Using Memes to Create a Sense of Tradition – Items and Clothing

As I have spoken of several times in the past, I find culture to be the absolute most important aspect of designing a believable campaign setting or world. It is what helps us recognize the differences between separate locations, the same way skin color, height, and language help us recognize the difference between separate individuals. After reading some recent posts from one of my new favorite blogs, I have been inspired to talk about culture some more, and discuss some ways to implement small, culturally significant ideas into campaigns.

In 1976, ethologist and author Richard Dawkins introduced to the world the idea of the meme, the individual building blocks of a culture. He explains that memes are culture what DNA is to an individual – they are the single unitary facets that, alone, represent almost nothing, but combined with all the others, create a living, breathing, working culture that is easily recognizable and distinguishable from others.

I’m going to break down these memes into a few different categories, and talk about how you can use them in your campaign to create a sense of “self” for different locations, societies, and cultures.

Items and Clothing

When you see someone wearing a specific piece of clothing that is against the norm of a particular society, such as a Chinese hat, you immediately understand that it has a cultural significance different from your own. Likewise, the khopesh, though given a bit of a druidic stereotype in old Dungeons and Dragons games, would create a sense of Egyptian flair. Specific items, in terms of carry-ons, weapons, clothing, or decoration, all hint towards a distinct identity, which is what we’re aiming for here.

People in specific villages, kingdoms, or even entire continents, may all have similar items they carry, or clothing they wear, which distinguishes them from those of another location. Since we’re working with memes (small units), here is a short list of some real world examples of clothes, items, or weapons that I have found after just a few minutes of browsing the internet:

  • In many southern Asian countries, a sarong is worn as a lower garment. Though there are different regional variations, they all consist of a strap of long cloth that is tied or fastened around the waist.
  • On many of the Pacific and Micronesian isles, the aboriginal people made weapons from the sharpest items they could find – the teeth of sharks!
  • In the Southeast USA, particularly Georgia, and the Charleston, SC region, folks harvest sweet grass to make baskets, jewelry, and decorations from. These baskets are used for groceries and shopping and storing items at home, and the jewelry is worn year-round.
  • The indigenous peoples of the Pacific northwest crafted and carved talismanic poles from the trunks of cedar trees that would stand as a center point for the celebration of specific cultural beliefs, the recounting of familiar legends, or even as mortuary structures.
  • The Ojibwa people used clusters of white sage, bound into smudge sticks, in many ceremonies. Possibly more importantly, though, the burning of the sticks created a long-lasting smoke which would ward off insects!

Obviously there are thousands, or millions, of other memetic items that show up in different cultures that help create that sense of identity within the culture. Wikipedia is an amazing resource, but just start googling for customs, charms, cultural icons, etcetera, and see what you come up with. Maybe there are some eating utensils being used in a north African country that would fit well into your campaign? Or maybe some ancient kingdom had a unique weapon that would really work with your new empire?

And there are just as many good ideas that can be created with just a little bit of thought. Maybe all the women in a particular nation wear a colored headband with small, embedded gems along the top. Perhaps in a certain city-state, all adults wear an oddly-curved dagger at their belts. Possibly, everyone in some kingdom carries around a small silver coin, which they do not spend under any circumstances. What is it for? Was it minted on the day after the kingdom finally won independence from a foreign usurper? Is it a charm given to every child from his or her parents, to ward off evil spirits? Something else entirely?

Just as importantly, what do these things represent to the players and characters in the campaign? Do your players respect the cultural identify of sovereign nations, or is every city in a kingdom just “the place where we stop in between hunting goblins?” Perhaps introducing some of these items to the characters can help them come to grasp with the idea that they are living in an actual world, and not just some static vessel which heals and feeds them between sessions. If the players come across one of the coins from above, will they understand how significant it is, or will it just be another piece of loot to fill their bags?

How do you use memetic items to give cultures a sense of self?

More Inspiration in Odd Places

I posted the original Finding Inspiration in Odd Places as a result of reading a fantastic entry from my 2008 the Zombie Survival Guide desktop calendar. This newest one comes from what many consider to be one of the worst Stephen King books, The Tommyknockers. I have not actually read the book since 1993 or so, and didn’t even remember this plot all that well, but I saw the miniseries on TNT a few nights ago, and just had to watch it. It was just as shamefully terrible as I remember the book being, but it did give me some ideas for a local or regional fantasy-type disaster which could take place in a campaign.

