Words are symbols that capture ideas or intentions. Words are a crucial medium for D&D and so deserve a lot of critical thought during the design process. It is hard to come up with the perfect word at the table during play, but you have a lot more time outside the game and littering your rules and character sheet with good words will help that same quality emerge during play.
Words basically do two things: evoke and describe. As always, the world isn’t as black and white as I’m about to portray, but absolutes are simpler for illustration. An evocative word puts the reader or listener in a different state of mind. It conjures a feel and, if properly evocative, makes the reader more receptive to the information that follows. An ability for a swashbuckler that trades two attack for five damage might be ill-received if it is called “Crushing Strike” because it feels out of place. The same ability, called “Timed Riposte,” might be embraced. They evoke different mental images; one causes discord and the other excitement.
Words also describe. For me personally, I put more weight on words’ ability to describe and inform because it embeds more information into a smaller package and lets people quickly recall what that particular thing is all about. There are a lot of words in D&D and a lot of rules. Even really smart people who are dedicated to learning the rules could use some help from time to time.
These two dimensions each carry their own tradeoffs. Let’s set them out and discuss each in turn.
Word tradeoffs by function
Is it evocative?
Is it descriptive?
Initiate of the
Quadrant A: The evocative and descriptive word
These words are both evocative and descriptive. They piggy back on familiar real world terms to give an idea of what is to follow but also piggy back on the real world “flavor.” They are often simple words (like barbarian, gladiator, or knight) but can be more complex as well. The “Hand of the King” describes the actions inherent to the position, implies proximity, and service. It evokes a lot of strong imagery but also pretty directly describes what is going on; great term.
The risk with Quadrant A is that you usurp into your rules terms that would have had more opportunities to be evocative outside the rules. In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is “one of those rangers…” That’s cool. It’s neat to have a traveling order of bounty hunters that roam the land known as “the Wardens,” but it gets annoying if the players then expect all members of the order to have certain powers. The situation exacerbates the more loaded the word becomes. The player’s expectations of the “high priest” might be drastically off if he was in fact appointed for political reasons and is otherwise just a dude in robes.
Quadrant B: The descriptive word
These words get right to the point and let you know what the thing is all about. This is valuable because it serves as an anchor to help recall the details of the thing. It is hard to read “power attack” and not have a good idea that it refers to that rule where your attack deals more damage. If done properly, descriptive words can actually feel a bit evocative. Magic missile is about as purely descriptive as they come, yet over time it has become incredibly evocative. For many people, even non-gamers, magic missile is practically synonymous with the entire act of playing D&D. That is impressively evocative.
The risk with Quadrant B occurs when your descriptive word infringes on regular speech. The best example of this is through verb-actions like “move” or “run.” The game is not well served by introducing confusion when a player describes his action as, “I run up and attack the dragon!” and then we need to ask if he actually runs or just moves. Commonly descriptive words should be reserved for regular speech.
Quadrant C: The solely evocative word
These words are usually original creations. They sound neat and imply that more neatness is to come, but we really don’t have any idea what is to follow. The “Initiate of the Emerald Dragon” implies that there is some sort of hierarchy and probably an emerald dragon, but if it turns out that the emerald dragon is actually a magical emerald (shaped like a dragon) I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised.
Overtime these words can become familiar enough that they basically become descriptive. The word “Nightmare” was originally just evocative but overtime it gained additional meanings such that now it immediately makes me think of the monster as well as the dream. In essence, these words are the same as Quadrant A, they just aren’t piggybacking on the real world “flavor” just yet.
The risk with Quadrant C is that you overly populate your game with them early on. They’re fun and easy to come up with and the idea that someday they’ll become familiar enough to cross into Quadrant A is exciting. But the fact of the matter is that just takes time and repetition. If you put dozens in, you are actually diminishing the likelihood that any one succeeds because it’ll be less familiar. Pick a few each campaign to invest in and see if you can’t build them into something memorable.
Quadrant D: The new word
These words aren’t descriptive or evocative because they are probably unfamiliar. Often, they are made up words. Arguably, these do have a feel because they root the word in a different culture. I see the argument but I don’t find it persuasive. If you want to inspire an Asian feel, use Quadrant C and terms like “Parting the reeds” instead of making up new stuff. Asking people to compartmentalize and associate unfamiliar words with other complex ideas is asking too much. If people are smart and committed to learning the words, they’ll still be slower to process because it is harder.
Sometimes you need a new word and that is okay. In my homebrew I created a half-giant race but quickly realized they wouldn’t refer to themselves that way… they needed a name. I picked “Taldor” and I liked it; completely new and not descriptive at all. It works for a couple of reasons. First, it is higher up in the importance scale. Naming your world or a race or even a class something new is fine because it is worth remembering. Naming something minor like a sub-option in a dueling system something unique is not as good. Second, it arises in context. “You Taldor are a big breed, ain’t ya?” pretty quickly affirms that the strange word is talking about the half-giant. “Did you want to use Qua’Ri?” really gives me nothing in trying to remember which dueling option to which you are referring.