Friday, September 27, 2013

The Exotic and the Familiar: Mixing Cultures in your World

This will likely be my last post for this month's Location, Location, Location Blog Carnival from Campaign Mastery.

Today, I want to talk a bit about translating the mix and flow of culture in your game or fantasy setting. But I don't really want to focus on the serious stuff like race relations or the iron trade. I find that I often fixate on the practical when it comes to building my worlds and overlook the richness that can arise out of the little oddities that spring up when cultures meet and mix.

I want to focus on the flow of the little things, or the things that start out little, anyway. I want to talk about the flow of sometimes absurd trends and cultural comforts from place to place.

Let's talk about the familiar and the exotic, shall we?

A Taste of Home

Just like mom used to make!

As people flow from place to place, they bring with them their cultural practices: their religions, their styles of dress, their food, their music, etc. Whether we are talking about the waves of immigrants that have populated the United States throughout its history, or a kid going away to college, or a country mouse seeking its fortune in the big city, they tend to bring a bit of home with them. Home is comforting when you are in a new and strange situation, it may seem absurd to those outside your culture, but to you it's familiar and comforting.

To the majority population, an immigrant's cultural trappings might seem absurd. Outside of Seattle, people think I'm weird for putting cream cheese on hotdogs! Conversely, the newcomer(s) might feel alienated by their new surroundings, and will likely seek out the closest thing they can find to home... and then complain about any inferior products "you just can't get good New York Pizza outside of New York!" If you get enough members of a cultural diaspora in one spot, they may bond together as an enclave (think little Italy) setting up shops that provide authentic foods and wares from the home country.

In a fantasy setting, this desire for home could manifest in many different ways. Individual immigrants might offer rewards for tracking down rare and/or dangerous food ingredients. Larger human cities might have places like Dwarftowns within their walls, and they might then become the place to go for the best alehouses, or the best blacksmiths (am I being racist against a fictional culture?). Races or cultures might take advantage of language barriers to set up their own secretive organizations, perhaps leading to the formation of elven mafias or the like.

The Mixing Pot

As cultures mix over time, they inevitably begin to cross-pollinate. Foods that once seemed strange, or exotic become acceptable outside the originating culture (sushi!? otyugh souffle!?). Sometimes the original recipe, product or practice is modified in some way to make it more palatable to a wider audience. It could then become a matter of distinguishing the places that offer "real" elven wares as opposed to those made just to sell to the "filthy round-ears".

As original immigrant populations have children in their new surroundings, memories of the old ways fade across generations. Where the grandparents only speak the old tongue and wear traditional dress, the parents might be multilingual, practice the old ways at home and put on the trappings of the main populace in public, the children might be almost entirely assimilated, much to their elders' chagrin. I can just picture a dwarven diaspora in an elven city where the young dwarves shock their parents by majoring in Druid, shaving their body hair, wearing feathered jewelry and flowing silk.

A Desire for the Exotic

While immigrants to a new place may long for a taste of home, many people, immigrants or not, also crave the exotic and novel. Oftentimes access to the exotic requires either some degree of wealth, or at least a knowledge of ways to get stuff cheap.

Acquiring trinkets from far away places can serve as a status symbol or a way for people to add an element of excitement and romance to their lives via a culture they might not actually understand. I can't even begin to count the tourist traps around Seattle that peddle in "Buddhist and Taoist" figurines, "Coast Salish" art, or "Rastafarian" clothing to people who just like getting high while listening to Bob Marley.

The desire for exotic goods is often completely divorced from the actual quality or practical utility of the stuff. They might be art objects, special clothing accessories, junk items made for export or rare pets. People don't NEED these luxury items, yet they produce a flourishing industry.

The region of Ten Towns from the Forgotten Realms offers up a really brilliant example of this desire for the exotic. Ten Towns exists in the most desolate tundra in the far north of the realms, but its economy thrives, because the towns export scrimshaw carved from the bones of the knucklehead trout. In case you are unfamiliar, scrimshaw is artistic carving on bone (in the real world, most often whale bones). Scrimshaw can take practical forms like pipes, or game boards, or purely artistic scenes, but its desirability is driven by its exotic nature. When you think about it, it's really weird. Some bored fisherman whittled away at the leftovers from his lunch and then sold it to a merchant, who in turn sold it to city dwellers clear across the continent!

To Sum Up

As you develop the cultural mix of your fictional setting or game world, don't just think about who produces the best swords, or breeds the best horses. Consider what the minority populations in your cities might want to give them a taste of home, and how they might go about getting it. Do they make an annual pilgrimage for the beer festival? Do they secretly raise and milk manticores in their basement? Do they hire adventurers to bring them powdered unicorn hooves? The lengths people will go to for a taste of the familiar can provide ample fodder for plot hooks and flavor text.

On the flip side, a desire for the exotic can similarly offer up rich opportunities for story. Whole towns might spring up and eventually crumble in otherwise absurd locations, because of the availability of a completely unnecessary luxury. Trade wars can rage across guilds trying to corner the market, and nobles might pay amply just to acquire a trinket that will allow them to one up snooty Ms. So and So at the Duke's annual feast.


  1. I love it! When are we going to the Ducal Feast? I better source some fancy scrimshaw in preparation :)

  2. Thank you for prompting me to think of all the little things that make a world more real. I can't believe I forgot the scrimshaw! And you make an excellent point that "not all that glitters is gold". Why shouldn't characters be hired to venture into the scary forest for an exotic wood for game pieces?


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