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Culture Keyholes: Asking Questions at the Heart of Worldbuilding

By Peter Chiykowski

"What do they not have a word for?"

"What are their beliefs in life after death?"

"What are the consequences of criticizing someone powerful?"

For worldbuilders, small questions can unlock larger truths about the people, cultures, and beliefs that populate heir fictional worlds.

That's what the Shared Hearths & Common Creeds Culture Keyholes Expansion for the Deck of Worlds is designed to do.

With the early release of the complete Deck of Worlds PDF set last month, I wanted to revamp the early sneak peek of the Keyholes Expansion during the Kickstarter. I’ll also be talking a little bit about how this expansion grew out of some early working drafts of The Story Engine: Deck of Worlds.

 

First up, here's a look at a few sample cards from the expansion, which features 240 worldbuilding-focused "keyhole" questions that are designed to open doors to exploring your setting. These are a separate type of card that supplements the 6 card types in the main deck.

Deploying Keyhole Cards

Depending on the level of detail you want to explore your setting in, and when in your creative process you want to take a deeper look at individual areas, there are three ways you can use these questions.

1) Place a Keyhole card as you complete each microsetting. After you place the final card in a microsetting, draw and tuck a Keyhole card under a Region card or Landmark Card. For a complex microsetting, draw and tuck two Keyhole Cards instead. Write down answers to the cue questions as you make your setting notes.

2) Place a Keyhole card after finishing your world map. At the end of world creation, choose individual microsettings you want to explore in greater detail. For each, draw and tuck one or two Keyhole Cards. You may also draw Keyhole Cards first and then choose which microsetting to apply them to.

3) Use Keyhole Cards as flashcards. They can be helpful for asking questions about any fictional setting, even independent of Deck of Worlds.

Going Even Deeper

The expansion's guidebooklet also includes two overarching follow-up questions that are recommended for adding additional layers of cultural detail and diversity to your world: 

  • What assumptions does the question make? 
  • How might the answer change depending on who you ask?

For example, the cue “WHEN DO CHILDREN LEAVE HOME?” assumes that it is uncommon for multiple generations to live in the same household. Worldbuilders are encouraged to challenge assumptions and consider alternate answers.

Likewise, you could consider how different subgroups within the same micro-setting (or how different people within the same cultural group or area) might give different answers to the same question. Cultures are not monoliths (with the exception of special cases like hiveminds and AI collectives). The question "WHAT KIND OF INSULTS DO THEY USE?" might yield different answers depending on who you ask and their religious values, family values, level of education, social mobility, and more. And the answer can give you deeper insight into what different people in this culture consider sacred or profane, offensive or acceptable.

To this end, you can optionally draw Agent Cards from the original Story Engine Deck to decide whose perspective you might consider when answering the question.

Let's take it for a spin using a sample setting from the campaign page: The Meandering Desert.

Example microsetting interpretation notes:
• Called “The Meandering Desert” due to its winding trails and long, dry growing season.
• A farmer started a vineyard using a stolen inheritance (despite the arid climate). Has worked the land for generations, but their breed of vine is going extinct. Disease? Drought? Curse? Characters can investigate.
• Also home to a commune of stained glass artists called “The Workshop That Will Never Die.” Their kilns run all day, every day, because they believe in “keeping the flame of eternity” What do they use for fuel? Is pollution affecting the vineyard?

This is a complex micro-setting (meaning I drew extra Landmark, Namesake, and Attribute Cards). Thus, I would draw and tuck 2-3 Keyhole Cards. I decided to do 3.

Question 1: HOW DO THEY RECORD OR REMEMBER THEIR LAWS?

I attached this question to the Steadfast Workshop, because I thought an artist commune would have a very interesting answer to a question about what physical form something takes. Wouldn't it be neat if they created stained glass mosaics depicting the rules of their artist collective, and these were the windows of the gathering hall in the workshop itself?

