Monday, January 9, 2017

The Ways of Psi-Wars: Cultures and their values and literature

Most of the distancing mechanisms we've discussed have, ultimately, been very superficial:  how a culture dresses, how a culture plays, how a culture speaks.  When you peel back the surface, though, you'll start to see that all of these things are just expressions of what a culture values, which itself is often shaped by its experience with the world (though it often sees those experiences through the lens of its values, so this cuts both ways)

I began this series with language and I'm going to end with religion ("philosophy"), because, to me, these are the two ultimate expressions of culture.  Language describes not just how a culture speaks,but how it thinks and how it formulates what it thinks, how it expresses it.  Its religion enshrines what it believes, how it sees the world, and how it comes together as a community.

I want to restate, before I go any further, that the intent in Psi-Wars isn't an in-depth exploration of culture.  Psi-Wars is not Anthropologists In Spaaaace, but a crazy action game.  The intent here is to rapidly conjure up a sufficiently interesting species that someone could play them, or they could pose an interesting challenge to a group (for example, a diplomat who is trying to negotiate for an alliance against the Empire).  The point of values is to get at the heart of how a culture thinks, to make the rest of your design organic, but you can just as easily turn it the other way around.  If you have a street-savvy race with a weird dialect and a penchant for extremely colorful clothes, and someone decides they want to play as them, then it might be worth going back and pondering why the race thinks as it does.

It's also worth pointing out that Psi-Wars will feature a few major elements, like the Empire, the Alliance, and the remnants of whatever culture existed before the two fractured into their sprawling, galactic civil war.  Not every "alien culture" actually features aliens.  Our weird, distant culture is often human... though we need to be careful not to make them too weird!

Cultural Values as Distancing Mechanisms

If a cultural value is going to be a distancing mechanism, it needs to differentiate a culture strongly from other cultures.  Getting to the heart of the culture (and thus past the cultural familiarity penalty) requires understanding the values of the culture well enough that one can articulate and/or use them.

If we need inspiration for cultural values, the internet just brims with ideas and examples, as discussing the differences between cultures is very important in the world of business and diplomacy.  We don't need something so exhaustive of precise, however.  What Psi-Wars needs is a quick grab-bag of ideas that a GM can use if he needs to cobble together a culture at the drop of a hat, or to inspire some deeper level of work.

Values serve a purpose.  They represent how a culture feels individuals should behave.  Values serve as a form of social control, with the community imposing its will upon the individual for some specific end.  As such, values are best represented as self-imposed mental disadvantages, found on page B121. We could expand or change the list of common, valued, or self-imposed disadvantages to reflect what a particular culture strives for.  We can also use Code of Honor as a way of expressing cultural values.  Codes of Honor tend to be deeply embedded in what a culture thinks is highly valuable.  For example, Chivalry would never condone suicide, but absolutely celebrates a willingness to die for one's faith, because martyrdom is a Christian ideal (particularly in medieval Europe), while Bushido definitely supports suicide, because a sense of detachment from ones life is very zen.  We can offer up small "code of honor" snippets and a broader discussion of what impact a particular culture's values might make on its code of honor.  We can also discuss what they honor and what they despise, either in the form of Social Stigmas that they respect, or Reputations that they often impose.

Sample Values

The following samples are not meant to be exhaustive, and are inspired by various disadvantages and codes of honor.  They're also not meant to be mutually exclusive, though one can certainly infer additional values based on opposition to those below.  A society likely has several values, and typically holds them to varying degrees of sacredness and extremes.  The idea is to use them as inspiration for creating a more cohesive view of how a culture operates.

Charity or Kindness

In a harsh world, the weak might rely on the kindness of others, so society might encourage it by rewarding those who engage in charity with a shower of praise and gratitude. 

Such a society tends to encourage Charitable, Sense of Duty (on a broad scale), and various forms of Pacifism. They tend to feature Codes of Honor that include terms like “Never inflict harm” or “Help all who ask for your aid” or “Protect those weaker than yourself”. Such codes are usually -10, because they tend to be universal and demanding, but rarely ask you to commit suicide.

They rarely have unique forms of Social Stigma, though they'll likely take "Criminal" seriously, and they'll honor those who have helped others while vilifying those who are cruel.  They tend to take a dim view of characters with Callous and Sadism.


