Recontriving The Ring
  • Recontriving The Ring



    Honestly, sometimes my game design looks like it's not really design at all. It's more a remix of classic ingredients; an RPG compilation album of greatest hits. On a mechanical level, you can see the lineage though on a surface level, you might need to squint a bit. For me, game mechanics are defined just as much by the terms and phrases you associate with them as the ways they interpret dice. It's similar with setting. Some fantasy worlds haven't even tried to hide the marks from when they filed the serial numbers off. Others are deliberately innovative, occasionally for it's own sake. Reinterpreting, re-codifying and even revivifying are all well used tools in the designer's box of tricks.

    What's in a name? Take Dungeon Master. No please, take it, I don't want it anymore! It's been a term that's wyrmed it's way into pop culture, and it's brought some baggage with it. Not all games feature Dungeons, and the word Master comes with unwanted connotations. Early RPGs quickly dumped it as the default term (TSRs approach to litigation helped). Nowadays if there is a household name for the person that runs the game it's Gamemaster, or GM for short.

    Other games have spun off into even stranger realms of nomenclature. Call of Cthulhu has the Keeper of Arcane Lore. Nobilis? The Hollyhock God. Others are more prosaic, like Traveller, with its Referee, or World of Darkness with the Storyteller. The term tells us something about the expectations. The MC in Apocalypse World implies a very different style to that of the Game Control from Spycraft. It's a similar tale with almost other every piece of game jargon, whether rules or colour. As a Brit, my Armour Class always came with a U, and my Defence with a C. These things matter, because they're literally the language of the game.

    My game changes an awful lot of common terminology. It's far from being the first to do so, won't be the last. My term for GM is the 'King of Dungeons'. It's a mouthful, not particularly intuitive, and it even runs the risk of being divisive. I'm going with it anyway because it puts my stamp on the game. Some changes are minimal, with warriors instead of fighters, and priests over clerics. Nothing world shattering, but why shouldn't I indulge myself? Other changes are just to be efficient. I find the word 'foe' to be easy to type, easy to understand, and more effective in the text than 'target' or 'enemy combatant'. Some words I just like to reconfigure because it helps define my world. I have 'guilds' who undertake 'charters', whereas other games would have 'parties' in 'scenarios'. My spells are arranged by 'circle', and 'race' long ago became 'culture'.

    In the film Arrival, we encounter the Sapir-Whorf theory which states that language doesn't just give people a way to express their thoughts; it influences or even determines them. I want to see if that happens in my game.

    Check out Baz's previous columns about game design: Everyone Else Is Doing It and Hack or Heartbreaker.
    Comments 34 Comments
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      Words inevitably carry baggage with them. I too was always a little bothered by "Dungeon Master", not just because of its narrow scope or implied level of control over the group, but also because it flat-out sounds like a term to describe the villain of a fantasy campaign. It basically says "I am playing your opposition. I am the antagonist."

      However, the very fact that other games choose varied titles for the equivalent role, combined with D&D's market dominance, means that no single other title ever really gained prominence, though I do tend to default to "Game Master" as the default generic term.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      When you are using a different meaning, using a different word is clearer, shed the baggage. But the reverse is also true - intentionally obscuring common industry terms not only loses that familiarity and written shortcut, but can tend to be confusing. It's like Blades in the Dark using "action ratings" instead of "skills".

      I understand words are evocative; when reusing common mechanics with different terms the trade-off of clarity for a nifty turn-of-phrase.
    1. Banesfinger -
      I personally like 'words' and their historical definitions in rpgs. What I dislike are games that take all those common terms and invent new words for them. It is like learning a new language and makes the rules obtuse for no good reason. New words for things like Hit Points, Feats, Skills, Attributes, etc - yet the definition remains exactly the same.

      As an example (purposely exaggerated to make my point):
      "Participants must invest in a Foibles event, with secondary Inheritance also supplimenting the event."
      or (in common tongue)
      "Players must roll an attribute check, adding all Feats or Skills that apply."
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      There is definitely truth to the idea that the language affects the game style and the overall "feel" of the game. As mentioned above, language even affects the way people think, rather than just the way they express their thoughts. And any game you play for more than a session or two, you'll learn its language pretty quick.
    1. Dioltach's Avatar
      Dioltach -
      I tried to train my players to start calling me "God", but we defaulted back to "DM".
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dioltach View Post
      I tried to train my players to start calling me "God", but we defaulted back to "DM".
      My problem was the other way around.
    1. RangerWickett's Avatar
      RangerWickett -
      I love language, so anything that makes me reconsider casual old phrases is handy.

