Casting Text Before Players
Fantasy Cows Still Say Moo
I use a lot of text in my games. Part of this is because I am a very text-focused person. If I’m listening to someone, there’s a bit of my brain engaged in rendering the words into text so I can read them instead, and I can’t see text without it entering my brain, even upside down or backwards. So I express myself primarily through text, and speaking out loud is just because I don’t always have a keyboard handy.
This means that players in my games usually get heaps of text. These days, that comes in two forms - downtime stuff in Discord (or sometimes email), and in-world documents.
The downtime material is more ephemeral. I’ll ask on the relevant Discord channel “so, while you’re resting, is there anything you want to ask [NPC]?” or “You have two days in [town], what kind of things do you want to find out or do?”. Some players engage more with this than others; there are people who are delighted to get more game in outside the actual hours, and there are people who… just don’t respond to that, and I suppose there could be any number of reasons for that. Mostly I think it takes them some effort to shift into the game-related, character-related mode of thinking, and they don’t have the spoons to do so in short bursts. While I absolutely have difficulties with shifting into other modes (“work”, for instance), I never have an issue going into game mode.
But still, for the players who do enjoy it, it’s a way to get some more stuff about the world and the immediate situation out there, without taking up in-game time with conversation between one player and one or more NPCs.
The in-world documents, though, that’s where I really put in work, and where the campaign world is most clearly portrayed. They’re sometimes brochures, sometimes letters, sometimes pages torn from books, sometimes documents passed around an organisation, sometimes prayers to specific gods, sometimes broadsheets. I used to print them out, and there’s an archive somewhere in the house of about 30 consecutive issues of a local broadsheet (A4, two sides) which goes from “stuff the player characters might interact with” to “stuff the player characters caused”. These days they get passed on as reasonably well-formatted Google Docs, or sometimes PDFs.
Here are a few examples from the two current campaigns:
There’s a somewhat delicate balance to be struck here. On the one hand, such documents allow me to give out a lot of supporting information about the world, and I really enjoy making them. On the other, I can’t rely on passing plot-essential information that way. So they have to be all supporting information, still fairly entertaining, and not give essential plot information away. This is why they’re in-world documents; I write them from the point of view of a character in the world, who has their own misconceptions, illusions, ideals and indeed agenda. Also, writing in an abstract passive-ish voice for pages and pages is dull, and I can’t do it outside of the context of academic papers. Which reminds me that I want to write some academic papers in-world in Utterbaum.
It’s not terribly easy to assess the usefulness of these documents in the game. On the one hand, I know some players do really appreciate them. On the other, I know some other players never read them. They don’t seem to make any concrete difference in either type of players’ enjoyment of the game. And since I enjoy making them, it’s not like I’m going to stop doing so to see what impact it has.
One of the weird rabbitholes I’ve managed to avoid for years now is the language spoken and written in the game world. “Common” is a transparent dodge from good world-building into game convenience; I hate it. That’s why the “common language”, the language the player characters speak to others and to NPCs always has a name. In my older campaign world of Davon, it’s “the trade tongue”. In Utterbaum, it’s “Isles”, which in turn is a dialect of Lantern. In Heliomar, it’s the imperial language of Ayuuran. All of these are, of necessity, represented as English. So my in-world documents are in English. Mostly, this is grand, and doesn’t give anyone else but me a sense of discontinuity. It’s when translation arises, or when a language is important to the plot, as Ancient Heliomaran (itself the trade tongue overlaid on a few hundred other languages) is in Heliomar, that I start to get tangled up in issues of semantics and representation of accents, and so on. I have avoided trying to construct conlangs; I’m not a linguist, and I think anything more than a few words invented is overdoing things. Tolkien was a linguist, so he gets a bye on this.
For Davon, I represented different places as having accents and languages close to Earth ones, so that the city of Marin spoke ~Dutch, Elsaive spoke ~Hindi, Ralhi Murad spoke ~Spanish, and Dilis Amarin spoke ~French. And since the Trade Tongue, derived from Amarite, sounded in-world like medieval French, I was able to call that enough. The sound of the language was important to me as well; I had a dream once about a conversation with Noam Chomsky in which he pronounced gravely that “fantasy cows still say moo; the sound of a language tells you something about the speaker”.
Mostly my current issue with written language is forcing myself not to invent Heliomaran hieroglyphs, and making myself use Greek-ish but not actually Greek names (most of the time) for people from Ayuur. Ayuuran, by the way, sounds like Greek from about the second century BCE.
I’m adding another half-a-campaign at some point soon; an old-fashioned dungeon crawl in the Heliomar setting. I will be attempting to let language and text have minimal impact, because nobody in an ancient mega-dungeon publishes a newsletter. Right? Anyway. Send. Have good games!