Natural Language Roleplaying Games

Would it be fair to say that Gary Gygax, a founder of the modern role-playing hobby, was an accountant with a love of war-gaming? It would.

As I completed the Ultraviolet Grasslands manuscript in August, finished Witchburner in September, began serious work on Red Sky Dead City in October, and continued with Longwinter over the last several weeks, my writing ran headlong into conflict with one important role-playing game tradition that has its roots in Gary.

In the Ultraviolet Grasslands I started paring back game mechanics to emphasize the wonder of weird, magnificent, enormous spaces. I built Witchburner almost entirely on characters and backstories to emphasize the human side of townspeople caught in a witch hunt. In Red Sky I face the challenge of presenting horror and war in a framework that can be a game. Conceptually the different games I am writing these days fit into two overlapping worlds, one an exploration of deep time and the far horizon, the other a delve into intimacy, paranoia, and the horror that grows close beneath the skin of the ordinary.

As I wrote each game, I found myself struggling more and more against the tradition of gaming jargon. A decades-old accretion of terms and concepts jumbled together from military schools, war games, actuarial tables, spandrels, and nonsense reuse of common words. Remember that war-game-loving accountant? I place a lot of the blame on his half-readable prose-worms mixed with hair-splitting minutiae.

My frustration came to a head as I decided that I had better compile at least the rough skeleton of the role-playing game as I play it (and imagine it being played) with the books I have written and will write: characters, mechanics, abilities, opponents, monsters, treasures, spells, and the like. I took a few days’ break from writing Longwinter to set up a series of documents to collect all the different game fragments from the Ultraviolet Grasslands to Witchburner and beyond.

Immediately I wandered into a morass of unreadable gunk. I wanted to give it all up in disgust when I wrote something like this:

Combat happens in rounds. These rounds are fast—moments, seconds. Whatever. It goes fast. In a combat round every character can move and take an action. Each character also gets a reaction.

That was when I realized why I was even writing this … this Skeleton of a game.

I’m trying to write SkeletonWTF using natural language. This means that I use common sense terms exactly the way they sound. If a spell lasts for a few minutes, it lasts for a few minutes. If the whombering gurglemonster is fast and the thimbrel limper is slow, it means that the gurglemonster is faster than the limper.

This is a roleplaying game, not a dictionary.

If I ever write something like “Bonuses are numerical values that are added to checks and statistical scores,” please mock me.

Nailing the Door to the Page

In a way this is a manifesto to tear down a wall that has become more and more annoying between the game I love to play, and the game that is written down. It’s hard, but doable: to write natural language roleplaying texts. Yea, verily, even using the beating polyhedral heart of dungeons and dragons.

“But Luka,” I hear my strawman interlocutor say, “if you are after such a game, why not break free from the constraints of D&D entirely?”

The answer is because: I don’t want to, I don’t need to, and I’d set up a whole new barrier instead. In my experience the mechanics of D&D are good enough, pretty basic and, frankly, of secondary importance.

I’m not about to tear down the house of DIYD, but I am going to try and write better, using a common-sense reading of words to formulate game rules, rather than using jargon or obscure reinterpretations. Examples that come to me, regardless of the quality of the systems I attack, are the “glaives” of Numenera, the “strikers” of 4th Edition, and the “DPS” of nearly every mmorpg. At the level of syntax, it means trying to avoid artificially precise and dry prescriptive formulations like, “When movement is hampered, each square moved into usually counts as two squares, effectively reducing the distance that a character can cover in a move.”

I need to take a break here for a moment. Whenever I read a line like that, I want to scream expletives at the page (much like when I read a bad fantasy name).

This kind of legalistic mechanical layer is a big damned barrier to the kind of game I like to play, and turns off many of the people I like to play with. I haven’t figured out the perfect way to break it, or how to perfectly replace it, but it’s coming down and by the many-ringed-one, if I, my players, or other people who like to role-play the way we do, run into an edge case, we’ll figure it out using words!

Ok, enough. Show us the goods.

