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Roleplayer Lingo as Folkspeech

While the place of roleplaying games as oral tradition is arguable, roleplayers definitely make up an identifiable and definable subculture. While it borders on the tautological, one of the most interesting ways to see this is to look at the lingo of roleplayers. Roleplayers are a diverse lot, playing a diverse selection of games. Almost no roleplayers have seen, much less played, all of the RPGs available, or even a sizable portion of them. Most have played no more than half-a-dozen, usually including AD&D.16 And yet, they do have an identifiable lore. Despite the many different games and experiences playing them, certain commonalities arise, and this is reflected in the lingo. Certain terms have come to have common currency among roleplayers, and are understood by nearly any moderately-experienced roleplayer,17 whatever her background. I claim that this lingo qualifies as folkspeech, and that therefore roleplayers qualify as a folk culture.

Folkspeech is, of course, a particular genre of folklore. The speech part is easy to prove: every one of these terms is spoken as communication between roleplayers. But is it folklore? Well, folklore is one of those notoriously hard-to-define concepts. The best definition I have seen is the test proposed by Dundes of "multiple existence in variation." Applying each of those parts in turn to the lingo of roleplayers, we see that there are clearly multiple existences of most, if not all, of these terms18 and that variation is a hallmark of these multiple existences. Moreover, these multiple existences come from informants scattered all over the globe, not all of whom are native English speakers, which strongly implies at least a limited commonality of experience that can most easily be explained by the fact that all of the informants are roleplayers, since what little I know of them indicates that they span a large spectrum of age, race, gender, education, political and religious beliefs, and other (non-roleplaying) interests. Another concern not included in the Dundes test above is authorship. Many contend that true folklore is authorless, which would obviously disqualify a reasonable portion of the roleplayer lingo I collected. I counter that the original source of folklore need not be authorless, but only the use as folklore need be. A classic example of this is the "fakelore" of Paul Bunyan. The story of Paul Bunyan started out as an ad campaign, and was the subject of several Walt Disney cartoons.19 However, I think it is clearly reasonable to say that the stories of Paul Bunyan can now be considered true folklore, as they have entered oral circulation, and many people, myself included, learn and transmit them without having any awareness of their primary origin, or of other mass-media representations. Likewise, while two entire categories, as I have constructed them, of roleplayer lingo have as their ultimate source authored materials, their use as lingo is divorced from this authorship, and is thus legitimate folklore. In the case of game-derived jargon, it is also quite possible that the jargon was itself originally only a codification of pre-existing folkspeech. Considering all of these factors, I believe it is a perfectly reasonable claim that the lingo of roleplayers is folkspeech.

A fair amount of this is game-specific jargon, introduced by the published materials, but even this crosses game boundaries, being used in contexts that make no literal sense, and/or by players who have never played the game it originated in. I disbelieve and no Saving Throw20 are widespread examples of this, both originating in unusual mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons® (D&D; the first commercial RPG). I disbelieve: Hearkens back to AD&D, when the illusionist class could create imaginary dangers that wouldn't actually kill PCs, but merely put them in a bad way. It was great, because GMs could present the illusion of real danger. The only way to resist was to utter, 'I disbelieve.' In non-AD&D games, uttered when something utterly impossible occurs.21 This also shows up in games as 'Can I roll to disbelieve?' after something horrendous happens. GM: 'The last shot toasted your drive. the Zhodani battlecruiser is calling for your surrender.' Player (weakly) 'Can I roll to disbelieve?'22 References to sanity checks or SAN checks are nearly as common, and stem from a mechanic in the game Call of Cthulhu. In Call of Cthulhu, the characters are normal individuals who somehow stumble on to the extradimensional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, which tends to result in literary versions of insanity. SAN23 checks are used to determine how much the characters are unbalanced by the horrors. Now, however, it has entered common parlance and is Used in reference to any mind boggling event, or particularly twisted chain of logic; i.e. 'That burned SAN, but I followed it!' [It is] Most often used out of game.24

