It’s one of the most famous stories in tabletop gaming history. I was well into my gaming career when I first heard it, as well as a little amazed that I hadn’t heard it prior because I had, for a brief time, gamed with one of the Cal Tech RPG groups, and you’d think that’s just the sort of thing that they would have gleefully shared with anyone and everyone. But heh, I was was also that rarest of creatures (at the time,) a female gamer, so maybe they didn’t think think it was the right way to impress me.
Follow the link above for the full and complete tale, but to paraphrase: once upon a time a group of terrifically smart people got together for an evening of make-believe and during the session, the DM explained that there was a gazebo. It was white, it was large, it was just sitting there.
What followed was worthy of an Abbott & Costello routine, because it never occurred to the DM that his player might have no clue in the universe what a gazebo was. Based purely on the description given, I think the player must have suspected it was some variant of dragon, something that would undoubtedly try to pounce on him the moment his back was turned if he didn’t deal with it. So he did the only sensible thing; he tried to kill it first.
Needless to say, he was unsuccessful. It was a gazebo.
Now, I bring up this story because it’s a good excuse to address something near to my heart, which is the balance of linguistic novelty with clarity. My partner-in-crime wrote an excellent piece on the potential dangers of mixed language, but in addition, I thought this was a good opportunity to discuss clarity and reader comprehension, especially in light of the last article I wrote on Conlangs. After a writer’s put all this work into figuring out what an apple’s called in their world, it seems almost criminal not to use that word, right?
Oh god. Wrong. So wrong.
The Gazebo story above ultimately stems from ignorance on a player’s part: he didn’t know the meaning of the word. To compound the problem, he didn’t ask. But when an author is using a word that they invented (or which is incredibly obscure, say Sumerian,) they are creating their very own gazebo effect. Their readers doesn’t know what the word means and they probably can’t ask (maybe, if the author is kind, there’s a glossary.) They have to figure it out through context. And sometimes that’s tough. I can remember reading books which were all but illegible because of all the invented vocabulary being used in them. And, like the player in that story, I came away from the experience very frustrated.
There seems to be a number of ways of dealing with such a situation that I’ve seen. Once of which is to explain exactly what the word means either in text or with a footnote — but that of course that acknowledges a meta issue in which the narrator is somehow aware that the reader will NOT know what the word means (which can work, depending on the approach and style of book.) Another method would be to use it in context in such a way that the meaning is clear, but that can be trickier than it seems: the DM above thought he was describing what a gazebo was, for example. One can try to include explanatory language (in my fantasy novel, there’s an article of clothing called a shalli, which is described as a shalli cloak for clarity. Truthfully it’s more like a sari than a cloak, but at least this way the reader understands its a flat piece of cloth worn around the shoulders.) Effective too, is having a ‘new’ character who doesn’t know these terms anymore than the reader does, and can take the reader’s place while they both learn (see: Harry Potter or virtually any book where people from earth end up in another dimension or time.) Trickier is not explaining a thing, but allowing context to gradually make the meaning clear.
Personally, I’m going to continue using such language. There are words in the English language which have the meaning I want but also carry with them a weight of contextual baggage I don’t. Certain words are so ethnically or culturally charged that I personally find it odd to use the term in a fantasy culture that may be radically different (like ‘sari’ in the example above.)
I am, however, going to try to do a better job of making sure my reader knows what a gazebo is.
The actual incident took less than 30 seconds and ended when Ed Whitchurch asked Eric Sorenson, “Don’t you know what a gazebo is?” But that wouldn’t have been funny, so I extended it, and every time it was reprinted the editor said “If it was a little longer it would completely fill a” (whatever) until it reached full capacity with the version that eventually made its way onto the internet. Both Ed and Eric forgive me for my exaggerations.
It does make a better story this way! Thank you very much for sharing it in all its forms.
You must have been gaming at Caltech after I stopped. I played out there in the late 70s and early 80s. I didn’t write E&tG until 1985, after I’d found more games nearer my home in West LA.