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In my new campaign, I have an NPC who I would like to have the personality trait of being extremely and unexpectedly vulgar. However I also have a few players who prefer not to use to hear profanity on a regular basis.

How can I portray a vulgar or crass personality while refraining from actually using profanity at the gaming table?


My current plan is to use something like a Shakespeare insult generator or similar to create rude but clean language insults. However I often find these (or similar non-Shakespearean) generators to be hard to include in normal dialogue while playing the character. I find that they break the flow of conversation or simply don't quite suit the scene and make the character sound foolish rather than crude.

I'm looking for how to properly roleplay vulgar language on the fly without constantly referring to lists of 'clean' insults.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Folks, please remember this is not a brain-storming site. We're not looking for stuff that might work. We're looking for things people have done or have witnessed, in either a gaming or a very near-to-gaming situation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Jan 25 at 18:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PardonMyKlingon \$\endgroup\$
    – yesennes
    Jan 26 at 16:44

8 Answers 8

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It takes some discipline, but develop and use fake profanity, specific to the setting. You have an advantage here, as the GM (which I infer, since this is about an NPC, not a PC) because it is perfectly within your purview to simply say, "These phrases are mild blasphemies, these ones are mid-range vulgarities, and this one here is fightin' words." Your other NPCs can react appropriately, too.

An excellent written example of this is in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" where, expressions like "blood and ashes!" or "bloody flaming ashes!" are understood to be at least mid-level adult vulgarities in the setting-- used by one character in particular, to the vast disapproval of several others.

But it works in games, too: In in Amber game I'm in, a Rebman character has a fairly extensive catalog of fishy metaphors as vulgarities. They're not vulgar in English, and probably not in Amber, but they are in Rebma, by my understanding.

It should be pretty easy to adapt this to a typical game setting.

As an afterthought, this might be an example of what you mean by a list of "clean insults." If so, I will add only that in my experience, the list doesn't need to be that long, if it's evocative.

Possibly worth noting that I take a different approach with my character in the same game: He is also known to be able to strip paint and turn the air blue, but rather than using my own extensive talents in that direction, I'll often just describe him as saying something presumptively foul in his native, non-Thari language. If NPCs or PCs who understand the language are in the same scene, they'll sometimes react appropriately, if they are easily offended.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for setting specific language. Not only will this avoid actual vulgarity, it will make the world feel more alive and immersive \$\endgroup\$ Jan 25 at 11:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've actually met people from the UK who consider "bloody" remarkably offensive, so do calibrate your choice of less-offensive substitutes. \$\endgroup\$
    – CCTO
    Jan 25 at 19:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ For Forgotten Realms specific curses see Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster's Forgotten Realms which dedicates pages 12-18 to the topic. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 25 at 19:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mother's milk in a cup, that's a good answer... \$\endgroup\$
    – railsdog
    Jan 26 at 7:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CCTO LOL ...you've not met enough people from the UK me thinks. ...but just in case "ruddy" is a good alternative ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jan 26 at 23:07
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A common approach that works in many situations is to use 3rd person narration. Rather than engaging directly in dialogue you can simply state "Throg the sailor then throws around a dozen insults and says something unflattering about the bartender's mother". I have found that many players find this more kind of 3rd person engagement to be more comfortable in general, so it may help you to distance yourself and abstract a bit of the vulgarity.

The second approach I can recommend is not to default to profanity to express vulgarity. If you are set on portraying the character as someone who simply swears enough, fine, but you may find that showing them as crude, unrefined, and tasteless might be better. Having them grunt, say things like "huh?", pick their nose visibly, and just talk in a general rude manor without actually using profanity. You don't need to use profanity at all to get across this kind of attitude.

For inspiration, think of vulgar/crude characters in children's shows such as Shrek. He yells, farts, burps, he's insensitive, he wears an unsophisticated outfit and eats rats. By all accounts he's vulgar but I'm fairly sure he doesn't swear.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As an aside, kids shows are so good for general game inspo. Adult shows are often so obsessed with being adult. I'd rather play in Shrek's world than Game of Thrones - did the excessive violence do GoT any favours? That's just me though. \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Jan 25 at 9:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Pff, Shrek is perfect & the pinnacle of male physique, you're just jealous. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 25 at 13:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another great example is Captain Haddock from Tintin. Hervé wanted a colorful vocabulary for a sailor, but couldn't use profanity because Tintin was read by children. He decided to use strange/esoteric words as curse words, like "ectoplasm", "bashi-basouk" or "visigoth." \$\endgroup\$
    – Furlevent
    Jan 25 at 16:22
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Consider minced oaths.

