Setting-Specific Terms: How Much is Too Much?

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Lofgeornost

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Most imaginary settings have a set of created names for places, people, and/or gods and spirits that gms and players (to a lesser degree) have to master, and often new words for various types of monsters. Some add to this in-universe terms for statuses, military or other official ranks, institutions, etc. in their imaginary societies. Burroughs’ Barsoom is a good example of this, with special words for rulers (jed, jeddak, jeddara), mercenary soldiers (panthans), different ranks of officers (padwar, dwar, odwar, etc.) and so on. Including this special vocabulary can help create a feeling of difference from mundane reality and reinforce the illusion that these are real places and societies.

But learning and remembering them can also be a chore. I suspect this is more true for RPGs than works of fiction, because when special terms are used in novels and stories the context often indicates their meaning, or close enough for the purposes of enjoying the fiction. The reader doesn’t need to be able to replicate them, just to recall their meaning when they crop up. Players and gms are in a different position: they have to work with the new vocabulary and use it.

So how much of this sort of thing is too much; when does the burden of learning and remembering the new vocabulary outweigh its value? It seems to me that, for the most part, special invented words should only be used when there is no approximate English equivalent, or when the obvious English word carries connotations that really don’t fit. Otherwise, it’s better to go with that English equivalent, noting as necessary when it does not precisely apply.

Reading through the recent Osprey game Jackals has really brought this home to me. It bristles with invented words for various types or rulers, magic users, and other social roles and institutions, in addition of course to place-names, gods, races, and monsters. For instance, it defines 9 different types of ‘ritualists’ (that is, magic users): only one of these has a fairly self-explanatory name, the Warriors of Lykos. The others have special terms like Hasheer, Hekas, Kahar, Mouathenic, Hem-Netzer, etc. These are atmospheric, but the game could have given them more immediately understandable titles. The Kahar, for instance, are the priests of the god Alwain, the Hem-Netzer the priests of the gods of Ger (i.e. not-Egypt), Hekas could just be called sorcerers or alchemists, and Mouathenic is simply a worshipper of Chaos.

The book, though, normally insists on using the in-universe terms for them and for other things (i.e. nawsi for captain). This makes it needlessly hard to read, especially since some terms are introduced long before they are defined. For example, early in the rules comes a list of languages in the setting; this refers to two peoples (or races), the Hann and Hulathi, that are not explained until chapter 8, towards the end of the book, though they are referred to many times before this.
 

Gringnr

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This is the experience I'm currently having with Immortal: the Invisible War. It's got a neat system and setting. But there is SOOOOOOO much jargon, it's nuts. Add to this the fact that the book's organization and layout are terrible, and it's no wonder many have pronounced this unplayable.

I think the authors were going for a very meta immersion style of play. But they renamed everyfrickenthing, and it's a pain in the ass.

Here are a couple of examples from the rulebook, and their translations.

"All Personas begin the experience with 15 points of immaculum in their Halo... These are initially fixed as Forte."

~means~

"Distribute 15 points among your character's attributes."


~or~

"All combatants start each Clash with with an automatic 1 Escapade. The number of additional Escapades that a persona recieves reflects how much Free Immaculum he did not allocate to any of the Halo colors..."

~means~

"Characters get 1 action per combat round, plus one additional action for every 3 points of Free Immaculum."

And so on and so forth, ad absurdum.


I know that I'm gonna end up using tried and true terms that my players are already familiar with for a lot of this stuff. No point passing the headache on to them.
 

xanther

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In a book, love it. In an rpg, place names sure, gods and such of course, maybe even ruler titles because who cares. In short I like it for flavor, but will not learn a new vocabulary of fabricated words to play the game...sure say jeddak but then tell me what that means in terms I understand.

If it is a setting book it needs good glossary. If Dune can have one so can ones rpg setting book.

I will learn what "action", "round" etc. mean in a game...but hate it when a perfectly good word exist to describe such things but the games uses some other term (with many inapposite connotations) instead...usually in the belief it makes their game different.
 

xanther

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...
"All Personas begin the experience with 15 points of immaculum in their Halo... These are initially fixed as Forte."

