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Culture from the Outside In

by Quinn Murphy

A common challenge in running games is delivering believable cultures to players. When building cultures that stray from typical fantasy norms, there aren’t familiar tropes to rely on, making the task more difficult. How do you supply enough context to make a culture seem real without taking up half the session in explanation? What’s the best way to turn your research and imagination into a culture that feels real and different to your table? How do you build these cultures with minimum effort and maximum playability?

Answer these questions by starting culture design from the outside and working inward. Rather than build a culture from its history and resultant customs and belief systems, start with customs, followed by its beliefs and then its history.

Start with customs first because they are the most “gameable” element of culture. Rather than trying to introduce characters to a new culture by explaining about that culture’s history, show them what members of that culture are like by describing what type of things it is that they do. If the characters start to interact more with people from that culture, they can see new customs and actions. If they don’t, the other benefit is a lack of wasted effort. The GM has not designed a lot of history and setting information that the characters failed to interact with.

Five Customs

To start, provide the culture with a name, then give it five customs. A custom should be written in first person, and it should not state what the people value or believe. Customs are boundaries on actions, listing what a culture does or doesn’t do, rather than just listing that a culture believes in X or doesn’t believe in Y. The more actively you can describe the custom, the easier it is for the player to understand how the culture operates, without getting bogged down in history or philosophy. “We always do this” or “We never do that” are perfectly fine.

The Kitani

  • We never use any tool more complicated than an abacus.

  • We always take the simplest method of achieving our short term goals if given an option.

  • We solve our problems through physical might.

  • We go through obstacles, never around.

  • We observe the natural order closely and live in tune with it.

Here is a quick sketch of a culture, so what should be done with it? NPCs can be introduced as following any of these customs. NPCs could also be shown in conflict with their culture’s customs. Maybe the characters stumble into an argument where one NPC is trying to find a more subtle way around a problem while her companion insists they approach it directly, like a “proper” Kitani always does.

Once you’ve laid out your customs, realize that these represent ideals of the culture, not absolutes. Any individual from that culture will observe all, some, or none of these customs. There are many ways you can introduce customs and settings to your players from this initial seed. Characters could be asked to take sides in an intra-cultural dispute of new ways versus old ways, or they might find themselves observing a culture fighting to keep its traditions in the face of sweeping changes such as plague and war.

Paragons

With customs introduced, it is now time to create three to five cultural paragons of the culture. These are roles of reverence and representative of the culture’s ideals. They don’t represent common positions or roles but roles that must be attained.

For the Kitani we’ll use Scholar of the Wild, Berserker King, and Master Woodsman as our paragons. Each reflects ideals of Kitani culture as expressed through the customs we’ve outlined previously.

These paragons can usually be slotted into one of an NPC’s aspects for the fractally minded amongst you. Use as-is or with variations that fit the character.

Adding More Detail

Having looked at the outsides of our culture, we can start to dig a little deeper. An advantage to the outside-in approach is that if the play group is satisfied with the quick peek at a culture, focus remains solely on what characters see and interact with. If the characters keep interacting with the culture, you can add further details.

Cultural Values

Our next step then is to learn what our culture thinks of itself. Starting with “A member of the culture is…” you can create a list of ten adjectives or nouns that describe what people from this culture value. We’ll continue with our Kitani culture:

A Kitani is…

  • Brave

  • Defiant

  • Brash

  • Forthright

  • Quiet

  • Charismatic

  • Clean

  • Honorable

  • Tough

  • Relentless

These can be used to assign aspects to NPCs as in previous sections. It also provides a deeper sense of who these people are and what they value. Roleplay and interactions should inform at least part of the list of values.

One way to involve players and increase their investment is to let them build part of the list. Ask each player to provide 1 or 2 elements. “How do you think the Kitani see themselves?” can be a provocative and entertaining exercise for the group. Realize though that this list is how the culture sees itself. It’s important to remember that the values on this list should be things that the culture considers positive, not what an outsider would
deem positive.

When using values as aspects, they can be lifted from the list as-is, but also consider using them in conjunction with other aspects. Values can augment other aspects to create high amounts of variation that still represent the themes of a culture.

Making a Kitani NPC, a GM can use Tough or Relentless, as Aspects, but can mix them with the paragons listed previously to get Relentless Berserker King, Defiant Scholar of the Wild, or Charismatic Master Woodsman. Combining values with other Aspects “flavors” and tailors them to the built culture.

Cultural History

The next stage of developing your culture is determining how it came to be as it is today. The process has so far stayed completely away from history, starting at the present and moving backwards towards the past. The previous steps allow a lot of knowledge through inference about the people in this culture, so the only gap left to fill is the historical context which they inhabit. The process didn’t ignore history because it’s unimportant but rather because it’s too difficult a place to start. However, now that so much is known about how people in the culture live and what they value, it should be much easier to hone in on events of historical significance to members of the culture. These events contribute to everything known about these people.

First, define a triumphant event. This event is a “golden age” epoch or moment for members of the culture. This event should evoke pride and positive feelings.

For the Kitani, this event is Destroying the Empire’s Shipyard. This is where the Kitani won their independence from the Empire, and set out for themselves on their own ships.

