It’s been a strange month. But who cares about that? Let’s get into it…

I hope by now that people have a sense that I am no-nonsense and straight-forward. My writing style is concise, emulating my lack of patience for noise. People taking too long to say what they mean and obfuscating their true intentions behind pandering marketing and ‘perfect-timing’ posts is the worst. In fact, anything disingenuous irks me.

But the past two years of game designer have been an education in just how obvious the noise in marketing is more important than the product. Or at least, more important than I would like it to be.

Recently, I had a conversation of what it’s going to take for Post World Games to start being successful (that’s right kids, I really don’t make a passable living at the moment). I got a lot of amazing advice. Really. I’m not being sarcastic or anything. I listened. I fought it all. But I listened.

Over the past month, I really haven’t wanted to work. I’ve completed over 60 projects this year, so I’m due a break. But it’s more than that. The work continues and I love what I do. But I’m tired of the fight to “get more sales.” This isn’t the 1950s and I can’t just be a successful author without self-promotion.

But. I hate self-promotion. I hate it so much, I have probably mentioned it about 200 times in the last two years.

I could go on about it, but I won’t.

Asking someone to do something they don’t like or aren’t good at won’t net good results.

And generating ‘community interest’ in a disingenuous way doesn’t mean you’re going to be making good games.

I write what I want. And when I want to. It’s a horrible business model, but it’s honest. I’m not working on a zombie game because zombies are hip. I’m working on a zombie game because Anthony and I stumbled upon a genius idea that I’m sure rpg.net fans will hate. That’s an example. I’m not going to digress about zombies.

So. As the end of 2014 approaches, I continue to work on games, plan my kickstarters, and look toward a different philosophy in 2015. More posts. Less games. More community, I guess. But in a way that I am comfortable doing.

Which brings me to the present. There are about 50 to 200 people who are just amazing supporters of my work. The latest kickstarter made 2750 in its first day. Great for a company of my size. But apparently, it could have done more. Apparently, if I was on google+ and rpg.net and all these groups all over the net, community-building I would be doing better. I would have had a 10k day or something. I see other games on kickstarter generating a lot of buzz and I wonder if the quality ever matches the funding results. I don’t back them, so I don’t know.

I still believe in the artistry end of what we do. I don’t make Apocalypse World hacks because AW is popular. I make what I think is a good marriage of style and substance; function and form. So. I want to keep making good stuff. I don’t want to spend 6 hours a day talking about what I’m making.

An aside:

Yesterday was a slow day on the new Kickstater. After a 2750 dollar day, I saw $1 in backing on day 2. That’s a strange slowing down on backers. So instead of racing around making myself crazy, I used the day to finish up two of the new Protocol Games. I’m always going to focus on making better games for everyone. That’s something you can expect. If you know a better, smarter path to help me build more ‘community’ around the Protocol system — and I’m convinced it should be as popular as Fiasco — I’m all ears. I know there are dozens and dozens of designers in the same boat I am in — working hard and wondering why the results aren’t there. None of them put out 60 products this year (instead sarcastic grin), but we all share the same commonality of getting anyone to notice what we are doing.

Anyway. Before this becomes a soapbox/pity party, I should sign off. Once again, I need to thank all the people who are supporting my efforts. My inbox is always open to chatting about games. Also, there’s a comment box below. Use it.

Protocol II Kickstarter is Live

Posted: November 19, 2014 in Gaming

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There’s art, a video, lots of descriptions. Really. You should just go to the page.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/218255739/protocol-game-series-two-15-more-games

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Company: Post World Games
Contact: jim pinto
Email: postworldgames@gmail.com
The 2015 Release of Bastille Day

Post World Games has announced 15 new games in the Protocol Game series, all with a new a cleaner new look, streamlined rules, more examples of play, and advice to help even the most novice player. This new series is paired with a new Kickstarter, launching November 17th. The kickstarter includes stretch goals for more games in the series, exclusive rewards, a special edition deck of cards, and guest writers.

