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. 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, but the important thing is that you, as a GM and a creator, should be opening loops, 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.