Jan 18, 2012

Material Culture: Our Forgotten Friend

If you asked me to describe the material culture of most settings I have played in that were not the real world, I would be hard-pressed to tell you more than a few scant details. Maybe by dropping into mere pastiche, and going "It's sort of medieval" (and of course most gamers in my experience have little more than a passing familiarity with medieval material culture). If it is dealt with in settings, it seems to be mostly the responsibility of the line's art director (if any) who passes it onto the artists. As I understand it, outside of a few large companies, most art in gamebooks is purchased from galleries of art that have already been drawn, rather than commissioned especially for them, and so the most the art director can do is try, if they even care, to pick pieces that more or less look similar.

I think that this is the wrong site of action for the creation of a consistent material culture. A consistent and plausible material culture can be tremendous at creating a distinct feel for the setting. If you've seen the remake of Battlestar Galactica (a highly flawed show in many respects), one of its strongest elements is the attention to detail in the props, costuming and sets, which do far more to sell you on the veracity of what's going on than the dialogue. Referees and setting creators who devote attention to these things will find them paid back in the verisimilitude of the world, and the ability of players to immerse themselves in a vibrant, visually engaging setting.

Now, the most common rejoinder to attention to the visual details of the world is that gaming is not primarily a visual medium, but an aural one. While this is true, I think it overlooks that the Dungeon Master in fact has the greatest and most complex visual effects department in the history of art working for them - the players' imaginations. What is needed is the ability to succinctly describe relevant and telling details about the objects characters interact with. Succinct so it doesn't bog down play, telling in that it should reveal something about the world.

To start, the DM should equip themselves with a clear idea of material culture. Particularly important points include the kinds of clothing people wear, the weapons and armour they bear, the food they eat, the way their houses and other dwellings look and are arranged in relation to one another, and how these things are produced. This may seem onerous, but if you're playing in a bog standard medieval setting, it's worth your time to read up on it, look at some maps of towns from the period, and just reuse the information you learnt over and over. If you're not simply copying a real world culture, then it becomes even more fun, as a rigorous exercise of the imagination.

One thing I do before a campaign is send out a primer to players. Typically these are about two pages of text, broken into sections, that cover bits of common knowledge and the basic premise of the setting / campaign. Over time, I've begun including a larger and larger number of pictures with these - one primer for a game in early 2011 was 12 pages long, most of it pictures with captions. I have a vast body of fantasy, historical and science fiction pictures harvested from /tg on 4chan.org, and I try to play the role of art director myself, picking ones that are thematically similar, illustrating the various classes and roles in society, castles, houses, weapons, etc.

However, the pictures are not left without commentary. As I said I caption them myself, so PCs know the difference between how a poor man and a rich man dress, or what kind of armour and clothing a mercenary wears, etc. In the primer's text, I will often include further notes. The response to these primers has been overwhelmingly positive.

In play, I'll often take a moment to address some specific element of the world (often when the PCs are traveling from one place to another). It might be the lack of money in the Dawnlands, or the collective sociopathy of Heshtown, etc. My attitude towards these is not that they are interruptions in the fun, but are investments in PC's understanding of the world around them, which contributes to their agency by equipping them with information.

When I mention that they see the body of a hobgoblin sailor laying in the street that everyone is ignoring but a few children who are rifling its pockets and trying to strip its shoes off, or they pass a mentally disabled person chained to a horse hitch with a guy selling throwing rocks for a gold a rock, it tells them far more about the place they are in than "Yeah bros, Heshtown is a rough place and dudes get killed there all the time and nobody gives a damn."

While you don't want to overload PCs with information, this kind of thing, little descriptions and bits of colour that are not directly relevant to the action of the plot, can be doled out pretty regularly in a session without disrupting it. It can also be integrated in other ways.

If you have never read Courtney C. Campbell's short document entitled "Treasure", you need to do so right now. It's short - 9 pages if you cut out the title page, license and beginning commentary. It and its companion "Tricks, Empty Rooms & Basic Trap Design" were the two best RPG supplements I read last year, and I can't recommend them enough.

What Treasure encourages you to do is get rid of the gold, gems, vaguely-described magical items and replace them with concrete, valuable objects comparable to the sorts of loot real pre-modern peoples cared about. Treasure presents a set of premade tables that you can use, but let me recommend that you go and create your own set based on that model, with the kinds of things you want to highlight and emphasise about your world. This goes beyond merely describing the look of the same objects as in any other game into the types of objects, and specifically what types of objects people find valuable, which once again tells the PCs a lot about the world.

Let's face it, the material items the PCs care the most about are ones that increase their personal power, especially magical items and treasure. By taking the time to describe these in line with the feel you want material culture to have, you'll embed it far more strongly in their imaginations. Even if you don't go the whole hog with a set of random tables, attaching short descriptions to your magic items that you can consistently refer to will help keep the descriptions stable and embedded in the imagination.

Unfortunately, I can't show you mine because my Emern players read this blog, but as soon as they figure out one final detail of one magic item they possess, I'll put it up, so you can see a simple example. I also used to have a much more complex set for the D&D 4e Dawnlands game I ran in 2009, but I threw them out when I moved to the retirement home.

In the meantime, since most of my examples have been drawn from fantasy, here's a realisation of these principles in a science fiction context. One common situation in science fiction games is needing to repair something. Often, a part will blow out or need to be replaced, or will be knocked loose or missing, etc. Here are some tables to help you determine what that part is, using technobabble. To use them, just roll 4d10 and read them from left to right as you go down the tables, so that the whole thing forms a phrase you can read off.

Table 1: Manufacturer

1 Syntech LLC
2 Genodyne Industries
3 Vergon Combine
4 A knock-off
5 Kimantha Collective
6 Halogen Corporation
7 Hua Wei Manufacturing
8 Vlussen GmbH
9 Sussura Inc.
10 Integrated Design Solutions (IDS)

Table 2: Adjective

1 Micro
2 Integrated
3 Inverted
4 Overcharged
5 Compact
6 Solid-state
7 Old-style
8 Triple-redundant
9 Reinforced
10 Over-sized

Table 3: Part

1 Power flow regulator
2 Controller
3 Multi-junction
4 Diagnostic interface
5 Signal diverter
6 Multi-purpose adapter
7 Conduit
8 Computer
9 Filter
10 Emitter

Table 4: Which looks like...

1 A palm-sized black plastic box with a row of ports on one side
2 A finger-length blue rod with wires coming out of both ends
3 A chunky briefcase-sized metal box with rows of buttons on the top and a read-out printer
4 A soup-can sized metal canister covered in ridges that's warm to the touch
5 A roll-out gel screen 30cm x 30cm with a plastic frame that snaps into place around it
6 A L-shaped metal tube about 60cm long with an alphanumeric pad
7 A grey plastic box with a "WARNING" label on the side and hazard marks around the socket
8 A mass of thin metallic rods projecting at strange angles from a red lump the size of a turkey heart
9 A lump of Blue-Tac with silvery dots inside of it that shapes itself when applied to the gap
10 A jar filled with pulsing green algae-like lifeforms with tubes coming out of the lid of the jar

Anyhow, enjoy.


  1. Glad to see you are still around. Keep it up. You should have enough material to keep posting for quite some time without actually having to write anything new.

  2. Aos> It's true, though I'm trying to value-ad for people who've seen the old stuff too. Even a lot of the older pieces I'm putting up are getting polished and sometimes reworked to integrate further developments.

  3. Do you still have the pdf for treasure? I've been looking for it but all the links I've been finding are broken