And because different windows would catch sun and project onto the floor at different times of day, the all-day-every-day nature of their artistic practice could also be tied to a daily cycle of principles or rules they reflect on depending on which window the sun is passing through.

I could also challenge the question and say that they don't record their rules at all. Instead, they remember them as work songs they sing as they create their art. Or perhaps they simply don't have rules, and they resolve things on a case-by-case basis.

But I like the windows thing, so I'm going to go with that!

Question 2: HOW DO THEY SAY GOODBYE TO THEIR DEAD?

I chose to attach this one to the Mapless Desert itself, because I was sensing a thematic link between the Attribute card with the "SHORT OR LONG GROWING SEASON" cue and the cycle of life and death. If a desert has a long growing season, I would assume it has specialized crops that do well in low-moisture environments and that the seasonal variance in temperature and weather is fairly gentle on this crop.

If I'd drawn a question related to food, I would probably be thinking about edible cacti or some hardy nutritious grasses, but because the cards have pointed my attention to death rituals, I'm thinking that people might have a tradition of growing desert flowers or cactus blossoms out of the grave. Rather than cutting flowers and killing something that had a chance of surviving, they grow something fleeting as a reminder that life flourishes and dies, and the desert is richer for it, even after it's gone.

Question 3: WHAT WOULD THEY DO IF A SHARED BUILDING NEEDED REPAIRING?

When I drew this question, I wanted to apply it to the vineyard area, which is in crisis, but I realized that it applied to the desert as a whole, so I planted it there.

It's a hypothetical question about a building, but the larger door that this keyhole unlocks is about how this culture handles collective responsibility.

Right now, the vineyard is in danger of its vines dying out for good. I'd made notes that it could be due to pollution from the Steadfast Workshop.

I might refine my notes further to look at how the theme of personal and collective responsibility could be explored if the family in the vineyard asked the workshop to change the fuels they use in their kiln, or asked the large population of the desert for help in convincing the workshop to change their ways to preserve the vines.

Is this a culture that would shrug and say it's the family's problem? Or would they see the health of the vines as a shared goal? Or would the population be divided on this issue?

For now, I'll add to my notes that the population is divided. It leaves more room for my characters to sway the debate, and it's more realistic that there will be some people who don't see one family's problem as having anything to do with them.

Of course, this might change if the growing pollution problem led to grave flowers dying and if the problem began to affect a larger group and hit them where it hurts: their shared cultural values with regards to mourning. All this goes into my notes for how to escalate the stakes of my story over time!

The role of questions in worldbuilding

I love the keyhole questions, and an early draft of Deck of Worlds was built ENTIRELY out of these sorts of questions, with the exception of Region Cards and Landmark Cards.

Try as I might, I couldn't get this version of the deck to work for a couple of reasons:

  • Without some basic establishing details for the world to start with, it was hard to answer the questions. 
  • Questions required a deeper and more consuming level of thought to consider, so it was hard to build multiple linked micro-settings in a single sitting if I was constantly slowing down to answer questions.

But what I found is that the right level of open-ended prompt could give the player a starting piece of information AND also indirectly pose a linked question. For example, the Attribute card cue for a long growing season doesn't tell you what crops the area grows. And when you layer it onto a Region or Landmark Card, it prompts you to think about what kind of crop the land might might support.

So I converted my questions to open-ended prompts, but saved some of my favourites in their original form. Later, as I explored how to expand the deck, I realized that the questions would be a perfect expansion for worldbuilders who really want to examine the social fabric of their world, and so I started building it back out and inviting the project writers to brainstorm questions with me.

I think that questions are a really powerful format for worldbuilding. It turns things over to the creator or storyteller and draws attention to important themes and creative challenges without telling them how to solve that challenge. And I love that ask if you ask 1,000 worldbuilders the same question, you'll get 1,000 different answers.

In the next blog, I'll go over the Lore Fragments Expansion. But if this one caught your eye, you can pre-order the Shared Hearths and Common Creeds: Culture Keyholes Expansion here