I re-watched the first Starship Troopers movie over the weekend, and parts of it got me to thinking. Now, you can say what you want about the movie in general. It definitely isn't up to snuff with the book, but it is still a fun - and in my opinion decent - movie. A lot of the 'world' for the movie is explained to you in conversation. The difference between a citizen and a civilian, how you become a citizen, how that system came to be, but the movie also does a lot of world building with the little touches. One scene, referenced in the title of this post, involves a group shower with men and women alike showering together. This is very telling of the world. It says that the perceived gender gap is gone, and all things that goes with that gap, are no longer present - or at least as present - in that world. Think about that for a second, and how the scene shows you that. Alright, got that thought? Now, let's look at your campaign world.
Little Things Say A Lot
It goes without saying that the world for most RPGs isn't the normal world. If it isn't just blatantly the case - as often works with science fiction and high fantasy games - than there is something else different. Vampires walk the earth, magic works, humanity has decided steam is the end-all for technology. The point is, there is a lot different about the world from what the players know, and that needs to be communicated. Now, the super big important details - like, here there be Dragons - should probably be flat out told. However, you don't want to overlook the ability for small things to give big details for cultural differences.
For example, in Rokugan there really isn't such a thing as a locked door for the most part. Anyone can pretty much walk up and into anyone's home. Sure, if the owner is important he may have a guard posted, but ultimately getting into someone's home is as easy as opening the front door and walking in. About the only places you would find locked boxes, would be merchants - and other dishonorable types - safes for storing their cash. Why? Because Rokugan is an honor based society. It is unthinkable that someone would come in and disrespect you so much as to steal from you. A thief who made it out the door would also never be reported, as to be robbed is a sign of weakness. However, if that same thief got caught inside the house, well, they'd likely never be seen again.
Why This Works
The reason small things can say so much is because of how people work. Think about some of your basic habits. This may be hard, after all, these are things so small that you probably don't even realize that you're doing them. This is true for almost everyone. We take for granted our cultural norms, and when they are broken we aren't quite sure how to react. In feudal Japan, it was taken for granted that the general of a losing army would kill himself rather than suffer the shame of defeat. Westerners found this to be horribly barbaric, but on the other hand, many Japanese thought that the Westerners were honorless dogs because we didn't commit suicide to erase the shame of defeat. Granted, this is generalizing, but that works for the purpose of explanation.
So, think of some of the basic things you take for granted, or that could be taken for granted in this society in your world. If it is common practice to lock your doors when you leave, than likely there is little trust for ones neighbors in that society. If door locks are a rare and uncommon thing, than it is likely a more trusting society. It's not a coincidence that as Americans became more isolated from their communities that we started locking our front door more. Nor is it coincidence that a similar trend happened as people started moving into cities.
Casual Can = Small
In much the same way as small touches can bring across differences, so can casually mentioning and brushing over details. A child working in a factory is horrific, but if no one thinks much of it than we know that it is common place. The same is true with slavery. It can also work for more positive things. A society where everyone joins up with the military at age 18 out of patriotic pride, or where it is just expected - and garners odd looks when someone doesn't - that you give up chairs for people older than you. These are all things that can be significant, and give a lot of information about your world just through casual, small, little things.
The PCs can do this too, especially if they know the world. In an L5R game I was GMing for, one of the players lost his katana in a dead body. In Rokugan it is taboo to touch dead flesh, so he had an eta (lowest class of person) retrieve and clean his sword. In reward for this service, the PC promptly killed the eta. The other PCs were horrified at the brutality, until I explained that it was the right thing for the PC to do. The eta had touched his katana, an offense worth dying for. That he had been ordered to do so, and had still done it without complaint, and then stood there for his punishment spoke well to the Eta's soul, and that thanks to the PC, the Eta may be reincarnated as a higher class of person. Perhaps a prostitute, or even as high as a farmer. The point is though, that one action did more to communicate the brutality and - from a western view point - messed up honorbound way that Rokugan works than almost anything else I could do as a GM.
Have you done this before? As a PC or a GM? What small/casual things have you used to communicate large differences between the real world and the game world? Sound off in the comments.