A courageous society values martial prowess and a willingness to face death for the sake of glory in combat. It usually exists in a rough and tumble setting, where flight in the face of danger puts the rest of your society at risk. Such a society also usually values martial prowess as well, and often makes a point of showing not only their courage, but how skilled they are in the arts of war.

Such a society despises Cowardice and celebrates Impulsiveness, Overconfidence and On the Edge, both of which it might mistake for bravery. It might also be at peace, or even look with admiration upon characters with Berserk and Bloodlust. Such societies tend to have a code of honor that features things like “Leaders lead from the front,” "Death before defeat," “Never flee before the enemy” or “Never abandon a comrade in arms.” They also tend to favor displays of prowess, so they might like to “Avenge Insults” with duels (since letting an insult pass might be mistaken for cowardice!) and they might have codes like “Always fight fair,” as underhanded tricks might also be taken for an act of cowardice. Such Codes can be anywhere from -5 to -15. -5 is typical of informal machismo cultures where you only care about other “warriors”, but the most extreme will require a willingness to die for one's honor.

They're generally less concerned with Social Stigmas ("If you can fight, you are good enough for us!") and will reward Reputation for success in battle, or a willingness to stand up to others.


For societies that value cunning, ends matter more than means. If you achieve victory by underhanded means, well, at least you won. More than that, though, the society favors those willing to break previously sacred rules, or to really tackle a problem full on and then publish his results. Such a person is typically honored for his great feat.

 Such societies tend to encourage Overconfidence, Trademark or Trickster, and their codes tend to include things like “Finish the job no matter what,” “Clever work is better than brute force,” and they tend to prefer clever displays than naked acts of gain, so they might have rules like “Never steal money” or “Never use your power for personal gain.” If the code includes words like “Anything else goes!” you might be dealing with a cunning code. Cunning societies also want you to share your hard-earned wisdom, so it might have “Share information” or “Honor your teacher.” The Hacker Code of Honor (GURPS Space) is a classic “Cunning” Code of Honor. Such codes of honor never get above -10 and most are -5, as they are typically informal, and usually only matter to your peers. After all, someone people you can trick, and some people you shouldn’t. Most Cunning societies would take a dim view on suicide in the pursuit of a goal (it’s the definition of a brute-force solution).

They often disdain social stigmas, especially Social Stigma (Criminal), which might, at worst, be a sign that someone got caught.  They might take Social Stigma (Uneducated) seriously, though.  They'll generally offer bonus reputation for clever solutions, and might offer Social Regard (Venerated) to teachers.  They tend to take a dim view on brutality and might frown on the Hidebound and those with Bloodlust, but negative reputations are rare: Just because someone was a fool in the past doesn't mean you should underestimate him now.  He might have been faking!


Most societies institute values that improve the majority’s survival odds, but sometimes that which is valued is individual survival. That is, each individual of the society must be self-sufficient to be able to stand on his own. The society takes a dim look on charity or laziness as “weakness” and casts the weak outside of its borders, or disdains them.

 The society tends to encourage substance over style, so shouldn’t be surprising if it results in characters with Callous, No Sense of Humor, Stubbornness or Loner and might actively encourage traits like Miserliness. It might include a code that emphasize self-sufficiency, like “Offer no quarter and ask for none,” “Never accept the charity of others,” “Take care of your kit”, and codes that avoid interfering with others, like “Respect the territory of others,” “Never claim credit for another's deeds.”  They'll tend to look down on the Chummy or Gregarious as "too needy," and might leave the physically weak to die.  Social Stigma (Ignorant) might be a serious concern for them.

Innocence or Purity

Some societies might cherish temperance, or a child-like sense of wonder. They might value those kept away from the rigors of the world, and raise up the soft (the courtier, the poet, the musician, the artist) over the hard (the warrior, the craftsman, the survivor). Sometimes, they do this because they want to encourage such traits, but more often, they seek to shelter such characters from the rigor of the world, as they see innocence or purity as a state gained at birth and once lost. can never be regained.

Such a society (explicitly or otherwise) tends to encourage Clueless, Easy to Read, Gullibility, or even levels of Shyness. It tends to push Codes of Honor that contain things like “Never partake of intoxicants,” “always dress modestly”, “Be humble” and “Reserve intimacy for marriage.” These codes tend to be relatively minor, either -5 or even a quirk if such behaviors are merely frowned upon. They can rise to -10 if there are a sufficient number of them, and they’re sufficiently arbitrary.

