Mind Your Language
“DCI Huntley has the right to be questioned by an officer at least one rank senior”
Fans of the TV show Line of Duty will recognise that as the show’s de facto catchphrase and one of the many recurring soundbites that are embedded in the scripts and form the skeleton around which the hit show is built. What I find remarkable is that these noises and phrases are not the catchphrases of the characters or running jokes or puns, but rather procedural language that reflects the setting and adds to the authenticity of the show. This got me thinking about other instances where procedural language is embedded in the presentation of the media that inspires our games, and how can we use it to our advantage.
“May the Force be with you!”
This may be the most famous example of this technique, taken of course from the Star Wars franchise. Remember, it isn’t Luke’s catchphrase – it is a pseudo-religious/philosophical blessing given from one believer to someone else; a far more weighted version of ‘good luck’ or ‘break a leg’ backed by a firm belief in the universal power of the Force. Using this as a framework, can the religions in your game have their own phrases and appellations? In my home game of Fria Ligan’s Symbaroum, our Theurg of Prios greets friends with ‘Blessings of Prios upon you’ and touches three fingers to his forehead. As GM, I will inevitably reply ‘And upon you’ and return the gesture. Its a quick simple action that gives a palpable weight to the character as an actual religious figure.
“Captain’s Log. Stardate…”
Star Trek is another franchise that is suffused with procedural language. What happens when the Captain leaves the bridge? “Mr [whoever], you have the Conn.” What happens when another ship hails the Enterprise? “On Screen!” What happens when the ship is hit in combat? “Damage report?” And this is all before we delve into the murky realms of technobabble and the individual characters’ catchphrases. The reality of crewing a Federation starship is embedded in the language that they use and this is easily transferable to your games, organically, to develop a vocabulary that frames its internal logic.
“Winter is Coming”
The impact that Game of Thrones has had on popular culture over the last decade cannot be underestimated and part of that impact has been the use of repeated language. Every House of Westeros has their own words – like “Winter is Coming” – or a phrase that they use repeatedly, like “A Lannister always pays their debts.” The setting assumption that a character born out of wedlock has a given surname depending on their birthplace (‘Snow’ in the North, ‘Sand’ in Dorne, for example) is another excellent detail. The honorifics given to the rulers, repeated each time and increasingly grandiose sounding underpin their importance – ‘Joffrey Baratheon, first of his name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm.’
And finally, remember that the bad guys can play as well. “Urgent Exit Required” is the Line of Duty text message that you never want to see at the end of a series and if I told you why we would be in serious spoiler territory.
How to make it work
In my experience, there is a fine line between a flavourful selection of genre-defining phrases and a punitive array of details for a table to remember. You really do not want it to devolve into some sort of self-created ‘lore war’ with players correcting each other around the table.
With this in mind, the best way to do it is to let it develop organically. You’ll be stunned how quickly a phrase that is repeated a few times is picked up around the table. Don’t overuse them either, or spread it on too thick. Just enough to make it consistent, but not so much to be tiresome. Imagine, if you will if every character in Game of Thrones was introduced in the way the ruler is?
This is also one part of the setting that is very much in the hands of the players. If the ace pilot in your space opera game refers to her fighter wing as ‘Alpha Flight’, refers to getting ‘missile lock’ before rolling dice to hit and orders defensive flying as ‘protect your quarterback!’ then there is no reason why this shouldn’t be deeply embedded into the game. The sense of ownership that this adds to a campaign cannot be underestimated.
There are some games that embed this sort of language into the mechanics. Nights Black Agents, published by Pelgrane Press, has a mechanic where using a suitable technothriller style explanation or exposition gets you a refresh on your action pool for a skill. This is very cool, but I would personally lean towards the language being a setting dressing rather than something that can be pursued for mechanical benefit.
Remember that there may also be some players who can’t get on board with this sort of thing as it’s a little too much like mental busy work when they are deep into their character. By keeping it optional and non-mechanical, you aren’t punishing them for their chosen style of play.
Next time you are building a campaign, consider the use of language and the ways you can use repeated phrases as the foundation for your setting.
“This interview is terminated”