I’ve brought up the unease with which I view things like The Big Model before, but I don’t think I’ve ever really explained why the whole mess gives me hives. Ironically, I haven’t had the words to express what my problem with it is succinctly. Now that we’re out of the woods with editing Becoming Heroes, I have a better sense of my own mind and want to put those thoughts down before I lose them.

A curiosity of language is its inseparability from context. Sure, we can use words and have a limited success at conveying them without context, but when we try and convey meaning, we’re inextricably bound to interpretation and contextualization. Which means that names and jargon are both impossible to avoid and unavoidably shaping.

One of the most profound things I got out of playing Don’t Rest Your Head was how perfectly its mechanics were named. The names themselves changed how we used the mechanics and therefore how we played the game. It’s something I’ve thought an awful lot about ever since Ryan Macklin told us exactly how dumb our jargon in Becoming Heroes was. (To be clear, we can’t thank him enough for the reality check; he was 100% right.) But mulling this over, I find that my contention with GNS/The Big Model has to do with names, not concepts.

For instance, in the term Creative Agenda we immediately see some biases. Are role-playing games about creating? What about exploring? Or experiencing? Must we have an agenda when we sit down? Doesn’t it imply that those without an agenda are somehow not fully playing? Not to mention the baggage associated with the word “agenda”.

A rose

Also known as a "weed".

But there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that different people play RPGs for different reasons. What’s troublesome, then, is that we use these words to talk about things and the jargon we use is never quite right. We end up using jargon because it helps us be efficient, hoping that the context is clear enough to those we talk to that they get what we’re talking about.

Case in point: in A Piece of Work, we have this pool of beads that accumulates as players fail. We’d been calling this pool “stress” because it represented the stress of having bad beats on a job. This turned out to be wrong for the cybernoir genre. It’s okay for cyberpunk, and even better for something like Leverage, but suspiciously wrong for cybernoir. We finally figured out that we want the GM to be able to spend these beads to make bad things happen to players and just like that, the new name for those beads is “tension”. Which fits so good it hurts. The name alone gives all sorts of understanding to how the mechanic should operate and what feelings it should give rise to during play. The more I think through the names we use for things in our games, the more passionate I get about finding just the right name.

It leads me to think about other games and the names they use for their concepts. In Hollow Earth Expedition, players use Style Points to gain various advantages. What would HEX be if it had named them “Courage Points”? Or if My Life With Master had backed away from a stat named Love? And since no post is complete without picking on D&D, how about changing Initiative to the more accurate “Attack Order”? Names have effects so powerful they are almost rules themselves.

What are some of your most favorite (or worst named)?

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  • Welcome to what it’s like to read everything with a semantic nerd’s lens. 🙂
    – Ryan

    • Does it ever stop? Because now I’m CURSED! 😛

      • Trust me, it doesn’t stop. But your writing will get better for it — as will your enjoyment of reading.

        This is a great article. Reading it, I feel like you totally get where I’m coming from as a writer and a lover of language.

        It’s always seemed to me that the more fully I understand the implications of language, the more fully I can appreciate a piece of language that’s elegantly wrought. Which is why I get cheezed off by people who say “Why have you got to read so much into things? Why can’t you just enjoy it for it is?” The answer is, “Enjoying it for what it is, is exactly what I’m doing.” It sounds like that’s what you’re doing too.

  • It certainly feels like the majority of arguments about GNS stem from the names chosen. They seem intuitive, so people erroneously assume they understand them.  I hadn’t considered the rest of the Big Model, but it definitely seems true as well.

    • I know my lack of engagement with formal approaches – even with something basic like the Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist divisions – has been this nagging feeling like they miss something essential. (Three divisions? Not four? Not six?) 

      But what I’m now realizing is how, the more widely we read and experience other games, the more jargon creeps in to the things we do, and how important it is to be aware of it and the biases it brings. Biases are fine when you choose your words to communicate the biases you mean: there’s a world of difference between hit points and trauma points.