RPGs As Language: Design – The Gravity of Terms

October 25, 2013

Almost all games build on some translation points with natural language, whether in general use or with a technical sub-language. Many RPGs borrow from the technical language of theater, film, and/or television to help inform and structure the acts of play. Beyond the system of play, these terms and the ideas that they package encourage play to encounter similar or related ideas and constraints. In this sense, these terms exert a sort of gravity on the events of play, attracting player behaviors towards certain patterns and away from others.

For example, many RPGs incorporate the notion of a scene, a particular theatrical idea about a set of events in a single time and place. Once you become used to breaking down a story into scenes it can be second nature, but it is far from the only way to structure a narrative. Scenes inhibit action which occurs across sizable distances or in fits and stops. They can easily encourage the notion that nothing interesting could be happening fictionally until it become part of a scene, and that if a scene happens it must be consequential to the story. These conceits are sensible from a theatrical perspective, but distinctly limit the scope of story to fit the constraints of theatrical expectations, which are by no means limits within an RPG.

It is impossible to avoid the gravity of terms, even outside of spoken language. Players typically expect to roll dice, and will do so even when uncalled for by the game. People respond to acted body-language (whether another’s or even their own) with tinges of real emotion. Expectations arise simply by calling a game an RPG. Design shouldn’t try to avoid this gravity, but understand and when necessary accept its warping effect on play. As long as this gravity serves most often to draw play towards your design goals it is a benefit, but care must be taken to make that happen.

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