Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Psi-Wars Cultural Checklist


The point of all of the previous posts in this mini-series is to give you ideas on what do for a new and unusual culture in your setting.  The point of an unusual culture in psi-wars is to remind the players that they're in an alien setting.  It should be filled with aliens clicking their prayer beads while chanting mantras in foreign languages, or a tattooed savage looking to trade exotic fire weasels for much needed survival supplies.  Star Wars is a very cosmopolitan setting, where aliens can be regularly found off-world, rubbing shoulders and mingling with one another, rather than the more segregated sci-fi settings, like Star Trek. Thus,we should be ready to conjure up a new alien culture at the drop of a hat.

But those cultures don't have the be terribly unusual.  In such a cosmopolitan setting, many cultures will have already rubbed their traditions off on each other.  In the real world, everyone from the US to Europe to Japan and China know who "Iron Man" is, and most of them at least know what Christmas is, even if they don't all celebrate it.  Girls wear skirts and high heels, men wear suits and ties, and everyone can wear a t-shirt and jeans.  We might expect something similar of our Psi-Wars cultures. Some cultures might remain distinct and unusual, but only so far as to give local flavor (the British have different accents and food than Americans, but they're not so alien that they inflict a cultural familiarity penalty).  For most "local color" like this, I recommend no more than about three distancing mechanisms.

However, some cultures remain extremely distinct.  Sometimes, these cultures represent entire cultural spheres.  The "Sinosphere," or the area around China, all use Chinese characters to some extent, and know works like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the works of Confucious.  They're well-versed in the ideas of Buddhism, at least, and often Confucianism or Daoism.  They tend to favor cuisine featuring rice and noodles and using chopsticks to eat.  They tend to share values too, to some extent.  Someone from Vietnam travelling to Korea will definitely have to deal with some local differences (the language, at least, will be different), but he'll still find things far more understandable than if he flies to Boston or Paris.  There might be a Cultural Familiarity penalty between the West and the Sinosphere, but not between two places within the Sinosphere or the West.  Likewise, Psi-Wars might have something similar, where you have a "galactic core" culture that's different from the culture of a particular galactic arm, like the difference in Star Wars between Imperial space and Hutt space.

Some cultures remain distinct and unusual within a given cultural sphere.  This might be the result of strength, or of colonization, but it could just be a distinct minority that clings carefully to its traditions.  Jews, throughout history, have often been this sort of culture, interfacing well with outside cultures, while remaining inscrutable to those outside cultures.  Such a culture might have a cultural familiarity penalty while its adherents have purchased Cultural Familiarity with the local dominant culture.

In the case of a genuinely distinct culture, one that inflicts a cultural familiarity penalty, I recommend at least 3 cultural differences, and at least one value that contrasts with the "Galactic Standard society" that explains the fundamental distinctness of the culture.  You can certainly do more than this, but be careful with going crazy, unless you and your players particularly enjoy deep cultural exploration or really exotic cultures. Whatever you design, you have to remember, maintain and run.



