Worldbuilding 101 - Part 17: Cultural Appearances

Regarding yesterday’s post. It appears that there might be some kind of disconnect between the setting and the system, and that’s something that can prove detrimental to good storytelling. This worldbuilding exercise is a follow on from my last series on designing a “Boffer LARP system”, but boffer LARPs are all about hitting one another with padded weapons, and I’ve just mentioned the presence of firearms (which are a distincty non-boffer trait). It’s actually not as much of a disconnect as it seems at first. For one thing, this is a steampunk/pirate Boffer LARP, there will be cutlasses and rapiers and swashbuckling, but there will also be muskets, flintlocks, and single shot rifles. The idea of the game was inspired by the notion of a boffer LARP with “Nerf” guns. But I guess that needs us to clarify the technology level a bit more.

I stated late Napoleonic, but maybe that’s not a good timeframe for what I’m imagining. When I think of the setting, I get imagery from a variety of movies (and TV series and Graphic Novels)…

The Three Musketeers (in it’s various incarnations)
Da Vinci’s Demons
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Plunkett and Maclean
Solomon Kane
Pirates of the Carribean

I specifically don’t think of “high steampunk” like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Van Helsing…those are too modern for what I’m after. The healthy dose of Warhammer Fantasy pulls things back into line, with a grittier, darker fantasy world (but still with strange quirky machines, and firearms that are often unpredictable).  

I know my inspiration sources are all over the place, and cover a wide range of history. But somewhere between them all sits the setting I have in mind. I’m also aware that none of these visual inspiration sources is particularly Spanish (except maybe the fourth “Pirates” movie which is playing a strong role in the formation of the church and cult groups). Perhaps if we consider the “old world” of our fantasy setting to be a fractured mass of nation states, like Europe before Napoleon forced everyone to get their military affairs in order.

With this in mind, it might be better to sit the core technology level closer to the late 1700s rather than the early 1800s, perhaps just before the US War of Independence happened in our world. This pulls us away from the steampunk gunslinger trope, and back to a world of exploration and adventure…it also drags us closer to the age of high piracy.

Now we’ve got some specific ideas for technology level, we can start deciding what the actual aesthetics of the world are. What does it look like?

+Joseph Browning made the comment…

“I think the one thing that we, as modern gamers, have difficulty understanding at a very visceral level is the amount of wealth that would be consumed in frivolous display or ornamentation by the many cultures of our fantasy worlds. We (generally) consider such overt displays of wealth vulgar, but cultures before ours often didn’t, viewing them as desirable.

How many of us are willing to spend 100gp to decorate the pommel of their non-magical sword? Or spend 2,000 gp for combat-worthless parade armour?

Just something to think about when next you roleplay…”

I think that’s awesome, and it really ties into the concepts of what the races (and the world in general) looks like, and storyline elements that can be brought into play.

With the structures we’ve already got in place, we can start to really define the look and the attitudes that various cultures in the setting have toward overt wealth.

El Imperio del Sol (The Empire of the Sun)
(Aristocracy) Vices – Pride and Envy, Valued Possession: Family Coat of Arms, Type of Clothing Worn: Elaborate and Brightly Coloured, or Military Uniforms

The empire is decadent, it has a sense of lost nobility that is struggling to maintain meaning in the face of a changing world. So far it has maintained its strength through shows of military power and opulence above the peasant classes that support it. To keep showing that power, influential members of the empire spend vast wealth on impressive buildings, decorative armour, and jewellery (with pride in their own possessions and envy regarding the possessions of others). Some see the crumbling illusory edifice, they seek discipline and a return to the values that once made the empire great (combining their pride with a nostalgia for their family’s coat of arms), these are the members of the empire who tend to take the harsh military aesthetic, but even they know that decoration drives much of the empire, and that style comes before substance among the courtiers whose support they need.      

La Santo Orden del Profeta (The Holy Order of the Prophet)
(Theocracy) Vices – Lust and Sloth, Valued Possession: Holy Symbol or Holy Text, Type of Clothing Worn: Plain Robes

The Holy Order has developed over centuries from the teachings of a lone prophet in the desert, to a vast institution with wealth rivalling the empire itself. Members of the order dress in accordance with their status, lower ranked acolytes in plain robes, higher ranked priests adorning themselves with holy symbols that are often made from valuable metals and gems (for the glory of the Celestine), bishops and the highest ranking members of the order are closest to the divine and the order states that they need to look the part. The vast majority of the Order’s wealth is invested in buildings of worship, enclosures for sacred relics and texts. It is not uncommon to see a member of the order dressed in simple rags but carrying a book of the finest vellum leaves, encased in a silver and gold covering.

