Make exotic societies interesting

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Nobby-W

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Mm. Apologies for the pile-on, but yeah, this is worth a comment. If these are the tenets on which a GM runs the campaign, then it seems to me that the only purpose for that society is to inform the players whom to shoot and whom not to shoot.
I don't think we're disagreeing. If the polity or society is just a source of hostiles then it's pretty limited. If your players are expecting to be jumped by slavers anytime they go near it then it becomes something to avoid. This situation is the sort of outcome that you might get from a one-dimensional design for a society. You can make an adventure out of escaping the slave pits but that trope has a fairly limited shelf life unless you fill it out with something rich enough to make the slave pits an interesting setting in its own right. If you can interact with NPCs in a society on a meaningful basis (or use it to inform an interesting character design) then it becomes more interesting.

Pop quiz: When was the last time you saw a decent-sized campaign set in Mordor or The Zhodani Consulate?

I think these are examples of a badly designed evil empire, at least from a role playing perspective. Granted Mordor was never designed for this but the entire Modror arc in LOTR consisted of Frodo and Sam assiduously trying to avoid any contact with the locals. Although a lot of verbiage got put into humanising the Zhodani in later publications, they were originally painted as bad guys and it never really got past being an evil empire. There wasn't really a lot of thought put into how to set adventures there, and the folks at GDW set themselves up with a hard task as Zhos were originally designed to be creepy psi-sensitive bad guys with several wars being fought against them. It was set up as a place where it was more-or-less impossible to hide without high-tech Imperial gadgetry that wasn't normally available to random PCs - and even then that only gets a mention as an afterthought in one particular adventure. Basically, they tried bodging stuff on the side but it never really worked and the majority of post CT-era material largely ignored the Zhodani.

You can make things more nuanced. I did a Call of Cthulhu game set in 1950s (just after Stalin's death) Soviet era Tajikistan once, for example. To make it work I filled in a bit of corruption in the local apparatchiks and a more lazzes-faire relationship between the party hierarchy and the local Tajik population - i.e. chinks in the fabric of society that the players could use to get about and do their thing.

To cite a couple of examples from the discussion above, If the NPCs have motivations informed by the society, or situations set up by social norms then the society is doing its job in informing play. This is really the stuff I was getting at - discussing how the design of a society has informed play, or how it was done with that in mind. We are starting to see a few examples of that coming out in the discussion, and the question I actually asked was -

[ . . . ]
Describe an exotic society or culture you've done or thought of and outline an idea for half a dozen sessions worth of material without using any of the following cliches:
[ . . . ]
In particular, how did the various mcguffins you put into the culture inform the adventures themselves?

I guess it's not strictly necessary to avoid the cliches but I've seen a lot more effort put into justifying why the poster shouldn't have to do that than into answering the question that was actually asked. Having said this, If someone's designed slave pits that made for an interesting side quest that they got half a dozen sessions out of then I'd be quite happy to see a discussion of how that went.
 
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Ravenswing

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Who succeeded Ogar II the flatulent or what generals were present at the battle of Lower Throcking in T.A 1314 may be less so unless they have some specific relationship to the background of an adventure.

Oh, absolutely. Far, far, FAR too much space is taken up in published settings by giant history sections spanning hundreds and thousands of years that may have been easy to write, but seldom (if ever) inform play to any degree. My sticky response is that the players aren't going to give a damn that Empress Lynessia III was the last monarch of Vallia to command troops in the open field, at the Fourth Battle of Council Lake, 174 years ago. What may well be important for them to know, by contrast, is that the empires of Vallia and Avanar are traditional enemies, share a heavily militarized border, that Council Lake is a key strategic position ON that border, and that the most recent full-scale war between the empires was 47 years back.

("May be," that is. Since starting GMing up again in 2003, even though the nation in which most of my groups have been operating out of is Vallia's northern ally and hostile to Avanar, they haven't been anywhere near that border, and the various border skirmishes that pop up from time to time don't affect them.)