For those of you who blessedly have not read the book, here is the basic gist. In some town (probably in Maine), someone discovers underground the remnants of an ancient ship. Once it is discovered, strange things begin to happen in the town, starting with all radio communications to and from the area being cut off, and ending with the town’s citizens beginning to evolve into the alien beings who originally piloted the ship to earth centuries ago.

In my fantasy version, there is an old, long-boarded-up well at the north end of town that has always been off-limits. Some naughty kids (are there any other kind?) break into the well and find old, dried tunnels. They explore and go missing. Soon, a strange mist settles over the town, and the regulars of the town find themselves taking on strange shapes, and evolving into different beings. The town is magically quarantined, and the PCs are sent to investigate. Once they enter the mist, they only have a few days before they also will begin to show symptoms. The adventurers eventually find the well, and exploring inside, find tunnels that lead deep into the earth. They come to a large, stone door that has been recently opened. The door leads to an ancient city of the mind-flayers (or some other suitably nasty creature), long dead, ruined, and flooded. The “naughty kids” are found, having almost completely taken on the shape of whatever denizen once lived here. Once the door is closed and sealed, the mist will eventually go away – or to make it more climactic, the adventurers may have to travel into the city and find the source of the magical plague and destroy it.

I believe I’ll be using this soon, I’ll let you know how the adventure goes.

What kinds of strange places do you get your inspiration from?

Fantasy Disasters

People love a good disaster story. Comets hitting the earth, the earth’s core stopping its nuclear reactions, crazy ice ages that blanket the globe after just a few days, and trees getting upset and causing everyone to commit suicide are just a few of the most recent premises used in stories about major disasters. I think one of the main reasons we like those kinds of stories is because we get to see normal people becoming heroes and adventurers. We get to think about how we would react in those kinds of situations, and what we would do to save the people we love, or live through the disaster.

In fantasy, there is a much larger area we can explore – things can happen in your campaign setting that could never, ever happen in the real world. I’ve decided to list a few ideas for different kinds of fantasy disasters that could take place, and I hope you guys will bring on your own.

Here are the categories, with examples of real-world catastrophes. Then I will list some fantasy versions.

  1. Local Disaster – something that covers the scope of a small village or town. A tornado that ravages a town.
  2. Regional Disaster – an event that covers perhaps a province or state in a kingdom. A large earthquake.
  3. National Disaster – an entire kingdom is devastated. Massive hurricane.
  4. Continental Disaster – the entire continent is thrown into turmoil. A small meteor strike or a megatsunami.
  5. Global – worldwide devastation takes place, threatening all life as we know it. A supervolcano erupts, a massive meteor or comet strikes the planet, the sun starts burning out.

Here are some examples of more fantastical and magical catastrophes you could use to throw the PCs into the thick of things.

  1. Local: Tainted Watercourse – A magical beast of some kind dies in the river upstream. Strange things begin to happen to villagers who drink the water.
  2. Regional: Underdark Sinkhole – Beneath the region is an evil artifact which has been eating away at the earth for centuries. Finally a sinkhole opens letting nasty things out to the surface and drawing evil creatures, who feel the pull of the exposed artifact.
  3. National: The Return – Long ago an entire city which was once the nation’s seat of power mysteriously disappeared from the face of the earth. For some reason the entire kingdom actually turned ethereal. Now the kingdom has suddenly returned and wishes to once again lay claim to the nation.
  4. Continental: Continental Drift – a ley line eruption beneath the ocean sends out a wave of magical force which literally cuts through the landmass setting a continent adrift upon the ocean.
  5. Global: Cracked Moon – the world’s moon cracks in two, violently altering the tidal patterns. Worldwide tsunamis destroy coastal cities killing millions, and the world’s climate is drastically altered.

What kinds of crazy disasters have you thrown at your players, and how did they respond?

