D&D General Jargon Revisited: Why Jargon is Often Bad for Discussing RPGs

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So long as the terms are undefined, people can continue on, happy in the oblivious notion that they agree. It is only when someone makes the tragic error of defining a term that the people realize that they were only in agreement because they were talking about different things the entire time.

I recently wrote a post about "High Trust" within TTRPGs (hereafter, just RPGs) and what that means. And in the ensuing conversation, a topic came up that I often touch upon, and thought it would be worthwhile, like a Brideshead, to revisit. Specifically, why jargon can be so detrimental to conversations on EnWorld.

A. Why Jargon Can Be Both Bad and Good.
You know what makes a good loser? Practice.

A discussion about jargon- which I've discussed before so I'm largely quoting myself.

Jargon (or any kind of specialized language... you can put in Thieves' Cant if you want) is both helpful and unhelpful. If you think of any specialized field- medicine, law, banking, computer science, and so on, it will have jargon. Jargon can serve a very useful purpose- it can allow people with a shared interest in something technical or specialized to describe something quickly without having to use regular language each time and "re-invent" the wheel. At its best, jargon is a linguistic shortcut used by people with a shared interest in order to discuss a subject more easily. For example, if you are a professional in many fields, it would be almost impossible to talk about most topics without using jargon; lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, economists ... they all have specialized terms that allow them to more precisely and easily discuss topics with other people that are familiar with the terms that they are using.

Of course, there are other instances of jargon as well, outside of technical fields. Think about almost any area- when there is a shared group, there is often a shared vocabulary. This gets down to the smallest groups- I am sure that all of us have friend groups, and in those groups we have verbal shortcuts from shared events or people we have known! If everyone remembers that terrible night in Toledo, then it would be normal for someone in the group to say, "We don't want another Toledo" and for everyone to nod in agreement. (I am sure that someone is getting ready to start typing, Shakra, when the walls fell.)

The trouble with jargon, however, is that while it can help in-groups communicate more effectively, it is also incredibly off-putting to other people; in fact, it is can be considered both a feature and a bug. If you've ever spoken to a professional (a doctor, a lawyer, a banker) who can't be bothered to explain things and "dumb it down" for a "mere layman" or dealt with a close group of friends that talks entirely in "in-jokes" and doesn't explain them, you understand what this means. When you have invented terms, people will use them as a weapon to exclude others- "Oh, you don't understand that slander and libel are different? Well, obviously you just don't get it." In a very real sense, while jargon can make some communication easier, it also functions as gatekeeping- as a way of excluding others from an in-group. To make it obvious in D&D terms, only thieves know Thieves' Cant. And if you don't know what "another Toledo" means, well, you're just not part of the inner circle, are you?

Given that the people on EnWorld are not using agreed-upon academic terms, but are using terms invented by hobbyists for other hobbyists, many disagreements about RPG theory and playing styles are just arguments over what jargon is being used. "Oh, that's not a railroad. That's player agency!" Or, "That's not skilled play, because other types of play have skill." Or "My game has a strong story component, so it's Story Now, right?" Or "Your game doesn't have an accurate depiction of the economic effect of adventurers spending a dragon's hoard, so how can you call it simulationism?" And so on.

As you probably notice, this problem is most acute because most jargon is borrowing and appropriating from actual language for slightly different purposes; to use less-loaded examples, a lot of people get confused by legal terms like "actual malice" (which has nothing to do with malice) or medical terms (like then the doctor says your test result is positive, and the patient replies, "Positive, that's great!").

So to go back to the main point- yes, jargon does have its place, but people who are used to the jargon often do not realize that it can be incredibly off-putting. As a general rule, when people are saying that they don't want to engage in the jargon, that's not an attack on everything you hold dear- it means that they usually can't get an entry point to the conversation because the terms are obfuscating what is being discussed. At that point, you can either argue about using jargon, or try and explain the concepts.

