Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Original Post

I've spent the last couple of days trying to write the wizard academy rules such that the game is ready for blind playtesting and it's got me thinking more about terminology. Words are symbols for meaning, ideally I think something, transcribe it into words and someone else will read those words and understand a meaning that is at least similar to the original. This doesn't always work.

Sometimes you can rely on people interpreting linguistic ambiguities correctly due to the context in which things are said. Unless a family dynamic had gone deeply wrong it's unlikely that "Let's eat Grandma" would be interpreted as a call for cannibalism. The problem with game rules is that they offer very little context, there isn't a person talking to give emphasis to key points and the pieces are in some huge jumble in the box as opposed to in any proper order.

There are a great many tools at a writer's disposal to combat these problems. For example, an example can serve to head off several potential misunderstandings at once. It's also helpful to understand the ways in which people process information, for instance the last thing said in a paragraph is much more likely to be remembered.

Some other day I might wax lyrical about how words influence thought, but I'll get into making arguments about culture again and this is supposed to be a blog about game design. So while words are powerful and thinking about how they might convey the rules of a game sometimes feels like considering the use of nuclear weapons to heat a cup of coffee, let's get back to that. It's not like I don't waste words trivially on a daily basis and I'm unlikely to run out.

The tool I wanted to talk about today was terminology. Used correctly terminology is a powerful tool that can convey a large amount of information in a single word, but only if the terminology is known and understood. How do you suppose people would react if you placed a card on a table and told them to "tap" it? I think that most gamers, even those who've never played magic, would turn it sideways and not use it for the rest of the turn. Non-gamers would be more likely to look confused before poking it sharply with their finger.

While keywords and similar concepts can clarify rules, if there are too many or they're too dense you end up with paragraphs like "39.3 Whenever an already immobilized AFV is hit but not destroyed by an AT weapon its crew must also take the Morale Check described above in 39.4 Immobilized AFVs may not pivot within a hex, but turreted AFV's may fire their main armament and co-axial MG outside their Covered Arc (case A). Even after firing in such a case the immobilized vehicle does not change its "Covered Arc". - Advanced Squad Leader 4th Edition (Edit: It's been pointed out in the comments that this quote is incorrectly attributed and may be from a starter kit. Somehow the notion that it comes from a slightly simplified version doesn't feel like it undermines the point.)

There are lots of tricks to make these things work more effectively. A simple one is to use terminology that your players will intuitively derive the meaning of, for instance if a set of rules applies to "wounded" creatures your players will probably not need to open a rulebook to realise that refers to creatures that have taken damage but have not been killed. Conversely, if the game was using the word "wounded" to indicate creatures that had taken no damage it would make the rules much more likely to be misinterpreted than if a different term had been defined that way. I sometimes poke fun at squad leader for the density terminology in its rules, but the target audience for the game already know the meaning of most of the terms and acronyms they use as they are already in use as military terminology.

In wizard academy I've made a fair effort to try to make a lot of the rules follow intuitively. Water extinguishes fire, fire melts ice and so forth. However when it comes to terminology there's been a fair amount of confusion. Using "adjacent", "accessible", "linked" and "connected" to all mean different things doesn't help the clarity of the games. Bizarrely in at least one cast the rules are improved by increasing the quantity of terminology. The notion that a "connected" room is one with a route to the mana crystal and affects a bunch of disparate rooms does not sit particularly well. The notion that rooms with a route to the mana crystal are "charged" and that room abilities in "uncharged" rooms sits more easily. So does the notion that enemies that have a route to the mana crystal are "threatening" and those that have been isolated and cannot escape are "nonthreatening" and that new problems will be added when there aren't enough "threatening" problems is also fairly intuitive. The result is two pieces of terminology ("threatening" and "charged") where previously there was one ("connected") but I hope that when people read them it'll instinctively make more sense.

I suppose that we shall see once I get around to doing some blind testing. Wish me luck.
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