Monday, May 23, 2011

Systems in my fluff? It's more likely than you think.

I’ve previously revealed my love of systems to help understand rules, but they are similarly useful to understand just about any complex set of information. To demonstrate this, let’s take a look a system in the fluffiest of fluff: a world calendar.

Before we can create a system, we need to understand our goals and the general framework. A world calendar, in my opinion, adds a bit of realism to the game. It adds that extra bit of depth that is neat when it comes up from time to time (heh) but doesn’t actually have a big or direct impact on the game. As such, it should be simple to implement and immediately recognizable even by people who didn’t take the time to memorize it. Nothing destroys the illusion that the characters all share a collective knowledge about the world faster than half of the players asking “what the hell is that?”

So simple and recognizable are the two main goals.

Let’s start with recognizable. We can make something recognizable in a number of ways. The easiest would be to piggy back on the Julian calendar but that, if anything, removes depth from the world. We could make all the words have the same pattern (similar to how “-ber” ends many months in the Julian calendar) or embed other cues. If the proper format for saying the date includes references to month or week then people can’t help but recognize that we are talking about a calendar. For example, if the NPC says, “We shall meet again in the fourth day of the third week of the month of Shiraniber Rising,” it really doesn’t matter if the players couldn’t have told you if Shiraniber Rising was a month or a person or an ancient artifact. After that lead up, they get that it is a month in your very complex calendar.

But of course, this rather inelegant approach to “recognizable” conflates with “simple.” Simple is the payout of using a system because it parses complex things into simpler elements that people can then quickly grasp and employ. For purposes of our fluff, the goal is to let a player master the calendar as simply as their character can in the hopes that this knowledge helps immerse the player into their character’s world. Since knowledge of the calendar is unlikely to be the key to many sessions, it isn’t going to come up all that often, and so it must be really easy to master.

Building the calendar
I decided to use a number of recognizable elements from the Julian calendar. So we’ll have 12 months comprised of four weeks of seven days. This makes the calendar year slightly shorter, but since I’ve never had a character die of old age I’m not too worried about that. Simplicity wins out here. I considered adding a 13th month (bringing the total days to 364) but rejected that because I want to divide the calendar into four seasons of three months each. Naturally, these seasons will begin on the first of the month to make things simpler.

The tricky part is coming up with names that people might be able to remember. I want to use as much of that familiarity above as possible and, where possible, reinforce it. I begin at the terribly uninteresting point of naming the months by season: first spring, second spring, third spring, first summer, second summer, etc. This is simple, but boring. It is also, however, practical. I mean our months were originally just numbered (Oct = 8, Nov (nonnes) = 9, Deci = 10). Over time the calendar got convoluted so that the numbering made no sense, but that is where it began. So I plan to keep this general idea in place but append more world-appropriate naming conventions to the months.

I settle on the idea that the months were named by an older civilization now long forgotten. In their language, the months were “first spring” and so on, but today the literal meaning has been replaced by the symbolic meaning and is just a reference to the month. This means I need to come up with the ancient word for each of the seasons and the ancient pre-fix to designate first, second, and third. In the pursuit of simplicity, I decide that they dropped the “first” designator. I also decided that the calendar begins in spring (when all things renew) and ends in winter (when all things come to an end). Finally, the ancient words for the seasons are in alphabetical order with respect to chronological order.

Month names by season and order

Second (da)
Third (tri)
Spring (fen)
Summer (lan)
Autumn (mir)
Winter (sen)

The results are Fen, Dafen, Trifen, Lan, Dalan, Trilan, Mir, Damir, Trimir, Sen, Dasen, and Trisen. It is a complex set of twelve foreign words that are easily mastered if you can remember six syllables and alphabetical order. For those that can’t, they can rely on familiar English words to get in on the fun and just claim that they use the “modern” pronunciations of the ancient months by calling, for example, Dafen “second spring.” It passes the simple test.

With regards to being recognizable, there are only six syllables and each month uses one or two. All are tightly similar words, so there should be adequate cues. Beyond that, we use weeks of seven days and 12 months, so there are again a lot of references that this all pertains to a calendar. It isn’t overly recognizable, but most people shouldn’t have any issues after encountering it once or twice.

This is the calendar that I’ve used for many years in my game and it has worked exactly as intended. For players that like to master the world fluff, they appreciate the simplicity and can dive right into participating in the world. More importantly, it has drawn in players who don’t normally pursue fluff; it is so simple that they can’t help but learn parts of it. If given the option, most people would rather “know the world” than not, it is just that they aren’t really interested in putting in the effort to commit useless material to memory. Putting a system around it lowers the effort required for everyone and helps blur the lines between player and character to achieve a world with more depth.


  1. Just found your blog through ENWorld and I am very interested in what you are doing here. I'm tinkering heavily with 4e myself, so building a system from the ground up sounds very interesting.

    I really like the calendar, but you didn't mention how days and weeks are denoted. Is that simply "the third day of the third week" or "the 15th day of Dalan"?

  2. Hi Neubert,

    We've always went with the later (i.e. 15th of Dalan) since dates typically don't play a huge role in plot and that is quicker. But, invariably, when a prophecy or something does reference a date it will end up being something like "In the midst of the second week of the second spring the aligning stars will..."

    Thanks for posting; hope you stick around.

  3. I have a couple of comments:

    1) The front of a word is important when people are trying to uniquely identify it, and so is the end to a lesser extent. You are giving 8 of the months only 2 beginnings between them (Da- and Tri-). You are also giving two seasons or 6 months only a single ending between them (-en).

    I understand your reasons, but I remember getting confused when I read novels by David Eddings containing the characters Belgarion and Belgarath. Their names make sense according to the system of the magical men's names all starting with Bel-, but it was still confusing, even though the characters came up in the books all the time.

    Don't you get the same problem with your calendar system?

    >immediately recognizable even by people who didn’t take the time to memorize it

    You still have to to explain the system to everyone to avoid confusion, no? If all you want is for them to recognise month names, wouldn't a common theme both be simpler and draw them into the setting?

    For example, the calendar in the video game Dwarf Fortress is structured almost the exact same as yours apart from month names. It uses the theme of raw materials, mainly rocks, to achieve your goals.
    e.g. if I know the 1st of Obsidian is a date, I have no trouble realising the 7th of Granite is a date as well; and you could explain that to players' satisfaction with as little as: "The calendar months are named after types of rock".

    Sorry for the belated comment, I only just got linked here from your signature on :-)


  4. (1) That's true but in play it hasn't been an issue. The words are so short (two syllables) that it is pretty easy for people to figure out what role each syllable plays. That is, first syllable is placement and second syllable is season.

    I remember reading Crime and Punishment, though, and just suffering with regards to the names. I think the challenge in identifying the words comes with length and lack of familiarity. The length here is short enough and people seem to get familiar quick enough, so it's worked out so far.

    (2) The idea here is that every gaming group seems to have that one player who just doesn't care about fluff at all. In our group, that guy could immediately recognize that Dalan (or whichever month) was a month and had something to do with the calendar. He still probably couldn't tell you which month it was, but he at least was on the same page as everyone else.

    But yes, it had to be initially explained.

    The reason that I wouldn't go with an idea like "types of rocks" is that there is no implied order. It is hard to order Granite, Obsidian, Basalt, etc chronologically because there is nothing to go on. I suppose I could alphabetize them, but even then you have to memorize 12 rocks. This is certainly better than 12 random words (i.e. Queserbay, Faltherbay, etc), but I don't think it is easier than the six mono-syllabic pieces presented above.

  5. Oh, and no worries about the belated comment. I like talking about this stuff (mine or yours) any time. Welcome.