RPGs involve people. Sure, some might be about anthropomorphized animals or the like, but they’re still essentially people for all intents and purposes. That may seem obvious, but it has some inevitable consequences.
If you have people, then you have societies. Societies develop standards of conduct to bind them together. This means mores, protocol, and etiquette.
Given that many games involve long distance travel, PCs would constantly be passing through other cultures. How many different foreign standards would the heroes pass through on their epic journey? How many times would they have either clashed, or worked to fit in, with those social mores?
The inveterate travelers that so often fill our games would be constantly surrounded by foreignness. It would be a continual effort just to keep up. Each new land would come with new ways to look foolish or offend its inhabitants.
Why Do We Care?
These characters are also heroes, though. Their actions change the world! Aren’t they above little things like etiquette?
The words faux pas literally mean “false step.” The phrase is said to come from the court of Louis the XIV, where making a false step in a dance could get you kicked out of the party. If the PCs needed a favor from the king, winding up on the doorstep because you didn’t know that particular variant of the quadrille could be disastrous. Making a social gaffe might not seem as bad as providing an opening in a sword fight, but under the right (or perhaps ‘wrong’) circumstances, the former could have far worse ramifications. Taking a sword blow would hurt, but offending the wrong person could spoil your plans, start a war, or get you killed.
Alone in a Crowd
If you haven’t experienced the situation, it’s hard to convey the feeling of isolation you get surrounded by another culture. As you try to make sense of what’s going on, you’re never quite sure what you might be misunderstanding, or whether you’re just about to offend someone. I once tried to pay for a snack the neighboring restaurateur had meant as a gift. Due to a mistranslation, I also referred to a girl’s boyfriend as her uncle. In both cases, despite the locals being as warm and inviting as I can imagine, I still ended up feeling really out of place, and that was just one trip.
Manners Maketh Man
Like it or not, how we behave affects how others perceive us. The same is true of our characters. Locals will be more likely to help someone who’s at least trying to respect local etiquette. They’ll certainly think twice about going out of their way for someone who is oblivious and offensive. This is especially true for highly regimented cultures as a whole, or similarly picky segments of a culture.
To make things more confusing, social norms vary widely within a larger culture. Subcultures develop their own sets of values. We gamers certainly aren’t immune. As Bryan wrote, unique sets of values can develop even down to the family level.
For instance, take the simple table fork. While they’ve long been used in the east, they took a while to spread west through Europe. At various times in a nation, you might find the aristocracy or urbanites eating with forks, but rural poor still relying on knives and fingers. Eat with a knife and fingers among the aristocracy, and you’re considered brutish. Eat with a fork in the country, and people think you’re effeminate or “taking on airs.”
In the Game
How do we use differing values and etiquette in a game? First off, make sure to think about it beforehand. Are the players going to be interacting with different cultures? Come up with quirks to make them unique. Maybe the group is travelling in a different country. Maybe they’re just invited to dine with a powerful person who happens to be a foreigner. These cultural idiosyncrasies will not only provide players with interesting challenges and encounters, but will also make the various cultures come alive.
For instance, perhaps a culture finds it offensive if there is food on the plate after a meal, since it denigrates the quality of the food. On the other hand, maybe they’re insulted if there isn’t food left, since it implies that they can’t afford to provide a well stocked table. Maybe the locals are offended if you try to shake with the left hand, since that’s the “unclean” hand. However, what if their king lost his right hand, and shaking with the right is considered to be calling their ruler weak? Do they find it impolite to slurp your tea, or not to do so? Is it an insult not to haggle in the market? Will you draw stares if you show up to dinner without cutlery and personalized cadena? Will a man get challenged to a duel if he sits before the ladies? Is it considered lewd and improper to stick one’s hands in one’s belt pouch in mixed company?
Go Beyond the Dice
Don’t let these things devolve into a single roll of the die. The roll might help the interaction, or hurt it, but it shouldn’t be the final arbiter. This is something that has to be roleplayed for the players to get anything out of it.
Let the players learn. Don’t just hand them the details. Figuring out how to deal with the local culture could be every bit as much of a challenge as a classical puzzle. A player might get hints if their character’s background indicates prior interactions with the people in question, or if they’ve devoted character resources to an etiquette-based skill and succeed on a roll.
Anytime two even slightly different cultures come together, you’re going to get misunderstandings. Even if the players are doing their best to fit in, their own habits, peculiar to the locals, might be horribly misinterpreted. It could be harmless, such as snickering at the male foreigners with “women’s haircuts.” It could also be dangerous, as in the heraldic symbol on one of the PC’s cloaks happens to be similar to the mark of a local murderous death cult.
Caught in the Middle
The PCs don’t even have to be the focus of the problems. Perhaps they get drawn in when two other groups have a clash. In one of my games, my characters had to stop an impending brawl. They were forced to defuse a conflict in which a group of nomads were disputing with the local priest and townsfolk on how the corpses of the nomads who had died defending the town would be treated.
Vive la DiffÃ©rence
Experiencing different cultures is one of the great things about traveling, and it can be fun in games too. Giving your various peoples unique sets of values and mores will make for a challenge for your players, make them stand out from each other, and make interactions with them more memorable. All it takes is a little time and imagination ahead of time.
Have you made good use of cultural differences in your games? Has your character committed a grave faux pas? Do you slurp your tea? Let us know in the comments!