Language: The Game Mechanic You Don’t See

My favourite line in all literature comes from a poem of dubious source written in 1720, as a reply to an anonymous poem called the Tom O’Bedlam verse, which was once described as the greatest anonymous lyric in the English language. The reply is called Mad Maudlin’s Search and the line is:

My staff has murdered giants.


And I like it because it shows so perfectly the difference between writing and conveying information. And in one economical sentence, in just five words, we learn an enormous amount of information – information that is hidden on the surface but buried deep in the power of language.

Consider, first of all, the phrase “my staff”. Consider how what is not said is “I have a staff” or “a staff I own”. My staff tells us more than that. The staff is mine. That means other staffs exist. Also, I do not possess other staffs, or if I do, none of them rise to the level of significance to dominate my identity. There is one staff I call my own, and it is different from the staffs of others. They may have one or more staffs, but this is MY staff. We can infer, even, that others have staffs of their own, that are part of their identity.

There’s more. There’s the choice of the word “murdered”. Not killed, not slaughtered, not assassinated. Murdered is a brutal word and it also suggests both sin and criminal activity. The killing here is likely a crime and certainly not a good act. So now we know that killing giants is illegal and immoral. At least if done in a certain way. And I have done it multiple times in the past.

There’s still more: there’s personification and metonymy. My staff has murdered. Poetically, this suggests I did the murder with my staff, but we cannot be sure of this. In a world with magic, did the staff do the murder unassisted? Did it contribute in some fashion? Or am I passing the buck? Or is there a history my staff and I do not share? Did someone in the past use my staff to murder giants, someone who is not me? There are so many questions. And here’s the point, none of these questions arrive if the sentence is written like this:

I possess a staff with which I have killed giants.


What’s the point? The point is often in game design we think language doesn’t matter, but it couldn’t matter more. Gary Gygax’s approach to sentences like this was to turn them into possessive mechanics. To create a place on a character sheet to list possessions and to create a mechanic of powered possessions that are more likely to kill giants. His solution was “Possessions: 1 Staff +1 (+3 against giants)”. That is a statement tells us a lot about things, too (giants exist, they need killing, people create weapons to help with this, my character has a reason to own such a thing). But it’s very different information than is created if, in say a game using Fate I create the Aspect “My staff has murdered giants”. It’s different from a game where you roll a backstory for you or your weapon and get “Killed a giant” and “Committed a crime” and decide to conflate the two. And even if you end up at the same place, the language is still reflective of hidden truths. You might forget the metonymy. You might not think that someone is coming to avenge or punish those murders. And you might not think to shout the phrase as a warning, because you forgot to give it cadence. “My staff has murdered giants” has cadence which suggests it is a battle cry or a threat. No matter how much information you put in, the poetry has power no information can provide. And to most people, this is invisible but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, effecting how you think, in very powerful ways.

This is why it matters a lot whether you call your stat Charisma or Comeliness, or, if you have both at once, which suggests something completely different. In English the idea of true synonyms, of meanings that are exactly the same is extremely rare, if not non-existent. Words mean slightly different things, and acquire different meanings through structuralist/post-structuralist identification. Strength means something different from Muscles, or from Power. And if I see the words Strength/Dexterity/Constitution in close proximity, I cannot help but think of Dungeons and Dragons, and that will effect how I play the game.

It happens in board games as well. There’s been some interesting discussion of the use of Slave cards in Bruno Cathala’s new game Five Tribes. Some suggest the word is unacceptable in the US and other places, where the legacy of slavery still cuts deep. Others believe it belongs because it suggests the realities of the Islamic empire and the 1001 Nights fiction the game evinces. Meanwhile a game like Puerto Rico uses “Colonists” to refer to workers filling the fields of Spanish-settled Caribbean islands – a less invective word, or a white washing of history? But there’s another, deeper question, and it has to do with how we read those words mentally, as opposed to culturally or politically. Do we think of slaves as more disposable than colonists? I believe we do and that means we will change how we use such mechanics. We will throw away our Slave cards with more abandon than we would our Colonist tokens (or even our Camels, because camels are cute). Even if the game makes Slave cards very valuable through numerical mechanics, language mechanics cannot be removed. They are still and always in play.

This is important to me because it’s important to how I design games. When writing about vampires for Warhammer, in any part of the text, whether discussing rules, setting or talking to the gamer directly, I used grandiloquent language, preferring French and Latin structures, all designed to suggest the undeniable attraction of the upper class and the finely-crafted. When writing about Skaven I chose harsh anglo-saxon words and words dripping with sharp vowels and harsh consonants, words soaked in onomatopoeia and dripping with imagery, so as to invoke the horror and disgust the skaven create. For the cold folk of Kislev, I used harsh, guttural language, clipped sounds of people with no time to talk. It’s a small thing but it matters. I have been rewarded recently, after running my Warhammer LARP again, with, during debriefing, people not explaining their character’s secrets but reading my text aloud, because the cadence and poetry used created a sense of setting and drama and character more than just true facts.

But boasting aside, it matters to game design so very much. As Robin Laws so rightly said “fluff ain’t so fluffy”, and this is one big reason why. Every word in the rulebook (and every number and every piece of art, and how they are laid out and presented) is telling you how to think about the game, how to learn it and how to play it. That’s not to say that designers should fuss over every single semi-colon, but they must be aware of language, especially when it comes to principle mechanics and how your players make identities, choose strategies and interact with the game space. A Slave card and a Colonist card will be treated differently. Adding Comeliness to your stat line shifts you into a game world where appearance is a vital social currency, and changing it to Appearance suggests a much wider variety in that currency than Comeliness does (Comeliness values beauty, standard attractiveness, the word Appearance implies a value on stern appearances, or frightening ones, or inspiring ones, or forceful ones).

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot (a metaphor that is suggestive of violence and soldiers and war fatigue and World War 1) by ignoring language, because your players surely will not.


2 thoughts on “Language: The Game Mechanic You Don’t See

  1. Good stuff, Steve. Excellent overview of the topic and handy reminders! And I think I’ll be very careful the next time I walk past someone carrying a staff, and perhaps even more careful if I see a staff out on a walk by itself. 🙂

  2. ’m willing to admit though, that I notice this more than other people. It’s one big reason why I can’t enjoy BioWare games: if the button says “I’m alive” but then your character says “I’m not dead”, first of all it’s bad game design (pushing forward should make me go forward, not sashay vaguely in the direction of north) but more importantly, the vast difference between those two phrasings is extremely jarring. But obviously this doesn’t bug some people; they don’t even notice. Non logophiles. FREAKS.

    Not sure why this posted twice. Deleting the duplicate.

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