An interesting article floated across my Facebook feed the other day, with the ridiculously lengthy title of: The Truth about Vikings: Not the smelly barbarians of legend but silk-clad, blinged-up culture vultures. The article is interesting itself, though nothing particularly new to me. It's been one of my favorite quirks of history that the Norse actually did seem to go around dressed as metal-heads and goth rockers.
As always, it got me thinking on the subject of gaming. One of the things I think most frequently neglected in world-building and setting creation is the material culture present. In anthropology, material culture refers to the stuff of a culture or civilization. In broadest application, it applies from the kinds of buildings and architecture, the way settlements are laid out and the functionality of the same. More interestingly (for me, anyway) it also applies to the way the society adorns itself, both the decorations in the home, the manner of dress, the way classes distinguish themselves, the design of jewelry and adornment of weapons and tools.
I'm a very visual person, so for me these little details play a big part in conveying the feel of the world. It's part of the pageantry and immersion process. It is a huge part in what forms cultural identity and how one group distinguishes itself from another. That another culture dresses in ways foreign to ours, that another tribe marks itself differently, is an inherent and instinctual part of the way we perceive the other.
Of course, because it is very much a visual medium it is often the first thing to get ignored by people when they are writing a setting. This is especially true when the setting is in some analogue of medieval Europe, which is a shame as the material culture in the medieval period is extremely diverse and can be played up to great effect when talking about the difference between, say, the French and English. The further away you get from the "default" setting, the more interesting and important these descriptions can be in painting the color, flavor, and character of the society you are trying to portray.
We can tell a Greek design at a glance by its signature repeating waves patterns, or a Norse or Celtic piece by its knot-work and designs. Arabic geometric designs are easily recognized, and most of us can spot traditional Japanese artwork and patterns, or at least identify them as "Asian." African or Native American tribes have distinctive patterns of their own.
Take some time to think on the material culture in your setting. What do they look like? What clothes do they wear? How do they adorn themselves? What motifs are popularly repeated? What do their buildings look like? Their architecture? Their food?
And most importantly: how can you work these details into your game?
Until next time,