I concur with other answers that recommend making up setting-specific curses. Doing so will achieve your objective (i.e., in-world vulgarity without real-world profanity) while also making the world feel lived-in. I routinely do this as both player and DM. It takes a bit of forethought to decide what the people of your setting would consider obscene or blasphemous, but once you've laid that groundwork, the act of spitting your made-up curses should require minimal effort in real-time.

To that end, there is an additional measure you might consider: minced oaths.

The history of English includes numerous real-world made-up curses. If you've read or watched historical British fiction, you might have encountered some of them: Zounds! Strewth! Gadzooks! These are words that real-world people made up to fig-leaf their exclamations of what were, for the time, blasphemies under Christian doctrine. For example, "Gadzooks" was a chopped-up (hence minced) contraction of "By God's Hooks" -- an act of swearing an oath upon the nails in the Christian cross. If you lived in a time when blaspheming in front of a priest could get you subjected to corporal punishment, you'd have a strong incentive to make sure the worst words don't slip out in a heated moment.

Those old-fashioned-sounding minced oaths are hardly the only ones English has retained. Modern English is full of them. We've long used "gosh" or "golly" instead of "god," and "heck" instead of "hell." British English developed the slang "bloody" in place of "By Our Lady" (another Christian reference). Even the modern social-media use of "af" for "as f---" is a kind of minced oath.

The point being, not everyone inclined to curse reaches for the worst paint-stripping words available every time. Some will try to exercise restraint. If you pepper your setting with less vulgar versions of curses, it'll give the full-fat versions of those curses much greater dramatic impact when someone finally drops your in-world equivalent of an "f-bomb."

Examples

Commenters have requested examples. I didn't think to provide any because the context necessary to understand any particular example is somewhat involved. It's sort of a "you had to be there" thing. Plus, it might be beyond the scope of the question, which, after all, does not specify a setting. But here goes.

In a Forgotten Realms Descent into Avernus campaign a couple years ago, I played a paladin of Torm, a real Captain America type. Torm is a Faerûnian deity of duty, loyalty, and sacrifice. I imagined that Torm's most devout might be so committed to their service that romantic relationships and marriage, while not forbidden, would be a practical impossibility. From there I imagined that "wedded to Torm" might be delicate way of saying so, along the lines of "married to the job." Conversely, exclaiming "Torm's wife!" could be deeply sacrilegious -- it's heresy to say Torm ever took a spouse when dogma doesn't say so, and it implies Torm himself might shirk his divine duties for the sake of personal love. Unthinkable!

Naturally, my uptight paladin wouldn't condone blasphemy, so whenever he felt the urge to curse in disbelief, he'd start with "Torm..." and then bite it back, turning it into "torment and strife!" Until, that is, he found out that the campaign would be taking him literally into the mouth of hell, and the full "Torm's wife!" finally tumbled out.

I've also used the curses naeth and naed from Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster's Forgotten Realms (p. 16) this way in Realms games. Naed is "a stronger form of 'naeth'" -- so it's easy to treat them as English speakers might use "crud" and "shit," one being more acceptable in polite company.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sooo... Bloody Heck is By our lady Hell? How scandalous! \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jan 25 at 21:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this in your campaigns or in campaigns you've been in? It'd be nice to hear some actual examples from lived experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jan 26 at 23:10
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An easy approach is to make up profane words. It's a popular workaround in TV shows to let them stay network TV friendly (Examples include "frell" in Farscape, "frak" in Battlestar Galactica, "gorram" in Firefly, "smeg" in Red Dwarf).

Depending on your player's sensibilities, another TV friendly workaround is to use foreign languages/idioms if the only offensive article is (American?) English. The nice thing about using idioms is it sounds like a string of insults when done properly.

(As a note, there are a few words I don't say as a personal limit, so I use workarounds all the time)

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Based on the understanding that you want your NPC to be seen as coarse, rude, and unsophisticated as opposed to just swearing a lot, I invite you to observe the axiom "actions speak louder than words".

Now, this is fairly context-dependent, but just think about actions that you would deem not acceptable in polite society (if the context is an orcish camp, then I assume they have a different idea of "acceptable" behaviour).

You're sitting in a bar, enjoying a quiet drink and the general ambience of the place, when in staggers a filthy, smelly fellow, who proceeds to make his way to the bar, bumping into multiple tables along the way and spilling the drinks of numerous patrons without so much as an apology. He then yells across the length of the bar to get the barmaid's attention, belches loudly, sticks his hand down the front of his leggings to scratch himself, neglecting to do them back up properly afterwards, then uses the same hand to pass a copper coin to the horrified barmaid for his drink (black curly hairs included).

Over the course of the next hour, he proceeds to pass wind from every available orifice, attempt to excavate lord only knows what from his nasal cavity, noisily slurp at his drink (spilling about half of it down himself), loudly comment on everything going on around him, and then, when the drink has finally found its way through his system, urinates against the bar without moving from where he's standing.

