Stay with any group of people long enough, and you will learn their ways, their customs, and their language. If you already share a language, then you will pick up the “linguistic individualisms” that exist within the group. These tend to come in the form of words and terms, but they can also be gestures, phrases or sayings that trigger to shared knowledge or experience. They help to create a bond and can allow for volumes of information to be passed from one person to another (or a group) in an instant.
If your gaming group is anything like mine, then you have a veritable ton of these “isms” and you can recite the story that goes with every one of them. They’re the hilarious moments, the unforgettable victories, and the epic failures of a host of past campaigns – but they’re also the concealed messages, attack signals, and go-to plans that crop up time and again across campaigns because the players are familiar with them (and enjoy the nostalgia brought about by their reuse). Even entering the title for this article brought a smile to my face, as I blissfully recalled the first time a player told an NPC in one of my campaigns “My people have a saying…”
The PCs had sent one of their number into the heavily guarded hideout of a local crime lord to serve the roll of emissary – and past dealings with this particular NPC indicated that things would likely not proceed on very friendly terms if they weren’t given precisely what they wanted. The character who was to enter the building had instructed his allies to be ready for his signal, which would be when he raised his arm and pointed down to the top of his own head. His goal was to position himself within sight of a window and “call down the thunder” if things went poorly.
When it became clear that his character was about to be attacked, the player carried on negotiating for one more line, pulling out his potion of fire resistance and stating flatly “you know, my people have a saying…”. He then gave the signal and all hell broke loose, as the party’s spellcaster hurled a fireball through the window from across the street, which was followed quickly by the remainder of the group ambushing the goons outside the building and bursting through the door to join in the fray. Since that session, the line has lived in infamy and the story has been recounted to more than one new addition to the gaming group. To this day, it still sees use from time to time in campaigns.
As a GameMaster, I try to use this naturally occurring process to my advantage, sometimes inside the scope of a game, sometimes outside of it. One of my more successful implementations has been the concept of “black bars” – which hearkens back to video game cut scenes and cinematics where players don’t get to interrupt and press buttons. By saying something like “okay, you guys begin doing that, and… we go into black bars” the players know that they are about to be given my game’s equivalent to a cut scene, and they will be told when it’s over.
Since my group is mostly comprised of rules lawyers and power gamers, black bars always elicits a round of groans around the table and jokes of “I press X on the controller as fast as I can”, but the players know that I am shooting for a cut scene style experience, and as long as I don’t get TOO carried away with it, they respect the process and quiet down to pay attention. Once the system took hold and became reliable, other members of the group began using it in their own campaigns, and it has become one of our “isms”.
Ultimately, shared experiences are what roleplaying is all about, so it comes as no surprise that these sorts of short-hands become part of our troupe vernacular. The stories, fond memories and bonding they create help maintain our gaming groups, so that the cycle can perpetuate. I imagine my group would be very different without “horse sled”, “crowflys”, “steam dragon”, “Mumm-ra”, “The Axe” and all the rest of the “isms” we use week to week. Perhaps the next “ism” your group uses can be the one you create to help run the game.
If you’ve got an “ism” to share, or want to hear more about one of my groups’, post in the comments below.