  1. How exotic is the culture?
    1. Local Flavor: 1-3 distancing mechanisms. No Cultural Familiarity penalty.
    2. Exotic Culture: 3-5 distancing mechanisms. 1-point Cultural Familiarity trait.
    3. Alien Culture: Truly alien culture with Cultural Familiarity penalty. Typically stems from alien psychology rather than just unusual values. 2-point Cultural Familiarity trait.
  2. What values does the culture have? How do these values shape the culture?
    1. Charity: kindness to others, and protecting the weak.
    2. Courage: adventure, martial prowess and bravery in battle.
    3. Cunning: innovative solutions and non-traditional approaches
    4. Independence: personal ruggedness, self-sufficiency and survival skills
    5. Innocence: child-like wonder and sheltering the innocent from cruel truths
    6. Mysticism: spiritual over material, abstract over concrete, asceticism
    7. Prestige: Appearance, glory, class and a hierarchy of power.
    8. Reliability: Your word is your bond
    9. Restraint: Power must be used cautiously and fairly
    10. Tolerance: Everyone must be accepted.
    11. Tradition: Maintain the old ways and respect your teacher
    12. Tribalism: “We must stick together” the family and clan over outsiders.
  3. What resources does the culture have? How do these shape the culture?
    1. Basic Resources
      1. Food
      2. Industrial resources
      3. Energy
      4. Manufactured goods
    2. Exotic Resources
      1. Artifacts and Relics
      2. Exotic Biologicals
      3. Exotic Matter
        1. Hyperium (Starship fuel)
  4. Distancing Mechanisms
    1. What language does the culture speak?
      1. Galactic Basic
      2. Galactic Basic with an accent
        1. Alternate words
        2. Alternate word-order (rather than Subject Verb Object)
        3. Odd Phrasing
          1. Diminuitives
          2. Contractions
          3. Articles
        4. Odd Pronunciation
          1. Rhotic/Non-rhotic
          2. Digraphs
      3. A new language
        1. A regional common language
        2. A dead language from a previous era
        3. A minority dialect unique to their culture
        4. An isolate, unknown outside of their culture
        5. The Black Tongue, a dark and terrifying language associated with monsters
        6. A Prestige language, which other cultures envy for its beauty and sophistication
        7. The language of the streets, a low prestige language frowned upon in polite society
    2. Does the culture have their own money?
    3. Does the culture have a unique cuisine?
      1. What status level is the cuisine?
        1. Low-status (Poverty/Starvation food)
        2. Common status (everyman food)
        3. High status (exotic delicacies)
      2. What makes the food unique?
        1. Organic or industrial?
        2. Does it serve special needs?
        3. Is it created from local ingredients or exotic ones?
        4. Does it contain unique “additives” that grant temporary perks/quirks?
    4. Does the culture have unique intoxicants?
      1. Helpful intoxicants (Useful drugs)
      2. Harmless intoxicants (mild habits such as coffee drinking or smoking)
      3. Harmful intoxicants (dangerously addictive drugs)
      4. Social intoxicants
        1. Enjoyed as a community (Carousing)
        2. Reflects refinement (Connoisseur)
    5. Does the culture enjoy a unique fashion? How are their values reflected in their fashion?
      1. Status level of fashion
      2. Exotic mediums
        1. Buzz cloth
        2. Responisive cloth
        3. Varicloth
        4. Armored clothing
        5. Clothing belt
        6. Skin/Body modification
    6. Does the culture have a unique artform? How are their values reflected in their artform?
      1. Art and Sculpture?
        1. Holographic Art and Sculptute
      2. Music and Dance
        1. Dances that show physical prowess
        2. Dances that flirt with a partner
        3. Dances that reveal high status through intricacy of the dance
        4. Dances that simplify steps to make them more fun and widely available
        5. Dances that have existed for many generations
        6. Dances that incite an ecstatic trance
    7. Does the culture have a unique form of leisure?
      1. Sports
        1. What skills and attributes are the focus of Sports?
        2. Sports as combat-training
        3. Sports as performance
        4. Sports as community-building
        5. Sports as ceremony
      2. Games
      3. Unique rules for sports and games
        1. Slow match (Use regular contest or several quick contests)
        2. Alternate modes of play (players may choose from a selection of traits and skills. Or alternate unique rules)
        3. Chance-based games (skill doesn’t play as much a roll as luck
        4. Gambling (the game can result in loss or gain of wealth, or includes bidding mechanics)
        5. Cheating (The game allows for sufficient deception that cheating becomes possible)
    8. Does the culture have a unique body or literature? How does the literature embody and argue for the values of the culture?
    9. Does the culture have a unique religion or philosophy?
      1. How does the religion embody/strengthen the core values of the culture?
      2. What symbols does the religion have?
        1. Graphic symbols
        2. Clothing
        3. Culinary requirements
        4. Alien animals
        5. Technological tools
      3. What common rituals does the religion have?
        1. Birth
        2. Marriage
        3. Initiation
        4. Funerary
        5. Others
    10. What holidays does the religion, philosophy or culture have?
      1. Harvest times
      2. Death/birth of an important figure
      3. Celebration of a particular ideal

Sample Culture

Local Color: The People of Grist

Grist is a "junkworld," once a dumping ground for ancient civilizations and also the site of several major battles.  Now, the denizens of the polluted world dig through the discarded remains of bygone eras in search of treasure or artifacts.