Also in this category are terms that are found, usually in very similar form, in nearly every RPG. Almost every RPG has "experience points," and most use that term or a very close variant. In an RPG, experience points are a game-like reward mechanism. The details of how they are earned vary from game to game, and GM to GM, but they all are essentially a reward for accomplishments and/or good characterization by the player, and can be used to improve the character. Of course, that is a simple mechanical similarity. What is interesting is that the concept has drifted into real-world interactions. It is not uncommon to hear roleplayers refer to XP or eeps25 in relation to something in their real lives. Perhaps the most common of these references is a gamer variation of "that which does not kill me makes me stronger":26 at least I still get the XP. It's an expression of resignation used in RL [Real Life] to indicate that whilst an event has not gone according to plan, useful experience has been gained.27 The implication is that, while something hasn't turned out well, the person still has the experience gained, which in an RPG would be quantified as actual experience points, which could then be used to tangibly improve the character (such as improving her score in a skill).

The next broad category of roleplayer folkspeech relates to the interaction of the three frames that roleplaying takes place in. In any RPG experience, the participants have the interesting task of simultaneously interacting on three levels, each of which ostensibly operates unawares of the others.28 On the first level, the participants are of course simply people, most likely friends, who interact as such. The second level is that of players, where they participants are playing a game, complete with rules and goals. The third level is that of characters, for the participants in an RPG are, in a very real sense, identified with the characters they play. Unlike in most games, the character is more than a mere token, and is an extension of the participant. Each of these levels has information that the others lack, and is governed by a distinct set of rules. Two people who have essentially no relationship as people (having just met at a game) can nonetheless have a cooperative relationship as players, and simultaneously a rival relationship as characters. In terms of knowledge, both the character and the player know things that the other doesn't. The character knows things about the world of the game that the player doesn't (such as her childhood chores or what an orc smells like), while the player knows things about the mechanics of the game that the character doesn't (such as another character's statistics or the likelihood of a prayer for divine intervention succeeding). Some of this information can't be meaningfully passed between levels (the smell of an orc), some of it can (the GM and/or player can determine what a character's childhood was like), and some of it shouldn't be (the fact that two people are upset with one another ideally shouldn't affect the relationship between their two characters).

However, in practice much information passes between the levels that shouldn't, some of it deliberately, some of it accidentally. The two most common examples of this are players and/or characters acting in response to information only the person should have, and characters acting in response to information only the player should have. An example of the former is when one character is upset or in love with another character because the person playing the first character is upset or in love with the person playing the other character. It is also not unheard-of for a player to attempt to have her character act on information known only to the person (such as having a Medieval character create gunpowder).

In response to this, much folkspeech has developed. The first class of it deals with those areas where undesirable cross-over is inevitable. For example, however much the participants might wish otherwise, the character is inextricably linked to the player and person. While it may be possible to firewall information between the three levels, there is nothing that can be done about physical presence; if the person is absent from a game, so, in a very real sense, is the character. Different groups deal with this in different ways, but most agree that the ideal is for the character to be absent when the player is, for example by "staying home" or going on a short trip solo. However, this isn't always possible without breaking the continuity of the game world. (If a group of characters is sailing far out to sea, one of them can't very well be there one day, gone the next, and back the third, without some means of transport.) Failing this, most groups have a standing technique for accounting for the sudden apathy of the character. These techniques often stem from a particular instance, but then become the metaphor or actuality for further occurrences. My groups take on this - 'locked in the sanitary facilities'. One of the players was poring over the deck plans of the starship they were on, and was incredibly ticked by the fact that the WCs were labeled 'Sanitary Facilities' - I'm not sure why. In any case, he ended up the session locked in them, and he wasn't around for the next two games, so we assumed he was still locked in the SanFac. From then on, whenever someone was missing for a session, the first thing their character would do is say, 'I'm gonna go to the bathroom' (or something similar) and then wander off, and somehow get locked or stuck there.29 Often, this literal occurrence evolves into a willful conceit, and then eventually a metaphor with no literal meaning. So an initially realistic explanation (the character who is busy studying in a library for a few days), becomes the standard explanation, whether or not it makes sense (thus referring to any absentee player's character as being "in the library," even in a genre or location where libraries don't exist). Some of these can be quite fanciful:30 [We] Also use 'the grey haze' to denote the whereabouts of PC's whose players were AWOL.31

