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Do You Capitalize Game Terms?

I’ve worked on a number of books at this point that take different approaches to game terms. As I start to write Mythender‘s text, people have noticed that I’m inconsistently capitalizing game terms. That’s because I still haven’t made up my mind about this. There are compelling reasons for various ways to go about it.

Today, I ask you for your opinion on the subject, either as a writer or as a reader — and to tell me why you like or dislike a particular method. (Bonus points if you can point out a text you like. Double-bonus if there’s a sample I can read on the Internet, but that’s not always the case.)

Some of the ways I’ve seen:

  • Don’t capitalize. Typically, the first time these are encountered as game terms, they’re bolded or otherwise stylized.
  • Capitalize every occurrence.
  • Stylize, where the font is somehow different — small caps or all caps, colored differently, different font face, etc.

In the case of not capitalizing or stylizing throughout the text, some games will still stylize the first occurrence. Spirit of the Century & Dresden Files RPG don’t capitalize “aspect”, “invoke”, “compel”, “skill”, etc.

When stylizing, I am curious how people make the text flagged to show it’s a different style. I know this is how it is with the Leverage books do examples of game terms, such as with the specific die ratings on Attributes & Roles, the formatting on examples of Distinctions, etc. (I often see that achieved with character styles in Word, so less useful when I’m writing parts of it in Google Docs or in text on my iPad.)

I have suggested all three routes in the past, because I know them to have different effects on the reader — and an RPG text, like all texts, are about target audience. That said, the question:

Which way do you like? As a writer? As a reader?

Very important: Why?

I have a sense of what I’ll do with Mythender. But then, I thought about that several months ago, and changed my mind. *sigh* The trials and tribulations of being a writer.

– Ryan

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43 Responses to Do You Capitalize Game Terms?

  1. Logan Bonner says:

    Generally speaking, don’t capitalize names of categories (traits, skills, spells), but do capitalize specific items within those categories (Tough, Stealth, Fireball). Soooo many exceptions, but it’s a good baseline. Mythender seems like everything should be capitalized for Maximum Epicness. Perhaps all-capped.

    Actually, for Mythender, I’d probably look at writing of its time period and capitalize in relative proportion to that.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Logan,

      Interesting paradigm there.

      Regarding writing of Mythender’s time period: I’m not sure not much reviewing Norse sagas (or “mythic pre-history”) will help my modern English capitalization problem. I want a text that’s understandable by my audience today.

      – Ryan

    • Fred Hicks says:

      That’s essentially the logic behind Fate’s capitalization schema. So: aspect, skill, stunt; but: For God And Country, Resources, Two-Fisted Mayhem.

  2. Dave T. Game says:

    I like always-capitalized for game terms, as both a writer and a reader. Admittedly, I tend to think of my writing background and style as more technical, as it makes the most sense to me to capitalize in board game/card game rules exact game terms. In RPGs, where there’s a lot more prose (and in general a lot more words) I can see it being a distinct case, but I still prefer it- I like the text to call out to me when a rule is being engaged, versus something is being described to me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dave,

      Totally. I see a lot of technical-minded writers, including myself, lean toward cap’d terms. Interesting.

      I suppose that says something about the intended target audience.

      – Ryan

  3. It varies for me by game. Sometimes I like a lot of capitalized terms—it feels (melo?)dramatic, high-contrast, and florid—and other times I feel like, “Enough already!” I like that Jeremy Keller’s minimized the number of capitalized terms in Technoir, for example, especially since his game isn’t loaded with words being used to mean things they don’t usually mean. (Adjectives aren’t spirits that control the nature and tenor of existence; they’re adjectives.)

    In Odyssey, I capitalize just a few game terms—the Road, the Difficulty—to draw attention to them as game terms and to make it clear when I’m referring to the game construct or the specific number you roll against. I might want to use either term in ways other than as proper nouns, so I capitalized them to set them apart. I’m still waffling on whether or not to capitalize other terms, but right now I’m being selectively inconsistent.

    In the World of Darkness, things get capitalized. It’s makes the text look sort of arcane, which is important.