~means~

"Distribute 15 points among your character's attributes."

~or~

"All combatants start each Clash with with an automatic 1 Escapade. The number of additional Escapades that a persona recieves reflects how much Free Immaculum he did not allocate to any of the Halo colors..."

~means~

"Characters get 1 action per combat round, plus one additional action for every 3 points of Free Immaculum."...
This is exactly the kind of stuff talking about which frankly to me seems like pretension and BS. It erects barriers to understanding and play for the sake of the author stroking their own ego...

I actually keep my immaculum in an air tight jar and on put it into my halo on weekends. :smile:
 

Brock Savage

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I prefer that setting specific terms and jargon be used sparingly. Less is definitely more in this case and it is very easy to go overboard which is a deal breaker for me. For example, Vampire: the Masquerade used just enough old timey nomenclature to be evocative without being burdensome. Often the terms can can be inferred by someone with a good vocabulary. Exalted is another game which used just enough setting specific terminology to be evocative without being burdensome.

On a personal note, in my Mythos fantasy games I make sure to refer to magic as "sorcery" and casters as "sorcerers" to clearly differentiate how Mythos magic works (alien science, extradimensional mathematics, and cosmic forces beyond mortal understanding) from other, more traditional settings.
 

lgm

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I suspect everyone has a bit of variation in how much they will enjoy or tolerate when it comes to language of the game world. Putting in words that aren't intuitive for mechanical aspects of the game or that may cause confusion on a character sheet, can make it harder to just play the game. Putting up walls to playing the game will lessen the fun of the game.

I can handle calling magic and psionics by a different name. Calling ability scores by an odd term or simply calling a fight/combat something not intuitive, is going to add a little more difficulty for users. It's a pain in the butt for a GM trying to get players new to roleplaying to invest in the game especially when they've been introduced into rpgs through games with traditional language.
 

raniE

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I prefer that game terms be kept simple and clear. Either use terms that have become common in rpgs and so are understood by many, or use terms that are pretty much self explanatory. Game Master and Referee are both fine. Hollyhock God? No.

In-setting stuff is different though. Countries, creatures, cities etc, these should all have their own names. Titles can be setting-specific too, but using ones from history can help evoke a certain feel. Naming someone a satrap conjures up different imagery than governor, or duke, or proconsul.
 

Brock Savage

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Putting in words that aren't intuitive for mechanical aspects of the game or that may cause confusion on a character sheet, can make it harder to just play the game. Putting up walls to playing the game will lessen the fun of the game.

Calling ability scores by an odd term or simply calling a fight/combat something not intuitive, is going to add a little more difficulty for users. It's a pain in the butt for a GM trying to get players new to roleplaying to invest in the game especially when they've been introduced into rpgs through games with traditional language.
I definitely agree with you here. It reminds me of one of those games Gygax released in the 90's Lejendary Adventures or was it Dangerous Journeys? I get the two mixed up but am referring to the one in which Gary went out of his way to invent new nomenclature for the most banal RPG terms.

Also, welcome to the board!
 

lgm

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I definitely agree with you here. It reminds me of one of those games Gygax released in the 90's Lejendary Adventures or was it Dangerous Journeys? I get the two mixed up but am referring to the one in which Gary went out of his way to invent new nomenclature for the most banal RPG terms.

Also, welcome to the board!

I believe it was Dangerou Journeys with Troll Lord Games. Could be mistaken but I do remember looking at a forum where people were asking Gygax about its game mechanics and other aspects. All the terms were just a bit off and there were so many of them that my eyes glazed over and my brain started hurting. The fans of the game made me wanted to check it out but I couldn't bring myself to get it because of the terminology that I knew would be strewn throughout the whole book.

And thanks :smile:
 

Picaroon Jack

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When I ran John Carter last year, I had no problem with the terminology (like Jeddak and Thark) because I've read the stories. But none my players had read any so they kept stopping me and saying things like, "Barsoom? I thought this was Mars?"

