Babel Q8: Use in gaming


How would you use Babel in games? Could you set games in this universe? If so, where? Babel scholars? Hermes cells, fighting oppression? Silverpunk adventures in the empire?

What is there to learn from this book about worldbuidling in general? Has this prompted you to make more use of language, power structures, and colonialism in your games? (Does this book make you look at "steampunk" differently?)


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    Not so much about gaming but these are thoughts I had about the world-building.

    First, I became less and less convinced by the whole silver / translation magic scheme. I think (and others will no doubt correct me if wrong) that a magic scheme in a game or book works best when it is subject to checks and balances - limitations of one kind of another. But in Babel this seemed erratically done, if at all. It seemed that if you could find the right word pair then there was nothing you couldn't do - eg why not teleport instead of using coaches, trains or ships? Why not produce food ex nihilo? Are there things like conservation of energy to worry about?

    On the same lines, there seemed (most of the time) to be no defence against a silver spell once set up, no matter how well educated and trained the opposition were. So in order to get control over the various magical maintenance contracts, Robin et al had to actually take over the central store-room. And seemingly once they had done that then The Establishment had no way to stop them pulling the plug. There's no hacking in, or covert ops, or maquis-style infiltration and terrorism. Now, in the book the reason The Establishment didn't do anything was partly because they were unutterably wicked and just didn't give a toss about the downtrodden poor... but this seems pretty lame to me, and in any case there's military value in showing your enemy that you can counter their plans even if you don't card about the specific hilltop or whatever.

    The only counter-example I can think of is when the army started using bullets that had been prepared to go through the magical shielding, but by this stage this seemed so ad hoc and at odds with the rest of the book I didn't really give it any cred. If they could send a bullet through, why not set up a word pair that puts the occupants of the tower to sleep, then just walk in and handcuff them? So basically the longer the story persisted, the more the magic system seemed to me poorly thought-through (and as it was a long book there was plenty of time to ruminate on this).

    Secondly, I started thinking a lot more about the use of etymology as a clue to word connections. Now (and I'm sure RF Kuang knows this) etymology is a poor guide to current meaning. Loads of words have shifted meaning over the years - Coleridge (Ancient Mariner) talks of "the silly buckets on the deck" using what was already for him an archaic sense of silly as meaning both "innocent and without guile" and also "open to receive blessing" - and nothing to do with the modern sense (and Coleridge's sense, and indeed the sense from about the 15th century on) of foolish. So what might this do to a silver spell? If you used silly as one half of the pair, would you appeal to the modern sense or the archaic one, or both, or neither? As words change meaning over the years, does that mean that silver spells are supremely powerful or supremely meaningless - silly, in fact :)

    Like (I suppose) any language, English has developed in all kinds of illogical ways as it has borrowed words in from elsewhere. So we have a perfectly good adjective royal, but we have no underlying noun roy from which it would be derived (of course the adjective developed from French roi and we got it from the Normans, but we "imported" royal and we didn't import roi, so as it stands the word is kind of rootless. Likewise we have navy but we don't have nav (Latin navis = ship) so we ended up with the group word but not the individual one. So Royal Navy is a perfectly meaningful label, but in terms of language it is made up of two words that are both dangling with no real roots.

    Basically English (and I suspect many, if not most) languages is wildly - some would say wonderfully - inconsistent in how words have developed and changed meaning. If you focus just on etymology, as Babel does, then you lose an enormous part of the thing-as-a-whole, even if you make some striking and bizarre discoveries along the way.

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    Even though I couldn't finish the book, my thoughts on the world building are essentially those of Richard, above. There was no effort to build a magic system that was internally consistent or limited in any way. The politics were simplistic and not thought out. The educational monopoly enjoyed by Oxford was unexplained and inconsistent. The absence of any real challenge to Britain's silver magic supremacy was also unexplained. The lack of infrastructure investment needed to make the magic would seem to argue against that. The EVIL colonialists are unspeakably vile and without human qualities. All this means there is nothing I would want to use in any game I would run. There is not an ounce of intellectual discipline in this book beyond the words themselves.

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