Friday, September 22, 2006

Technique: The Magic of Yevaud's Name

"You are a very young wizard," the dragon said, "I did not know men came so young into their power." He spoke, as did Ged, in the Old Speech, for that is the tongue of dragons still. Although the use of the Old Speech binds a man to truth, this is not so with dragons. It is their own language, and they can lie in it, twisting the true words to false ends. . . "Is it to ask my help that you have come here, little wizard?"

"No dragon."

"Yet I could help you. You will need help soon, against that which hunts you in the dark . . . What is it that hunts you? Name it to me."

"If I could name it -- " Ged stopped himself. . . .

"If you could name it you could master it, maybe, little wizard . . . Would you like to know its name?". . . .

"But I did not come here to play, or to be played with. I came to strike a bargain with you."

Like a sword in sharpness but five times the length of any sword, the point of the dragon's tail arched up scorpion-wise over his mailed back, above the tower. Dryly, he spoke: "I strike no bargains. I take. What have you to offer that I cannot take from you when I like?"

"Safety. Your safety. Swear that you will never fly eastward of Pendor, and I will swear to leave you unharmed. . .

A grating sound came from the dragon's throat . . . "You offer me safety! You threaten me! With what?"

"With your name, Yevaud."

Ged's voice shook as he spoke the name, yet he spoke it clear and loud. At the sound of it, the old dragon held still, utterly still.

[Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea]

Ms. Le Guin is a very wise lady. Names ARE magical. And they are potent, potent tools in the hands of role-playing gamers.

When you name something in a role-playing game, whether a character, a house or inn, a city, or a sword, you make it just a little more real, more substantial, to everyone else. A sword found in a tomb? Big deal. The Sword of Seven Shadows found in the tomb of Aras-Ekbar? That's something special.

When you introduce something new to the shared fiction you are creating with your group, name it! It will create a connection between the others at the table (and yourself!) and the fictional element.

You can do some pretty neat tricks if you get creative with your naming. For instance, you can assign different earthly languages to cultures in a fantasy game. One group that I'm currently playing in keeps a Mongolian to English dictionary at the table. Any time we need a name for a character or a ship or an island, we dive into the dictionary and pull one out.

Assigning different cultures to different languages creates auditory differentiation between the two cultures in a recognizable but pleasingly subtle way.

Or I go to Chris Pound's Name Generation page, or the super cool Random Name Generator (which uses US Census data), to generate pages of names that I bring to the game table. Whenever a name is needed, I grab it off the list, making a quick note next to the game about who or what is getting named.

When you have a list of named characters generated from the technique, you can perform a version of a more advanced technique that the Durham 3 have been talking about quite a bit lately: reincorporation.

When you want to bring in a character, run down your list and see if anyone of the characters you've previously introduced would suit the role. If so, bring the character back and reincorporate it into the fiction. The other players will love you for it!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Technique: The Language of Gesture

A core strength of our hobby is the fact that we sit face to face with each other and can interact on that primal human level (I apologize for leaving out those of you who play online, but this technique is purely for face-to-face play). That simple fact opens a whole range of rich communication options that are not available to us otherwise. I mean, of course, kinesics, or body language.

You can give your play a little extra punch and color by using body language selectively to emphasize a feeling at the table and add spice to interactions between characters, particularly if your play style tends toward first person, "in character" portrayal. The technique is a bit less useful for players who tend to guide their characters' actions and interactions in the third person, though it can still be used to great effect in certain instances. You can get by with just a handful of simple gestures and postures, though players who are really interested in portrayal may want to do more. But really, the most important thing is to make an effort to stay more aware of your own body language and that of the other players in the room with you.

So what can you do with body language? I suggest selecting a gesture/posture or two that corresponds to a particular character, based on the role the character is playing. It will make the character stand out and provide cues to everyone else about the character. Choose the number of gestures/postures based on how important the character is. Simple walk-ons should only have one. Important antagonists will probably have a few postures and gestures that stand out, while the protagonists will probably use many. If you play multiple characters in the course of a session, a list of gestures/postures and the attitudes they convey could be a handy resource.

For instance, you can signal your character's respect and liking for another character through the use of Angular Distance. In general, people square up, address and aim their upper bodies at people they like, admire and agree with. Conversely, people tend to angle their torsos away from people they dislike or disagree with.

