How Naming Affects a World

Posted by on August 21, 2013

As I finish up work on the Shattered World setting (more on that in a few weeks, assuming the rest of the art and editing comes through), I’m part into playtesting of a tabletop RPG set in a world of savages. Literally, even the players are naked jungle villagers. And names matter, as you’ll see in a minute.

'What lays beyond the fog?' by Armando Maynez on Flickr

‘What lays beyond the fog?’ by Armando Maynez on Flickr

The player characters live generations after the downfall of a twisted version of Aztec civilization, complete with human sacrifices and slavery. In fact, they use the same blood-based magic; they just don’t have hundreds of human slaves to throw onto a pyre. All they have is their own blood or that of another.

When I first wrote up the rules, I wanted to remind players that they were evoking spells first defined by a baroque civilization. So I took a page from Têkumel and gave the spells baroque names: Ascertainment, Devitilization, Elicitation, Translocation. These strange words were passed down, generation to generation, even as humanity reverted to subsistence hunting.

Then playtesting began. Between the scenes of velociraptor fights and encounters with spirits, I noticed something:

Nobody referred to the spells by name.

After the first session, I thought about this. I realized that the names were too hard for my players to remember. Who will remember that the spell to reduce Brawn is named Devitilization? And who’s going to call it that?

Which led to a second realization: if my twenty-first century players can’t remember the name, how well would subsistence hunters? They’d surely have a strong oral tradition, but memorizing precise, flamboyant names? Unless those names were required for the spell to function–which I hadn’t established–they had to go.

I rewrote all the spell names into simple, action-oriented phrases: Create Terror, Destroy Utterly, Disappear, and Move Like Thought. Not only are they easier to remember, they evoke the game’s mood: straightforward and savage.

The game is called¬†Blood Rites, and I’ll post more here as it comes together. I will leave you with one spell:

Create Terror

Use within 2 days

Weak One sentient is gripped with fear. If it succeeds on a Spirit roll of 2, it is merely immobilized; otherwise it immediately flees the immediate area.

Strong As above, but affects any creatures of the caster’s choice within a 10-foot radius up to 50 feet from the caster.

Epic All targets of the caster’s choosing within a 50-foot radius of the caster are immediately reduced to gibbering puddles of raw terror. Each target either cowers helplessly or flees screaming as far as possible, running thoughtlessly for at least 5 minutes (caster chooses effect for each target).

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