The Dangers of New Language

By | March 16, 2013

Hello again!

Over the course of the past two weeks, we’ve internally switched courses on which chapter we’ll be making available for review next.  We’ve gotten such interest in the Personas and the way our new social system works, that we’re going to go ahead and skip the intervening chapters and go straight into the Social Interaction chapter.  We currently plan to have that up and available at the end of the month.  In the meanwhile, we’re also reviewing the chapters we’ve already put up, and will be uploading some changes to those next week.

One of the big challenges we’ve faced as we develop Infinite Earths is the transformation of language.  What it means to us, what it means to the dictionary, and what it means to other people.  One of the things we (and I, in particular, since I am primary author of the ruleset) constantly wrestle with is the selection of the most appropriate words to describe what we’re doing.

Harkening back to Saying Goodbye to Charisma, the feedback we received demonstrated to us that it was ultimately a good idea to change the name of the statistic.  Why?  Because “charisma” has a history.  It communicates something very specific to different gamers, and many gamers will merrily argue until the stars fall from the sky that their interpretation is right and alternatives are unacceptable.  That’s fine, you gotta do what you gotta do.

But what do we, as game designers, gotta do?  As we attempt to develop something new, do we look at what has come before and say “well, this is the way it’s always been done, so this is the way we gotta do it.”  Or do we say to hell with parroting traditions and instead try to forge something new that takes some cues from tradition, but goes somewhere different with it?

In the end, it’s a line we’ve got to toe.  Having enough of the tradition present to make what we are doing recognizable, and at the same time, transforming the internal language of Infinite Earths to better reflect the game theories and philosophies behind it, and to better support the style of play we’re attempting to manufacture.

And this is hard.  True craftsmanship isn’t just about spitting out a bunch of words and calling it a day, but rather selecting your words carefully and looking at them from all angles, both denotatively and connotatively in order to see how they could be misinterpreted, misconstrued, and manipulated in order to try and “break” the game.  Yes, we could leave it up to GM Fiat, but then again, “that’s the way it’s always been done. . .”

(And in case you’re wondering, when I write these posts I’m usually much more relaxed about language use than in the actual writing of the book.  These are, after all, sidebars and loose explanations, discussions and perspectives.  Nothing in any of these Developer Blog columns should ever be taken as something that overrules the actual rule text.  Just so that’s clear!)

So what this amounts to is manufacturing a new, consistent internal game language.  For instance, “Make a Strike Roll” vs. “Roll an Athletics Check.”  The former structure is used for direct conflict with other characters, while the latter structure identifies that you’re checking to see if you have the skill to accomplish something.  Does it ultimately matter if we would have a “Strike check” in the rules somewhere?  Maybe not.  But maybe yes.  And if we want to provide a tight ruleset to Players and Guides that minimizes the possibility of misinterpretation, why would we be so incautious?

We of course wrestled for a while with our Attribute names, as well.  Will anybody familiar with D&D be able to look at those stats and say, “Well, Brawn is just Strength, Agility is just Dexterity, yadda yadda”?  Absolutely.  But right off the bat, right from the statistics, you can tell that Infinite Earths is making some changes and that it’s not another D&D retread.  That was deliberate, to help readers understand that this wasn’t just “3.5 with some changes thrown in here and there.”  Early Pathfinder players who played a lot of 3.5 will know exactly what this feels like:  “Oh, this is the way it works. . .oh wait, no, that’s one of the things that got changed.”

One of the biggest changes we decided to make will be appearing in the updated documentation next week.  There’s been a rather contentious thread recently over on RPG.net about the use of the word “Race” in fantasy roleplaying.  It actually underscored some of my own misgivings about the word, because honestly I’ve always preferred “Species.”  Given the science-fictional approach we generally have taken, wherein each different race doesn’t have a monoculture and a mono-morality, and given that the different races in Infinite Earths are largely just collections of like biological characteristics, I’ve long felt the word “Species” made more sense.

But.

But it’s not very bloody fantasy, is it?  It just doesn’t feel like fantasy.

Oh, we tried some different words.  “Ancestry,” “Bloodline,” “Heritage,” “People,” I think there were a couple of others.  They all felt like desperate attempts to avoid using “Race” because liberalism.  And I didn’t want to change the name to something that felt “more fantasy” but was still awkward, largely because it would feel like the change was due to “politically correct agenda” rather than “race” just not fitting what we wanted to do.

But then last week I thought to myself, “you’re trying to avoid using the word that perfectly expresses the concept you are trying to encapsulate.”  And there it was, in a nutshell.  The word is sound, it’s the feeling that’s wrong.  It doesn’t feel like fantasy.  But then, are we–am I–trying to just build what’s been built before?  If so, why are we building it?  It’s already there.

In the end, making the decision to change the word was a relief.  And it just feels right, for what we’re trying to do.  Because, the more we build, the more we realize that this game system is less and less a retread of 3.5 with some simplified rules and some different stuff tacked on.  This is actually, increasingly, something quite a bit different.

And we’re happy with that.

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