Los Corsarios (The Privateers)
(Military) Vices – Greed and Pride, Valued Possession: Letter of Marque, Type of Clothing Worn: Functional Leathers or Military Uniform

The privateers spend much of their time on the sea, they often live in cramped communal quarters and don’t have a lot of room for personal possessions. Despite this, their propensity for greed and pride often drives them to have a few possessions that are incredibly valuable: perhaps a pouch of the finest gems and jewellery, an incredibly ornate weapon, or some mysterious trinket acquired on their travels. Such items are rarely frivolous, they often have some kind of use that makes them even more valuable on the high seas. Much of a privateer’s wealth is spent on the maintenance of their ship, and many privateer vessels are equipped with the most powerful cannons and elaborate naval technologies in the known world.

Los Lobos del Mar (The Wolves of the Sea)
(Democracy) Vices – Wrath and Gluttony, Valued Possession: Weapon (often a cutlass), Type of Clothing Worn: Functional or Flamboyant Leathers

Like Privateers, the Pirates typically live in cramped quarters on a ship that is their pride and joy. Unlike privateers, most pirates dress in a more flamboyant manner, but closer appearances typically show that the wealth and flamboyance of pirate attire is often second-hand, or looted, commonly ill-fitting, and more for show than actual wealth or taste (sometime a pirate’s clothes will show the effects of too many bar fights or nights of drunken revelry). The most functional and often most valuable item a pirate will typically possess will be their favoured weapon, often adorned with gems, or marks to indicate the adventures they’ve been on and the foes they’ve vanquished. Many pirates mark their bodies with tattoos telling these same stories. Pirates tend to be a bit more personal with their wealth, but in a life on the high seas they need to find secure places to store their gains, virtually every pirate has a map to their own stash, and many have maps to stashes from those they have slain.
La Colonia (The Colony)
(Meritocracy) Vices – Sloth and Envy, Valued Possession: Family Heirloom, Type of Clothing Worn: Functional Cloth and Linen

The colony supports the empire, in much the same way the farmers and peasantry have done back in the Old World for centuries. It is not in a settler’s best interests to show wealth or flamboyance around the nobility, because the pride of the nobles would see settler’s cut down for their insolence and envy would see anything beautiful taken away to the palaces and estates. Settlers keep a low profile, they get their work done in functional (but exceptionally well made) clothes, their most valued possessions are typically kept under lock and key hidden in storage boxes in their attics, cellars or larders. Some are envious of the nobles, and seek to emulate them but have neither the resources nor the free leisure time to engage in such decadence, other settlers hold on to the weapons and basic armour assigned to them as members of local militias (perhaps with the intention of one day bringing revolution to the land).

Los Salvajes de la Isla (The Island Savages)
(Tribal Aristocracy) Vices – Wrath and Lust, Valued Possession: Greenstone Charm, Type of Clothing Worn: Dyed Skins and loosely woven fabric

The natives have lived in accordance with the cycles of the land for as long as anyone can remember, the idea of building walls to separate oneself from the natural world is anathema to them. This is reflected in their clothing and their structures, but this doesn’t mean they lack pride in what they do have. Clothes are well made, often adorned with patterns from dye and elaborate weaving. Buildings are open and airy, but are built on strong foundations of ancient stone carved in arcane patterns from a time now forgotten. During times of ceremony, natives wear jewellery passed down through their families, each piece has a unique heritage and is worn at certain times to show the wearers connection to their people and to their land. Such pieces are never bought or sold, only given as gifts for great deeds.

La Orden de la Luna (The Order of the Moon)
(Meritocracy) Vices – Pride and Envy Valued Possession: Jewellery depicting a Crescent Moon, Type of Clothing Worn: Dark leather armour, typically masked

While they live hidden among other cultures, members of the Cult are indistinguishable from those among whom they are concealed. When performing duties for the cult, they are reputed to wear functional leather armour, with ornate masks reminiscent of those worn during festivals in the old world. Few have seen the rituals of the cult, but reports state that during these events, the members of the cult either choose to wear their armour, or loose flowing robes like those seen depicted on the ancient marble statues and antique pottery pieces of the old world.   


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