Paris as Inspiration for RPGs: Its All in the Culture

As promised in my last post, I want to discuss the aspect of my France trip that would make good gaming fodder. So lets start with Paris.

Ingrained Culture

Once you take it all in, the most striking aspect about Paris isn’t so much its architecture, landmarks and legendary bad service (which I’ll discuss later). What is most noticeable in Paris is how much its centennial Culture is so pervasive in everything standing and living in the city. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that rats and pigeons are Parisians, but everything else pretty much is. What I mean by this is that all elements we define as culture:  art,  architecture, religion, social status, education and so on have become so intertwined in Paris that you get this melting pot where it’s hard to define what being Parisian is but you know it when you experience it.

For example, Paris’ most prestigious university, La Sorbonne, is both an architectural landmark, it brings student from all over the world and provides an instant boost in social status from the moment you graduate. Similarly, the restaurant waiter in France and especially in Paris, has a significant social status. Many show pride in their job (sometimes  too much), they’re  almost exclusively well-educated and have both attitude and skill (which they may decide not to share with you)… and service (19%) is included on your invoice, regardless of your personal appreciation. Many of my best meals in France featured enthusiastic waiters that provided as much help as entertainment in our gastronomical experience.

Of course, a powerfully ingrained Culture has its drawbacks. It often rejects those who don’t come from it. I have been in France often and long enough to know that bad service, apart from the occasional schlob who really hates his job, often comes when culture clashes. When faced with non-French speakers, Parisians are often disdainful and get rapidly impatient. They are so  insulated by their Culture they seem to expect outsiders to make efforts to fit instead of reaching out. I’ve seen the same in Germany and in the less cosmopolitan parts of American.

In gaming terms, this means that you can weave a whole culture based on a few key elements.

  • What art is favoured by the people?
  • How rich are they on average?
  • How much education does everyone get?
  • Is religion a big deal and does it affect art and education?
  • Is the culture strong enough to standup to that of its neighbors?

A good indication of a very strong, insulated culture: its denizen have a  hard time learning a second language or don’t see the point of it.

This creates a list from which you can go to whenever you add new elements to your world: History, NPCs and likely locales. Just think how culture would impact each, use it as a skeleton to build upon.

The Parisian-inspired NPC

From your cultural core list, add a few  traits likely to be common to most of its people.How do they live in cities and in the country? How large is the gap between the top upper class and its lowest class? How do they treat each other across that range ?  How do they treat outsiders?

If you need it, develop how it came to be and expose it to the players, preferably through dialogues with key NPCs and things they discover while adventuring.

Now let’s add an extra layer and explore some of the Parisian personalities I’ve dealt with.

The Parisians I  noticed the most, especially older ones, are often annoyed and angry in public. They are terse, argue spitefully with their family  (spouses, children), mutter against strangers and spew out commandments like their lives depended on it.

(Lady on the phone) “Don’t you let anyone inside this house while I’m away!”

(Man muttering in Tramway) “Man is that old fart fucking stupid” (The French swear a lot).

(Man in line at the airport, responding to his wife’s nagging) “Stop telling me what to do dammit! Don’t you ever shut up?'”

Parisians like to argue and tell you what they think, even if you didn’t ask  first.

“I’m sorry miss, I don’t think you would like what you just ordered. I happen to love it but the Anglo-Saxon don’t… It’s a sausage made of spiced tripe”

(To which Dr.C. answered “Do I sound English?”)

However, Parisian are extremely hospitable and loyal once befriended.

“Of course you can come and stay at our place whenever you come to France”

“You can go and stay at my parent’s house”

“Come and have the apéro with us tomorrow”

“Do you want me to come with you and show you my neighborhood?”

I strongly believe it’s all in the absolute sense of belonging to something  bigger than themselves that shapes who they are and what they say.

And secretly, many Parisians long to leave Paris and move on to other things. They feel oppresssed by the culture they were raised in and embraced in their youngr years.

“Do you think it’s easy to open a restaurant in Montreal?”

“I’m telling you, I’m seriously thinking of selling the flat and moving to the coast, away from all that noise and pollution”

You can apply these personality snippets to any citizen of a large, culturally dominant metropolis in your gameworld.

The Parisian-Inspired Locales

Paris likely inspired many fantasy city-based location tropes in tabletop gaming:

  • Stone sewers harking back to roman times with rats the size of small cars
  • Dank catacombs filled with the bones of the nameless, a perfect setup for a Necromancer
  • Gloomy tomb-cathedrals covered with Gargoyles and containing the remnants of countless saints and religious figures: Vampires!
  • Looming towers of fear-inspiring power (The Eiffel Tower was (is?) a radio tower). Mind control perhaps?
  • Strange non-Euclidian skyscrappers (Google La Défense, Paris)… That one’s just weird.
  • The Bistro (French equivalent of a Pub, featuring a terrace and often selling tobacco too), much cooler than the tavern. Garçon!

