It was raining that afternoon on the Planet of the Hats

No-one uses the term “the planet of the hats” intending a compliment. But what is the complaint, really?

  1. Is it that the social and cultural equivalent of “it was raining that afternoon on Mongo”? That is, is the problem with a planet of the hats that it lacks a plausibly necessary degree of variation by regions, social strata, and subcultures? “Ought not a whole world to have at least as much linguistic and anthropological diversity as New Guinea?”

  2. Is it the triviality of the differences? Is the problem that a planet of the hats is implausibly and boringly like southern California except that everyone is still wearing hats?

If it’s the first, is the trope justified if the planet was (a) settled from Earth only a few centuries ago (b) by a separatist or utopist group that attempted to set up a distinctive way of life, and ⒞ has continuously been culturally unified (modulo responses to local climate) by global mass communications?

If it’s the second, is the trope averted if the planet’s exoticism explicitly extends to family structure, household type, nature of the social unit, mode of production, degree of economic development, government type, cultural values, and legal peculiarities?

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While I totally sympathize with the sentiments, I have to question whether New Guinea is a fair standard of comparison. After all, its linguistic diversity is exceptionally high even for Earth.

In Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time, Johanna Nichols talked about linguistic spread zones and residual zones. The former are exemplified by the parts of Asia that used to be encompassed in the USSR; the latter by the Caucasus—or New Guinea. In the former, mobility is easy, and languages tend to cover large territories and to diversify in family trees in the style exemplified by the Indo-European family. In the later, mobility is limited, and you tend to have isolates and very small families existing side by side, but separated by rough terrain of various sorts. A planet might have terrain more or less traversable than Earth’s, and have more or fewer language families, and likewise for cultural traits of other sorts.

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Yeah, but one little Earth encompasses the whole of New Guinea and several other places. Before radio, before newspapers, before ocean-going ships, before writing there were probably quite a lot of languages and distinct cultures on Earth. There are several still.

And that suggests a justification of the trope for planets that were not settled from Old Earth by crackpots: what if aliens have had a millennium of mass communications and rapid transportation on their own planets, and those have put their diversities through a blender as has happened, is happening, and seems likely to continue on Earth?

Looking at tvtropes they’re only talking about your point 1; if it’s simplistic and trivial that’s regarded as a different problem.

Consider Esperantists. Some of them decided to raise their children as native speakers. Those children have modified the language by inventing their own words, changing grammatical forms, and so on, much to the annoyance of the parents whose faith is that Esperanto is already perfect. That’s not a mass communication effect, except insofar as the children want to talk to each other as well as to their parents.

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I have the feeling that not everyone who criticises planets of hatses is a TVtropes purist. But never mind the hook. Which do you think is the more salient problem? What do you say to the emollients I suggested?

Sorry, I thought you were chasing down the specific criticism.

I don’t think that there can never be monocultural worlds, but I think they’d be exceptions. Ones that use neurotech to encourage compliance; ones that get rid of rebels (politely or otherwise); ones hostile enough that people can’t simply set up their own settlement on the other side of the planet.

I think that the most plausible way to maintain monocultural worlds is, perversely, free flow of people. If my personal politics are X, I’ve grown up on a world where the prevailing attitude is Y, and it’s within my reach to travel to somewhere where X is the norm (and I can expect to have a good life when I get there, i.e. X isn’t a reliance on clan structures or whatever), then I’ll probably do that; and the Y-government might well be glad to see me go.

But if it’s somewhere like your Navabharata, the gods can’t allow their subjects to move away, and if they move away themselves they lose their divine status. Which in turn means that rebellion will fester and you will get countercultures.

I’m pretty sure that the jibe “planet of the hats” goes back to criticism of the original-flavour Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action”, and long pre-dates TVtropes.

You are are not alone in finding places with a single culture implausible, but I don’t see the force of the argument. Until air travel became common about 1960 multicultural societies were a freakish property of immigrant megalopolises such as Sydney, New York, and London — go a hundred kilometres from Cadiz in any direction and you would find yourself an Iberian culture zone, for instance. Before ocean-going steam ships the multicultural exoticism even of big port cities was very muted by modern standards.