Now, this person doesn't even have to be drunk, although many of the actions above are normally associated with those who've partaken a little too heavily in the local ale, it's merely someone who has little understanding of, or cares not for, the generally accepted niceties of more civilised folk with nary a swear word being uttered.

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I don't know how helpful this will be, but I am forever reminder of Terry Pratchett's approach with the character of Mr. Tulip from The Truth, whose dialogue was heavily peppered with the exclamation '—ing'. As in, a glottal stop, followed by the word.

Mr. Tulip: It's not a ——ing harpsichord, it's a ——ing virginal! One ——ing string to a note instead of two! So called because it was an instrument for ——ing young ladies!

And also quite a few interesting -- and grim -- thoughts.

Mr. Tulip: An' then...then I'm gonna get medieval on his arse.

Mr. Pin: How, exactly?

Mr. Tulip: I thought maybe a maypole. An' then a display of country dancing, land tillage under the three-field system, several plagues, and, if my hand ain't too tired, the invention of the —ing horse collar.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sir PTerry must have encountered a former colleague of mine, who was told to tone it down. The volume stayed the same so he was just as much of a 'king disruptive little sh-ugar as before \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris H
    Jan 25 at 16:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can pronounce these dashes 'dash' and it sounds an awful dashing lot like its own dashed profanity. \$\endgroup\$
    – order
    Jan 26 at 15:11
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In the past, I have GMmed in a few rounds and portrayed several quite rude characters during such. In general, I used two tricks up my sleeve:

I put the expletives into indirect speech and condensed them. This means to phrase the sentence differently to accommodate such. A typical example would be:

The bartender mutters a few expletives about the integrity of the cowboy's mother as he throws him out.

The other case is best exemplified with , where there are several in-universe made-up words that are replacements for swearwords. The most common is "Dreck" (incidentally: german for dirt) which replaces most explicit curse words, especially any sentence that contains the F-word can be condensed into a single word:

Dreck! 1

I dreckin' hate this job!

Of course, there are other in-universe curse-replacements in other games too, especially in the shape of euphemisms for groups:

  • the clans all have derogatives they are referred to by others behind their backs at times: The Brujah are known as Rabble, the Malkavians as Lunatics, and the Nosferatu as Sewer Rats.
  • in , each caste has a correct name and a derogative that was coined by the Immaculate Order: Dawn Caste is called The Forsaken, a Zenith is Blasphemous and so on.

1 - This can be anything from just "Damned!"/"F..."/[excrement] to "F... the f...ing F...ers

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 ...at last, an answer with actual lived experience. Also, it pretty much sums up the entirety of the most other answers too. If I were the person who asked the question, I would tick this one as the answer. Thanks :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jan 26 at 23:16
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'Feck' notably lacks the sexual connotations that "f-ck" has but can otherwise be used to replace "f-ck" in any other way—this includes terms such as "fecking", "fecked", "feck off", etc.

A poster for Magners cider that featured the words 'Feck off bees' has been cleared by the UK's advertising watchdog. The word 'feck' is unlikely to be seen as a swearword, said the Advertising Standards Authority.

Magners argued that the term 'feck' had been in usage since the 1800s and, in Ireland, the term was used in informal, everyday colloquial conversation with different meanings. It said it could be used to mean 'to steal', 'to throw' or 'to leave hastily'. The ASA noted Magners' comments about the use of the word 'feck' in Ireland and allowed it.

I have personally used Feck in all sorts of situations where profanity rules were in place. I even had a character on World of Warcraft called 'Feck'. Several players found it very funny that it was allowed - others believed that it should be disallowed. I felt that Blizzard was correct in allowing it.

I have also used this for various characters both D&D/RPG PC and NPC - The general effect has been very positive, although there has been the occasional gasp (from younger) and even a frown (from elder) players. The general deal with all this sort of thing though it to gain consent beforehand, without necessarily giving the game away. – It can also wear thin if the only 'cool' thing about the character is profanity. I found that depth of character is always better than a single quirk.

Anyhow, I find 'Feck' frickin' awesome and would be fecking annoyed if it were filtered out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good point! I personally would feel uncomfortable saying that in a game, but it makes perfect sense. I think this could be improved a little by removing some of the evidence (maybe paragraphs 4-6?) and adding some explanation at the end of how it would work well in-game. As-is it feels sort of like it's a slightly long-winded explanation of why it's not wrong to say feck. \$\endgroup\$
    – Phoenices
    Jan 25 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like an efecktive workaround. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 26 at 13:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Father Ted, the TV show, made extensive use of 'feck' and variations. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric Nolan
    Jan 26 at 23:29

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