Thursday, February 25, 2010

Slop the Table

I was thinking about language this morning. Not in any deep, profound way but in terms of my own decision to take French in school rather than Spanish. In retrospect I'd have done it differently, but I grew up a short drive from Quebec, so it was not completely crazy to consider French something practical to learn rather than merely a language that keeps being taught out of habit due to its former position of primacy in diplomacy and western civilization. If my kid insists on making the same mistake when he grows up, more power to him, but I am going to make sure he understands the decision better than I did.

Anyway, this ties back into gaming because it lead to me thinking about languages in 4e, and in games in general. It is almost always worth looking at how games handle languages because it tends to reflect a lot of the underlying thought that went into the system. This is because, to be blunt, differences in language are very rarely any fun at all to play, and trying to simulate the role of language with the same diligence that one might a sword swing is a path to madness[1]. There are a ton of ways to handle the pricing and levels, form cheap and abstract to broad and nuanced, but for the most part it's all moot because most characters only learn new languages if they must: otherwise they have better things to spend points on.

Fantasy settings have an interesting out in this regard, and 4e seizes upon it with both hands. Building on the long standing idea of "Common" as a language, they've established a fixed, very limited, list of languages of the setting with almost everything in the setting speaking at least 2 languages, thus guaranteeing that scenes where people WANT to talk but can't are quite rare. That's smart, and it's very playable. It was probably the right way to go.

But it's really, really boring.

Like any genuinely complicated thing, language provides a vast tapestry of story opportunities. The underlying issues of understanding and communication are incredibly powerful, and they've spawned thousands of neat idea. As with many things in life, the interesting and powerful stuff comes out of the points of friction rather than where everything works smoothly. Languages, in 4e, work smoothly and as a result they are a bit of a dead zone.

Now, this is not going to be an argument for adding more languages to D&D. It's hard to play well, and I'm the last guy to demand accuracy trump play. But I want to hold It up as emblematic to something that is a constant bugbear of setting and adventure design. Gamers tend to be completists, and when we design things, we want all the parts to work together smoothly. Leaving things incomplete is so hard for us to handle that there's an entire business model built upon showing only part of something and then maybe revealing the rest in drips and drabs in subsequent supplements. We want neat, tidy packages.

And heck, maybe that's some of why we game. On some level, an RPG is an assertion that the world and all the people in it can be understood. That all the myriad complexities we face every day can be boiled down and remixed into something that follows rules and logic, and even the capricious nature of luck is bounded within the system. Fantastic elements are only tangential to the escapism to be found in a game; the real power is in the mastery of situation it provides. Wherever we stand in our lives, in a game, the world can be known, and we are the ones who know it.

That is made much simpler when the world of the game makes sense. If the world of a game didn't make sense, it would challenge this illusion of control.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, to hell with that.

History, heck *life*, is messy. It's full of contradictory, nonsensical things that happened because one guy was pissed or another guy was crazy. It's a big, beautiful mess, and as far as I'm concerned, gaming is at its most rewarding (artistically, emotionally, practically and personally) when we embrace that rather than try to hide it behind an illusion or order. And yes, that's hard. Maybe really, really hard. It puts the burden of the act on us as people, because no system of rules or cleverly written setting is enough to even scratch the surface of things. This is why the best games don't attempt to do this for us, they give us tools to help us do it better ourselves.

All of which comes back to this: when you're thinking about the world of your game, try to leave it messy. Sure, you can pick and choose what messes you want to deal with[2], but the important thing is that you, as a GM and a creator, should be opening loops[3], not closing them. An author needs to close loops to make a good story, but a GM needs to open them so that his players can close them. Open loops are messy, and they bother us instinctively. We want closure. But the thing to remember is that your players share that instinct, and all you need to do is leave them the opportunity to do the job.

Embrace the mess. It's where the game really comes alive.

1 - One illustration: if your system represents linguistic fluency, how do you represent the character's native linguistic skill? If languages are hard to learn (expensive) or you put skill caps on starting skills, then how awkward is it to bolt on an exception for language? Kind of undercuts the idea that the system's reflecting reality rather than arbitrary restrictions.

2 - For all my talk I totally avoid language whenever possible because it's a pain in the ass.

3 - A loop can be pretty much anything started but unfinished. It's opened by creating a situation: "the prince kills the king", or "I need to buy milk" and it's "closed" when its resolved: "The prince is punished (or crowned)" or "I have bought milk". Loops are not a narrative thing, they are a life thing that is powerful enough to resonate into narrative.


  1. Now you've got me thinking about languages in my international supers game, and you've got me thinking that I only want it as a potential plot complication. I.e. everyone can understand everyone else...unless I want to introduce it (mechanically) as a problem.

  2. Thanks for this post! I'm currently working on a setting with variant Fate 3 rules, and it seemed like languages might likely play a role due to the PCs being able to reach a massive (near-infinite) number of worlds.

    The trick will be giving players the impression that those worlds are so much more than the brief impressions the PCs'll be getting of them.

