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Cussing in Character
I was at the gas station
Wednesday when somebody came in and began to loudly relate the details
of his day to the station's attendant. His tale was liberally sprinkled
with all possible tenses and conjugations of the "F-word," and
I shook my head in despair as I recapped my tank. What is the world coming
to when we have to rely on one word to express all our shades of anger
and frustration? And, if we swear so unimaginatively in real life, how
can we possibly provide our characters with the richer vocabulary of obscenity
that ought to reflect the different times, cultures, and races to which
There are three general
categories of cursing, none of which is mutually exclusive: (1) Appealing
to a higher power to harm the enemy; (2) invoking a bad fate upon the
enemy; and (3) comparing the enemy to something culturally taboo. By "enemy"
I mean whatever has provoked the character to swear—a lost sword,
a recalcitrant escape-pod hatch, or a murderous creature faced in battle.
Each of these categories
will differ according to the culture of the person doing the swearing—Renaissance
Italian human, medieval orc, Golden-Age superhero, contemporary Japanese
vampire, futuristic Corellian, etc. The player or gamemaster must decide,
for each category, what powers, fates, or taboos are relevant to his or
her campaign. After deciding this, a few key curses can be developed for
each category and later used in the game to pepper a character or nonplayer
character's language. Not only can this add more interest to the game
(Saying "You misbegotten, muddy-faced lickspittle knave" is
much more impressive than simply saying "you b**stard"), but
it can give players interesting insights into the culture they've just
encountered ("According to the translator, it just called me a small-nosed
custard-eater. Do you suppose that's bad, captain?" "Well, lieutenant,
I suggest we take a second look at the dessert menu for the First Contact
diplomatic dinner tonight.").
a Higher Power to Harm the Enemy. Into the first category fall
such curses as wishing a deity to sentence the enemy to an unpleasant
fate; usually an eternity of suffering in some afterlife. This may be
a relatively small category of curses in monotheistic cultures, but it
could, presumably, be a much more interesting category in a polytheistic
culture where different deities specialize in different sorts of punishments
or where there are a variety of underworlds to choose from ("May
the minions of Yog-Sothoth sentence you to the hell of having your bone
marrow sucked out by the starving ghoul-priests of Kadath!"). In
an atheistic society, the deity can be replaced by some other power, such
as Big Brother or the Computer ("Computer crash your system!")
or a mysterious organization, alien race, or phenomenon ("Elders
hunt you!" ... "Entropy take you!").
Swearing by a higher
power or its various parts or possessions is more an expression of emphasis
than defamation ("By God!"). However, there's nothing to stop
beings from adding such emphasis to their curses, as long as the higher
source is clearly identified and has the appropriate accouterments ("By
Thor's Hammer!" ... "By the Computer's All-Seeing Lens!").
For the imaginative player, specific deities and their specific parts
or weapons can be selectively called upon in particular situations (e.g.,
when drowning, one might swear "By Neptune's Soggy Genitals!"
or, when chasing someone, "By Hermes' Sandals!").
Invoking a Bad
Fate upon the Enemy. Into the second category fall such curses
as personally wishing the person to an eternity of suffering in the underworld
or to be victimized in a presumably unpleasant sexual encounter. Sometimes
these wishes may not be directed specifically at the enemy, but at some
relative thought to be dear to the enemy, such as the enemy's mother.
Curses in this category reflect a given culture's values or ideas of a
bad fate ("Stake you!" ... "May you die in your sleep!").
Curses in this category
can also be demeaning, such as the vampire slang/curse of calling humans
"food tubes." The demeaning nickname can be used as a curse
("You? You're nothing but an ambulatory food tube,") and reflects
the fate the vampire wishes upon that human or all humans. In this case
the curse edges close to the third category, because most humans consider
eating other humans to be taboo—most vampires, of course, do not
consider themselves quite human anymore.
Enemy to the Taboo. The third category is possibly the largest
and depends entirely on what a culture considers taboo—that is,
blasphemous or disgusting. Often this involves comparing the enemy to
something a culture perceives to be a lower order of animal (e.g., dog,
rat, Martian calot), person (e.g., slave, detested ethnicity or race),
substance (e.g., dirt, excreted substance), or activity (e.g., engaging
in incestuous relations, licking mud off a leader's boots). Sometimes
the comparison can be more amusing to the enemy than serious, especially
if the values of the cultures are extremely different. For example, in
many old science-fiction stories, humans were derogatively referred to
by other races as "hairless monkeys"—not a label most
humans would be likely to start a war over, although it might get annoying
after enough repetition. Similarly, most humans would greet "You
right-handed first-cousin -groomer!" with more puzzlement than offense,
although a member of the species using the curse might take it as a deadly
insult. Humans in Shadowrun might think calling an elf a "dandelion-eater"
is silly, but if it makes the elf angry, then it works as a curse. Alternatively,
in Alan Dean Foster's Thranx books, the term "bug" moved from
a mild insult to a term of affection for the insectoid race that became
allies of humanity.
Sometimes curses originating
in this category can stand alone as swearwords that simply invoke the
taboo. Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider series uses the excremental curse
"Shards!"—the waste product of a dragon's hatching. Hope
Mirlee's Lud-in-the-Mist features a culture that fears and detests Faery,
and therefore appropriates Faery curses as its vilest obscenities: "By
the golden apples of the Sun and Moon!" In one unusual choice, Larry
Niven's Ringworld books uses a concept as a curse—"Tanj!"
or "There Ain't No Justice!"—presumably, this is a state
of being that is particularly feared or detested by humans in Niven's
books. Similarly, Shadowrun's "Frag!" presumably refers to a
fragmented computer drive—something nobody wants to possess.
After a culture's terms
of abuse have been described, the player or GM must then decide whether
those terms are used individually or strung together in long, impressive
passages. In some cultures, swearing is considered an art, and curses
are drawn-out affairs rich with description and metaphor. In other cultures,
swearing is perfunctory, and curses tend to be short and to the point.
Take a very brief excerpt from the exchange between Prince Henry and Falstaff
in Act II of Shakespeare's King Henry IV—First Part: "...Why,
thou clay-brained guts, thou nott-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene,
greasy tallow-keech...." Compare that to the modern U.S. obscenity,
"You a--hole." A longer-lived race, a culture that takes things
sedately, or a culture that values the oral tradition will be most likely
to engage in drawn-out cursing. A short-lived race, a culture that values
speed and efficiency, or a culture that has little story-telling skills
left will tend to use short, relatively unimaginative curses. Thus, one
can imagine that fantasy quasimedieval elves might have extremely interesting
curses, whereas space-age humans might have a very limited cursing vocabulary.
This contrast of cultures can be played up within a single game to enhance
the differences between them, such as having an elf's impressive string
of literary abuse met with an orc's brief, crude, and to-the-point response.
It may seem odd to address
cursing in roleplaying games as a "serious" roleplaying topic,
but curses are, first, common in any game where adventurers are faced
with regular surprises, setbacks, and combat; and they are, second, potent
cultural indicators that reveal much about the values and beliefs of the
society in which they originate. Not only can a player or GM use imaginative
cursing to add depth to a character or culture, but, on the whole, the
imaginative use of cursing can raise the overall intellectual ambience
of a game from the sordid to the sublime. And maybe, just maybe, it will
leak over into the real world to make our day-to-day swearing that much
more interesting to experience ... even if it's only overheard at a gas
originally written October 17, 1998
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