Original Lexicon post

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The original Lexicon post

This was originally on "The 20 x 20 Room" blog, which currently seems to be defunct (or at least inaccessible)--which is why I'm putting a copy here. Fortunately the Internet Archive found it. Enjoy. --Lord Knockwood the Mad 21:35, 2 March 2007 (PST)

Lexicon: an RPG

Posted by Neel Krishnaswami on November 20, 2003 at 08:43 PM

Here's a little roleplaying game that I've been toying with. I call it the Lexicon rpg, in honor of its inspiration, Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars.

The basic idea is that each player takes on the role of a scholar, from before scholarly pursuits became professionalized (or possibly after they ceased to be). You are cranky, opinionated, prejudiced and eccentric. You are also collaborating with a number of your peers -- the other players -- on the construction of an encyclopedia describing some historical period (possibly of a fantastic world).

The game is played in 26 turns, one for each letter of the alphabet.

1. On the first turn, each player writes an entry for the letter 'A'. You come up with the name of the entry, and you write 100-200 words on the subject. At the end of the article, you sign your name, and make two citations to other entries in the encyclopedia. These citations will be phantoms -- their names exist, but their content will get filled in only on the appropriate turn. No letter can have more entries than the number of players, either, so all citations made on the first turn have to start with non-A letters.

2. On the second and subsequent turns, you continue to write entries for B, C, D and so on. However, you need to make three citations. One must be a reference to an already-written entry, and two must be to unwritten entries. (On the 25th and 26th turns, you only need to cite one and zero phantom entries, respectively, because there won't be enough phantom entries, otherwise.)

It's an academic sin to cite yourself, you can never cite an entry you've written. (OOC, this forces the players to intertwingle their entries, so that everybody depends on everyone else's facts.) Incidentally, once you run out of empty slots, obviously you can only cite the phantom slots.

3. Despite the fact that your peers are self-important, narrow-minded dunderheads, they are honest scholars. No matter how strained their interpretations are, their facts are accurate as historical research can make them. So if you cite an entry, you have to treat its factual content as true! (Though you can argue vociferously with the interpretation and introduce new facts that shade the interpretation.)

4. This little game will probably play best on a wiki, and it should take a month or so to play to completion. At the end of it, you'll have a highly-hyperlinked document that details a nice little piece of collaborative world-building.

The owner of the wiki should set the general subject of the Lexicon. I suggest that he or she make use of the technique of "open reference" when describing the historical period: "You are all revisionist scholars from the Paleotechnic Era arguing about how the Void Ghost Rebellion led to the overthrow of the cyber-gnostic theocracy and the establishment of the Third Republic." What a cyber-gnostic theocracy is, or what happened to the first two republics, or what the Paleotechnic Era is are all unknown -- they are named to specifically to evoke a mood and inspire the other players' creativity. (This is an idea which I've first seen in fully articulated form in the character creation rules for Robin Laws's Hero Wars game.)

Original comments

Neel: This is very clever. A couple of questions:

1. What mechanism is there, if any, of deciding who writes the phantom entries once you get to that point in the alphabet? If my entry for ARISTOTLIUM mentions the FIG NEWTON WAR, whose job is it to write that when we get to F (since we can't cite ourselves)?

2. Got any links re: Pavic's Dictionary? You know, in case I had "a friend" who hadn't heard of it before...

3. So when are we going to play a round of this?

Posted by: Rob at Nov 20, 2003 9:24:03 PM

Good question. I'd assume its either a gentleman's agreement that all phantom entries will get one, or they just remain phantom entries. If its our group of Wiki addicts it probably wouldn't be a problem.

I'm game for a game.

Posted by: Jere at Nov 21, 2003 10:30:11 AM

I assumed it would be on a first-come, first-served, basis. If all the remaining entries for a letter are phantoms, then you must fill in one of them, and not one you created.