      If I may suggest a small change in format, on the front page I had no idea who'd written this and what it was about. The title and image alone weren't enough. Even after reading the piece, I don't know why it was titled "recontriving the ring."
    1. Kenny Mahan's Avatar
      Kenny Mahan -
      I defaulted to Game Master for basically all games a long time ago, there came a point that remembering the GM designation for each game was difficult.
    1. Baz Stevens's Avatar
      Baz Stevens -
      Recontriving the ring = reinventing the wheel.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      When you avoid the common terms, you do three things:
      1) You appear pretentious
      2) You increase learning time for your design
      3) You obfuscate the meanings.

      It's a fool's errand to do so - it removes a part of the audience you seek, and pisses off many who might otherwise look at your game.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by aramis erak View Post
      When you avoid the common terms, you do three things:
      1) You appear pretentious
      2) You increase learning time for your design
      3) You obfuscate the meanings.

      It's a fool's errand to do so - it removes a part of the audience you seek, and pisses off many who might otherwise look at your game.
      Blimey.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Quote Originally Posted by aramis erak View Post
      When you avoid the common terms, you do three things:
      1) You appear pretentious
      2) You increase learning time for your design
      3) You obfuscate the meanings.

      It's a fool's errand to do so - it removes a part of the audience you seek, and pisses off many who might otherwise look at your game.
      I have never had this problem. We shouldn't have all games use DnD lingo, just because it was first. I admit, I usually default to GM, but am not turned away by other terms. I am starting to adopt GMC (Game Master Character), instead of NPC. Robin Laws stated on podcast that things should not be defined by a negative. This stuck with me, and I am using his term instead.

      Never seen a game so riddled with wacky new terms that it doesn't make sense. Handled correctly, it's fun, and as Morris stated, flavourful.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Plus, of course, you create new things. Pretentious though that activity apparently is, it is fundamental to the creative arts. Otherwise weíll all be still playing whatever it is cavemen played.




      Sent from my iPhone using EN World
    1. Dioltach's Avatar
      Dioltach -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Otherwise we’ll all be still playing whatever it is cavemen played.
      I can just imagine a group of cavemen sitting round arguing about the amount of damage you take from a granite rock as opposed to a piece of flint, or from a Thagomizer.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Plus, of course, you create new things. Pretentious though that activity apparently is, it is fundamental to the creative arts. Otherwise we’ll all be still playing whatever it is cavemen played.




      Sent from my iPhone using EN World
      It's pretentious because often "using new terms" is code for "the game not agreeing with my personal sense of morality, history, mythology or other things that only I am privy to." These people further become pretentious because they don't have any handy-dandy lingo guide to get the rest of us pleebs up to speed with them and instead sigh in a frustrated "I'm disappointed in you child." manner when all the folks who don't know their specific lingo revert back to the "common" wordings. These folks often come with at least one friend who always chuckles and chortles that the noobs don't get their inside lingo but of course has no desire to educate either.

      Frankly, this sort of "changing words for the sake of changing words" rather than educating why we're using the words we're using and explaining and understanding the baggage that comes with them is not limiting to gaming. I've experienced it in schools, in educated circles, in the workplace and really, it's just dumb.

      I agree completely with @aramis erak that changing the words serves no purpose except outside of when those words are actually negative or derogatory.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      It's pretentious because often "using new terms" is code for "the game not agreeing with my personal sense of morality, history, mythology or other things that only I am privy to." These people further become pretentious because they don't have any handy-dandy lingo guide to get the rest of us pleebs up to speed with them and instead sigh in a frustrated "I'm disappointed in you child." manner when all the folks who don't know their specific lingo revert back to the "common" wordings. These folks often come with at least one friend who always chuckles and chortles that the noobs don't get their inside lingo but of course has no desire to educate either.

      Frankly, this sort of "changing words for the sake of changing words" rather than educating why we're using the words we're using and explaining and understanding the baggage that comes with them is not limiting to gaming. I've experienced it in schools, in educated circles, in the workplace and really, it's just dumb.

      I agree completely with @aramis erak that changing the words serves no purpose except outside of when those words are actually negative or derogatory.
      You and I have very different viewpoints on the inherent beauty of creative use of language. Iím not good at it myself, but I can appreciate a wordsmith. If thatís pretentious, then Iím pretentious.

      An identikit world like the one you describe is one Iíd find very drab.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      You and I have very different viewpoints on the inherent beauty of creative use of language. Iím not good at it myself, but I can appreciate a wordsmith. If thatís pretentious, then Iím pretentious.

