WHAT’S IN A NAME?

In The Tasks of Tantalon, the book’s eponymous sorcerer challenges readers to solve a series of puzzlequests. (Stephen Lavis)

Some works of fantasy and science fiction, including Dungeons and Dragons adventures, take great pains to explain their worlds and everything in them. George R.R. Martin, for example, took time to write a history of the Seven Kingdoms rather than finishing the series about those lands. But sometimes not explaining everything can be a powerful storytelling technique, prompting players to wonder about the world you’ve created and explore it with their own imagination.

I first encountered that technique in The Tasks of Tantalon, a puzzle book written by Steve Jackson of Fighting Fantasy fame. Set in the Kingdom of Gallantaria, many of those puzzles mentioned persons, places or things that were only partially explained. One of them began with the following rhyme:

In The Tasks of Tantalon, the Princes of the Ham had been transformed into frogs by the Moon-Worshippers of Phlanx. (Stephen Lavis)

Jackson never explained who those seven young princes were or where the Ham was. I only knew that they ruled over it. Nor did Jackson offer any additional details about their captors, except to describe them as the Moon-Worshippers of Phlanx. I only knew that their sorcery and faith had something to do with moon, perhaps happening under the cover of darkness. But I still remember the wonder those odd names created for my elementary school-self.

Of course, Jackson isn’t the only one to have used that technique. And you want to be careful not to explain too little – something that fantasy and science fiction authors can also be guilty of. The key is for these names and miniature descriptions to provide enough information that your players’ imaginations can fill-in-the-blanks for themselves.

For example, in my own campaign, one of the principle protagonists is a proto-fascist movement called the Directorate, which has been conquering cities and nations with a combination of high magic and technology. I had it in my mind that one of those technologies might be enormous flamethrowers, similar to those deployed by the British in the trenches of World War One. But a flamethrower sounds more modern than medieval, as well as being too descriptive.

The Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector was almost 20 metres long, weighed 2.5 tonnes and required a seven-man crew. (National Archives)

As a result, I’ve instead described them as “gigantic siege torches.” Each of those words is pregnant with enough meaning that my players can birth an image of those devices for themselves. Similarly, I’ve named a saltwater marsh in my world The Drowned Coast. These words suggest to the players what might happen there, as well as the geography and conditions they might encounter. But it’s not literally descriptive either. Nor is it just a jumble of nonsense words, which can sometimes be evocative but can sometimes be confusing – especially for novice players.

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