Generating Local Color – The Quirky Tradition

There’s nothing that gives a place more color than the quirky traditions it’s amassed over the years. Many of these serve no apparent purpose, or are a matter of superstition, but some are useful behaviors that have just been rendered irrelevant by changes in the world.

There are two major ways to create traditions like this. The first is just inventing the tradition and then worrying about why it exists—for instance, deciding that in your world crows and not owls are associated with wisdom and academia. Usually, this is starting from an image and working outward. The good news is that it’s easy; all you need is the image, and the resulting traditions are likely to have more quirk to them; the bad news is that on average, they’re less grounded in how the world works, and the people who interact with them can usually figure that out.

The second process is more organic, but also more difficult. In this version, you begin with a cause, then trace it through the years to figure out what sort of practice it created. The best thing about first causes is that they can be almost anything—a religious belief, the result of a ruler’s ego, a fortunate or unlucky coincidence. The difficult part, though, is trying to track it through time; a lot of factors can change a practice, particularly if it wasn’t very popular to begin with.

Inspiration for these quirks can come from almost anywhere. History is a good one; our own world is full of quirky traditions and idiosyncratic practices. If you can find it, I recommend reading Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things: along with giving origins for most major American holidays, a significant number of points of etiquette and major event traditions, and a large smattering of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, it also covers a range of items from toothbrushes and cosmetics to slinkies and Silly Putty.

Players can serve as a source of inspiration as well. For instance, finding ways to help or hinder them can be an excellent springboard: perhaps there’s something deemed auspicious or inauspicious about something they’re wearing or carrying. From there, you just have to figure out what that’s going to result in, and where it came from. (Extra credit if you can make the source of such a quirky tradition a plot hook in its own right!)

And there’s always the things the players do. My personal favorite example was a little story from the longest-running game I played in. Imagine if you will a rather misfit group that’s just found themselves in charge of a country. Now imagine that the tightest connection in the group is between the one who basically got set up as the “official” ruler—read being the photogenic one—and the one who, despite being a glorious hero, still has to deal with more than her share of racism issues. Now add to this a communique in which the former is invited to a discussion and the latter isn’t explicitly, but there’s an ambiguity in the numbers that could mean she’s technically invited but nobody’s admitting it. What it was was a typo, but we took the idea and ran with that, turning it into the way the rather disconcerted nobles dealt with the fact that they did not want to antagonize their new ruler’s sense of loyalty but didn’t want to be seen as acknowledging the other character’s importance: they’d invite “The Empress”, list a number of people that was one higher than the number of names invited, and the two characters would show up at the event for which the invitation was given. I have word from the GM that this little quirk is probably going to far outlive its originators, and that there’ll be some point at which everyone’s forgotten why the Empress is plural.

Either way, implementing these sorts of traditions can increase the sense of the world as a living thing, intrigue the players, and in general improve the immersion and interest in the game.

How about you? Getting any good ideas?

Leave a Reply