There are other holes in the rules (eg: if someone creates all of the phantoms for the letter Q, when the Q turn arrives they can't write any entries), but I think it's better to fill in such problems through playtesting rather than building a formal model in advance and specifying every possibility. Exhaustive specification simply means that no one will be able to read the rules without falling asleep.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at Nov 21, 2003 1:13:55 PM

I used the "gentlemen's agreement" style in my "Mementos of Amber" Ambercon game... Each time segment as we moved backwards through the story (ala the movie Memento) had certain events that needed to happen, actions needed to change the situation from what it was at the start of that segment to what we already know it would be from the segment just played, which began right where this segment will end. I left most of the actions sufficiently vague that any character could do them, and that there could be any one of several possible reasons why they were done.

If you set this up as part of the "contract" of the game, I've found most players will take it up as part of the challenge, making it a goal to be creative in solving the problem rather than seeing it as a limitation. Not one play-through of the game (and I've run it 5 times now) was without at least one idea I hadn't previously considered being introduced. Players are great that way.

If anything, I'd expect players to rush to have the chance to reveal the inadequacies of the previously-created reference...

Posted by: Ghoul at Nov 23, 2003 4:41:55 PM

I would happily play this game. It sounds great!

Posted by: badgerbag at Nov 24, 2003 11:21:50 PM

Please count me in if you need another player. Unless I start one first...

Posted by: colin roald at Nov 28, 2003 3:27:44 PM

Is the intent to do this once a day for each letter?

Posted by: Jere at Dec 8, 2003 2:03:59 PM

Yes, that's the plan. I can actually start doing this, now that my finals are over.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at Dec 8, 2003 5:33:49 PM

This sounds cool, keep me in the loop.

later Tom

Posted by: Tom at Dec 9, 2003 9:08:35 AM

I'm tempted to do one on the second age for Nobilis on our wiki. I even set up a page for it but I haven't made any serious moves in the direction.

Posted by: Jere at Dec 9, 2003 9:28:02 AM

I'd suggest once every two days, to allow for the inevitable schedule problems. On the other hand, this may perhaps just encourage people to wait till the last moment to make entries.

Posted by: Bryant at Dec 11, 2003 8:53:01 AM

So I'm thinking I'd love to use this to develop some background for Nobilis, in particular the Second Age of Earth (though this can easily be used for other things, like Other Worlds, Lands Beyond Creation, etc). I've set up a page on our group’s wiki to handle this. I’d like to do a letter every other day, as per Bryant's suggestion. I'll be very curious on how it works out.

Posted by: Jere at Dec 12, 2003 9:56:44 AM

I think this is absolutely marvelous. I think it would make an excellent world-building exercise for a group of people who were going to go on to various cooperative roleplay scenes in the world described in the "book".

Posted by: Fred Wolke at Dec 12, 2003 3:39:51 PM

A few of us in a writing group are trying this. My question is why the letter constraint? Why start with A, for example? In a Wiki, you don't need to alphabatize...

It would follow a more natural progression, then, and the major parts of the plot would quickly be filled in, leaving increasingly interesting minutia paths to be discovered as the game continues.

Posted by: eric at Dec 18, 2003 8:39:16 PM

In traditional rpgs action happens sequentially, with one event after another. You can't usually go back and redo things, or edit play, or whatever. In Lexicon, events happen alphabetically, with their chronology subordinated to their lexicality. Basically, I'm replacing one arbitrary constraint with another (this core idea comes from Pavic's novel, of course). The unnaturality of it is part of the point, though obviously you're free to change things.

I'd be very interested in hearing how your trial of Lexicon goes. Keep us filled in!

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at Dec 18, 2003 9:24:40 PM

Well we've started a round of Neel Krishnaswami's Lexicon that focuses on the Second Age of Earth. We've got our first entry Alsanons Ridge and we'll be seeing mroe in the next few days. All the A's are due by Monday.

So, if you are interested in participating, take a look at the rules, and head over to the Wiki and get involved. I'm really excited about this.

Posted by: Jere at Dec 19, 2003 9:15:17 AM

Hi Jere, I'm asked to sign in by the wiki program. How do I do that?

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at Dec 19, 2003 10:20:00 AM

You just make up a userid and password. We just wanted it for change cotnrol. So theres no registration or anything, just a name attached to all new pages and file changes.

