Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Terms of Confusion

It's easy in designing a game, particularly an RPG, to overlook the importance of building a good vocabulary for your game. It's not a particularly exciting or thrilling part of the process, but if you screw it up you can turn your game into an annoying, unplayable mess.

When you slap a label on a mechanic you're creating your game's jargon. This applies specifically to measures like hit points, tools like skills and weapons, and anything else that the people sitting at the table, playing your game, need to refer to.

My rule of thumb, after working on a number of games and seeing terms soar or flop, is that similar mechanics need very different names, particularly mechanics that run into each other alot.

In 4e, temporary hit points are a poster child for this. They look and act a lot like hit points, thus the shared name, but if you treat them like hit points the game goes haywire. The problem is that, unless someone reads the rules in depth, it's very easy to overlook that word "temporary" in temporary hit points. With a similar name and 90% similar mechanics, it's easy to mesh the two together.

On the other hand, a shared name is useful as long as you apply it to a mechanic or measure that uses it correctly. In D&D, there are 10,000 things that are given a level, but it's rare (despite "Use of the Term Level" headers in early versions of D&D) for people to confuse the term. Magic items, monsters, characters, dungeons, and so on all use level the same way: higher level means more powerful. In that case, a single term keeps things simple and clear. It helps that it's hard to figure out a way to conflate a level in a dungeon with an item's level. The two don't interact in a meaningful way!

So, those are my brief thoughts on naming mechanics in your games.


Dave The Game said...

We haven't had an issue with Temp HP in our home games, but "Ability Check Bonus" or whatever it's actually called is very often confused with "Ability Modifier." They clearly both have the same root, but it's also an interesting case where the smaller, less modified number tends to be the more used one.

ChattyDM said...

Its funny to see how careful the wording in 4e is. One day I'd love to discuss if there was any influence from the Magic team in templating the rules and Powers of 4e (which I like a lot, makes learning faster for .

Having spoken to a M:TG designer at Gen Con, he told me that you guys 'live' in opposite sides of the Office and don't mingle all that often.

Still I'm curious.

Samuel Van Der Wall said...

I think they did a great job with D&D 4th and the wording, quite a bit better than most other games. I agree with you though, Chatty. It has a very similar feel to Magic:TG. I was trying to explain this to players in my group, but some of them actually hadn't played Magic:TG to compare.

Anonymous said...

I do have to point to Burst and Blast as a small oops. They get used enough that people quickly learn to distinguish them, but they ring so many of the same bells at first that they are quite confusing for a while.

If I were going to nominate one of them to change, it would be Blast, which is rather vague. Say, Spray attacks, instead?

Gregor LeBlaque said...

I agree with linnaeus on Burst and Blast. I still get those mixed up if we haven't played for a while.

Obligatory OotS link about confusing meanings of "level"...

Unknown said...

I'm quite happy to call them temporary hit points. They may work differently if you stand up close, but bonus hit points are a pretty straightforward concept to me.

Agreeing with previous commenters though, on "burst" and "blast". Throw "close" and "area" designations into the mix, then try to remember which one is measured in diameter and which one in radius.

GrecoG said...

we always remember that a burst comes from you, since it has a "u" in it, and blasts don't.