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Is RPGing a *literary* endeavour?

hawkeyefan

Explorer
I would call that a literary description. You are certainly using several words that would almost never appear in conversation - "gaunt" "rictus", "scans about" "wields". I mean, "rictus", as far as I an tell, doesn't even appear in the top 10000 of most common English words. Nor does "gaunt". These are quite obviously words that would only appear in writing (or close enough to only that it can see only on a clear day). Which, to me, qualifies it as an attempt at "literary" rather than conversation.
So rarity of word use makes something literary? I don’t agree with that at all.

The description isn’t a bad one by any means. Again, this goes back to “non-literary does not equal bland”. All it attempts to do is describe the creature to the players.

What about the elevator example that you snipped? What did you think of that?

If the description itself contained attempts at creativity or art, then I think that’s what would be an attempt at literary quality.

To put it another way, let’s say two kids ride their skateboard to the store, a few blocks from where they live. One kid simply rides there, avoiding hazards and navigating the streets and sidewalks and all the obstacles. Still takes skill, right?

The other kid makes the same trip but includes a bunch of tricks along the way....he ollies from the curb over a pothole and railgrinds along the back of a bench and does a bunch of kickflips and so on.

Both kids make the same trip, both trips still require skill, but one is straightforward....the destination is all that matters. For the other, how the destination is reached is just as or probably more important than the destination.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
The description alters interest in many, if not most people. I've seen a lot of people who will ignore a staff on the ground, fewer who will ignore description #2, and very, very few who will ignore one described with #3 or 4.
I’d expect that to be so, bit I don’t think that really has to do with the literary merit of the description. It’s more about the length of the description and the meta aspect of it. “Oh the DM wouldn’t focus on the staff so much if it wasn’t important.”
 

Imaro

Adventurer
[MENTION=6785785]hawkeyefan[/MENTION]... can you just give an example of what you feel would be literary?? I'm not certain your and [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] 's idea of literary line up since he claimed I seemed to understand it and my understanding was non-conversational, evocative description.
 
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Maxperson

Orcus on an on Day
I’d expect that to be so, bit I don’t think that really has to do with the literary merit of the description. It’s more about the length of the description and the meta aspect of it. “Oh the DM wouldn’t focus on the staff so much if it wasn’t important.”
It's not about the length or the meta. It's about the language. The meta COULD come into play, but if it does, it's in addition to the interest generated by the language.

Here.

Description #1. There's a long, thick, hard, round, six foot, brown wooden staff on the ground.

Description #2. There's an intricately carved feywood staff on the ground.

#1 is both accurate and longer than #2, but #2 will capture more interest.
 

Hussar

Legend
So rarity of word use makes something literary? I don’t agree with that at all.

The description isn’t a bad one by any means. Again, this goes back to “non-literary does not equal bland”. All it attempts to do is describe the creature to the players.

What about the elevator example that you snipped? What did you think of that?

If the description itself contained attempts at creativity or art, then I think that’s what would be an attempt at literary quality.

To put it another way, let’s say two kids ride their skateboard to the store, a few blocks from where they live. One kid simply rides there, avoiding hazards and navigating the streets and sidewalks and all the obstacles. Still takes skill, right?

The other kid makes the same trip but includes a bunch of tricks along the way....he ollies from the curb over a pothole and railgrinds along the back of a bench and does a bunch of kickflips and so on.

Both kids make the same trip, both trips still require skill, but one is straightforward....the destination is all that matters. For the other, how the destination is reached is just as or probably more important than the destination.
Actually, if you don't mind, I'm going to stick with the Githyanki example because it hits pretty much exactly the point I'm trying to make.

Remember, the basic point is we're comparing "literary" (for a given value of literary) to conversation . Which, that allows for a more objective comparison because we know, or at least have a pretty good idea, of what is considered conversational English and what isn't. While it might not be up to New Yorker standards, your Githyanki example is very much outside the realm of conversational English.

By and large, about 95% (or a bit more actually) of conversational English is made up of about 5000 words. ((It's actually closer to about 98%)) To give a good comparison, the New York Times generally hits about 93% of the first 2000 words and about 99% of the first 5000. So, if your sentence contains words outside of those first 5000, you are already outside the realm of conversation.