      An identikit world like the one you describe is one Iíd find very drab.
      There's something in writing called "purple prose" which is writing that is needlessly elaborate or ornate. It may seem dull to say "it's a blue dress" but it's accurate. Rulebooks exist for the sake of accuracy, it's one reason I find Exalted fun to read but less fun to play. It's one reason I'm a strong supporter of 4E over more "prosey" rules.

      There's an important difference between using words in an evocative sense such as "The Pegasus soared high overhead, his wings glittering like crystal in the noonday sun." And using words in an explanation sense "The pegasus is a winged horse." The latter may be dull to read, but it's clear (provided you know what a horse is and what wings are).

      There is issue in exchanging words like "race" for "culture". Race can seem loaded, especially in human-centric settings. Replacing it with "culture" makes it worse, not better, even in human-centric cultures because any ethnicity may be raised in any culture. Race at least applies to both physical appearance and set of customs, depending on the context. If we're talking simply about the physical and we're looking for a less-loaded word, then the operative word is "species" for a multi-humanoid setting and probably "ethnicity" for a single-humanoid one. Now we can address customs and culture separately and decide if our human was raised like an elf, our elf raised like a drow, or our dwarf raised like orcs. Sub-species or "offshoot" or "variant" for what are traditionally "sub-races" are acceptable replacements because they are clear in what they are. We are presented with "an elf" and then shown several different types aka: variants of elves.

      Another word change I take issue with above was the choice to use "game master character". For starters, it's not common nomenclature and that will immediately cause confusion, indeed taking the words alone my initial thought it more of "DM PC" or "Gandalf". A quasi-quest-giving NPC who travels with the party, is regularly run by the DM, but is clearly set apart from the rest of the crew. It's confusing and doesn't add anything of particular value to the system plus it creates ambiguity on what you call a character run by a player who is not a full-blown character (such as a minion, hireling or summon). Are those now player characters? They're still something totally different from what people conceptualize as a "player character" but they're not game-master characters either.

      EDIT: some more issues:

      For example, the article claims there are problems with the term "Dungeon Master", but identifies the only problem as "not all games involve dungeons". Well, okay, but then it goes on to state that there are "unwanted connotations" with the term Master. But fails to specify what they are. Are we talking about slavery? Are we talking about BDSM? The Dom may be the "master" of the "dungeon" but sure isn't a "Dungeon Master". But then the article goes on to say the situation was resolved with the term "Game Master". Wait what? I thought there were problems with the term "master"? Okay, we've opened up the term to all games, but what have we substantially gained? Not all D&D games include dungeons either...or dragons for that matter! If there were problems with both words, we've only resolved 50% of the problems.

      Further down, the article points out that his British books include variant spelling on words, but does that affect anything other than the fact that the book was printed in Britain? No. I, an American, spell certain words the British way, for no other reason than thats what I'm used to but it doesn't fundamentally change anything. I doubt the British would be in much of an uproar if it was spelled the American way, or vice-versus.

      In the very next paragraph, the author has decided to change "DM/GM" to "King of Dungeons", which he denotes is needlessly verbose, more difficult to understand, and not very inclusive for no other reason than he's in charge and that's what he wants it to be. Literally NOTHING has been gained by him being creative, in fact his game has been reduced for it. As it is in almost every single game where I have experienced such needless word-games. The Author's further word changes add additional complexity and confusion. "Foe" is clear...as long as your target is an enemy. With the elimination of "target" what now do we call allies or neturals? How does one use a healing spell when it says "effects foe"? It may be shorter, but that shortness has caused a loss in clarity. Which is only consistent in that it's what "he wants to do because he wants to do it", otherwise his reasoning is completly contrary to his statement only a few lines above, where he made something simple and something clear "Game Master" into something confusing and obtuse.

      Indeed I could go on. It is one thing to be creative. It is another to be needlessly obscure or arcane for no reason other than "Its my game and I'm going to do it my way!" Those are not the arguments of creativity. Those are arguments of petulance.

      There are times when word change is good: when there are words that are derogatory, offensive, crude or otherwise disrespectful when a perfectly neutral word would suffice. But when word change leads to additional ambiguity it is not a positive change for a rule set.