Those who follow this value tend to take a dim view on those disadvantages like Lecherousness or those who might take advantage of vulnerable, such as those with Bully. They'll offer reputations based on perceived virtue, though these reputations are more likely to be negative than positive (It's easier to be seen as having lost ones innocence than expressing how one has greatly magnified their purity), though characters who take some Vow of purity might gain reputation or social regard, as might characters with Social Stigma (Minor). A variation of Social Stigma (Valuable Property) might reflect a particular class being held to a higher standard than others (for example, a woman who is unfaithful might be viewed in a far more negative light than a man who is unfaithful), but this might be balanced with Social Regard (Venerated) if that class is also seen as "better for sticking to their higher standards."  Finally, they might have a unique Social Stigma (Unclean) were someone is considered unclean or "verboten" for some reason.  Treat it as Social Stigma (Excommunicated). The risk of negative reputation or "Unclean" status means that members of the culture will want to hide their indiscretion, and Secrets may be common, and blackmail powerful.

Mysticism or Piety

A mystical or pious culture places higher value on abstract and metaphysical ideals than on practical and present ideals. It values spirituality highly, but is aware that the animal instincts of the individual drive them to care for themselves, and so it places a great emphasis on the virtue of sacrifice of the physical for spiritual gain.

Such cultures tend to value Selfless, and encourages Disciplines of Faith (any, but Asceticism is especially honored) or, if taken to extremes, Fanaticism in their faith. They definitely look down on very primal disadvantrages, like Greed, Gluttony and Lecherousness. Their Code of Honor tends to be -10 to -15, as it may have seemingly odd or arbitrary requirements, have formal codes, and puts little value on life. Their Code of Honor might include tenants like “Avenge an insult against your faith”, “Accept pain, discomfort or death stoically or happily,” “Form no great attachments”, “Have no more wealth than you can carry” or “Give up all of your wealth to your church,” “Defend/assist those of your faith” and “Be willing to die for your faith.”  As a society, they'll have little interest in Status gained via Wealth or Rank, and prefer to offer Social Regard (Venerated) based on mystical achievement, and may take Social Stigma (Excommunicated) very seriously.


A prestigious society is built upon a narrow power structure. It needs respected elites (nobles, priest-kings, dictators, etc) to function properly. Those who attain high position, thus, must be respected by their inferiors lest the whole social cohesion of their system break down. Such a system also celebrates the achievements of their members, especially the achievements of the elites, who may claim credit for the acts of their inferiors. It also depends heavily on appearances, and thus an insult is grave, as it suggests that you don’t have the prestige you claim to have. Such a society also relies on a “social contract” between inferior and superior, where the honor given up to the superior is repaid with protection offered to the inferior and vice versa.

 Such a society tends to encourage (and sometimes even celebrate) Selfishness and Overconfidence for the elites, and Sense of Duty (to ones superiors) for all members of the society. Fanaticism for the elites is even better! Their Codes of Honor tends to include tenants like “Avenge an insult to yourself (or from inferiors) or to your nation, your liege lord or symbols thereof” (Usually by demanding a duel or an apology), “Absolutely obey the orders from your superior”, If things need to be “fair,” it often only counts “between elites.” That is, you don’t need to “fight fair” with an inferior. The social contract tends to be maintained with “Protect those inferior to you”, which includes direct subordinates or a class considered part of the system but inferior (such as, in some societies, women), but not inferiors from outside the society. This sort of society also likes appearances, so might have something like “Wear your uniform with pride” or “Always dress the part.” These codes of honor are usually -10 (the codes tend to be formal, but only with peers), but go for -15 if a superior can order your death and you’re expected to obey.

Note that Reputation and Status are exceedingly important for cultures with Prestige values, and often intermingled. It doesn't matter if the Reputation is deserved, so much as that appearances are maintained. If Prestige runs in class/family lines, then Social Stigma (Disowned) carries serious weight, and Reputation can be inherited.  As a result, Secrets often abound.


Individuals need to know that they can trust one another. The original meaning behind “honor” was that someone meant what they said. This society holds the honor of one’s word in very high regard. If someone breaks their word or lies to another, or worse, uses deceit to advance his goals, he is anathema.

