Cultural and Historical Inspiration 101

in Tips and Tricks

By: Alicia Palmer

Coming up with unique and interesting cultures to populate any fictional word is hard. You want something more than Generic Vaguely Middle Ages European Fantasy World #532908 but let’s face it, coming up with a whole new civilization from scratch is tough. You’re no Tolkien, spending time between class lectures frittering away at the genealogies and grammar structure of kind of sort of racist fantasy races. You don’t have time to come up with new languages and family trees and histories, you just want to make a game!

Well fear not, intrepid yet also-focused-on-getting-this-stupid-game-to-just-work-already developer! You too can follow in the fine European tradition of Stealing Interesting Things From Other Cultures! And today we’re going to talk about how to get started doing that. Don’t worry, it’s a lot more interesting than you think.

Oh, England. Even your national dish is stolen.

Oh, England. Even your national dish is stolen.

Religion, history, language, architecture, food, all of these are resources you can draw inspiration from when building your own worlds, things you can use to make your world stand out and be different, be unique. It’s important to catch the attention of your potential audience, and while you can’t necessarily put Non-Generic Fantasy Culture! in your features list, it’s something that will show up in your art, in your character design, even the names of your characters. While I will never call Europe boring, the Western European Fantasy is done pretty well to death.

Since you’re drawing from actual, real world cultures, you must, must, must remember to respect them. One of the best ways to do this is to Do Your Research. You know that frustration you feel when a TV show or movie gets a very important thing wrong about something you love, or worse, presents a group you belong to in an insulting manner? Make sure you don’t do that to someone else. Yes, this is just a game, but that’s not an excuse.

Oh, oh, no. Why. Why would you do this?

Not Pictured: Respect

Figure out where the potential pitfalls are, and then make sure to step around them as carefully as possible. If you know someone that’s from the culture you want to borrow (and you probably do, the internet is a vast place with lots of different kinds of people) talk to them, ask them questions, find out what they recommend for sources.

Once you start looking for things in history and other cultures, sometimes the plots will seem to write themselves. There are epic plots and tales everywhere, from mythology to history, Journey to the West, Norse sagas, folk tales, mythology, you can take inspiration from literally anywhere. Follow it as loosely or tightly as you want, whatever works best for your story, especially with mythology and fairy tales, don’t be afraid to think of new ways to look at old stories.

You might even find some interesting weird stories like Thor crossdressing. (Source: Happle Tea by Scott Maynard)

You might even find some interesting weird stories like Thor crossdressing. (Source: Happle Tea by Scott Maynard)

Don’t be afraid to mix and match, but also ask yourself why this group has this sort of culture. A culture doesn’t just burst fully formed from the head of Zeus, it develops based on the area of the world that the people who are a part of that culture come from, their needs, what they see, and how they experience the world around them. A culture located far away from the water isn’t going to have seafood as part of their traditional diet, or have a sea-faring tradition, just like a culture from an extremely cold part of your world isn’t going to run around in loincloths and do a lot of farming.

Go digging, learn something new, find something fascinating and then bring it back to use in your game. Give it some new flavor that it might not have had before, something that will make it stand out. Even if it doesn’t make it into this particular game, you’ve hopefully learned something you didn’t know before that you can use for a future project. Reality is often stranger than fiction, so use that to your advantage.

And always. Always, remember to respect the culture you are borrowing from.

Do you use any real world cultural or historical inspiration in your game? Have some advice for people looking to do the same? Join us in the comments section below.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ian

    I’m using a lot of real world cultural and historical references in my game currently in development. I wonder if you could go into more detail regarding the matter of respect as my game is fairly lighthearted and quirky. Where do you personally draw the line on this?

  • Ian

    I’m making use of a lot of real world cultural and historical references in my game currently in development. I wonder if you could go into more detail regarding the matter of respect as my game is fairly lighthearted and quirky. Where do you personally draw the line on this?

    • Nick Palmer

      I think, personally, (and while I didn’t write the article, I know the person who did pretty well (one would hope anyway)), that the main thing is to not portray stereotypes, but to portray people, and to do your best to try to figure out if what you are portraying is accurate or a misconception about a culture.

      • Materia_Machine

        How where do stand on a game like Earthbound?

        • Nick Palmer

          Oh, man, Earthbound is an interesting case, and I actually just had a neat conversation about it with Alicia.

          One of the big things about Earthbound, is that even if you take it as making fun of the US, its punching up. But I don’t really see it as doing that anyway.

          Earthbound is this kind of layer within layer of jokes about the Japanese perception about the Japanese perception about America. Its really hard to untangle.

