August 16, 2011

Watch Your Language

This article is not about using cuss words at the table or implementing Greek as a form of flavor. No, this article is about the fact that what a DM says at the game table can affect his players and how they play. At first, this seems blatantly obvious but this article is about the subtle things a GM can say that he may not even be aware he is saying. The words you choose may be saying something you are unaware of.

In a recent game I decided to write up an information packet for one of the characters. He was the only one who could read the language that the books in a discovered library were written in. Here is how I started the info packet…

“After having some spare time to peruse the books you found in the ruins…”
This is an accurate depiction of what happened. However, one of my desires for this campaign is for the characters to act as a group; no lone wolfs. So, I changed the same line to the following…

“After having some spare time to peruse the books the group found in the ruins…”
Again, this is an accurate depiction of what happened. However, the simple swap of “you” to “the group” changes some of the inherent meaning of the message. I am emphasizing the group over the individual, much the same as my desire for the group’s cohesion within the campaign.

Granted, this is only one occurrence of such a “mistake” and ultimately is not likely to sway a player’s decision making. However, added together, over multiple occasions, a DM might be sending the wrong message to his players; or rather a message he doesn’t want the players to have. If nothing else, choosing the right words can reinforce the DM’s campaign ideals.

How can a GM keep an eye on the subtle way of speaking (and writing) so she can keep within her self chosen campaign ideals? The most important step is to first know what those campaign ideals are. What are you promoting overall? Group over self? Pulp over realism? Heroism/adventure over careful planning? Low magic over high magic? Grim over light-hearted? Story-driven plot over open world?

These are only some of the questions a DM has to ask herself. By answering them and keeping them in mind it will make it easier to choose the right words when conveying information to the players.

For a few more examples, let’s take a look at some of the questions I asked above and see how we can change our language patterns to help convey what we are trying to get across.

Heroism/adventure over careful planning. You want the players to try new exciting actions that are immediate. You want to convey a sense they will not be punished for acting immediately and with little forethought. Couch your words in positives. Things are “likely to work” instead of “likely to fail”. Charging headlong into an unknown fight is described as “a brave charge” instead of “a charge”. Also, speak quickly to impart a sense of urgency.

Grim over light-hearted. The urchin is not “wearing a green dress”; the urchin is “wearing a threadbare dress”. Grim does not allow for bright colors; when using colors choose the drab ones: brown, black, grey. Avoid words that convey clean, orderly, pure. Opponents in combat do not “shrug off” damage, but instead “grunt in pain” at each blow.

Story-driven plot over open world. When giving a narrative tie it back into the story. When describing a far off location mention how it is similar to something of importance to the story or how it reminds the characters of something related to the story-line. Basically always bring the player’s mind back to the story.

It is possible to set a tone and mood with the words we choose. By keeping in mind what those tones and moods are, we can choose the right words to convey what we want the players to take away from our language.


dovearrow said...

"Granted, this is only one occurrence of such a 'mistake' and ultimately is not likely to sway the players' decision making."

Fixed it for you. :-)

Matthew Brenner said...

The subtle manipulation of language can be so important for crafting the drama you are aiming for at the table. Besides word choice, a DM with strong acting skills can also use tone and body language to his or her advantage.

I find I actually watch what I say and how I say it the most when I am running a table for new players at conventions. I need to make sure I am sufficiently over-the-top to try to get the new players enthused about the game.