And even with that war, the only reason I'd keep details to hand is if a NPC was a veteran of it, or a PC's parent fought in it, or if they ask questions about the battle honors attached to legion standards. The funny thing was that at the time -- mid 1980s -- I did fight the war out, with the gleeful assistance of some of the more avid wargamers at the UMass-Boston SF club, and the map of the front was on the club's cork board. And at this remove, I can remember just a couple of battles, and the PC-related adventure I can remember involving it was that one of my parties made a successful raid on the Avanari airship depot. The war's result was inconclusive, a couple impoverished provinces on the periphery were made neutral ground. The elderly Mostali retired general one PC's acquainted with doesn't wear his old uniform, and speaks very disparagingly about Vallians, in consequence of it, but the PC is courteous enough not to pester him about details. That's about as far as it goes.
 
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Ravenswing

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Pop quiz: When was the last time you saw a decent-sized campaign set in Mordor or The Zhodani Consulate?

I think these are examples of a badly designed evil empire, at least from a role playing perspective.

I'm not familiar enough with the Traveller Imperium to have a meaningful opinion on the Zhodani. Speaking as a JRRT fanboy and a one-time MERP writer, anyone who hasn't drunk the fannish Kool-Aid must concede that neither JRRT's interests nor strengths were in creating realistic societies or political structures ... and unfortunately, his tropes on the same poisoned the well for FRPGs ever after. But I hope we can all agree that Mordor is about as extreme an example as has ever been -- or ever will be -- committed to print of Evul Empire As Cardboard Cutout.

Because we know almost NOTHING about Mordor. We know the following things: that the plain of Gorgoroth is a blasted, waterless waste, with no apparent dwellings. That there are a bleepload of orcs in it. That other than Barad-Dur itself, all the known fortifications were in fact built by Gondorians, a thousand years ago or more. That Orodruin itself is uninhabited. That there are "slaves" around Lake Nurnen. That's it. Am I missing anything?
 
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AsenRG

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I'm not familiar enough with the Traveller Imperium to have a meaningful opinion on the Zhodani. Speaking as a JRRT fanboy and a one-time MERP writer, anyone who hasn't drunk the fannish Kool-Aid must concede that neither JRRT's interests nor strengths were in creating realistic societies or political structures ... and unfortunately, his tropes on the same poisoned the well for FRPGs ever after. But I hope we can all agree that Mordor is about as extreme an example as has ever been -- or ever will be -- committed to print of Evul Empire As Cardboard Cutout.
Of course, Mordor is best viewed as a giant warcamp in constant preparation for an incoming battle, which doesn't include much of a "society":thumbsup:.
 

Nobby-W

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I'm not familiar enough with the Traveller Imperium to have a meaningful opinion on the Zhodani. Speaking as a JRRT fanboy and a one-time MERP writer, anyone who hasn't drunk the fannish Kool-Aid must concede that neither JRRT's interests nor strengths were in creating realistic societies or political structures ... and unfortunately, his tropes on the same poisoned the well for FRPGs ever after. But I hope we can all agree that Mordor is about as extreme an example as has ever been -- or ever will be -- committed to print of Evul Empire As Cardboard Cutout.
I'll leave a critique of the Zhodani for another day - there have been attempts to patch them up but none were terribly successful in shaking their evil empire-ness. We seem to all be in agreement that a cardboard cutout of an evil empire without playable nuances is an anti-pattern in a RPG.

The OTU is another example of a setting with a lot of not-terribly-useful mid level canon and a poster child for the attractive nuisance it creates in online forums. It was designed by historians and wargamers (and there were various wargames published for use in the setting) but a lot of the published material goes into stuff that's maybe useful for a strategic wargamer but not terribly relevant to a party of adventurers having a mid-life crisis in space.

You've obviously spent a lot of time on the setting you've discussed above. Do you have some examples that come to mind where you've had a particularly good interaction between the design of the societies you've created and how they've informed a game?
 

AsenRG

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I'll leave a critique of the Zhodani for another day - there have been attempts to patch them up but none were terribly successful in shaking their evil empire-ness. We seem to all be in agreement that a cardboard cutout of an evil empire without playable nuances is an anti-pattern in a RPG.
Of course, but then cardboard cutout anything isn't particularly good worldbuilding, either:thumbsup:!
Real and real-looking worlds always have nuances.
 

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You've obviously spent a lot of time on the setting you've discussed above. Do you have some examples that come to mind where you've had a particularly good interaction between the design of the societies you've created and how they've informed a game?

Dozens. Many dozens. Hundreds. Far too many to summarize here, beyond the five examples I've already mentioned uptopic stemming from just this one extended adventure.

