Friday, October 16, 2015

Narrative Distinction - Intermission (And I'm back! Still no chicken, though ...)

And here I am, back again. Had internet for one day and one update and that damn virus I talked about the other week reared it's ugly head again. Windows decided to go the way of the dodo and I chose Ubuntu as my new OS. So it took me two days to get back on track instead of one. But Ubuntu does all the things I need it to do and I'm quite happy with it. Never was a big fan of ze windows anyway (and their 10th incarnation seems to suck big time ...). Anyway, back to writing about gaming and stuff! Let's get the Narrative Distinction thingie I was writing about before I changed states back on track ...

So what was this about again? A chicken, right?

Of course you could go and read The Introduction and Part 1 (again?), but I thought it'd be nice to have it all in one post (for once) and add a little to it while I'm at it and before I go on. The basic idea of this series is to talk about how a DM might emphasize themes in his campaign by restricting the narrative to relevant signs (in a semiotic sense) and I used the game I'm working on (Lost Songs of the Nibelungs) as an example ...

In short, if you use the word "chicken" (for example) often enough in the context of your narrative, people will start thinking about chickens sooner or later. Try this at home and you'll find people will order chicken related fast food more often than not with your next food order during the game. If it works in advertisement it stands to reason that you can make it work for The Game, too. Right?

Right. The next line of thought had been that words have a different strength and by choosing those words carefully, a DM will be able to produce a very nuanced narrative, evoking the feel he wants to have in the campaign in general or a specific scene. Most people will do this automatically. Just as we imitate speech patterns of others to make them like us, we'll use specific vocabulary to describe things and go the extra mile if we want to impress people. Which actually comes in handy when DMing a game. Know the words and you'll use them. Use words you might need to explain and it'll have a special place in your narrative.

Say, the players are in a forest and instead of being general about it, the DM decides it to be a beech forest and goes at length describing the slender and grey-skinned hardwood trees with the small green leaves, how they are typical for the area and how the locals use the nuts in their cuisine. He does this once at the beginning and keeps using the word "beech" for the scene in the forest. Maybe he puts some variation into it, like describing a beech hit by a lightning or of a particular shape, but as long as he'll use that word "loaded" with the context of the narrative on the beginning, it'll influence how the players remember the scenery ...

Picture by Malene Thyssen [source]
Using "strong" words works somewhat the same, you just don't as much explain them as you specify them in context. Same principle, different approach. Say you want some cannibalism as part of the narrative. Everybody knows that word, so there's no explanation needed. And still, if you use it within the context of the adventure, (subtly) hinting towards connections and/or behavior during the game, you'll make it's presence felt. Like you see Hannibal cooking and you immediately start to think: "It may taste like chicken*, but is it really?!" All you need is one scene in context (Hannibal actually butchering someone for the meat) and it'll be there like a foul stench. Use that.

Weak words, on the other hand, are only used occasionally and might always need short explanations. Mostly they are used to enhance a theme of a setting. Easiest example to explain this would be using dead languages a historical setting. So the Romans called the common soldier "gregarius"? Use it. It's explained in one short sentence. You might have to explain it every now and then, but that's not the idea here. The word won't occur that often. What will work, though, is using several weak words with the same theme. If Latin is the thing, use Latin words and phrases whenever you can. It gives you the opportunity to talk a bit history and the mass of weak words will in toto produce consistency in a narrative.

One thing to produce narrative distinction in a campaign would be by loading weak words over time with meaning, making them strong in very specific cases. It's something writers use regularly to give their characters distinctive and recognizable speech patterns or just "calling cards". Helter Skelter is a good example how words without meaning get loaded and start to mean something in popular culture. Making something like this happen in a campaign is hard work (if it doesn't happen by accident) but very well worth the effort. Basically you "invent" a word for something, then you start using and explaining it regularly until it catches on.

Or you use a word within a different context that way until the additional meaning is accepted as equal to the original (in the context of the game, at least). The result will be the same: you develop a vocabulary for your gaming group. That's what role playing games do anyway. We all have our own vocabulary to "talk business" and I'd encourage every DM to emphasize this with his/her own vocabulary, because shared words are strong bonds that get players more involved. Make those distinctions happen for a setting and you'll get a strong narrative and the atmosphere you wanted without the need to use a picture. It's all in the mind's eye.

So much for the theory

That's all I can come up with so far. What's next? Well, I'll give more examples how this will play out in Lost Songs. A post that is long written and just needs a little polishing, by the way, so it should be up tomorrow. It's also the last installment in this series and you can read it here.

And now some excellent use of words to close for today (from the fantastic Asterix comics):

Open in new tab for all it's glory [source]

* Okay, I'm pushing it a bit. Might get some chicken myself later today :D


  1. As soon I as I can no longer use Windows 7 (as just recently happened with Windows XP) I think I'll switch to Linux too. The idea of having Windows track everything I do on and off the internet is just way too invasive.

    That's good, and that picture of the flying chicken is awesome. I think we tend to forget just how powerful words can be, but part of the iconic wizard is that you can't cast the spells unless you know the words for them. I think that is another case of fantasy taking what we know to be true but sublime about reality and cranking it up to eleven to make a point.

    Asterix is great! I had a childhood friend whose dad would bring him back some Asterix books whenever he would go overseas on a business trip. They were amazing. Why caught on everywhere except in the USA I will never know.

    1. Yeah, I definitely recommend it. Ubuntu takes bit getting used to, but after a short period of time I really started liking the small features and details. Also a very active community and problem get solved fast. And it works with far less for far more without being intrusive! Gotta love it ...

      I know! That picture is awesome!You are right about wizards, of course. Actually, you might have given me an idea there. Maybe. We'll see :)

      I love Asterix. The English translation actually isn't as good as the German one. But the original is supposed to be pure genius.


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