RPGs as languages

Started by pawsplay, January 23, 2012, 06:55:23 AM

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I'm hashing out some ideas for my latest gaming projects, and while doing so, I've had some intriguing thoughts pop into my head. A lot of the really successful genre-specific RPGs use really evocative names for things, whereas the really successful universal/cross-genre games tend to use fairly nondescript names. For instance, FantasyCraft is laden with ability names like "War, by other means," and White Wolf games often appropriate vintage or obscure terms that evoke a worldview as much as a definition, like Arete. GURPS names things like Fragile (Unliving) and Hero System has Combat Skill Levels. When you play a generic game, one of the challenges is to translate those generic terms into something evocative. So, Offensive Strike becomes Roundhouse Kick-- even if sometimes it's really a lunging punch. Why is this important? Words are associated not only with imagery but with meaning, and the right choice of words allows us to borrow meaning from other media, from real life, and from context. That's why it works so well when the "animals and monsters" section of Deadlands is labelled Critters and why every version of the Star Wars RPG has Force Points.

I think of it in relation to the board game Clue. Clue has very straightforward play. Apart from some basic strategies, it's mostly about people-reading, luck, and opportunity costs. I think the real reason the game has such enduring popularity is that you get to say, "It was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the lead pipe!" Not only is this delightfully evocative, but it instantly invokes, through a kind of minimalist poetry, every formulaic whodunnit you've ever read or seen. You basically play Clue until these magical incanations lose their power from being too well-worn, and then you stop playing, at least for a time. But in an RPG, you are not limited to trite but forceful accusations of guilt. RPGs themselves, especially ones that play with genre, refer linguistically to fictional media. Games that purport realism or realisticalism or whatever use language that relates directly to the tangible and believable.

So anyway, that's my excuse for naming an ability God of War, even though that could mean just about anything.


I like where you're coming from. The rules should support the story. The narrative and it's tone and themes come first. By giving players their vocabulary (they're Critters, not Animals) you can reinforce the themes of your game, and help build a more cohesive experience.

If I may ask, what does the "God of War" ability do? The name brings to mind a certain videogame franchise.


Hi People,

I think this is a double-edged blade. I think if you want to carry someone to the land of RPG, you have to make 'em believe two things: that this land could exist and that they can understand and make (at least changes in) it. So names like Force Points are useful only if the real life play function is also totally instinctive. I mean if a rookie meets Force Points, you rather tell him/her if they have anything in relation to Jedi or using force or just modifying some otherwise not-so-favorable result in the story. I think we need both atmosphere and clarity. At the very same time. What do you say?

I think I had this language-y experience with English measurement in D&D (I am from the Continent with meters and such, like I am 180 instead of being 6' tall.). I can't think of a time when it really inspired me like "Oohh, pounds, finally. Yeah!". (I can imagine this but it never happened.)  I played the editions 3.x and up, which are rather tactics heavy, and I was never inspired by the difficulty of understanding pounds or feet--I just accepted it as another rule to play with, an extra difficulty, an extra challenge, this time in mental arithmetic.
My real name is Peter.


Well, I don't think pounds were chosen in D&D for flavor. Believe it or not, Americans still use their own measurement system. Sometimes, in parallel with metric.

Ron Edwards


Please get some actual play discussion - specific to a real event - into the topic, and it'll be all set for continuing. It should be pretty easy to do.

Best, Ron