The Distaff Perspective/Scholar's Bookshelf

Copyright Laura Trauth 1999

Welcome to the Scholar's Bookshelf, a column reviewing non-gaming books of interest to roleplayers.  You will find this column alternating with the Distaff Perspective in succeeding issues of The Guild Companion.  Today I'd like to begin tackling one of the Game Master's thorniest questions: how to design interesting and realistic cultures.  Think about the society you grew up in.  Regardless of where you live, you are part of a complex culture, a set of beliefs or way to see the world that colors everything you experience.  The people of our gaming worlds are no different, but how, as Game Masters, can we create such complex simulations of the worlds we envision?  I'd like to recommend a couple of starting points: Marvin Harris' Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: the Riddles of Culture and Diana Ferguson's The Magickal Year.

Marvin Harris' Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: the Riddles of Culture is a cultural anthropology book reissued in 1989.  It explains apparently impractical cultural practices in terms of a system of analysis called Cultural Materialism (CM).  CM is really very simple.  It says that every trait a culture possesses, no matter how odd, evolved for practical reasons as that people adapted to their local environment and way of life.

For example, Harris takes a look at India's sacred cow.  Why is it that people are forbidden by their beliefs to eat cows, even during times of famine when they and their family are starving?  This practice seems ridiculous at first glance.  How could someone let their loved ones starve when dinner is grazing right outside the window?  But, says Harris, we have to consider what else the people might use their cattle for.  In India, cows are used as a source of labor, pulling plows in the fields.  They are also used as a source of milk.  They are even a source of fuel, as their dung is burned in cooking fires.  So more people who ate their cows might survive in the short term, but when the famine conditions ended, they would be without many of the other resources they needed to survive.  Thus groups who didn't plan for the future didn't survive, and those who did saw and recorded their survival practices as religious proscriptions - instructions from the gods that could not be disobeyed.  Harris' books are full of such explanations.  If you can't find Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, you will find that his 1991 Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture also uses CM to explore the roots of dietary laws, warfare, the state and  industrialization, and many other facets of life.

Well, so what, you ask.  What does this have to do with designing cultures? Everything.  If you accept Harris' rather controversial statement that culture is functional, then it stands to reason that culture is predictable.   An anthropologist looking at early India or any other culture subject to periodic famine conditions could have predicted that those cultures would simply have to find some way to ensure people conserved their resources for the long term - or they would die out.  As Game Masters we can do the same thing for our imaginary cultures.  We can ask: What will the hardships that our societies must cope with be?  Is the land very cold?  Then a source of warmth and shelter is always going to be essential for survival.  A culture I designed for a cold and stormy climate might have very complex rules of hospitality to ensure that one could always find safe shelter in a stranger's home.  And perhaps there would be very ritualized ways to extinguish fires, in order to ensure that no one put a fire out without thinking about the consequences.  This is just a beginning.  After you read some of Harris' thoughts, you will have a good idea of what facets of society can be designed with CM.

But suppose you don't have time or desire to start from scratch building a culture? Well then - borrow!  The second book  I'd recommend taking a look at is Diana Ferguson's The Magickal Year: A Pagan Perspective on the Natural World.  Ferguson's book deals primarily with religious rituals of pagan Roman, Celtic and Norse peoples in early Europe but she includes Medieval and early modern holiday practices as well.  So this is a history book, right?  Well, not quite.  Ferguson is writing for pagans and non-pagans alike, so her goal is not only to explore what we know about ancient pagan practices but also to present her findings in a practical light so that the modern pagan can practice them.  Her book is not a rigorous history, but a collection of historical anecdotes and practical guide to creating holiday ritual.

For a timely example, Ferguson discusses several of the myths of the returning Maiden goddess of Spring at the beginning of the modern month of February.  She discusses the Celtic Bridget, the Greek Demeter, and the Virgin Mary, whose purification is celebrated in the Catholic church at the beginning of the month (Lady Day or Candlemass).  But from relating old stories, Ferguson goes on to address ways in which the holiday has been celebrated.  Throughout the British Isles, beds or bundles of fress green rushes were used to welcome Bridget into peoples' homes and hearths.  Hearths were cleaned and decorated, and candles blessed in the Lady's name so that they would provide protection from dark and evil things through the year.  Ferguson discusses all the traditional Christian and neo-Pagan holidays in this fashion, enlivening her text with folk rhymes, charms, and remedies.

A Game Master doesn't have to be running a pseudo-European campaign to adapt such practices to her game.  Any culture, for example, that lives in a world where the days grow short and the temperatures drop on a cyclical basis would quite reasonably welcome back the times of warmth and fertility.  Any world where the females of the species are the ones that bear offspring might reasonably see the personification of fertility as female.  So change the name of the goddess to fit your pantheon, and you have some ready made rituals to add color, meaning, and even plot twists (who stole the Lady's sacred candles, waiting to be blessed - and why?) to your world.

Well, there you have it.  The first books on the Scholar's Bookshelf.  Both are well written, easy to read, and available at your local bookstores or on-line shops.  Harris' books should also be available at regional and college libraries.  Please e-mail any suggestions you have for future books to add to the shelf to me by clicking on my name at the top of the page.  Be sure to check back here next issue for more of the Distaff Perspective, and at the Bookshelf in the issue after that where we'll take a look at the darker side of designing a gaming world: poisons, venomous animals, and raging epidemics!