5cpku7.jpg
 

Agemegos

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I have had some success with using a lot of in-setting terminology. My fantasy setting Gehennum had a 73,000-word cross-referenced encyclopaedia which must have had over five hundred entries. Some of those had English headwords, and some were people and places. But nevertheless I had troop types, military ranks, political statuses, aristocratic titles, administrative titles, weapons, social institutions, kinds of supernatural being, garments, parts of a city and parts of a house. It worked surprising well: I ran that setting for fifteen years with perhaps twenty different players. It might have helped that a great deal of the terminology was in borrowed Greek, as some of my players had studied Greece in Ancient History in high school.

I experimented with Engishing the terms with straightforward translations. Khrysophylax –> Treasurer would have worked, but Polemarkh –> Minister of War gave an inappropriately bureaucratic tone, and Hierarkh –> Minister of Religion was misleading. There were some words for un-English things that resisted translation, and having a jumble of terms that didn’t agree was ugly.

My guess is that it only worked because we spent a lot of time in that world for a few years, and used the words until we knew them.
 
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PolarBlues

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And then there was that Gamma World adventure, I think it was "The Mutant Master" which, in an attempt to be more authentic and prevent player knowledge spilling into character knowledge, provided made-up post-apocalyptic names for a variety of items. I seem to recall the big MacGuffin of the adventure was the "Yorkel Torkem" (or something similar) which transalted to nuclear missle.

I am actually shocked I remember that detail, when most of the time I can't even remeber what I did yesterday!
 

Winterblight

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I like a good dose of flavour in my RPG settings, but it can get to much. When it gets to the stage that every other term that would otherwise be recognisable is given an 'in setting term' for flavour, its already too much for me. I'm a bit more forgiving of setting specific terms than I am of game mechanic terms. I like the game terms to be kept recognisable for the purposes of learning the game. Even terms other than GM or Referee can annoy me. Scribe is mildly annoying but there others that just annoy the hell out of me.
 

FreeGamer

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I prefer that game terms be kept simple and clear. Either use terms that have become common in rpgs and so are understood by many, or use terms that are pretty much self explanatory. Game Master and Referee are both fine. Hollyhock God? No.
You get the like for the reference alone. It's been ages since I've seen anyone mention Nobilis in even a roundabout way.

My own answer is that while I'd prefer not to learn a lot of new jargon, if I find the game premise interesting enough and someone else is willing to run it, it's not going to dissuade me. Nobilis didn't confuse me. Neither did Legends of the Wulin. I've played some downright bizarre stuff at conventions and done just fine. I pick stuff up really fast.
 

ffilz

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I don't know if I've played some of the games that go out of the way to use new terms, though I guess Cold Iron has a bunch of unique terms, but when I was learning the game, they didn't seem that horrible. On the other hand, they ARE mostly just variants. Like you have Hit, Hit Missile, Hit Strong, Hit Weak and you usually only need Hit and Hit Missile out of the gate (strong and weak apply only when there is a huge strength differential). There are corresponding defense terms (plus Defense Basic).

Setting stuff is definitely more of a pain, but I find other aspects of most any setting I've encountered that invents too many terms. Bushido is nice in giving you both English and Japanese names for most terms, and those it doesn't, like Budo and On are so central to playing a Japanese themed game instead of a European game that I can justify making sense of them (plus I definitely have known what Budo was since I first heard of Bushido even though I never played, not as familiar with On, but I must have heard it enough to have no trouble picking it up).

I have abandoned almost any thought of running settings like Tekumel, Talislanta, and Asian themed settings due to how much disconnect I have with them. I'm willing to play as long as the game is friendly and you don't need to be a setting culture geek to play. I am still a bit inclined to someday try and make a go of Yoon Suin, but that lets you play your European themed D&D set in an Asian themed setting, which sort of gives permission to not have to go overboard with the Asian theme and I love the idea of the Anapurna region of Nepal that I started working up from a trekking map I found online. It's easy enough to find pictures and such to imagine the region and I used Open Street Map to work up a city map for one of the cities for the campaign.
 

VisionStorm

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My first impression when I read the thread title was "IDK, you should use as many setting-specific terms as you feel necessary." Then I actually read the OP and was like "Nah, screw all that jargon."

