Tomes and times 7: linguistic properties of tomes
by, 12th December 2011 at 09:32 PM (1233 Views)
It occurs to me I should probably establish some specific terms to avoid confusion. These are a bit clunky, but will do for now.
Base reading time: the time required to physically read a specific copy of a book. Incorporates Length, Condition and Legibility.
Study time: the time required to read and comprehend a specific copy of a book. Incorporates all attributes of the book, but ignores the reader’s abilities.
Personal reading time: the time it will take a specific investigator to read a specific copy of a book. Incorporates all attributes from the book, modified by the investigator’s abilities.
I originally intended to use this post to do some more testing, this time of book creation. Though I’ve spent a lot of time on the reading end of things, my actual goal is to devise a framework for assigning reading times to help with scenario design. However, in an unusual example of continuity between the disparate parts of this blog, the current state of Snowbound has thrown a spanner in the works. What I planned to do was test-drive the rules with some of the tomes I’d created for that, to see what sorts of numbers came out. The books as I’ve described them have fairly specific natures that should plug in well. However, I’ve decided that the scenario needs a full-blown restructuring. That shouldn’t affect the factual aspects too much (fingers crossed), but I don’t want to mess about with examples here just in case, and to some extent I just want to leave the whole scenario in peace for a bit while I mull things over.
So rather than looking at book-building, I’ll turn instead to the technicalities of reading, which Emrys has already raised a couple of times. I’ve considered the ways reading times might depend on the properties of the tome. The other end of reading is how the process itself works, in terms of die rolls, SAN loss and skill increases. This is necessarily going to be a subjective, opinionated post; while I think having a framework for designing tomes is important, the mechanics of reading them in play need to fit into the game you’re playing.
One point that Emrys very sensibly highlighted is language. I did mention this way back in my second post and have been leaving it while I fiddled with other aspects of the books. One of the reasons I did that was that languages are already implemented in CoC, so didn’t need as much attention; also, they’re in many ways a more straightforward proposition. A book can be anywhere from icily logical to gibberingly nonsensical, but – with some very unlikely caveats aside – it’s either written in Russian or not. However! The time of the linguists is at hand; rejoice.
The linguistic side of a book has a few different properties. The first is simply what language it’s written in. Now I could devise an incredibly complex system for using dialect continua, lects and educational hierarchies to calculate exactly who can understand what of what who said, but I will resist the temptation, because for a general RPG like we’re dealing with here, it’s a bit silly, and also tangential to the goal of this project, which is books.
A second property is the writing style used in the book. This covers things like jargon, register (academic, poetic, colloquial), and the target audience. These properties are, I think, adequately covered under Difficulty. Clarity of expression can be covered by Madness, which explicitly includes the coherency of arguments and clarity of thought.
A third aspect to consider is standardness; how closely does the language used in the book conform to what speakers understand. I think, on the whole, that unusual dialects, bad translations, and other exceptions to the standard language are best treated as plain old exceptions. It would certainly be possible to mess about and devise rules, but I feel it’s unnecessary when you can include notes like these:
“From the Russian, translated by the Author, a self-taught (and unsuccessful) linguist. The writing is in broken English with many baffling literal translations. Base reading time is increased by +50%. Russian at 50% or higher reduces this to +20%.”
“Written in broad Cumbrian dialect of the 1840s, this poem uses many terms peculiar to the local fishing industry in its metaphors and examples. Base reading time is increased by +20%. Investigators with knowledge of traditional Cumbrian dialects may ignore this with a successful English roll.”
“Transcribed from interviews with Shetland farmers. Many errors and phonetic transcriptions. Base reading time is increased by +40%. Investigators with knowledge of Shetland dialects may halve this penalty.”
“Written in the local trading pidgin, incorporating many Chinese terms. Base reading time is increased by +20%. Investigators with knowledge of Shanghai Chinese may ignore this with a successful Chinese roll.”
“Includes many phonetic transcriptions from overheard rituals in Portuguese. At least 50% in Portuguese allows the reader to compensate for the plethora of errors, otherwise spell-learning time is increased by 20%.”
“A particularly obtuse work, with many archaisms and technical terms from the fields of physics and archaeology. Base reading time is increased by 30%. 80% in English, 30% in physics and 30% in archaeology will each cancel out one-third of this increase.”
Basically, exactly how each unusual book affects the reader’s work is really something that should be individually crafted; it’ll make things more interesting, and on the rare chance that something links in to an investigator’s abilities, they’ll probably love having their 90-year-old Cumbrian farmer decode your Mythos poem.
Now, how does language ability actually intersect with reading? This is a tricky one, because language skill in Cthulhu is sometimes cumulative and sometimes directional. That makes me sound like a complete pseud, sorry. Let’s try again. In theory, the Language skills represent cumulative grasp of a language built up through passive acquisition or active study, which you can broadly think of as a big pool of vocabulary, and thus a Language roll represents your ability to understand or make yourself understood. On the other hand, Own Language is also intrinsically linked to education, and therefore to class. This means that a highly-educated speaker of Oxford English might be utterly incomprehensible to an unschooled yokel from darkest Yorkshire. However, the Oxfordian (with an immense Own Language skill to roll) would mechanically have no trouble decoding the dialect of the yokel. This is clearly unsatisfactory, since in real life this is just about the opposite of how things work. Of course, you may decide that your character’s education has just increased the amount of literature you know or the jargon you can understand, rather than eroding your local dialect. It’s just an added complication of the skill.
The other thing that I don’t like about rolling language skills in the standard way for reading, is that it feels inappropriate for drawn-out, quantitative challenges. Rolling French is fine if you’re trying to work out what the other prisoner shouted to you just before being eaten, but not when you’re toiling over a work for days, constantly re-evaluating and re-interpreting as new information comes to light. I’m inclined to say that a more sensible approach would simply be to use actual skill percentiles somehow.
Let’s start from the point of view of a native speaker. In the standard CoC rules, Language rolls are only required for foreign-language texts, and this seems entirely sensible under my system as well. All the properties of the book itself and the text of the work that affect your reading have been accounted for, and offset against your own INT, POW and EDU. I would particularly note that EDU is already included. Bearing in mind that Own Language skill usually comes entirely from base EDUx5, I feel that rolling on it again would be redundant. Native speakers, whatever their education level, are fluent; any reading difficulties caused by poor education, limited vocabulary and so on, can be considered to have been dealt with by the Difficulty of the work. This is, after all, just an approximate model. Looking at all that, I think Other Language should be the main focus of my attention here.
That being the case, what happens when you try to read a book in another language? Well, there are a couple of options. One is simply to go with a Language roll, in which case we need to decide when you make it, and what happens if you fail; as I said, I don’t believe this is appropriate. You could make a series of Language rolls, somehow interspersed in your studies, which requires finding reasonable divisions within the books. Or you might simply have a penalty to your reading time, based on your Language skills, on the basis that you will eventually muddle through.
In my next post (because there's not enough space in this one) I'll have a look at some of these options.