The Insufficiency of Language

February 27, 2024 poetry rules game_design

Last week my church hosted a reading by the poet Kaveh Akbar at TCU. Kaveh’s debut novel Martyr! is a NYT bestseller and his poetry appears in the New Yorker, New York Times, The Paris Review, and on and on. He gave a beautiful reading and the Q&A afterwards was generous and insightful.

One of the things Kaveh said that struck me as a game designer, was this idea that he is obsessed with the opportunity cost of writing and reading.” It’s a great gift of your time and energy to read a book. You could be doing literally anything else, but you spend maybe 10-12 hours or more reading a novel.

Tabletop games have a similar issue. In order for someone to play your game they have to read the rules, schedule time to play, teach everyone how to play the game, then sort of muddle through it for a couple of turns or rounds or games before the it even starts to click (if it ever does).

Further, Kaveh spoke about how language is a human technology. It is utterly insufficient for the magnitude of [the divine].” And here, in writing rulebooks or adventures we also find the insufficiency of language. Let’s take a basic room key:

  1. 6 goblins. 200 sp.

This is pretty standard minimal keying. It contains all the basic things the game tends to be interested in: who is in the room and what kind of treasure is there. but let’s make it more functional for the referee.

  1. 6 goblins (HD 1-1 AC 14 Atk Swords 1d6. 1d6x10 sp each).

This is maybe a little better, we have useful information for the referee. But there’s no stakes, no drama. No sense of place.

  1. In this stone room huddle six goblins (HD 1-1 AC 14 Atk Swords 1d6, carrying 1d6x10 sp each), around a small campfire. They are casting lots for the loot on the body in room 12. One of them, a scarred goblin named Furn is cheating. There is a 10% chance per round that he will be caught and a fight will break out.

This is pretty good, but how do we know how the party will react? Do the goblins stay there indefinitely, trapped in stasis until the players arrive? Or will they move on at some point?

All of these keys are fine, but they can only point to the game. The language is insufficient to describe the divine,” or what I would call play. The key here is what Kaveh calls the flour thrown on the ghost.”

After the reading, Kaveh was gracious enough to chat with me about games and language. About how rules, like John the Baptist, only point towards something greater, but they are not that greater thing themselves.

Kaveh described his process as moving words around1,” and that this insufficient language always comes first — meaning” or what the poem is about” is always something you can really only see in retrospect.

I expect a lot of referees have a similar experience with the story” of a game. It’s also something we often only see in retrospect, until then we’re just playing.

  1. As a funny aside, when speaking of writers block, he said that no one ever says they have Lego block.” And that’s how he conceives of poetry, just moving blocks next to each other, seeing what connects.↩︎

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