    So, yeah, capitalization is a tool I use in different ways.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Will,

      Totally. I was expecting a number of responses that are all “right”, in a given instance.

      Thanks for yours. Gives me something to chew on for sure.

      – Ryan

  4. My strategy for Technoir has been to use character styles. I use several different styles for different categories of terms. Then, when I get to final layout I can experiment with different capitalization and formatting options pretty easily and see how it will look in the final spreads.

    But yeah, I wrote my first draft in PlainText on my iPad, so I had to put in some effort to go through and identify those terms and apply the styles later in the process.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jeremy,

      Did you do anything in the process to help you identify those prior to layout, once you realized your scheme?

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jeremy,

      Also, could you talk a bit about what makes for a good game term character style?

      Thanks,

      – Ryan

    • I didn’t do anything in my initial text writing stage to identify those terms other than use them consistently as possible. At this point, I just want to write and not worry about formatting concerns. I also don’t make much of a distinction between section headers and subsection headers at this stage—it’s all about getting the text out of my brain and onto the page. This probably worked because each chapter was only a couple thousand words at this stage. And only 7 chapters. If it was a bigger manuscript, I probably would have written small chunks on my iPad and then brought them into Word on a regular basis and update the character styles.

      When you do get to character styles, you want a different style for each thing that could potentially be formatted differently. This is my breakdown for Technoir:

      • category terms (these are terms that, like Logan pointed out represent the type of stat: verb, adjective, object, tag, training program)
      • programs (these are the training programs themselves: investigator, doctor, soldier)
      • verbs (the game’s “skills”: coax, fight, prowl)
      • adjectives (the game’s “traits”: strong, sexy, clever)
      • objects: (gear: barker pistol, switchblade motorcycle, cyberarm)
      • tags: (the object’s keywords: long range, linked, implant)
      • dice types (action dice, push dice, hurt dice)

      A lot of these probably won’t get special formatting in the text (other than being bolded the first time they are used). I’m careful not to use the words verb, adjective, object, tag in ways that aren’t related to the stats. The styles are just there in case I change my mind later. I’m thinking the actual verbs themselves (detect, operate, shoot) will get capitalize to distinguish that it’s not just an action you do, it’s an action you roll for. So you would shoot the target at the firing range, but you would Shoot the thug who’s coming at you with a fire ax. Dice types will also be capitalized because I’ll probably use the words action, push, and hurt in ways that don’t directly relate to the dice.

  5. This is actually one of my biggest pains in the ass because I use internal hyperlinks and I have a lot of terms that I identify so that I can hyperlink them. I use bold-italics and lately I have been finding it so hard to keep up a standard of capitalization that I am just going to go to all lower-case. I just can’t deal with the annoyance of it anymore.

  6. I also use a different color than the main body text, sometimes keyed to chapter color if I am doing that.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Greg,

      I’m rather fond of that method. Runs into the color printing barrier though, so I’m not sure if my liking it is enough to sell me on it. I hadn’t thought of the “keyed to the chapter’s color” though. Interesting.

      I have to wonder how that plays out with color-blind and color-synesthetic folks.

      – Ryan

    • My games are free PDFs, so I have no color issues. I don’t know how it would play out for color-blind people, to be honest never even occured to me. You can do to my blog and download Synapse to see how it looks when coded to chapter color (albeit, the hyperlinks don’t work in that game yet, call me lazy).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Greg,

      I’m also considering the printing capabilities in my target audience as part of the color issue. After all, I’m not publishing games for just me. :) (Making games for just me? All the time.)

      – Ryan

    • I print huge runs of 2-color insurance materials as a part of my job. I totally understand the color issue. :)

  7. Amanda Valentine says:

    I’ve worked on books with both approaches. My brain does start to spin a bit When It seems Like Almost every other Word is Capped. I find it distracting and annoying.

    That said, I do think it really helps for clarity when your game terms are words that get used in more mundane ways as well. So some kind of style or capping does serve a purpose. And I usually get over the Annoyance of Over Capitalization once I’m into the text.

