The Trouble With Most High Fantasy Dialogue Is That It's Terrible

I can pinpoint the exact line that finally broke me.

Despite being an ardent fan of many books and games that use high fantasy settings, I've never had very much patience for some of their tropes. And last night, one ridiculous line in a thoroughly ridiculous, but mostly enjoyable, game finally pushed me over the edge.

"I know this [gun]," my player character intoned weightily. "How came it here?"

How came it here. Really? What a terrible way to ask that question. Now I don't even care how the gun got here. I care about how our language got here.

English is a fluid, fantastic, almost infinitely flexible language. It's certainly had its awkward eras, growing up as it has under the influence of so many cultures. The rules are a bit wobbly and seemingly glued together from whatever grammar was left lying around unguarded at the end of any given century. And yet the result, after several hundred years, is a language that can be as sharp and cutting as Mamet or as fluid and smooth as Fitzgerald.

So given the sheer diversity and malleability of the language, why are we so damn stuck on imitating Tolkien, and badly at that?

The Lord of the Rings was an absolutely formative text that contributed enormously to the genre of western high fantasy as we know it today. But the concepts of dwarves and elves and orcs and halflings, as inspired by older mythologies and re-imagined, aren't the only seemingly immutable ideas to have been borrowed wholesale. We're also stuck with the language. And while the construction and purpose of language was Tolkien specialty—it shows, looking at Quenya and Sindarin—narrative fiction was not.

The Lord of the Rings is an epic, deliberately written to showcase the history, culture, and language of its fictitious peoples. Its characters rarely just talk; they proclaim. They are written—by an English man who was born in the 19th century—as characters to be told and retold in an echo of the oral tradition. The tale employs deliberately archaic language, in order to set it apart.

The impulse to set a created world apart from the real one is wise. But to do so by aping language without thinking about its point and purpose leads to mockable drivel. No matter what genre a work is in, if it recycles words, idioms, and tones without thinking deeply about the purpose behind them then it will find itself sounding stilted and stupid. The difference between someone who truly understands a page of Hamlet performing it and someone who merely knows the sounds reciting it is stark. So, too, is the sound of someone creating a neo-noir without understanding just what it was that really made a Raymond Chandler novel (or film adaptation) work.

While it makes sense to avoid certain modern terms and phrasings in a game set in the "long time ago," the fact of the matter is that most games are instead set in a "never was," and can take some liberties with their speech. Perhaps, in a fantasy world, "okay bro, cool," is not going to fly as an affirmative response. It would be jarring. But that doesn't mean that, "I shall endeavor to make it so at thy command" is any more useful, either. In either case, sometimes a simple, "yes," or "I will" is best.

Using a hundred lengthy words in the place of five simple ones doesn't make a speaker sound smarter. And using badly mangled vaguely medievalesque language doesn't make a game sound smarter. There is an art to dialogue, in any kind of game but especially in an RPG. There are ways to deal with messy concepts like magic and the complete upheaval of reality that still allow two people talking to each other to, well, talk. And the more your characters sound like people (even if they're some kind of enormous squid monster or something), the more players will be able to care about their fates.

Not every hapless hero, farm boy, knight, warrior, or even mage needs to declaim every portentous word from on high. It's all right to stay simple. English is a fantastic language; I wish more characters in the games I play would learn simply to speak it, rather than to orate in it.