Words have power. Just ask Ursula Le Guin. Plus, language is so much a staple of stories and storytelling we’ve even codified it in tabletop roleplaying games into a proper mechanic. When it comes to the words our RPG characters use perhaps the question isn’t, “What words should I say?” but rather, “What words would I say?” This brings us to today’s topic — vernacular. Okay, I know it’s a big word but vernacular is the everyday language used by ordinary people. Speaking of, now’s probably as good a time as any to forewarn this article contains cursing and a dissertation on cursing and racial slurs. So if you’re not comfortable with either of those topics or reading some everyday curses then maybe seek out another of many articles.
Turn that phrase!
Let’s ask the question on everyone’s mind.
“Why are we talking about common language and cursing?”
The answer is simple. By tailoring the vernacular used by our player characters and NPCs we can accomplish subtle wordlbuilding in leaps and bounds and simultaneously immerse our players in the experience.
Ever hear someone call another person a son of a gun? How much sense does it make to call someone this in a fantasy setting where guns have never existed? Maybe instead of saying, “What on Earth?” a character can substitute the name of the fantasy planet so the phrase becomes, What on Aether?” Suppose someone says, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Most RPG settings have multiple gods and none are dominant, so someone might respond with, “Which one?”
Subtle changes like naming the god you hope has mercy on another’s soul or even making up your own turn of phrase altogether can show the players new and interesting things about the world in which their playing. Replacing small details like saying “What on Faerûn” instead of “What on Earth” is a subtle way to make your game world feel both immersive and grounded (pun intended).
I’m a fan of making all new turns of phrase but there’s something to be said for taking turns of phrase from our own world and adapting them into the fantasy world. The familiar nature of the phrase “what on Earth” mingles with the alien dissonance accomplished by replacing “Earth” with something else. This dichotomy of feelings is very difficult to achieve, yet it’s easily done in this sort of situation.
Though controversial and surly, cursing is a staple of cultures. How a culture curses can reveal a lot about what a culture values or devalues. While we can reference our previous idea of replacing names, such as saying, “What in Torm’s name?” instead of “What in God’s name?” there’s something to be said for wordbuilding even moreso among curses.
If a culture uses “Infernal!” as a curse it might lead to a hint that tieflings encounter a great deal of prejudice, because their native tongue is in fact called Infernal. In Dragon Age, “sod” is used as a replacement for “shit.” “Sod” is a pretty common replacement curse in many fantasy media, actually, and it also comes up in the webseries JourneyQuest over on YouTube.
I could drone on with ideas for curse replacements, but the gist is no two worlds will have identical conventions for cursing because the crux of cursing relates to what a culture despises or abhors. What turns the stomach merely to think of it or evokes as much or more displeasure than what was being cursed about? Since cursing is a form of verbal hyperbolic catharsis (or exaggerated release of stress) it makes sense to ask what things are so thoroughly reviled that they would make their ways into cursing vernacular.
Racial, gender and other slurs
Oh boy, now we’re really in the hot water. But if we shy away from talking about these sorts of things, addressing them in our games becomes impossible. I’m an advocate that RPGs are a fantastic way to bring people together and I love when stories (especially fantasy stories) address uncomfortable or heavy topics by removing them from our real world context.
Racial tensions are simply a tragic fact of life in our real world. While we work toward antiracism and cultures that contain no inherent privilege based on race the sad truth is we have not arrived there in our present day and age. Sexism and prejudice against LGBT+ communities exist as well. It is not a pleasant fact of life, but it is a fact of life nonetheless.
While many people prefer to sweep things under the proverbial rug and ignore that problems exist, this isn’t healthy. I understand RPGs are an escape for many people but if we refuse to acknowledge key elements of culture such as prejudice we close ourselves off from the possibility of ever exploring how to deal with these issues in the safe space provided by our RPGs.
I’m not saying we need to fight prejudice at the game table or that prejudice even has to be a theme of your worlds or games. On the contrary, there’s a great deal to be said for normalization and not calling attention to something in a fantasy world’s context. What I am saying is if your game addresses these themes, don’t be afraid or shy away from them. RPGs let us embrace controversial themes and provide a safe space to address such things, without the fear of real world consequences.
We as players all possess innate biases and RPGs provide a means to remove thematic elements from their real world contexts, making the topics more accessible to empathy and understanding. Part of bringing those things out of the real world is in vernacular. People can be cruel, evil and malevolent.
Language portrays attitudes. As such, people will absolutely use slurs against others, hateful names meant to draw attention to the person’s reviled feature and debase them, making them feel like objects (or worse) rather than people.
As a note, please be sensitive when addressing these topics in your games. Many tables (mine included) are racially diverse and it’s important you don’t accidentally hit a little too close to home either in terms of what slurs you conjure for your world or in terms of other references of hate. While it’s important to deal with these uncomfortable topics from time to time at our tables it’s equally important to be mindful that some of our players may have encountered real world prejudice and that often leads to trauma. Make sure to make a safe space and encourage the use of a “safe word” that immediately stops play and allows for processing and open discussion.
In general, it’s important to remember many of us have real, experienced trauma from prejudice, and sometimes we need to stop and process.
Returning to reference of the Dragon Age series, elves are oppressed in the setting and one of the things that makes elves so interesting in Thedas is their lack of difference from humans. However, in spite of the fact elves are basically just different looking humans, racist humans often call them “knife-ears.” This cements the elves as an oppressed people and it draws attention to the primary difference between them and the humans. The qunari are reviled for their legalistic culture and warmongering. When people in Thedas call them “oxmen” it debases them. By comparing them to animals it seeks to make them less than people. Since there are elves, dwarves, qunari and humans of every skin tone these references to species distinctions cement these slurs solidly within the fantasy, removing any real world comparisons.
On the whole, the biggest thing to remember is there’s a time and place for everything and you know your game table better than anyone else. Just like with movies and television, sometimes you want to be challenged on your biases and sometimes you just need a lighthearted night with friends. Tread carefully and make sure to set a culture at your table where people feel open and among friends, regardless of what themes are addressed.
In general, by adjusting vernacular to suit our game worlds we allow for greater immersion and we open ourselves up to exploring new themes and potentially growing as people beyond the game table.
What do you think?
How do you adjust language for your game world? Have you had a Game Master who hit a home run with vernacular? Let us know in the comments! Remember to love each other, and until next time, stay nerdy!