I think setting-specific terms add flavor and are sometimes necessarily, particularly when we're talking about special concepts that are unique or relevant to what the setting is about. For example I've recently been working on a setting that has a specific Otherworld cosmology, divided into various "Realms" (pocket-worlds) grouped in to specific "Domains" (realm-theme/nature, like Netherworld/Death Realms vs Elemental Realms), etc. So I had to go into explaining WTF "Realm", "Domains", and other related terms mean in the context of this world's cosmology.

But when I can't even tell that the game is talking to me about a guard captain or whatever, cuz every city in the game world needs to have its own made up words for every rank and title, and consistently refers to NPCs with that jargon it becomes too much. Specially if it's not a known IP, like Dune, where people can become familiar with WTF "Fremen" and "Shai-hulud" mean from the movies or mini-series.

This doesn't mean that original worlds should never have specialized terms, but they should likely be used sparingly, limited only to what's truly necessary to convey special setting information, and introduced with proper care to make sure people can become familiar with them.
 

lgm

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This thread has given me a bit of inspiration to run my group into a very foreign culture to their PCs and use odd or archaic terms for noble titles and job names (possibly cultural practices too). To communicate within a city, have them rely upon an interpreter who doesn't know how translate these into titles PCs can understand since he isn't fully versed in Common or whatever other languages know.

Cause a little misunderstanding. Make them struggle a little trying to get through the bureaucracy. Offend a noble or two. All the while they slowly learn the colorful language. Either they'll hate me for it or have fun figuring things out.
 

under_score

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Great question. This is kind of hard to really pin down. Sometimes setting-specific language can help build the setting, giving evocative names that capture the idea of a thing and set the mind to work extrapolating it. Other times using words borrowed from elsewhere can be an efficient shortcut, and choosing which word can draw parallels. Other times it comes off as so much nonsense and just gets in the way.
A few examples...
Castles & Crusades' Aihrde setting is one of my favorites. The Codex of Aihrde is challenging read as far as RPG books go, a Silmarillion style history of the world, its gods and its peoples. It has a glossary. Eahrtaut the Great Tree, Gonfod the Final Rin, Furthnopt the Five Gates of Huadun at the end of the Rimfelt (see also, Huadun and Rimfelt). It's kind of impenetrable, but I love reading it and in play when an NPC references any of these things it carries a weight. The setting comes to life in the language.
Hyperborea, on the other hand, mostly uses real word terminology. But it pulls from different time and places throughout history and everything is an analog of our world. This serves a dual purpose of being easily understood and building this sense of mythic history, legends connected to legends. It is, in my experience, the easiest setting to get new players' eyes to light up at the possibilities.
As a negative experience for setting-specific terms, one long time group decided to try out a particular game (not naming it because its fans annoy me) that was insistent on giving a new name to almost everything, just for the sake of being different. But mechanically it wasn't different, so the constant referencing X when we were all used to it being called Y, in a lame attempt at selling its setting through these inconvenient labels, grated us every minute of play. Funnily enough, sometimes when playing any of our other games someone will sometimes call X by Y just to get a rise out of everyone else - the rage of that stupid game lingers so.
 

daniel_ream

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This is the experience I'm currently having with Immortal: the Invisible War.
Wait, what? I thought I was the only person who actually owned that.

Fantastic game. Love it. Have the complete print run. You have to admire a designer who really leans into the "you know, the problem with 2nd ed World of Darkness is that it's just not pretentious <i>enough</i>" philosophy.

As for the topic at hand...I'm old enough to remember when people got into fantasy RPGs because they had a pre-existing interest in ancient or medieval history, either for literary or wargaming purposes, and didn't balk at having to do a bit of reading and research.

That said, one of the things that distinguishes fantasy literature from fantasy RPGs is that fantasy lit always begins with a character familiar to the reader in an environment familiar to the reader, who is then slowly exposed to the greater world in reader-digestible chunks. This is a mode I've not seen done in any fantasy RPG, the assumption seems to be that every player will have read a Silmarrillion worth of setting lore before sitting down to the very first session. This has always seemed unreasonable to me.
 

Rogerdee

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This is the experience I'm currently having with Immortal: the Invisible War. It's got a neat system and setting. But there is SOOOOOOO much jargon, it's nuts. Add to this the fact that the book's organization and layout are terrible, and it's no wonder many have pronounced this unplayable.