Now, here's the quote again:

“The creature you see is humanoid, taller than the average human, and gaunt. It has leathery yellow skin, sunken eyes, and a rictus grin. Its armor is of a style you’ve never seen before. It wields a great silver sword that shines even in the near darkness. The creature scans about for signs of enemies. It does not appear to have noticed you, but it soon may. What do you do?”
That's, by my count, 72 words. Of those 72 words, 6 do not appear in the first 5000 word list (COCA Corpus), "humanoid, gaunt, leathery (although leather does, so, you might count that one), sunken, rictus, wield). So, 10% of your words would almost never appear in any normal conversation. That places you at a higher complexity than the New York times. Also, your choice of words - wield, gaunt, scans for signs - are all geared towards evoking specific responses from the audience. This isn't conversation English. We use words like "wield" in fantasy novels. It's telling that you say "scans for signs" not "looks".

This is a perfect example of how RPGing is not conversational and stripping the higher language out of the descriptions would result in a flat, boring experience. "The human shaped person, taller than average, is thin. It has rough, yellow skin and bags under its eyes and a scary smile. It's armor is of a style you've never seen before. I has a great silver sword that is shiny in the low light. It looks around for enemies. It does not look like it has noticed you but, it might soon. What do you do?"

That's a lot less evocative than your first paragraph, but, is far closer to conversational English.
 

Bedrockgames

Villager
I don’t know, if my GM uttered the words ‘Rictus grin’, I think someone might punch him in the mouth. I get that you want those kinds of description. Personally I find that kind of affected style very off putting in a live game
 

Hussar

Legend
I don’t know, if my GM uttered the words ‘Rictus grin’, I think someone might punch him in the mouth. I get that you want those kinds of description. Personally I find that kind of affected style very off putting in a live game
But, by the same token BRG, would you be surprised to see such a description in a module? Would it be terribly unusual? And, would you not at least agree that using a word like "rictus grin" is more evocative than "scary smile"?

Look, I get that you don't want a lot of "flowery" language in your games, but, I imagine that if I were to actually tape your sessions, you would find a lot more non-conversational level language during the session than you might think.
 

Bedrockgames

Villager
But, by the same token BRG, would you be surprised to see such a description in a module? Would it be terribly unusual?
I wouldn't be surprised to see it in boxed text. I don't think it is as useful to GMs or as suited to the medium as a lot of people believe it is, and there are plenty of modules that avoid this kind of language. But yes, it is certainly the kind of thing that crops up in modules (particularly mainstream modules)

And, would you not at least agree that using a word like "rictus grin" is more evocative than "scary smile"?
No I wouldn't and I will explain why. What passes for evocative in a novel is different from what passes for evocative in conversation. Yes you can be evocative in conversational English, but trying to ape a narrator's voice is probably one of the worst ways to be evocative in conversation. They are different mediums. Novels work well for that kind of description but in conversation, if you talk that way, it just sounds silly and artificial. Some groups do talk in this way. And like I said, some GM's can pull of sounding like Vincent Price, but I think by and large you are better off speaking in your natural voice, with your natural vocabulary.


Look, I get that you don't want a lot of "flowery" language in your games, but, I imagine that if I were to actually tape your sessions, you would find a lot more non-conversational level language during the session than you might think.
Well, I don't know. Gamers tend to have a pretty good vocabulary. And my group is from Boston so we talk a certain kind of way here. But at the end of the day, even if evocative language crops up naturally in the conversation, I'd argue there is a big difference between this style and the one you and Maxperson appear to be advocating (which is pretty much modeling GM talk after boxed text). I generally talk in a style that is not affected. I speak modern, Boston colloquial English when I am GMing. I will say things like "This guy is ugly as hell". And over the years I've gotten more comfortable talking this way in play. But again, I am a gamer, and I am from Boston, so higher level vocabulary works its way in. That doesn't mean I am trying to emulate literature. It just means my natural way of talking includes certain words. But if you analyzed my narration, I am pretty sure it wouldn't come off as literary in terms of structure, word selection, efficiency, etc. I am not sculpting words the way an author does.
 

Bedrockgames

Villager
Description #1. There's a long, thick, hard, round, six foot, brown wooden staff on the ground.

Description #2. There's an intricately carved feywood staff on the ground.

#1 is both accurate and longer than #2, but #2 will capture more interest.
But that is totally dependent on the player. I keep seeing you assert 'description x is more y'. I know from experience, and from trying to talk in the style of #2 to my players, many players are less interested in 2 than they are in 1. Some players are a little more analytical and they want the kind of details you have in 1 (and they don't particularly care how well crafted your description is of the feywood). Others want something with a lot of flavor. Description 1 arguably contains more useful information. Not saying it is better or worse. But that is at least one reason it might capture the interest of some players more than description 2.
 

Hussar

Legend
I would argue that it's "many players that I play with" than "players".

