Voices and Verisimilitude

“Listen up, berk, because I’m only going to say this once. A body can only put up with so much stupidity from one person, so watch your step or I’ll put you in the deadbook, right quick.”

Notice anything about the sentences above? If you identified it as a possible snippet of conversation from a Planescape campaign, then you’d be right. But how did you know? What clues tipped you off? I’d lay a wager that it was the slang used, the vocabulary, and the phrasing. I got to thinking about this a while ago, and realized that, more than an accent or a vivid description, what makes a character in a specific setting come alive is the vocabulary and the slang they use.

Slang might be something that you overlook when you’re creating a setting or scenario. But stop for a moment and give it some thought. When you’re talking with your friends, I’m sure there are words you use that help identify you of a member of your social group. The same should be true for a person in a campaign setting, be they PC or NPC.  A socially codified set of slang can take an interesting, intriguing setting and change it into something far more memorable.

Planescape is a prime example. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Planescape is a setting that TSR published near the end of the life of 2nd Edition D&D. It let players travel the various planes of existence, and one of its most memorable places (in my opinion) was the city of Sigil. Sigil was the (figurative) “center” of the planes and was riddled with portals to nearly any place one could think of. What made Sigil unique was not just its super-cosmopolitan makeup (where else could you see an angel arguing with a devil over a couple of pints at a bar?), but they way its inhabitants spoke. There was an entire vocabulary  associated with the residents of Sigil, and not using it marked you as non-native to the city in a big way.

That level of detail is something that many campaign settings are missing. The same can even be true of many NPCs, but I think it might be easier to come up with a distinguishing set of speech patterns for one NPC than it would be to do the same for an entire culture. If you can take the time to try and create something like that, though, then you might find your players interacting with your world and the people in it in a more concrete way. Give it a shot.

After all, a cutter’s got to have some tricks up his sleeve, don’t he?

[tags]rpg, settings, running the game, roleplaying games[/tags]

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