I think the authors were going for a very meta immersion style of play. But they renamed everyfrickenthing, and it's a pain in the ass.

Here are a couple of examples from the rulebook, and their translations.

"All Personas begin the experience with 15 points of immaculum in their Halo... These are initially fixed as Forte."

~means~

"Distribute 15 points among your character's attributes."


~or~

"All combatants start each Clash with with an automatic 1 Escapade. The number of additional Escapades that a persona recieves reflects how much Free Immaculum he did not allocate to any of the Halo colors..."

~means~

"Characters get 1 action per combat round, plus one additional action for every 3 points of Free Immaculum."

And so on and so forth, ad absurdum.


I know that I'm gonna end up using tried and true terms that my players are already familiar with for a lot of this stuff. No point passing the headache on to them.
This sounds like you're definitely using an older edition.


This link may helps you?
 

hawkeyefan

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I think minimal is the best approach. While setting specific jargon can help portray a different world, it can often serve as a barrier to players actually grasping the setting. If their characters are natives of the setting, then either use terms familiar to your players or else keep substitutions to a minimum, and also regularly remind them that “thakko” means chief or whatever.

In other words, if you want the players to feel like their characters belong in the setting, then facilitate that, don’t make it harder for them.

If the characters are newcomers to the setting....such as John Carter was to Mars....then maybe some more instances are justified because the character doesn’t know these things yet, so the players can learn along with them. But still....be reasonable. The right amount can be fun, too much and it’s just annoying. It begins to feel like the GM is giving the players a quiz about made up vocab.

And don’t admonish or punish players for not remembering the made up words. It was the GM’s decision to use them, the results are the GM’s responsibility.

As for game terms, I agree with those who’ve said to keep it simple and not to change terms just to try and be different. “Attributes” is perfectly clear and so widespread in gaming that you really need a compelling reason to use something else.
 

Gringnr

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This sounds like you're definitely using an older edition.


This link may helps you?
Yeah, actually it was that blog entry that got me to take a second look at Immortal. There is also a series of blog posts called FATAL And Friends that originated on the Something Awful forums. They have a lengthy dissection of Immortal, and though it is critical, it is detailed enough that it's quite useful.

Really, though, the game is neither as impenetrable or as bad as its reputation would suggest. It's got a cool and unique system, amd an interesting setting. The quick start rules in the back are a nice overview. It definitely could .have used an index (note to game devs: an index is like personal lubricant - if you have to ask whether or not you need it, you probably do, if not for your own sake, for that of the other parties involved). But, yeah, the game doesn't do itself any favors with its layout, and I get why so many people feel like the juice just isn't worth the squeeze.
 

arjunstc

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It depends. If it's a "real" word, but used to mean something rather different or specific in the game world, like "the Fade", "Tranquil", or "Chantry" as in Dragon Age, then it's not so bad. You got some specific dwarven words like "Thaig", which is fine. But then you got a lot more Elven words, used in phrases - that makes it harder to remember.

I do like how in The Expanse series you don't really have a glossary or exposition of Belter Creole, but you nevertheless pick it up along the way. Ke?
 

ffilz

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Wait, what? I thought I was the only person who actually owned that.

Fantastic game. Love it. Have the complete print run. You have to admire a designer who really leans into the "you know, the problem with 2nd ed World of Darkness is that it's just not pretentious <i>enough</i>" philosophy.

As for the topic at hand...I'm old enough to remember when people got into fantasy RPGs because they had a pre-existing interest in ancient or medieval history, either for literary or wargaming purposes, and didn't balk at having to do a bit of reading and research.

That said, one of the things that distinguishes fantasy literature from fantasy RPGs is that fantasy lit always begins with a character familiar to the reader in an environment familiar to the reader, who is then slowly exposed to the greater world in reader-digestible chunks. This is a mode I've not seen done in any fantasy RPG, the assumption seems to be that every player will have read a Silmarrillion worth of setting lore before sitting down to the very first session. This has always seemed unreasonable to me.
You must have missed Empire of the Petal Throne with it's "fresh off the boat" start for PCs...