Posted by: Jere at Dec 19, 2003 10:47:51 AM

Lexicon of the Second Age is coming along nicely. Lexicon is a lot of fun, very much in the tradition of the letter game, but its not an RPG, but then I didn't expect it to be, no matter what Neel labelled it as. But, as a tool I find it to be very good for world building, a different experience from a traditional letter game, but still quite fun and worthwhile. While we're only up to C its an experience I envision doing again. The nice thing about it, in opposition to a letter game, is that it doesn't take much of a time commitement.

There's some further commentary by the various participants on the Discussion Page.

Posted by: Jere at Jan 6, 2004 9:52:34 AM

Just want to let folks know that theres also an Exalted Lexicon going on.

Posted by: Jere at Jan 20, 2004 2:51:14 PM

And don't forget the Borges-like Lexicon at http://www.wikid.de/uqbar (in Italian).

Posted by: Lorenzo Trenti at Jan 21, 2004 1:22:26 PM


Maybe you should give some details on how your usin it, as I know you are doing a few things differently.

Posted by: Jere at Jan 21, 2004 3:57:11 PM

I'm starting up my own Lexicon-inspired game to develop the setting for a strategic/operational-level PBEM that I am trying to set up. I'd be interested in any thoughts or input, especially from those of you who have participated in Lexicon games. Most of the activity for it will be through the Vrinthia blog.

Posted by: Rodger Thorm at Feb 17, 2004 1:06:05 PM

We've started a Lexicon-game over at the norwegian rpg-site "rollespill.net". It's a sort of 1700'eds fantasy-setting. We've been playing since March the 4th 2004, and reached the letter "F". 3-5 players. This is an e-mail that I can actually be reached at, which I prefer to keep spam-free: OlePE.Giever [] stud.jbi.hio.no

Posted by: Ole Peder Giæver at Mar 23, 2004 1:58:42 PM

Oh, right. This is the link for the Norwegian Lexicon-game

Posted by: Ole Peder Giæver at Mar 23, 2004 2:01:15 PM

Hey, Jere,

Is it me, or does the Letter Game, as written, seem similar to that De Profundis RPG that came out a year or two ago (sans the horror, of course)?

Posted by: IMAGinES at Apr 14, 2004 2:09:37 AM

De Profundis is a letter game. Basically all that De Profundis does is offer lots and lots of advice on how to handle a letter game in a Lovecraftian framework.

I'd need to check my copy, but now that I think about it, I'm not so sure de Profundis admits to its precedents. Maybe its due to the translation.

Posted by: Jere at Apr 14, 2004 8:35:46 AM

I'm trying to set up a Lexicon game of my own, as an attempt to rouse the populations of a couple of web forums I habit. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done at the moemnt, and (my apologies if I'm being impolite by pimping my game here) we only have four players including myself (and I'm the wiki owner). This may seem greedy, but I'd like a few more.

Unlike the Paranoia Lexicon run by Allen Varney or the Lexicon games on the Ocean of Stories Wiki, this isn't based on any existing RPG world; I put the topic together based on contributions from friends, so we'll really be making everything up as we go.

The Lexicon is called The Whisperers At War. Please take a look, and if you like the idea, could you get in touch and join in, please?

Posted by: IMAGinES at Apr 30, 2004 6:52:48 AM

Hi guys, this message just to let you know that:

  • out Italian borges-like Lexicon moved recently to http://valis.it/elenco/
  • our Lexicon won the first prize in the "Scrittura Mutante" (mutant writing) competition. Very well done. :-)

Ciao L.

Posted by: Lorenzo Trenti at May 8, 2004 8:22:46 AM

Hi guys, this message just to let you know that:

  • out Italian borges-like Lexicon moved recently to http://valis.it/elenco/
  • our Lexicon won the first prize in the "Scrittura Mutante" (mutant writing) competition. Very weel done. :-)

Ciao L.

Posted by: Lorenzo Trenti at May 8, 2004 8:26:30 AM

Congratulations, Lorenzo! Can you tell us more about the contest? How many competitors were there, and what were the other forms people tried out ?

