Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Unfamiliar Tongue

To those people who design roleplaying games: picking up these things can be hard enough without having to learn an alternate vocabulary for everything.

The Names of Things

Dice, paper, counters, chits, maps... these are all well-recognized physical items, and their names are common knowledge.

But roleplaying games have moving parts that aren't physical; they are about the exchange and interplay and communication of ideas, not just numbers and abstract values. You have attributes, skills, perks, talents, advantages, limitations, disadvantages, complications, and each of them might have base, cost, value, or specializations which have their own costs and values too. For those who don't know these games all that well, they can be hard to pick up because of all the custom vocabulary.

And some take it even farther.

Diegetic Vocabulary

There are two ways vocabulary can swing. The first is diegetic vocabulary, which is that collection of words and names which fit within the game world to describe diegetic concepts. And if you're scratching your head at the new vocabulary I've introduced, I've used the term diegetic before (see the earlier posting High Score!)—it refers to things which the characters within a setting would perceive, or at least could perceive with the right knowledge and equipment.

That last part isn't normally in the definition, but Box Ninja's Solipsist forced the distinction by referencing something that's normally invisible and microscopic—animacules—within its game setting. They're the particles that make up reality. That whole business about electrons, protons, atoms, molecules, table lamps, etc. is just what everyone typically believes in, man. They're the animacules' finest work. Solipsist also elevates (and capitalizes) the Shadows so that the word refers not to the occlusion of light from a source by an interposing object, but to the nebulous and ever-present enemy which the player characters are often tasked with thwarting.

Diegetic Vocabulary En Masse

Some genres come practically preloaded with diegetic vocabulary. They're unfortunate, but they're a necessary to understand because without the new words, you'd have nothing with which to name the unfamiliar concepts.

Fantasy campaigns will have their own words for types of magic like "apportation," "prestidigitation," "evocation," and so on, depending how the magic system runs at least. It may also have unfamiliar names for equally unfamiliar creatures.

The assorted "cyberpunk" settings (Shadowrun, R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk series, etc.) had collections of "decks," "wares," and "mods." They may have more conventional names, but as the usage of something becomes more common, its name invariably becomes shorter to fit common usage.

The more hopeful brother of cyberpunk, transhumanism, tends to have its own suite of unfamiliar concepts and equally unfamiliar (or familiar but used very differently) names too. The notion of "morph," for instance, to refer to the body that you're currently occupying. Most people wouldn't apply that term in that fashion.

Adiegetic Vocabulary

And some games abuse the privilege. Yes, I said "abuse."

Our first exhibit here is the glyphpress's shock. Don't get me wrong, there are elements of this game that are awesome. For instance, the notion of each player's antagonist being portrayed by another player is something I'd like to see in action. And the notion that at any given time, there are two authorities (just a step or so under GM) at the table, one on the "issue" and one on the "shock"...

And we start to see the problem. This game introduces all kinds of words that aren't necessarily part of the game world. There's issue (the ordinary social problem that a protagonist confronts), shock (the science-fiction element that makes the ordinary social problem extraordinary), praxis (a pairing of choices, like "strong/clever" or "commerce/stealing" or "faith/reason" or "seduction/coercion," one of which could be used to try and resolve a problem), fulcrum (the number which has to roll over or under to succeed at the use of a particular praxis), minutiae (world details created by the owner of an issue or shock), etc.

Another game that I love dearly despite its vocabulary is Burning Wheel. The experience system, which doesn't run like any other experience system I've seen, is called Artha. To determine if a skill succeeds, you need to roll a number of dice of a particular shade (a black die succeeds on 4-6, a grey die succeeds on 3-6, and a white die succeeds of 2-6) to get enough passes to beat the obstacle number.

These are all concepts that someone within the game world would never encounter. It's the players that have to work with this custom language: to use it, to know what it means... or to be intimidated by it and scared away from the game.

A Careful Choice of Words

It has to be said about the vocabulary, both diegetic and adiegetic, that what you choose to call something will have some effect on how people perceive it. This was a point I tried to drive home way back when I wrote A Game of Story back in October—I suggested that chess would never have become "the game of kings" if you renamed all the pieces to abstract nonsense syllables. And let's face it, "the game of blorts" just lacks something, y'know?

This... is another level. It's the "story" going far beyond merely casting the "game" in a different light, it's impinging upon it and changing both the game and how people see it differently. And it comes in two levels. The diegetic vocabulary is using special crayons in the coloring book that you can only really appreciate with the 3D glasses. The adiegetic vocabulary is using the crayons on the bare tabletop.

Words... mean... things

Vocabulary in general serves a purpose. Words serve to identify subjects, objects, and actions to other people so they can understand concepts and relationships in the same way that you do.

Words like "cat," "dog," "pork," "shag," and "eat" are simple enough, in theory. In fact, I just quoted four nouns and one verb there. How many did you count? Even among simple concepts, there will be some potential to hear things as they weren't intended, or to misapply them.

The more esoteric a word is, the less likely the listener will understand it as it was intended. The terms for things in specific sciences, hobbies, and activities are likely to get blank stares if they're heard by people outside those endeavors. And RPGs count as a hobby.

Learning the meanings of words also implies some grasp of the concept behind them. The notion of a piece of hardware with which one would connect one's consciousness directly into a computer or network was neatly encapsulated by the "cyberpunk" genre in the term "cyberdeck." With it comes the notion of connecting one's consciousness directly into a computer or network, and the consideration of the complications and complexities therein.

To know the name for something is not a guaranteed route to understanding the whole concept behind it, but you gotta start somewhere.

But is it a bad thing?

Generally, I think so. Otherwise I wouldn't have rambled on for this long.

At least the diegetic vocabulary serves a purpose within the game world. It's something that the people who would (theoretically) live within it would know and use occasionally. Someone learning about a setting well enough to portray a character in a game world has to learn at least some of the lingo of that game world.

But the adiegetic vocabulary? Unless it's intended to express a concept that really can't be expressed with any of the existing gamer language, I have to take issue. I can appreciate that Artha (from Burning Wheel) is originally a Sanskrit word, and that the experience system for Burning Wheel is very different from most other games. And I get that because you either have to roll above or below the fulcrum (from shock) depending which side of the praxis you're using, the term "skill roll" is somehow lacking.

But come on, guys! You're freaking the mundanes! And some of the more experienced players, come to that.


  1. There are some people who say that half the fun is freaking the mundanes. I refer to such people as "jerks" or "trolls." Are those terms diegetic or adiegetic?

  2. That depends, johnprester. In the game world, are they hiding under a bridge in a fantasy game and/or made of animated, grilled, spiced meat?

    And you have to admit, there are some mundanes out there that richly both need and deserve a good hard freaking.