HARP Folkways Preview Excerpt: Environment Ways

Copyright Jon Cassie and Guild Companion Publications Ltd © 2016

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

"This will potentially point to sacred totems, tribally-oriented animals and magical fetishes and to obsessive tendencies in your culture."

This chapter begins with consideration of environment because, in my judgment, it is often the single greatest determining factor in a culture’s internal organization. The environment is the one thing about which most cultures can do nothing about (except move or, in a high-tech context, shape the environment to suit the culture rather than the other way around). The environment is an ever-present reality, oppressive or nurturing, swarming with insects and teeming with millions of examples of life or a barren waste. The importance of environment to understanding culture is the reason why HARP (and many other game systems) more or less equate cultural questions with environmental ones. This is why HARP’s cultures read as environment tropes first and cultural frameworks second. This is not a critique! Rather, it is a reminder of the importance of the environment to culture. When considering the essential question, give careful consideration to: topography, water, ecosystem and weather.


Under this rubric, I include all of the physical qualities of the shape, dimensions, altitude, latitude of the land itself that has a bearing on how the culture inhabits the land. This is the critical first step in understanding the broadest, most intense shaping forces at work on your culture. Think about all of the different factors that might be in play just considering this one notion. How might a culture develop differently if the land they inhabit is mountainous as opposed to just hilly? A mountainous terrain is much more difficult to traverse. Mountains might (but might not) be less fertile than a hilly terrain. They afford an entirely different kind of protection than hills do. If the mountain is volcanic, it presents a serious threat to a culture that depends on or lives in vicinity of that mountain. Is the mountain part of a chain? How long does that chain stretch? What heights does it achieve? And if it separates different topographies, what are they? Hilly terrain might afford more natural protection against enemies than flatlands but at what cost? Is the terrain gently hilly - rolling and easy? Or might it be foothills - a mountainous terrain in all but altitude? If not a mountainous terrain, perhaps an expansive grassland or a deciduous forest with plenty of fertile land for settled agriculture. Simply making this decision, in short, dramatically shapes part of your culture’s reality.


What access to water does your culture have? All ancient human civilizations began their existence in river valleys that were astoundingly productive and fertile. Egypt formed along the Nile. The Mesopotamian cultures sprang up between the Tigris and Euphrates. Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa emerged in the Indus Valley. When considering your own culture, keep this in mind - everything upon which your civilization relies depends itself on access to water. What is the nature of your culture’s access to water? Does it draw its wellspring from calm, orderly and dependable rivers, like Egypt and the Indus Valley did? If so, society and social organization will reflect this dependable ordinariness. Perhaps it draws water from productive, but regularly disorderly and violent rivers, like the Tigris and Euphrates (whose destructive capacity was so high it could lay waste to entire civilizations). Rivers are about transportation too - they connect peoples along them. If your culture draws its water from regularly renewed inland ponds and lakes, how outward-looking might it be? If your culture develops in a place that is dependent on glacial runoff from towering mountains, what happens if there’s a very warm winter? Cultures might develop near a water source that dries up or becomes unproductive, requiring them to bring water in day-by-day or give up their lifestyle. Settled cultures depend on their water source. Nomadic cultures don’t. They, rather, travel from place to place moving from one water source to another in a pattern that is well known to the culture’s leaders.


In addition to your culture, what other life exists in their territory? How fertile is the land they occupy? In essence, everyone in your culture needs to eat - where are those calories coming from? Consider this question from equatorial through temperate and then into arctic contexts and you’ll see what I mean. Equatorial cultures might have access to a bewildering array of food sources. Why? Because these ecosystems generally support the most complex webs of life. There’s a reason why insectivorous food traditions don’t develop generally in temperate or arctic contexts - there’s just not enough insects to make it worth it. Equatorial cultures that emerge in well-watered places are going to be living in rain forests and thick jungle, making most kinds of agriculture difficult. These same cultures in water-scarce environments are going to naturally be nomadic, perhaps even scavenging. Think very carefully about what flora and fauna your culture shares its environment with. This will potentially point to sacred totems, tribally-oriented animals and magical fetishes and to obsessive tendencies in your culture. Temperate ecosystems are where many examples of megafauna might be found. Mastodons and lions and bears and dinosaurs - all findable within different temperate contexts. What are the hunting traditions of your culture? Do they hunt? If so, what do they hunt? Temperate climate systems afford ease of access to farming techniques. If your culture is settled and farm-oriented, how wealthy does this make them? Consider now the difficulties facing residents of an arctic ecosystem. Not devoid of life by any stretch, but certainly not amenable to farming or settled life. Arctic ecosystems do not have much place for pastoral vegetarians. Rather, the work of hunting is likely to shape the culture profoundly.


Weather isn’t really about the ecosystem but is embedded within it. Weather speaks to the patterns of warmth and rain and wind that governs many of the decisions a culture makes that shape their success in inhabiting the land. Cultures living in a place where the weather is completely dependable and scarcely changing will have a very different outlook on life than those cultures whose existence is tenuous and weather-dependent. How does it change a culture if it receives its rainfall for a year in nearly-equal day-by-day gentle showers versus a culture that gets all of its rainfall in a pounding month-long monsoon? Does your culture have any experience with violent weather? Tornadoes? Hurricanes? These dramatically shape a culture’s sense of confidence and anxiety. Do its water sources sometimes cause catastrophe? Does your culture have to cope with regular El Nino events? Have they ever experienced an earthquake or a volcanic eruption? How near to the ocean does your culture live? Proximity to the ocean tends to moderate weather extremes, for instance.