I run my campaigns with no expectation that players have digested an encyclopedia. Of course these days, the benefit for players is that most of my realization that I'm probably never going to run settings much other than Pseudo European Medieval or the "D&D setting". My Glorantha fits that. Everything else I'm stoked to run fits that. Settings may have tweaks from that, but my recent disasters of trying to run settings outside that realm have made me realize I should stick to comfort. As long as you've had some exposure to something remotely genre applicable, you're probably fine.
 

Rogerdee

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Yeah, actually it was that blog entry that got me to take a second look at Immortal. There is also a series of blog posts called FATAL And Friends that originated on the Something Awful forums. They have a lengthy dissection of Immortal, and though it is critical, it is detailed enough that it's quite useful.

Really, though, the game is neither as impenetrable or as bad as its reputation would suggest. It's got a cool and unique system, amd an interesting setting. The quick start rules in the back are a nice overview. It definitely could .have used an index (note to game devs: an index is like personal lubricant - if you have to ask whether or not you need it, you probably do, if not for your own sake, for that of the other parties involved). But, yeah, the game doesn't do itself any favors with its layout, and I get why so many people feel like the juice just isn't worth the squeeze.
The trouble with Immortal in my mind is once you start looking at all the Drove books, then it gets suddenly overcomplicated.

Honestly I would replace serenades with force powers, or use space magic from Alpha Omega. It has a dark side, which would account for Dracula and such like. Plus you can get Alpha or Omega (dark side) spirits, and honestly would open up the cosmology far more to be played with.

I did re-write the AO space magic to be more SW like, and interesting.
 

Gringnr

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The trouble with Immortal in my mind is once you start looking at all the Drove books, then it gets suddenly overcomplicated.

Honestly I would replace serenades with force powers, or use space magic from Alpha Omega. It has a dark side, which would account for Dracula and such like. Plus you can get Alpha or Omega (dark side) spirits, and honestly would open up the cosmology far more to be played with.

I did re-write the AO space magic to be more SW like, and interesting.
Speaking strictly of 1e, I'm not aware of any Drove books. There was something for the Dracul, IIRC. And I know they have some 1e resources on the web. Are you talking about later editions? But I agree with you for sure. Too much lore is a problem, especially if it's extraneous. I remember never using the Vampire Clanbooks BITD because I was fine with the broad strokes in the core book.
 

Rogerdee

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Speaking strictly of 1e, I'm not aware of any Drove books. There was something for the Dracul, IIRC. And I know they have some 1e resources on the web. Are you talking about later editions? But I agree with you for sure. Too much lore is a problem, especially if it's extraneous. I remember never using the Vampire Clanbooks BITD because I was fine with the broad strokes in the core book.
Yeah I was talking about 2e, and 3e - the latter of which was never finished I believe, see below.


Cannot believe they got Claudia Christian (yes from B5) to do some stuff for them to use in their games.

Like you say, it became like any of the WoD type games - too lore heavy that I basically ignored a majority of them, and went with the basics; leaving me to bespoke to my needs.
 

xanther

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I definitely agree with you here. It reminds me of one of those games Gygax released in the 90's Lejendary Adventures or was it Dangerous Journeys? I get the two mixed up but am referring to the one in which Gary went out of his way to invent new nomenclature for the most banal RPG terms.
...
I always thought that was out of fear of being sued for some imagined IP infringement by TSR.
 

Lofgeornost

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When I ran John Carter last year, I had no problem with the terminology (like Jeddak and Thark) because I've read the stories. But none my players had read any so they kept stopping me and saying things like, "Barsoom? I thought this was Mars?"
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Yes, I think it’s a lot easier to use specialized in-setting terminology if a game is drawing on some set of books, movies, comics, etc. Then players and gms at least have a chance to absorb the vocabulary relatively painlessly before beginning the game. I don’t have any trouble with the Burroughs stuff myself, because I read all of his Mars stuff when I was young and loved it.