But the shining example that redirected a large chunk of my campaign's play came from this simple fact: the elven empire has a fundamental, inflexible law that children of the imperial family MUST have armsmen handy for their protection, 24-6, until their majority. (The wizard who seduced that cute elven armourer didn't know that before she decided to pull a fait accompli and unilaterally declare pregnancy. Oops.)
 

AsenRG

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Dozens. Many dozens. Hundreds. Far too many to summarize here, beyond the five examples I've already mentioned uptopic stemming from just this one extended adventure.

But the shining example that redirected a large chunk of my campaign's play came from this simple fact: the elven empire has a fundamental, inflexible law that children of the imperial family MUST have armsmen handy for their protection, 24-6, until their majority. (The wizard who seduced that cute elven armourer didn't know that before she decided to pull a fait accompli and unilaterally declare pregnancy. Oops.)
And on the seventh day:shade:?
Or this is a typo, I'd guess:thumbsup:?

Also, how did it change the direction of your campaign?
 

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And on the seventh day:shade:?
Or this is a typo, I'd guess:thumbsup:?

Also, how did it change the direction of your campaign?

No, not a typo. Six-day weeks.

And other than that the pregnant wizard mulled over her limited options and decided she was going to uproot herself and her three-year-old adopted son to the aforementioned Elven Empire, because sticking with the family inn (that catered to pirates, by the bye) in the overcrowded city with a cadre of humorless elven guards was not going to go over well? Nah, no changes at all. (grins amiably)
 

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No, not a typo. Six-day weeks.

And other than that the pregnant wizard mulled over her limited options and decided she was going to uproot herself and her three-year-old adopted son to the aforementioned Elven Empire, because sticking with the family inn (that catered to pirates, by the bye) in the overcrowded city with a cadre of humorless elven guards was not going to go over well? Nah, no changes at all. (grins amiably)
So you moved the campaign to the Elven Empire? And yeah, I can see how pirates and elven guards wouldn't mix well:grin:!
 

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Oh, absolutely. Far, far, FAR too much space is taken up in published settings by giant history sections spanning hundreds and thousands of years that may have been easy to write, but seldom (if ever) inform play to any degree. My sticky response is that the players aren't going to give a damn that Empress Lynessia III was the last monarch of Vallia to command troops in the open field, at the Fourth Battle of Council Lake, 174 years ago. What may well be important for them to know, by contrast, is that the empires of Vallia and Avanar are traditional enemies, share a heavily militarized border, that Council Lake is a key strategic position ON that border, and that the most recent full-scale war between the empires was 47 years back.....
So true.
My history informs species relations and orgins, but really more for me to provide a narrative sandbox back drop for magic items and adventure locations.

Where the abandoned towers and dungeon complexes of the vampire lords from 2000 years ago are located and the why of their design. The reason and nature of cursed magic items. Why are there so many "+1 swords" well they were common Elvish issue way back when in the wars of x. Not that players need to know these things, but it gives value and weight to players who build PCs with skills that would provide this knowledge.

Also it informs what is associated with a location, as abandoned vampire tower complexes were designed with certain things in mind, so if need to wing something have a road map so to speak of what fits. Also if need to come up with some magic item that would be there, have a ready idea of what may "fit" but even if just roll randomly the back story (often more for myself and to spur cool ideas for adventure) need to make it fit is fun.

Similarly with magic items if have general idea of when and why of them, if the players do something completely unexpected I'm ready and also they oft give life to the info and I'll add that to the worlds canon. It also helps with all the past and other divination spells players can use.

For me history is more than wars, it is movement of people and technology...at one point bronze was the pinnacle of technology...copper mines and more importantly tin mines were like the gold mines of today, with appropriate levels of complexity and protection. It just informs some back story and can make for great WTF when the great hoard of that old Dwarven mine are ingots of tin :smile:

As to mechanical effect, anything I list as a virtue if a PC exhibits it they get a + to reaction, as a vice an - (well unless they are dealing with the neor-do-wells of that society then it could be a +)...also vices can be a source of leverage, blackmail, extra profit.
 

