Friday 19 November 2021

Human Non-Universals, or: Make Your Own Vancian Culture (tm)

"Remember," Anacho warned, "the Khors are a sensitive people. Do not speak to them; pay them no heed except from necessity, in which case you must use the fewest possible words. They consider garrulity a crime against nature. Do not stand upwind of a Khor, nor if possible downwind; such acts are symbolic of antagonism. Never acknowledge the presence of a woman; do not look toward their children - they will suspect you of laying a curse; and above all ignore their sacred grove. Their weapon is the iron dart which they throw with astonishing accuracy; they are a dangerous people." 

"I hope I remember everything," said Reith.

-From Jack Vance, The Dirdir

One of Vance's neatest tricks and the secret of his worldbuilding success is to create a culture with unusual, even absurd, characteristics and then play out the consequences completely straight. You see this technique, if that's the right world, appear time and again in his Tschai and Gaean Reach books, and it is a large part of what gives them their appeal - if you want to learn 'What then?' worldbuilding from a master, Vance's science fiction writing is the place to start. 

But if you want to cheat, try this Make Your Own Vancian Culture Generator (tm):

First, determine the rough lifestyle technology level of the culture:

1 - Stone age, 2 - Bronze age, 3-4 - Medieval, 5-6 - Renaissance, 7-9 Industrial revolution, 10-14, Contemporary modern, 15-28 - Gaean Reach standard, 29-30 - Hyper-advanced 

This does not indicate the limit of technological advancement of the society, but rather the general level of social development enjoyed in the average settlement. 

Then, determine the culture's geographic origin:

1-2 - Swamp, 3-4 - Hills, 5-6 - Mountains, 7-10 - Forest, 11-14 - Plains, 15-16 - Jungle, 17-18 - Desert, 19-20 - Aquatic

Next, determine its d3 absurdities by rolling on the following table (adapted by subverting elements of the list of 67 'Human Universals' proposed by the anthropologist Donald Brown):




Lack of abstract thought


No affection expressed or felt


No distinctions made between different age grades (such as ‘child’, ‘middle-aged’, ‘old’)


No religion


No belief in fortune or misfortune


Biological and social mother are usually a different person


Abhorrence of body adornment


No classification of colours


No classification of flora or fauna


No classification of kin


No classification of weather conditions


No classification of sex


No conflict


No cooking


Taboo against sex in private


No cooperation


Absence of greetings


Absence of daily routine


No distinction between right and wrong




No understanding that dreams are not reality


Lack of envy


No etiquette rules


No facial expressions


No fear of death


Lack of figurative speech


Generosity considered weak


Lack of gift-giving


Absence of group living


No attempts made to heal sick or injured


No concept of imagery


No rules concerning inheritance


No concept of inheritance


No concept of humour


Language is only a simply reflection of reality


No concept of law


No distinction made between general and particular


Women dominate public realm


Women more aggressive


Women more prone to lethal violence


Women more prone to theft


No concept of meal times


No concept of metaphor


No prohibition of murder


No numbers


No personal names


No concept of poetry


No concept of music


No concept of promising


No concept of revenge


Extreme risk-aversion


No concept of punishment


Lack of shame


Time only understood as cyclical


No concept of trade


Language has no verbs


Language has no nouns


No concept of weapons



No death rituals



No preference for one’s own children or close kin


Then, determine its d3 Suspicions and Taboos:


Suspicion or Taboo


Standing upwind of someone


Standing downwind of someone


Walking across somebody’s path


Entering a building without explicit invitation from someone inside


Sitting down in company


Eating in public


Being seen while asleep


Contact with animals


Being in the shade


Being in direct sunlight


Particular colour


Direct speech between members of the same sex, age category, etc.


Eye contact


Discussing intentions or desires in public


Refusing requests


Stepping on anything living


Being touched by rain




Being seen to be bleeding




Standing in front of, behind, or beside somebody


Encountering any acquaintance without performing extended ritualistic pleasantries 


Being seen/heard to ask for, or accept, money


Being seen to be breathless, sweaty, or having otherwise striven in the performance of any task


Being visible through a window


Exposing one’s hands, feet, nose, ears, etc.


