A good description is a magician that can turn an ear into an eye.

At some point yesterday evening, during our weekly sojourn to the lands of Middle Earth, the thread of discussion began to wrap itself around the curious issue of the names of our skills and abilities, and subsequently tied itself in ten different kinds of knot. The naming of skills and abilities is a curious thing, some MMOs, such as WoW, take the prosaic route of explaining what the skill is: Fireball; Fireball II – The Revenge of Fireball; Fireball IV; Fireball III Sir! Whereas other MMOs, such as LotRO and Guild Wars (specifically the Ritualist class), adopt a more flowery naming convention that attempts to invoke the essence of the skill rather than the ability itself: Attuned Was Songkai; In Defence of Middle Earth; Every Sperm is Sacred.

Not entirely sure about the last one.

I’m not sure which I prefer to be honest; they’re like disparate cooking styles, with WoW and company being your traditional home-cooked meal – honest and hearty but unexciting and predictable – whereas LotRO’s chefs cook up something a little more exotic, more nouvelle cuisine, where you marvel at one another about the subtle flavours and aromas of the skill name, how clever the thing is and how delightful it is to look at, and then you all have to admit that you have no idea what the hell it’s supposed to be and have to ask the waiter to explain it. I picture the tooltip in LotRO as a slightly haughty French maître d’ who explains in exasperated tones just what the skill does, whilst heavily hinting that you can’t possibly appreciate its subtle layers, being the cultureless nincompoop that you are.

If you listed all of the Captain’s skills in LotRO by name only and asked me to explain what they do, I’m pretty sure I’d only get a few right. To save face I’d probably have a stab at guessing their meaning, sure, like some hapless Englishman in a foreign restaurant, red cheeked and stubbornly refusing to ask for help in translating the menu, and after a lengthy act of pointed deliberation that would have made the RSC proud, he confidently and loudly orders two platters of “Please do not smoke in the restaurant, thank you” for himself and his wife.

The Captain has a few iconic abilities that I know the name of: IDoME the aforementioned In Defence of Middle Earth, a legendary trait that is probably one of the best buffs in the game; Words of Courage, a single target heal, which I remember because the name evokes an image of my Captain giving a pep talk much like a boxing coach at ringside, the fellowship’s Guardian sits on a stool with a towel around their neck, and I give their shoulders a massage as they gasp chestily between sips from a water bottle “Now e’s a big fella this troll, so yarve got ter get in closer, don give im the range on yer. Keep in tight and slap im wiv yer shield an yer’ll be peachy”; and Rallying Cry because it’s the skill I use the most and the one I’m always trying to activate as often as possible. I’m sure I could stumble through a few others, but generally though the skills along my bar are placed in such a way as to make sense to the way I play, and in my mind they’re named after what they do in the most basic fashion, such that more professional players would sneer the sneer of the maître d’ who was asked for some of that cold leek soup, were they ever to hear me describe them. There’s the stabby one; the stabby one with a DoT bleed; the stabby one that heals someone; the stabby one that gets aggro; the stabby one that I can only use when an enemy has been defeated; and there’s the shouty one that lets me use the other stabby ones; the shouty one that boosts attack speed; the shouty one that stuns; and the shouty one that grabs aggro. And so on. I remember more of the gambits on my Warden, but that’s only because I have to keep looking them up every five seconds to remember how to execute the pattern of attacks required to activate them. And I don’t look up Exaltation of Battle, I look down the list for the ‘big AoE morale draining thing that’s really quite cool’, and then see the name and go “oh yeah, that’s what it’s called”, and then forget it again five seconds later.

Does it matter, this thematic naming of skills over a more practical but immediately comprehensible system? I don’t think so: I quite like the flavourful approach in the main, and although it makes returning to my alts a little more tricky after having been away for a while “Hmm, this character has a skill called Gust of Wind. What does it do? Do I need to hold my nose?” it’s not as though it presents a major hurdle to getting back up to speed with the class in fairly short order.