      Being creative with the language is fine, but rules are designed for clarity and understanding and therefore brevity and accuracy are paramount. Let the players get creative with how they swing their sword, how they carry their bow and what manner of dress they wear. There's no need to muddy the waters of a ruleset with unnecessary prose and ambiguity. If players need examples of how to get creative, provide some "sample characters" in an index. But so far, I haven't seen a word change exampled in this thread demonstrate any necessity beyond "The guy running the game likes this better."
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      It's pretentious because often "using new terms" is code for "the game not agreeing with my personal sense of morality, history, mythology or other things that only I am privy to." These people further become pretentious because they don't have any handy-dandy lingo guide to get the rest of us pleebs up to speed with them and instead sigh in a frustrated "I'm disappointed in you child." manner when all the folks who don't know their specific lingo revert back to the "common" wordings. These folks often come with at least one friend who always chuckles and chortles that the noobs don't get their inside lingo but of course has no desire to educate either.

      Frankly, this sort of "changing words for the sake of changing words" rather than educating why we're using the words we're using and explaining and understanding the baggage that comes with them is not limiting to gaming. I've experienced it in schools, in educated circles, in the workplace and really, it's just dumb.

      I agree completely with @aramis erak that changing the words serves no purpose except outside of when those words are actually negative or derogatory.
      Which words are the right ones?
      Frankly, I have serious doubts about your example of a group of players refusing to explain things. I have never read an rpg rule set with the attitude you are espousing. Can you give an example of a game that does this?
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      There's something in writing called "purple prose" which is writing that is needlessly elaborate or ornate. It may seem dull to say "it's a blue dress" but it's accurate. Rulebooks exist for the sake of accuracy, it's one reason I find Exalted fun to read but less fun to play. It's one reason I'm a strong supporter of 4E over more "prosey" rules.

      There's an important difference between using words in an evocative sense such as "The Pegasus soared high overhead, his wings glittering like crystal in the noonday sun." And using words in an explanation sense "The pegasus is a winged horse." The latter may be dull to read, but it's clear (provided you know what a horse is and what wings are).

      There is issue in exchanging words like "race" for "culture". Race can seem loaded, especially in human-centric settings. Replacing it with "culture" makes it worse, not better, even in human-centric cultures because any ethnicity may be raised in any culture. Race at least applies to both physical appearance and set of customs, depending on the context. If we're talking simply about the physical and we're looking for a less-loaded word, then the operative word is "species" for a multi-humanoid setting and probably "ethnicity" for a single-humanoid one. Now we can address customs and culture separately and decide if our human was raised like an elf, our elf raised like a drow, or our dwarf raised like orcs. Sub-species or "offshoot" or "variant" for what are traditionally "sub-races" are acceptable replacements because they are clear in what they are. We are presented with "an elf" and then shown several different types aka: variants of elves.

      Another word change I take issue with above was the choice to use "game master character". For starters, it's not common nomenclature and that will immediately cause confusion, indeed taking the words alone my initial thought it more of "DM PC" or "Gandalf". A quasi-quest-giving NPC who travels with the party, is regularly run by the DM, but is clearly set apart from the rest of the crew. It's confusing and doesn't add anything of particular value to the system plus it creates ambiguity on what you call a character run by a player who is not a full-blown character (such as a minion, hireling or summon). Are those now player characters? They're still something totally different from what people conceptualize as a "player character" but they're not game-master characters either.

      There are times when word change is good: when there are words that are derogatory, offensive, crude or otherwise disrespectful when a perfectly neutral word would suffice. But when word change leads to additional ambiguity it is not a positive change for a rule set.

      Being creative with the language is fine, but rules are designed for clarity and understanding and therefore brevity and accuracy are paramount. Let the players get creative with how they swing their sword, how they carry their bow and what manner of dress they wear. There's no need to muddy the waters of a ruleset with unnecessary prose and ambiguity. If players need examples of how to get creative, provide some "sample characters" in an index. But so far, I haven't seen a word change exampled in this thread demonstrate any necessity beyond "The guy running the game likes this better."
      But youíre using words right now which werenít used in the past. Why did your first sentence contain the words ďelaborateĒ and ďornateĒ when simpler alternatives exist?

      What you describe sounds stilted and dull. But, hey, you think my preference is pretentious. Not sure which is worse!

      Luckily, the world accommodates different preferences. I donít have to live in your clinical world, and you donít have to live in my pretentious one.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      Which words are the right ones?
      The most commonly used and historically accurate ones. What kind of question is this?

      Frankly, I have serious doubts about your example of a group of players refusing to explain things. I have never read an rpg rule set with the attitude you are espousing. Can you give an example of a game that does this?
      It was my personal experience with two different DMs. I don't know about a ruleset which is needlessly obscure other than the OP author's own.
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