Allied Trickery: The Outsider
When we look at the people that populate a RPG world, we often think of them as part of the cultural context our characters are a part of. Aspects of tradition, community standards, practices and policies that make society work. Such behavior is how we usually judge new people we meet and if they are known to us or if they are an “other.” But the real world, especially for travelers, explorers, and adventures, often brings groups of people together who don’t share the same default states, and conflict, although unintentional, occurs on a regular basis. The Outsider is one of these others, and their approach to the players may put them off at first, because understanding cultural boundaries and pushing past them isn’t something a player may initially be willing to do.
The NPC Outsider has a great potential within a game setting. They offer a chance to break the mental shortcuts players will use with NPCs. Whether it’s the treatment of diplomatic customs, respect for religious or political iconography, or just normal manners, the chance to experience the world through another viewpoint is the heart of role-playing, and the Outsider reinforces that dialogue. Barriers such as language, upbringing, and class standing provide means for cultural impact on a game while presenting a Gamemasters the chance to expand the depth of the reality they’ve helped introduce to players.
Outsiders exist in all RPG genres as every world should feature a complex set of cultures and communities. Breathing life into these allies comes in the form of changing the norms players may be used to and twisting them on their head. In Fantasy, this may be the Druid who has come to aid your party, but their creed is one of respecting the natural order of life and so healing spells are not part of their preparations. In Science Fiction, aliens and artificial life forms may appear human but possess different biologies or forms of interaction. In contemporary fiction, the choices are myriad as the number of cultures part of our real world. The key is to not treat them as stereotypes but instead fleshed out individuals.
Remember though, cultural missteps are a two-way street. While an outsider may not fit in or understand the culture of the players, it is easy for the players to act incorrectly within the Outsider’s world view. Offense, breach of social contract, or damage to honor can turn an outsider against a party, especially if the party has been failing to be considerate of both cultural touch stones.