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Well, sure. Historical bits that directly pertain to play matter, however far back they were. If I've got an adventure, to borrow off of my sticky, that hinges on the players finding the McGuffin that just happened to be owned by one of Empress Lynissia's commanders, and Fourth Council Rock was the last time she was ever seen, then they're motivated to find out as much as possible. Huh, the Empress' diary is in the Palace? Okay. The battle logs of the commander's Legion is in the legionary archives? Okay. Is there a military cemetery associated with Fourth Council Rock? Okay. There's a surviving Mostali eyewitness who swears that the manor house by the river was the aid station for that legion's wounded and dying? And so on. Then the players are going to give very much of a damn, and someone is going to be poring over a moldering copy of Sana Kalvanda's epic The Western Front In the Serpentwar, etc etc etc.
 

Nobby-W

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I've been taking an approach with a 'verse I'm building to largely drive it off what's needed for campaigns. There's a big picture with some sketched out structure with some polities, regions set up for some particular campaign ideas and factions - but not a lot of detail. History is kept pretty vague, largely consisting of a dozen or so key events that shaped the world as-is (e.g. why is there a whacking great neutral zone between two of the major polities). Again, it's largely been backfilled based on what was needed to support major features of the universe. There is a big picture, but I've largely refrained from going into a lot of detail outside what's needed.

Most of the other material is produced in support of the adventures themselves. You can see bits of it in the two PbP Scum and Villainy campaigns I've up here. I've adopted a policy of being ruthless with tropes. Ideas where I can't think of anything decent to do with them get punted or shelved and revisited.

One could think of it as a nod to Antoine de St. Exupery's comment of "In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness." He was talking about aeronautical engineering when he wrote this, a field in which weight and complexity come with significant costs, particularly in the early 20th century when he was a pilot. When talking about concepts like setting canon pulling its weight, I'm thinking from something more akin to a product design approach. Instead of thinking 'That's a neat idea', thinking 'What am I going to do with this?'
 
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Lofgeornost

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I've been taking an approach with a 'verse I'm building to largely drive it off what's needed for campaigns... Most of the other material is produced in support of the adventures themselves.

I tend to take this approach, to some degree, simply because I'm lazy. If I am planning something for a game it is something I think I might use in a session--probably the next session or two when we play. I suppose this is one reason I am attracted to historically-based games. If, in a game, it is important (for example) who ruled the city where the adventure is set two or three generations earlier, I can just look that up. I don't need to invent it.

One could think of it as a nod to Antoine de St. Exupery's comment of "In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness." He was talking about aeronautical engineering when he wrote this, a field in which weight and complexity come with significant costs, particularly in the early 20th century when he was a pilot. When talking about concepts like setting canon pulling its weight, I'm thinking from something more akin to a product design approach. Instead of thinking 'That's a neat idea', thinking 'What am I going to do with this?'

I see your point, but I don't share this philosophy, when it comes to RPGs. It makes sense for items that do something--why include extra elements that will increase the complexity and cost and perhaps lead to failure--but games don't do anything practical. Their function, if things go right, is to produce fun and delight. So my feeling is that if any g.m. enjoys working out arcane details of his or her setting that see no use in actual play, more power to them. I don't think one can really call this "self indulgent" (as upthread) because it implies that there is anything going on in play beyond people indulging themselves.

Obviously, the situation is different for published items that are sold. There the purchaser wants value for money and things he or she won't use that add to page-count become a problem. But if you are working on your own stuff? Create what details you love to create, as long as you don't expect the players to know or care about it.

There is also the issue of the 'illusion of depth'--little touches that make the game-world seem alive, rather than merely a stage for p.c.s' adventures. This is one place where having worked out a lot of 'useless' detail about history and culture can pay dividends. Tolkien is a good example of that--Middle Earth in LotR seems as real as it does because of traces of long-gone events--in the landscape, in poems or stories characters' recount, and so on. So I find working some of that stuff in to n.p.c.'s dialogue, the design of artifacts or architecture, etc. can be useful.
 

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Tangentially, something I've worked on the last couple of years is in working more ethnic enclaves/ghettos into my cities. Hitherto, the dividing lines were all economic/status, but far fewer of the "You turn the corner, and realize that folks are speaking an unfamiliar language, and strange smells come from the restaurants, and you have NO idea what the street vendors are ladling into bowls ..." variety.
 

Nobby-W

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There is also the issue of the 'illusion of depth'--little touches that make the game-world seem alive, rather than merely a stage for p.c.s' adventures. This is one place where having worked out a lot of 'useless' detail about history and culture can pay dividends. Tolkien is a good example of that--Middle Earth in LotR seems as real as it does because of traces of long-gone events--in the landscape, in poems or stories characters' recount, and so on. So I find working some of that stuff in to n.p.c.'s dialogue, the design of artifacts or architecture, etc. can be useful.