Angular distance can be used to reinforce a message of animosity when a character is dealing with an enemy. You can also use it more subtly. For instance, perhaps you are portraying a character that is supposedly friendly or an ally, but is in reality working to betray a character with whom he is interacting. Angular distance can be used to telegraph the coming betrayal.

If you wish to communicate that a character expresses dominance, superiority, confidence or haughtiness, you can use Antigravity Signs. Use palm-down gestures when speaking to signal authority, and square your shoulders, lift your face and chin, and otherwise raise yourself up to indicate that you mean business. Tilting your head back by lifting your chin and leaning backward to look down your nose is an example of an antigravity sign that can be used to signal superiority, arrogance and disdain.

Crossed Arms can indicate a number of things. If you hold your arms and elbows close to your body, it can indicate nervousness and defensiveness. On the other hand, if you hold your arms and elbows less tightly to your body, with the elbows slightly elevated and pointing outward, it can indicate a guard-like stance, suggesting arrogance, dislike or disagreement.

A Hand Behind the Head, including grasping or scratching the ear, or touching the side of the face or neck, can indicate uncertainty, conflict, disagreement, frustration, anger, or dislike. It can also telegraph unresolved issues that need to be verbalized and explored. In fact, the hand behind the head gesture is an example of a Probing Point. Other examples include pursing your lips, shrugging your shoulders, clearing your throat or bobbing your adam's apple (assuming you have one, of course). Probing points signal that a word or phrase has touched a nerve, and represent a strategic opportunity to search between spoken comments. If you want to telegraph that a character has unvoiced agendas, unrevealed attitudes or hidden uncertainties, a probing point can do the trick.

A Gaze Down, either by looking downward with the eyes or tilting the whole head downward, can be used to convey defeat, guilt, shame or submissiveness, while a Head Tilt to the Side can be used to indicate friendliness, rapport, coyness (as in courtship), or submission.

There are obviously many other signs as well. The Non-Verbal Dictionary can serve as a quick and ready source, and you can find other examples here.

Use this technique sparingly, like a spice, and don't get too caught up in it. Afterall, paying attention to the others at the table and what they're saying should be your number one priority. But a little non-verbal communication can really help everyone get into the mood of what's happening at the table.

This technique was inspired by Keith Sen(k)owski, creator of the role-playing games Conspiracy of Shadows and untitled.

If you have an idea for a technique you'd like me to share, write me at

Friday, September 15, 2006

Technique: Jared's Rule of Three

In Jared A. Sorensen's award-winning game octaNe: premium uNleaded, the psychotronic game of post-modern trash-culture america, there is a gem of technique hidden among the sprawling mass of sheer coolness that comprises the game.

Jared calls it 'Detailing.' I call it Jared's Rule of Three. In octaNe, Jared writes:

When describing how your character looks, here's a trick: only write down three details. Nobody really cares about your character's exact height and weight or the color of his eyes. C'mon, really. What you should describe are the things that really stand out:
  • Wears a raggedy tuxedo and horn-rimmed glasses. Carries a fender guitar.

  • Dresses in dusty leathers and wears a jury-rigged brace on his leg. Has a sawed-off shotgun slung on his back.

  • Huge dude wearing wrestling boots and a red leather mask decorated with orange and yellow flames.

  • Has a tattoo of dice on his neck that says "Born to Lose." Wears a cowboy hat and a big gold chain.

  • Small monkey wearing an orange sash and carrying a small stick.

  • Hot chick with spiked heels. She's wearing a tight black cat suit that's unzipped to her navel.

  • Bipedal gila monster. He's wearing off-the-shoulder overalls, and he's chewing a toothpick.

So here's an official rule: You can only describe three distinct details about your character's appearance.

Extrapolating a bit, Jared's Rule of Three can be a powerful tool in our arsenal for bringing more color into our games. And a comforting one too. You don't need long descriptions laden with carefully-selected adjectives to inject a serious dose of color into your games. In fact, that would be counterproductive, in my experience. The more someone drones on and on about details, the more likely others are to tune out and grow bored.

Details are like salt. A touch releases flavor. Too much makes the entire dish unpalatable or even inedible.