Carrying anything in one’s hands


Asking a direct question


Picking anything up off the ground



Each of these suspicions or taboos might be vitiated:

1 - At certain times of day, 2 - After performing a particular ritual, 3 - While wearing a particular item of clothing or other body decoration, etc., 4 - On certain days each year, 5 - If performed by a person of a particular caste, or a particular type of person such as a man, woman, child, etc., 6 - After making a donation to a temple, etc.

The trick then is to combine all this into plausible societies. Hence:

The Sevelites inhabit the mountains of Sevel, where they have reached a comfortable level of technological development. They are a highly fastidious and taciturn people. Their language lacks figurative speech, and they communicate only to import or receive information. They also have a strict taboo against exposing their hands, and go about in gloves at all times; except for a particular hereditary servant caste they do not pick anything up off the ground unless it has been purified with a fine spray of salt water. A Sevelite's hands are seen only by a sexual partner; an ancient, secret tradition of pornography focuses on the hands as an erogenous zone, and complex codes and rituals concern its sale and usage.

The Masoon are native to the plains of Masurine, where they inhabit vast industrial cities refining crude resources for export. Their society is highly communal, regimented and homogenous: they make no classifications of colour (and themselves wear only white), make no distinctions between the general and the particular (considering themselves, and the resources they refine, to be part of unified wholes), and live in almost total harmony, having no understanding of the concept of conflict. They abhor being seen to be seated in company, lest they disrupt the tenor of communal exertion with perceived relaxation, and likewise consider whispering to undermine social cohesion with a desire for secrecy that must always be unnecessary.

See what you can come up with!


  1. This is awesome!!! Not much to add other than that XD

  2. You could also add that once you figure out 1 culture, one or more neighboring cultures may have looked at the benefits and drawbacks of that culture and said, "we're not like them, let's do the opposite!" In anthropology this is known as schismogenesis. It doesn't need to apply to all aspects, but to the overall SPIRIT of the culture. Example: Sevelites have many erotic/sexual practices that are about limiting exposure to their hands. A neighboring culture may then look at that and say, "we glorify hands in public art!", "we commercialize the sensation of touch," etc.

  3. Swipers gonna swipe me some cultural listings!

  4. I'm still struggling with my first random lot of stuff.

    Gaean Standard tech, hill country
    No sex in private, women more prone to thievery
    No direct speech between same sex (except by a certain caste), No laughing (except for children)

    I mean, one obvious route is a culture where many adults makes their living through performance sex work, which they take very seriously indeed. Perhaps anyone who treats them as prostitutes rather than artists will may be beaten unconscious and their possessions legally forfeit to the person they offended. Horny spacemen and offworld sex tourist trend toward mostly male and het, resulting in the culture's women being accosted more often than males, hence the "greater rate of theft" thing. Maybe their live in hill country surrounding a starport on a plain, and keep the "performance art theaters" atop teh hills to draw in tourist money.

    Creepy, but it seems like the kind of dangerous-to-misunderstand culture Vance often produced.

    1. I don't think you're struggling - I think you came up with something excellent!

    2. Eh, I'm not quite happy with it, but it does intrigue me. Perhaps I'll put some proper work into it and flesh it out into a proper blog post of my own.

  5. This is a great little system for producing Vancian subcultures. The problem is running them.

    Usually (I think) an author...has a point to make with one particular absurdity or another, or (better stated) he has a particular story to tell. So he already has an idea of how the absurdity will play out in the narrative, based on the plot (rather short form or long) and only has to deal with the ways in which these absurdities interact with the story characters...not the overall long-term ramifications of such a society.

    This system you've created would be well implemented in something like the Dying Earth RPG or a particularly whimsical version of D&D but...for would cause the same issue that precludes from playing DE: namely that I am not a fiction author nor someone that very interested (or capable) of inventing/mining absurdities and their cultural consequences for an "adventure" RPG. I enjoy reading the stuff (in fiction); I just don't want to run it.

    1. Sure, but I plan to use this (and other lists similar) in a manner to inspire creativity or thought in how I build a culture in my game world..

      Frex, take a random roll that says the culture has a Taboo against "Entering a building without explicit invitation from someone inside". Why do they have this taboo? Were their communities historically preyed upon by creatures that lost power over others if they submitted to another's authority? So breaking into or entering a home without permission could keep a Fae or Doppleganger's powers intact, but once they submit to authority, perhaps their glamour loses it's luster, or a Fae would then be bound by Host/Guest Laws, laws older than the community they were preying upon.