    I’m not sure this helps much. I agree it depends a lot on the game. In DFRPG, invoke, compel, etc. are all used pretty much only as game terms (and when they weren’t, I tried to replace them with synonyms – aspect was the only word I really couldn’t get rid of completely, but I think it was still clear).

    I do think that any phrases representing aspects, talent, distinctions, or whatever you want to call them should be styled differently – those examples should stand out from the text as an entity, not just a grouping of words.

  8. JJ says:

    I feel your pain; I struggle with this as a writer of software user guides. I’m in the process of re-editing one at this moment for our next software release. The writer/trainer/instructor in me wants to call these words out wherever they appear. I want to say “Hey, look at this! This is what you should pay attention to because I’m going to be referring to this a lot.”

    User guides are similar to RPGs in that you are showing someone through the written word how to do something that they may not have a clue how to do (or maybe, show them the specific way you want them to do it). I think it’s important to do it throughout the book because you can never guarantee where someone will start reading. Sure, you’re supposed to start at the beginning and go cover-to-cover, and that may happen for folks new to RPGs or rules/mechanics junkies like myself, but they might just jump to Combat or Skills.

    If something is important enough to warrant it’s own chapter or heading level 2 or 3 in the book it should be emphasized. When I read, “the Fighter has the following Skills…”, I think, “turn to the Skills chapter for more on what these things do.”

    Depending on the style of layout in the book, I would either capitalize each occurring or go for some subtle formatting change, like a sans serif font. (I would definitely call this formatting out early in the book to bring attention to it.) The former is easy to spot in plain text and it could also be easily identified in creating an index. The latter is easier on [my] eyes/brain when reading.

    If some term gets used in every other paragraph, then that might be an argument for only bringing attention to it once and then normal case from then on. An example are terms used ad nauseam: PC, character, NPC, player, dice, etc.

    Now as a reader, the tone of the text is important. If it’s like, “Hey, man, this is how you play this game. Start by making of list of skills that you want your guy to have and…”, then I wouldn’t worry about emphasis, I’d go with your ‘don’t capitalize’ where the first coinsurance is emphasized and that’s it.

    I hope you find this helpful in some way. Best of luck on your writing.

    • Amanda Valentine says:

      I definitely think that capping and styles should be reserved for words being used in usual ways – the terms that are unique to your game. Dice, NPC, player, etc. shouldn’t be called out or the reader will start to get numb to it. As many people have mentioned, styles and capping should call attention to the terms, call them out as important. If almost all the words look like that, it defeats the purpose.

  9. EldritchFire says:

    Personally, I do like that game terms are differentiated. In Smallville, for instance, the key terms are in small caps. With my Halo mod going on at my blog, I’m running into the same problems.

    I’m all for formatting style differences, since when I print stuff from PDFs, it’s not on a colour printer, so colour changes don’t work well for me…hell, I’m partially colourblind, so that doesn’t help either.

    I think that italics should be reserved for specific instances of game terms. For example, the FATE term “aspect” shouldn’t be italicized, but a specific aspect, Center of Attention should be.

    Does that help any, or am I just babbling now?

    -EF

  10. As a writer, I’ve been capitalizing all my game terms; or at least I’ve been trying doing so as consistently as possible. I like capitalizing game terms because it provides context for the words of the game terms.

    When I see a capitalized game term, I know that I have to interpret those words according to how they’re defined in the game, as opposed to applying a more general dictionary definition to them. However, as a reader, the specific special formatting isn’t as important as just having the game terms formatted a little differently than the regular text.

    There are times that I think capitalization feels awkward; this is especially true in sentences containing many game terms. Such sentences can start looking like they’ve been written in title case. As I think of it more, the main reason I capitalize game terms versus using some other type of differential formatting is merely due to simplicity. Capitalization can be done with little effort; whereas other types of formatting require a more concerted effort to add to a document.

    Personally, when I finally do get a game to print, I’m more likely to use some kind of differential formatting like bold italics or similar, rather than capitalization. I expect that will look and feel better that way.

