Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Your Magical Elves Make Too Much Sense to Be Real

In Fantasy and Scifi gaming, cultures tend to be built around a single, unified theme, and then have every aspect developed from that narrow perspective. Elves are long lived and love nature. So every Elven city is an airy, open affair with wondrous architecture that practically invites nature indoors. Their nations are peaceful primeval forests and they're always distrustful of the brief, ravaging nature of mankind. Their gods are pretty much aloof tree-huggers just like the elves themselves.

Doesn’t seem to ring very true, does it?

In the real world cultures are a strange morass of often incompatible ideas and actions. “Turn the other cheek” doesn’t match up well with the ravenous, violent, and sometimes cannibalistic nature of the first crusade. Anyone who’s looked beyond Bulfinch’s Age of Fable, knows that thinking of the Greek gods as a unified pantheon is completely ahistorical. Hesiod doesn’t show the same gods as Homer. Homer’s accounting of the gods and their values doesn't agree with the various Mysteries. It’s all one big, complicated, ever-changing mess. The irony in the violent, criminal vandalism of the 
Temperance movement in its efforts to stop the violence and criminality that alcohol breeds should be lost on no one.

So the next time you decide to create a new culture for your campaign, you may want to consider what inherent contradictions or ironies are central to the people. Do the people of a wealthy empire hold it together with the might of their armies, while worshiping gods of peace, penance, and suffering? Does that tribe tell stories of their wanderings, persecution, and hardships in foreign lands yet hunt and kill any who cross their borders? Do the people of that city-state have ritual cleansings before and elaborate hygienic practices during meals but wear the same unwashed undergarments until they literally fall off? And when dealing with religion or any other construct of ideas, it will ring truer if it changes through time and by region. It’s amazing how different the services of two Baptist churches right next door to each other can be. Shouldn't the people on the other side of the mountains have different practices and ideas, even if they're of the “same” religion?

The irony of this article? It’s sensible that when it doesn’t make as much sense, it makes more sense.