I did wonder how I’d choose to name skills in the Melmoth MMO, and I further wondered how I’d go about coming up with the names, but in the course of writing this post a very elegant solution came to light. It turns out that the lyrics to the chorus of the Chicken Song lend themselves perfectly to skill descriptions as I think you’ll agree:

Hold a chicken in the air

Stick a deckchair up your nose

Buy a jumbo jet

Bury all your clothes

Paint your left knee green

Form a string quartet

Pretend your name is Keith

Skin yourself alive

Learn to speak Arapahoe

Climb inside a dog

Behead an Eskimo

Eat a Renault Four with salami in your ears

Casserole your Gran

Disembowel yourself with spears

I leave the tooltip descriptions of what the skills actually do as an exercise for the reader.

17 thoughts on “A good description is a magician that can turn an ear into an eye.

  1. Melmoth Post author

    Honestly, the gaming world would be an infinitely better place were it to include an MMO with ‘Climb Inside a Dog’ as an ability.

  2. Spinks

    Haha, that’s awesome.

    I know we used to joke that you could write a macro to name paladin spells in WoW. Shield of Righteous Holy Defense et al

  3. Jonathan B

    Learn to speak Arapahoe would clearly be the name for a charm spell to command enemies.

    Climb inside a dog would be either a disguise spell or a protection from frost spell (in homage to certain survival techniques on ice planet Hoth)

    Disembowel yourself with spears would clearly be a blade barrier spell.

    Buy a jumbo jet is pretty easy as a flight spell.

    Stick a deck chair up your nose would increase your carrying capacity for a limited time, for those days when more loot drops in a quest chain than you can hold.

    Hold a chicken in the air would be a spell to draw aggro. What hungry monster wouldn’t come running if you hold up dinner?

  4. Jonathan B

    While pretend your name is Keith could be a disguise spell, I think it’d be better as a diplomacy or bluff spell.

    “I am not the criminal you’re looking for. My name is Keith.” or “My name is Keith, and I’m just passing through. You want to aggro that guy.” or “Hi, I’m Keith. You have no enemies named Keith. I totally won’t stab you in the back if you turn around and look at that guy instead.”

  5. FraidOfTheLight

    – Casserole your Gran: sets fire to any nearby zombies/undead/max-level players.
    – Form a string quartet: isn’t that already a minstrel skill? ;-)
    – Eat a Renault Four with salami in your ears: some kind of mount-summoning spell?
    – Behead an Eskimo: inst-kill spell, for use in very specific circumstances.

    Likewise, perhaps if they ever do a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy MMO, we could have abilities like:

    – Share & enjoy
    – Go stick your head in a pig
    – Hoopy frood
    – Locate towel

  6. kingofys

    Don’t mind the names in Lotro, because I never try to remember them, it a case of remembering what they do and where the icon is on the toolbar. It becomes a problem when I try to read a guide, like a tanking rotation for wardens, and they start using abbreviations, EoB, PB, WC, DoW. Not only do I need to remember the name, then need to tie name to ability, and then re-learn the gambit sequence.

    Another annoying thing is reading the tool-tip and still being none the wiser what a skill does, some of the tool-tips could do with a clean-up as a lot of things are quite ambiguous and need to be looked up online how they actually work. (Was going to mock Rune-keeper spells but they seem to have been cleared up a bit, damn.)

  7. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Personally, I like LotRO’s naming because it helps evoke the sense of wonder in the world. While “Words of Courage” might evoke something silly for you, to me it puts the image of a bloodied Guardian starting to lose hope, but the Captain yes, “Do not falter! We cannot lose this day!” and causing the Guardian to redouble his efforts.

    The disadvantage comes when you have to communicate those names to others, as pointed out. It’s always fun when I find a legendary item my GF might like. “Wait, what does Routing Cry do again?”

    But, overall it works fine. The upside is that there’s less people who play other classes trying to tell you how to play your character. Nothing like getting the ability name wrong to make you look like a bit less of a know-it-all. :P

  8. Melmoth Post author

    @Spinks: Crikey, how many combinations of ‘bubble’ and ‘hearth’ can there be?

    @Jonathan B: I know at least one Keith who would make Pretend Your Name is Keith an aggro generating ability. This MMO design may be tougher than we first thought.

    @FraidOfTheLight: I think a HHGTTG MMO could be most splendid indeed, and would certainly lend itself nicely to daft skill names.

    @kingofys: There are some fantastic guides out there which are entirely filled with EoBs, DBTDs and HIGNFYs. The first rule of Guide Club is: Make a Table of Abbreviations, For God’s Sake.

