RPGs As Language: Semantics and Translation

September 11, 2013

Most languages we encounter are natural languages, which means there is a relatively unconstrained process of change within the language. That is why those languages have differences between the prescriptive grammar of how the language is intended to be used and descriptive grammar of how they are actually used. But in mathematical fields, there is a type of language, called a formal language, which is precisely defined by a single grammar, even in terms of its use. Formal languages are, loosely, taking the idea of a language and turning it into a mathematical abstraction.

Most formal languages don’t have a notion of semantics (or meaning), they simply take abstract symbols sequences and describe rules to assemble or recognize them. But some formal languages, including all programming languages, have semantics. The semantics of a formal language are a set of rules taking something in that language and transforming it into a sequence of actions, such as instructions for a computer. This seems simple at first, but remember, the way we build a language is a series of actions, and under the same abstraction as natural languages, any collection of series of actions can be treated as a formal language. The flip side of this is that in order to translate, we must drill down to meaning, not merely semantics or usage.

For RPGs, this implies that translating between languages of play forces us to address the meaning of what is happening in play. This can be an extremely powerful tool in design. By designing or even just allowing multiple languages of play, the interactions between them give rise to a unique play experience.

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