Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice

Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice! is a podcast by Roger Bell_West and Michael Cule, in which we pontificate on role-playing games.

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Miraculous Geography 01 August 2014


This month, Roger and Mike consider maps and other visual aids to gaming, contemplate the problems and opportunities afforded by foreign languages, and venture with some trepidation into the politics of RPGs.

We mentioned the Guide to Glorantha (see video), Hârn (and here's a map in the rough style of the one we were looking at), The Palladium Book of Weapons & Castles™, Campaign Cartographer, the 1983 Greyhawk boxed set and its map (link from Wayne's Books), Tékumel, GURPS Banestorm (with several maps linked from that page, and Abydos), Numenera and its map, Close to the Edge, the panorama of Pavis, Roger's web comic, the Tribes) games, Rolemaster, GURPS Fantasy, Tom Lehrer's advice, Torg, In Nomine, linguistic relativity and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, GURPS Power-Ups 2 with the Dabbler perk, Pyramid #3/44, Terry Eagleton, Into the Woods, Grunts!, and going wild,

Music by Kevin MacLeod at, and other royalty-free sources.

  1. Posted by Phil Masters at 07:40pm on 03 August 2014

    I'm a little surprised that the discussion of languages didn't mention the recently-released GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier, which finds a fairly-new-to-RPGs use for languages. A large part of the horror of the setting lies in the fact that most of the languages you can speak are actually a tool of the monsters that you're supposed to be fighting. Communication is inherently compromised by nature, and knowledge of linguistic exotica can be a powerful weapon (or, occasionally, a weakness, or both).

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:50pm on 03 August 2014

    Good point, which completely slipped my mind. In play it didn't feel all that different from the concept of the private battle language that many parties like to adopt, with a strong dose of Sapir-Whorf added in; the bad guys have lots of channels into the human subconscious, after all, and it's basically a binary choice between "the language that seems least compromised by the bad guys, but nobody except us understands" and "everything else". I suspect a less action-orientated game than the one I ran, with more of an emphasis on research, could make more of this.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:32pm on 03 August 2014

    As the player playing the neurolingistic in your Madness Dossier campaign, I was very much aware that apart from the major opposition I could bend almost anyone to my will given half an hour to talk to them. The half an hour without interruptions was the limitation on that. It was one of the problems with that campaign, mundane oppostion was, well, mundane and almost trivially dealt with.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:40pm on 03 August 2014

    On the subject of images, this plays a major role in Bob Dowling's Space 1889 campaign I play on Friday evenings. If you want something for your character, you are far more likely to persuade Bob you can have it if you find a great picture of what you want. I play Her Highness Princess Rani Sunita Devi, and half my character folder is printouts of period and not so period dresses and saris (anything that looks appropriate). The Bollywood film industry is a great help to me in this regard. Also I have some wonderful black and white pictues from the V&A collection of authentic Indian royalty, mostly taken when they came to London for Edward VII's coronation. I use those as my character's parents.

  5. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:53pm on 03 August 2014

    Here is the original web site for the V&A pictures, numbers 3, 4 and 5 on this page:

    Also number 4 on this page:

    Sometimes the text is as interesting as the pictures:

    "The Maharani's dress is made of silk with applique decoration, and a filmy muslin wrap draped over the top, perhaps recalling the Indian dupatta or orhni draped over the head and shoulders."

    Also the Burke's Peerage notes add an authentic feel for a Space 1889 campaign.

    Interesting thought for the day: is there a section for Martians in Burke's Peerage, listing Canal Princes etc?

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 09:01pm on 03 August 2014

    Given how international Burke has always been, I should be very surprised if there weren't.

  7. Posted by Phil Masters at 09:12am on 04 August 2014

    Regarding languages generally - I always feel that, realistically, RPGs (and genre fiction generally, for that matter) usually downplay the depth and complexity of language problems. Of course, I'm aware that I'm painfully crap at learning language skills myself, so seeing characters drop a point or two into the thing (or whatever) and then be completely effective hits my suspension of disbelief terribly hard.

    However, I'm also aware that it's very difficult to make language problems very interesting, beyond a binary "You can communicate with this NPC"/"You can't communicate with this NPC" fact of the setting, and the occasional funny accent. Sure, they're something for the brain or the faceman to acquire, but they don't look cool in use. When the brain analyses the enemy technology and comes up with a countermeasure, or explains the background of the supernatural monsters, or the faceman gets the party past the bandit ambush without fighting, or persuades an enemy minion to change sides, that feels cool and makes a substantial difference to the shape of the imagined world, and offers some roleplaying opportunities; saying that they know language X just means that they've ticked a box in the scenario requirement list. (If they know it at less-than-native levels, that's usually just a skill penalty; whatever.)

    It might help if GMs insisted that only characters who actually knew the right languages got to talk to NPCs, I guess, rather than letting them act as 100% reliable conduits for everything that the other players wanted to say or discuss, as usually happens in practice. But turning those players into bottlenecks might slow play down too much.

    And I've seen groups define and learn "battle languages" more than once, usually when a player with combat wombat tendencies and a wacky background for their character discovered the game's language rules. I've just never seen them used or make a blind bit of different in combat. Frankly, most RPG combats are too short and disorganised for either side's communication abilities to make a blind bit of difference, and I've never yet seen any GM worry about either side listening to what the other lot are saying to each other, let alone act on it.

    As for magical languages and the like, they're just system-balancing points sinks for characters with exotic abilities. That can be useful, but makes no actual difference in play.

    But then, this isn't specific to RPGs. Remember The Colour of Magic? The first section of the book has a lot of funny bits where Twoflower quotes chunks of phrasebook at confused Ankh-Morpork lowlifes, and it builds a plot out of the fact that only Rincewind can communicate with him, forcing Rincewind into a plot position he doesn't want. Which is great, but then the joke gets used up, and for the rest of the book, everyone is speaking the same language, Twoflower having apparently picked up Morporkian between pages.

    Which doesn't mean that I have any answers, I'm afraid. I guess my suspension of disbelief would benefit from a few more funny accents and confused conversations, though.

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 09:32am on 04 August 2014

    If I had to summarise my thoughts on language in gaming, they'd probably be "only use it if it'll be fun", which to me leads back to Sapir-Whorf. Needing to talk to foreigners can be an obstacle that you buy the ability to get round, or it can be part of learning about a whole new culture. The magical language can just be a point sink, or it can imply a really different view of the world.

    But in both these cases the game really needs to be about languages, mindsets and cultures in a way that most games aren't. Otherwise having complex language rules can just be a waste of time.

  9. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:07pm on 04 August 2014

    I used to own the 1983 Greyhawk boxed set. I never used it (being not a GM) and I believe I got rid of it at one of the Cambridge convention auctions.

    You note in the podcast that sometimes you need special words for things, Skyrealms of Jorune does this. The standard setup is you have to earn citizenship, ciitzens are called Drenn. To become one you register as a Tauther and undertake Tothis, which is where you perform services for Drenn and in return get marks engraved on your Challisk. When you have enough and they have been checked you can apply to become Drenn. The local magic is called Isho, which comes in seven colours with names like Desti, Du, Ebba which are named after the planets' seven moons.

    Jorune doesn't go as far as full languages, they're not developed at all. The words are to give a feel for being on an alien planet. "Don't forget to eat your Durlig" etc.

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