The Protocol Game series is a ground-breaking look at story roleplaying games. Taking the scene-framing style and making it approachable and adaptable for all players, the game ensures that everyone gets equal say in the game, regardless of skill level or confidence. And the range of over 30 games in the present catalog means there something for everyone.

And they’re only $4 each and cheaper by the dozen.

The original series of Protocols are available through drivethrurpg.com and postworldgames.com. The new kickstarter launches mid-November. In the mean-time, here’s a preview link to the project.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/218255739/691337492?token=e2997681

As we near the end of the year, I am absolutely stunned by the volume of work I produced this year, and still didn’t hit most of the goals. I wanted to have my Sci Fi game out this year (also using the Dramatic Game Engine), as well as start the teasing for a game called Banesidhe (which is about two years in the making — on and off). And now I’m announcing more games, while I still have 11 Toolcards decks to do.

01-JennyGreenteeth-FINAL

And. To top it all off, I am running another Protocol Kickstarter of 15-25 more games before the end of this month.

You will all get the memo.

But that’s not all, I have two more Carcass expansions planned and I am still a partner in Souljar Games, which is taking more and more of my time. Care to feel my heart rate?

So. Here is my attempt to walk you through what is coming next and which order you can expect them.

The Protocol Kickstarter is next. There’s a preview link here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/218255739/691337492?token=e2997681. It launches on November 18 or 19.

While that’s going on, I’ll be designing and finishing some of the Toolcards decks from the previous KS, writing on Bastille Day, playtesting the Dramatic Game Engine some more, and revealing some updates of what we’re doing with it. Bastille Day will be an early 2015 promotion, with release in the middle of the year. Anthony Moro and I are working on it together, so if it’s late, it’s because the rules are late (me). I hope to have weekly updates about our progress on Bastille Day.

Finally, in between all that I want to finish the Carcass companion book — An Abattoir of Flies, which adds a lot of information that probably should have been in the core book. I know. I know. But I wrote the game in two weeks. It was an experiment. And when it’s time to do a second edition, it will be a massive book filled with great ideas and advice.

The Carcass: Unearthed is already done and coming soon. It’s a collection of five pseudo-paranormal character classes. They can be played collectively or just peppered into your existing Carcass games.

Let’s see. I’m making two more board games for Souljar Games between now and GenCon, and there’s talk of another Cairn book (which I’ll be doing the graphics for) and maybe a deck of Cairn cards. I don’t feel comfortable making Souljar announcements, since we haven’t finalized everything yet. But I can tell you it’s keeping me busy.

04C

Did I forget anything?

Death of Ulfstater is Live!

Posted: November 7, 2014 in Gaming

132579

Death of Ulfstater is a story roleplaying game about the death of a Viking King and the actions of his vassals during the traditional week-long mourning. Players take on the roles of the vassals, using the week of mourning to promote their agendas and sully the reputations of the other vassals in a final effort to prove they are the most worthy of sitting on the throne.

As the game progresses, we not only learn what kind of vassals served under Ulfstater, but we also learn what kind of person Ulfstater was. In the end, Ulfstater will be set ablaze and the smoke will carry his soul to one of the four Norse afterlifes — Fólkvangr, Hel, Helgafjell, or Valhalla — and a new King (or Queen) will be crowned.

Death of Ulfstater is structured similarly to most GM-less, scene-framing games, with one clear exception — scenes are about only two participants trying to show-up one another in a zero-sum power grab. The other vassals can “dog-pile” onto a situation, trying to get a piece for themselves, but Valor and Drama points can be used at critical moments to focus the action and push people into or out of play.

Though the game comes with five pre-set characters, there are rules for making your own at the table during set-up. Key questions help ensure everyone has a role and everyone has “a place at the table.”

