About playing D&D in Latin

I’m sure I didn’t come up with this idea, and I know we’re not the first, but ever since emails started circulating prior to Rusticatio Australiana, a few of us discussed playing an RPG. In this post, I’m going to write a bit about that experience, and the lead up, and thoughts on its utility for language development. I’ve also included some separate thoughts from our Magistra Ludi, at the end of this post.

Pars Prior (If you don’t know anything about Role Playing Games)

If you don’t really know anything about RPGs of the table-top variety, get thee to Wikipedia. RPGs are a lot of fun, they can be played with various styles, of drama, in various settings, with a focus that leans anywhere from the more tactical, to the more interpersonal and social.

Pars Secunda, getting it organised

Three of us discussed this prior to the Rusticatio, sharing a bit of our experience with gaming, with various systems, etc.. Based on that discussion we reached a rough consensus that we’d play 5th ed. D&D, which was at least known to 2 of us. I’ve never played 5th ed, but I’ve played enough systems, and enough D&D, that I can play almost anything at the drop of a hat.

Logana, one of our number, took on the challenge of translating/writing in Latin a brevarium of rules and providing key terms in Latin. It was excellently done. And indeed, if not for Logana, I think this wouldn’t have come off because I am notiorously busy and work to deadlines.

Pars Tertia, apud Rusticationem

So time was unfortunately short on our end at Rusticatio itself. We had hoped to do an initial session in the first “sessio elegendorum”, but Logana herself was on kitchen duty. eheu. We successfully enticed (?), perhaps invited, 2 others to join us, neither of whom had played D&D before. So then we had a triple challenge – 2 players who’d never played before and had to have both rules and core RPG concepts explained, the challenge of Latin, given that this was the first latin speaking experience for most of us (praeter me, fortasse; res non certa est); and the challenge playing in latin itself.

For the most part, creating character went straightforwardly, with not a few one-word English glosses supplied. So, it really can be done, with minimal English and minimal experience. Though, I will say, that (a) having your more experienced players also (b) be more capable Latin speakers, is incredibly helpful.

Pars Quarta, the actual playing.

So in that first session, well, post cenam huius noctis, we played a very brief set-up encounter, in which we met a priestess of Diana, who tasked us with hunting a monstrous boar in the local region. (The setting, scilicet, was a fantasy version of ancient Rome). But time and the scheduled events defeated our plans to play further.

This left us with playing on the final night (et, iterum vae mihi, est causa quia in QD non intravi. nihil refert, ut intellexi, sine me non tam bene alii ludere possent, sed non quia ego tam necessarius eram). We preceded through about 3 encounters, and killed the boar. That’s the short of it.

I would say this: the Magistra Ludi (GM/DM) bears the heaviest load here, because she has to (i) know the game well, (ii) be apt at description and improvisation, (iii) does the bulk of the talking, (iv) generally needs to be better at speaking latine than the players need to. Not through any fault of their own (don’t mistake me, this is not a criticism), our 2 new players were not the most confident latin speakers. But that gives me hope, because they didn’t need to be either. They understood well enough, and responding to options, engaging in answers to questions, is easier than being the one who ‘sets the parameters’.

So, in this regard, I have to give a lot of credit to Logana, I think she did remarkably well, given that she also said beforehand that she has GM’d, but she is not usually a GM. In my own role-playing career, I’ve had the same person GMing in our group for 20 years. I don’t GM except very, very rarely.

Pars Quinta: reflections

The difficulties

I’ve already mentioned some of the difficulties above. It seems to me that the GM/ST, Magister/rae Ludi bears the major burden, in terms of both game and language. But that’s also heartening, in that if you wanted to use this as a form of language development/acquisition, the person who is ‘leading’ the session probably should be the person with stronger language. They can shape not only the game, but the language, to fit the participants. In our case, the relative non-confidence of some of our speakers gives me confidence that this could be done with other less-confident speakers.

Though, overall I’d say that RPGing in Latin is really an activity for upper intermediate and up users of a language. Though, if the understanding is there, then the output needed from a player can be simplified tremendously to simple responses to direct questions, if needed.

