How to be respectful to little known cultures in an alt. history game?
May 10, 2017 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for some advice on how to depict an extinct and little known culture in an rpg scenario.

I am working on a rpg scenario that revolves around an alternate history (there is magic!) take on the events depicted in the Saga of the Greenlanders/Erik the Red's Saga. In these two sagas, explorers/traders from Greenland encounter people they refer to as skraelings and archaeologists/anthropologists refer to as the Dorset people.

The scenario would have PCs be from both the Greenlanders and the Dorset working together against a common threat that could have the tentative trading relationship between the two groups break down into violence.

My problem is that there just isn't much actual information about the Dorset as their culture was essentially extinct by the 1500s as they were replaced by the Thule and then the Inuit. There is some information about how they would have lived and hunted but little about their customs and overall culture. One possibility is to base them off of the Inuit culture but that doesn't seem quite right to me. So what is the best way of depicting this culture when no one really knows much about it?
posted by nolnacs to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total)
Past a certain point I think you can't do a lot without much information. Is it worth putting a disclaimer in this scenario, explaining that there isn't a lot of real-world knowledge so what you're doing shouldn't be taken as gospel?

I think that as long as you're conscious of your limitations things can't go far wrong here. The culture is unfortunately extinct, and you aren't likely to be playing with people who are in a position to critique, I presume. I don't mean this to sound insensitive, but I just feel like you can only do so much.
posted by Alensin at 11:45 AM on May 10

I think you're better off staying away from known cultures. You don't want to blur the Inuit into a culture that's historically unrelated. I think the existence of magic especially gives you permission to borrow more from folklore. Can the skraelings be more like fairies/elves/dwarves (not the Tolkein or D&D versions, but more Norse/Icelandic based)?
posted by rikschell at 12:02 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]

My initial impulse would be to keep it simple and let the PCs fill in (probably with their own modern culture).

However, a quick google search shows that we do have some very interesting facts about Dorset people from artifacts and DNA and stories from the Inuit and you'd probably want to make sure your story is consistent with that to the extent possible. For example, we have evidence that they were shy & kept to themselves, built stone houses, didn't intermarry with outsiders and all descended from one maternal ancestor, heavily prioritized ritual art and shamanistic religion, not so much with the military discipline, for some reason they rejected bow and arrow technology, we have some drawings of clothing and hairstyles. That's a good start, really.

As long as everyone knows it's fiction (the magic will be a useful clue) I think it's okay to write fiction inspired by historical events!

Make sure to describe them in a way that's sympathetic and human. RPG guidebooks sometimes say things like "this race is evil" or "people from this culture are sneaky and steal things!"--- but I'm guessing you were going to try to avoid that anyway.
posted by redorangeyellow at 12:18 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Focus on how an arctic culture would make use of magic, and how that would alter their society. At that point, things will have changed significantly enough that it doesn't really matter if your starting point was close to reality.
posted by empath at 12:31 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Maybe a magical arctic culture would be very interested in heat and fire and light spells. The first impulse is that they'd be able to freeze things with their magic, but an arctic culture wouldn't need any help to freeze things. They'd just put stuff outside to freeze it. They'd also live a big chunk of the year in darkness, the ability to make light would be pretty magical to them.

(Yes, this whole answer is a sidetrack.)

You could also change their name a bit, to signal this is a fictionalized version of the people. I suppose that can get sort of silly if you're not careful. I'm reading a fictional work now that has the protagonist seeing Bedelia Brunch at a venue called The Purling Plant - a fictionalization of Lydia Lunch at NYC's The Knitting Factory. I find it fun and effective at communicating the fictional aspect of the story.
posted by Cranialtorque at 2:33 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

re: freezing stuff

What if the magic is about moving heat around; to make a thing hot, it has to suck that heat from somewhere else.

I agree with rikschell; keep the Skraelings as Skraelings (ie., as described in the Sagas) and treat them as fictional rather than base it on the Dorset peoples.

You can still draw from Inuit culture re: what are some things required to survive (use the entire animal, organ meats for vitamins) and what they'd value (building materials more flexible than bone, ie. wood and metal, softer rocks).
posted by porpoise at 3:02 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I feel the answer is to try the best you can, allowing yourself to make mistakes but also being aware of the lazy conventions in depicting this kind of culture and what they say.

I really like this talk by Gabriel de los Angeles on "Culturally Responsible Game Design."

But as others have said you don't need to use the real culture necessarily. For creating a new culture (or maybe just filling in the gaps) I really like the method given in Vast & Starlit.

Microscope can produce interesting societies, but you have to be aware not to fall into the monoculture trap where everyone in that culture has just one or two distinguishing features. Which is a frequent problem in rpgs generally.
posted by Erberus at 3:47 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I would just give the culture a different name, and put a disclaimer up saying that you have borrowed what little is known about the Dorset people as homage or something.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:50 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

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