Invention of Cultures




This is a letter I wrote somewhere around the year 1997 to my friend Eben Klemm, and was part of our invention of the culture of a nation called Isikoss on the planet Clarus.

I like the idea of an economic aristocracy in Isikoss. I welcome your effort to define the culture. Isikoss was populated by Greeks from 200 BC Terra, two thousand five hundred years ago in the Clarus calendar. A Pantheon of Greek gods (Achilles, Athena, etc) purchased almost all the temple plots in Isikoss and its archipelago, and succeeded in nurturing olive and wine based economy of farmer-soldiers organized into city states (years 0 to 500, the primal forests of Clarus had to be cleared, and Terran vegetation planted). In the years 500 to 1000, the population was large and stable enough for the gods to start playing games. They provoked a many wars, supported their heroes, tormented other gods' heroes, and siphoned off all the surplus grain and animals. In the years 1000 to 1500, stable empires established themselves around Clarus. Isikoss was unified under one city several times, and several times subjugated to foreign powers. From 1600 to 2000 were the dark ages, in which orcs, etc broke out of Hell and spread their diseases all over Clarus. Isikoss was partly invaded and its mainland population decimated and enslaved. The Greek Pantheon waited for a century and then sold most of its temple points on the mainland. The islands were comparatively safe, but the cohesion of Isikoss was broken. At the end of the dark ages, the islanders drove the orcs off the mainland and occupied it once again. But the Greek Pantheon has not been able to regain its temple plots on the mainland. Other gods, of diverse tastes, have bought them. So now the islands are a bastion of the old Greek culture: farmer-soldiers growing olives and grapes, raising goats, fishing in warm seas, and loyal to their island. The Greek Pantheon gets good wine, oil, cheese, and art from the archipelago. On the mainland, the people are descended from the islanders, but pushed in opposite cultural directions by their variety of gods.

So we come to your synopsis, that of the economic aristocracy in mainland Isikoss. The gods must be profiting somehow from the society, or they would sell their plots back to the Greek Pantheon. Let us say that they profit by straightforward selling of medical services to a prosperous population. What about military power on the mainland? Who has it? A central government, or does every house have its own army?

I am afraid your story has one flaw: you have Nemorrakkis going to Vatzit University as a young man. You have to start training as a wizard from the age of ten years old, before your brain development is complete.

But think about the following. The going rate for wizard spells is $1000 (10 gp) per spell level. Each spell slot in your mind (Nemo now has ten) can cast a thousand spells before it is scrambled. At first level, you have two spell slots. That's two thousand spells. One policy is to cast them all. During that time, you get enough experience as a town (non-adventuring) wizard to go up a level, and gain two new spell slots. Cast all the spells you can out of them (another two million dollars) and go up to third level, get two new spell slots (out of which you can cast only first level spells, since the ones that would have been mature enough for second level spells are already scrambled), cast those, etc, earning about a million dollars a year gross, or five hundred thousand after expenses and tax.

If you are a house, you will need the services of a wizard (as you have written: the house sage is Coldgast). The house of Pinn may have sent you to the Vatzit University to be the house wizard, and marry Sara once you were done. But you have graduated and blown them off. Even though you took responsibility for your own college debt, your family is still offended, as is Sara.

There is a constraint that I put upon cultures in SAGA: you must be able to put yourself in the position of a member of the society and feel that you too, in their position, would act as they do. Thus the culture must either be one in which people behave in familiar ways, so you can relate to them without any explanation, or in unfamiliar ways but with an explanation that allows you to relate to them.

For example, take an island upon which the people donate a fifth of their crops and fruits to a god who does nothing tangible for them in return. How can this be? One explanation is that the god keeps them misinformed: all the people on the island believe that without these donations, their god will send bad weather. Not true, but if you believed that, you would do as they do, and we are all familiar with people who believe stupid things just because they are told to do so by their parents. But the fact remains that if the people stopped believing that their god controlled the weather, they would stop giving him their food, and it is this fact that allows you to relate to religion of the island.

According to many people I have spoken to, the Papua New Guineans have some mighty strange customs, and I cannot understand them. (Having said that, a Papua New Guinean anthropologist recently debunked my myths about the culture.) I could not, therefore present the Papua New Guinean culture to you, because I cannot explain why a human being would behave in such ways. You would be unable to relate to the people, and the adventure would be hollow, like a bad fantasy book.

So, in Isikoss, I ask, "Why would a House choose to donate more rather than less money to the government?" To answer that they take pride in the amount that they give is to beg the question. No corporation in America, or any other economically successful country, pays any more tax than is absolutely forced out of it.

Similarly, why would they donate money to the gods? Are they being fooled by their gods, or are they paying a fair price for medical services rendered? If they give money because they believe the gods control the weather, then they are not very resourceful thinkers, so how could they be good businessmen?

If there is a central government, how is it chosen? How does it distribute its army? How does it police the nation? When Calipanti raiders come out of the desert and start looting an outer province of Isikoss, what is the response of the government? What is the response of the local Houses? If the government's troops are at the edge of the country, protecting against raiders, what is to stop a powerful general from marshalling his bunch of soldiers and trying to overthrow the government? If the troops are in the center of the nation, who is to defend the outlying provinces? Wouldn't the Houses start withholding taxes so that they could hire their own men at arms? These are the problems that have plagued civilized nations on Earth for the past five thousand years.

The only way I have found to draw up cultures with adequate realism for the game is to write a list of properties of the country, and deduce the culture from these properties. Thus I do not invent cultures, I invent the country, and deduce the culture.

The properties I list are: climate, terrain, fertility, military and economic formidability of neighboring nations, proximity to trade routes, abundance of natural resources, prominence of disease, the education of the people, and the ambitions of the gods who have access to the people.

Isikoss is hilly, rugged, dry, and hot. It is a good place to grow olives, grapes, and figs, but a poor place to grow most other crops. Copper, tin, and silver are abundant in places. The dwarves in the mountains to the west produce iron and gems, and want to sell them at low prices to the Issikans. It is not a good place to have a centralized government, since transporting troops inland must be via narrow, winding roads between hills. It is frequently harassed from the north-west by raiders from the desert. The people are well-educated and rational. The gods who own most of the plots in Isikoss are in it for the money. They cannot fool the people, but they can sell them expensive medical services, which means they want a healthy economy, and concentration of wealth into individuals who will spend their money on cosmetic and life-lengthening procedures that have a high profit-margin for the gods. The people care defended by city walls and a local army. And so on, I would figure out a stable form of government for the outer provinces, and look at the tensions between the provinces. The outer ones will be tougher, and will occasionally beat up on the inner ones.


As an aid to the dramaturgist in the invention of names and in choosing accents for non-player characters, we use existing languages for nations in SAGA. Here are some example choices we have made so far. These languages bear a loose relationship to the nations from which the original populations were taken from Terra.

Endromis, ClarusItalian
Ursia, ClarusFarsi (Iranian)
Varay, ClarusOlde English
Caravel, ClarusFrench
Gastranoi, ClarusSpanish
Chiin, ClarusCantonese
Lomein, FerasManderin
WeilandModern English (British Accent)
Dukedoms of WeilandEnglish (Various US and UK Accents)
Dwarf Cities, ClarusLatin (With Scottish Accent)
Table: Earth Languages we Associate with SAGA Nations

Thus a native of Endromis might have the name Elana Cavecci, which is a vaguely Italian-sounding name, and Endans would have Italian accents.