Central Paris is all about tight spaces, winding staircases, cobblestone streets, massive churches and way too many diagonal streets! The city has been growing for 2000 years and it shows! Mapsellers would make a fortune there.

Walking the streets of Paris means spending a good part of the day in the shadows of buildings, the relative absence of trees and plants, drunks pissing everywhere  and many, many many strangers walking the streets at all hours of the day and night.  It’s called the city of lights because it’s stunning Landmarks and countless multi-storied apartment buildings are constantly illuminated.

Such a complex, geometrically confusing city is perfect for stalkers, mysteries and intrigue. With it’s multiple palaces, city manors, marketplaces and plazas such a city could house a long-form campaign without ever having to leave it.  Monte Cook did just that when he created Ptolus, what a fantasy, polytheist version of Paris could be.

Bonus Content: The Parisian Adventure/Campaign Hook

The Slumbering Masters of the Underverse have manifested themselves in the capital of the biggest empire spanning your campaign world. Yet they did so by corrupting the very culture of the city itself. Instead of relying on inefficient cultists, the Ancient Ones have slowly crept and corrupted Culture itself.

(Hey, maybe Culture is an actual god that “sold out” to the Elder Ones).

Thus, through art, education, religion, language and architecture, the citizen are unknowingly ushering the Awakening. The growing yet passive belief makes the outerwordly influence that much stronger. The changes are everywhere,  fashion, food, civil ceremonies, weddings… Everything bears the taint of the encroaching Fathers of Chaos.

What can mortals do when the process is so advanced? Can it be reversed? Must the empire be destroyed before it achieves full corruption? Must heroes lead from within or without to reverse the change? Do they want to?  What if the heroes start as agents of these strange new masters?

I’ll let you chew on that!

 

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. Interesting and informative!

  2. My pleasure! I appreciate your comments!

  3. This is still an idealistic point of view on France. La Sorbonne is one of the oldest University in Europe but not the oldest, the main building is a historical monument, but graduating from it does not “provides an instant boost in social status”. The french educationnal system is not University centered but what we call “Grandes écoles” centered. These are specific schools outside the University system. For litterature the most important one is l’Ecole Normale Supérieure. Sartre studied there. Sorry for the lengthy point.
    As for the 2nd language, Dutch have also a strong culture. Rembrandt and Van Gogh backup this statement. Most of the Dutch speak English. Second language is strongly related to the size of the country. France is big enough so that a french was able, until recently, to live hearing only but french. In France, US movies are dubbed, not in Nederland.
    And yes, service can be very bad, and I do not like it either, it is not “cultural”. And yes “Andouillette” are very good but I would’nt dare to propose that to a foreigner, even to a Dutch.
    But the point of your article still stays interesting. Paris is a perfect spot for an RPG, an American would probably find it exotic. But please keep in mind that your are probably using some clichés, and cliché can make very good story. Cliché relates to some knowledge of the players so creating an expectation among a certain familiary which gives the user’s something to relate to and identify him or herself.
    BTW Philippe-Antoine Menard, that does sound french, how don’t you know about the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
    Thanks for reading and sorry for my pigeon english.

  4. Michael Mornard says:

    An interesting article, thanks.

    On a side note, speaking of France… my last name is “Mornard,” I wonder if many generations ago we are related and linguistic drift occured!

  5. @Chris: I am also a bit curious how you jump to conclusions about 2nd language, he said “strong *insulated* cultiure”. The Dutch are historically international traders who always have had a relatively open mindset towards other cultures.

  6. Chris: je ne suis pas Français mais Québécois. Ceci qui rend mon regard similaire à celui d’un étranger qui parle la langue locale.

    Oui j’ai fais de grossières généralités, le jeu c’est la caricature selon moi. J’avoue par contre qu’avec le recul, toute ma dissertation ronflante sur la culture aurait pu être sérieusement écourtée.

    Ceci étant dit, toutes les citations ont été entendues. 🙂

    Merci pour le commentaire.

    Micheal: That is VERY likely. Hello cousin! 🙂

    @MadFox: I tend to agree with you about the Dutch, while strong culturally speaking they seem to be very much turned outwards. And in ALL fairness, I’ve heard much better English in France than I have from previous travels or contact with French citizens.