 Such a society encourages Honesty and Truthfulness and often has characters with Gullibility or Workaholic. Their codes of honor tend to include honoring ones agreements, fulfilling ones contracts and holding to their word, like “Stay Bought,” “Finish the job,” “A handshake is as good as a contract” and “Never break your word.” Most such codes are -5 if reliability is only among peers, or -10 of among everyone, as it’s usually a fairly informal and non-arbitrary set of rules (That is, you only have to do what you agreed to). It might be -15 if it requires suicide, but perhaps its your own fault for promising something that could get you killed!  Reputation is often of key importance to Reliable cultures, in that characters from that culture will want to make sure everyone knows their word is their bond.  Often, this acts as a social currency: Just accusing someone of breaking his word is a very dire threat.  Characters who break their word definitely earn a negative Reputation, and the culture takes a very dim view on Compulsive Lying or Tricksters. 


In a world where misuse of power can inflict a great deal of harm, a culture might value not power, but the careful and restrained application of that power. Such a culture usually celebrates martial prowess or supernatural power, but only in its place.

 Such a society often encourages various forms of Pacifism, especially Pacifism (Reluctant Killer). Codes of Honor often focus on restraint, and such a code might include “Never use more force than is necessary,” “Never use your powers on another without their consent,” “Always fight fair” and “Never use more force than your opponent.” Such codes can be anywhere from -5 to -15; the low end is informal restraint among peers, while the high end is formal restraint among everyone, which can seriously hamper your ability to fight, especially when paired with other rules.  The culture definitely frowns on excessive reactions, especially Bloodlust, Pyromania or Sadism, and negative Reputations are more common than positive ones (Restraint is considered a standard not deviated from, rather than a goal attained), and will likely take Social Stigma (Criminal) seriously.

Tolerance or Universal Justice

The flip side of Tribalism is the need for every group to get along. To the Tolerant, all are equal, all are the same, and should be treated as such. The point here is not necessarily that Tolerant characters are nice to everyone, but that they treat everyone the same (“I’m not racist; I hate everyone equally!”). Cultures that favor this approach are more likely to be cosmopolitan or imperial majorities, as both need to rub elbows with a great diversity of cultures and too much special treatment might break such a society down.

 Such societies tend to favor Honesty, Chummy or Gregarious and Xenophilia. Their codes might include “Treat everyone equally”, “Always be polite”, “Respect the traditions/territory of others”, and “Obey your code of ethics associated with your profession” which seems a rather generic and obvious statement, but it specifically means any laws regarding your profession, such as the rules of engagement for soldiers (See COH Soldier) or the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, or the Code of Honor (Professional) as a general catch-all.  The society tends to frown on any form of Intolerance or Bullying or Selfish, as these will begin to disrupt the delicate harmony the society has created.

Tolerant societies will try to avoid any Reputation at all, negative or positive, as that might smack of judgment, as well extreme levels of Status, as these might promote jealousy or strife.  They'll also tend to disregard most forms of Social Stigma, but they'll especially frown on Social Stigma(Second-Class Citizen, Valuable Property or Subjugated).


A society might have solved a particular problem a long time ago, and stuck with that solution ever after. When people try new things, this is generally more likely to cause harm than good (it’s easier to break things than to hit upon a superior solution), thus change is strongly discouraged. This tends to be true of very old societies, or societies who were very successful in the past, or minorities who feel their traditions define them and that they must stick with them to maintain their sense of identity.

Such societies often end up Hidebound and might require highly specific Trademarks. Their code of honor often includes elements like “Use tried-but-true methods,” “Honor the traditions of your ancestors” and a variety of highly specific and arbitrary rules based on said traditions, such as “Never use non-traditional weapons.”  As teachers are the key method of passing down traditions, they'll also feature something like "Honor your teacher"  Such codes tend to be formal and arbitrary, putting them at -10, or -15 if extremely arbitrary and potentially lethal.  To fully understand what is meant by "traditional" requires digging into a culture's traditions.  What it means to be a traditional Jew differs from being a traditional American or a traditional Indian, so what it means to be a traditional Space Elf will likely differ from being a traditional Bumpy-forehead Warrior-Poet.

