Playtesting Language

I talk about it off and on[1], and have over the years, but I don’t think it can be stated enough: the language of your rules needs to be as playtested as its mechanics. This is part of what I look at in developmental consultations, because the words we use to communicate ideas have weight, baggage, and prior meaning, whether in the wider world or within out subculture…yet none of that context is guaranteed to be shared.

But you can still hit closer or further from the mark.

Take Classic Fate’s “Maneuver” action. In every convention game of Fate I’ve run, I had to explain that “maneuver” didn’t just mean physical action, but anything could be a “maneuver.” So, when it came time for Fate Core to happen, and we were seriously reexamining all the language, we got to kill “maneuver” and turn it into part of “create an advantage” — going from explaining around a thing to naming a thing closer to what it is.

In Mythender, I used to call what Mythenders use “traits,” and frequently people would make up traits that didn’t work in the game, because they sounded awesome but were too defensive. I constantly had to explain around it, saying “how would you End Thor with that trait?” Eventually, I decided to call them “Weapons” in one playtest, and everyone nodded — I still had to explain around “feelings and emotions and talents can be Weapons,” but most people grasp that sooner and with fewer hurdles than they did “traits.”

This is something I watch the design team and the developers work over at Paizo (and, as an editor, assist with and verify execution of). Terminology was a huge consideration in, for instance, the Advanced Class Guide playtest.[2]

Point is, language is a non-trivial problem in a game whose initial teaching and reference medium is the written word, and is primarily taught by the spoken word. So it needs to be playtested, just like mechanics, because if language gets in the way of understanding, or routinely conveys the wrong thing, that language is ill-suited for that mechanic’s job.

Language should:

  • Be clear and unambiguous, whenever possible
  • Be dissimilar from other terms used (like having “spend” and “expend” mean two mechanically different things in a game)
  • Be thematically or tonally appropriate, as to keep the players in the right frame of mind (having “hit points” in a purely political game would, for instance, be jarring)
  • Be wielded with intent, especially in every case where you’re making the language harder in order to make a specific impact on the reader and player

(I’m not really fond of the latter point, but I acknowledge that it does exist and can sometimes be legit.)

That said, you’ll run into one significant problem with playtesting language: once a group understands the concept, they cannot help you test new language around that concept. That’s why I had to try “Weapon” with a different group of Mythender playtesters. But to go back to Fate, let’s look at Fate Core’s “create an advantage” rule:

Mechanically, it’s (mostly) assessments, declarations, and maneuvers from Classic Fate. And it’s collapsed because that makes for neater, tighter mechanics, so rules-wise it’s a good move. But what’s really interesting is that with all the new people coming to Fate because of Core & FAE, there are folks asking a new question: how do you find or discover things? That was highlighted in this Fate G+ post, and one thing mentioned was one guy who’s old-hat to Fate, Teo Tayobobayo, now misses the word “assess,” because that clearly showed that Fate covered this action. Now, we have “overcome,” “create and advantage,” and “attack”[3] as actions. The language we’re using is all active, and while certainly many Fate players know that they can create advantages fictionally by observation, it’s something we have to explain.

It’s Fate Core’s “maneuver.”

Granted, I think it’s a better situation, because “create an advantage” is generic enough, but “maneuver” has implications of physical or even social positioning, so the explanation around it isn’t as cumbersome. Plus, you can still use the Classic Fate language of “assess.” But that doesn’t change the end result: that it’s after publication that the incomplete nature of that term clicked for me. Teo’s totally right.

That goes to show the value of having new people play your game, but that’s not the entire story. Unfortunately, the truth is that many people don’t realize that they should give feedback on terms — some don’t for fear of being pedantic, and others focus on parsing the rules language that they only give feedback on critical clarity problems, leaving minor clarity ones unmentioned. So when you’re talking with playtesters, try asking a few language-specific questions:

  • Were their any terms that felt off or seemed weird?
  • Where did you struggle with the phrasing or vocabulary?
  • What language bored you?
  • What parts of the text or game terms sounded the coolest? (Follow-up: were they as cool as they sounded?)
  • What sort of games have you played? (This is key for understanding if they are or aren’t bringing subcultural baggage to your words, like classic fantasy gaming vocabulary.)

I wish you designers out there luck on this front. It’s super hard to playtest language! And even after publication, you’ll kick yourself for some term. (For Mythender, it’s “Blight” and “Personal Blight” and “Lasting Blight.” Mainly “Personal Blight.”)

– Ryan

[1] Including a brief aside on the most recent Master Plan episode, with Vincent Baker

[2] Which is currently running, if you’re so inclined. I am digging playing my bloodrager.

[3] I don’t really treat defend as an action, at least in active conversation. It’s reactive.


2 Responses to Playtesting Language

  1. Some authors try to get around the problem by making up whole new terms or digging deep into dead languages to borrow words. Sometimes it adds flavour to a game, but most of the time it just adds jargon. A writer should think carefully about whether there is a perfectly good existing wording before throwing in made-up or arcane terminology.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally! That gets to a really huge discussion about terminology and intent. For some people, those choices aren’t to get around an issue as they are to evoke something specific. And others are attempting to create their own institutional jargon, which is not inherently bad (or inherently good), but it is really hard to pull off.

      I could probably talk for hours on this topic. It’s mountainous.

      – Ryan