A related case of cross-over is the fact that, unlike the real world (though like most literature), the PCs are the main characters around whom most, if not all, of the activity is defined. Thus, the PCs have an importance in their world that is disproportionate to the actual power and influence of the characters they supposedly are. For some groups and/or genres this is actually desirable--in epic fantasy and modern action films, the main characters are the center of the universe. For others, it becomes a sort of in-joke, poking fun at the fact that the PCs get deferential treatment: We call that 'having PCness,' or 'having PC painted/tattooed on your forehead/shining brow.'32 And for some, it interferes with their suspension of disbelief, and is something to be avoided: Here, it's your 'PC Badge.' Flash it to get the other player characters to work with you, or to let NPCs know that you're looking for some plot.33 This difference in play style can be seen in the different terms people have for this situation. PC Aura and Blue Glow are relatively benign terms, while Having PC Tattooed on His Shining Brow points up a blatant quality. A reference to a PC Badge is not only blatant, but shows that the PCs somehow have more authority than they ought, and likens being a PC to being an authority figure.

Similar terms deal with the flip side of this phenomenon: the fact that NPCs are often disproportionately unimportant. NPCs often end up undefined except as necessary for the particular interaction with a PC, and thus may lack fundamental attributes like a name. Instead, they get referred to by generic moniker, such as Bob and extra. A particularly self-referential example of this is Ensign Enpic - [an] NPC who needed a quick name when the GM wasn't ready for it; comes from pronouncing NPC as a word.34 Furthermore, an entire class of terms has arisen for labeling "disposable" NPCs. These fall into two categories: opponents and allies. Disposable allies are most often referred to as red shirts or cannon fodder, though there are many other terms, generally more group-specific, in use. [Cannon fodder] Always referred to masses of such [disposable allies],35 while red shirts are singular. Easily-disposed-of enemies are generally referred to as mooks36 or orcs37 (whether or not they are orcs, or orcs even exist in the milieu), but there are again many different terms.

Another class of terms that stems from this knowledge cross-over deals with style of play issues. A Monty Haul game is essentially, an unbalanced game....It of course refers to 'Let's Make a Deal,' a TV game show hosted by Monty Hall. It is specifically a reference to 'I'll take whatever's behind door number three, Monty!' - a convention of the television program where people were awarded prizes by choosing the door behind which the prize was located. The reference is to dungeon crawl games, basically (A)D&D and the like, implying that in a 'monty haul' campaign players can gain treasure simply by going about dungeons and opening doors (glossing over combat, roleplaying, [and going directly] to treasure and especially magic items).38 But without the knowledge brought to the situation at the level of the player, who knows how difficult things really are, the situation would not exist. From the character's perspective, she has no way of knowing that the game is "rigged" as opposed to her merely being skilled or lucky. In an almost exactly inverse situation, the stereotypical dungeon crawl game--An adventure set in a dungeon, cave or other traditional dank underground setting...[or] any adventure that has the features of old-style dungeon adventures - monsters that stay in one location until encountered, traps with no logical purpose, etc.39--while potentially great fun for the player, would seem nonsensical from a pure character perspective: in a world that existed only on its own merits, rather than as a construct for a game, the dungeons where such games take place simply wouldn't make sense and wouldn't exist. In a dungeon crawl, there's this huge warren of caves filled with monsters, most of them in sealed rooms. What do they eat? When one PC party goes through it, another will probably follow and fight the same foes. Where did they come from?40

Another common case of knowledge cross-over in a similar vein is not only accepted but willfully employed. Oftentimes, the issue of compatibility between the characters is glossed over, and they are just assumed to work together, more or less, for the sake of the players. Along this line, rather than trying to justify why the characters are together, it is not uncommon to just assume they are. This is often indicated by some variation on "you met in the bar," a reference to the clichéd origin for so many fantasy groups. A clear example of this in practice can be found near the beginning of Star Wars, where the group comes together in the cantina on Tattoine, but when the expression is used in an RPG, it is as often as not not literal, but just a metaphor.