B. Why Jargon in RPGs Often Leads to More Arguments
You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.

One of the main issues with jargon in conversations about RPGs is that, unlike the jargon used in specialized technical fields such as law, medicine, and economics, almost all of the jargon people deploy in discussions about RPG theory and discussing different playing styles was created in criticism. In order to understand this, it helps to realize that the criticism, and the various cycles of play (and playing styles) that are represented are not a bad thing- in fact, they represent healthy growth in the hobby, and necessary change. But because most jargon is intertwined with criticism ... the desire to elevate one style of play/game, and to denigrate another (to critique it), those terms will necessarily, even if inadvertently, be loaded. To illustrate this, I will use the recent example of a term I just used and explained.

"High trust," is a term that originated in the early 2000s and the OSR movement (and is also used quite a bit by the FKR movement) within the hobby. It was originally a term that was used as a reaction to 3e- in other words, OSR gamers wanted to demarcate their games as requiring "high trust." Which, by itself, is a fine thing! People can name things as they want, and I think that the OSR and FKR movements have added valuable things to the hobby. However, looked at another way, when you define one set of games as "high trust," you are necessarily defining the thing you are critiquing as "low trust." So if you're a fan of 3e, you probably don't want to be in a conversation with someone who keeps saying that your game is "low trust," simply because they have defined their terms in that way.

Or think of how we call the playing style in OD&D "skilled play." While I think that it is a perfectly good term to use for that particular style of play, it doesn't mean that other styles of play are unskilled.

For that matter, if someone is using "player agency" to discuss games in which players have authorial control over the fiction, then that might be a great term used for those games; but it will sound demeaning and insulting to insist that players at other games lack "player agency."

In other words, because a lot of jargon is used by certain in-groups to describe their own preferred playing styles and games, which were almost always born out of a criticism to a then-dominant form of gaming, the use of that jargon to describe other games and playing styles will necessarily be considered pejorative. Because, by definition, these terms were originally used to critique other styles and to elevate one preference.

C. The Texas Two Step; Conflating Natural Language And Jargon
Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.

A further problem with jargon is that jargon usually employs terms that people commonly understand in a specific and specialized context. To use the "actual malice" example above, this is a specialized term in defamation that no longer has anything to do with, um, maliciousness (spite, ill will). Instead, it is a term that means that in certain cases, you must prove knowing or reckless disregard of the falsity of the statement.

This problem of conflation of jargon with natural language occurs repeatedly in conversations here, because there are all hobbyist-created terms. And because of this conflation, one of the recurring issues I see is what I call the "Texas Two Step." Let's use "simulation" as an example.

"Simulation" was first widely used in the threefold model (GDS) and later adopted for the GNS model. While it has various definitions, I'll just crib the one from wikipedia which is close enough for our purposes-
Simulation is concerned with the internal consistency of events that unfold in the game world, and ensuring that they are only caused by in-game factors - that is, eliminating metagame concerns (such as drama and game). Simulation is not necessarily concerned with simulating reality; it could be a simulation of any fictional world, cosmology or scenario, according to its own rules.

Notice that this term is jargon. It has a specified technical meaning that arose in the context of RPGs, and it was about playing goals. It was trying to set it off against the "G" and "D" components.

The trouble is that while this is jargon, it also has specific connotations that people are familiar with in the real world. For example, when someone says that a pilot has 1,000 hours in a Boeing 737 simulator, a person who hears that assumes that the machine is designed to simulate the reality of flying a Boeing 737- not just some fictional world or fictional genre. In common parlance, simulations usually reflect our reality, and the closer that they completely reflect reality, they more accurate they are as a simulation. So this is where the Texas Two Step comes in, over and over and over again.

Zeno: I like playing that RPG because I like Lord of the Rings.

Achilles: Well, we all know that is a simulationist RPG. You like simulations! (Using the JARGON that someone is playing the game as a simulation of the LoTR genre).

Zeno: Um, sure. I like the way the game immerses me in the feeling of Middle Earth, and the fiction of Tolkien.

Achilles: HA! How dare you say that? Don't you know that game doesn't accurately simulate the economics of Middle Earth? For that matter, how can a world exist on the same technology for thousands of years? Heck, I don't even think that Tolkien understood plate tectonics and didn't accurately model how the mountains in his world formed!!!! It's not a simulation! (Using the COMMON VERNACULAR of simulation).