    Logan’s thoughts on this capitalization/formatting question are interesting. It engenders questions in my mind as to whether it would be viable to use different formatting styles for different types of game terms. For example, you might bold italicize game terms that are categories (traits, skills, powers), and bold capitalize individual, specific game element terms (Strength, Agility, Subterfuge, Mind Meld).

    I don’t know if any of this is of any help to you to decide which way to go; it has, however, given me food for thought in how I approach my own game term formatting. For what it’s worth, I think you should go with some kind of formatting rather than capitalization.

  11. When I’m writing, I like to capitalize game terms. But, then I have a tendency to overcapitalize, so I have to go back and get picky about just what deserves the cap. I try to end up with a two level hierarchy of terms that are big enough concepts to deserve caps, and those that can go without. Otherwise, my text starts to look to chunky and selfagrandizing to me.

  12. Daniel Solis says:

    Considering the technical errors that came from an overzealous lowercase search-and-replace in Do, I’m inclined to say always capitalize so that you never have a problem of a lowercase letter at the beginning of a sentence.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Daniel,

      Heh. I’m not inclined to make choices in order to avoid search-and-replace bugs. :)

      – Ryan

  13. Doug H says:

    This has been another helpful time to be a fly on the proverbial wall.

    What I find that I do in game texts (and I’m not all that experienced yet) is to capitalize what I think of as key game terms, where I want to have a little bit of extra impact. Over-capitalization drives me crazy sometimes as a reader, but I find that in games where nothing is capitalized I can sweep right over specific rules in the text and not notice.

    I do think that any really important rule, something I know will be referenced over and over again, should be called out beyond just being capitalized (italics, bold, chart, sidebar, whatever). I try to space these out a bit, like islands, or meta-punctuation, so that you kind of hop from one big rule to the next as you go. This isn’t for particularly intelligent reasons – just the fact that this is what I like in a text.

  14. Fred Hicks says:

    To be quite Honest with you, the Problem that I have with intermittent capitalization of Words which might warrant some kind of Additional Emphasis is that it hearkens back to College for me, in which I studied many a form of Literature, some of which were established in Bygone Eras that would in no way strike one as particularly Modern, and as such every single Fucking use of capitalized words that are otherwise Commonplace Words never fails to strike me as the absolute height of Pretension, Affectedness, and a general odour of Repugnant Self-Importance.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Fred,

      The contrast to that is how often Don’t Rest Your Head uses “exhaustion” to mean “your character is tired” versus “the die mechanic.” Same with “madness.” Capitalization may be pretentious, but not capitalizing may be confusing.

      Not that I think of capitalization as a modern or pre-modern thing as much as I do a technical writing thing. Interesting that you bring up the more archaic reference. Hadn’t thought of that before. Neat. (In a “huh, now I’m thinking about that intentionally” way.)

      – Ryan

  15. Wayne says:

    I like capitalizing the first instance of a special term and then letting the reader figure it out from there. Sort of like spelling out acronyms the first time that you use them in proper technical writing.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Wayne,

      That’s actually one that, if I were editing a book, I would see as a major flaw in the text. Initial call-outs should be font choices rather than capitalization choices.

      – Ryan

  16. As a reader and writer both, I tend to favour some manner of formatting distinction for the technical terms, with caveats as per below. Capitalization, however, can be quite obnoxious especially in mechanic-heavy sections (as has been Demonstrated quite Well in this Blog Post already).

    Bolding for game constructs (like aspect) and italicizing for member instances of game constructs (like spectacular vision) might work. I also like the colouring and/or hyperlinking idea, linked to specific chapters and definitions – especially for electronic documents where one might make easily make two versions, one for reading front-to-back and one for referencing in-game.

    Caveats: consider the section and audience for that section. If we’re talking 12 pages of “Core Mechanics” or 2 pages of “Rules Summary”, distinguishing will make sense; everyone is likely to have to read this and comprehend it well on the first read-through, or have some way of quickly identifying the game term on a skim-through. If we’re talking “Stunt Library”, which is likely to be used mostly as a reference guide, then distinguishing the game terms is less likely to be effective and more likely to be obnoxious. If we’re talking “GM Advice” (e.g. “Advanced Fuckery”), and it’s intended exclusively for an individual who is already intimately familiar with the game concepts but want to read the section as a front-to-back narrative, it is almost certain to be obnoxious.