As for political rebellion, there’s no reason for it to be associated with foreign dress and customs. Some Irish people have been rebelling against English domination since 1176 — you might even consider rebelliousness to be a feature of Ireland’s hat. But Irish rebels have never tended to abandon Irish culture, to wear Aztec costume a sign of their non-conformity, or to go about without a hat.

There is rebellion on Navabharata — it is even mentioned in the 120-word description of the planet in the Introduction to Flat Black. It just doesn’t take the form of cultural non-conformity, of wearing strange clothes and living in unconventional households. It takes the form of forming cabals to foment riot and kill and eat the ruling class.

Well, if you’re saying that “Planet of Hats” means they all look the same, and they shouldn’t all look the same, fair enough. I think I may be arguing against a point you didn’t intend to make.

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I ought to have been more clear. I’ll try again in the morning: it’s getting late here.

Like anybody writing any setting bible, when I am writing for Flat Black I have to strive for the golden mean on a couple of dimensions.

  • I have to give strong support to the requirements of the intended adventures — that is, I have to write exotic cultures, societies, and governments that seem vivid and bewildering without being actually bizarre. But as I am doing that I have to be careful not to put uncomfortable strain on players’ (and, perhaps, other GMs’) suspension of disbelief.

  • I have to provide enough detail to be actually useful and convincing. Players reading a world briefing must not feel that they are being denied vital, need-to-know information that their characters would get from the tourist brochure and Wikipedia Galactica. Players designing a character from a colourful homeworld (and, maybe, GMs preparing to set an adventure on a world) must get a working mental model of what happens on the world when they read the briefing. Readers’ suspension-of-disbelief can often be assisted by explanations and justifications. But I have to be careful not to write at such length that no-one will read the briefing or be able to remember its contents if they do.

Each of these constraints bears on the other. I can make the cultures more exotic and simultaneously more believable if I spend word count on ranges of variation, corroborative detail, and justifications in history. For example, see the thread about Tau Ceti. But doing that sort of thing for enough worlds for a GM or character-generating player to be getting on with would take a lot of time to write, and everyone but me would baulk at reading it.

To thread these two needles I need to know where their eyes are. I need information about what prospective users find too simple to be believable and what they find too complex and detailed to be readable. I need to know how convinced my readers are that the customs of their island and their tribe are laws of human nature. (I know that the social universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. I can cite instances of real people in the past doing things that my friends have declared it impossible that fictional people in Flat Black would do in the future. But citing instances and arguing analogies costs me word count that I can’t afford.)

This being the case, I would like to provoke a general discussion among some role-players who include and otherwise resemble the prospective and possible readers of the Flat Black material that I am about to start writing. I’d like it to range over the topics of:

  • how much socio-cultural difference between worlds they are inclined to think plausible, given colonisation by crackpot ventures from future-Earth, centuries of development in isolation, and thin interstellar traffic flows over the last eighty years;
  • how much social consistency they are inclined to accept across a typical world, given that it has developed with global communications;
  • how much convincing and of what kind would be necessary to get these values close enough to “about as much as you need for Flat Black to work” that willing acceptance of genre conventions will cover the rest, and un-ironic play be possible?

In short, are people having trouble accepting that planets in Flat Black will deviate from a mainstream human culture that is basically WEIRD? Or are they having trouble accepting that they have in most cases a global culture that shares deviations from the WEIRD? In other words, is the problem that planets have hats, or is the problem that each wears only one hat? What could I do to ameliorate that trouble, in either case? I’d like people to discuss these issues (and I’d like to be able to resist the temptation to justify features of Flat Black while they were doing it).

The first of these seems to be a question of taste. There is a litcrit phrase for what science fiction offers: “cognitive estrangement.” It’s something that I like, and something that many of my campaigns have offered, and my players often seem to enjoy it. But it’s a taste not everyone has. This is kind of like trying to produce food with the right amount of spiciness when your guests include spice wimps like me; extreme spice wimps like my friend here in Lawrence who took one sip of my favorite ginger beer and set it aside as too strong; and spice addicts like the acquaintance years ago who sat down to curry, liberally added cayenne to it, and pronounced it delicious.

