The GM’s most important trick in this kind of campaignThis singular paragraph will be the core of most of what I'm doing during this iteration, so let me parse what Mr. Stoddard is talking about.
is distancing mechanisms: situations, customs, or objects that
are alien and perplexing, both to the PCs and to the players.
It’s best if they aren’t just random weirdness. Not only is it
“playing fair” to come up with logical reasons, working out
the implications of a premise can suggest additional weird
elements, deepening the effect. A campaign of this sort is a
riddle for the players; when they start anticipating the consequences of their characters’ actions, they’ve answered the riddle. At that point – and not before – it’s appropriate for them to buy Cultural Familiarity, freeing their characters of skill
penalties for not knowing how things work.
-Bill Stoddard, GURPS Social Engineering
An alien race, or a strange setting, should feel alien or strange, and that means not everything should work the way it does in our ordinary world. The whole point of science fiction and fantasy is to visit and explore new and unusual worlds. They might have a sense of familiarity, but to have a sense of authenticity, something should be alien about them. There should be some element (a mechanism) that helps separate (distance) this "exotic world" from the "ordinary world" that players are more familiar with.
Ideally, these mechanics should logically flow from the nature of the world the players find themselves in. In Dune for example, the natives, the Fremen, have completely blue eyes, obsess over water and worship the sand worms. This makes sense, though, because the planet is a desert and spice, which causes blue eyes, is one of the few sources of nutrients on the planet. Once someone understands the logic that underlies the culture of the Fremen makes perfect, internally consistent sense.
These distancing mechanisms represent the hurdle to socializing with another culture. That is, they are the crux of why you have a -3 for socializing with someone with whom you do not share Cultural Familiarity. Once you understand the logic of the culture, you have bridged the "distance" and you may purchase Cultural Familiarity.
Star Wars and Distancing Mechanism
Star Wars absolutely brims with distancing mechanics, trying to remind you at every turn that, yes, you're in a sci-fi world full of aliens and crazy stuff.
The above are just a few ways that Star Wars goes out of its way to show you that you're in an alien world. It has unique symbolism, fashion, cuisine, entertainment, economics, religions and customs.
But Star Wars plays fast and loose with distancing mechanisms. On the one hand, it wants to remind you that you're in an alien world. On the other hand, it doesn't want to alienate you. The point of Star Wars is to tell a familiar story in a familiar setting, while bearing the tropes of familiar stories. Padme might look weird, but she's a princess and we know what that is. The Jedi Order might seem strange and unusual (even the word Jedi is unusual), but they remind us of samurai. The Caninta band is full of aliens playing weird music... but they're a band playing in a bar, which is something we understand. Even the most alien thing I've seen in Star Wars, squid lake, is an obvious play on Swan Lake.
Star Wars doesn't invite you to explore the nuances of things, especially not in the movies (the expanded universe begins to resemble a more cohesive sci-fi universe though, for good or for ill). It's classic space opera in the sense that it knows it needs to look the part of sci-fi, but it doesn't need to be sci-fi. It needs to tell you a story you already know, only in spaaaace. In this sense, what Star Wars offers aren't distancing mechanism, they're window dressing. You'll see this come up again and again, especially when we get to aliens, organizations and especially language.
Psi-Wars and Distancing Mechanisms
Did you know that the Twi'lek first got their name from the West End Games Star Wars RPG? Let's ponder what that means: One of the most identifiable races in Star Wars has never had their name spoken on the silver screen, and they only received their name from an RPG. Why would this be?
The goal of the Star Wars movie is to have fast-moving action. George Lucas needs to show Jabba's cruelty, so does it by throwing a dancing girl to a terrible monster. But he can't have just any dancing girl, it needs to be an alien dancing girl, so we slap some tentacles on a girl's head, paint her green, and call her Oola. Done. You don't need more than that. Oola doesn't need a big backstory or her own language or a homeworld or a rich culture full of ancient traditions. She just needs to look alien, and so she does.
The goal of an RPG is different. Someone will ask to play an alien. Someone will ask to play someone like Oola. They'll want to be, say, a former slave turned jedi, who escaped the tyranny of someone like Jabba. But what are they called? Where do they come from? What do they eat? Are they, just, like people with tentacle heads? Why are they always slaves? Are they always slaves? A player needs context, and that means they need more detail than a movie has.
Thus Psi-Wars must part from the example given by Star Wars. We cannot "simply through tentacle-headed girls into our game." Or rather, we can, of course, but that's something we'd do in all the previous iterations. Now that we've turned our attention to actual setting building, we should build a setting!
The lesson from Star Wars is that our setting shouldn't be too alien. The point of a Twi'lek, even in the West End RPG, is not that she's a bizarrely alien creature that we cannot begin to understand, but that she's a space elf or a space hobbit or whatever, and that she has distinctive traits. Some of those traits will be mechanical: perhaps Twi'leks are more graceful than humans (+1 DX) and the women are hotter (Attractive). But some of them will be cultural. They might have their own religion, their own language, their own traditions and their own situation.
