Bias and Terminology

In the beginning of Episode 347 “Lessons Learned Running an RPG,” there was a Discord post (I believe) that mentioned how the person watches for bias in the terminology they use at the table… and it’s so right.

How we GMs use so many go-to terms like “monsters” that can sway the players into defaulting a specific approach can have a HUGE effect on their decisions. Even how we apply some of a game’s mechanics can affect the outcome. If I present my players with a situation where they enter a room to find a lone well-armed warrior holding a whip and a flaming sword and tell them to roll initiative, combat is damn near automatically triggered. Sure, someone could think to try a more social approach at first, but I think so many procedural games (particularly in the dungeon crawl genre) have conditioned us to react in such ways. Changing up that terminology can make a big difference.

For me, even the use of the word “encounter” implies the application of dice and mechanics. It indicates a mechanical event where you will pit your abilities to the test against this generated character. After thinking on this for a bit, I feel the word “scene” is a more open approach that doesn’t trigger an automated reaction. Perhaps not all the time at every table, but it feels like the term “encounter” implies opposition and the word “combat” is silently in front of it.

Knowing that, I’m curious if I’ll start mixing up terms and actively trying alternatives to help mix things up. I’m also curious if I’ve subconsciously used certain terms on purpose to invoke a particular reaction from my players, a form of subtle manipulation that’s either intentional or not. In other words, the Jedi Mind Trick of the GM’s toolkit.

Hmm… what a bunch of clever bastards we are.

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Hmm. I don’t think that way at all, and all I ever play is D&D.

For me, “encounter” means exactly that - there is something potentially interesting for the PCs to interact with. Entering a shop is an encounter. Talking to someone in the street is an encounter…

I’m curious how many folks feel like you, @Warden, and what their gaming experience is.

Hmm. Let’s check out the encounters section of the 5e DMG…

Encounters are the individual scenes in the larger story of your adventure.

See? Encounters == Scenes!

Next for some narrative advice:

First and foremost, an encounter should be fun for the players. Second, it shouldn’t be burden for you to run. Beyond that, a well-crafted encounter usually has a straightforward objective as well as some connection to the overarching story of your campaign, building on the encounters that precede it while foreshadowing encounters yet to come.

So far so good - good encounters advance the story…

Oh! This next section might hint at what @warden was getting at with “a mechanical event where you will pit your abilities to the test”?

An encounter has one of three possible outcomes: the characters succeed, the characters partly succeed, or the characters fail. The encounter needs to account for all three possibilities, and the outcome needs to have consequences so that the players feel like their successes and failures matter.

Though it doesn’t mention combat even once! :slight_smile:

I don’t agree with the DMG that every encounter has to MATTER - some are for comic relief - which is often the result of a failed attempt at something…

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Ah, but personal and experiential interpretation is always a factor in how terminology is applied. It’s why rulings are sometimes required to invoke the specific wording of a term’s definition when two or more people have differing views on what they are or how they can apply. It’s also why two courtroom judges can interpret a law differently. In my experiences, encounters meant breaking out the books to build within an XP budget. This was solidified in 4e for me because they created a 2-page template for presenting combat encounters with a label on the header marked “Encounter” and it’s title or name. If I’ve ever been in or run an encounter where dice were never rolled, it wasn’t memorable enough to stand out. Whereas a scene can be 100% roleplaying or 100% mechanical or any combination in between. It’s a moment in time for the story that couldn’t care less if you used the rules or not. To me, “scenes” feel more universal and “encounters” are a specific type of scene.

Side note: Has anyone ever seen the term “investigative encounter” used anywhere before?

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I was just refreshing myself on the terms while prepping some Alternity. At least in the original version the session was divided into scenes. The basic scene types were combat, encounter, and challenge scenes. Here the encounter is any social interaction scene. Challenge scenes are like D&D 4e skill challenges. It also dubs all DM controlled characters “supporting cast.”

In terms of how our table uses terms, we always describe the specific kind of scene we are in, so everyone knows what part of their sheet to use. I think the terms we tend to use are “social,” “combat,” and “skill challenge.” Chases use unique rules, so we tend to consider them a different type of scene. I don’t think of investigations as a type of scene. I think and investigation is an adventure. You can talk to people, reconstruct the crime, rough up some goons, and chase down the culprit, and that’s an investigation in four types of scenes.

The point about language is important. I use the specific scene terms to set people up for what’s going to happen. I’m imposing structure and expectations. When I don’t impose structure, either a player will (like when my wife and Rory negotiate with the assault squad instead of fighting them) or the flow of the game is interrupted and people do not know what to do. I prefer to impose some structure, because of my anxiety in an unstructured social space and as a way to manage time. There are definitely times when I’ve structured things too much. Thinking about it now, I can lean more on my players to tell me what kind of scene they want to resolve a situation. That could also help me learn more about their perspective about should be happening in the game and what they expect from different types of scenes.


The word “encounter” is not usually a player-facing term at all - in my experience. I never say “Hey players, time for an [adjective] encounter/scene!”

So substituting the word “scene” or anything else won’t matter to them and “encounters” are whatever I think they are - so it doesn’t introduce any bias for me.

But, I agree that, for other DMs such as the OP, a different term might help break potential biases they may have. Considering more ways players can interact with the world is a good thing.

As for “investigative encounter”, I’ll once again refer to the 5e DMG, just after the section I cited previously there is a list of goals that are meant to help frame encounters…

  • Make Peace.
  • Protect an NPC or Object.
  • Retrieve an Object.
  • Run a Gauntlet.
  • Sneak In.
  • Stop a Ritual.
  • Take Out a Single Target.

These examples are listed just before the Combat Encounter section…

I agree there are “[Combat] Encounter” creation tools out there, and sometimes people omit the [Combat] in their names. But, the same thing would be true if you renamed “encounter” to “scene”. Also, at least with D&D, it’s probably a good thing to be ready for any designed “[adjective] encounter” to transform into a combat encounter (and vice versa) at the drop of a hat - you don’t even need rolls for that to happen…

DM: “The king starts a long speech about the plight of the land…”
Player: “My rogue shouts ‘You killed my father!’ and throws my poisoned wrist dagger at the king.”


Another aspect of bias in language relates to our real life biases toward other groups. I think about the experience of the free lance writer who requested to NOT be credited for their adventure which was heavily edited from the original. One issue that they raised was concern about the word “primitive” to describe the cultural production of an NPC community in the adventure. (D&D 5E - [Merged] Candlekeep Mysteries Author Speaks Out On WotC's Cuts To Adventure | Page 3 | EN World | Dungeons & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games)
I know that word “Primitive” is baked into Alternity, and it is probably that way with other games. I don’t think it is the biggest diversity issue with the game, but it is one way in which the implicit biases of the creators were expressed.

The fact that our words can carry other meanings and impact people in unintended ways is something which deserves conscious consideration. I think it’s especially important for those of us who are white, cisgender, heterosexual men to be actively engaged in challenging our preconceptions and learning about how to be less biased in our communication.

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