For the second, my feeling is that you want at least two treatments of each culture. You want the elevator pitch, which you can hand to players when they’re decided where their characters are from, and then you want the longer writeup for each single culture that you hand to the player who’s chosen to play someone from that culture. It helps, with the latter, if as much as possible is tied to things that will actually be useful in character creation; if, for example, you provide descriptions of martial arts styles, or Paths and Books, or the like. But players who aren’t going to play a character from that culture won’t be interested in reading about it in that much detail and shouldn’t have to.

You might consider the trick from Mage: The Ascension, where each of the Nine Traditions has a little list of the other Traditions and what that particular Tradition thinks about them.

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You are quite right. Players who want to enjoy planetary adventure in Flat Black will suspend disbelief more willingly and extrapolate detail more happily than players who either are helping me out with commentary as a pure favour, or have mistaken it for something different that they want and think I have executed it badly.

Too long experience in critical academic environments has given me a habit of trying to answer every objection. In matters of taste that is often a mistake. A ginger beer wimp cannot be argued into liking a Madras curry, even if it is a very good Madras curry…

For the second, my feeling is that you want at least two treatments of each culture. You want the elevator pitch, which you can hand to players when they’re decided where their characters are from, and then you want the longer writeup for each single culture that you hand to the player who’s chosen to play someone from that culture.

The Introduction that I have just finalised includes thumbnail sketches of about 150 words of each of twenty worlds. Are those about the sort of thing that you think are wanted as elevator pitches? I suppose that I could churn out a hundred or so of them without too much difficulty, but at that point they would need careful indexing to be useful at all, and I can’t help thinking that most would never be used.

I am about to start work (“real soon, now”) on a compendium of Forty Exotic Worlds for Flat Black (or maybe Forty Exotic Worlds for SF RPG Adventure), in which my plan is a two-page spread for each colony described, consisting of a column of uniform data and 1,000–1,100 words of running text. Is that about what you had in mind for the longer write-ups? I’ve had some success at about that sort of length, but my experience is that anything much longer than that is counter-productive. People who will read a two-page brief often won’t read the first two pages of a ten-page one.

I think of those two-page briefs as being what I will circulate among the players when the party is about to go to a world they don’t know. Flat Black has run successfully for ages with players being a bit vague about where their characters come from.

I’d agree with whswhs’ point on cognitive estrangement, though I see it from a slightly different angle: as a reader of mysteries as well as SF, I’m used to approaching a story as a puzzle as well as as a story, and I think that’s true of many experienced SF readers. Perhaps as a reaction against excessive infodumping, many books now start by throwing the reader into an ongoing situation largely without explanation.

There are several things that support the specific FB style of adventure.

  • This planet is different from what we’re used to.
  • The briefing says this planet works like X, but it seems in practice to be working like Y.

which combine to make “we need to work out where we should apply the small amount of pressure we have available in order to achieve our objective”. But these are not completely correlated: you can have a very odd culture that’s just as it appears, or you can have something very like what we know now except for the socially accepted cannibalism.

It’s an SF convention that planets have cultures. One could make a difficulty-of-travel argument: it’s harder for me to move from High Wycombe to go and live in Wichita than it would be ditto Wolverhampton, therefore fewer people do it (in either direction). Mass media gives you trappings (within my lifetime in the UK trick-or-treating has become a thing that happens, “Santa Claus” has become more commonly used than “Father Christmas”, and recently “Black Friday sales” have turned up even in non-international shops) – but not necessarily cultural specifics (approximately nobody observes Thanksgiving).

Speaking for myself, I would expect greater and lesser levels of divergence based on the strength of the local culture. I would also expect rebellion across generations; if that didn’t show up in some form I’d be looking for a reason. With a planet-sized population I’d expect subcultures, or again a reason for not having them.

As I understand FB – and of course I may be misunderstanding – one of the things you do is ask players to engage with the worlds as puzzles. This means that you can’t get away with superficial cultures; they need to be able to find the levers and see how they work, so those levers need to exist. As with FTL physics, society doesn’t need to be understandable by our current models; but it does need to behave consistently once you have enough information about it.