Taking turns, the vassals of Ulfstater each use one of their five stats (only once per game) to target another player and outdo them for Ulfstater’s throne. The target gains a valor point with each slight, making it more difficult to outnumber a weakened adversary. Dice are rolled and if the “attacker” wins, points change hands. Those not in the scene can influence play by giving away bonus dice to one of the participants. In a five-player game, this can be significant.

The game goes around the table 4 or 5 times (equal to the number of players), with a speech about Ulfstater after each round by the vassal who ends the round. Ulfstater’s stats can go up or down during play as a result, creating a meta-kingmaker effect.

In the end, all players have an equal number of turns and an equal number of uses of core abilities (Fate, Family, Magic, War, Wealth). The person with the highest total in two stats vital to Ulfstater’s reign wins the game and becomes the new king… though should Ulfstater have died a coward, it’s a throne no one will want.

Death of Ulfstater is now available at Drive Thru RPG

http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/132579/Death-of-Ulfstater-GMZero-RPG-5

Protocol Kickstarter II

Posted: November 7, 2014 in Gaming

My next kickstarter is at the end of November and runs through December. It’s for the next 15-25 games in the Protocol Game Series.

It will include a new page format, rules advice, and cleaner typography. Each one will be its own individual book and if the KS does well-enough, all the old Protocols will be updated to the new format as well.

There is also an OMNIBUS option, will all the games in one massive book (or maybe cut into two books) and the option to buy all 60 PDFs.

I’m still building the kickstarter page, but any feedback or advice is appreciated. I also have guest writers this time around. If you know someone who would like to be considered as a stretch goal guest writer, please contact me privately.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/218255739/691337492?token=e2997681

The Carcass Campaign: Actual Play

Posted: November 5, 2014 in Gaming

carcass_wide_PRINT

For those unaware, The Carcass was a game I wrote, edited, playtested, and produced in two weeks. It’s 88 pages long and an experiment of my design limits. Now that I’ve had four months of perspective on it, there are things I would have done differently with it. Which is why I’m working on the companion pdf, as well as planning a full-bore edition in 2015.

All that said, I’m proud of what this game offers for less than $10.

Over the last four weeks, my friends and I have played in a campaign of The Carcass. Since most GMless games do not offer this kind of experience, it was interesting to the game go this long. We also explored some of the issues that come with a game lasting so many sessions. I had two characters die. As did Andy. We built about a dozen extra NPCs as the game went on and I found that certain elements of the game need to be refined and explained further. Too many players still don’t understand how to use drama points effectively, etc.

But none of the players have read the book, either. So, I accept my role in not explaining it perfectly.

Anyway. On to the actual play.

I’ll try to remember everything as best as I can.

The characters. Rose, the marker (scout). Jojo, the hatchet (thug). Horace, the curate (historian). Jacob, the drone (worker).

We also created four NPCs, two of whom were witches (though that term means something else in the game), one of whom was a drone, and another who was a soldier.

Our tribe was called the Chosen. We had a neutral relationship with the Soldiers of the Stone and we were at war with the Night Razors (and losing). We lived in caves and ate mostly mushrooms. One of the biggest problems facing the tribe was sterility. No one was getting pregnant and the youngest person in the tribe was 12. We would later learn that the other two tribes also had similar problems.

By the end of the first session, we had determined that it was the mushrooms (and perhaps a lack of sunlight) that caused the problem. So some of the women in our tribe had left to live above ground, seeking protection amongst the Soldiers of the Stone. All the while Jacob clung to the idea that the mushrooms were good for us and Horace jockeyed to be a passive-aggressive (kind of sniveling) leader of the Chosen.

splash1In the second session, Rose was kidnapped by the Night Razors, while half of the Chosen moved in with the Soldiers of the Stone. Their leader, Brutus, was about to have children with both Rose and Jojo (as well as an NPC). Let me say this, I’ve never really dealt with pregnancy in a game before. And certainly not in this manner. Having the calender advance in this manner that we would see the birth of these children was amazing.