Here is an example of a spell from Skeleton (to show what I’m still struggling with):

Summon Pact Demon – The wizard summons a timeless spirit who is willing to help for a price.
Level 1: The wizard spends an hour begging, sweating with candles, and waving a beheaded chicken. The demon then arrives to help the wizard. The wizard permanently sacrifices one health point (hp) and receives seven small blessings. Seven times, when the wizard makes a check, the wizard may choose to roll with advantage.
Level 2: The wizard chants for mere minutes before the demon appears.
Level 3: The demon appears as soon as its name is mentioned.

Edited and reworded to make smoother.

It still has a little bit of jargon: check, advantage, health point, level. But, regardless, this seems like a spell that could work at most and remain comprehensible to a player who had never bothered to read a single rule book.

Is it perfect? No, and it never will be. But I think it’s good enough.

I guess I’ve found a natural language test for roleplaying games: can a player who has never read the rulebook or played any other roleplaying game enjoy themselves with a moderately skilled referee? If they can, then that’s a good sign in my book.

The Skeleton of A Roleplaying Game

Skeleton is not finished, but it’s finished enough. Now I can proceed with Longwinter and Red Sky, and also compile a lot of the items, spells, curses, and weird machines for me and you to use, and for the players to destroy.

EDIT: adjusted spell after some well-founded criticism.

If you like my art and writing, the best way to support me is to buy something I wrote and illustrated (like Witchburner), to commission some art directly, like Chance Phillips did with Phantasmagoria #1, or to straight up join my Stratometaship patreon where I am writing Longwinter, a winter survival snowbox in the world of Witchburner, and Red Sky Dead City, a doom-metal-and-war inspired deathcrawl through a necropolis.

6 replies on “Natural Language Roleplaying Games”

Tantalizing objwctive. You might need two books though. One that is rules light for the players, and a different one for GameMasters. The problem that the Gygaxian rules solve is that people love the concept of fantasy role playing, but need rules that tell them exactly how to do it. They are cook books. The jargon is used to make the rules unambiguous so they can be played fairly. Players may not need such rules, though as a GM for 4 decades I found that they often want the rules in all their crunchy glory so they can wring the last possible bonus point towards victory. Human nature is the underlying reason we have rules books.

Yes, I understand that and at some level agree – after all, with Longwinter I am explicitly trying to write it as two books, one (the larger) player facing and (as far as possible) jargon-free. The other, referee-facing, with trackers and adjudication rules.

I also think we are at the point where we need no more referee books – we have, for example, the 5E DMG, and for many cases it is good enough. Of course, many people likely want more, so we won’t run out of new ones and the jargon also won’t run out – however, for a certain category of game masters (and players) the jargon has become superfluous.

I’d disagree about referee books. The 5e DMG isn’t good enough to use and the 1e DMG has some good stuff and some bad stuff, poorly laid out, not tersely written, and sometimes overly complicated/crunchy.

That said, we also need what you described: something modern that a newcomer can really understand without much context. Something a bit like Mentzer’s version of Basic D&D.

Fair point. I don’t the the DMGs are ‘good’ or the best we could do, but I don’t have the will or energy to replace them at this point. I don’t know who does, TBH.

But people don’t actually need numerical mechanics, they just think they do. We all did just fine without numbers when we were 5 years old, we just forgot how to do it. People fudge die rolls and tweak rules during play, because in their imagination they know how this is supposed to happen, and the rules didn’t cooperate. So they “fix” it.
Natural language rules are still rules, they just dispense with numbers and artificial jargon.
What people need are not numerical mechanics, but a clear description of how the world works. They can either supply this for themselves, or buy a game book that explains it, but the important thing is to understand it. The better they can see and understand the world, the better they can visualize it, and the less they need any rules at all. The best “rules” are completely intuitive so that you are not even aware of them.
Where numbers are useful is they allow you to play without understanding it. Just follow the steps and crunch the numbers and the game plays itself. The other thing that numbers are useful for, is to simplify a complex thing into an abstraction; hit points for example are much easier to handle than trying to imagine all the possible ways a combat round could go. I lost my appetite for running combat as a detailed physics simulation decades ago!

Thank you, Alcamtar. You’ve put this so well, that I almost feel like my post is entirely superfluous! Particularly your second paragraph – that’s going in my book of reminders on writing.

Comments are closed.