RPGs as Languages: Prescriptive and Descriptive

August 22, 2013

One of the key dichotomies in understanding both language and RPGs is the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive models, whether these be grammars, game systems, or some other representation.

Prescriptive models are often idealized, they are bases for things like best practice and notions of correctness. In RPGs, we are in the prescriptive domain when we talk about whether we are playing such and such game, or we are hacking or drifting it into a different game. Prescriptive models play heavily into identity politics in both language and RPGs, since they serve as means to identify whether or not language use or RPG play is right or wrong. From the RPG perspective, an example of a prescriptive model or grammar of play is a reasonably complete game system description.

Descriptive models on the other hand, instead of driving the usage are derived from the usage of a language or a game and serve to encapsulate and predict the behavior of some or all the communities involved. Descriptive models are extremely useful for understanding how language or games are used, but they are built on ever-changing data and observations. From the RPG perspective, an example of a descriptive model or grammar is a well-constructed actual play report or “example of play”, at least one focused on how things happen in play rather than in presenting the events of play entertainingly.

Within the separation between the prescriptive and the descriptive is the fruitful and frightening domain where communication evolves. Like languages, RPGs change as we play them, and further as a community experience the same or different games. One important frontier in designing and teaching RPGs is how to embrace this dynamism, instead of trying to constrain it.

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