Enhanced Description: Unlocking the Power of Tier 2 Vocabulary

My real-life job is an English teacher on a secondary school. In the last few years, something we’ve been talking about a bit as a profession is the idea of Tier 2 vocabulary, and in this article I want to explain how it is relevant to your tabletop RPGs.

According to this model, there are three types of vocabulary. Tier 1 is everyday vocabulary, the first words you learn as a kid, and the language you depend on for most of your daily interactions – words like home, cat, happy. Tier 3 is specialist, technical vocabulary. In maths this might be hypotenuse or quadrilateral; in science it could be hypothesis or photosynthesis. Tier 2 vocabulary is the vocabulary in between: more advanced than your everyday Tier 1 words, but not as technical or subject-specific as Tier 3. These might be words like ambiguous, mitigate, or conundrum.

Why do we use Tier 2 vocabulary? Ultimately, because it’s fun! Tier 2 words are richer, more colourful, more evocative, and more memorable than everyday Tier 1 words. They are also often more precise. Consider the difference between scared (Tier 1) and panicking, apprehensive, or petrified (Tier 2).

Using Tier 2 vocabulary takes practice. It is not something that comes naturally to everyone. People can feel self-conscious about Tier 2 vocabulary; they worry that they are not using words correctly, or they might take too long to think of the right one. A little bit of extra effort, though, can make all the difference.

So, how can we embrace Tier 2 vocabulary in our games? Two words: prep and practice. Prep, because it helps to come up with a few choice descriptions ahead of time; practice, because describing things more richly is both a choice and an effort, and it won’t become a habit unless you keep at it.

DMs: this doesn’t mean you need to write boxed text for everything! In fact, that might be one of the worst things you can do: not only is it hugely time-consuming, but it can make you stilted, less nimble, and less comfortable with improv. It’s one thing for a published adventure, but for your home game, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. Instead, make a crib sheet for key locations like caves or ruins, or generic monsters that you can adapt on the fly like giants, fiends, and undead.

Players: you have a key role here, too! Describing things evocatively is not just the DM’s job. In fact, given how much else they have going on, you probably have more time to think about descriptions than they do. Good descriptions beget good descriptions. As a DM, when players describe something evocatively, I find it ‘wakes me up’ creatively and inspires me to put in a bit more effort. Similarly, when players do the absolute bare minimum – ‘I step forward and smack the kobold’ – it somehow sucks the creative energy out of the room and pulls down the overall standard. It’s not just the DM’s job to entertain you: in an RPG, everyone is partially responsible for everybody’s enjoyment of the game, so do your part!

If this topic is something that interests you, I will be posting a few Tier 2 one-pagers on my Patreon this week! In fact, I’m hoping to share more and more on my Patreon in the next few months, so sign up for exclusive content you won’t find here.

What are your favourite Tier 2 words when playing RPGs? Leave your ideas in the comments below.

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