Lessons from a TV series bible. #9; special terminology

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

The ninth item on the checklist is “Special Terminology”

9 Special terminology. If you’re creating a sci-fi or fantasy series, you should list and describe any special terms or technologies that are key to understanding your show. Before Star Trek , there was no general understanding of terms like “transporters,” “warp drive,” “phasers” or “tricorders.” Pitching Game of Thrones required a cursory explanation of terms like “The Seven Kingdoms,” “direwolves,” “White Walkers,” and “warging.”

Here, I think, we are definitely past point of selling or pitching the series to the networks or studios or the campaign to prospective players, and into the stage of providing the writers and showrunners or the actual players with the information that they need to use to be able to contribute to the shared creation. This is the setting bible or campaign reference document.

A lot of GMs use RPG rule sets that have this stuff built in to the character representation rules and the fantasy shopping lists. Others buy commercial settings or use general-purpose RPGs to set their campaigns in well-known literary, cinematic, or TV universes. Not only are those easy to pitch, but they have the advantage of supplying this item, the vocabulary of special terminology specific to the setting. In many cases it is already familiar to many players through previous campaigns in the same setting or using the same games system, or through having read a classic book or watched a popular series.

Another way to reduce the load on the GM of producing this material, and on the character-players of studying it, is to adopt Ken Hite’s maxim. Start with the real world (present or historical) and add secret magic, wainscot fantasy, intrusion fantasy, emergent SF, an apocalypse, or other imaginative elements to taste.

If you do go all in on a fully fictional world (and I have to say that I usually do) then there is a narrow path to tread between not providing enough briefing that the character-players get any idea of what to do and supplying so much that they cannot or will not read or learn it.

With respect to special terminology specifically, there is a lot to be said for adopting a translation convention, even if it means using a term that is, strictly speaking or etymologically, a little bit off. For example, the people in my SF setting Flat Black are not actually speaking English but some future language descended through several centuries from the international lingua franca of the early 24th Century. And given the political sensitivities of the time at which the interstellar government agency was formed it is very unlikely that the founders would have been so brutally frank as to call it the semantic equivalent of “Empire”. They’d have used a euphemism. But “Imperator” and “Imperium” started out as euphemism, too. And by the time at which play is set it will have come to mean “empire”. So “empire” is the easiest thing to call the Empire.

I discussed this very matter with Vernor Vinge, early in the current century, when I interviewed him for the Libertarian Futurist Society’s newsletter, and I asked him about the use of present-day languages in the Zones of Thought novels, which are set thousands of years in the future. He described it as a translation convention, akin to the one Tolkien followed in equating the Common Tongue to modern English and the language of the Rohirrim to Anglo-Saxon, even though they had no linguistic history in common. It strikes me now that this was thematically appropriate, in particular, to A Deepness in the Sky, where a key element in the plot is the adoption of a translation convention by the human linguists for dealing with the aliens in that novel.

In my campaign Tapestry, I adopted a somewhat comparable translation convention: I named all the geographic locations in Latin, in the style of astronomers naming features of the moon and Mars and other bodies in the Solar System, starting with “Mare” and “Terra Media” and “Occasia.” And I encouraged my players to choose names from languages of our world for their characters, and followed through on those choices in naming other characters from the same cultures—looking up lists of names from ancient Mesopotamia and from modern Tibet, Mongolia, Sweden, and Finland, for example. Of course these wouldn’t have been their real names, just as “Meriadoc” was really named Kalimac and “Eowyn” was really named something that wasn’t Anglo-Saxon.

After all, I certainly wasn’t going to make up even one original language for each culture area in a setting larger than the Mediterranean. Such a project would have been beyond the powers of J.R.R. Tolkien and M.A.R. Barker in collaboration!

I would also put in this category things like the rules for FTL travel: you need to get to this level of local gravity, or to that specific naturally-occurring wormhole, etc. In a space campaign I’ll have been thinking about FTL travel times (or more to the point world-to-world travel times, because slogging across space with realistic drives is hard) during the design phase anyway, but if I haven’t already put hard numbers on them I do it before the players start poking stuff.

Looking at my San Diego campaigns, I see that I have run 14 set in invented worlds (not always invented by me!); 18 set in the real world plus fantastic elements; and 2 set in the real world without fantastic elements. And there was one more that had no setting at all; it was a Toon series where each session had two short subjects, each with its own setting—the recurrent element was the cast of characters, who turned up in diverse settings in the manner of classic Warner Brothers.

So Ken’s approach is certainly viable, but I wouldn’t care to be restricted to it. And I doubt whether he would, either, given that my invented world campaigns included two run in settings from his books: The Foam of Perilous Seas took place on the Pearl Bright Ocean from GURPS Cabal, and Water Margin on the Chinese-dominated timeline from GURPS Alternate Earths 2.