common failure in alien creation, especially in role-playing games, is to seize on a few prominent characteristics – or even just one such characteristic – that will make the aliens Different From The Prevailing Culture Of The Players, and use those characteristics to define them. Thus, you end up with the Honorable Samurai Felinoid alien, the [Evil] Thought-Controlling Psionic alien, the Cute, Furry, Primitive alien, and so on.

In order to “get past” this, the designer of aliens must do additional work – specifically, the alien culture must be defined, to give a context to the characteristics chosen for them. This article is intended to present some ideas concerning the process, rather than presenting an actual culture.


Past rules have provided tools to select cultural characteristics randomly, often giving the world-builder a short phrase describing the characteristic without specifying in detail who in the culture is affected. You can use those rules or you can come up with characteristics on your own. It’s not the details of deriving the characteristic(s), but putting everything into a more-or-less coherent whole.

The main point to remember is that characteristics like those generated are not isolated; they are woven into the entire culture, and the attitudes and emotions that underlie a particular characteristic will affect others throughout the entire culture. You, as the world-builder, need to be prepared to explore the ramifications and adjust details to fit.

The best way to start is to ask yourself questions, and then answer them. Ideally, you will have a notebook handy to jot down the questions and answers as you ask and answer them, and to refer to later when looking at other questions.

Almost always, the first question you should be asking is “Why is this a characteristic of the culture?”, followed closely by “What effect does <reason> have on the culture beyond <characteristic>?”. This second question should lead to defining additional characteristics. Repeat the process for each characteristic that you include in your notes, regardless of how the characteristic was created. When you’re done, you should have sufficient notes to give a good look at the culture (and if you clean them up and organize them, you might even end up with an article for Freelance Traveller, or maybe even a sourcebook).

A word of caution: When working through your reasons and ramifications, don’t allow yourself to be ‘blinded’ by your knowledge of extant cultures that share the characteristic (or something closely similar); take some time to think about the characteristic, the reasons behind it, and the ramifications, so that you don’t end up with a clone of an Earth culture from the present or past. Such a ‘clone’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but think about whether it’s really what you want for your story or game.

When you take the time to think about the reasons and ramifications, you may find that you’re getting into areas that might seem irrelevant to culture-building for Traveller. You’re not; everything is relevant. You may end up not using some of the material you develop, but it still helps you develop the culture, and when you think about reasons and ramifications of the “irrelevant” material, you may well find yourself coming back to “relevant” material – or even unearthing a contradiction.

Using the Culture

So, you’ve done the work, you have a ream of notes about it, and you want to use it. How are you going to do that?

That’s going to depend on context, and on what information your notes contain. For example, if you have notes on the culture’s architecture, they can be used to describe what your player-characters see when they leave their ship on the culture’s homeworld. If your notes contain information on dress styles, speech patterns, or food requirements/taboos, those can be used as part of the “personality” of an NPC. Those notes can even provide information that would lead to identifying points where two cultures come in contact and … fail to accommodate each other peacefully. If they do, use them. It’s an opportunity for bringing the culture to life, and providing some conflict in your story or game.

An Example

It’s documented in some Traveller materials that on Dlan, those not of the Virasin religion wear black, as a symbol of mourning the fact that they are not Virasin. Why would this be the case? We decide that on Dlan, Virasa is the dominant religion, so dominant that it has strong influence on – if not outright control of – the government. They have thus managed to impose this as a ‘sumptuary law’.

FACT: Virasa wields power over the Dlani government.
QUESTION: Besides sumptuary laws directed at non-Virasin, what does this mean?

If a religion can force non-believers into following sumptuary laws, they can also likely require that the tenets and attitudes of Virasa can be taught in the schools, and enforced there (and in public in general). Since non-Virasin are ‘in mourning’, they are also expected not to display positive emotion – “Just what do you have to be so happy about?” While no objection to the display of sadness or associated emotions by non-Virasin occurs, there will be a tendency among non-Virasin to minimize the display of all emotion, just to be on the safe side and not incur disapproval. We thus decide (and add to our fact list):

FACT: Non-Virasin are very subdued (at least publicly) about emotional display.
QUESTION: What effect does this have on their social interactions?

We stick with the idea of not giving offense to Virasin, and decide that phrases that might suggest the speaker’s emotional state are more-or-less taboo – a non-Virasin will not say “I am pleased to meet you”; rather, his response upon being introduced to someone (or having someone introduced to him) might be along the lines of “you are gracious to offer your time to me; my time is equally yours”. Similarly, subjects which normally generate much emotional energy will be avoided or discussed only analytically – the non-Virasin won’t gripe about a bad call by a referee, or otherwise indicate partisanism toward one team; instead, his part of the discussion will tend toward neutrality and analysis, discussing the technical merits (or lack thereof) of the game. In order to do that competently, the non-Virasin will have to know about the technical aspects of the subject. This applies not just to last night’s broomstone match, but about virtually any topic. We extrapolate this into another fact:

FACT: Non-Virasin take extra pains to thoroughly ‘know their stuff’. In the ‘hard studies’, they tend toward academic excellence, and are ranked high – except where they are subject to discriminatory evaluation practices.
QUESTION: How does this affect their roles in society?

Answering this gets complicated, because it can be directly affected by the earlier fact that says that Virasa has serious influence over Dlani society. We have to decide how that fact interacts with this one. We decide that perhaps Virasa, in spite of their dominance, takes a more liberal view of the role of non-Virasin in society, and doesn’t actually bar them from any of the trades or professions, nor from political office (except where secular political office also overlaps with ecclesiastical office – a non-Virasin, for example, could not be Minister of Justice, who oversees both civil courts and ecclesiastical inquests). Nevertheless, most non-Virasin go into the learned professions or the technical trades, and eschew political leadership – they might become supervisors or technical managers, but they are underrepresented in the executive ranks.

I’m going to stop here; this is enough to get the flavor of what I’m trying to get you to do. But there’s always more that you can do – including going back to one of the broader questions, and coming up with another fact to answer it. Repeated iterations of this process will build a bigger ‘fact book’, and help you paint a clearer picture of the culture – and of the basic character of a PC or NPC from that culture.

Now, take off the latex facial prostheses, pick up a pen, and start writing cultures.