          But the main thing is, the stealing from Western Cultures REALLY doesn’t have the baggage associated with it that stealing from other cultures does, so you can get more leeway in that area.

          • Materia_Machine

            So you’re saying that Eastern cultures have more pitfalls to avoid when you take inspiration from them and explore it within a game?

          • Nick Palmer

            Eastern, Middle Eastern, Sub-Saharan African, Native American. Its pretty easy to pull from most Western Europe and the American cultures as a whole without falling into too many pitfalls (though, if addressing minority cultures in those areas, it can be just as difficult to avoid pitfalls).

            Really, you want to make it obvious that you put in the time to depict any culture well, but ones that have histories of being depicted badly you are going to need to do double, triple, even quadruple the research and caution. But if you do it well, it can be great.

          • Christina Freeman

            Or provide a reason for doing it wrong. In many cases, depicting a cultural or historical setting inaccurately isn’t the real issue, unless you are claiming for the background to be accurate. Rather, it’s the complete lack of rationale and understanding behind the way the historical or cultural setting existed as it did. If you can provide a reasonable justification of why your inaccuracies exist, then that is just as good. Many alternate dimensions, time travel stories, and what if adventures exist simply because they decide to do certain things wrong, and explain why they do so.

          • Materia_Machine

            Please could you clarify what you mean by explain any inaccuracies? Surely people would understand something like Spirits being within a game world as just a clichéd genre plot subtext. Does the location named affect this even if the contained elements are fairly obvious in design. I feel very out of my depth on this issue as the concept was just to explore a theme which hadn’t already been done to death already.

          • Christina Freeman

            What I mean is that you should try to explain WHY certain things exist as they do – accurate or inaccurate – and use these explanations to define their background. The idea of Spirits existing might be cliché, but by coming up with reasons why they exist, you change them from being cliché to a defining feature of your game. Even the simplest reasons will do, but the more you define them, the more material you use.

            For example, you could go with the idea of Spirits simply being left over energy from the recently deceased. Perhaps the more tragic and violent the death, the stronger the energy, and thus the more powerful the spirit remains. Sure, this is your standard cliché Spirits trope, but now you have something to work with – you can come up with ways in which other characters might collect this energy, including a mechanic that awards spirit points in combat. Alternatively, people might protect important locations using rituals in which fanatical followers are brutally murdered to return as a powerful spirit guardian.

            What you have done here is taken something generic, and defined it to become more specific for your world. Instead of just having spirits there, you have defined WHY they are there, making them more pertinent to the background. Even if this rationale is inaccurate – either because it is a mere superstition of the culture, or because you have specifically altered the idea – the fact that it has been explained means that you have made a deliberate, conscious decision to place this fact in your world, rather than just thrown it in because it’s part of the genre.

            As a largely western audience, it is usual to have Generic Cliché Western Fantasy World #56345, but this is no worse than Generic Cliché Eastern Fantasy World #324, or Generic Cliché Aztec Fantasy World #25. EVERYTHING will have already been done before – often to death. What is important here is HOW you do it – what mix of features you use, and why. Once you have defined why you have made your decisions, and why certain things exist, then everything else falls into place.

            In general, you can sum every game world up with a simple phrase which describes it. This usually consists of the closest stereotype for the setting or storyline, along with the most important exception that causes the setting to differ from the norm.

            Examples of this are: Sci-Fi, but with Magic; Renaissance, but with Aliens; Eastern, but with Lasers; Find the Artifact, but the Artifiact turns out to be alive; Save the planet, but planet is really a virtual reality game;The Cold War, but Nazi Germany won the Second World War. The possibilities are endless.

            This phrase is the game premise, and ultimately, it’s the game you have decided to make. Questioning this is pointless – it just is. It’s like questioning why Star Wars isn’t like Star Trek. But if you provide a rationale for why such a premise exists, you can then use the answers to flesh out your world.

            Ultimately, instead of asking yourself IF something is right, you should be defining WHY it is right. Instead of asking if classical Egypt had a mythology based around five elements, state why your version of classical Egypt uses a mythology based around five elements.

            Steal what you want from historical and cultural sources, but you need to own it and make it your own. You don’t need to do research to find out facts – rather you are looking for inspiration. Sure, you might want to know more about Bushido to add background to your faux-Asian fantasy world, but really you should be looking for inspiration, regardless of accuracy. Unless you have chosen to create a historically or culturally accurate setting, go with what’s fun for your game. If you want female Samurai, have female Samurai, and define why female Samurai exist – don’t worry whether female Samurai are accurate or not.