Such cultures definitely offer Reputation or Social Regard for those who exemplify a particular tradition, and such regard might pass down via bloodline or teaching tradition (the society will want to look the same from generation, so if your father was a great teacher, they might expect you to be a great teacher).  Someone who pushes the boundaries of tradition or seems too quick to disregard them might earn an Odious Personal Habit

Tribalism or Nationalism

The original context of the word “Nation” was not “State” but a people unified by language and culture, a single group of people. “Nationalism” was the idea that such a group should be self-governing, that Jews governed Jews, that the English governed the English, that the Japanese governed the Japanese, and so on. This sort of ideology tends to be more popular with a minority who face dissolution in the face of a greater polity around them. They must remain true to their ideals and their traditions and culture.

 On the positive side, this can manifest as Sense of Duty for your tribal group but on the negative side, it can manifest for Intolerance for outsiders, whether all who are not your group, or a single selected minority upon whom you choose heap blame for all your ills. Codes of Honor that value Nationalism tend to “Avenge insults against your nation”, “Help others of your (class)” and “Advance the interests of (class).” They also tend to try to keep what happens within their tribe within their tribe, so they might have rules like “Never speak of the secrets of (Class) to outsiders” or “Never marry an outsider.” These codes of honor tend to be -5 to -10, as code always makes a distinction between insider and outsider, and almost never asks for suicide (That would result in one less member of (Class), which is self-defeating to the code).

Reputation tends to be highly limited, focused entirely on insiders (that is, you might be famous, but only among your tribe).  External reputations might not matter at all ("The outsiders think you are a great man, but what are you to us?  Have you forgotten where you came from?!").  Those who are cast out might get Social Stigma (Disowned) at [-10] or a variation of Social Stigma (Excommunicated) called "Outcast" that applies a -3 to members of the tribe/nation.

Literature and Poetry

Everything a culture does tends to be infused with its values, from art to games to fashion, but few things are more thoroughly infused with a culture's values than their literature.  What a culture writes might assume its values, like not bother to explain why a warrior might commit suicide after losing a battle, because, duh, that's what people do after losing a battle!  But literature often acts as an argument for a particular set of values. Every romance novel ever written argues in favor of the notion of romantic love.  Westerns advocate for independence and courage.  Cultures traditionally use their literature both to explain and to reinforce whatever virtues they hold dear, and one can get a sense of their values by reading the body of work they produce.

Most literature probably doesn't need much detail in the Psi-Wars setting beyond perhaps a titles, the name of the authors and a snippet about what it's about.  You only need this if titles will ever come up that matter to the game.  A particularly rare work might come up ("An original copy of the Stellar Treatise? No, it must be a forgery"), or a work sacred to a community might come under threat ("Who would steal the temple's only copy of the Fourfold Wisdom? That just seems mean"), but Literature also helps for uncovering relics, legends and archetypes within a particular culture or tradition.  If one finds a legendary force blade long held sacred by a particular alien race, knowing their Literature will tell you what sort of powers it might have, or what it exactly is, and their literature will also tell you what they valued, which might also shape what sorts of powers it had, or help you talk them into giving it to you.

Sample Cultural Values

Rafari's people favor Cunning,Courage and Independence.  They know they must fight (often ferociously), but any means of victory is acceptable to them.  Furthermore, in the harsh climate of their world, they know each member of the tribe must be able to stand on their own,  They definitely have a Code of Honor, the Dryworlder Code, which includes "Never flee before the enemy; never abandon a comrade in arms; honor those who outwit you; a cunning victory is better than a brute-force victory, but in war, anything goes; take care of your equipment; Accept death stoically rather than endanger another; Respect the territory and deeds of others." It's worth -15 points. Their literary tradition is primarily oral, and they tend to hold up ancestors as specific examples of either courage or cunning, which tend to be seen as mutually exclusive (in their stories, the courageous is a fool, and the cunning a coward) and their underlying message is often  how to deal with the tension between the two.  They never hold up anyone as a paragon of Independence, but they might make fun of cultures that lack it ("The soft Wetworlders")

The Librarians of Styxia value Tradition and Reliability above all things, though they have a lesser value of Piety in that they value knowledge above most physical concerns.  They do not have a code of honor as such, but they know that their works of knowledge must be carefully tended to, that they must be honest about what lies within them and never deceive others about the contents of their work, but they're also keenly aware of the age of their works and the long tradition that has come before them.  They have a sacred book on how to properly treat their ancient works and which are the greatest of those works, and they have an extensive body of commentary on said sacred book.
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