And, frankly, taking you at your word, that you use nothing but bog standard colloquial English, unadorned, sounds really sad and boring. I'd much rather just play a board game if we're not going to actually make any effort to inject any attempt to use anything other than every day language. I'm sure it works for you, and that's groovy, but, I'm going to say that it would not work for me or mine, nor would you be able to sell any RPG's using that language.

I mean, good grief, Gygaxian is actually looked on as a good thing. :D The 1e DMG is still held up as the epitome of RPG writing. And that's as far from conversational English as you can get.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
@hawkeyefan... can you just give an example of what you feel would be literary?? I'm not certain your and @pemerton 's idea of literary line up since he claimed I seemed to understand it and my understanding was non-conversational, evocative description.
I’m sure mine and [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]’s ideas don’t exactly match, no. But that’s fine. I don’t entirely agree with his premise, but I understand it, and I think he has a point. But I’m only speaking for myself.

I think I’ve given examples at this point. I don’t think describing something is enough....I think that the way its described has to matter. Focus on the how more than the what.

So a description that lists the physical traits of a creature (even a fantastical creature that necessitates some level of fantastic description) isn’t, to me, what’s being cited. Some attempt for the description itself to have meaning of some sort beyond the description. Use if metaphor or symbolism and the like...other literary devices being used or established through the narration.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
It's not about the length or the meta. It's about the language. The meta COULD come into play, but if it does, it's in addition to the interest generated by the language.

Here.

Description #1. There's a long, thick, hard, round, six foot, brown wooden staff on the ground.

Description #2. There's an intricately carved feywood staff on the ground.

#1 is both accurate and longer than #2, but #2 will capture more interest.
I honestly don’t see a meaningful difference between the two. Is it “intricately carved” that’s the difference? Or “feywood”? I suppose that could be a bit more meaningful because it’s some kind of fantastic material that hints at some kind of setting element, or at least seems to.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
Actually, if you don't mind, I'm going to stick with the Githyanki example because it hits pretty much exactly the point I'm trying to make.

Remember, the basic point is we're comparing "literary" (for a given value of literary) to conversation . Which, that allows for a more objective comparison because we know, or at least have a pretty good idea, of what is considered conversational English and what isn't. While it might not be up to New Yorker standards, your Githyanki example is very much outside the realm of conversational English.

By and large, about 95% (or a bit more actually) of conversational English is made up of about 5000 words. ((It's actually closer to about 98%)) To give a good comparison, the New York Times generally hits about 93% of the first 2000 words and about 99% of the first 5000. So, if your sentence contains words outside of those first 5000, you are already outside the realm of conversation.

Now, here's the quote again:



That's, by my count, 72 words. Of those 72 words, 6 do not appear in the first 5000 word list (COCA Corpus), "humanoid, gaunt, leathery (although leather does, so, you might count that one), sunken, rictus, wield). So, 10% of your words would almost never appear in any normal conversation. That places you at a higher complexity than the New York times. Also, your choice of words - wield, gaunt, scans for signs - are all geared towards evoking specific responses from the audience. This isn't conversation English. We use words like "wield" in fantasy novels. It's telling that you say "scans for signs" not "looks".

This is a perfect example of how RPGing is not conversational and stripping the higher language out of the descriptions would result in a flat, boring experience. "The human shaped person, taller than average, is thin. It has rough, yellow skin and bags under its eyes and a scary smile. It's armor is of a style you've never seen before. I has a great silver sword that is shiny in the low light. It looks around for enemies. It does not look like it has noticed you but, it might soon. What do you do?"

That's a lot less evocative than your first paragraph, but, is far closer to conversational English.
Again, I don’t think how common a word may be really matters. A few uncommon words to describe something totally alien and you consider that a concerted attempt at craft? I just don’t see it.

I do think the game is a conversation...what else would it be? Is it a speech? A recitation? A soliloquy?

No. It’s a conversation. But it’s not a conversation about everyday things. Most games contain some kind of fantastic element or at the very least some very far from ordinary elements. So the conversation will reflect that. I mean, we’re talking about a thing called a githyanki.

My description of the githyanki is not devoid of flavor. I’ll go back to the point about there being a range of quality, and that something that’s not of high literary quality isn’t just poop in a bag. But the description is far from an attempt at an artistic endeavor. A couple of adjectives don’t really cut it. That description took no more thought than the time it took me to type it, or that it would have taken to say it.

But I’m beginning to see why we’re all having a hard time coming to a consensus....it’s because we actually seem to have one, it’s just that what I see as pretty basic communication, you’re viewing as carefully wrought wordplay.
 
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Yeah, what a freaking waste of time. You're not even trying to hide that you are no longer arguing in good faith.
Hussar, I feel the shoe is on the other foot.