Tangentially, something I've worked on the last couple of years is in working more ethnic enclaves/ghettos into my cities. Hitherto, the dividing lines were all economic/status, but far fewer of the "You turn the corner, and realize that folks are speaking an unfamiliar language, and strange smells come from the restaurants, and you have NO idea what the street vendors are ladling into bowls ..." variety.

This is one of the bits where setting design interacts with the player experience. Details of this sort are player-facing, as it were. To take the example of street food, there's an incident in one of the S&V games here where a the party encounters a street food vendor while doing something else. It also served to drop a piece of local colour (the region was mostly populated by descendants of Francophone settlers; one NPC also had a residence on Rue Faucon du Millenaire) and give one of the local critters a mention on the menu, also in my bad machine-translated French.

This sort of detail is useful as it does add local colour, which the players in the games have appreciated. It does get used. I've come to a conclusion (back to the 'what am I going to do with it?' question) that world building needs a big picture to hang stuff off, but this gets into diminishing returns pretty quickly and often gets quite sterile if it's done in splendid isolation. Then the major things that are useful are the player facing details. Spending a lot of time in the middle tends to be of limited value.

I didn't mean to say the details have to be mechanically significant (that's a bit of a straw man argument and is not what I actually meant) although my comment about the merits of Cults of Prax still stands. It doesn't mean that world building is a useless activity, but it helps to keep the game itself in mind. It can be fun to come up with this stuff but I've grown skeptical of its merits through wasting time on it, and seeing how excessive mid-level canon in published settings tends to lend itself more to fuelling online witterings about its minutae than to informing play - the Traveller Mailing List, for example used to be quite notorious for this.
 
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Ravenswing

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Depends on what one's players think of it, mind. Mine love the various cultural bits and engage with them. No doubt players more on the wargaming side of the spectrum -- or those who find anything beyond bog-standard unappealing -- would not. I've got the time to create those cultural details, but it's not as if doing so takes up vast amounts of energy in the grand scheme of things.

Take that culture of "Loh" I spoke of uptopic. Between the cultural practices list, the new advantages/disadvantages, the two pages of ethnic equipment/weapons, the new wizardly orders, the cuisine section, the ethnic names? It's not a light effort -- sixteen pages worth. Now granted, I pillaged readily: the cuisine is Malay/Indonesian, the names and a lot of the cultural elements are Tsolyani. But I still spent a couple days on it, granted.

But. Now I have it. The culture of a major region in my setting is, well, set. I will have this for the rest of my GMing career, and it'll be there for future expeditions to the area, as well as for the Lohvian ethnic enclaves in the cities out of which my current party runs. It's not just that they've heard of Vengali mages or Brothers of the Way -- it's that they can run one if they want. This much work for a one-off throwaway adventure, yeah, that might be a bit much. This much work to complete a key area in my setting? Sure.

And this leaving out a significant factor: this isn't just interesting to my players. This is something I enjoy. I like world-building. It's fun. This is a pastime in of itself, whether this shop or that street dish ever sees the light of day. And it's a hobby with deep roots: JRRT spent his entire adult life building a legendarium, creating histories, tinkering with languages, working on a vast historical sweep, without any expectation anyone's eyes but his own would ever see 90% of his work. (And which, had his son Christopher not devoted his life to the task, no one but a handful of dedicated researchers would have.)

Nor will any but a handful of friends see mine. I've been told I should publish -- my biggest setting city has over 1100 businesses and runs nearly 250 pages -- but I've pinched enough from other sources and filed off enough serial numbers over enough decades that I couldn't tell what's mine and what's not. But that's okay. This is ephemeral art, just like Buddhist monks making painstakingly beautiful mandalas out of colored sand, designed to be ephemeral. I'm down with that.
 

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One thing to add is that different social classes can have different values. Someone upthread complained about the society that duels to the death over everything, but this is the reality for the noble classes of Three Musketeers. In reality, so many aristocrats were dying that Cardinal Richeliu had to outlaw dueling to keep the aristocracy from driving itself extinct.
 