I have had some success with using a lot of in-setting terminology. My fantasy setting Gehennum had a 73,000-word cross-referenced encyclopaedia which must have had over five hundred entries. Some of those had English headwords, and some were people and places. But nevertheless I had troop types, military ranks, political statuses, aristocratic titles, administrative titles, weapons, social institutions, kinds of supernatural being, garments, parts of a city and parts of a house. It worked surprising well: I ran that setting for fifteen years with perhaps twenty different players. It might have helped that a great deal of the terminology was in borrowed Greek, as some of my players had studied Greece in Ancient History in high school.
That’s interesting. I wonder if part of the success might be that some of the terms have become English words (like polemarch and hierarch) and others would likely have resonances—e.g. Chrysophylax is the name of the dragon in “Farmer Giles of Ham.”

As for the topic at hand...I'm old enough to remember when people got into fantasy RPGs because they had a pre-existing interest in ancient or medieval history, either for literary or wargaming purposes, and didn't balk at having to do a bit of reading and research.

That said, one of the things that distinguishes fantasy literature from fantasy RPGs is that fantasy lit always begins with a character familiar to the reader in an environment familiar to the reader, who is then slowly exposed to the greater world in reader-digestible chunks. This is a mode I've not seen done in any fantasy RPG, the assumption seems to be that every player will have read a Silmarrillion worth of setting lore before sitting down to the very first session. This has always seemed unreasonable to me.
I’ve no objection to learning about the setting first, if I am going to run it; indeed, I enjoy that sort of reading. But you are quite right to point out that things are different for players. Often, they haven’t chosen the setting—the gm has—and they may have no particular interest in it. So it seems unreasonable to me to ask them to absorb a lot of terminology for things or institutions that could be described with familiar English terms.

I suppose I am more receptive to special terminology when it is based on a real-world base, like the one Agemegos Agemegos mentioned above. So if a game is set in a fantasy version of 10th-century Bulgaria and uses appropriate terms for various social ranks, etc., then great. If the terms are entirely constructed, though, I have less interest, unless they describe something for which there is no reasonable English equivalent.

Empire of the Petal Throne does a good job in this regard, IIRC. Of course, there is a lot of vocabulary to learn, but it is mainly for political units, creatures, divinities, etc. or things where a vanilla English equivalent would be misleading or awkward, like Aridani status for women. I guess one could call that ‘emancipated’ or something similar, but that sounds strange. Also, Barker was good about doubling special terminology with familiar words that indicate their meaning, for instance Sakbe roads and Hirilakte arenas. But priests are called priests, not a Tsolyani word for the profession.
 

daniel_ream

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Really, though, the game is neither as impenetrable or as bad as its reputation would suggest.

The biggest issue we found with it was the sheer amount of influences on a PC's behaviour the setting as stuffed with - the Babbler, Religarum, the competing former personalities, the whispering of the Sanguinary, it was like trying to drink from a firehose.

You must have missed Empire of the Petal Throne with it's "fresh off the boat" start for PCs

I've never seen a copy in the wild, so yes, I "missed it". Do you know of any other examples, or are there black swans in Australia?

Cannot believe they got Claudia Christian (yes from B5) to do some stuff for them to use in their games.

I can. I ran into her a couple of times during the late 90s/early 2000s on the con circuit. She's...an interesting individual. Also B5 cast members have about as much star power as the cast of your average Fireworks Entertainment made-for-syndication series.
 

Lofgeornost

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That part seems a bit odd to me. Why play in a game if one has no interest in the setting?
In my experience, it happens this way. You have a particular group of friends who get together to play RPGs. The person who gms—or who has been chosen to gm next for the group—wants to run a game set in Samurai Japan, or Star Trek in the DS 9 era, or Barsoom, or whatever. At least some of the group members who will be playing either know or care little about the setting the gm has chosen, but are willing to play because:
  • They have nothing in particular against the setting, or
  • They like the gm and feel he or she runs good games, regardless of setting, or
  • It’s what the group has decided to do, and you can’t please everybody all the time.
 

Agemegos

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That said, one of the things that distinguishes fantasy literature from fantasy RPGs is that fantasy lit always begins with a character familiar to the reader in an environment familiar to the reader, who is then slowly exposed to the greater world in reader-digestible chunks.