Instead, take some inspiration from Jared's Rule of Three. But don't confine it to characters. If you have the opportunity to describe something, give it one to three short, succinct details that make it stand out. Use the technique for characters, locations, objects, or anything else that you want to introduce into the narrative fiction that you and your friends are creating. Have trouble coming up with details on the fly? Keep a list of cool adjectives/descriptors on a notepad, and cross them off when you've used them.

Try it. Your game will start dripping with cool.

If you have an idea for a technique you'd like me to share, write me at

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Technique: The Importance of the Words Previously, Meanwhile and Later

While working on Burning Empires, one of the things that became very clear to us was the importance of color description. You can see me wrestling with the concepts in a previous post, The Algebra of Setting in RPGs.

Especially in games with lots of points of contact (interface with the rules), it is often a natural tendency to start playing the mechanics with little or no description of what's actually happening in the fiction. Examples include scripting a combat in Burning Wheel with little or no reference to what the combat looks or feels like, playing the cards to a conflict in Nine Worlds without adequately narrating the action, or a fight in D&D that comes down to a series of rolls and statements of "I hit" and "I miss."

The lack of color description for the scene can lead to feelings of disconnection and boredom.

There is a similar risk in games with few points of contact, like Primetime Adventures, if players push too hard toward conflicts without letting scenes breathe and take on gravity. (for additional discussion of an intimately related problem, check out this excellent thread at Story-Games).

Now, the revelation that color description is important in role-playing games probably seems obvious. But if we were all to take a really rigorous look a the way we play, I suspect we would find that we mostly offer a lot less color description to each other than we think. I'm hoping that this post will become the first in a series of irregular short features on relatively simple, painless techniques we can use to introduce more color to our gaming.

But first, why is color important? Here's what I wrote in the post I referenced above, The Algebra of Setting in RPGs:

"Color consists of the details that allow the participants in the game to imagine a location [Thor's note: scene, rather than location, would have been a more appropriate word choice] and how it works. It's the stuff that makes us feel as if we're there. When we describe the leaves of the trees in the elven forest, the population of a village, the creaking churn of the watermill wheel, the clothes your character is wearing, or the manner of succession for the kingdom, that's color.

"One of my favorite Robert E. Howard Conan stories is Red Nails (if you haven't read it, I urge you to follow the link and read it now. It's good stuff!) Howard is a master at throwing in bits of color that flavor everything: the dragons in the forest, Derketa's apples, the roofed city of Xotalanc, the Door of the Eagle, and the black pillar with its red nails. The details are cool, but they're not the soul of the story. We could remove those details and completely replace them and it wouldn't alter the core story, although it would affect the feel.

"In RPGs, color is introduced by players and GMs to fill in the gaps and smooth out the seams in the imagined environment we create together. Those details are integral to making the play environment feel real to us, but they don't really serve any other purpose and the game won't fall apart if they're not there, though parts might feel a little flat."

I'm going to repeat the last bit, because I think it's really important: Color is introduced by players and GMs to fill in the gaps and smooth out the seams in the imagined environment we create together.

One of the most important points to take away from this statement is that PLAYERS, as well as GMs, are responsible for introducing color and helping everyone gain a better imagination of a scene.

With that meandering preamble, on to the very important words: previously, meanwhile and later.

One of the simplest bits of color we can provide each other while playing is context about the temporal location of a scene. Even if there is no overt connection between two scenes (i.e., they're in different places, involve different characters, are about different issues), telling everyone else at the table when a scene falls chronologically in relation to the scene or scenes just played will forge a connection between the scenes. This is a principle that has been proven true over and over again in the world of sequential art (comics). Scott McCloud explains this in an accessible and incredibly illuminating manner in his truly excellent work, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

When you tell the audience that the current scene happened before the scene we just played, or is happening during the scene just played, or after the scene just played, you create a connection between the two scenes. Because human minds seem to be predisposed toward organizing events into narratives, we just naturally start to fill in the gaps between the two events and find a way to turn them into a cohesive whole.

In other words, using the words previously, meanwhile and later to give each scene a chronological tag will help you draw the whole group into your shared narrative. Try being rigorous about using this technique and tell me what happens!