    • Alicia

      Personally I draw the line at stereotypes. Even in a lighthearted and quirky game, your characters and cultures should still feel fully realized and fleshed out. Other than stereotypes (making your faux-Asian culture swap their Ls and Rs for a really crude example) there isn’t some line I can draw for you in the sand to say, this is offensive and this is not. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has had their culture made the butt of jokes and stereotypes and really think about how this would make you feel. It’s not easy, and you might make some mistakes, but even trying is better than doing nothing, or having a boring setting for your game because you don’t want to try and fail.

      • Christina Freeman

        Stereotypes are used, mostly because they present complex packages of ideas in an easily to remember concept or meme. I wouldn’t shy away from using stereotypes, but rather I would try to use them as a springboard for inspiration.

        As for being offensive, you can never really tell what any culture, or any person, would take offence at, so trying to avoid accidentally causing offence is a rather pointless hamstringing of creativity. Rather, as long as you try to avoid deliberately causing offence, and can justify within the context of your game why certain things exist, you should be fine.

        Cultural languages in games are a special case. After all, you want the text to be readable by the player, and thus this tends to mean English, corrupted into the cultural dialect of the character. Of course, if you are going to translate anything into English, why you would leave any mistranslation for anything other than a speech affectation is a mystery to me. In most cases, such affectations are simply instances of phonetics being mixed in with English.

        If you really want to use such “crude” affectations as swapping Ls and Rs, then surely it makes sense to have the character speak phonetically all the time? At the very least, this will mangle the rest of the English language up, so it looks less like a crude joke, and more like a portrayal of linguistic issues. Of course, this might just be my preference…

        • Nick Palmer

          Idk, I would avoid anything that is commonly used as a joke about a culture. Though the L/R thing does have basis in fact, its usually used in a mocking way, which makes it feel a bit iffy to ever use it myself.

          • Christina Freeman

            The problem with this is that anything and everything can be used as a joke about a culture. This is the nature of humour. The best that you can do is try not to use something simply for mocking a culture. This is why reasons are important and useful. It makes it more than just mocking.

            However, you should always go with something that you are comfortable with. There’s no point using anything that you feel uncomfortable with. It doesn’t matter what that reason might be – it will affect the quality of the game. Experimentation is okay, but you must be wanting to experiment, and therefore comfortable with both the experiments and the potential outcomes.

            I must point out that this is a very good article, with a number of key guidelines, but that is all they are. There are no hard and fast rules on stealing inspiration from history and culture. You can’t dodge historical and cultural sensitivities, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. Plus, many “arty” games go in the opposite direction – exaggerating and highlighting these sensitivities as much as possible.

      • Materia_Machine

        So are you saying I should try it?

        • Alicia


  • Christina Freeman

    Having experience as an RPG tabletop games designer helps significantly in this aspect, since world-building is pretty standard for any GM who wants to progress beyond pre-published adventures.

    Stealing from sources is a time-honoured tradition, as is blending them in unique combinations. While it is important to use logic, having a reason why something or someone exists is good. Sometimes, the seemingly illogical can provoke just as much background as the logical, since it causes people to ask questions.

    Taking an example from the article – people in cold lands don’t normally wear loincloths or do a lot of farming. However, if you DO have people in loincloths or farming in the frozen wastes, this can prompt the player to ask questions, which you can then incorporate into your world.

    For example, if you come across a tribe that wear loin cloths in the frozen wastes, how do they not freeze to death? Possible answers might be that they harden themselves to the cold to become one with their ice god, they cover themselves in blubber, or they consume a rare herbal brew which gives them immunity to cold. Any of these answers could lead to new aspects of the storyline as the PCs figure out how this is done, and it may even become a vital plot point.

    Stealing from cultural and historical sources is excellent, but you can also look at how they could have been done differently. For example, the Incas had their Mountain Road, yet never developed the wheel – they used runners and mounts instead. The idea for this is quick communications and goods delivery – so is there another way this could have been achieved? Well, what if the Incas opted to tame native condors, or even mythical rocs, and used these as mounts and messengers? Instead of the great mountain road, you might get a series of landing towers – allowing for early primitive flight. Whether these could also have been trained for warfare is another question.

    Whatever you do, the key thing is to remember to SHOW, not just TELL. Let the PCs see the results of whatever you decide, with the more interaction, the better. Make these a part of the background, if not part of the actual storyline. Chances are, if you have asked and answered a question about the world, your players will, and finding out the answers could be an interesting adventure or side-quest in it’s own right!