Fantastic Governments – Options of Mortocratic Leadership

Previously I talked about fantastic governments. Reading over them, my favorite was definitely the mortocracy, in which I talked about a government ruled by the undead. Of course, this is not one hundred percent original, but I do feel that it is not very explored in most campaign settings. So the first thing to explore is, what other options are available for ruling such a government? And how would mortocratic governments differ based on the type of undead in charge?

Note: Modern interpretations of these undead lords can be either good or evil, but for the purposes of this article, they will be assumed to be evil.

The Lich

The power-hungry sorcerer who desires life after death, the monarch who refuses to relinquish his kingdom, or the magic using advisor who usurps power from the throne can all be liches. A lich in charge of a nation or kingdom seems like pretty standard fare in many campaigns and settings. They often have hordes of undead at their disposal – whether these undead are reasoning creatures that live within the society, or just festering pits of zombies, ready to be thrown upon enemies, would be up to individual liches. Liches would not have much interest in seeing other liches – or any magic-wielding undead, for that matter – living within their territory. The same goes for extremely powerful magic users of any sorts. The lich would perceive these kinds of beings as a potential threat to its power, and would most likely have all such threats neutralized, exterminated, or at least removed from the area, as soon as was possible, thus making it very dangerous for magic-using PCs to hang out in lich territory.

Living in a Lichdom

The lich most likely came to power as part of the progression from the previous ruler. Said ruler may have been a studious practitioner of the arcane arts, or may have just been a power-hungry ruler who had no intentions of giving up his kingdom at the end of his natural life. For either the reason of advancing his agenda or studies, or for domination, he became the lich, and just continued holding onto power in the kingdom. The lich would possibly persecute academic studies in its kingdom, specifically those that would lead to powerful beings that could threaten its hold on the nation. Pursuit of lichdom by anyone other than the lich would probably be punishable by death.

The people living in the kingdom would probably have little reason to fear the lich, as he would be just another monarch to most commoners eyes. However, depending on the lich’s stance on undead and their place in society, it could lead to factions and certain forms of a caste system where the upper caste are various thinking undead creatures, a lower caste could be well-to-do mortals, and the lowest caste would be filled with the poor, destitute, and mindless undead.

Strange Customs or Rituals in Lich-based Mortocracies

Graveyards may have a special importance in this type of mortocracy, as the lich would want to ensure that all his fodder and components for a defending army would never be in a threatened state. They would possibly set up magical defenses and security measures at all entrances and exits to cemeteries. Perhaps they would even have powerful animated or undead guardians patrolling cemeteries. This definitely makes grave-robbing much less of a threat.

The borders to the nation are probably not necessarily heavily patrolled – at least, not any more so than standard borders – as the lich has little to fear from most people. However, all “adventurers” and “holy men” must register in any city visited, and will be the subject of close scrutiny to assure they mean no ill will towards the lich.

According to older D&D lore, part of the lich’s creation comes from drinking a poison-potion on the night of a full moon. Therefore, full moons probably represent the time most likely for the lich to use his power in public, either in celebration of conquests, or for showcasing his power of authority.

The Vampire

The cadaverous revenant skulking through the night for blood, the sinister and charming aristocrat whose victims seem to beg for his embrace, or the goth clans and tribes of blood-drinkers who just want to be accepted can all have a role in a society. Vampires have amazing amounts of pure power, and can easily be seen as the potential leader of a nation. In most history and mythology, vampires have quite a bit of sorcery in their repertoire of power and abilities, and can definitely use that to their advantage.

Living in a Vampiredom

The vampire overlord probably inspires a good bit more fear than other undead monarchs, simply because the vampire can only sustain its un-life by consuming the life essence of mortals. There is, of course, no reason to assume the vampire would feed on his own servants – perhaps he outsources (“The Northern Kingdom’s blood lines are thinning sire, should we perhaps starting looking towards the desert kingdoms?”), or has simply found some other way to survive. However, the fact remains, much like a farmer guarding his cattle from wolves, the vampire’s main interest in individual mortals’ protection is probably first as a food source.

One could probably easily see that mortals living in the vampiredom would have many reasons to fear being on the vampire lord’s bad side. Perhaps all criminals in a vampiredom get put on an “Eat List,” depending on the severity of their crimes? That would definitely be a form of crime prevention – those of criminal mindset are much less likely to do heinous acts if they know their last act will be as preparation and/or garnishment for a vampire’s meal! There would probably even be “Street Teams” of vampire servants who would report back to the vampire on criminal activities. All of this, of course, would not be for the betterment of society, but simply as a way to keep the population in check.