During Rose’s capture, she revealed the secret of child-birth to the Night Razors — a fact that had been lost to them.

Horace gave up his leadership of the Chosen (leaving Jacob in charge of eight people) and began angling for a job as a sniveling sycophant (to Brutus). And when that failed, he tried to curry the favor of the Night Razors by kidnapping one of Jojo’s babies, which ultimately led to his death. Being dead in the Carcass does not stop you from playing and it allowed us to test a new rule of buying a new character with 10 drama points.

Of course I bought Brutus. And once I became Brutus, Jojo and Rose started plotting HIS death.

This happened near the end of session two. We thought we were nearing the end of the story, but clearly we needed a third session to explore the finale.

badass2_colorThe third session started slowly enough, but ramped up when the Soldiers of the Stone slaughtered the Night Razors, taking some of their numbers into our tribe and routing the others. Jacob and the Chosen were absorbed into the Soldiers of the Stone, without consideration, in some hegemonic move to cement relations and strength the tribe. This would be Brutus’ undoing, as he moved to secure the tribe’s future, people saw him as weak.

Brutus married Rose, thinking this would create tribe stability, but Rose was viewed by the tribe as disloyal and crazy. She had amassed a great deal of trepidation to reflect this. So the marriage wasn’t the success that Brutus thought it would be. He then arranged for his brother Axel (now played by Andy after Jacob’s death) to marry Jojo, which also didn’t produce the results he wanted. Jojo complained that ‘fertile’ people should be protected and treated better and when Brutus acquiesced to her demands, this made him look even weaker.

One of the NPCs, Kane, challenged Brutus’ authority and brutalized him in a fair fight. It was the first of many moves to humiliate the once powerful leader. When he regained his strength, Brutus fought Kane a second time and lost again, in an exact duplicate encounter.

At this point, Jojo and Axel began to plot Brutus’ demise. All the while, Rose wanted the same thing. Brutus was a bit of jerk personally, but he was doing everything he could for the tribe’s benefit. The players even realized this for a brief moment, but still followed through on their plans.

I want to point out as an aside, that Diana believed Jojo was a good person, but she never missed a chance to upset the apple cart and plot to overthrow any character who was in charge. She later complained about this aspect of the game, never realizing she was half of the equation of manipulative people capitulating against the authority. Personally, I have no problem with people trying to overthrow the leader. That’s part of the game and what I designed. But you can’t complain about selfish D&D characters and then choose Chaotic Neutral as your alignment.

orc gladiatorSession four opened with more hate for Brutus. By the fourth scene of the game, Brutus was dead, poisoned by his own wife. And within minutes of taking the throne, Rose was soundly beaten by Axel in combat. The game spiraled for a little bit, until Rose made a move to seek out the remaining Night Razors and have them attack the Soldiers of the Stone, ultimately teaching Axel a lesson for his actions.

The game ended with a massive battle that was the best to date. The combat system in The Carcass really works if you honor the spirit of it and try not to make it some other game. Here another’s place in the rules where the example is strong, but more player advice on what you’re doing would be helpful.

Again. Two weeks of writing.

In the end, Axel was killed by Rose and a half a dozen Night Razors. Jojo fought off some bad-ass Night Razors and protected her children, and half the tents in the Chosen tribe were burned to the ground. Rose later died from suicide after her baby came down with a fatal fever and she realized the cost of her ambitions. At least, that’s what I think the message was. With no one to oppose her, Jojo became leader of the Soldiers of the Stone.

But at what price?

My final analysis is that I will probably never tire of this game. Though I recognize my friends need a break from it, this game still is exactly what I wanted it to be, albeit it lacks about 20 pages of advice and examples.

What’s next?

I’m working on rules for actually being a sycophant, some powers you can level up to, some advanced uses for drama points and where they go in specific situations.

