Myths and cultures in fantasy roleplaying

The game that started me thinking about this topic is Aria RPG. This game is a very interesting approach of myths and culture creation in fantasy settings. In this game, nothing exists out of its context, everything exists because of its environment and in relation to this environment.

Aria RPG Introduction:

Throughout history, peoples and cultures have told stories of their gods, heroes, and villains in order to better understand the world around them. These myths seize upon the hopes and fears of society; heroes embody a culture's highest ideals while villains manifest as ancient dreads personified. Aria focuses on the Journey of the Hero, the sacred quest of the Monomyth, which represents in mythic language the seeking of cultures after their own identity. Aria Canticle of the Monomyth is a roleplaying game system which attempts to embody this connection between hero and culture.

Aria is designed to function on several levels; during the course of a single game, players can assume the roles of individual personas, persona lineages, or even whole societies. All such interaction is directed toward the development not only of personas, but also of entire cultures and worlds. As an integral part of the game, Aria players weave together mythic, historical, and personal time into one great tapestry of life - a living history beginning with the first game session. Creating this vision of the Monomyth, where heroes and villains clash in a world as well-developed and as rich in character as its mightiest inhabitants, Aria players engage in the pageant of Mythmaking, the evocation of numinous symbols summoned from the collective imaginations of the entire gaming group.

    - Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth

My point of view

Very often, fantasy worlds are archetypal and repetitive. It's hard to believe they could actually exist, people are not like real people, societies behave in weird ways. As long as you want to play epic fantasy in simplistic worlds, that's fine. But when the question is "how would be real people and cultures in a fantasy world ?", the best answer I found is ARIA.

ARIA is very helpful for a "cultural" creation of fantasy worlds, their societies and their history (with the cooperation of your players). Here, we are trying to describe a world from the subjective point of view of people living there (and without any boring "objective descriptions of the origin of the world being created by the gods", as it is in most fantasy settings). Here, we are trying to create a world where myths and religions tell us everything about people who created them and almost nothing about the "true nature of the world" (if any); a world where men are the products of their environment and myths are the products of the men ; where each society has different (usually incompatible) explanations about what is sacred and what is mundane, and who define themselves as a group and define the world view of this group by their foundation myths. Here, most myths are just trying to explain a seemingly chaotic reality and to give some meaning to events (often dramatic) who cannot be stood if they happen without justification, who cannot be accepted by human beings without a religious or mythic explanation that makes sense, that explain why all this deaths and suffering are needed.

I found these basic notions (and hundreds of other interesting ideas) very well developped in Aria RPG (when most fantasy RPG never integrate this kind of ideas, and therefore, never create a believable world, in my opinion). If these issues are interesting you as a GM, try to find ARIA RPG and to read it, you'll not be disappointed.

The foundation myths

The myths and their counterpart, the sacred, are the main tools used by the societes to explain the universe, to tame the chaos of the nature, to give a meaning to a seemingly incoherent world. These myths are usually founding a religion (and the religion, in turn, usually creates some god[s]) but not necessarily. Moreover, the myth and the sacred can exist even outside all religions.

Inside the sacred world, as defined by the myths, everything has a meaning (as opposed to the outside, mundane world, which is savage, arbitrary, deadly, and utterly meaningless). The very purpose of a myth is to introduce meaning in what is seemingly chaotic; to make human life worth to be lived; and to make people act accordingly to the principles of their societies.

By sharing these myths, people constitute themselves as a cultural group, with common values from which these myths are derived.

Living in the center of the world

One of the first myth must explain why this society lives at the very center of the world. The "omphalos" of the world would have said the ancient Greeks (omphalos means navel in greek).

Either it is Jerusalem for the Jews, or the sacred ground of one's ancestors for some other people, but the center of this cultural group is the center of the world, according to its own myths.

This land is sacred. What occurs on this land actually *has* meaning, this is the center of this community's land... The less-populated places that surrounds this familiar ground, are the mundane world, savage and incoherent.

Replaying the origin of times

One of the main myth must explain the origin of times, which is also the origin of this cultural group. There is usually a ceremony, an anual rite which regenerate (renew) the time of the origins (Christmas for example for christian groups).

This time, the time of the mythic origin of the group, needs to be regenerated (at each moon, at each solstice, at each year), so we live always at the origin of the time, as well as in the center of the world. That's the reason for this regular rites: regenerating the time (i.e. that makes the next year like the first mythic year of the foundation of this group).

So the group lives in sacred land and in sacred time.

(read Mircea Eliade: "the sacred and the profane" for more on this topic. This book is very interesting despite very controversial political positions of this author on other topics, that i don't endorse in any way).

The sacralisation of the human life

The men of a given culture are sacred for this culture. They are the "people of god", the "chosen ones", or the only human beings (other people being merely savages, or at least "uncivilized", because they support other myths, deriving from other values). There is myths to sacralise human life (usually reserved to people depending from this culture only). These myths gives rites (religious rites or other sacred rites) which are performed in every social aspects of a human life: birth, adulthood, marriage, death.

The Cosmology

Here we tell nothing about the True nature of the universe (with a capital T). Instead, we are speaking of the Conventionnal nature of the universe, which is true (if only by convention) in a given culture: one of those we are developping... This conventional truth supported by a culture is occasionnaly contradicted by facts. This is usually a traumatic events which generates many problems for individuals (especially the one who stumbled on those embarassing facts); as well as for the entire society. Then, after some times, the conventionnal truth updates itself to encompass these -seemingly- contradictory facts, and integrates this in its view of the universe.

Usually we need to develop several cultures to create a believable background for our world: societies, like everything else cannot exist out of their context. They exist in relation with their environment, and they are shaped by [and shaping] the neighbouring cultures of other groups.

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