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.
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.