The Carcass is available at Drive Thru RPG.

http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/132578/The-Carcass-GMZero-RPG-4

You can find additional character classes on the site as well. Expect the companion book by the end of the year, which includes mutations, powers, and some new classes, as well as rules for a zombie future.

Artwork by Tamas Baranya.

Bastille Day, Press Release

Posted: October 31, 2014 in Gaming

bdl

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Company: Post World Games

Contact: jim pinto

The 2015 Release of Bastille Day

Post World Games has announced the release of Bastille Day, a new roleplaying game using the Dramatic Game Engine. This engine will appear in several future Post World Games products. Bastille Day features a unique spin on survival horror by placing characters on the dingy streets of Paris during the French Revolution, only to find the undead rising from the city’s depths. Players take on the roles of peasants, caught in the crossfire between the dreaded le morte and class oppression. With suspicion and violence lurking behind every corner, Bastille Day is rife with conflict and meaning.

The Dramatic Game Engine allows players to tailor characters they want, without spending hours doing it. And get to the heart of the game, without hours of arguments. After choosing from a short list of archetypes, players select skills, talents, traits, relationships, and weaknesses to give life to their concepts. Questions at every step in the character creation process ensure no two characters are alike, though everyone is dedicated to the revolution.

The built-in campaign for Bastille Day is unlike any you’ve ever seen. It forces players to work together against a gamut of terrorizing obstacles and moral complexities, begging the question… “are they villains or heroes?” Including a chapter laden with notorious NPCs, Bastille Day offers a game world that entertains, excites, and torments its players.

With a Kickstarter slated for early 2015, Bastille Day will be the first of several releases in 2015 utilizing the Dramatic Game Engine.

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Art by Nick Huddleston

Playing the New Protocol Series

Posted: October 29, 2014 in Gaming

There are 15 more protocols coming, if you’ve been paying attention to my facebook feed.

About six of them are done.

Last night we played two of the new ones: Dead Things in the Walls and the Doom King (a favorite of mine).

43 dead thingsFirst was “Dead Things in the Walls” a game reminiscent of Hellraiser and the Grudge. We were a team of psychic investigators full of our own self-delusional bullshit. Jamie was the believer and tech. He was 60+ years old. Diana played his wife, who was ‘touched’ by visions of the supernatural. And I was a priest from a Louisiana Snake cult. I’d been bitten more than a few times over the years and drank venom mixed with wine in order to bless myself.

The house in question was in Virginia and over 150 years old. It hadn’t been lived in in a while and it was rumored to be haunted by ‘the Others’. A few years ago, a serial killer left a body in the house in a gruesome manner. It had been long enough empty and we were brought in to determine the problem.

Also note. Some of the world building questions indicated that I could not leave, the house fed on wrath, and it made sure we felt comfortable in certain rooms.

The game opened with the caretaker letting us into the haunted house, handing Jamie the keys and Jamie getting a flash of the future or possible horror inside the house. We had a few short scenes and then two long ensembles where everyone was making up nonsense about where they felt the energies, how the shadows formed, and that the house felt lonely.

Diana was cranky at the beginning of the night, so her character wanted out of the house almost immediately. Jamie was playing the understanding and loving husband who wanted to understand, but also placate his wife. And I was possessed by more than one calling, including a weird fascination with Diana, which Jamie never seemed to notice.

A noise upstairs brought Jamie and Diana to investigate a room reminiscent of Hellraiser. Empty. Broken floor. A strange smell. Then some visions of Jamie’s head being split open and the lights going out, drove everyone outside. We found grave markers in the backyard. Lots of people dying in the same year. Lots of children.

Anyone with a brain would have left now, but we proceeded to have a conversation about blessing ourselves, and having a seance in the living room.

At this point, I’m reminded of this SNL sketch.

http://www.hulu.com/watch/705074#i1,p6,d1

Once inside, we’d reached the half-way point of the story. Dead Things in the Walls has a special rule about the half-way point, where an ensemble about questions arises. Diana had herself doubting everyone, with a short interrogation inside her head, followed by the group having an argument about leaving. Jamie tried to collect his equipment and I grabbed a box and threw it down. Then I began speaking in tongues and all the lights went out.