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at May 8, 2004 2:55:57 PM


How do you handle missing players? What if you started off with 4 players, then halfway through one of them vanished (due to no fault of his own) and suddenly, you get to "M" and there's 4 blank citations ready to be filled in and only 3 players left?

Adding an additional players seems easy, since there's always room for more slots. But player attrition... what do you do about that (barring the obvious "find someone to take over")?

Posted by: Alexander Cherry at May 14, 2004 5:50:58 PM

Hey, was this the very first post on the blog? Because it seems to have justified our existence all by itself. Nice trick, that. WTG Neel!

Posted by: Jim Henley at May 14, 2004 7:25:34 PM

I'd been thinking that, Jim. Like 20x20 was some sort of mad fruitcake, with Neel as the tasty bits.

Posted by: Bryant at May 14, 2004 8:15:20 PM

|| Congratulations, Lorenzo! Can you tell us more about the contest? || How many competitors were there, and what were the other forms || people tried out ?

It was a contest aimed at exploring different forms of narration through new media. There were, I think, about 100 participants (most of them blogs and things difficult to name in Italian - dunno in English, sorry ^__^). You can find more at www.trovarsinrete.org. Oh, yeah, a lot of generators and the like.

Kudos L.

Posted by: Lorenzo Trenti at May 28, 2004 3:44:00 AM

I have created a barebones wiki at LexiconGame if anyone is interested in starting a new game. No decisions on topic / time frame yet.

Posted by: lilith at Jul 13, 2004 7:00:26 AM


Posted by: news- at Aug 3, 2004 5:18:39 AM

I realy like the game

Posted by: Theresa Knecht at Aug 29, 2004 6:36:53 AM

I'd just like to share my collected list of Lexicon Variations that I collected and put up on the EverWiki, including commentary by myself, and several variations that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere that I'm excited to test out in the future. (See specifically Follow the Phantoms, Codependence and Credence).

There's also the Rule of X, which is specific to Everway games, but might be worth taking a look at, and Ersatz Scrivener, one answer to player dropouts or phantom clash.

Any comments and criticisms are very welcome, and if you wind up using one of "my" options for this game, I'd appreciate hearing about it so I can watch it in action (or, if appropriate, participate).

If you're interested in what's probably the most detailed sphere in all Everway, check out the results (sans a few entries, which I hope we'll fill in the next few weeks). I'm very proud of the work all of us did.

Posted by: Lxndr at Sep 17, 2004 2:18:01 AM

Cool! I just started looking at this, and it's very neat.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at Sep 17, 2004 7:24:18 PM

I've put together a lexicon game on my wiki. It's for my personal roleplaying setting. My players have just about all finished creating their authors, and after that we'll be starting. I'm trying some slight rules variations. Fangor Lexicon

Posted by: ABatishko at Sep 27, 2004 5:43:18 PM

sounds like a round of "Fantasy Rules Committee" nomic-world offspring. play be e-mail game now in it's eleventh year of continuous play.

Posted by: Turbine Humongous at Mar 12, 2005 1:09:13 AM

I thought you might be interested in seeing the Lexicon game that some friends and I started on Livejournal. Needless to say, Livejournal does not have as much flexibility as a wiki. But it is easy to use, and the comments feature allows for some hilarious IC "banter" between the participants.

We are up to the C's in our encyclopaedia, and we're having a great time! Thanks for designing this game.

Posted by: Obsidian Shores at Mar 19, 2005 9:41:09 PM

My group is in the process of starting up a non-sequential Lexicon game covering a very tight subject (we're cataloging the magical texts within the library of a covenant in a highly developed, Ars Magica derived world). We decided against an alphabetic ordering, considered a subject based ordering (where all books on a particular subject would be shelved together (the shelf being our letter equivalent)), but then rejected that on the grounds that books on the same topic would likely reference each other, and the rules require that the phantoms be in a group other than the group the linking entry is in. We seem to have settled on a random shelving (possibly by color of binding). We also have the interesting oddity that some of the books in the library are already known in some degree of detail ranging from significant features to bare bones topic, so we are preseeding the Lexicon with phantom entries.

