Roughly speaking, a taboo is a cultural prohibition. Modern societies have a ton of taboos. They range from prohibitions on cannibalism, slavery, and incest to prohibitions on eating meat, using certain words, and engaging in arguably harmless sexual activities. Some taboos have a religious origin, but it isn’t necessary.
When you want to present a different culture in an RPG (whether it is a wholly alien one, one which you want players to perceive as despicable, or something that you want to be merely foreign and flavorful1) playing with that culture’s taboos is one way of achieving your goals. An easy way of doing this is to pick one taboo that either the PCs’ or players’ culture has and violate it and then to institute a new taboo in the culture (probably unrelated) that neither the PCs’ or players’ culture has.
Here are a few examples:
- You want to create a somewhat alien group of humanoid non-humans – close enough to relate to humans, but different enough to be clearly alien. Maybe they are Lizardfolk in a D&D game… or Star Trek style human-like aliens in a SF game. Let’s say that these folk don’t have an incest or pedophilia taboo. In fact, mothers breed with their own sons (who sexually mature more quickly than females) as a matter of course. (We can then come up with some seriously strange-to-us family structures.) In terms of giving them a new taboo, let’s give them a series of taboos surrounding names and social interactions: they don’t refer to certain familial relations by name; in social situations, they won’t look at an individual’s hands unless that person has told them their name, and there is a taboo against covering your face with your hands (it is considered revolting as well as a grave insult). Toss in cosmetic and biological differences, fill in some cultural gaps, and you’re good to go.
- You want something really alien? OK. Let’s remove all taboos about food. Food consumption for this culture has no social relevance – eating is a culturally transparent activity. Cannibalism isn’t a taboo. Eating while talking isn’t impolite. If two members of this culture were walking down the street having an intimate conversation, and happened to walk by a festering corpse (of anything), one of them could take a bite out of it and the other wouldn’t notice (they might physically see it, but it wouldn’t register as relevant). The flip side of this is that there are no ‘formal’ meals – eating is totally irrelevant to social situations. Now, let’s add in a bunch of taboos about, say, music. Music is important, but certain rhythyms (including when used in speech, footsteps, or anything else) are considered anathema – and are usually responded to by swiftly killing the offending rhythym-maker. Other sorts of music are only appropriate during certain social situations – and dictate socially-appropriate responses. When certain sorts of music are playing, there is a taboo against refusing a request; when other sorts of music are playing, there is a taboo against referring to one’s own future plans in any way, and so on.
- How about something not alien, but morally repugnant? We have taboos against treating guests badly. Let’s get rid of them for an example culture – these people consider guests to be those who have come begging to them for shelter – as see a hierarchical power structure there. Placing yourself under someone else’s power – for us – can often be seen as developing a relationship based on trust. In this culture, it is never done except as a last resort, except by the ignorant or very foolish. (“Hosts” might also extend the stay (and dependency) of their “guests” via things such as food poisoning, drugs, or outright imprisonment.) Let’s add in a related taboo against asking for help and another (less related) taboo against, say, showing sentimentality to those considered your equals. If you want to go for crude shock value (I’m not advocating this), you can also remove some taboos about, say, bodily functions.
1 Can I use the word “flavorful” in a post referencing cannibalism?