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Good fantasy books often have 'custom' swearing, and they help provide a more realistic view of the world the campaign takes place in. For instance, in a book where metals are key to magic, a common curse is "Rust and ruin".

How would you approach the creation of setting-specific curses?

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3 Answers 3

What's important to the setting?

Rude words are rude only because we decide they are. The word and phrases that a society feels are inappropriate say a lot about the people and culture, so you're going to need to start with a solid understanding of the values and beliefs of the society.

Consider what is commonplace in your setting, what's sacred or profane, what's respected and what's reviled. This is where your profanity comes from.

Look at real-life swearing

Rude words are diverse and multifaceted, but fall into some pretty standard categories and patterns. If we get a working understanding of real-life cussing, it becomes pretty easy to create setting-specific vulgarities. I'll try to avoid using much currently-offensive language in this post, though.

Vulgarity and obscenity

"Vulgar" comes from the Latin for "common," and acquired negative connotations of "ordinary." Mentioning gross bodily functions, sexual acts, and private body parts is vulgar, so we use euphemisms to talk about them. Eventually the euphemism becomes widespread enough to be considered as rude as the word or phrase it was created to avoid saying. A new euphemism is born, and the old loses its potency as it falls out of use.

Thus you'll find that seemingly innocuous phrases will, over time, gain and then lose offensive meanings. A clear modern example is the rise and fall over the last half-century of multiple words and phrases for homosexual acts.

Swearing, blasphemy, and profanity

(It's likely that your "Rust and ruin" example falls into this category.)

Swearing, specifically, started out as an oath, the invocation of something sacred. In some countries, swearing to tell the truth with one hand on a sacred text is still common practice in court. "Oh, my God" and "Jesus!" are also common examples of swears: until pretty recently (historically speaking), they were short but reverent prayers asking for aid and support.

Blasphemy is similar, but disrespectful. For a time in Europe, it was common to swear by the symbolically significant body parts of Christ: "God's blood," "God's wounds." Some particularly daring people swore by other parts of Christ, too. It's also blasphemous to casually invite divine retribution if one is not telling the truth: "May God strike me down," "God blind me!"

Because these phrases were blasphemous they got "minced" to hide their original intent, resulting in phrases we're more familiar with, like "zounds" and "blimey." Even "gosh" is a minced oath for "God."

For many people the use of such phrases is now so common that it's intended as neither invocation nor blasphemy anymore. In a fantasy setting like D&D where religion is even more universal than it was in most parts of the historical world, such degradation is unlikely to happen.

Insults

This is too wide a topic to cover, but insults (which often overlap into vulgarity) are very common and sometimes slip into popular usage. Maligning one's parentage, parents, or one's relationship to them is common in most cultures, and often the phrase used to do so becomes a more general form of profanity.

Another form of insult is the pejorative, usually taking the form of a racial or cultural slur. They're often focused on groups that are considered threats: immigrants, ideological or national enemies, and people that need to be "kept in their place." These words are a form of psychological warfare, creating attitudes and patterns of thought in order to retain power. Use them carefully in your games or things can get ugly.

Curses

Wishing ill on the guy who made you mad is a long and proud tradition. Diseases, eternal torment, and the ruin or shame of his family or finances, are all common techniques with thousands of years of practice and creativity to draw on. It's hard to find a more comprehensive example than the Curse of Carlisle.

This also undergoes "mincing," as "Damn you to Hell" gives us "darn" and "heck."

Modern swearing is mild and lacks context

A lot of the "bad words" we use today have lost the significance they once had. Part of this is because our society isn't as homogenous in its religious beliefs: profanity, swearing, and blasphemy are a lot more powerful when everybody thinks they're Serious Business. In a god-riddled fantasy setting, such words and phrases are more serious than they ever were in the real world. In a context like that, "mincing" is probably even more common.

On the other hand, references to bodily functions were once pretty tame, but largely thanks to a widespread era of prudery in the 19th and 20th centuries, we have a societal delicateness about those topics.

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This is a fantastic answer. Though as a pendantic point I'm not sure that things like "May God strike me down, if I am lying" would generally be considered blasphemous. A foolish thing to say perhaps, but I'm not sure it would be blasphemy. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 11 '13 at 16:35
    
@TimothyAWiseman It depends on context. If you actually were lying, and didn't expect divine retribution to strike as a response to your words, that'd say a lot about what you thought of God. –  GMJoe Mar 12 '13 at 5:40
    
@GMJoe Fair point, I hadn't considered it in that context. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 13 '13 at 4:36
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@TimothyAWiseman Also, in many times and places swearing by God or gods in just about any context was considered blasphemy. See the history of the minced oath for some idea of how ancient and widespread this concept is. –  BESW Mar 13 '13 at 5:02

How would you approach the creation of setting-specific curses?

Now when I think of swearing my mind goes to, as Spock put it, "colorful metaphors". This is keenly a product of how I, and my society, seem to use profanity (swearing, cursing). It's a way to express displeasure with another or a situation in general. With that in mind, here are a few things to try.

Swear in another language, a made up language could work better than a real one. If you don't want to makeup your own use one someone else made. There are so many to pick from, here are a few:

Calling someone a vorgken or a guthash sounds cool and you can put some venom behind it, which is what you want to be able to do with curse words. It's about the intent, the emotion you put into it.

Also, look for fun combinations of words. When you really think about the words we string together as a swear they can be really funny. As example, How to Swear Like a Dwarf.

Use monster names as a component. This works really well for fantasy type settings. You can customize this more so by adding new names to old monsters. I once played in a AD&D world in which the DM had regional names for half a dozen common monsters. As example, in one place goblins were called hezie and in another they were molls. It was still goblins, same stats and all, just a regional name.

Substitute those colorful metaphors with your own words. This has worked well for TV shows. Doing so allows the actor to use "foul" language without using foul language. As example, frak and frell or even Firefly's use of Chinese (like) curses, Tyen-ah!

Pick a predominant type of swear. In times past, insults have taken many forms. In some cultures the art of the "put down" was like poetry. It showed off the intellect and quick wit of the of the vocalizer while exposing the short comings of the target. So, are the swears long drawn out affairs or short and to the point verbal kicks? Telling someone they are not as good as a warm cup of devil dog piss is one thing but calling them kobold bile can say the same thing with less breath.

Have fun with it! Dy'lar moe...I have no idea what that means. I just made it up but it sounds cool and I could fling it as a swear word. It will help if you are comfortable with the phrases you pick. Make a small list, you only need 5 to 10. Practice them.

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+1 for that frakin' reference ;) –  Artur Czajka Mar 17 '13 at 14:59

Many campaign settings are either based on existing novels/media (such as Wheel of Time or Star Wars) or have novels written about them later on (such as the Forgotten Realms). In this case, your best bet is to read up on existing media and let established authors do the work for you.

If you're playing in a custom setting, @Zach's comment is a good place to start - using a deity's name (not necessarily the one you worship). As an example, take David Eddings' Belgariad and Malloreon series. The residents of Mallorea, worshippers of the god Torak, tend to say things like "Torak's Nails!" or "By Torak's Beard!" as swear-words and exclamations. If your setting doesn't have deities, go for other prominent figures. "By the King's whiskers!" could be one.

However, if you're still set on D&D-specific swear words, I think feat names like "Staggering Criticals!" could do the trick. :)

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