It's a lot of changes from the basic model, and none of us have played even a standard Lexicon before, so if anyone with more experience were interested in dropping by and taking a look at what we're coming up with, that would be nifty.

Posted by: Charles at Apr 1, 2005 7:00:31 AM

This is nothing new. They guys at gamegrene have been doing this for awhile: http://gamegrene.com/wiki/Main_Page Even pretty much the same rules. You sure you came up with this idea??

Posted by: Eric Vitiello at Apr 21, 2005 12:42:37 PM

Golly, Eric, considering that page cites this page as its insipration, maybe this page did come first.

Posted by: Casuistry at Apr 21, 2005 2:47:10 PM

Yeah, plus the first edit on his wiki dates to August 6th, 2004, which is some time after the November 20, 2003 date on this page.

No harm, no foul: this just got linked on Metafilter, so I can see why Eric would think this is a new page. I appreciate the Metafilter poster taking the time to track down the original source, assuming he or she got the Gamegrene link from Boing Boing.

And thanks for dropping by, MeFites!

Posted by: Bryant at Apr 21, 2005 7:21:10 PM

I like that page. Of the 8 completed lexicons I'm responsible for 4.

Posted by: Jere at Apr 22, 2005 10:00:43 PM

New Lexicon: http://www.livejournal.com/users/jeregenest/

Posted by: Jere at Jun 3, 2005 1:25:16 PM

Oh my God. This is fantastic.

Clearly, I've been out of touch with your writings lately, Neel. Just as clearly, I need to remedy that.

Posted by: Eric Burns at Jun 6, 2005 10:34:39 PM

The Ocean of Stories Wiki seems to have fallen off the Web. Does anyone know where it went? I really enjoyed reading the Lexicon of the Lost 500 years. Has it been saved?


Posted by: Malcolm Ryan at Sep 15, 2005 9:12:48 PM

We have finished our first lexicon and we are going to start a new one. Both games are in Italian and can be found at http://www.bucanieri.net/

For the first one I chose to play only 8 turns, using letter groups, on a weekly basis... mostly because it was going to be a test. Everyone wrote quite long and well-thought articles and enjoyed the game, so we're using the same basic formula for the next game too.

Posted by: Anderson at Oct 8, 2005 11:56:18 AM

I am anxious to get the Lexicon game as I played it a long time ago. Star

Posted by: Star Dant at Nov 4, 2005 7:22:11 PM

I am anxious to get the Lexicon game as I played it a long time ago. Star

Posted by: Star Dant at Nov 4, 2005 7:23:17 PM

I am looking for my game, LEXICON> , a free game. Star

Posted by: Star Donery at Nov 4, 2005 7:29:28 PM

I am sorry to resurrect a long-moribund thread, but I don't suppose anyone would like to play a game of Lexicon? I've got space for a Wiki to put it in and everything, and none of the gamers I know in Real Life seem interested...

Posted by: Carrie at Jan 13, 2006 12:35:13 PM

hi carrie (& others), I'm about to start a game of post-apocalyptic Lexicon for a campus gaming group, if anyone wants to join in (just waiting for the freshers to settle in and get network access :)

we'll include a reference of any rules tweaks made

I also found via the Google Blogger Websearch extension that there're many many blog posts mentioning new Lexicon games

Posted by: d@vid at Feb 15, 2006 3:44:50 AM

Hey, thanks for the Google blog search tip!

Also, I suggest starting with an 8-round telephone-touchpad lexicon -- the rounds should be ABC, DEF, GHI, etc., like on a telephone touchpad. Those are easier to manage, and more likely to finish.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami at Feb 15, 2006 1:27:06 PM

Do you feel nervous to act a role in our game ? Maybe someone does . My teacher has ever told me that Trust youself and take it easy. Just a piece of cake .

Posted by: notebook at Mar 23, 2006 2:46:04 AM

This is the most intelligible spam I've ever sen.

Posted by: Dev Purkayastha at Mar 23, 2006 8:49:45 AM

The book of Milorad Pavic's is one of my favorites. I think your rpg idea is a really good one, and I will test it as soon as possible.

Regards, Pierre

Posted by: RiP at Mar 29, 2006 4:13:08 PM