Monday, December 1, 2014

Etymology vs. D&D (or why Charisma is a bad name for an ability score)

Etymology: The branch of linguistics that studies the origin and history of words [source].

Well now, in yesterday's post I entertained the idea to use the world of Siegfried and the Nibelungs for a D&D fantasy setting. As it is, I'm sitting at home with a cold and lots of time to think about stuff like that. And I own a physical copy of The Song of the Nibelungs (many versions of the text are in the public domain by now, of course, so everybody is free to check it out). I started to read the introduction early in the morning and it got me thinking instantly. Here are my thoughts.

Perspective is the thing, I guess. With The Song of the Nibelungs we talk about the 12th century amalgamation of two Germanic folk songs (one about Siegfried's adventures and one about the fall of the Burgunds) for the readership of that time. From today's perspective, following the train of thought in said introduction, we are confronted with two different mindsets: the one of the Germanic people and the one of those living in the courtly 12th century.

In short it's the ur-heroic mixed with the chivalric, re-discovered in the early 19th century, translated (my edition) in the mid 20th century and mirrored on 21st century sensibilities (today's readers). It's like a barbarian playing a knight in a movie of a Tolkien-translation of some romantic novel written in fake Middle High German ... Or something like that. You see, it gets quite complicated down the road.

Now, now, hold it! Shouldn't this be about Charisma?

Yeah, I know. We'll get there. The thing is, the original (anonymous) author used what he could find of those old myths and transcended them into something that could be recognized in his cultural surroundings. And the mix of those two produces something new, something that the King Arthur stories that were popular at the time didn't do (somewhat of a spoiler ahead, I guess): it kills them all and measures how heroic/chivalric they are by how they go down.

That's, of course, very hard to recognize nowadays, as (and here we come close to the topic of this post) our understanding of the terms and ideas in the text is so completely alien to what it meant when written in the 12th century (emulating those terms and ideas of the 5th/6th century only partially, too).

If one in the 21st century were to transform this into a role playing game or a setting, he'd had to understand where all those terms originate from to use them for the game in ways that help building a bridge between the source material and the player at the table. There is a lot of weight on the terminology of such a game. Done right, it really helps facilitating a certain atmosphere that helps players getting in the mood (and staying there while using it ...).

No good terms with D&D

Terminology is not one of D&D's strong suits. In my opinion, at least. Think about it, why is it called "Hit Points"? "Points" is a very abstract mathematical term and it doesn't quite apply, does it? How about "Vigor" or "Vital Force" instead? There are many bad examples like that* and Charisma is one of them. That's why I changed it to "Luck" in our D&D game a few years ago.

First of all, Charisma is (in it's origin) a Greek word. And it shows. That's not a bad thing, as languages do that a lot. It's even not that interesting. Far more interesting, though, is the fact, that if a language takes a new word as it's own, an at the time prominent/influential second language will provide the solution. So history is an essential factor here.

Autobahn, Rucksack and Kindergarten (for instance) are examples for German words that got assimilated into the English vocabulary in the 20th century. Beef, on the other hand, was a french word that found it's utility in the English language back in the 13th century (France being quite big in England at the time) and has been popular ever since.

The kicker here is: the time a word finds it's way into a language, is the time the word was needed. In other words, it formulated a concept that didn't exist before that exact point in time. Which could lead to the idea that when deciding which names to choose for a game it could be only helpful to check where those words originate and go from there.

And this is where Charisma as a word disqualifies itself (google found the whole story here). The word's not even in the area until the end of the 19th century! How we use it today and the meaning it holds (it's not much, but anyway) has nothing to do with how a 12th century writer would describe a 5th century hero ... and that's something that today still resonates in the word.

But how to rename it?

For a D&D variant based on The Song of the Nibelungs, I would not use the term "Luck", either, as I don't like the positive connotations it holds that much. It needs something a bit more threatening, with a hint of doom in it and some magic. I'd propose to use "Wyrd" instead. It carries some dark foreboding while being true to the source and it's the evil father of the word weird, which is a nice bridge to translate (and weaken the original meaning) into a game.

Obligatory Star Wars quote ...
Just in changing the name of the ability score, it gets a completely different vibe without the need to change any of the mechanics. Somebody with a high Wyrd might be in the gods favor and attract followers or impress strangers, while those with a low score tend to get into fights a lot (and so on).

