This is RPG-ology #12: Aphorisms, for November 2018.
One of the hardest aspects of creating worlds is creating cultures. Different cities, different countries, different peoples all have differences in everything from dress to architecture to courtesy. The elves of Lothlorien have a different culture from those of Mirkwood.
One article is not going to serve as a complete course in creating culture, but there is one aspect of culture that struck me which I thought might be worth discussing.
Even a small wound infected could be trouble, and an ounce of prevention… he chided himself for relying on aphorisms for wisdom.
My editor had no idea what that meant. He was an excellent editor, but he was Australian, and therein lies the rub. The expression is An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and is one of the many witticisms published by Benjamin Franklin writing in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Americans generally recognize dozens of his sayings, from Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise to his advice to the other members of the Continental Congress as they signed the Declaration of Independence, We must all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately. Those sayings are considerably less known outside their native country. All cultures have these. The British expression A penny’s worth of mirth is worth a pound of sorrow is not even well understood by those who do not recognize that a pound is a unit of currency, not in this case specifically weight. And so it is evident that each culture will have some expressions unique to itself.
On the other hand, many of the older expressions will cross cultural lines, and the people who know the expression won’t realize it. Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said in a public speech, “Let me quote an old Russian proverb: Whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap.” He was completely unaware that this was from the Bible until the international press started calling him a “Bible-quoting clown”. So we see that some expressions cross cultural lines and are adopted by people who don’t know the origin of the aphorism.
So, how do you do this in a game?
Since you’re creating the world, and thus most of the cultures of the world, you’re going to have to invent some of these yourself. You might want to write half a dozen for each culture in advance, and consider times when non-player characters can use them—or even feed them to players playing characters drawn from those cultures.
Bear in mind that those sayings which become common do so because they relate to things within the culture. A people for whom most of life is spent digging underground is not going to have sayings about grass on the other side of a fence or when to make hay; a tribe of nomadic herdsmen won’t talk much about places like home; a land-locked nation probably won’t have much to say about oceans or beach sand. The value of a proverb lies in its ability to use something familiar to its people to make a practical or moral point. Your diggers will know that gold isn’t the only thing that glitters, your herdsmen will know that the grass only looks greener elsewhere.
Also recognize that witticisms are often contradictory, even in the same culture—too many cooks spoil the broth but two heads are better than one; haste makes waste but a stitch in time saves nine. There is no reason why your cultures cannot have contradictory aphorisms, and even quote them at each other in discussions. After all, the digger goes farther following the softer path, but the hardest rocks hold the most precious gems.
That’s a good example, because of course someone from that tribe of herdsmen would have no clue what either of those mean, just as the diggers would be completely baffled by the saying When the mare is in season the stallion can’t be calmed.
Once you have outlined the culture, enlist the aid of your players, at least in connection with their characters’ own cultures. If you have an elf, or a Bothan, or a Frangian, discuss with them what kinds of things would make good “old sayings” in their culture, and invite them to include some of their own devising.
And don’t be afraid to be absurd. In the movie America’s Sweethearts, the “Wellness Guide” (played by Alan Arkin) says, as I recall it, “In my country we have an old saying, Mecka lecka halava, beem sala beem.” Eddie (John Cusack) responds, “Oh. What’s that mean?” The answer? “No one knows. It’s a very old saying.”
So create a few very old sayings that sound like they contain wisdom, and release them into your game through peoples that would understand them, and see how that helps define your cultures a bit better.