Next, define a failure event. The failure event is our culture at its lowest point. This is an event many from the culture won’t even want to discuss, as it is too painful a piece of history to deal with.

For the Kitani, this event is King Lowdin Surrendering. This lost battle is what placed the Kitani under the Empire’s rule in the first place. Having seen what happens when they do surrender, it is no surprise that they are now more likely to simply charge forward and take their chances.

Lastly, come up with up to three other significant events. These events are known to all members of the culture, though opinion may remain divided. The events can be lore or fable, or it can be an event that actually occurred. Critically important is that the events be shared.

Players earn access to these events as “rewards” for engaging actively with a culture. If the characters are around a culture long enough, they will learn about these events and stories. When characters reach this point, simply supply the events on an index card. Mark the positive events with a + and the negative events with a -. These events can be invoked and compelled as aspects, but negative events might make NPCs particularly sour if rolls go poorly.

For the Kitani, the significant events are Discovery of a New World and Chopping Down the Fallwood Forest. The former encapsulates the Kitani’s journey to a new world after escaping the Empire and the latter is a common legend told of some Kitani Woodsman who made a bet to see who could chop down the most trees and in doing so ended up cutting down most of the forest. The story is a teaching tool used to instill humility and attention to nature’s needs in young Kitani children.

Cultural Detail

After blocking out the major high level aspects of a culture, it is time to provide more detail. Keeping the building fractal, the next step is to provide cultural skills and cultural stunts. These skills and stunts can be used to flesh out NPCs of a particular culture but can also be used at a high level if cultures come into conflict.

Cultural Skills

Every culture has skills that it values higher than others. A full skill pyramid isn’t required, however: It’s assumed that a culture values a few skills but has all others within its population to some degree. Determine the culture’s peak skill, which will be at Great (+4). Next, pick two Good (+3) skills. That’s it!

The Kitani’s skill pyramid has Physique at its peak, with Fight and Athletics below it. The Kitani pride themselves on their physical access to the world, and these skills provide it.

NPCs from this culture will tend to have these skills at higher than normal ranks for their type. Cultures that come into conflict will use these skills as characters would, but in the context of cultural shifts (explained below).

Cultural Stunts

Attached to the cultural skills are stunts. For each skill, design a rebel stunt and a paragon stunt. A rebel stunt represents a stunt of someone who rejects some cultural norm, while a paragon stunt represents the capabilities of a person who embraces this element of the culture. Building a rebel stunt means developing a sense for how someone brought up in this culture now rejects the accepted way something is done. How would a pacifist from a warrior culture use Fight? How does fighter from a peaceful culture use Empathy? Answering this sort of question leads to finding a proper
rebel stunt.

Building a paragon stunt means thinking about the culture’s relation with a skill. A warrior culture needs Fight, but what does that mean exactly? What is it about fighting that draws these people to it? Here is where the previous work of establishing values and history will really help.

Kitani Cultural Stunts

Physique

  • (Rebel) Trickster’s Jape. You use your physical talents to anger others and instigate fights. Let others rush headlong into problems; you’d rather get your opponents off-balance and rushing at you! You may spend a fate point to use your Physique instead of Provoke.

  • (Paragon) Overwhelming Presence. Some lead with words. You lead with actions and presence. Once per session you may use Physique in place of any one Rapport or Empathy roll.

Athletics

  • (Rebel) Master of the Street. +2 to overcome actions with Athletics when in a city.

  • (Paragon) Master of the Wood. +2 to overcome actions with Athletics when you are in a forest.

Fight

  • (Rebel) Clever Fighting. +2 to your first Fight attack roll if you used Lore, Provoke, or Deceive in a previous action this scene.

  • (Paragon) Fighting Spirit. Spend a fate point to use your Fight skill against a Deceive or Provoke roll.

Cultures in Conflict

Cultures easily come into conflict. While conflict can take place on battlefields, cultures also conflict when their ideas and concepts meet each other. When a culture comes into conflict with another, treat each culture like a character. Each culture has a cultural stress track of three boxes. Individual characters cannot take actions against a culture except by mobilizing other cultural forces against it.

When a culture is taken out, it immediately regains the stress boxes and undergoes a cultural shift. In a cultural shift, one of the following happens:

  • A custom is changed by a few details.

  • One value is changed.

  • An event is added to culture’s history.

Track the number of cultural shifts a culture goes through. Every three cultural shifts causes a major cultural shift. In a major cultural shift, one of the following happens:

  • A custom is completely rewritten, to as many details as the winning culture wishes.

  • Up to three values are changed.

  • A cultural skill is raised or lowered.

All changes should go through the GM, but major cultural shifts should be dramatic and reflective of the smaller shifts that lead up to it.

Making Culture Work in Your Games

Culture is a big subject. It’s definitely much bigger than this article, and maybe too big for any one game. Especially when making fantasy cultures whose basis lies in real world cultures there is a fear of “getting it wrong.” One reason the outside-in method was developed was to help build these cultures with less of that fear. By trying to build cultures from respectful noting of observable behaviors and then drilling down into beliefs and values, the hope is to avoid making judgments and presumptions on a particular culture. Nothing is perfect, however. There is always the risk of getting it wrong, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take steps to bring culture more meaningfully into our games. These “outside-in” techniques are one way to do it; hopefully you and your group enjoy it! +