Another difficulty is that most game systems are complex. Core rulebooks run to hundreds of pages, often with complex terminology and plenty of words neither found, nor apt, nor relevant to classical languages. D&D and other ‘historically’ oriented, even if fantasy, games, have some advantage here. Other genres, e.g. Shadowrun, are going to be much harder to pull off. An advanced science cyberpunk genre with magic? In latin? hmmm.

Thirdly, unless you want to rely upon either an English (or other) rule-set, there are copyright issues lurking somewhere in antris tenebrosis. It might, perhaps, be better to pursue a game system with an open-license.

The benefits

One of the greatest benefits to me, it seems, is that an RPG solves the problem that “role playing” a scenario in a classroom has. As BVP often points out, pretending you’re a waiter and a customer, but sitting in a classroom, is not a communicative activity or task. It’s not real.

RPGing is not real either, but there’s a difference. Because you are engaged in ‘being’ your persona, and you (ought to!) care about the game, the world, the characters, the story, and the outcomes. So you are playing for something. Not ‘to win’. Sure, it’s ‘pretend’, but it’s a real kind of pretending, if I can put it that way.

Which means you can explore all sorts of settings and situations and therefore language that you might never do in a meaningful way in the ‘classroom’. A seduction scene, fighting monsters, espionage, diplomacy, bartering, the list goes on an on. And more adept players can drive that too, by directing their characters in various ways to do various things. A good GM will facilitate that and not railroad them to play only and exactly the story prepared.

And, in terms of grammatical forms, it definitely gives a chance to exercise a wide range of them, including those not as frequent in literature, which is itself excellent ‘practice’.

The possibilities

I think RPGing in an L2 has great facility for promoting language proficiency, especially in the upper levels of that. But, it relies on two things – people actually need to enjoy playing! RPGing of the table-top variety is still quite a niche activity. Although, the overlap of nerdiness that enjoys Latin, and enjoys RPGs, is higher than the average population, I’d guess. Secondly, it relies, as I’ve said, on a fair degree of facility in the language by the GM. The more facility the players have, of course, the more complex both the language, and the game, can be; but the GM’s ability is something of a ‘cap’, since so much rests with them.

 

For the future

I’d really like to see more go on with this, and do more myself. I wonder, if due to copyright issues, it might be worth pursuing Latin versions of OGL games, e.g. Pathfinder, OSRIC, Traveller, etc..

I know others have played D&D in Latin before, and I’d love to hear just some general thoughts, feedback, reflections, and suggestion from them as well.

And now, a word from our Magistra Ludi, because I thought it would be quite useful to hear from (a) someone that’s not me, (b) the person who ran the game.

Sententiae Magistrae Ludi Nostrae

 

The experience of running a game of Sepulchra et Serpentes in Latin was definitely very challenging – things that run very smoothly when you’re speaking your first language slow down a lot when there are language barriers all around the table. The whole thing took a lot longer than I expected and I did have to cut some of my planned content, but that was partially due to bad luck with our free time arrangements. But on the other hand, when I first floated the idea months ago it was very much a terrified hypothetical, so it’s pretty great that we managed to pull it off.

I made a few particular decisions which I think kept the whole thing manageable. Firstly, I chose a system that I know very well, and came up with specific translations of all of the key words beforehand. Because of this, I could answer rules questions off the top of my head using my own list of semi-technical terms, which streamlined the process a lot. However, I would probably revise some of those key words now, because some of them proved a little awkward in use.

I picked a setting for which I already had a lot of vocabulary – the countryside, the forest, and the religious sites therein (inspired by my reading of Ovid’s Fasti, actually). That meant that even if I didn’t know all of the words, I wasn’t trying to work out terms for the kinds of things the party would find in a typical ‘dungeon’. Although I couldn’t do the amount of description I would normally want in a game like this, I think I managed a few nice touches with what I had.

I also made the wise decision to keep the story very simple. ‘Religious figure engages the party to slay a beast’ is not exactly highly original material, but it gets the story rolling and gives the players a clear goal. I’m not the most experienced DM either, so the simple storyline made me feel more confident operating in an unfamiliar language.

In future I would like to push for more characterisation and role-playing among both players and NPCs – because the fun of RPGs isn’t just in hitting things with a sword, but in creating characters and relationships. Obviously improvisation is hindered by the language barrier, but I hope that as we all improve at Latin everything will become more fluid.

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