      This could then lead you down the idea of having that culture have very strong beliefs in abiding by Host/Guest customs, such that breaking those customs might actually have supernatural consequences!

      Nut yes, I agree just rolling a bunch of times and trying to make whatever insanity the chart produces work is not the route I'm interested in either.

    2. I dunno, I think you could have a whale of a time running a "strangers in a strange land" style campaign across, say, Alastor. I mean, that's basically what a lot of Vance's books are all about: outsider goes to weird place on weird planet, takes advantage of the idiosyncracies of its bizarre culture - and gets the money and the girl at the end!

    3. @Noisms Agreed. The Ports of Call/Lurulu duology were perhaps my favorite of that style, although the "happy ending" for the various protags of the story is a bit more ambiguous than most of the Reach stories, or Tschai.

  6. This is great!

    The Relumite are a Medieval Mountains Culture inhabiting a series of villages in the Relmuli Range.

    The culture has no prohibition of murder, which is akin to anger and shouting in our culture. While frowned upon, it is sometimes seen as necessary to achieve success. This may come from the absolute taboo of direct speech between members of the same sex. Communication between members of the same sex are done through a limited type of sign language, but only when absolutely required. In general, every person is partnered with a member of the opposite sex, but this is rarely marriage or sexual in nature. Romantic entanglements lead to jealousy and are shunned, the procreation of children seen as a duty to the village. Along those lines, being seen to be breathless, sweaty, or having otherwise striven in the performance of any task is taboo and punishable by death - the presumption being that one is weak or engaged unsavory activities.

  7. The people of the Neorheimian delta have dwelt for centuries in the dense mangrove thickets of that wetland. Historic reports detail them as dwelling in fear of the 'Be-Clawed' and the 'Be-Beaked'; the best way to avoid these was to stay in the shadows, out of the direct light. Once you were out of the shadows, then a Neorheimian had to be able to climb a tree.

    Given the apparent deadliness of the 'Be-Clawed' and 'Be-Beaked', it will not be a surprise that Neorheimians have a strong set of taboos against being in direct sunlight or carrying anything in one's hands. Tools swing from the body on straps and most forms of dress involve a sort of webbing, with villages having particular styles of belts and pouches - and an utter conviction that their tool-customs are best.

    The Neorehimians have not however suffered unduly, from this or from the lack of nouns their language seems to possess. They live among the 'Be-Leaved', they are preyed upon by the 'Be-Clawed', they pull from the streams the 'Be-Scaled'. These are loose categorisations and Neorheimians cannot or will not distinguish (say) a salt-water fish from a fresh-water.

    However, the delta is rich in certain tars and natural gases, which the Neorheimians have lately earned much money from, either exploiting themselves or conveying foreign labourers in to work the swamps themselves. The Be-Clawed seem to object to this, but they object more to buckshot.

    There was a further obstacle standing in the way of Neorheimian prosperity. There is a great objection to either asking for or accepting money. This might be overcome, but the Neorheimians do not give (or accept) gifts. All things are exchanged and it is very clear that 'The Lunched do not exist without the Sacrificed.' So one cannot proffer payment for a meal or a barrel of Grade-K pitch in an 'anonymous' parcel.

    Thankfully, this custom may be circumvented. A Neorheimian will happily give or receive payment if properly veiled. Gauzy fabrics are much prized for their role in covering the face and hands. It has even recently been noted that Neorheimians have happily walked through patches of direct sunlight under the covering of a parasol, carried by some presumably desperate underling.

    8 - Industrial Revolution
    1 - Swamp

    28 - Lack of gift-giving
    57 - Language has no nouns
    09 - No classification of flora or fauna

    Taboos Against.....
    10 - Being in direct sunlight
    27 - Carrying anything in one's hands
    23 - Being seen/heard to ask for, or accept, money

    That may be defied....
    3 - While wearing a particular item of clothing or other body decoration, etc.,

    [Well, 57 and 09 go together. But 28 and 23 make life difficult. Hmmmm.... ]

    It occurs to me that there is something of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in these. One can almost hear them as interspersed Guide entries in the familiar accent of Peter Jones.