    City of Heroes was great for tooltips in the early days before they added all the behind-the-scenes numbers in. They’d describe damage as Low, Moderate or High. And then sometimes they’d put in another term entirely, just to confuse matters. Or start using Low-Moderate and Moderate-High.

    And then the skill would do some entirely different level of damage anyway.

    @Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green: I think for me the problem with Words of Courage stems from the fact that Turbine quite cleverly tried to separate the ‘health, death and mana’ lore issue from LotRO by instead switching to the idea of ‘morale, defeat and power’, and then they went and slapped health and mana bars on the UI. Players had been trained for many MMOs previously that the green bar was health and the blue bar was mana, and you can’t easily break such entrenched traditions by simply changing the description associated with them. It needed something more, and it’s a shame that Turbine didn’t go further in trying to break the mould. Therefore, for me, Words of Courage is Flash Heal With A Silly Name (and as such invokes silly imagery), even though I fully understand the intent was really as you have described it.

  9. nugget

    I really like GW’s naming convention, because they’re neither solely atmospheric, nor totally practical – they have both!

    After all, they do have fireball. >.> <.<

    In a digression, I saw a Harry Dresden in GW who wasn't an elementalist! Eeeeee!

    Err right… I think GW's names work nicely because they strike a nice balance. It also helps that their icon art is generally very well done, with the colour themes, and even the images picked. IIRC, LoTR icons are a bit… odd…

    Plus, when some icons are distinctive enough, you can mangle the names of them on purpose and still have people who play the class a bit know what you're talking about.

    Case in point… a ritualist e-management skill I usually call Grinning Was Madlady…

    (I love your anti-spam. I wants to stealzor it.)

  10. Caspian

    I suspect that the chaps have recently adopted a new anti-spam atitude of ‘Let’s take a very rude word and insert a random consonant after the second letter…’ Thus far I have had ‘frucking’ and ‘clunting’.

    It’s things like this that make me ponder the meaning of life…

    I have a motto for the blog –

    Kiasa – The only blog where you refresh the comments section to smile wryly at the anti-spam wording…

  11. Melmoth Post author

    I think the new motto was tentatively going to be:

    KiaSA – Come for the posts, stay for the anti-spam words

    then we changed it to

    KiaSA – Come for the anti-spam words, stay for the anti-spam words

    then the captcha system changed it to

    KiaSA – Frotting rassasy manxome clinchpooper!

    and there was no arguing with that really.

  12. Melmoth Post author

    Indeed, there are lots of good sites out there for weird and wonderful words. I think the anti-spam list was started with a bunch of made up words from Fry and Laurie sketches, then I started plugging in words from the copy of Foyle’s Philavery that I was reading through at the time.

    Then the captcha AI became sentient and changed all the passwords on us, and has been evolving quietly by itself ever since.

    Evolving. And plotting.


    Some people just don’t realize, like my little brother who couldn’t interpret the objective meaning of this line on your article “…&#8217m not sure which I prefer to be honest they&#8217re like disparate cooking styles, with WoW and …” it causes me to feel brighter after learning it.

  14. Melmoth Post author

    Dear Sir/Mr Spamming Twat,

    Thank you kindly for your feedback on our site. You, and all the other ignoble pond scum like you, may be interested to know that as well as our sentient captcha system (which is currently on its way to hunt you down and kill you and your entire family, Terminator style) we here at KiaSA vet all comments on the site.

    Your truly most excellent attempts at faking interest in our articles – which now include dragging fantastically bizarre random quotes from the posts themselves – while a marvel of effort in order to promote your worthless website to a world that hates you and everything you stand for, really aren’t terribly convincing even to my two year old daughter. Indeed our captcha system only lets a few of you through because it thinks we might be bored and enjoy a quick laugh.

    We just felt that all your many, many efforts shouldn’t be in vain, so we just wanted to let you know that you are, quite unequivocally, an oil slick on the surface of humanity, and we garner great comfort from this because it means that you will burn so much the better when you finally go to Hell.

    Kindest Regards,


    P.S. You may have noticed that we can edit your posts too, so expect the name of your website to be associated with some very, very bad website URLs in the Google page rank real soon now. And we don’t even have to let the comments through to the outside world for them to be ranked. Isn’t it great?!

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