RPGs as Language: Evolution and Error

August 23, 2013

At first it can be disheartening when designing games to realize that immediately or eventually the game played among a group of people will no longer adhere to the original design. This is the difference I described earlier between the prescriptive model of play presented by a design and the descriptive model of what happens during play. Language similarly evolves both slowly and quickly due to errors, conscious and unconscious coordination, and the influence of other languages. However this evolution is not simply random, often following trends which have been the root of the field of evolutionary linguistics. RPGs fall prey to some of these same forces, so it is reasonable to search for trends in how play changes over time.

The ways that RPG play derive from a static design is a process I’ve called induction, after the electro-magnetic process by which moving magnets cause the creation of electricity. Induction approaches perhaps the core dilemma of an RPG designer, “how do you get people to play your game correctly?” since this is presumably the best way to play, and turns it on its head. Instead it asks, “how do you get people to reliably evolve my game into a better one?” This turns the design and publishing focus on simplification, precision, and clarity into one of reliability, robustness, and most importantly imperfect communication. Ultimately it accepts the gap between prescriptive and descriptive, between what is written or spoken and what the audience interprets from it.

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