Why won't you engage with the fact that you disagree with me? Go back to your example of the dwarf, or of the Scarred Land Monster. Why do you think that entertaining descriptions are an important part of RPGing?

EDIT: And here is more evidence of disagreement:

And, frankly, taking you at your word, that you use nothing but bog standard colloquial English, unadorned, sounds really sad and boring. I'd much rather just play a board game if we're not going to actually make any effort to inject any attempt to use anything other than every day language.
Here you assert exactly what the OP denies. So instead of quibbling over the way the OP is framed, why don't you elaborate on this.

I'll give you my response: I've sat in game that involved English other than "bog standard colloquial . . . every day language". And they sucked, because (i) I could get better versions of such by reading LotrR or REH Conan or Stan's Soapbox in an old Marvel Comic, and (ii) the actual thing I'd come there to do - play a character in a RPG - wasn't happening because the GM's situations sucked.

You appear to prioritise things differntly. Please say more about that.
 
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Maxperson

Orcus on an on Day
But that is totally dependent on the player. I keep seeing you assert 'description x is more y'. I know from experience, and from trying to talk in the style of #2 to my players, many players are less interested in 2 than they are in 1. Some players are a little more analytical and they want the kind of details you have in 1 (and they don't particularly care how well crafted your description is of the feywood). Others want something with a lot of flavor. Description 1 arguably contains more useful information. Not saying it is better or worse. But that is at least one reason it might capture the interest of some players more than description 2.
I'm not talking in absolutes. However, in 35+ years of gaming with more than 100 different people, I can't remember anyone who would rather hear, "There's a long, thick, hard, round, six foot, brown wooden staff on the ground." than "There's an intricately carved feywood staff on the ground." I imagine you aren't the only one, but I'm pretty confident that you are in a small minority of people if you prefer #1 over #1, especially since #2 is conversational English. Other than feywood, which would be a setting specific wood, there's nothing there that isn't conversational.
 

Maxperson

Orcus on an on Day
I do think the game is a conversation...what else would it be? Is it a speech? A recitation? A soliloquy?

No. It’s a conversation. But it’s not a conversation about everyday things. Most games contain some kind of fantastic element or at the very least some very far from ordinary elements. So the conversation will reflect that. I mean, we’re talking about a thing called a githyanki.
Hey, if all it takes to be using conversational English is to use it in a conversation, then even the most high quality literary language used in an RPG counts as conversational.

It's pretty well understood that when people here have been discussing conversational English, they mean using the simple words and not the ones that fall outside of normal, everyday conversation.
 
I’m sure mine and [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]’s ideas don’t exactly match, no. But that’s fine. I don’t entirely agree with his premise, but I understand it, and I think he has a point. But I’m only speaking for myself.
I would tend to think of "rictus grin" as falling on the literary side of things, as does [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION].

As I've posted, it does no harm if it doesn't impede (what I regard as) the real point of play.

It has a face like a skull might do just as well. I personally can't remember how I've described githyanki in the past - I suspect I'm more likely to have shown a picture, such as the one on the front of the Fiend Folio.

More generally, and feeding this into the current [MENTION=23751]Maxperson[/MENTION] - [MENTION=16814]Ovinomancer[/MENTION] interaction, I think that the role of description in RPGing is easily overestimated. It prioritises immersive imagination orver protagonistic inhabitation. Whereas the latter is the distinctive virtue of RPGs as games that are about producing a shared fiction.

All this said, I think you've fully understood my points in this thread, seem to agree at least to some extent, and have made many helpful posts into it for which I thank you.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
Hey, if all it takes to be using conversational English is to use it in a conversation, then even the most high quality literary language used in an RPG counts as conversational.

It's pretty well understood that when people here have been discussing conversational English, they mean using the simple words and not the ones that fall outside of normal, everyday conversation.
The description is conversational. It’s how you’d tell someone about this sight. Yes, it contains a couple of uncommon words....but I was asked how I’d describe a githyanki to new players. An alien being from another dimension. And you think using a handful of words that are uncommon means I’m shooting for the Pulitzer. Gotcha.

You know how I’d describe it to a group of long time players? “You see a githyanki. It’s looking for enemies, but it hasn’t noticed you yet. What do you do?”
 
But I’m beginning to see why we’re all having a hard time coming to a consensus....it’s because we actually seem to have one, it’s just that what I see as pretty basic communication, you’re viewing as carefully wrought wordplay.
I don't agree that there's a consensus: I can't really tell what [MENTION=23751]Maxperson[/MENTION] thinks, but [MENTION=48965]Imaro[/MENTION] and [MENTION=22779]Hussar[/MENTION] have made claims about the need for entertaining/evocative narration that I think clearly contradict the position I asserted in the OP.