More arguments ensued and eventually I knocked Jamie unconscious, broke his leg (so he couldn’t run), and dragged Diana upstairs.

At this point it got weird. The card draw kept us in interludes and vignettes for a while. So Diana and Jamie found themselves in a room with a staircase from Jamie’s dreams (pre-game prep information). When they got to the top, something from the darkness came at them. After that, there was a scene of me eating raw meat in the foyer.

The final scene of the regular game was us entering the house again… for the first time, aware of what the future would hold. And yet, unable to stop it. Jamie now walked with an inexplicable limp.

The epilogue involved us trying to get away, but the house haunting us and trying to bring us back.. The game ended with me in a motel staring at a TV screen filled with static.

Game two was the Doom King.

26 doomkingWe’d played this before, with mixed results, mostly because of a strange ending.

This game had a lot of adult themes in it, simply because of how we interpreted the results. We all know each other well, so there was no worry about offending anyone. The King was dying, suffering from catatonia (which he was in and out of) and a number of delusions, including sexual perversions. I won’t go into details.

The Queen, played by Diana, was barely holding things together, thanks to me (the Seneschal). Jamie was the bishop, completely devoid of morality. An important NPC that made an appearance in the story was Elderman Yohann, who supported the Queen becoming regent in the King’s stead, in exchange for some land and a title.

A special rule of the Doom King is that players must determine their relationship to the King once everything is established. The Queen’s relationship was perfunctory, the bishop was his cousin, and I had a romantic relationship with the king, who I was very loyal to. But I also had to manage the affairs of the kingdom and I couldn’t let my feelings sway me from my duty. Also, watching the king waste away was not easy.

The game grew dark and grim quickly. The doctor has been arrested for causing the King’s illness to worsen. But the Queen blamed me for the King’s debauchery. There was a scene where we were both blaming each other (in private of course) and the bishop just sat and watched. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I agreed to release the doctor, under the proviso that the queen admonish me publicly for the act. Otherwise my actions would be judged by the aldermen, who wanted the doctor there in the first place.

A few scenes later, we were trying to convince the bishop to approve the Queen as figurehead ruler or at least as regent. Without the bishop, the kingdom would suffer, so long as the king was ill. This was among the longest scenes in the game, with a lot of arguing and principled debate about the word of god. My character did not appreciate the hypocrisy of bishop and called him on it. Half-way through the scene, a messenger told us of a riot outside the walls. The people were burning an effigy of the king, and while it would be easy enough for soldiers to squash there was a better way.

I ran to the balcony and made an impassioned (and high-pitched) cry to the people to desist before the queen stepped out and told the people that she was taking over.

A ballsy move.

But it wouldn’t last. While the aldermen jockeyed for power with the new queen, the debauched antics of the bishop caught up with him. Gossip filled the castle and it was clear the bishop’s status and soul were stained. He would have to be removed. Or worse, publicly executed for his crimes/sins.

The Queen’s inaction would prove her undoing. Rebels seized the castle a few scenes later and made the queen a puppet figure. The rebel captain (Havard) granted himself a new title and had the queen honor all the king’s favors, all of which weakened the kingdom. The bishop was either thrown from the castle top or he committed suicide. It is unclear.

Before it all ended, I made sure Johann received useless marshland from the kingdom, to go with his misspelled title.

The King was beheaded, I was flayed publicly, and the queen was allowed to stay on because the people liked her.

This game had a lot of nuanced scenes that are hard to translate to an online post, but it was a great session nonetheless. The amazing part was how different it was the second time around. Merely selecting new roles and answering different questions makes all the difference. I can see playing this about two or three more times, easily.

Not bad for a $4 game.

