Vocabulary is Magic

Paul Beakley over at the Indie Game Reading Club said the titular phrase and it’s really stuck with me as I work on White Line Nightmare’s skill list. Why is this so hard? Isn’t the RPG skill list a solved problem at this point? Why not adapt the countless lists of skills, actions, traits, or attributes that already exist?

True Names

Perfectly aligning a word on a character sheet with the rules, actions, and theme of a game is an undeniable high of self-congratulatory cleverness. Sometimes rpg design is a puzzle to be solved – you might not have the picture on the box but you can feel it when the pieces fit.

Sometimes I think designing artsy games is the indie community’s version of lonely fun.

Ralph Mazza

Glancing at itch.io, I’d say that’s about right (says the guy writing a blog post about naming skills).

Twee vs. Usable

At its best, the skill list in your game (or however you define the way characters mechanically engage with the world) should evoke and reinforce setting and theme, but at a minimum you need to account for usability. When you play a game and fall into a trap where you have to discuss “what do I roll to do this?” from a place of confusion, that’s a poor user experience.

I want to clarify “from a place of confusion”. Sometimes the game will bake in a discussion about what to roll – that’s okay! Choosing certain traits over others in Cortex Prime is part of the game. It characterizes your action and gives context for it. In Blades in the Dark, the action the player chooses ties directly into the position/effect matrix in subtle ways.

It’s also worth noting that who chooses what to roll matters. In D&D typically the GM says what skill to roll, falling back to awkward discussion only in some edge cases. It’s a pretty usable skill list, honed by years of play, but other than the knowledge skills like Arcana, History, Religion, and Nature reinforcing the class-based nature of the game and the kinds of lore one might encounter, it’s also a fairly bland skill list.

In Blades, the player chooses what action to roll, and the GM might alter position or effect. Putting control in the players’ hands feels good. It’s one less thing for the GM to adjudicate, and because the player chooses the action, it frees up Forged in the Dark designers to play with vocabulary a little more. I think there’s a subtle trap here, though, and that’s because the GM can alter position/effect based on the player’s action. It means that although the choice of action is up to the player, the GM might actually have a “right answer” that’s not clear right away. It’s not an insurmountable problem – you go back and discuss and get on the same page – but it’s not as cut and dried as it sounds and it requires some real thought about vocabulary, especially when you move into other Forged in the Dark games. You can change the game by changing the names. It’s the first thing I look for when a FitD game catches my eye.

The second thing is “did they even bother to replace Attune?” but that’s a rant for another time.

Mad Libs

Whatever else these FitD games might change (and some of them alter quite a lot!), some of their vocabulary choices for actions stand out to me.

Glow in the Dark: You Can’t Be Nice to People

There have been a lot of innovations in the FitD space since I made Glow in the Dark. Hell, I released it before the phrase “Forged in the Dark” was even a thing, back when Scum and Villainy was still in early access. Most of the game is Mad Libs, but I’m proud of some subtle changes to the action list. Blades in the Dark has Consort, Sway, and Command to cover social interactions. In Glow in the Dark, these have been shifted to become Barter, Boss, and Sway. Sway is identical and Boss is essentially a renamed Command, but you’ll notice there’s no Consort anymore. Barter has taken its place, which makes everything in the Wasteland transactional, deceptive, or about domination. There is no place for friendship here.

Flame Without Shadow: The Doink Doink

The Blades DLC where you play cops changes a lot of the core rules in just 13 pages, but the replacement of the entire action list reinforces the fact that Bluecoats and their ilk think and act completely differently from their scoundrel counterparts. In Blades, a scoundrel might Survey or Hunt a person or lead; the Bluecoat Sweeps. Every action is a cop word. Special shout-out to Fathom, which is the closest thing to Disco Elysium’s Shivers I’ve seen in an rpg so far.

Scum and Villainy: Whatever the Opposite of Parkour Is

I think Scum and Villainy‘s biggest changes are in its playbooks, but there’s a subtle action shift that nails the difference between its pulpier action sci-fi tone and Blades’ darker, more measured grit. In Blades, you might Prowl about unseen and traverse obstacles; climb, swim, run, jump, and tumble. In S&V, you Scramble to a position or away from danger; lift, run, climb, jump, or swim; traverse harsh environments. They’re both the “movement” action, but they beautifully illustrate the power of vocabulary. Picture these two sentences:

  • Luke prowled across the moonlit rooftop.
  • Luke scrambled across the moonlit rooftop.

That one change altered your entire mental image of that action, didn’t it?

Copperhead County: You Can Hear the Drawl

Copperhead County is my favorite Forged in the Dark game. It’s interesting because although it’s still about crews of criminal underdogs in a world that’s bigger than them, moving the setting to the modern American South (specifically 2022 Tennessee) required a nigh-complete overhaul to center the game in that particular blend of culture, capitalism, and corruption. I’m gonna talk about just two actions, though.

In CC you Reckon to use your brain to study and solve problems. In other games you might Analyze or Study, but you can hear the drawl dripping off the Reckon action. It reminds you where you are, even if you’re playing the game on a video call in Ireland.

While Copperhead County also retains the fairly usual FitD social action trio of “fraud, frighten, and friend”, Connect has a more open, honest vibe to it and it contrasts with some of the grimier criminal activities in the game in much the same way as characters from similar media contrast their civilian and criminal lives. In a game where your crew might be an actual family, Connect reminds you that there’s more to life than blowing shit up.

Blow shit up – as a family!

Use Your Words

Turns out naming things is pretty hard, but it’s worth it, especially when the words you choose are going on a character sheet. Take the time to nail the vibe and your games will be better for it.

Title photo by Joshua Hoehne

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