But one complicating fact pertains to vocabularly: eg I wouldn't regard cadaverous as a word to describe a Githyanki as especially remarkable or a-conversational, but Hussar probably would, and maybe [MENTION=85555]Bedrockgames[/MENTION] also. What counts as every day vocabularly among a group of RPGers is pretty highly variable and contingent on a range of factors (social background/status, educational levels, occupation, etc). I'm a humanities/social sciene academic (philosophy and law) and many of the people I talk to on a regular basis (ie the people I work with, my students, etc) are lilkewise, or are aspiring to be. So I think my every day vocaublary is probably richer than the New York Times.

This is why I have brought it back to what are we aiming for? What counts as success, as good RPGing? What should a GM focus on?

And I'm saying situation - framing, action, consequence - not beauty or evocation in narration. Whereas those other posters disagree.
 

Hussar

Legend
Again, I don’t think how common a word may be really matters. A few uncommon words to describe something totally alien and you consider that a concerted attempt at craft? I just don’t see it.

I do think the game is a conversation...what else would it be? Is it a speech? A recitation? A soliloquy?

No. It’s a conversation. But it’s not a conversation about everyday things. Most games contain some kind of fantastic element or at the very least some very far from ordinary elements. So the conversation will reflect that. I mean, we’re talking about a thing called a githyanki.

My description of the githyanki is not devoid of flavor. I’ll go back to the point about there being a range of quality, and that something that’s not of high literary quality isn’t just poop in a bag. But the description is far from an attempt at an artistic endeavor. A couple of adjectives don’t really cut it. That description took no more thought than the time it took me to type it, or that it would have taken to say it.

But I’m beginning to see why we’re all having a hard time coming to a consensus....it’s because we actually seem to have one, it’s just that what I see as pretty basic communication, you’re viewing as carefully wrought wordplay.
Not really. If you are using language that is above and beyond every day speech, then it's not really a conversation anymore. Not when you are specifically CHOOSING those words. Sure, Githyanki is a neologism and obviously is outside the realm of standard conversation. But, note, your description doesn't actually use that word. My point is, the words you used are very far outside the realm of standard conversation. And, it's not a "few" words. When 10% of your language is outside that standard 5000 words list, you're actually using a very difficult to understand set of words.

Think about it. If you didn't understand 10% of what someone is saying, would you be able to carry on a coherent conversation? One word in 10? That's REALLY high. Imagine if, when reading the newspaper, you had to stop every tenth word and look it up in a dictionary. That's WAY beyond every day language. Now, I realize that as native speakers, our vocabularies are actually considerably greater than 5000 words. Fair enough. But, it's still a measure of difficulty.

That's why I'd argue that the plain English version of your description of a Githyanki is outside the realm of conversation. It's certainly using language that would virtually never be used in spoken English. Think about it, outside of a gaming situation, when have you ever used the words "gaunt" or "wield" in a spoken situation.

Hussar, I feel the shoe is on the other foot.

Why won't you engage with the fact that you disagree with me? Go back to your example of the dwarf, or of the Scarred Land Monster. Why do you think that entertaining descriptions are an important part of RPGing?

EDIT: And here is more evidence of disagreement:

Here you assert exactly what the OP denies. So instead of quibbling over the way the OP is framed, why don't you elaborate on this.

I'll give you my response: I've sat in game that involved English other than "bog standard colloquial . . . every day language". And they sucked, because (i) I could get better versions of such by reading LotrR or REH Conan or Stan's Soapbox in an old Marvel Comic, and (ii) the actual thing I'd come there to do - play a character in a RPG - wasn't happening because the GM's situations sucked.

You appear to prioritise things differntly. Please say more about that.
I don't disagree with you [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]. I 100% agree with you. Playing an RPG does not require using high art language. SO, nope, not disagreeing.

And, you say it yourself, the reason the game sucked is because the GM's situations sucked. Has NOTHING to do with the language used. Again, EVERYONE 100% agrees with you that content is important. No one is disagreeing with you. The only reason this argument is so ongoing is because you keep obfuscating the issues. Your issue isn't with the language that was being used, but, with the fact that the GM didn't design interesting scenarios.

Again, well, duh. Boring situations=bad game. News at 11!! Holy crap, stop the presses. :erm:

But, that's not your arguement. Your argument is that the game sucked because of the higher language used. But, that's not true. You need BOTH for a good game. Same as has been said all the way since the first freaking page.
 

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