    One can also make distinction between narrative or in-depth explanatory text and game mechanics using techniques like text boxes and marginalia. I really like the way Burning Wheel and With Great Power, for example, use examples connected with but separate from the body text referencing the players, their actions, and the game constructs they bring into play. Similar but different, Shock:. Not an answer to the question, but well-constructed and consistent use of those techniques can alleviate the need to distinguish the game terms in the main body of text and make for easier reading / learning / referencing.

  17. I love the idea of using a serif typeface for the body text and then using a closely aligned sans serif typeface for game terms (or vice versa), although I can’t recall seeing it used.

    The trick is pairing your typefaces. Yhey need to have virtually the same x-height and visual weight. I know of a couple cases where pairs of typefaces have been designed, like FF Scala and FF Meta, but they’re likely to be expensive.

  18. As a writer:

    I have to capitalize abstract terms and concepts. (I have to. It’s a compulsion. :P) Traits, Pools, Game Master

    I don’t usually capitalize actions and common terms. compel, story, roll

    I try to make the very first instance of any term so stand out (commonly by stylizing it somehow), and to make sure it was explained good enough so people will understand what it means when they later find the word again in the text.

    There are some special cases in which I like to juggle with some stuff. For example, I would try to differentiate between players (every person playing the game), Game Master (as in “one of the players with special responsibilities and authority”) and Players (every player at the table not the GM). I’m not sure I’m always clear enough, but I try. ^_^

    As a reader:

    English is not my first language. That’s why even while I consider myself pretty fluent with it, sometimes I tend to rush through the text. If your terms don’t stand out enough, I might miss them or read them “out of context”. Then I’d have to re-read the text a few more times (which isn’t cool). If the special terms I must understand are somehow “underlined” the first time they appear, then I can quickly spot them and register how they work in particular. If the term is too weird, alien or could have very different meanings out of context, then I appreciate it when it stands out (perhaps subtly) all over the text by being capitalized and stuff.

  19. buzz says:

    My sentiments are similar to something Amanda said up-thread: “That said, I do think it really helps for clarity when your game terms are words that get used in more mundane ways as well. So some kind of style or capping does serve a purpose. And I usually get over the Annoyance of Over Capitalization once I’m into the text.”

    I think it’s very important for both clarity and rules-refernce to be explicit, in some way, when you are using the “reserved words” of your ruleset, especially when they are fairly common words. (E.g., I honestly don’t like that DFRPG and SotC will use terms like “aspect” in the middle of a sentence with no distinction. Language is the primary mechanic of FATE, os I think it’s vital to distinguish mechanic-langguage from comment-language in its RPGs.)

    Clarity is the priority in a rulebook, no matter how one chooses to implement it. Caps, bold, italics, whatever… make sure it’s obvious when a reserved game term is being used.

  20. Josh Roby says:

    There are two rules for using capitalization:

    1) for proper nouns and their derivatives
    2) at the start of a sentence.

    Therefore, there are three reasons to use capitalization:

    1) for proper nouns and their derivatives
    2) at the start of a sentence
    3) breaking the rules.

    And of course, as everybody considers themselves genius iconoclasts, they find that #3 to be very tempting. Who doesn’t want to be a rulebreaker? It’s cool and sexy and shows that you don’t give a rip about what Mrs. Simmons taught you in 2nd grade. That’s grade school grammar, that doesn’t have anything to do with the True Art that you are now in the habit of producing.

    But when we get down to it, there are only a couple reasons to break the rules: it’s easier, it’s cheaper, it doesn’t require actually knowing the rules to begin with, it sells better (see above re: ooh, sexy), and lastly, you can break the rules to produce an effect that you couldn’t get following the rules. I’ll talk about the last reason, and leave as an exercise what I think of the rest.

