OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


10 tips for roleplaying in foreign countries

Green and red roleplayers

Roleplaying in distant lands has been a part of the simming business for many years; one notable early example is the focus of Twilight 2000 on Poland for a number of their modules, a country that most Westerners could not visit in the 1980s.

I’ve taken my players to other places on Earth in my sims – Cyprus, the Czech Republic and South Africa among others. It’s important to get details right when going, so you don’t get called out by people who know the area… and also avoid inaccurate stereotypes. So here are ten handy tips for playing in foreign countries in your sim. I’ll be focussing on mainland Europe for this post, but these tips are handy wherever you set your sims.

1. Geography and climate

It is important that you have an idea of the geography of the place you’re going to. Is it sandy? Does it have jungle? Are there a lot of mountains that limit the available space for housing and those force people into small accommodation, like Japan? It is a very good idea to know where the major cities are and the connections between them, as well as within them, as metro systems are great locations for espionage scenes (they vary widely in layout and appearance too).

Just as important is climate; knowing how warm or cold a place is so people wear appropriate clothing for the time of year. It can vary considerably – while Russia is known for its cold winters, it also has hot summers.

2. History and politics

You should have an understanding of the background of the country that your sim is set in, especially its more recent history. Which side was it on in the Cold War? Was it occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War? These will affect the worldviews of the people living there and provide some inspiration for their backgrounds. There are some interesting examples out there – the Franco regime in Spain, despite being supportive of the Axis, remained neutral throughout the biggest conflict in European history.

Contemporary politics is important too. If the country is autocratic, people may well be less freer in their conversation than in our democracy – your characters could be secret police for all they know. Also, government structure is important – some monarchies like Oman have powerful heads of state, in others like Sweden they have no power at all.

3. Economy

Rich countries differ considerably from poorer ones, when it comes to things like street cleanliness, maintenance of buildings and technology available to people; although the mobile phone is continuing its rapid global proliferation and becoming increasingly common in Africa. There can also be big differences between rich and poor in some countries – Brazil is a text book example, with Rio running the full gamut from favela to super rich. Also, many African countries have ornate government areas, a hangover from their colonial days.

4. Law and Order

Your characters may well run into local law enforcement during their visit. Police officers vary from respected and professional to feared and corrupt; sometimes within the same police force. You can also have to deal with multiple forces – for example, France has a dedicated force for detective work (Police Nationale) and another one for riot control.

It should also be pointed out that the US and UK systems of trial by jury are largely limited to Commonwealth countries using the “common law” system, where precedent is a key component. Many countries, including most of Europe use “civil law” where the criminal code is primary and utilise trial by multiple judges who can actively ask questions of persons involved; Germany is a significant example here.

Finally, while most countries in the world no longer execute people, some still do and will do so for drug trafficking – someone getting tricked into taking drugs into Thailand can form the basis of an entire plot.

5. Culture, Media and Sport

Most humans watch telly, drink alcohol and have celebrations – however, the way they may do things varies considerably, especially around big festivals like Christmas or Eid. In Denmark, presents are opened on Christmas Eve and alcohol is very expensive.

Regarding alcohol, the Islamic world varies considerably in terms of access to a substance banned in Islam – foreigners will be able to find a bar in many places.

6. About a billion people speak English

Through the widespread influence of Anglophone media e.g. American and British television (often subtitled instead of dubbed), as well as education in the subject from a young age, the majority of people in Europe can speak English to a passable level – it is common for an English traveller to try to speak the local dialect only to be found out through their accent and have the local speak to them in English.

However, locals may well trip up on the complexities of what is one of Earth’s less logical languages – the over (or under) use of the definitive article “the” is a case in point. Russians don’t use “the” at all in the present tense, so “Get in car!” is a realistic thing for them to say – although be careful here.

7. Which means six billion don’t

However, many people did not learn English at all in their early youth and may not be able to speak more than a few words of the language; the possibility for misunderstandings and mutual frustration is real. Many of the early Bond girls were dubbed because their actresses lacked the English skills to do the job or had too strong an accent – as well as the titular character of Goldfinger .

When writing foreign languages, you really should provide a translation for the benefit of an audience; trust your players to avoid meta gaming.

8. Media research helps

If you are setting an adventure in a country for a prolonged period of time, it is a good idea to watch something made and set in that country – to get an overall flavour of the look of the place. Best to get something with subtitles, of course, unless you can handle the language. For those of looking to set something on Denmark, I can highly recommend the original Danish version of The Killing.

9. Names ain’t just for tombstones

If you’re going to have locals turn up, it’s a good idea to give them appropriate local names rather than just “Shopkeeper #2”. The website Behind The Name is very useful for this.

10. Doors and windows

Finally, small little details can really help sell a story. In Sweden, external doors open outwards rather than inwards, which means that you’ll need a crowbar instead of a battering ram to force your way in. While in the former East Germany, the traffic light men wear hats, something that has survived reunification.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Feel free to post your own advice and experiences in the comments box.