The point in Psi-Wars for iteration 5 is to build pieces of these things. Up until now, we've just been tossing whatever in. "The Alexian Dynasty!" (what is that? Who cares! It's a thing), or M'elena's or Rafari's race ("What are they? Just grab a biotech template and call them aliens. Who cares! It's a thing!"). Now we want additional cultural details, but for now, let's worry about them in the abstract. The common refrain for setting design is "come up with three things." So, for Rafari's race, we might give them... a unique language, a unique tradition, a unique religion. Which? Well, if we have a grab bag of ideas already, or ideas on how to build those, we can set about making them. We don't need to make them completely alien or bizarre, but we should set our cultures, our races, apart from "the ordinary world"
The Distancing Mechanisms of Psi-Wars
This is going to take me a few days, so let's sketch out how I'm going to do this while getting some ideas for distancing mechanisms for the cultures of Psi-Wars.
- Linguistics: The languages of Psi-Wars
- Economics: The money, resources and cuisine of Psi-Wars
- Art: The fashion, entertainment, peformances, games and music of Psi-Wars
- Religion: A look at the philosophies and theologies of Psi-Wars
- Tradition: What makes a culture distinct? Often it's just what they do, day to day
Each element will be its own post. I'll discuss them in abstract, talking about what each element means and how to construct or use them in your own setting. In Iteration 6, I'll define these more concretely ("THIS is a race in Psi-Wars, and their cultural elements are these"), but one of the elements of both Psi-Wars and Star Wars is that they're in a huge galaxy with more aliens and worlds and cultures than we can possibly define, thus this iteration serves a vital purpose in preparing us to wing any new race that pops up in the game.
Real World Cultures and Distancing Mechanisms
|Rome elects to rip-off Greek culture|
I've often referenced real-world cultures as examples of cultures that might be distant from, for example, an American audience I'll often reference non-American cultures, whether modern or historical, as I continue this process, and I'm not alone in doing so. Lots of sci-fi likes to rip off foreign cultures or bits of history when designing an alien culture. Star Wars itself is particularly rife with examples.
I personally feel there's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it presents two problems. First, by painting another real world culture as "alien and inhuman" you make it difficult for people from that culture to relate to it. More importantly, though, it betrays a failure to understand the reasons behind cultural incidences. The Japanese aren't fundamentally different from Americans, for example; both are human and likely to respond in similar ways to a given stimulus. What makes one culture different from another is more about circumstance than character. If you understand the circumstances that give rise to a particular culture, you can find the pattern repeated throughout history and throughout the world, and then express that repetition in your sci-fi culture.
For example, if we discuss "Japanese culture," we might talk about ninja, samurai, geisha, katana duels and crossroads, etc. But the image of the samurai in armor and the ninja are both from the Sengoku Jidai, the warring states period. Geisha, the modern katana and duels at crossroads with two kimono-clad samurai is more Edo period. These two periods represent different circumstances and thus slightly different cultures. Another element that we often associate with the Japanese is this very formalized, almost rituatlistic form of government, but this is most strongly seen in the Heian period. (To over-simplify) The period began when Japan was impressed with the Tang dynasty and sought to imitate their powerful, centralized government and consolidated power in the supposedly half-divine Emperor, who descended from Amaterasu. Over time, the Japanese grew disenchanted with Chinese-style rule (What worked for China wouldn't necessarily work for Japan), and the general, the Shogun, had grown in de facto power enough that he effectively ruled Japan, but they drew their legitimacy from the Emperor and his court, who were left with entirely ritual purpose. They became an increasingly important religiously, and fixated on improving their mastery of ritual (and thus their use to the court). The net effect was a flowering of literature, poetry and culture.
This concept of a largely ceremonial monarch, who engages in ritual leadership while real, mortal power resides in the hands of some other party, is hardly unique to Japan! It's arguably the point of all constitutional monarchies, where legitimacy is derived from a monarch who acts as little more than a ritual rubber stamp on the policies proposed by a parliament. More explicitly religious ritual-monarchs can be found in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Sumeria, or the last days of the Merovingian dynasty in France, where half-divine kings would act as living exemplars of God, or divinely-mandated rulers, and as their power diminished, they were kept to maintain the legitimacy of whatever power actually ruled behind the throne. One book I read, Spirit Possession and Exorcism by Patrick McNamara, proposed that these "semi-divine rulers" entered into a trance-like state while making judgments, and that the rituals themselves weren't necessarily a sham to lull the populace into believing that the false king still ruled, but that the deep ritual traditions allowed the king to enter an altered state where he, supposedly, made better decisions, a sort of Oracle-King, communing with God while upon the throne.
If we find that idea interesting, we could use it in Psi-Wars. Perhaps an alien race on a powerful and important planet has a long and powerful psionic tradition and have learned to imbue their ruler with real power by putting him in trance-like states. The Empire has taken over the world, but hasn't moved against the king. Instead, they have coerced him into legitimizing them as his "faithful and trusted servants,"and they intercept all petitions to the king and "handle the paperwork for him," ruling the planet outright while allowing the fiction of this ceremonial king. However, the king does have a legitimate and powerful connection with Communion, and so you have this silent supernatural/political struggle between Emperor and Oracle-King.
Is that "Japanese?" Is it "Egyptian?" Is it "Merovingian?" It's a little of all of them. It's extrapolating a known phenomenon, working backwards to its source, filing the serial numbers off and applying it to our world. In short, it does to history and culture what Psi-Wars does to Star Wars. I highly encourage the practice. Yes, it involves studying history and cultures, but that's its own reward!