    Capitalizing game terms (or to be more specific and technical, using title case on game terms) sometimes feels like it can get you an effect that you can’t otherwise get. Maybe this springs from ignorance; there’s a lot of things that you can do but not all of them are obvious. But if you want to set apart certain text, use a character style. If you want to highlight the importance of a passage, set it off as its own paragraph or use a pull quote (or half a dozen other options). If you want to differentiate between a game term and its “common usage” meaning, well… get a better game term, or use a consistent stylized phrasing whenever you use it as a game term. There are ways to achieve all of this by using the rules, rather than breaking them.

    Of course there are good reasons to break the rules: character voice immediately springs to mind (kill puppies for satan). Period materials post-Gutenberg and pre-Adobe might use capitalization because that was what passed for character style then (Castle Falkenstein, Munchausen).

    Publishing is a giant toolbox of opportunities, and if you’re going to publish something, familiarize yourself with your tools. Capping game terms is (in most case) like smashing in nails with the butt-end of a screwdriver because it was handy. There are better ways to achieve your goals, and those ways will, more often than not, work better than abusing your shift key.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Josh,

      “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” ;)

      I submit these two alternate uses for capitalization:
      1) for grammatical purposes (proper nouns and their derivatives, the start of a sentence, headings and titles, etc.)
      2) for clear communication purposes

      The trick is knowing when #2 is working and when it’s not.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And of course, as everybody considers themselves genius iconoclasts, they find that #3 to be very tempting.

      Oh, and because it’s been done time and time again in other RPGs, it’s not a case of iconoclasm but one of prior use. Very different animal.

      – Ryan

  21. Josh Roby says:

    Oh, I forgot the fourth reason to capitalize game terms:

    4) the publisher wants it that way.

    And there’s nothing you can do about that, save becoming the publisher.

  22. Josh Roby says:

    And I submit you’re mistaking the screwdriver for the toolbox, Ryan. The use for grammar is clear communication. You could have as easily said,

    I submit there are two alternate uses for quotation marks:
    1) for enclosing quotations
    2) for clear communication purposes

    (Which is saying they’re used for what they’re for and anything else you decide to use them for today.)

    …and then write text that goes like:

    When you are sneaking past a guard, roll your “agility” and “sneak” scores together.

    Or replace with braces:

    When you are sneaking past a guard, roll your {agility} and {sneak} scores together.

    Or all-caps:

    When you are sneaking past a guard, roll your AGILITY and SNEAK scores together.

    Clear communication is a great goal, but some tools are much better than others in certain situations. Sure, you can set off some text with whichever tool you like, but that doesn’t mean you’re using the best one available.

    • Amanda Valentine says:

      Specific situations allow for rules to be broken in different ways – such as the loss of the Oxford comma in newspapers. Or the loss of the doublespace after periods now that we don’t all use typewriters.

      I think that filling your text with a bazillion quotation marks is much much worse than capping from a readability point of view. Braces and parentheses tend to indicate things you can ignore or skip rather than emphasizing them – they make me think of madlibs rather than things I should be paying particular attention to. Colons and parentheses are usually used in stat blocks and other rulesy bits and therefore aren’t often the best choice for playing their normal roles within game text (thus my preference for the em dash). Personally, I’m a fan of small caps. But if that’s already in use, you need other options.

      Capping words used in unusual but specific and consistent ways is one of those tools for clarity. We’re already breaking the rules we learned in school by not writing everything we have to say in 5 paragraphs (intro with 3 points, point 1, point 2, point 3, conclusion restating 3 points) – thank god we mature and learn how to adapt grammar and punctuation to our needs.

  23. Josh Roby says:

    You know, I realized that I committed a forum-discussion faux pas and didn’t actually answer the question, which is:

    Which way do you like? As a writer? As a reader?

    Very important: Why?

    I like game terms uncapped as a writer and as a reader, because I think there are better ways to set off, call attention to, and differentiate game terms.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Josh,

      I was waiting how long until you noticed that. *grin*

      Now that I can understand.

      – Ryan