Fun With Words

Words serve a purpose – they help us communicate ideas by transmitting thoughts from one person to another. In a way they are a kind of telepathy! Whether jeered over teamspeak, scrawled on a toilet wall, or merely thought really loudly, words can tell us something about your mum!

But words can be more than just the transmission of ideas – they can be fun. The ideas transmitted can inform, educate and entertain, there’s jokes, poems, stories, and best of all (in my opinion) role playing games (and yet I still don’t know whether that should be roleplaying role-playing or role playing. my spell checker thinks the latter, and that almost rhymes so I’ll go with that for now).

Choice of words matters. Different words have different connotations – Ali mentioned last week about the difficulty in choosing the correct word for those who go to a spa, so I’ll not retread that ground here. I could have said “cover that again”, but instead chose to go with a  metaphor because I found it more entertaining to do so, and one might literally tread ground at a spa. In that first paragraph I could have gone with “spoken, written or using sign language”, but I instead went for an old joke because it’s more entertaining and more arresting.

In the beginning language was entirely auditory – we spoke, we grunted, we howled (well, I did anyway). And the spoken language still has a special place. Some words are just fun to say, they’re make your mouth make interesting shapes, or your vocal cords produce unusual noises. Cassock, plinth, ullulate. Say all of these out loud slowly and recognise the weird things your mouth and voice are doing – the first starts and ends hard, but is soft in the middle, the second makes your tongue almost come out of your mouth, and the third, kind of goes everywhere. Even devoid of meaning these words can entertain – meaning is not necessary for communication as Noam Chomsky famously pointed out with the nonsense sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” (note the American spelling of colorless, that’s another topic entirely).

Tongue twisters rely on this idea. As the name implies, they are designed to confound your mouth and make you trip over sounds by using repetition with slight variations. “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”, and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” being famous examples – look at the individual sounds, the phonemes, and you can see what is going on. Perhaps we can even create our own with some more fun words: “Ten trebuchets torment Trevor’s tray of toast” – try saying that fast!

And then there is semantic satiation. Semantic satiation is the process by which words such as semantic satiation cease to have any meaning because semantic satiation has been repeated so often. There is quite a bit of psychology and neurology behind the idea of semantic satiation, but I’ll leave that to the semantic satiation scientists scientists for now, and just say semantic satiation again. Semantic satiation. In essence if we repeat a word too often we get a sequence of nonsense noises which started out with meaning, and that in itself is fascinating:

Monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey…

[ed note: there are a few typographical errors in here – I’ve been told to leave them in…]

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New Monthly Post: Playtest Report

We’ve decided to add a bit more structure to the blog, and this is the first piece of it: Every month, on the 2nd monday, the Artemis Games blog will have a Playtest Report – talking about some playtesting we’ve done, and what modifications it has pushed into the games.

December/January Playtest Report

Over the past month we have been largely focused on playtesting Tinfoil Hat, our upcoming Conspiracy Theory game.

Overall the response has been positive, but there’s been some vital criticism.

The biggest of Tinfoil Hat’s problems is the beginning: at the start of the game, as it stood last week, you had to rant for 30 seconds on the connection between two pieces of a conspiracy. This didn’t really work – most of the 30 seconds was spent umming and ahhing as there simply wasn’t enough to go on.

Our first fix attempt was to make the 30 seconds timer only function as a maximum, not a minimum. But that resulted in a brand new problem: With no push to keep talking the ranter was a lot less likely to elaborate on their conspiracy in interesting ways, and to potentially back themselves into a corner.

We’ve worked on the problem again, and now have a working solution: In addition to the two cards played at the start by the judge, to start the rant, the first 30 seconds includes a completely random card from the top of the deck. The 30 second timer still functions as both minimum and maximum, but the game hits its stride far faster while allowing time for the players to make vital mistakes.

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Wordsmith

I rarely describe myself as a writer. I sometimes use ‘Architect for castles in the clouds’, but these days that tends to make people think ‘engineer’ So most often I call myself a wordsmith

We’ve talked before about making names for places – and it applies similarly for people – Wright, Walker or Thatcher. Kwaku (Mr Snake) the Setite..Tours Prince the activist (derived from Martin Luther King)

More made up words come into play now we’ve got a Sci-fi range. One instinctively knows that promethium – the fuel used in Warhammer 40k –  is flammable. Not only is is a bit like petroleum, but it’s named for the Greek thief of fire, Prometheus. My favorite piece of pseudoscience is the Heisenberg compensator in Star Trek. Heisenberg tells us we cannot know where we are and how fast we’re going (he’s thinking on a subatomic scale) so in order to travel Faster Than Light we need something to compensate for the Uncertainty Principle. Totally plausible whilst being essentially rubbish.

But I want to talk about choosing words, rather than making them up. When we wrote the Sci Fi Concept Cards, one of the hardest to get right was the 7D of Locations – the Rainbow Echo Spa. What is the right word for people-who-attend-a-spa? Are they patients? Well, they do receive treatments. Customers? They pay for the service. Eventually we settled on ‘clients’ as a expression of a closer relationship with a therapist. Not just because it was shorter and didn’t spill over to the next line.

To relate this to you, think about the resonances you use when describing your character or when scene-setting as a GM. If a room is “big’ – that doesn’t evoke anything. Is it vast, towering, cathedral-like? Is it too big for its use – a dining room that could seat fifty set for four? Is it merely big compared to the characters – either physically as in Alice in Wonderland or the Borrowers, or mentally if viewing through the eyes of a tiny familiar – mouse or even ant.

Assuming you are talking to adults – make use of the shared vocabulary of experience. Try to avoid using words which are more suitable for reading ages of five – big, small, right; and never nice. That said, I’ll break that rule if it gets over the atmosphere I’m trying for. A villain lair which was only described in childlike adjectives took on the creepy clown aspect. My players have come to expect poetry – so when they got curtailed language, they noticed.

If you have a pre-written adventure, you can practice by rephrasing the opening paragraph. Try re-casting it as the opening of an 80s fantasy film “A long time ago in a land far far away …”. Now try as the start of a young adult novel.”Evelyn never really saw the rolling fields she’d grown up in … “ Changing language finds us demanding something different from the audience, and by choosing tone we can convey much more about the campaign than simply what it looks like.

Example: A recent Vampire campaign began with a meeting at the Palace Theatre, This is a real place, so most of the players are familiar with the outside, which is a Victorian marble edifice. Inside, it’s a theatre, ballroom, ballet school and bar that serves food. As the setup to a campaign that was meant to be political, layers on layers of intrigue and half truth – I described the foyer as ‘confections of scarlet and gold’ and included several doors throughout the building labelled ‘staff only’. These were all concealed behind curtains – implying that one couldn’t know at a glance where there were doors, and that much of the building remains concealed. Do you feel ready to step backstage and find out how deep the rabbit hole goes?

As for that last – remember, stealing from one person is plagiarism – stealing from many is called research. This post has stolen from – ahem, researched from – Alice in Wonderland, Star Wars, Star Trek,  Greek myth and hard science. At least. Don’t be afraid to use a turn of phrase coined by someone else if it says what you need it to. On that note, I’m going to go read something. Don’t know what yet. What do you recommend?

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