Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Words I Learned From Role-Playing Games

I went through a long period of loving Dungeons And Dragons and other such RPGs, though I could never quite find the ideal like-minded, theatrical, story-and-character-loving group of peers for it, or so I imagined anyway. Maybe every group stays permanently out of character and treats the whole thing as a gold-grubbing exercise. (Darths And Droids is somewhat persuasive on this point.) Thank you, single-player CRPGs!

Anyway, I kept hearing that these games were going to make me lose the boundary between fantasy and reality, and send me wandering through underground steam tunnels, but instead I just learned some awesome new words.

  • basilisk: A mythical lizard whose gaze can turn people to stone or kill them. Also sometimes known as a cockatrice.
    [Ahhh, the Monster Manual. This was a guide to many of the creatures a D&D character might encounter, complete with their various stats and special abilities. Because the game borrowed liberally from various literary and mythological traditions, it introduced me to many fabulous beasties from those traditions, including this one.]
  • cant: A secret language.
    [If you chose to play a thief in D&D, you could learn “Thieves’ Cant”, a secret method of communication that would let you talk to other thieves without being understood by anyone else. The concept is based in historical fact, and its RPG equivalent has been rather exhaustively catalogued.]
  • chutzpah: Unshakable self-confidence; audacity.
    [In the RPG Toon, chutzpah was one of the character stats. Characters with a high chutzpah score could pull off ridiculous schemes and convince others to believe patently false things. Bugs Bunny would have a maxed-out chutzpah stat.]
  • dexterity: Physical skill and grace.
    [Speaking of character stats, this is one from the original D&D rules — characters with a high dexterity could dodge attacks better, and perform difficult feats such as pickpocketing. It’s a “common knowledge” word my world now, but it wasn’t when I was in 5th grade.]
  • flail: A medieval weapon consisting of one or more weights swinging freely from a handle via chains.
    [Just as the Monster Manual taught me about all manner of creatures, the Player’s Handbook introduced me to a dizzying variety of weapons and armor. It would be overwhelming to try to include them all here, so I’m just choosing this one as a representative sample. Others include glaive, greaves, halberd, scimitar, shillelagh, and voulge.]
  • garrote: A strangling weapon consisting of two handles with a wire, chain, or rope between them.
    [Different genres had their different weapons. Thus, while D&D was teaching me about medieval arsenals, I learned about this nasty piece of work from the espionage game Top Secret.]
  • gelatinous: Dense; viscous.
    [One of the wackier monsters in the Monster Manual was the Gelatinous Cube, which is just exactly what it sounds like — a huge cube of goo which would eat anything organic and spit out anything inorganic.]
  • golem: An animated creature created from inanimate material such as stone, wood, or metal.
    [This was not only another monster, but also something that magic-user characters could create, given sufficient skill. Its real-world origin is in Jewish folklore.]
  • lycanthropy: The condition of being a werewolf, or some other kind of were-creature.
    [Oh, there are so many crazy things that can befall a hapless D&D character, and this is one of them. If you get bitten by a werewolf (or were-rat, or were-bear, or were-whatever), you become lycanthropic yourself. (Unless, of course, you can avail yourself of a Cure Disease spell cast by a 12th-level or higher character, or you eat some belladonna within an hour, which has a 25% chance of curing the condition but will incapacitate you for 1d4 days and has a 1% chance of killing you. If you love yourself some intricate sets of rules with lots of randomness involved, D&D is the game for you.)]
  • myrmidon: A loyal warrior, based on legends of Achilles’ armies against Troy.
    [Another fun feature of the Player’s Handbook was all the tables of information it contained. Among these were the level tables for each character class, in which each level was given its own title. Thus, “myrmidon” was a level 6 fighter.]
  • paladin: A noble warrior; paragon of chivalry; heroic champion.
    [In Advanced D&D, the Paladin was a specialized sort of fighter, which obtained some special abilities due to its unwavering devotion to the cause of law and justice.]
  • précis: A summary presentation of information.
    [This is another one from Top Secret, in which mission dossiers often included a précis about, for instance, suspected criminal masterminds.]
  • prestidigitator: One who performs magic tricks involving sleight of hand or other manual feats.
    [This one comes from the Player’s Handbook table of magic-user levels — a level 1 magic-user is a prestidigitator. There’s one more of these coming up below.]
  • succubus: A demon who takes the form of a beautiful woman in order to seduce and consume its victim.
    [It’s another evil beastie from the Monster Manual, this time particularly memorable because, well, let’s face it, it was a rather compelling concept (and illustration!) for a young boy.]
  • thaumaturge: A practitioner of magic.
    [The magic-user table actually lists a level 5 character as a “Thaumaturgist,” but for some reason, this was the formulation that stuck in my mind. Other noteworthy words from these tables are acolyte, chevalier, curate, druid, filcher, justiciar, magsman, and theurgist.]
  • will-o’-the-wisp: A ghostly, flickering light, which leads the curious into peril.
    [One final entity from the Monster Manual, similar to the gelatinous cube in its lack of animal characteristics. I always found this a captivating idea. Other outre words from the creature compendium: bugbear, doppleganger, harpy, hippogriff, homonculous, kobold, manticore, roc, wight, and wyvern.]


Words I Learned From Rock and Roll


Words I Learned From Television


  1. jrw

    Ha! I learned “basilisk” from Marvel comics!

    • Hee hee! Yeah, good old Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One — those were the greatest for learning about the MU without buying a bunch of issues. And introducing new villains too!

  2. jrw

    Hmmm, will-o-the-wisp. Now… gosh. Either I learned that from a Richie Rich or Casper comic, or… hmm. I almost feel like there was an early mainframe IF-like game called that. (My dad’s university VAX account was where I first played text adventures.)

  3. Let us not forget “dweomer”, meaning “magic”, which so many people learned from D&D that it now *exists*.

    Gygax didn’t invent it out of whole cloth, but he did take a very obscure medieval term — which seems to only have appeared as an adjective, and maybe not even as a standalone word — and popularized it as a noun.

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