Nobby-W

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Take that culture of "Loh" I spoke of uptopic. Between the cultural practices list, the new advantages/disadvantages, the two pages of ethnic equipment/weapons, the new wizardly orders, the cuisine section, the ethnic names? It's not a light effort -- sixteen pages worth. Now granted, I pillaged readily: the cuisine is Malay/Indonesian, the names and a lot of the cultural elements are Tsolyani. But I still spent a couple days on it, granted.
Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that. Space Viking was a passable story and it really hasn't aged well, but boy did it have a big influence on sci-fi. You can see Traveller-isms in The Expanse, Firefly and many other things - and in turn take a look at Traveller's fan-out to see how much stuff was lifted from that, right down to names (Emperor Cleon, anyone?). If you have the time, try going through the Atomic Rockets website and see how much stuff the authors of The Expanse lifted from that. And that's before we get to the long shadow Tolkein has cast over fantasy literature.
Nor will any but a handful of friends see mine. I've been told I should publish -- my biggest setting city has over 1100 businesses and runs nearly 250 pages -- but I've pinched enough from other sources and filed off enough serial numbers over enough decades that I couldn't tell what's mine and what's not. But that's okay. This is ephemeral art, just like Buddhist monks making painstakingly beautiful mandalas out of colored sand, designed to be ephemeral. I'm down with that.
That may well be the world's loss but you're not under any obligation to do so. I did work in print at one point, and some decades ago had a bucket list item of publishing a role playing game. For various reasons largely revolving around burnout at work, I decided to pick that up as a hobby again, and the stuff I'm doing now I have half an eye on publishing if I feel I've managed to elevate it past heartbreaker status. Publishing is easy enough these days and direct-to-plate technology is cheap enough that one could produce the material without having to go down the print-on-demand route.

I still see myself as a world builder - this is much more interesting to me than designing game mechanics - but I'm designing with half an eye on making something usable for other people. While a role playing game indubitably has an artistic or creative element, one that's intended for other people to use is also a product that must be useful. Having designed a few software products in my day, one can get carried away very easily and it's necessary to keep an eye on what constitutes a minimum viable product if you're starting a project. A MVP is not just minimal but it has to be viable. I also think that too much canon can form an attractive nuisance and several franchises get a bad reputation from their old grog demographic - to the point where people are put off by it.

So, IMO, canon doesn't come for free, even if you've already written it. For your own work it's not such a big deal; and these days I largely don't use third party settings through having long since gotten tired of dealing with canon-mongering fanboys. In publication too much of it can be wasted headspace at best and an attractive nuisance at worst.
 
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Lofgeornost

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This is one of the bits where setting design interacts with the player experience. Details of this sort are player-facing, as it were....

This sort of detail is useful as it does add local colour, which the players in the games have appreciated. It does get used. I've come to a conclusion (back to the 'what am I going to do with it?' question) that world building needs a big picture to hang stuff off, but this gets into diminishing returns pretty quickly and often gets quite sterile if it's done in splendid isolation. Then the major things that are useful are the player facing details. Spending a lot of time in the middle tends to be of limited value.

I didn't mean to say the details have to be mechanically significant (that's a bit of a straw man argument and is not what I actually meant) although my comment about the merits of Cults of Prax still stands. It doesn't mean that world building is a useless activity, but it helps to keep the game itself in mind. It can be fun to come up with this stuff but I've grown skeptical of its merits through wasting time on it...

The thing is, that without a fair amount of 'invisible background' those player-facing details are hard to generate convincingly--that is, in such a way that they seem to point to a real, breathing world rather than a stage-set. Bilbo can only recite his poem 'Earendil was a mariner' because Tolkien had already worked out an extensive backstory in which Earendil existed and had meaning.
 

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  • Society is hostile and xenophobic and shuns the characters, making information gathering difficult.
Ever been a white Census Taker in South Central?
  • Society is based around some evil cult.
Doesn’t have to be an evil cult. Ever walk into the wrong part of Jerusalem not on a tourist track? Or a Hasidim, Mennonite, or Amish community? Ever voice your opinions about Khomeini on vacation in sunny Tehran?
  • Locals view outsiders as easy marks and try to rip them off all the time.
Then I know you’ve never been to Rio, Tijuana, or a Swap Meet.
  • Party commits some social faux pas and get ostracised/challenged to a duel/forced to atone by performing some ordeal
Ever walk into the wrong bar in the Balkans or Eastern Europe, or even Southie? Laughed at Trump in a Texas Roadhouse lately? Name me a city in the world that doesn’t have places where the wrong word gets you an asskicking...perhaps followed by a caning or beheading.
  • Party is kidnapped by slavers or some other party and forced to perform as gladiators or some other such.
Ok, that one, you got me, unless you’re a Hot Blonde, in which case slavery’s a possibility in more than half of the world.