Cultures in Gaming (as it stands…)

Posted: October 28, 2014 in Gaming

This is not a discussion of gaming culture, but cultures IN the games we play. Some real world cultures are mentioned to provide context.

Roleplaying games are generally bad at dealing with culture. Sure, Elves are arrogant, Dwarves are stoic, and so on. But these are generalizations about behavior, but never about culture. And culture is the heart of all civilization. Without it, we are rats fighting for cheese and building monuments by chance.

This ‘essay’ will attempt to dissect what culture is, is not, and how cultural schisms in gaming are nothing like real world ones. And why that’s stupid.

Without getting too political, if you watch (or read) the news, you know that a lot of places on the planet aren’t getting along. Wars have grown more violent and ancient cultural hatreds are developing again. But cultural wars aren’t only happening in Asia, but in America as well.

In fact, we’re living in a huge cultural war at the moment. Maybe as big as pre-Civil War America.

Since gaming does not exist in a vacuum, many of the events of our fantasy and science fiction worlds stem from our own life experiences. Devoid of life experiences, lazy writers turn to clichés, stereotypes, and unrealistic characterizations of people. Big ideas are reduced to small sentences.

Russians are grim people, having to survive the harsh realities of winter and not enough food.

This is so dumb, it’s almost wrong. And it’s not even an unrealistic sentence to read in a gaming book. If the lens we view the world through is narrow, our gaming worlds and expectations will be narrow as well. Dwarves are grim. Halflings are troublemakers. Orcs hate everything. If this was an article for salon.com, there would be now 1000 posts below of trolls shouting at each other about kids needing less/more spankings.

9781402783609_a142We cannot explore the lack of cultural expression in gaming material if we don’t understand the term. Most people think of culture as that thing that makes other people different. But culture is more complicated than that. Shorthand: Culture is the shared values of a society that ensure that two people born from different families might still understand one another’s needs. Without a shared cultural experience, you have people living within a nation/region/provinciality devoid of cohesiveness.

Hence, cultural wars.

But not all gaming is surrounded by cultural wars. In fact, modern roleplaying games (cf. games set in the modern world) avoid this topic altogether. Pulp games are about shooting two guns at once. Espionage games are about state secrets and shooting two guns at once. Horror games are about shooting Cthulhu with two guns at once.

Ironically, Cyberpunk is about a specific kind of culture war — class warfare. But it shares so much with modern gaming that few elements of culture make their way into the game. It’s all about blowing up buildings, stealing data, and shooting two guns at once.

Science Fiction and fantasy are unique genres, however. Their focus on culture and rights provides ample opportunity to discuss how different we are. But they never really do. They avoid the topic of culture and focus on the stereotypes of behavior… a side effect of culture. Elves are arrogant. But why? When does a roleplaying game ever show us the full width of elven culture to explain where their arrogance comes from?

A lot of this has to do with the confusion of nationalism and culture. The 20th century saw a rise in nationalism, globally, that impacts us all, on all levels. We cannot calculate its impact, because we’ve always lived in it. Like someone raised on cellphones and MP3s. Who knows what a rotary phone or album is? How can we understand a world where people do not identify themselves as “American!”

But this is a first world problem. In the West, we have the luxury of discussing ideologies, as we sip lattes, and pretend that it didn’t take 10,000 years of struggle and oppression to get us here. We rarely pay homage to the past, so the notes of culture get lost on us. While people in the East are still living under that oppression. They don’t have the time or wealth to sit and talk about ideals that don’t affect their lives. They essentially have eternal cultural values that have kept them alive for centuries. To break away from them would be to risk an end to their security.

My biggest complaint about how culture is depicted in gaming is that people who use the term culture generally don’t know what it means. Culture is so complex and it gets reduced down to food and clothing and a few rites of passage.

Culture is not behavior. Behavior encompasses many things. It is your general character. It how one conducts themselves, regardless of cultural cues or rewards. Those who are role models are said to have good behavior, for instance.

