Thursday, December 10, 2009

4e And The Changing Language of D&D

I often see updates from my gaming pals on Twitter or Facebook talking about “Strikers”, “Controllers”, “shift square”, “healing surges”, and so on in regards to D&D 4th Edition. I, as someone with minimal 4e experience who early on decided it wasn’t for him, often can’t make heads or tails of what they’re talking about, especially when it’s in regards to monster design and the like. It makes a bit harder to casually follow their game plans and recaps, even though I usually muddle through.

This reminds me a bit of the differences in British English, American English, Australian English, and so on. The dialects share a common heritage, but separation in the form of time and geography have rendered differences in each, so that slang in one dialect may be incomprehensible to another. Though they may share some of the same words, each dialect has its own internal references that may be hard for outsiders to comprehend. To an extent, it’s happened with every edition, though my not playing 4e much is likely the cause of my disconnect here.

With D&D 4e, though most things are understandable to fans of previous editions (hit points, etc.), there’s a bit of static in there that I find interesting. Casual and slang references to 4e can often go right over my head. I’m used to being able to speak in either sort of a generic Old School Vernacular—the nature of those systems generally means that you can understand the underpinnings of the systems without much trouble, be it OSRIC, Castles & Crusades, or Swords & Wizardry. There are fewer specialized terms and abilties, fewer concepts to grasp, and that’s probably half of it right there. D20/3.5/Pathfinder is its own language cluster, largely interchangeable thanks to the unifying aspects of the Open Gaming License. Both seem a bit closer to the gaming lingua franca I employ.

Please understand, this isn’t a slam on 4e; the edition wars are largely over, the armistice long since signed (or so we hope). Every edition is a different than the ones that precede it. But if I was looking for additional proof the game has strayed further from how I think of D&D, I would look at the language barrier, I suppose.

What will be interesting to see is how the game’s language changes when the next edition hits in the next 2-3 years or so.


Jonathan said...

Heh.. yeah. the terminology is one of the Warcraft'esque things about 4E that I didn't like. It really reinforces that each player is expected to fill a role on the battlefield... but there are no roles for "Talker" "Lier" "Obfusticator" "Diplomat" "Charlatan" or "Introvert". Perhaps someone should define those "non-combat" roles as well... =D

Granger44 said...

There is a lot of terminology in 4E; I'd argue that, to at least some degree, you get some new or different combination of terminology and mechanics in just about every system. Savage Worlds has raises and wild cards/dice, Burning Wheel has BITs and obstacles and FORKs, and so on.

However, none of the terminology in 4E precludes taking on the roles @Jonathan speaks of through character choices and roleplaying. Some of the choices might be sub-optimal, but if you wanted to play the diplomatic fighter, you can.

Gleichman said...

The Edition Wars will never be over. The only thing that will change will be the combatants.

For myself, I find that Fourth Edition terminology at least makes sense, unlike that of some games. It isn't hard to follow.

Wouldn't want to play the game. But it doesn't seem difficult.

Swordgleam said...

I really only have one thing to say in response to this: THAC0. ;)

(Nope, 3.x didn't change any terminology.)

Zachary The First said...

Where did I say 3.x didn't change any terminology? On the contrary, I think I ID'd it as its own little language cluster.

anarkeith said...

Seems like anytime you have an "in" group, they develop slang to help define their group. 4e is just a group that manifests this. Someone outside the RPG world would have trouble deciphering much of what is said on RPG blogs. Since the 4e designers focused on roles and giving all party members challenges as often as possible, there are similarities between it and World of Warcraft. Some of the group slang overlaps, which makes it easier for WoW players to adapt to 4e. With the audience WoW has, it'd be almost criminal of WotC not to try and build bridges there.

Wimwick said...

Interesting article. As a Canadian blogger, I use the Queen's English and I often wonder if many of my American readers think I can't spell.

4e does add new language and terms to D&D but as a previous poster said they make sense and once you start playing become intuitive. In many ways the language has flowed organiclly from previous editions. Powers of a sort were introduced for melee characters in late 3.5 with the release of Tomb of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords. While they weren't classified as at-will, encounter, etc it was the start of the new system.

JoeGKushner said...

I think that based on posts in this entry, edition wars don't end even when numerous options exist to play your game of choice either with the original official materials, often easy to find, or third party support.

d7 said...

Funny thing about the editions wars…

I don't think the edition war is over, but it's certainly cooled. My first assumption is that this is because the fears of all the non-4e players haven't come to pass: 3.5 and Pathfinder are going strong, the Old School Renaissance is keeping older editions alive, and games outside of 4e don't seem to be following its design lead. With those concerns shown to be unnecessary, a lot of the aggression from the non-4e crowd seems to have abated.

I'm sure WotC would have liked for 4e to be the only viable option and the only game you could find groups playing, but I think it's good for everyone else that it didn't happen that way.

And, less tangential: Yeah, language definitely marks different games' players. What I find interesting is how the language used can be used to determine what the focus of gameplay is. Both D&D 4e and Burning Wheel are dense with jargon, but what the jargon is about is very different.

In 4e it's mostly about combat: Strikers, shifting, powers, healing surges, etc. I don't hear Rituals talked about very often, and Skill Challenges aren't talked about by players so much as they are by GMs. In Burning Wheel it's all about the interface between the mechanical character development and story advancement: FoRKs, BITRs, Artha, Tests, LPs, Intents, etc.

I think the standard way of evaluating what a game is about—how many pages devoted to something in the book—is not very useful. But, how actual players talk about the game and what subject their jargon focuses on is probably a very good metric for what a game is about.