Night time would be daytime in a vampirocracy. Many business transactions and activities would likely go well into the night, and those who worked in close proximity to the vampire and his staff would most likely always be up through the night, and sleeping during the day (other than, of course, the vampire’s personal guards who guard him as he sleeps during the day).

Strange Customs or Rituals in Vampire-based Mortocracies

Since vampires in mythology are typically born of special earth, dirt, and soil that was used in their burial, it is highly possible that vampire lords would protect and nurture the earth. They probably wouldn’t be druid-like in this regard, but they would have a reverence – and thus demand similar reverence from their servants – of the ground from which they were born.

Holy symbols are very likely to be banned and outlawed in a vampirocracy, since they can actually cause harm to vampires. It’s very probable that silver and rosewood would likewise be banned, due to their close proximity in many vampire deaths of yore. Newcomers into the kingdom would probably be required to give up all items of silver, rosewood, and holy status upon their entry into the kingdom – possibly under the provision of regaining them upon leaving, but possibly not!

Spiders, wolves, and bats may have a place of respect in the religions and customs of vampirocracies as well, due to their close association with many vampire myths and legends.

The Death knight

The powerful warrior king who sold his soul to demons to survive one final quest, the paladin who fell from grace and must redeem himself, or the generals of other undead sorcerers who have gained power of their own can all become death knights. Becoming a death knight is a choice (must like becoming a lich), and it is a choice that is doggedly pursued while the individual is still alive, so that he can accomplish some goal that is unattainable in life. Death knights are known for their sheer, brute power, and any nation that can accept a general or tactics-savvy king would probably acknowledge the benefits of a death knight monarch as well. Not to mention, once again, death knights often have mystical powers at their disposal which can help their case.

Living in a Death knightdom

Death knights most likely run a nation much like a military leader, since all their previous life experience would come from martial warfare and the like. However, they will tend to have a mission or goal to accomplish (thus their reason for becoming undead in the first place), and all their actions lead towards accomplishing that goal. A death knight in charge of an entire nation will most likely not flinch in the slightest at using the subjects of his kingdom as pawns in the pursuit of his goal.

Death knights have typically had power over other lesser undead – in particular, skeletons, zombies, and ghouls – and will most likely use these beings as the peon workforce in a nation. It would not be uncommon to see these undead acting as simple slave labor throughout a society. More powerful undead, such as wraiths, wights, mummies, etcetera, would probably not be welcome, since they could conceivably challenge the death knight’s power. In fact, death knights would probably destroy all information to the ritual that led to their own creation, as they would not want more death knights roaming around the area. Anyone seeking such information would be hunted down and killed, to be risen as a slave in the death knight’s workforce.

Higher studies such as philosophy, arcanology, theology, etcetera, would most likely not be offered within the society, unless these studies would help the death knight in his single minded pursuit. Those who studied such works would likely not be tolerated either, since those studies could lead to knowledge of how to supplant the death knight’s power.

Strange Customs or Rituals in Death knight-based Mortocracies

Being more battle-driven than the previous undead lords, death knights are likely to have interest in accomplishments of martial prowess. Most likely, gladiatorial-type fighting would be permitted – even enforced – in major cities, with powerful warriors fighting powerful undead. Those who rose high enough in the ranks could even have a chance to face the death knight or his lieutenants.

If the death knight were ever to accomplish the goal he was pursuing when he made the choice and pact to become undead, it is likely said event would be celebrated. It could be annual – or even daily – celebrations, in which the death knight would force all people of his empire to pay homage to his success.

That’s about as far as I’m going to go with this, but have you guys ever had any mortocracies in your campaigns, and if so, how were they run? I would love to hear about them.

Fantastic Governments

This is a repost from October 20, 2008. It is being reposted as there is another article being posted soon that will follow it.

