RPGs as Language: Phonemes, Whether They Exist or Not

August 29, 2013

Spoken languages are often built on a surprisingly small collection of sounds, most likely because the more sounds a language includes in the range of human hearing and vocalization the more difficult it becomes to adequately distinguish among them. Communication already lies in a vast sea of ambiguity with uncertainty about experiences, points of view, mood, and even our senses looming over any attempt to express ourselves. In that light we can see why effective languages distinguish things like the sound “ka” and the sound “da”.

Distinctions give us a foundation to build on, to expand on the basic sounds, ideas, or moments that are clearly delineated. In a game, the most common way to generate a distinction is mechanics*. In a D&D variant invoking the attack roll mechanic clearly describes the moment and intent as an attack being attempted, as a opposed to simply describing something which may be interpreted as an attack, a feint, or even an expression of raw skill to impress. And because this is delineated in a D&D game, and not so much in, say, a game like Prime Time Adventures, it indicates that what is and what is not a physical attack matters far more in the language of play of D&D and its variants than the aforementioned Prime Time Adventures, which has its own distinctions.

*Indeed, I find it particularly useful to treat the concept of mechanics as defined by introducing distinctions in play. The indication that something is a mechanic is that it requires a category judgement, which could be a discrete decision.

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