Language as mechanic

I’m working on a design with a friend—my first game design ever—and I wanted to run it by the community and get some impressions. For the purposes of this post, it’s a traditional fantasy RPG with a Blades-esque dice pool and a Trophy-esque skill system (occupation & rituals), with an emphasis on language kind of like TechNoir (verbs/adjectives). Put simply, it’s a game designed around different kinds of tags: skill tags (investigate, sneak), arcane tags (fracture, hivemind), gear/weapon tags (loud, reload), stress tags (fracture, paranoid), etc. There are no weapon/armor bonuses or anything; the world and the interactions are narrowed only through the tags themselves. You get 1 die and add to the pool for skill/arcane tag, leaning into a drive, or helping another (4 dice max).

Players and the GM are asked to play with these tags, use the flexibility of language to promote creativity, and advance or narrow their terms as they grow. I provide a short list of some interesting tags, but there is no definitive list to pull from. Just the dictionary (from Oxford to Urban). It’s intentionally stripped down, as it was originally designed for (and playtested with) English undergraduates hopping in and out of a weekly game with little to no experience in RPGs.

I’m not even sure what questions to ask, since I’ve never done this before. I know it functions, but I don’t know if it promotes creativity as much as I want it to. How do you encourage wordplay mechanically? And is wordplay a stable enough mechanic to run a game (in your mind)? Given this description, what questions would you have/need addressed before playing/GMing? What am I missing?

Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

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This mechanic reminds me of City of Mist. In that game, you increase your odds of success by invoking descriptor tags. For example, if my Private Eye has a tag like “brawny” or “gruff” I might be able to invoke it when they interrogate a suspect.

I think the hard part about this mechanic, and it happened a lot in my game, is keeping track of all those tags. A character quickly bloats with endless tags if you don’t build some sort of system that allows players to “chunk” or prioritize that information into relevant, digestible bits.

On that note, I think the human brain can only hold something like 7 concepts at once with any level of competence. After 3 concepts they immediately begin ranking them or losing focus.

How do I encourage wordplay mechanically? Mixing verbs with adjectives feels like a cool way to encourage unique characters or play. Each player and their character might have the same intended results but completely different means (and therefore different consequences when they fail).

Questions or things that need to be addressed. This is probably obvious, but with a system so dependent on language, the setting or theme of your game is probably more important than ever. If the dictionary is your mechanical playground, the setting is the only thing that will narrow the player’s focus to certain parts of that language. For example, we can probably throw out all love and cutesy connotation words if your game was in a grimdark future. Meanwhile, if the setting was Pride and Prejudice we could safely ignore most words you’d see in a game like D&D.

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Your tags sound a lot like aspects in Fate.

From what you’ve written, it sounds as though combining tags is an imaginative act but has little to do with wordplay per se. ‘Wordplay’ implies to me things like puns, alliteration and metaphors.

Two games I can think of which explicitly use wordplay as part of their mechanics are The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is a storytelling game where literary style is rewarded mechanically, and Swords Without Master, in which imagery and lines of dialogue advance the plot. You might look here for inspiration.

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It is like City of Mist and Fate. Most indie games seem to use tags in some capacity as modifiers, bonuses, and delimiters. Here, as in Trophy, the words are the moves. To that end, I love the point about the dictionary as a mechanical playground, and the opportunities and challenges therein. Maybe that’s what the tag list I provide can do: delimit the setting, with an explanation for how/why that language is particularly appropriate. And I also agree, maybe “wordplay” isn’t the right word to use here… how ironic.

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I just want to start by saying this is so interesting to me. I have been delving into this for the last few years, moving from traditional roleplaying games to storytelling games to story games. The world of story games blew my mind, and while I love the collaborative story gaming experience, I do not like the mechanics in most of them. I don’t say that from a mechanics perspective but from a semantic and thematic. I think story games can be pushed further, especially in terms of how rules are described and used in gameplay. In my opinion, using language for that isn’t something I’ve seen too often. I’ve found so many good games I enjoy for various reasons, and some use language very interestingly, but not fully, and not as a foundation for the rest of the mechanics. But I think you’re on to something worth digging into more.

I build my own game engine (and still revise it from the latest findings from playtests and feedback), doing much of what you do with yours, and it is quite similar; a small dice pool (1-4), tags/aspects/descriptors that work as the only modifiers/ advantages/disadvantages, but also some comparison mechanics. From the start, I didn’t have any traits or numerics and built the dice pool only from the tags applied from a character or a given situation, but moved towards a hybrid design with numeric traits that determined the dice pool while using tags as modifiers. While I loved my description-centered idea and how it played into the conversation between players, I realized a few things after some testing:

  • If all rolls are player-centric (which they were for me), players had to present their tags used for each dice pool roll every time, so everyone was on board with why a character was so good at a thing.
    • This problem could probably be addressed by skipping the tag presentation and trust them to roll what they have, or by placing less focus on rolls in general. But this creates less transparency and instead increases the learning curve (as other players can’t easily see or understand how to build a dice pool).
  • Whenever a character performed a commonly used action, getting a tag presentation before each roll - every time - was perceived as narration-bloating with repetitive mechanics initially designed to stay in the background. As a consequence, players felt like they were forced to make an unnecessary context switch between resolution mechanics and narration to follow what’s happening.
    • This problem could probably be countered with training and experience, as you will get a feeling of what tags everyone has around the table. But it will take time to get there.
  • With a focus on tags, a subtle game of min-maxing them can appear and generate quite odd behaviors in some players, especially those who enjoy playing with mechanics to ‘win.’ Not everyone does it, but beware if you don’t want to run that type of game.
    • Not sure what could solve that. I guess when you have a lot of usable factors available to players, they will eventually be exploited.