A third class of RPG folkspeech is that which has arisen to discuss RPGs and roleplaying. In much the same way that literary criticism has developed, invented, and refined a set of terms for talking about literature, roleplayers have developed a set of terms for talking about roleplaying. One set of these deals with play style issues, mostly in a pejorative manner. So munchkins are those who engage in minmaxing, and are often most interested in hack & slash games.41 A related set of terms has become more of a running joke than anything else--there are a whole series of jokes about the "4 types" of roleplayers: Real Men, Real Roleplayers, Munchkins, and Real Loonies. Real Men are the roleplayers who embody the action-adventure hero ideal. Real Roleplayers are most interested in living a vicarious life through roleplaying. Munchkins just want to win. And supposedly nobody really knows what Real Loonies want out of roleplaying. Despite the semi-seriousness with which jokes and anecdotes about this split are presented, I've yet to meet anyone who takes the classification at all seriously.

Finally, the most diverse class of roleplayer folkspeech consists of pop-culture references. Strictly speaking, movies have authors, and shouldn't really be considered part of the oral tradition, or of folklore. However, I believe that these references do qualify as folkspeech. Using the "multiple existence in variation" test, a given reference often becomes "corrupted" and is heard in slight variation from different tellers. Moreover, I argue that the body of movie references used by roleplayers, as a whole, conforms to this test. While the wording of a given quote rarely shows much variation, it may be used in multiple contexts, with radically divergent meanings. Likewise, several different quotes may all come to have roughly the same meaning, and thus be functional variations on one another, despite the differing origins. Finally, as Dundes points out, the fact that something is transmitted by, or even originates in, a fixed technological medium does not inherently disqualify it from the realm of folklore.42 These quotes are retransmitted orally, and reinterpreted by the roleplaying folk culture to give them relevance, despite the fact that their original source (movies, mostly) assure a very broad initial distribution.

Due to their origins in pop culture, these are generally the least obtuse items of folkspeech found among roleplayers. Most of the references would be equally well understood by a non-gamer, and consist of lines from popular movies and other sources used in contexts similar to their original context. However, some are more distinctive, and there is one subset, in particular, that seems to be extremely specialized to roleplayers: Monty Python and the Holy Grail43 references. In addition to a similarity of subject matter with a great many RPGs (a disproportionate number of which are pseudo-Medieval or swords & sorcery), I suspect this comes from a similarity of tone. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is, among other things, a deconstruction of not only the Arthurian mythos and the ideals of chivalry, but of the heroic quest in general. And, in a way, the bastardization of an epic that most RPG games turn out as is very similar. Therefore, I find it no coincidence that so many of the quotes and scenes from the movie are appropriated by roleplayers-both are drawing on the same heroic fantasy tradition, and have many of the same elements.

In response to a particularly asinine suggestion, someone might quip build a bridge out of her, in reference to the scene where the villagers and Sir Percival are trying to determine if a woman is a witch through utterly silly tests founded on spurious "logic." Another very common reference is to Tim, or Tim the Enchanter, who is one of several character in the movie that have no place except to convey necessary plot information. We always used it to refer to any old sage in a remote location that gave us the next clue on a quest, especially when his appearance felt sudden and contrived, like the GM just put him there as a way to get us back on track.44 Again, this is a parody of a figure from folktales: the wise enigmatic figure in the wilderness that helps the hero, so applying the name of the parody to the bastardization in an RPG is extremely appropriate; they have more in common than most roleplayers would probably like to admit.

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