That being said ...

... I'd like to propose a simple mechanic going with the new name**:
A player may take any amount from his Wyrd score as a bonus to saves or to reduce damage he received. The only ways to regain those points are (1) plus 1d6 whenever a character gains a new level (up to the original maximum), (2) a wish and (3) a difficult quest for a divine entity. In all other regards it's treated as an ability score, so it might be subject to attacks that reduce it as a form of damage. If for some reason a characters Wyrd drops to zero, it can't be regenerated by any means from there on and the character will meet a tragic doom as soon as it's convenient for the DM (but within the same session).
That's how they die in The Song of the Nibelungs. Forcing their cards as long as possible until finding a brutal and dramatic end. It's how it should be in the game.

But enough for today. More as soon as I get there. As usual :)

*Funny thing is, that the Saves up until the third edition where one of the few positive examples in this regard. "Save vs. Dragon Breath" is so much more evocative than, say, "Reflex Save". But anyway, let's not digress ...

** A variant of the rules I wrote for Luck, as linked above, and what I intent to use from now on. Works just as well if you keep labeling it Charisma, of course.


  1. "How we use [charisma] today and the meaning it holds (it's not much, but anyway) has nothing to do with how a 12th century writer would describe a 5th century hero"

    But does it have anything to do with how a 21st century gamer might interpret a 12th century writer's attempt to describe a 5th century hero?

    1. That's the question, isn't it? If we from our point of time can say that the use of charisma as a term is inappropriate (strong word, sorry) and have an explanation for that, it only concludes that the opposite is possible, too. Right? That we'd know what might express that idea somewhat better.

      I believe it is a matter of perspective. The idea that we are responsible for our actions is relatively new (enlightenment, Kant, industrialization, that whole thing). The older the stories we read get, the more it'll have to do with fate or the gods mingling. Take Shakespeare. His characters always fight some sort of fate or another. We can relate to that. We see those stories and we can relate even today. Which means we also can understand a change of perspective from "It happens because of who I am" (charisma) to "It happens because the gods decided my fate". Gamers can do that, too, just by being exposed to some different vocabulary.

      So yeah, I definitely think it is possible. I hope that helped clarifying what I was aiming for. I know this post is all over the place. And that sentence especially haunted me after I had posted the whole thing (didn't think anybody would call me on that ...).

    2. I don't know much about the Nibelungen--Wagner wrote an opera about it? There was a dwarf involved? And a ring?--but it seems, given the Wikipedia article you linked to, that charisma, in its God's grace manifestation, might actually be a fairly decent 21st c. stand-in for the sort of fated heroism I think you are describing.

      I do see where your Luck/Wyrd ability seems to heed more closely to that concept though I might prefer a term like Fate or Doom myself. Perhaps even Fortune as it encompasses fate, luck, and wealth without being quite as upbeat as luck. Wyrd, to me, despite its old school cred, is rather awkward as it is overshadowed by its obvious association with "weird" which, unfortunately, no longer bares any similarity to the original concept. Which I suppose is an argument which could be used against "charisma" as well.

    3. I guess what I tried to show, was that it can be useful (and if it's only for an individual campaign) to think about the terms the game uses, question them and maybe change them, if another variant of a term manages to transport a certain feel for the game somewhat better. Charisma is just an example (although it's the one term I changed in our D&D RC game and named it luck).

      Maybe it's because I'm not a native speaker and if you have a lot of translating to do, you're automatically confronted with the meaning of words.

      The Song of the Nibelungs is a blend of the Siegfried epic and the epic about the downfall of the Burgunds. Wagner oriented his work on the Siegfried epic. So there are three different iterations of those tales: two epics like the Edda, an interpretation of those two in the 13th century and what Wagner did with it in the 19th century. You can find versions of this referring to the Nibelungs as demons, dwarves or nobles.

      Fate and Wyrd are closely related, but I can see how you'd prefer one to the other (and I'd choose a different word for a German version, too). Fortune would be too positive for my tastes (or maybe just not ambivalent enough).

      Thanks for taking the time to answer in such detail. I really appreciate it!

  2. Hmmm, what sacred cow will be sacrificed next? Constitution? I must say, you have chutzpa!


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