    Mind, I'm being generous enough with stunts that a character could conceivably pick up telepathy-type Stunts, making language less of an issue.

    Anyway, I was mainly just thinking of a "roll Society skill to see how long it takes you to learn the local language" (the customized skill list is a completely different topic). Said skill has many applications, so there's no 'character point' cost to learn languages, really. (Society is mostly the chunk of the Academics skill that I didn't split off into Psyche.)

    Lots of food for thought. If I ever get around to putting all this mess into a PDF as opposed to keeping it to my private games, what you said's definitely going into the GM advice section.

  3. I actually really like the way GURPS 4e handles this. (The 3e way was dreadful, falling right into the "trying to treat them like any other skill" trap, resulting in smart characters being able to speak a dozen languages better than native speakers with cursory effort.) It breaks languages down into None, Broken, Accented, and Native, which seem to be about the levels at which one can usefully roleplay a difference in language ability. And "Accented" seems in practice to basically mean "Native, but you can't successfully pass for a native when speaking."

    Since everyone starts at their own language at Native (barring special disadvantages), there's none of the oddness about how to handle people's own language abilities. And, heck, for people who don't want to play halfway stages in language (which I personally find fun, but they're not everyone's cup of tea), just don't buy a language until you have the points for at least Accented.

    I'm personally very fond of the way the system further allows to subdivide between spoken and written; I remember great scenes out of literature where two people who speak no common language end up communicating via written Latin. (And it's a cheaper route to "My scholar can translate all these ancient runes!") I suspect the D&D "You know a language or you don't, and there are only these set ones" is a lot more practical for most play, but I really enjoy the slight complexity available in the GURPS approach.

  4. Oh, that's interesting enough I just might lift it. Something like this: characters can quickly pick up 'Broken' versions of languages, enough to get by but with social skill penalties. Getting to the Accented and Native stages takes more work the PCs might end up never investing the time for.

    It helps though that there're one or two standard lingua franca spread out through any universes the PCs' home universe has significant contact with.

    In the end, I think I'll treat this as a 'dial' depending on player preference. If players want to deal more with the challenges of dealing with exotic cultures and languages, language rules come into play more. If they just want a inter-universe romp, that stuff gets more handwaved.

    Anyway, incompleteness is inevitable given that I don't plan to treat the assorted visitable locations as simple 'planets of hats', where you know how everyone will act because they all have the same culture. Surprises are inevitable, and I want to find ways to make that interesting but not too hard on the GM and players.

  5. One thing that always bugged me about most Runequest games was thar in almost every campaign I've seen, Tradetalk has become the equivalent of Common. [In my game it's represents the ability (a cult secret) of the Issaries cultist to use a trade argot that allows the cultist full use of his ability to bargain, but is of little utility outside of this (especially when discussing something that isn't physically present). There is no actual language.]

    Language is regional/cultural, and, especially in a fantasy campaign, most people won't have any need to learn a new language because they don't travel. And if they do linguistic boundaries tend to be very blurry. There were reasons that French developed to become the lingua franca of European nobility and diplomacy. Similarly religions are often united by a common language. That of their holy texts.

    And then you can add complications such as archaic forms of the language (Chaucer, anyone?), dialects and accents that need subtitles, and making language caste and rank dependant. Fun. [Didn't Dorothy L Sayers* once write a murder mystery based entirely on an individual in disguise using the wrong tense?]

    And finally I'd like to add that my old fantasy campaign had lots of language fun with regards to exploring the wilderness and encountering new peoples. Not only do you get the fun that explorers usually learn the name from their neighbours (who are also generally their neighbours/rivals [Eskimo/Inuit anyone?]), but you also tend to get a lot of landmarks that translate more accurately as "Mount I'ts A Mountain You Idiot." [In this game learning to speak just took time and someone to teach you, but I've always been a strong believer that the best way to learn a language is to drop someone in the middle of people using it.]

  6. A short note. Language-as-skill works very well in WFRP2e where language (or any proficiency) is awarded as a result of career exposure and time spent doing a thing. I found use for skill checks in the efforts that someone was trying to mask (or alter) an accent, etc. This meant that in my Bretonnian game, the peasants could use their skill in Speak Language: Breton to talk like a noble and thus help carry off the ruse that they were themselves noble.

  7. Your second footnote echoes my own feelings, too.

  8. One of the strangest - and one of the most hilariously fun - games I've ever been in was the Star Wars game wherein only one member of the party could speak Basic. The rest of us understood Basic, but were from species that simply could not form the proper sounds.

    In another game, World of Darkness this time, we had one PC that was Polish by birth and raising. His second language was English. His third, apparently far down the list, was French - and we were in France, with the prevailing language of the party being French. In the tradition of 'Allo, 'Allo, the player accented and mangled things he was saying, and it was a beautiful thing - he was thrillingly eloquent (if unintelligible to our PCs) in Polish, workman-like in English, and his French was (in his own words) "not... premium."


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