Variety is the spice of life, and the same often goes for gaming. That GMs are busy people and will search for aid and inspiration anywhere is equally true, which means that many of us will base elements in our games on existing cultures for a variety of reasons; including variety itself.
Naturally, this applies to historical games and those based in the modern world, but we also use existing cultures as templates in fantasy and sci-fi settings for use with ‘exotic’ races. Some of those parallels we inherit automatically by using things like Tolkien’s elves, Trek’s klingons or practically anything from Star Wars.
The trouble is that adding culture to your campaign is a bit like surgery: it’s very healthy for all involved if it’s done correctly, but it can be painful if you aren’t careful and don’t do your research ahead of time.
Cultural concerns all revolve in one way or another around history; either the real world’s or that of gaming itself. Respecting real-world history means avoiding stereotypes and not making light of bad situations in the past (essentially the opposite of your average game of Cards Against Humanity). What that means is, before you introduce or allude to any real-world culture in your game, do your research.
Remember, culture can be anything from language to clothing to religious festivals, customs and even types of weapons and armor. It’s easy to veer into an ‘exotic’ culture’s motif’s before you even realize it, so keep an eye out when you’re designing new regions or peoples in any game. If it’s anything you aren’t, take a moment to get familiar with your subject matter.
The good news is you don’t exactly have to minor in world history to respect or understand a given culture enough to represent it. If you run a modern or historical game, you should already know the golden rule of research: never rely on just a single source. Wikipedia actually is a great starting point. As a bonus, it usually has citations. Follow them, and you may find deeper links and related articles that give you a broader and more complete perspective on what you’re dealing with.
Say you’re looking up classic Chinese mythical monsters. Wikipedia or another central resource mentions Chi You. Now head back to Google and search for Chi You specifically, and you’ll get more granular descriptions (without having to digest three times as much info on the whole of Chinese mythology).
Get down to a single point, and then go sideways to get a three-dimensional look at that cultural element. Repeat that process a few times, and you should start to have a good enough snapshot of the culture to strike the tone you’re looking for in your game without offending anyone (or giving your players an offensive misconception, which is often worse).
The history of gaming, unfortunately, also introduces a troubling concept whereby “races” are measurably homogeneous, and there’s a lot of danger in that tacit admission. Something as simple as giving all elves a dexterity bonus or making dwarves all proficient stonecutters creates a view of the world where race defines personal being. That by itself can largely be ignored, but the moment you have PCs casually talk about “of course he’s going for the treasure; he’s a dwarf!” you’ve entered into a far more dangerous mindset.
Sadly, given how ingrained it is into so many gaming settings (fantasy, sci-fi, and modern), you may not be able to fight the ever-present in-character stereotyping. What you can do is avoid conflating those connections by overlapping a real-world culture 1-to-1 with an in-game race or group. As clever as having classically Russian dwarves seems on paper, you’ve now mapped a diverse people onto a simplified and deceptively uniform in-game species, and that can make comments like “typical dwarf” have an entirely new and darker meaning whether your players intend it or not.
The easiest ways to avoid that accidental connection are to make your dwarves varied by region. If those of the Dragonspine Reaches are your classically Russian dwarves, make sure to also make reference to the northern clans or city-states that sounds notably more like the golden-age Roman Empire or Feudal-Era Japan. It will establish that dwarves are varied by region, and recognize common trends by region, much like real-world humans. It’s not a perfect cure, but it’s a definite start to break up the trend.
Additionally, whenever possible, keep the cultural mapping from being a 1-to-1 ratio at all. Use real-world elements as a basis for your own, but modify them, blend them or otherwise try to divorce them from the original. If you can, avoid simply plucking from the buffet of world cultures (bagpipe-playing sailors with a bushido code who live in pyramids) and try to blur the edges into a coherent set of cultural elements that at least make sense as a set.
If you’re not feeling confident about your mixing and matching, it’s safer to stick with a single culture as your model. In which case, again, do your research, and establish that the trends are regional to avoid accidental stereotyping as much as possible.
There is one other area to look out for when bringing culture into your game, and that’s with handling accents. Given that most games are not visual, your players are still seeing you, the GM, when you speak for NPCs that are of a different culture. To make the difference sink in, many GMs will affect an accent to try and conjure up verbally what they can’t arrange visually.
Slight problem. If you have ever asked someone who is not American to affect an American accent, you probably found yourself listening to the most cartoonish Texan twang imaginable. Now realize that, every time you do an accent for an English-speaking edition of any language out there, chances are good you are just as laughably twangy to a native speaker in your rendition.
If you’re not feeling particularly skilled at accents, or if you’re worried your only rendition of a particular accent will veer toward the offensive, it’s often more effective to go for the accent you think best fits the in-character impression of the character.
If your characters are dealing with a well-educated noble or scientist, managing a posh British accent may more readily convey the right tone, even if the culture you’re aiming for is Mayan. Likewise, if the leader of the army on the Kaiu Wall in your fantasy version of classic Japan has a gruff southern American accent instead, it may resonate with your players far better than a poorly done attempt at Japanese English.
Like with the ‘cultural buffet’ mentioned above, if you’re not feeling particular comfortable doing accents, drop them. An accent undone is far, far better for a game than one done poorly. Your players won’t likely miss the absence, but they will definitely notice a bad accent if it’s there, and it may quickly become all they can focus on (or make your serious villain seem like a bad 1930’s cartoon).
If you manage to be at least a little informed of the cultures you’re introducing and don’t take the too-easy route of mapping them onto the races or factions in the game setting you’re using, you should have no trouble bringing in the flavor you want without risking insulting anyone in the process. And that’s something any culture can appreciate.
Except those filthy orcs…