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Well, in Tapestry, most of my elevator pitch versions were under 100 words. You could probably get away with 150; it’s still the same order of magnitude. Here for example is what I have for one race (since I did two stages: choose one of seven races and then choose one of three to nine cultures):

Nixies are common in the following regions:

Dumetum Furtum: A region inhabited by relatively small villages of nixies, with little organization above the village level; at various times in the past, city-states have arisen and dominated the hinterland, but never succeeded in uniting it, or lasted more than two or three generations. Marriage is often endogamous, and marriage to a sibling’s child, or to a half-sibling, is considered acceptable. Behavior is usually peaceful, but theft, fraud, and trickery are tolerated, and a clever rogue is likely to be admired, so long as his schemes are directed at nixies from other families, and even better from other villages. However, sporadic episodes of violence from individuals or entire communities occur.

Fauces Adamantum: A mixed settlement of nixies and dwarves, attracted to river sands where diamonds can often be panned. The population is higher than the local fields can support, and food is imported and expensive. Legal rules are complex, combining nixie law aboveground and on the river, dwarven law underground, and a superstructure for reconciling the two. The culture is individualistic and self-assertive, encouraging readiness to fight for one’s rights, open displays of wealth, and frequent lawsuits. Nixie women have fully equal rights to nixie men.

Regio Oryzae: A rice-growing region of heavy rainfall and many swamps, where travel is largely by sampans and reed rafts. Property passes from men to their sisters’ sons, marriage is unimportant, and bastardy is not a stigma; women elders have significant power, and mothers have the power to cast out their children from a family. Heads of wealthy families negotiate with land and water spirits on behalf of their villages or even of wider areas, especially in the lowlands.

Urbes Septemplex: One of the most highly advanced civilizations in the world, made up of several large cities located on major rivers. Populations number many tens of thousands and usually include immigrants of other races. These are supported by intensive agriculture on highly fertile river soils. There are specialized craftsmen, currency metals, and writing; scribes both keep legal records and often have magical skills. Marriage is usually monogamous, and polygamy requires the consent of the first wife; women usually have lower standing than men, but it’s possible for them to own property, pursue trades, or hold positions of authority.

As for the second, I didn’t try that length of writeup for Tapestry; I gave my players the quick sketches and let them make up stuff about their cultures. In the past I’ve given out much longer handouts, but they weren’t just cultural; they were basically “this is how you create a character in this world/setting.”

Abstractly, if a unified colony was in near-real-time communication with all of it’s colonists since founding, a uniform culture is plausible. If it is fragmented, regressed, or spread out beyond fast communications capability I would start to expect more regional variation.

This being Flat Back, I’d also expect a few planets with cultures fragmented by weird Sci Fi concepts or real life weird historical examples.

I’d also like to address upstream comments about variations within a culture (old vs young, class, religion, etc.) and say these are of course expected in a culture, so they should probably be there unless you want to make their absence conspicuous.

Finally, from a purely Doylist perspective, I think it works almost as well for adventures if the folks over on the Isla de Las Gatas seem just as much crazy inexplicable exotics as the folks over on La Planeta de Los Perros.

I’m never afraid to ask a stupid question, but is The planet of the hats a reference to a specific place, or just a filler for a monoculture planet?

Also, what came first, the hats or the constant rain? Because I could certainly understand a culture that had a defining characteristic based on a unique environment.

The first occurrence seems to be in response to the Star Trek (original series) episode A Piece of the Action – everybody on this planet is a gangster, and they wear hats distinctive to their gangs. So the hats aren’t really the important bit, it’s the planetary-scale monoculture.

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I think the term goes back to a criticism levelled against the episode “A Piece of the Action” in the original series of Star Trek, in which the world-building was especially feeble. There is an article about the term on TVtropes, which treats it as though the criticism were against the lack of cultural variation. But my recollection from before TVtropes is that we used it in the old days more of a criticism of worlds that had a quirk instead of a culture.

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Yep, absolutely. I think that some degree of variation in social behaviour between the young and the old, between the rich and the poor, between the torrid zones and the poles, between harbour cities and inland grazing stations, between fully-able people and the variously disabled, and just locally ought to be assumed unless its absence is noted. So should the existence of a small number of people who willingly or helplessly disconform to the mainstream and suffer the consequences.

I make it a habit to say “seldom” when I mean “never” and “usually” when I mean “always”, but it would be tedious and useless to note the existence of variations within each culture without conveying any information about what they are, whereas on the other hand the details, unless unusual and striking in their particulars, are not worth the space or even the writer’s and the readers’ time in an RPG setting document.