More thoughts about Typography, or the tools used to create it…

Hittite Cuneiform Tablet
Image by via Flickr

Long title, I know…

But basically I am wondering how we might take the small things, such as the method of writing, and use that in a game. And by “method” in this case, I’m thinking of the tools used to create the work. For example, were the letters painted onto wood or stone? If so, how old are they? What remains?

Let’s think about a few different tools… brush, stylus, chisel, and pen – just for a representative sample.

If you look at the cave paintings in Lascaux, they’re estimated to be around 17,000 years old. That’s a lot of years. That could come into play in numerous different genres of games. The paint used, colors chosen, or even the brush strokes can tell a lot about the artist and how fast a particular piece was finished. The prehistoric artists at Lascaux took their time and it shows. Some gang banger simply marking gang signs on an underpass probably won’t use a brush and will instead opt for a can of spray paint…

Another example would be the good old cuneiform tablet. Clay tablets and a sharpened stylus worked pretty well to document lists of payments or property somewhere around 3500 BC. It may not be the most expressive language in the world, but it works. Consider for a moment some priest documenting the steps for interment of a royal family member and warning anyone not to disturb the dead or face the consequences. Scratches on the wall are probably going to be ignored by most game parties I’ve been in – so who knows what might be behind that cuneiform-labeled door?

Why not use a simple chisel? It beats having to find some wet clay and where you put your stylus down… Some chiseled petroglyphs may be 800,000 years old. More recent ones, for example from Pompeii or Rome, are probably a bit easier to understand if your Latin is up to snuff. (Mine isn’t.) Chiseled stone is kind of like the permanent record for many civilizations we still don’t know much about.

Pen and paper don’t last nearly as long as paint, clay, or stone, but they can be much more expressive and perhaps in a more modern language a PC might understand without too much research. Paper and papyrus have been around for nearly 6000 years. But unless your paper and pen is stored somewhere the paper won’t mold, mildew, or wear away with sun and sand, it’s not going to last very long. Crayons don’t last nearly as long, but can leave a brief reminder on a sanitarium wall that someone did in fact live there for a time.

Cuneiform sign
Image via Wikipedia

So how might you use these different tools?

Take for example a Cthulhu campaign or any other setting that relies on the “previous civilization” model. Can you imagine a scientist from our era stumbling upon the ruins of a temple to the Old Ones and finding 10,000-, 20,000, 100,000-year old markings that get translated (correctly or not) to form the basis of a summoning spell? Or perhaps the previous arrival of aliens or monsters from other worlds or dimensions? Lastly, consider how much you could play with your players heads if it turned out to be graffiti from some punk with a paintbrush in the last 10 years who wanted to spark a hoax…

And then keep in mind the effects of time on a particular piece of art. Has some of the paint disappeared, leaving a message that may be misinterpreted? Or were large portions of a chiseled stone destroyed, leaving only a partial text that may not include the stringent warning about letting whatever was locked deep inside the tomb free?

Endless possibilities.

From fantasy to modern and beyond (computers anyone?), the tools of the trade have a lot to offer as far as inspiration. So don’t forget the little things…

I’ll leave you with some of the sacred text of Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Chapman as King Arthur in Holy Grail

Image via Wikipedia

  KNIGHT:  There!  Look!
  LAUNCELOT:  What does it say?
  GALAHAD:  What language is that?
  ARTHUR:  Brother Maynard, you're our scholar!
  MAYNARD:  It's Aramaic!
  GALAHAD:  Of course!  Joseph of Aramathea!
  LAUNCELOT:  Course!
  KNIGHT:  What does it say?
  MAYNARD:  It reads, 'Here may be found the last words of Joseph of
      Aramathea.  He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail
      in the Castle of uuggggggh'.
  ARTHUR:  What?
  MAYNARD: '... the Castle of uuggggggh'.
  BEDEMIR:  What is that?
  MAYNARD:  He must have died while carving it.
  LAUNCELOT:  Oh, come on!
  MAYNARD:  Well, that's what it says.
  ARTHUR:  Look, if he was dying, he wouldn't bother to carve 'aaggggh'.
      He'd just say it!
  MAYNARD:  Well, that's what's carved in the rock!
  GALAHAD:  Perhaps he was dictating.
(quoted from

(Funny enough, this article was inspired by something programmer-related at Design for Hackers and not Monty Python – but hey. You take inspiration where you can get it!)


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