Grist is populated primarily by humans and a race of mutants that are well adapted to the more toxic parts of the world.  It's not a truly distinct culture, but differs in a few small ways from the galactic standard culture.  Namely, it tends to celebrate innovative solutions and clever discoveries (Cunning) and rugged survival on a harsh world (Independence).

Language
The people of Grist have a unique accent, "Gristy."  It is non-rhotic, in that they tend to skip the final R sound of a word.  They often add diminuitives or vowel sounds on the ends of their words anyway, especially nouns, as in "Hand me that wrenchie over theya, will ya, hey?"  They often "pronounce" questions with "hey?" at the end, especially if it's a rhetorical question or one where you want to emphasize that you already know the answer ("You can loan me some credits, hey?").  Finally, they have two words unique to Grist: "Dugga," which is a term of respect for fellow scavengers, and "Gef" or "Geffy" which means "Off-worlder" or "Client,"  though it has negative connotations, and some Gristians prefer to shift to the more polite galactic standard of "Sir" or "Mister" which are inevitably pronounced "Sirah" or "Mistah".  Gristy is a low-prestige accent, the accent of the uneducated working-louts of Grist.  Those who leave the world (like Dun Beltain) do their best to shake the accent, but some of them keep it, so they can use it when they get back home.

Gristy might sound something like this "Hey dugga!  I got a crazy geffy that's askin' fo a spaya hypa-drive.  You got one, hey?"

Cuisine

Grist is sufficiently industrialized that it has food paste regularly served from spigots or in packets.  Most scavengers bring in their daily find and either exchange it for credits, or exchange it directly for food.  Food paste is cheap and plentiful.  Interesting flavors aren't. Thus, smart entrepreneurs make a living out of finding local food they can serve up.

Street vendors often carry smoked "scuttle-rat,"  a ubiquitous, chitinous vermin about the size of a rat.  When properly smoked and pried free of its shell, it has a soft. lobster-like texture and a smokey, ham-like taste.  Most vendors will leave it in the shell when selling it (to keep it better preserved), and carry it on strings or chains danging from a coat.  Their smell and the thump of bouncing scuttle-rats on their bodies tend to announce their presence, as well as their opening of their coats to show their haul and saying "Kido, you want a scuttle-rat, hey?"

The water on Grist is absolutely not safe to drink.  Gristians will either purify it (or better, get it off world), and the purified water is sometimes referred to as "Geffy water."  Given its expensve, Gristians who want to flaunt their status often make a point of drinking crystal clear water, and might even spend a great deal of money tracking down pristine water imported from interesting worlds.  The rest tend to get their liquid from "sludge-wine," an alcoholic slurry made from rarified food paste and until it looks a thick black (or more rarely, brown or green; one community is very pleased with their luminescent green sludge-wine).  It contains plenty of liquid and nutrients and has been through a distillery enough to ensure that any toxins have been removed and has sufficient alcoholic content to kill any bugs in it.

Games
The people of Grist love adventure and a chance to show off how scavenging skills.  They do this with yearly Scavenger Runs.  A community will design an obstacle course and place some high value parts therein, and the object is to find such a part and return with it.  Generally, the part is at the far end of the obstacle course, but the observant or the clever might notice a way to short-circuit the race by getting the part early.  Otherwise, the participants need to make it past all obstacles, get the item, and return with it before anyone else.  This is generally a test of Observation, Scrounging and general parkour skills or, for really big courses, vehicular skills.  Violence is frowned upon, but characters with decent levels of Games (Scavenger Run) can know how much they can get away with, and under what circumstances it's alright to accidently bump another contestant off into the sludge.

Most communities will maintain their own course, and particularly adept sportsmen will go from community to community (which often stagger their yearly scavenger runs to allow for the most interesting participants to make it).  The sport is definitely filmed and broadcast into nearby homes.
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