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Setting Creation and the use of existing cultures

Professor Polyhedral

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A vague title, so bear with me.

Imagine creating a setting based on a single culture: for example Coriolis is billed as '1001 nights in space'. A vast galaxy or series of worlds that is monoculturally influenced.

How do you avoid cultural appropriation (if you're not native to that culture as a writer), and how do you avoid cliche or trope when using a single culture to inform what could possibly be an entire galactic society.

I'm probably being unclear, forgive me. However I pick on SF/space opera specifically because of the scale of the setting. Having entire worlds and systems all based on one culture, for example, arabia/persia etc could lead to a rather shallow insensitive take
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
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This is not unrelated to one of my own projects - I am currently rewriting the Mesoamerican "Maztica" sub-setting for the Forgotten Realms. Here are my personal aims:

- I will not treat the culture as a museum piece. Every culture will change as the result of new stimuli - whether through contact with different cultures, the development of new technologies, or even the introduction of new plants and animals. For instance, it is true that more than a hundred years ago the people did not know about steel, horses, arcane magic, or movable type, but they are now familiar with all these and have begun to integrate them into their societies.

- I will also not treat this culture as monolithic. Any large culture will contain multitudes of thoughts, ideas, professions, and ways of life as the people inhabiting it ill adapt to different circumstances. A halfling village in the depths of the jungles of Far Payit will feel very different than a halfling "village" that has established itself as a crime ring near the metropolis of Ulatos, even though they have the same ancestors.
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
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I mean, take Germany. In the grand scheme of things, it's not geographically speaking a particularly large nation compared to many others. But the more you delve into its details, you will notice that its culture and history is fractal - the closer you look, the more complexity you will uncover.

So you could start with giving a particular planet a particular "hat" based on a real world culture, but assume that this is only the "surface" level the PCs first encounter when they hit planetside. The more time they spend, the more they should see its diversity.
 

Professor Polyhedral

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This is not unrelated to one of my own projects - I am currently rewriting the Mesoamerican "Maztica" sub-setting for the Forgotten Realms. Here are my personal aims:

- I will not treat the culture as a museum piece. Every culture will change as the result of new stimuli - whether through contact with different cultures, the development of new technologies, or even the introduction of new plants and animals. For instance, it is true that more than a hundred years ago the people did not know about steel, horses, arcane magic, or movable type, but they are now familiar with all these and have begun to integrate them into their societies.

- I will also not treat this culture as monolithic. Any large culture will contain multitudes of thoughts, ideas, professions, and ways of life as the people inhabiting it ill adapt to different circumstances. A halfling village in the depths of the jungles of Far Payit will feel very different than a halfling "village" that has established itself as a crime ring near the metropolis of Ulatos, even though they have the same ancestors.
How would you avoid treating it as a museum piece? By their very nature game books often if not always (certainly to my knowledge) present a setting at a point in time. Not throughout the whole of its history. How else could you do it?
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
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How would you avoid treating it as a museum piece? By their very nature game books often if not always (certainly to my knowledge) present a setting at a point in time. Not throughout the whole of its history. How else could you do it?
If you are basing a setting on a real world culture, you will also likely base it on a specific time period for that culture - especially for historic cultures, such as Aztecs or Incas. The risk is that this culture remains in "stasis" as opposed to adapting to the circumstances around it. For example, while Germany still has a lot of medieval buildings, its culture is hardly stuck in this period.

There is nothing wrong, per see, with using a historical culture as a starting point - and when you are transposing them to a science fiction setting, all real world cultures will feel "historical". But put some real thought on how technology and outside social influence will shape them.

Thus if you were to, say, pick medieval Germany as the basis of a science fiction planet, think about what works and what doesn't. Feudal noble families? Elector counts? A roving Emperor and his court who move from one residence city to the next in order to continually survey his domain? Free Cities? All cool. But think about the socio-political implications of serfdom in a high-tech society. Don't use large-scale medieval castles as fortifications, but something that would actually work as high-tech fortifications. And so forth.

In other words, use the historical culture as a starting point and then work out the implications for your setting. Because otherwise the natives of the planets will be idiots who are incapable of change.
 

soltakss

Simon Phipp - RQ Fogey
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How do you avoid cultural appropriation (if you're not native to that culture as a writer)
You don't, as if you write about a different culture then you are going to have some level of cultural appropriation.

If that kind of thing bothers you, then don't write about different cultures.

However, if you take topics and treat them sensitively, then you should be OK.

how do you avoid cliche or trope when using a single culture to inform what could possibly be an entire galactic society.
Again, you don't.

If you are basing your setting on a single monoculture, then you have to use cliches and tropes. But, using them is fine, as long as you do it carefully.

One thing you could do is to look at the monoculture and think about how it adapts to different places and what does it mean. So, if you are using 1001 Nights, then you have a Middle Eastern theme, so you have a certain style of clothing that people normally use, you have flying carpets, genies in bottles, evil viziers and so on. How does that work in a SciFi setting? Well, Flying Carpets would be similar to a hoverboard, but larger, Genies in a bottle might be some form of AI or Nanite Swarm, evil viziers are evil viziers no matter where they are found, but they would be rulers of a planet rather than a kingdom.
 

Professor Polyhedral

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I guess this is a political question. For example, there's a game coming out called Orun based on Yoruba (iirc) mythology. I'm british cis and white, I love the idea of that kind of myth, but it isn't my culture - and there's a history there. I'd be a white guy using African culture. Now maybe I shouldn't, but that does make me question whether that's a good idea.
 

Jürgen Hubert

aka "Herr Doktor Hubert"
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I guess this is a political question. For example, there's a game coming out called Orun based on Yoruba (iirc) mythology. I'm british cis and white, I love the idea of that kind of myth, but it isn't my culture - and there's a history there. I'd be a white guy using African culture. Now maybe I shouldn't, but that does make me question whether that's a good idea.
Maybe it's safer to mash two unrelated cultures together and thus turn them into something new.
 

Alban

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There was a series of short articles on Glorantha that were named "[insert country/culture name] is not..." that explained how such and such culture was a major influence on said country or culture, but also how it diverged from their model.

Many rpg worlds are just simplified copies of real-world cultures made to ease players integration into such worlds.
 

Lukas Sjöström

Society of Unity scholar
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Maybe it's safer to mash two unrelated cultures together and thus turn them into something new.
That's what I prefer: create something new, inspired by the different variations in human cultures, rather than make a pastiche of an extant culture.

Another version is to put a culture in a different context. In our world, we've had a few cultures that managed to dominate their neighbours to an enormous extent: look at how many East Asian cultures adopted Chinese features, or how Christianity spread in Europe. Removing that influence and speculating on how a culture might have developed on its own or with different influences will create something that's bound to be unique.
 
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