Recently I was playtesting a new game with the designers and some friends. The game is a cyberpunk dystopia (my jam) and we were playing teenagers. I had just been dissed (people still say that, right?), and I told the GM, “I am going on future Twitter to rant about this.” Everyone at the table nodded in acknowledgment and went on with the game.
This past weekend, I was running my first session of Masks and our Nova let loose with their power and attracted the attention of the super law enforcement group AEGIS. As they arrived on the scene I told the players, “Hovercars from AEGIS, SHIELD, are overhead.” They got it.
In my Hydro Hackers game, there is a piece of equipment in the equipment list that I am always asked about – the Hive Account. When asked I always say Hive… that’s Google, and everyone gets what I am saying.
So what do all of these have in common? They are using Proper Nouns that are meaningful to our time and our culture, in order to convey a concept for a game that is not set in our time or in our culture.
That is what I want to talk about today. What are some of the best ways to utilize Proper Nouns when we play?
A proper noun is, “a name used for an individual person, place, or organization, spelled with initial capital letters, e.g., Larry, Mexico, and Boston Red Sox.” (Google Define)
So in the above instance Twitter, SHIELD, and Google are all proper nouns from our time and our pop culture. Hive is a proper noun from the world of Hydro Hackers.
So we have our own proper nouns that define our world, and the game worlds we play in can have their own. And that is the tricky part because when it comes to the proper nouns from our world, we are ok. We are steeped in them, so their meanings are known and we are comfortable using them in casual conversation.
But the proper nouns of other worlds, our campaign worlds, are not as easily known to us – especially if the world is completely new to us. Which means that we can’t always recall the names or when we do, it takes a few beats, making using them in ad hoc dialog tricky. The good part is that it gets better, but it can be tricky especially when we are first learning a new game/setting.
Why do we use them?
Proper Nouns are a tool for us to convey setting. We use them to name cities (Waterdeep), to name important people (Elminster), or organizations (Harpers). They are evocative and they do as much to convey the setting as the art that is used in the book. For instance, in a fantasy world if we say that the Queen’s name is Karoths, that is very different than if we say her name is Caroline. In fact, many would say that Caroline is a bit 4th wall breaking because it sounds too much like our world.
Game designers and writers also make up proper nouns for legal reasons. Many proper nouns for businesses are Trademarked meaning that there are laws governing who can use those terms and how they can be used. So to avoid any Imperial entanglements, we just change Google to Hive, and we are on our way.
Finally, writers, sometimes use their own proper nouns satirically where they will parody a proper noun to both avoid Trademarks as well as to poke fun at it. Rather than saying Coke ™ or Pepsi ™, Paranoia has Bouncy Bubbly Beverage. Because we can all use some BBB, the Computer says so, and the Computer is your friend.
Why do we get tripped up with Jargon?
I mentioned before that often we are trying to learn the setting and play the game at the same time. People don’t sit and memorize the lexicon of a setting before they play the game, we just make characters and start playing. That is for established settings.
And because of those two things — learning new settings, and making things up on the fly — we can sometimes get tripped up. So we need some techniques to help us out.
Proper Techniques for Proper Nouns
When it comes to established settings, the best technique for teaching new words is to treat them like a foreign language and teach in parallel, by using the proper noun from the game world and giving it the equivalent from our world. In most cases, when you are looking at a setting, you will be able to see the parallel concept that was used. So when you are describing an element of the world, say its name, then say the parallel world name.
For instance, in my Masks example above I introduced AEGIS as they arrived on the scene, but in the same breath I called them SHIELD, in reference to the Marvel Universe equivalent.
In doing this, I am helping to create a link between those two in my player’s minds (and my own mind) which will make remembering AEGIS easier in both the name as well as what their role is in the game.
For improv games, I recommend that you use the current proper nouns first if you need something fast, and only create names for things that are going to be sticking around. So in my example above using Future Twitter was fine, because we were playing a one-shot and it was enough to get my point across. Now if we were playing a campaign, after someone had said Future Twitter, as a GM I may have asked something like, “What is the name of the most popular social media in this world?” Then let the players work out the name.
After we created the name, I would have made sure we kept using it, but it would have been easier to keep track of because it would have been created by the group, and those kinds of things tend to be better retained.
Using proper nouns in games is a great verbal technique for conveying setting. It can be tricky for players and GMs when encountering a new setting. Too many proper nouns and suddenly the game’s focus is not on adventure and drama, but rather trying to remember this world’s name for a Bard. In improv games, it can be just as tricky to come up with a good name for an analog without it sounding silly and without it taking too long.
By mixing in proper nouns from our world you can create verbal shortcuts that help to convey a lot of information without slowing the flow of the game down. Over time, as we gain setting mastery, this practice can fade away as we become comfortable with the lexicon of the game.
What are some of your favorite ways you have used proper nouns in your games? Do you use common names in your fantasy worlds? Do you use modern businesses in your SciFi games?