While culture in a fantasy setting can be almost anything, most fictional societies in tabletop roleplaying games follow similar rules to our modern day world so we don’t have to spend hours acclimating the players to a brand new set of social norms before the game can even begin. There are often a few tweaks to keep it interesting, but these tweaks are almost always on the same backdrop of ‘normal’ that we see in our everyday lives. But conflicts between different cultures are responsible for some truly heinous acts of villainy in our world’s history, and it would be remiss not to consider them for fictional villains. After all, a villain the players love to hate is very satisfying to defeat.
We’ll start by assuming the standard culture in the world your game takes place in is similar to our own. Murder, stealing, and lying are bad. People try to do honest work to earn a living. Merit and hard work are rewarded. There’s some form of government and some kind of law enforcement, and citizens generally respect them. This is our starting point. If you introduce a culture that differs in some or all of these areas, it’s likely to lead to conflict. Let’s go over a historical example to better illustrate how this happens, with the qualifier that I’m going to be simplifying some of these examples to keep this post brief.
The American Civil War was fought between the Union and the Confederate States of America. Many factors led to the war, but for this example we’ll focus on slavery. Slavery is a common culture clash in fiction, and since most of us believe that owning slaves is morally wrong, any faction that supports or actively engages in that practice seems evil to us. You can flip this around to create a very ethically gray scenario for your players: if they are in a nation that has legal support for slavery and a “villain” (from the perspective of that nation’s government) is engaged in guerrilla warfare and terrorism to free slaves, the players need to choose whether their characters side with the morally right side (the revolutionaries) or the legally right side (the nation’s government). To take it further, you can make the slaves owned by the nation constructs or undead, creatures that are said to lack sentience and self awareness. Then make the villain a former slave that claims they are fully sentient, and anyone who says otherwise is spewing propaganda. Now you have a compelling fantasy scenario and a villain that the players will seriously consider joining, and it can be explained in a couple sentences.
This ties into one of other main expressions of cultures clashing: revolution. Revolutions are almost always fought against the social norms of a society, possibilities include frustration with how certain classes of people are treated, anger at how the country is being run, or poor allocation of resources causing some to grow rich while others starve. Violence is the last avenue of social change available, and as we saw in the slavery example, villainy is often a matter of perspective. Each side considers the other to be evil, and sees themselves as being in the right. Putting the players in the middle of a situation like this is an easy way to give them some hard choices, and make the game world feel alive.
Both of these examples are pretty big in scope, so let’s zoom in and look at how culture clashes on a personal scale can create villains. Most cultures believe that killing someone is wrong, and there are laws in place to punish those who do it. If your villain comes from a culture where dueling to the death is a standard response to offenses, it can cause them to act in what seems to be a very evil way, especially if they murder a diplomat or politician during a negotiation. To your players this may be a cut and dry situation, clearly the murderer is in the wrong, but if the are from a faction with a much stronger military, their characters may need to put aside their feelings and lobby for the release of a murderer from prison. If they do get him released, perhaps the villain considers this a slap in the face, and will hunt down the heroes to demand satisfaction. Or maybe the villain tries to escape prison on his own and dies in the attempt, providing all the justification needed for a war. That example started out personal but become big in scope again. Let’s take a look at a fantasy example to finish out this exploration of culture clashes.
A dragon comes to town. The dragon has no violent intentions, and seeks some kind of trade with the townsfolk. It also is used to simply eating whatever looks good, so it pops some livestock into its mouth while waiting. Or maybe devours an entire crop of corn. Maybe this dragon is allergic to certain fabrics, and sneezes, activating its breath weapon and burning a house or two to the ground. If your players aren’t powerful enough to fight this dragon and scare it off (and doing so is likely to provoke it, which will only make things worse), they are going to have to talk with it and communicate the differences in culture. Not all villains are pure evil, and not all villains are defeated through combat, but if this dragon won’t leave, someone has to do something. It can be easy to get lost in the grim and severe side of villains, but variety in tone and seriousness is just as important as mixing up combat encounters and roleplaying when you’re running a tabletop RPG. It’s okay to have a villain that makes your players laugh.
Finally, it’s important to keep your culture clashes simple and digestible. When people settle in for a book or a movie, they’re dedicating their attention to the story. In a tabletop RPG, your players are not just there for the story. They’re also sitting at the table to fight monsters, get treasure, socialize with their friends, and eat snacks. Hopefully this post helped show that it’s possible to make very compelling culture clashes without getting bogged down in minutia. Tomorrow’s post will go into limited resources and how that can drive someone to be a villain!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team