I'm not sure that that is quite true. It is a powerful technique, and often used, and I think it accounts for a lot of the prevalence and success of portal fantasy (such as Narnia) and wainscot fantasy (such as Harry Potter and American Gods). But it's not universal. I love the technique with a cold open on a distancing contrivance followed by indirect exposition, but I'll admit that it is more often used in foreign-lands fiction (e.g. by Kipling), SF (e.g. by Heinlein), and historical fiction (e.g. by Mary Renault): use in fantasy is rare but does occur (e.g. Poul Anderson used it in The Broken Sword and The Merman's Children, Gene Wolf in Soldier of the Mist, and Roberta MacAvoy in Damiano). It's difficult, and often spoiled by clunky "as you know" dialogue, but it is done, and I love when it is done well. At the opposite extreme (and more relevant to the topic), you find that high fantasy (i.e. that set in a wholly other world with no supposed connection to reality) sometimes begins with fifteen closely-set pages of Prologue: Concerning Hobbits (as in The Lord of the Rings) or with a page of omniscient remarks about Gont and its people (as in A Wizard of Earthsea).

This is a mode I've not seen done in any fantasy RPG

I don't think I have ever run or played any portal fantasy, but I have both run and played soft pretty soft-science sci-fi with PCs from Earth transported to weird worlds (like, but not, Barsoom or Pellucidar). And I have definitely run wainscot fantasy — Vampire and Werewolf and other stuff involving monsters and secret magic in the 'real' world, including campaigns in which the PCs have discovered it in play as the players learned about it.

the assumption seems to be that every player will have read a Silmarrillion worth of setting lore before sitting down to the very first session. This has always seemed unreasonable to me.

I think there is a defensible argument for an RPG setting requiring a few pages of briefing material for players (though not, I think, three hundred pages such as would constitute the actual Silmarillion). The character-players in an RPG take a much more active role than the readers of a book or the audience of a movie or TV series. The characters have to be somebody and do things right from the beginning, and without a basis of knowledge about the setting it is extremely difficult either to conceive and design a character who might be there or to do anything in the early scenes that makes the least bit of sense.
 
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Agemegos

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If it is a setting book it needs good glossary.

Good point! The fantasy setting that I mentioned before, the one that had the big encyclopaedia, also had three glossaries, one for use with games set in its Archaic Period, one for use with games set in its Classical Period, and one for use with games set in its Decadent period. Each had about 120 entries.
 

daniel_ream

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But it's not universal

Near as dammit. It doesn't have to be someone from our world thrown into a secondary world; the opening just has to be immediately familiar and apprehensible to the reader. For example...

as in The Lord of the Rings

Hobbits are rural English countryfolk, straight up. The Bagginses are the country gentry, the Gamgees are the gaffers wot serves 'em. In 1954, every prospective reader would have instantly recognized the culture and society.

I don't think I have ever run or played any portal fantasy, but I have both run and played

I should have been more specific: I've not seen it done in any published high fantasy RPG.

The characters have to be somebody and do things right from the beginning, and without a basis of knowledge about the setting it is extremely difficult either to conceive and design a character who might be there or to do anything in the early scenes that makes the least bit of sense.

This is, I think, the Gordian knot in question. My point is merely that it seems insoluble simply because it is based on a number of assumptions about how fantasy RPG campaigns must begin and how fantasy RPG settings ought to be constituted; I don't think those assumptions are incontrovertible.
 

VisionStorm

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In my experience, it happens this way. You have a particular group of friends who get together to play RPGs. The person who gms—or who has been chosen to gm next for the group—wants to run a game set in Samurai Japan, or Star Trek in the DS 9 era, or Barsoom, or whatever. At least some of the group members who will be playing either know or care little about the setting the gm has chosen, but are willing to play because:
  • They have nothing in particular against the setting, or
  • They like the gm and feel he or she runs good games, regardless of setting, or
  • It’s what the group has decided to do, and you can’t please everybody all the time.

Also, sometimes people just want to play a RPG and aren't picky about the setting, or even know enough about RPGs (if they're noobs). Even if they're experienced players, maybe they haven't played in a while and will play whatever, as long as they get to play.
 
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