I know you’re talking about One Trick Pony societies, but having a society which has none of that? That’s not an actual human society, it can’t be. You‘re stereotyping just as much as those who rely on those tropes if you claim those tropes are...”Lazy Worldbuilding” or something.

That is, come up with an idea for the adventures that hinge off some aspect of an exotic culture that the players can interact with in a way that isn't (for example) taking away agency or automatically railroading them into something.

Or, tell us about something you've done already.

In particular, how did the various mcguffins you put into the culture inform the adventures themselves?
Hmm, will think of examples.
 

CRKrueger

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Cultural highlights:

* Lohvians believe in reincarnation, and speak of the Circle of Souls (the “Paol-ur-bliem”). Upper-class and well-off Lohvians will secure the services of a Repositor, or spirit master, when they are near death, to take up the soul until its new receptacle can be found. When the Repositor has done his or her duty, it becomes the turn of the Dikaster – or diviner – to find the newly born infant to whom the soul truly belongs. If he or she successful (and this is by no means automatic), the Repositor then “deposits” the soul, and the newborn legally becomes that person, joining that person’s clan and taking up the person’s rank and station upon majority. It is customary to compensate the family from whom the child is taken, and honorable to do so lavishly.
Interesting, so how many souls are there in a clan, on average? It stays a set number? What happens if the demand outstrips supply?
 

CRKrueger

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Tekumel is an example of a setting that has a lot of detail that doesn't really pull its weight in a game - what I've referred to as mid-level canon elsewhere. Mid-level canon is a sort of world-building anti-pattern where the author comes up with a bunch of lore that sits a couple of degrees of separation removed from thing the players actually interact with and winds up taking up headspace or page count without getting used much.

I've seen - and I imagine we've all seen - elaborately described societies with a lot of lore and history that isn't much use to inform gameplay. I was looking for examples of where someone had built societies with cultural quirks or some other aspect and used them to inform a game, ideally with some discussion of what happened or about the reasoning of the design.

I don't think it's an easy problem, or at least one that's not easy without taking a lazy route and making the society antagonistic to the players from the outset. It may be subjective, but I think the tropes I listed above are interesting for one encounter or perhaps a short side-adventure - and that's about it. Perhaps you could make an interesting campaign about rising through the ranks in a gladiatorial pool, but I guarantee you'd have to come up with a whole load of other material in order to do that.

To go back to RQII as an example that's contemporary with Tekumel, most of the published material pulled its weight. Cults of Prax, for example, discussed religion integrated into society, but laid out the specific role of the cults in character generation and advancement; it was relevant to gameplay. I think a lot of RQII was like that in that it did a pretty good job of making the source material useful. Glorantha didn't really become grog fodder until a couple of decades after that.
Heh, I think the difference is Tekumel‘s society and implications wasn’t translated well into gameable supplements like Glorantha was (and Glorantha is impenetrable to plenty). From what I’ve read of Barker’s campaign from Gronan and Chirine, Tekumel’s society was anything but light or middle weight.
 

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Heh, I think the difference is Tekumel‘s society and implications wasn’t translated well into gameable supplements like Glorantha was (and Glorantha is impenetrable to plenty). From what I’ve read of Barker’s campaign from Gronan and Chirine, Tekumel’s society was anything but light or middle weight.
This is a good point, though Glorantha is also a lot more Western than Tekumel, and can even be played just fine without some of the more unusual stuff (MY Glorantha is much more "D&D fantasy" than canon for example).

One of the problems with deep setting as a commercial product is as publisher you don't know WHAT bits any given play group will actually connect with so you need a much deeper setting than will ever see play in order for the product to have the widest appeal and to have everything come out with some level of consistency for each campaign.

When a GM is cooking their own setting, much of it will be developed in response to the players.

After making several attempts to run more exotic settings, I have concluded that I am best of running a less exotic setting. Glorantha works well for me, but I also ignore most of the canon and run it the way I want to run it.

I'm not sure how that translates to bringing exotic setting alive to players. I think in the end, that's not something I'll ever be good at...
 

