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Game Design: Step by Step

Confessions of a Language Geek

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

March 2, 2000

A recent topic in the forums for this column has sparked my imagination, and so that is what I'm covering this week.  The topic?  Language.

When I was a kid, I read books...lots and lots of books, in fact. (Still do--although not quite as voraciously as I did years ago, simply due to a lack of extensive amounts of free time)  My favorites were books that had glossaries--tomes like Dune and Watership Down, that had their own vocabularies, and had me flipping back and forth to the end of the book, where the new words were arranged for me.  Geeks that we were, my friends and I would sometimes try to make a habit of using some of the cooler words or phrases in conversation-- to this day, I still bite back the urge to tell assholes to silflay hraka (for those of you familiar with Richard Adams).  I devoured my parent's copies of Lord of the Rings, in the original, slipcased paperback editions--primarily out of awe for the detailed information on the grammar and writing of the various languages of Middle Earth that appeared in the appendices.

Language is cool.  I'm a big fan, always have been.  It's what I studied in college (East Asian Languages, specifically), and it's where I spend my time working (both writing my own words, and editing the words of others).

Basically, I'm a Language Geek.

Slang especially fascinates me.  I love that it functions on multiple levels, revealing information not only about it's own definition, but the culture and time of it's origins.  China Mieville's brilliant King Rat grabbed me on this level, with it's extensive use of Cockney rhyming slang--a system by which one word replaces another, with the trick being that usually the replacement word comes from a multi-word phrase where one of the other words rhymes with the word that is being replaced (for example apples is a shortening of apples and pairs which rhymes with stairs---hence, apples = stairs.  Butcher's is part of Butcher's Hook, which rhymes with look, so you can "take a butchers" at something).  China tells me via email, by the way, the coolest thing of all about rhyming slang:  Like any good argot, it continually evolves, changing to suit the times.  He tells me that people now talk about having to "answer the Sharon"--since Sharon Stone rhymes with phone.  Too feckin' cool.  (Oh, and there's another one.  Feckin' is Irish slang--a replacement for the more unsavory F-word, to be used in mixed company.)

So--this brings me to language in the UnderWorld.

For the ease of play, the lingua franca of the UnderWorld will be English (the game is set in NY, and at least nominally, that's the main language of the city).  However, the language spoken by the UnderWorlders will be filled with specificity to their environment and their lifestyle--a slang that reflects the mix of cultures that make up the population, combined with the circumstances they endure, unique to the UnderWorld.  Mix this with healthy helpings of the latest street slang from the UpWorld (brought in by the Homeless Traders), and there you have the base language, which we'll call Tunnel.  Other languages are spoken, including Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole...hell, even 17th Century Dutch in some places...but Tunnel is the common ground that most denizens share.

The game will feature a Tunnel Glossary, for two reasons: one (and most importantly), I think it's cool.  Two, insights into language (even in the briefest of glimpses) tell you a lot about a culture--and that will make the setting of the game easier to grasp.

Some examples from the Glossary:

Amadán: (n)  An idiot or fool.  From the Irish.

Baggered (adj) Scared, terrified--from the Dutch phrase "bagger schijten", meaning literally "to shit mud".

Ben Zsona (n): Son of a Bitch.  From the Hebrew.

Bounce (v): To get out, to leave.

Christ-time (n): The time of day from roughly 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm when cars pack the UpWorld streets so fully that an UnderWorlder could walk the length of Manhattan Island solely on the car's tops, like walking on water.  Also named for the most common epithet coming from the drivers of those cars.

Clockwork Zombie (n): A derogatory term for a Junkman.

Crow-Ho (n): A derogatory term for anyone who wears a preponderance of leather, PVC, rubber, nylon or other "goth" accoutrements.  A reference to James O. Barr's comic book series, The Crow.

Duckets (n): Money (from ducats, an old form of coinage).

Hellenback (v): To travel a long way, especially through difficulties.  Ex. "We hellenbacked all the way to Brooklyn."

Jack Roll (v): To rob, usually from someone who is helpless.  Often shortened to either "jack" or "roll".

Jump Stiles (v): To leave, rapidly--from "jumping turnstiles" in the subway.

The Frizz (n): One of the more youthful synonyms for the Radiance.

Green (int.): Understanding.  Usually in the form of a query or response: "We green?" "Yeah, green."   Taken from green indicator lights in the subway tunnels, showing that the way is clear.

Surf (v): To travel by riding the tops of subway trains.

Track Rabbit (n): A rat.  One of the dietary staples of the UnderWorld.

There will be many more--in fact, tell you what:  I'll open the glossary to submissions from the readers of this column.  If you've got a word that you think would make a good addition to the lexicon of the UnderWorld, submit it in the forums below.  Be sure to include your name, so that you can be properly credited.

Next week, I'll talk about GMing--creating plots, running NPCs, etc., with a special focus on the retcon/improv method that will be encouraged in UnderWorld.

See ya in 7,

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

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What do you think?

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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000
  36. Endings and Beginnings June 29, 2000
  37. A Brief Return to the Underworld July 13, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

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Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

Other columns at RPGnet

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