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These two questions use the phrase "game term":

Both answers seem to make a distinction between game terms and regular English, but what exactly does it mean for a word or phrase to be a "game term"?

I will admit, when I first read the question in the first bullet above, I thought to myself "of course it's a game term, it's a term, and the rules of the game use it", but apprently, that is not correct.

To be clear, I am not asking "what do you think this means?" This is a question about hobby lingo that can be answered with experience as an RPG hobbyist. Here are some similar questions asking about hobby lingo: What exactly is a "murder hobo"?, What is "my guy syndrome" and how do I handle it?, What is 'punk'?, What is the Oberoni Fallacy?


Note, there are many other examples of Q&As (about games other than D&D 5e) that make this distinction, see these search results for more.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The comment thread about the topicality of this question has been moved to chat. Please review it regarding close votes and feel free to use it for any further concerns. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jan 12 at 19:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt Well, when my DM insists that a word or phrase is a "game term" as an explanation for a ruling, it is helpful to know what that means so I can properly understand the basis for their ruling. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 17 at 21:39
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A "Game Term" is any word/phrase that is given an explicitly different definition from its standard usage by the game.

If a term does not have an explicitly given definition, then it is not a Game Term, and should use its standard English definition. To use a 5e example: the Stunned condition.

In standard English:

Stunned

/stənd/

adjective

so shocked that one is temporarily unable to react; astonished.

While the 5e PHB has this to say instead

Stunned

A stunned creature is incapacitated (see the condition), can’t move, and can speak only falteringly.

The creature automatically fails Strength and Dexterity Saving Throws.

Attack Rolls against the creature have advantage.

Notably, the effects of the Stunned condition are closely related to what one might imagine would happen to someone were the standard definition to be applied, but it outlines exactly how that functions in game.


Contrast your example of "a special melee attack"

The full text of this passage is

Grapple

When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it, you can use the Attack action to make a special melee attack, a grapple.

This is being used to describe a game term, rather than existing as one of its own. It's being used to denote that a Grapple is a melee attack (both "melee" and "attack" being game terms), and that the grapple is a variant of that already-defined term.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This would be a stronger answer with a more accurate first definition of “stunned”. Though the social meaning is common, it’s a metaphorical use based on the more direct meaning of “stunned”: “to make senseless, groggy, or dizzy by or as if by a blow”. That is the meaning the condition is based on. You still have the distinction you’re making, since the game term defines it differently and more specifically, but it’s the more relevant English meaning and avoids seeming to stretch to support the point. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 21 at 16:02
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A "Game Term" is a term with a mechanical definition attached

...For whatever "mechanical" means in that game system; this will be quite different between rules-heavy and rules-precise D&D 5e (or any e) vs rules-light Everyway.

But this carries two common implications that aren't really spelled out very often:

  1. There is probably a list (even if the list has only only one element) of defined properties or mechanical effects. This answer gives an excellent example by listing all the effects of the 'stunned' condition.

  2. It is probably possible to derive a defined list of all the things covered under that term. This question referenced above about allies is very explicit in asking not only "What does 'ally' mean"? but also "How can I get a list of allies for each combatant?" (Paraphrased, both times.) Likewise, this question, although a little less overt, is still looking for both a definition of "special melee attack" but also for other examples of the same, i.e., a list, even if not a complete list.

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A "game term" in refers to a term used in the rules-engine part of the game, and takes on specific meaning as part of the resolution of rules. This as opposed to the "regular English" meaning of the word, which is just what you get in a dictionary and is used in the fiction part of the game.

Sometimes the two mean completely different things. This usually doesn't cause any issues, but for example 'Move' means very different things in plain English (where it refers to someone changing their location) and a Powered by the Apocalypse game (where it defines an in-fiction trigger and the consequences that happen when triggered).

In the above case, "Move" as a game term is very different from "Move" as an English term, and asking about Apocalypse World "Which move lets me escape a fight?" cannot be answered just by looking in a dictionary.

However often the "game term" and "dictionary term" are a lot closer and it can get confusing. For example, Dungeons and Dragons 5e has a game term called 'Proficiency', which has a meaning pretty close to the normal English word (being good at something)

This can sometimes create confusing situations. Imagine a D&D character who has very high Strength, but no formal training with swords. The player might describe the character as "proficient with a blade" simply because they get a comparable attack bonus to a trained soldier, and that wouldn't be wrong based on the english meaning of the word. But if the DM then asks "But are you actually Proficient with that weapon?" the answer switches from normal English ("I'm proficient with this weapon; I can hit as easily as a soldier can") to a game term answer ("No, I'm not actually Proficient with my sword.")

Whenever someone explicitly refers to "what does this mean as a game term" it means the question is probably about this difference. Due to the complexity of roleplaying games and the desire to keep books reasonable, sometimes rulebooks will mix up game terms and normal language.

This might lead to question like "what's the difference between what this word normally means, and what it means in this game context?"

An example might be parsing a line like:

"Requires: Strength 16+, Proficiency with a Longsword, being a Knight"

The first one is almost certainly a game term, the second one probably is (and clearly will be read as such in any game that has previously explained that Proficiency is a core rule to the system) but the third one might confuse people.

Is Knight some kind of class you can take levels in? Does it mean you need to be an official member of an order? Are there rules for that? Or is it just a fictional requirement and does your character need to consider themselves a Knight? As soon as two players disagree, you're likely to end up with a question like "Is Knight a game term?", because people want to know if "Being a Knight" is defined as a game rule somewhere, or whether it's just a fictional requirement.

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I believe a ‘Game Term’ to be a term defined differently by the game’s manual or otherwise than the normal definition. Examples of game terms are attacks and moves, conditions, and occasionally classes.

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