Here I will deal with fantastic forms of government, and the RPG community’s thoughts on it. I would like to focus specifically on the influence magic, psionics, and monstrous races could have on government. Feedback is appreciated, and post your own fantastic forms of government. Some basic concepts I had so far:

Simple enough. A powerful dragon flies in and establishes itself as ruler of a humanoid community. Dracocracies are usually noted for being large exporters of goods, but tend to import mainly a) absolute needs or b) the dragon’s favorite horde items. They tend to have a very aggressive foreign policy, and if the dragon is evil and has been in power for awhile, the communities armed forces tend to consist of a large number of half-dragons bred for this purpose. Other than that, dracocracies tend to follow the views of the dragon that rules them. Due to the long lifespan of their rulers, most dracocracies have a very unstable period when the dragon takes power and when the dragon dies or is deposed, but a very stable period between the two times. This pattern is more common with Lawful dracocracies than chaotic, and most common in Lawful Good dracocracies. Chaotic Evil dracocracies tend to be short lived, as the population is usually rapidly depleted by their master or they flee in fear. Only very powerful (old or older) evil dragons have the power to rule long lasting evil dracocracies, while it is possible for a young “good” dragon to rule a dracocracy. In D&D terms, evil dragons usually need to be adult to enforce their power, while good dragons tend to need to be adult to mature to stay in power.

Dragons tend to take the long view, so they usually employ others to run the day to day business of what they rule. In good dracocracies, this tends to take the form of natives. In evil dracocracies, this is usually done by natives at first, later by half-dragon and draconic offspring of the ruling dragon, who form an elite upper class blessed with longevity as well as additional powers. Dracocacies rarely feature more than one dragon, or a mated pair and their children – most dragons do not show the ability to share territory and work together that would allow for multiple draconic families to rule the same city.

A conferosentenocracy* is ruled by a psionic entity that is formed by powerful psions. This entity, referred to as the Group Sentience, is made up of the emanations of every single psionic entity in the nation that is bound to it, and those who are bound to it are considered citizens. In a nation of psionic races, such as dromites or duegar, this means that every member of the species is a citizen. A conferosentenocracy that arises among humans, however, tends to form an aristocracy of psionically-endowed humans while those born without psionic talent are considered a lower class. Citizenship can be revoked, divorcing yourself from the Group Sentience, while someone can gain citizenship by binding themselves to the Group Sentience. Being bound to the Sentience has no ill effects on the character, or any at all: all it means is that your existence powers the Sentience, who is aware of your existence and is influenced by your viewpoints. They tend to be very democratic in actual implementation, but conferosentenocracies require passive, not active, participation. The Group Sentience itself sometimes tends to take the form of a large psionic entity in crystalline form, similar to a psicrystal, but far more powerful.

*(from Latin confero, meaning group, and sententia, meaning thought. Usually shortened to just Sentocracy in the vernacular.)

A mortocracy is a government by the undead. Any type of intelligent undead can rule, but rulership usually falls to liches and the like. There are many cultures in which the elders of the society are given the right to rule; in the case of mortocracies, this is extended to its logical conclusion. Usually such governments are evilly-inclined, though such a government may be quite tolerable to live in – undead have few material needs, and a lich or cabal of liches may not even find taxes necessary, so long as the community is able to trade for the rare items and research materials they need. Because evil is often quite jealous, these governments are usually autocratic, with one undead ruler or a strict hierarchy of undead answerable to the most powerful of them. A mortocracy may have come about by the conquest of an enterprising undead creature, or perhaps the community was ruled by a spellcaster or other being who decided to extend his rule into un-life. There could be a whole dynasty of lich-kings, each one siring heirs while mortal and then becoming undead, to pass the throne on to their (now also undead) heir once they transcend the mortal realm and attain archlichdom.

In some cases, a mortocracy may be revered, if still feared. Imagine a desert society living around the ancient tombs of their distant ancestors, who now rule as mummies from within. Though few commoners truly want mummies around, the ruling class is still held in considerable respect by the people (their descendants), and perhaps these rotting elders are consulted on occasion – after all, they have had quite a bit of experience in their long existences. These undead might rule through priests or clergymen that act as their bureaucracy within the community. Needless to say, such a community would not look kindly on adventurers arriving with undead-slaying on their minds.

That’s what I’ve got for now. Please bring your own!