Word Choice in Gaming

Posted: August 9, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games

One of the greatest difficulties when it comes to GMing is maintaining the discipline necessary to keep to the “Show, don’t tell rule.”  It’s easy to fall into the trap of just rattling off the general stuff, without going deeper into the details, and that’s why it becomes necessary to always check if you’re getting lazy.  There’s an easy explanation of why it’s so hard to maintain… as a GM, our imagination is final.  What we see in our mind’s eye is the “Truth” and we don’t often have to detail every single little bit of it for it to make sense.

However, players don’t have the benefit of being able to peek into our minds, and thus require more than just a simple sentence to get their idea of what a given location or person looks like to align with ours.  This is why it becomes important for every GM to pay attention to maintaining the Atmosphere of a campaign.

By atmosphere, we’re not just talking about a detailed description of things, people and places… we’re also talking about the language.  It might not be all that obvious, but a simple shift in language can convey a ton of atmosphere to a given game.  The use of idiomatic expressions and / or slang terms that exist within the framework of the setting is a small, but powerful tool to sustain a player’s suspension of disbelief.  Characters in the Dragon Age setting, for example, tend to swear by The Maker, a little thing that makes it unique to the setting.  Likewise, adapting idiosyncrasies in language will further enforce the reality of your setting.

This focus on word choice doesn’t limit itself to dialogue, however.  The proper tone and word choice in a given campaign can be vital to build up a given mood.  Supers and Pulp games benefit immensely from superlative adjectives, for example.  Choice titles like “The Man of Steel” or “The World’s Greatest Detective” are but two examples of such.  Meanwhile games set in the Cthulhu Mythos may benefit from the GM’s use of H.P. Lovecraft’s love for excessive descriptions along the veins of “That grasping, abnormal, bloated mutant…”

Paying special attention to word choice may seem like an odd bit of advice, but it’s one that I’ve found to be quite useful.  While I still lapse into the habit of going into “Tell” mode, concscious effort to maintain the kind of language that promotes the mood in mind has helped in improving the verisimilitude or quality of reality that I want to convey.

  1. Anthony says:

    I think you’re saying a lot here, and it all needs to be said. Sometimes, little touches can go a long way in selling setting. At the same time, sometimes you need to give more to help players get the picture. There is a danger though, because sometimes you give too much and lose the player in the fog.

    • Hey Anthony,

      Yeah, there’s a lot to be said for the use of language to lend color, but one should always be mindful to keep things at a level where players will still be willing to listen, rather than zone out and get bored while you blather on.

  2. Hikkikomori says:

    Which might pose a problem for less articulate GMs and Players.

    Side topic: Gaming in your native language.

    • That’s why you practice. 😀 Pointyman’s earlier games weren’t exactly the most atmospheric if I recall, I guess that’s why they were mostly centered on settings where everyone’s familiar with.

      Still it’s not a requirement so GMs can go without doing it, but doing so does goes a long way of making the experience much more memorable and give greater impact to the setting. It’s also a great cue for the player as well.

      For some GMs this shouldn’t be that big an effort, I’ve heard of GMs who go as far as require music, mood lighting to run a game. XD

  3. dirty yasuki says:

    Sometimes a little imagination goes a long way… Take Avatar: The Last Airbender series for instance. The creators just made some play on words (i.e. Benders etc. ) and with a little atmosphere and detailed-setting-accurate-world building everything sold by itself.

    No need to create a whole new language out of scratch which although sounds cool and setting appropriate just has me scratching my head at times… I’m looking at you Tolkien and Robert Jordan (God rest their blessed souls)

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