Unfortunately, this happens repeatedly- people that deliberately conflate jargon with the more widely-understood meaning in order to berate people for differing preferences. It's the Texas Two Step- first, get people to use jargon, then use the non-jargon meaning to criticize them, and then go back to defending the jargon. Rinse, repeat. Once you see this pattern happen, you will see it happen over and over and over again, with all sorts of terms.

D. Conclusion- Jargon isn't Bad, But How People Use it Can Be
Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.

Jargon can be good and helpful. It allows people with a shared interest to more quickly communicate concepts. Moreover, within this hobby, a lot of jargon has been invented in order to critique playing styles and games and create (or re-invent) other styles; in that sense, it serves a necessary and useful purpose. Without jargon, we would not have seen the rise of narrative indie games as a reaction to Vampire and 2e. Without jargon, we would not have seen the rise of 3e in response to 2e (and the rise of OSR in response to 3e, and the rise of FKR in response to 5e). Heck, without jargon, we would not have seen the debates about the hobby play out the 1970s- many of which are the same debates that continue to play out today. What, you thought illusionism was a new debate? :)

That said, we should always be particularly mindful of our use of jargon. Personally, I think the following is helpful:

1. Does the jargon have a clear definition that people generally agree upon?
2. Is the jargon being used to exclude people from the conversation (gatekeep)?
3. Do people take the time to explain the jargon to those who are new to the conversation?
4. Is the jargon being used to describe a game or playing style, or is it being used to attack someone else's preferred game or playing style?
5. Is the person using the jargon conflating the technical definition and the common meaning of the term (the Texas Two Step).

I thought that it would be helpful to post some of these collected thoughts. Hope that you find it helpful as well, and, as always, feel free to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments!

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Hostile use of jargon seems like a symptom of a larger problem. In a sense, academic jargon would make this worse because it would lend an air of legitimacy to the problematic behavior. Some people are jerks and are intolerant of different approaches to play or types of games. I don’t think this is limited to RPGs either. People can be really crappy towards each other in other forms of gaming.

I think a good rule is to enjoy what you enjoy, but don’t assume it involvrs fundamental practices or encompasses all possibly play. If someone does something different, that’s fine. Maybe they have some good ideas you can borrow or use, but they may also be doing things you don’t want. That doesn’t mean their game is bad for doing them or yours is bad for not including them.
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Player agency isn't being used as a term to demean any playstyle or to promote a particular game type or anything like that. It's being used to promote clarity and accuracy regarding whose agency is actually involved when playing a game: i.e., the player. It's an attempt to de-jargon the discussion. 🤷‍♂️

Expecting nerds to even broadly agree on made up jargon is too high a bar. We can’t even agree on what an RPG is.
I don't disagree with either the position or the truth of your example. However, I don't know that the former follows from the latter. There are plenty of fields (broad ones like 'art' and 'music,' or specific ones like 'anime' or 'acid jazz') where the precise definition of the thing being studied or the specific boundaries are not well defined, but aspects within them can be concrete enough to merit jargon-like terms.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't disagree with either the position or the truth of your example. However, I don't know that the former follows from the latter. There are plenty of fields (broad ones like 'art' and 'music,' or specific ones like 'anime' or 'acid jazz') where the precise definition of the thing being studied or the specific boundaries are not well defined, but aspects within them can be concrete enough to merit jargon-like terms.

I'm not sure that genre (acid jazz, anime) is a great example of of jargon given the slightly different issues involved in that.


Isn’t the problem here “pseudo-jargon”? In professional fields, jargon is precisely defined. Local variations are discussed and resolved early in discussions, and professionals recognize sub-field specific practices as a professional requirement.

I think with table-top RPGs we haven't yet defined a set of terms which properly are a jargon. We aspire to having a jargon, but aren’t there yet. One or a few persons inventing a vocabulary, while useful, is only just that, a private vocabulary. Only when the field accepts precise definitions for the terms, as a group activity, does the private vocabulary become a true jargon.



I don't believe in the no-win scenario
I find the biggest issue with discussion these days is position over interests. Everything is a line in the sand, a fight to be absolutely right, while at least one person is absolutely wrong. Folks have lost the ability to set aside their need to be absolutely correct for the sake of a discussion. Jargon is just a victim of this.

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