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Rethinking Cultural Bias

by Andrew Theisen

Though the specifics of its functions may be questionable at times, I like the Spell of Preservation in the Hollow World conceptually. It serves the narrative purpose of explaining why cultures stay functionally at the level of technological, cultural, and/or magical development as they were when they first arrived in the Hollow World, and why it remains as a "Lost World" sort of preserve.

That said, I have never particularly cared for the mechanics of the SoP as they are presented in the HW rules sets. For those unfamiliar, characters using weapons/equipment that are not standard effects for his starting culture will only gain 1/2 XP for three levels and will lose some or all of his cultural benefits. If he later returns to his cultural traditions, he will regain those benefits after one level is gained (and would have to start again with the 1/2 XP/3 levels thing if he opts to use other weapons/equipment again).

I don't really like that rule. I feel that the Spell of Preservation should be sufficient as a narrative device to explain the Hollow World's unique nature; it's a magical effect put into place by the Immortals. It keeps cultures static, more or less. It shouldn't need anything in the way of mechanics to explain (with the possible exception of its effects on magic, which were limited for various reasons).

Part of the SoPs nature is that it does allow for some differentiation of culture, so long as the "base" culture remains intact somewhere within the Hollow World. So you can have pockets of a "base" culture that have advanced, or have blended with surrounding cultures (Hapta in the Nithian Empire, for example), or have degenerated to an earlier time in that culture's history (the Azcans of Axateotl, for example). In spite of this allowance, the base cultures do not change much overall, because the SoP says so. Imposing a mechanical rule over why it doesn't happen often just seems very metagamey to me, and unnecessary.

Further to that, PCs are- IMO- the exceptions to the rule in the game world. Where the average peasant doesn't advance beyond Normal Man status, despite the fact that, rules wise, as long as he had the prerequisites he could take on class levels, the PCs can and do this on a regular basis. So, to me, it shouldn't be a big deal to have them go around the Hollow World and take the best elements of the cultures they find if they should so choose. Placing XP and other restrictions on them is a negative way of reinforcing roleplay.

That said, I do like the idea of rewarding roleplay based around cultural bias, as opposed to penalizing them. There is a certain amount of this already in the system, obviously, in the form of the "cultural benefits." These aren't necessarily equal, though, and are offset by the xp penalties for violation, though.

I'm still not certain of a good system for it, although I'm thinking along the lines of an expendable resource. Rather than benefits that can be taken away (sometimes inexplicably, in the case of things like skills and the like), it would be something that is gained, but cannot be refilled if you choose to violate your cultural bias.

Right now, I'm inclined to do implement something like Hero Points or Action Points. Every character would start with some of these, and you would gain them as you leveled up and played within the restrictions of your Cultural Bias. If you chose to go outside of your cultural bias (ex. using a non-culture weapon), you could still use the points you had accumulated, but you couldn't gain/regain any points for that level.

There might be some other benefits associated with the point system- in 3E or Pathfinder rules, some special cultural feats that make use of the points, or similar. Still pondering that.