RPGs As Language: Design – Goals

October 3, 2013

When designing languages, whether constructed “natural” languages (conlangs) or formal computation-style languages you should nail down some overarching goals. While in game design as in language design you can simply design ad hoc and see where it takes you, that approach is generally best for practicing design or exploring raw design space rather than utility. A conlang, a new programming language, or an RPG all present at least two very distinct approaches: similarity and modeling.

The similarity approach to designing a language explicitly starts with one or more direct influences from existing languages and (usually) a plan for a few places to innovate or synthesize upon that foundation. For these designs, which in RPGs could be called hacks or heartbreakers depending on context and inclination, this foundation isn’t really laziness. Knowingly or unknowingly familiarity is an important part of these languages. These RPGs and languages are clearly situated within the meta-dialogue of its influences, even if that position doesn’t turn out to be positive or prominent. 

On the other hand, modeling takes something like an imagined society without a sense of self, a logical calculus, or a distributed theatrical performance and tries to capture their dynamics and meaning. While familiar tools are useful for this approach, the overriding goal is to emulate or simulate the system. Fidelity is key.

There is a continuum between similarity and modeling, trading off between the goals of familiarity and fidelity.  Innovation has a place here too, and there is something thrilling in exploring a part of design space without overwhelming ulterior motives. But it is those motives which help turn the speculative exploration into a concrete discovery.

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One Response to “RPGs As Language: Design – Goals”


  1. […] in one language can begin to be expressed in the other. Both similarity and modeling (see my previous post) provide strong opportunities in building translation points – either in borrowing those used […]


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