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Heh, I think the difference is Tekumel‘s society and implications wasn’t translated well into gameable supplements like Glorantha was (and Glorantha is impenetrable to plenty). From what I’ve read of Barker’s campaign from Gronan and Chirine, Tekumel’s society was anything but light or middle weight.
I think Glorantha grew a whole load of mid-level canon in more recent years but the original RQII supplements weren't anywhere near so bad from that perspective. The supplements were pretty accessible and fairly useful. I still think Cults of Prax is one of the all-time great RPG supplements. You certainly didn't have to memorise a whole load of setting canon to play RQII.

Having said this, in one game I played a Golden Tongue lord (Issaries) called Ham, who set up a multi-level marketing scheme (naturally called Ham's Way[1]) and got it started in Dragon's Eye with a critical Oratory roll. It might not have been the most canonical of games.

Unless you're playing with hard-core fanboy types, the minutae of the setting canon don't really matter. For example, you could set up a Traveller sandbox using something like the approach robertsconley robertsconley describes in his blog posting and by and large the players' experience of the game wouldn't differ materially from something set in the Third Imperium.
_______________
1 - At the time, a mutual acquaintance of ours had gotten involved with Amway and was busily ringing around everyone he knew trying to get us interested in a 'business opportunity.'
 
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Interesting, so how many souls are there in a clan, on average? It stays a set number? What happens if the demand outstrips supply?

Since clans vary vastly in size -- and especially since I've no intention of doing a demographic census of the whole culture, which'd be far over the top -- I've no idea. And when I come off my summer hiatus, Asen has planned to join my game, I'm not giving real answers here. (smiles amiably)

But from what is commonly believed by Lohvians? First off, since only the upper classes can afford to hire the services of Repositors and Dikasters (and as much to the point, there aren't that many of them), and since no one is nuts enough to claim that the lower classes lack souls, they wouldn't have any clear notion. But plainly there is a loss over time. These are wizards casting spells. Sometimes the spells don't work, and they know it. Sometimes the Dikasters can't find the infants, or that the infants are bizarrely far away. Furthermore, what happens to the extant souls already in the infants is one of those Mysteries of which no one particularly likes to speak. Some faiths hold that this is monstrous necromancy, but we can all think of countless examples in real life of what happens when religious doctrine clashes with prevalent cultural practices.

and here I thought was the only one! Six day weeks, 5 weeks a month, 12 months a year and 5 "holidays."

Six day weeks, three week months, three months to a season, six seasons to a year, and six intercalary days at year's end.

Heh, I think the difference is Tekumel‘s society and implications wasn’t translated well into gameable supplements like Glorantha was (and Glorantha is impenetrable to plenty). From what I’ve read of Barker’s campaign from Gronan and Chirine, Tekumel’s society was anything but light or middle weight.

That's partly it, no doubt, but the bigger barrier was simply that the greatest market appeal was in lowest common denominator gaming. Ren Faire/Merrie Olde/Hollywood medieval was most comfortable and least weird to the North American market. With the most skilled of support, I don't see Barker's Malay/Mayan fusion having going over with the LCD demographic. Too weird, too harsh, too non-Anglo/French, too sexualized. If it wasn't the second RPG to see print, EPT would have never gotten as much traction as it did.
 

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I'd like to see the city if it's possible to assemble that into something postable.

If you mean the vast capital city I've referred to, ugh. It really isn't. 250 pages hardcopy, I've got 35 files and 24 maps, not counting the artwork I supply of key locations for visuals. What I do have on the blog, however, are two posts giving some representative businesses in the poor Mariners' Quarter: (A)(B) They have such stats as I put up edited out, and some nomenclature changed to reduce bewilderment: I doubt many people reading my blog would know what the Mockers, a Jiktar, a Wizard of Fruningen, the titles Kyr or Sana, pastangs or audos.

Some of the detail I've taken out ... hm. If you look at the small neighborhood parish, my real writeup has a good bit more detail, down to who's on what sodality, the "vestrymen" who are in effect the parish board, and pretty much any "church lady" associated with the parish. But that level of detail is unique to St. Taria's, and that's because it's the home parish of my wife's mighty (and devout) wizard, who takes great interest in the parish's doings and supports it with ample contributions. The list of personalities at the Venturers' Guild is heavily truncated; instead of the half dozen I present, I've a page and a half of them.

I could put up a small provincial city as an example, though.
 
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