Culture is not manners. Manners is the face you wear to appear as thought you honor the code of conduct of a society. You don’t jump ahead in line. You don’t take more than your fair share. You tip for good service. Poor manners is sometimes a reflection of poor character, but not always.

Culture is the glue of a system. In some societies a culture may look down on braggadocio more than other cultures. Some cultures may hide their women from strangers because of centuries of learned behavior… see… it all comes back together. Culture is the system of all good behaviors for a society to operate. This does not mean that all people honor a culture. In fact, one could argue that culture is a tool for keeping poor people in check.

This is a little theory of mine. I probably need to think on it a little more to explain it better.

But culture is always some tool for creating divisions in roleplaying game environments, instead of a way to measure an environment on its own merits. The divisions will appear on their own. For instance, if we have a nation of elves and dwarves living next to each other, what happens? Who are the elves, who are the dwarves? Can we just say the elves are immortal and like wine? Dwarves are grumpy and smith hammers?

Can cultural divisions can be measured with so little context? In the real world, Koreans think Japanese are liars for maintaining a stoic face during negotiations, while the Japanese might look down on Koreans for being so ‘emotional.’ In a fantasy setting, this correlates to dwarves seeing elves as aloof and elves seeing dwarves as grim. But why? Culture is not the surface judgements we make. It is the deep-rooted causation that leads to our surface judgements and these judgements exist because of fear of cultural erosion.

What is cultural erosion? So glad you asked. It takes on many forms, but it is the culmination of cultural fears. How will a culture fade? Be replaced? Etc.

Cultural abrasion is the resulting friction between that two contrasting cultural values. Elves and dwarves only need to worry about one another when they come in contact with one another. The fear of cultural erosion stems from their interaction. Elves have no opinion of dwarves on the other side of the world. And unless the elf is a bigot, he’s not going to have an opinion of the first dwarf he meets until he’s spent some time with him.

(Btw. I coined the term cultural abrasion while working on my anthro degree, before finding out it already existed.)

Cultural deflation happens when one culture influences another. Deflation is the idea that the less important elements of a society’s culture may go away and be replaced by a neighboring nation’s values. Elves do not worry that their weak and impractical wedding practices will be replaced by the complicated rites and rituals of the dwarves. They don’t worship the same god(s).

Elves and dwarves do not have to worry about this kind of cultural erosion, either. Unless the two nations started having immigration issues or they shared national borders, the idea that elves would start getting beard implants to look more like their neighbors will never happen. But fears do not need logic to prevail.

Cultural deposition occurs when foreign beliefs and practices cross-acculturate. This is a real fear for uneducated societies or those experiencing high rates of immigration. Japan is going through this right now with China. Elves who suddenly see their borders filled with Dwarven immigrants fear that the culture of painting pictures and discussing philosophy will be replaced with mead-drinking contests.

Cultural saltation occurs when fears of cultural erosion change social practices. Elves who speak out against the dwarves in fear-laden diatribes reflect change in the way elves communicate. No longer do they sit around drinking wine and dreaming of the boredom of immortality. Now their culture is threatened and saltation affects their daily lives with fear-mongering speeches and debates.

Another form of cultural change that is not erosion is cultural assimilation. Though the culture changes, assimilation is considered a progressive, rather than regressive or erosion act. Assimilation is when the Elves learn to speak Dwarven and start drinking their ale.

(More than you wanted to know, right?)

How much of this have you measured when making your own game worlds? How much of this is measured in Greyhawk? The Realms? And if you’re just killing orcs, does any of this matter?

I can’t tell you if you’re gaming right or wrong. All I can do is make more tools and hope you use some of them.

I’m working on a number of games for 2015 that I hope can address the concretion of these concepts in more than just a preachy essay style. My eventual hope is that we might see roleplaying games address culture as more than just, “My elf likes blue wine and hates dwarves for wearing black socks with work boots.”