My own takeaway from my iterations and the feedback from the testing was that more tags aren’t necessarily better. If you make it very open, so that everyone can create or add tags freely, my recommendation would be to make it clear how it works and what limitations there are.

Not sure if this gave you any useful insights, but if you want to see my designs as a reference, feel free to drop me a DM!

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Thanks for the great feedback. My play tests were a little different. No min/max, but sloppy usage that rendered the language overly flexible. That was on me and my GMing, though.

I’d be curious to see how you married the rhetorical and the numeric. In an early iteration, i tried to create levels of traits like Mothership, granting an extra die for narrow or more complicated actions. But language doest quite fit that kind of structuring.

now that i write this though, maybe the actions are verbs and players can acquire permanent modifiers. So if the base move is “investigate” and they advance the skill they acquire the modifier “sneaky.” If they investigate In a sneaky way, they grab an extra die. Basically a player will select their action (Verb) and can add additional modifiers (adjective, adverbs).

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I didn’t marry the rhetorical and the numerical. I tried, but the feedback was clear, so it became a darling to kill :slight_smile: Instead, I moved from a forced structure that didn’t feel natural (or as natural as I hoped for) to a more traditional setup with numerics (which was one of my goals to stay away from) in combination with tags and descriptors.

However, in my current version of the game, my tags are more than just fictional cues; they have a mechanical impact and can be played with, much as you describe. To give one example, tags work with scales (tiny, regular, large, huge etc) and by comparison to create a simple system of modifiers.

For instance, if you try to hide from a gang that searches for you, you make a roll with disadvantage because they are more than you. If the search party instead is a mob, one step larger than a gang, you’re instead at major disadvantage.

This gives some room to play with tags, and also charge tags with some mechanical variation. Finally, I found it also makes it possible to integrate tags into the narration from both a player and MCs perspective, without making too much of a context switch.

Hey, just a side note to say that, if you want language to structure your play, I think you should use tags, and NOT repeat them every time. Story logic trumps realism.

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There are a lot of games that do interesting things with language. I could say more if you could describe the game and system you have in place in more detail, as well as the kind of gameplay you’re hoping to encourage. What is the purpose of the wordplay in your game, in other words? What kind of behaviour do you want to see at the table?

Are you familiar with any of these games?

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • The Pool
  • Polaris
  • The Bureau (very obscure; one of mine)
  • Fudge
  • Universalis
  • Archipelago
  • Lady Blackbird

A long time ago, I put together an alternate version of the Fudge rules which relied on Adverbs, which was really interesting. I never ended up playing it, but in theory it could allow us to use very natural language in play, while interacting seamlessly with dice.

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And to clarify a bit more, here’s how I describe how you assess the situation for a ‘challenge’ in my game:


When the narration comes to a moment of danger or tipping point with an uncertain outcome, you must face a challenge. A challenge forces you to test yourself and roll dice to determine the outcome. To more easily assess the situation, try to bring in traits and facets into the narration, by using a formula similar to this;

  • As I am [trait] with a [background] heritage/path/calling (and expertise in [expertise] ), I try to ______ .

The exact structure and content of the above example can be altered to fit your character and situation. A few examples;

  • As I am very vigorous with a military life path, I charge them like I’m trained to!
  • As I am only somewhat gracious but have a path in life among the guilds and expertise in trading, I try to negotiate the deal!
  • As I’m not a particularly aware person but have an outlaw heritage, I try to find a dead tree trunk or burrow to escape the pursuers!

So, traits are formatted as descriptive adjectives, and a character can have 0 to 3 dots in each. You can choose to just say that, or you can also use descriptors like ‘not very …’ (0 dots), ‘somewhat …’ (1 dot), ‘very …’ (2 dots), or ‘extremely …’ (3 dots). On top of that, facets (my name for tags) add dice as advantages or disadvantages (rolling additional dice, keeping either the highest/lowest of the results). Facets are your background aspects, expertises, tools, secrets and other stuff that gives you an edge. They stack up and are cumulative, meaning they can neutralize one another if some work against each other.

Initially I aimed for something more conversation-friendly, but I’ve come to realize that this compromise takes me as close as I can come to my initial design goal, without making it too hard to grasp or to linguistically forced.

Here’s a link to my current, WIP version of it, if you want to have a look: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1MtE3V9jJh6A1ibLg9GKMdXHOqHCQZWXMuiG12j2OVHs

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OK that’s clear. To minimize information load in a similar design, I used props like : icons and colours to differentiate between traits and lifepaths ; tokens (dice or cards) to easily add up degrees of engagements (which I use like you do “somewhat / extremely”). These tokens act like charges, so that Traits are not used repeatedly (which would be boring). The mechanism for replenishing these charges give me another way to tip players in whatever direction I want the game to go (= extrinsic reward).

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Oh, cool! Looks like you have chosen to use adverbs, like I did in my provisional Fudge rules a long time ago.

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Fate was a great inspiration to me a few years ago, especially the aspects that I found soo satisfying to deal with, but I never really settled with the flow of the game. Fudge was the predecessor, right?

That’s right! FATE started out as a sort of Fudge hack. The original Fudge doesn’t have Aspects, however.