Iambs and Dactyls: Exalted Charm Nomenclature

I’ve been working up a bunch of custom Solar Charms (the magical talents possessed by the default protagonists of Onyx Path’s Exalted roleplaying game) to get a feel for the inner workings of the upcoming third edition’s ruleset. Designing new Charms is always tricky, but the most delicate part of the process remains unchanged from earlier editions: It’s hard to find just the right name. (I follow Mark Twain’s adage that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.)

While Charms traditionally follow naming conventions that involve flowery language and sesquipedalianism, it’s rhythm and cadence that really makes them sing. Fortunately, I studied poetry in college. (Cue the jokes about finding a job with a poetry degree.)

The English poetic tradition of accentual-syllabic verse breaks down the meter (structure) of each line of a poem into segments called feet. These are differentiated by where the stress falls on each syllable. Here’s a summary of commonly referenced feet:

Amphibrach: unstressed- STRESSED – unstressed

Anapest: unstressed – unstressed- STRESSED

Cretic: STRESSED – unstressed – STRESSED

Dactyl: STRESSED – unstressed – unstressed

Iamb: unstressed- STRESSED

Spondee: STRESSED – STRESSED

Trochee: STRESSED – unstressed

Pyrrhic: unstressed – unstressed

(Sometimes breaking down a line gets you a lone syllable. This is interpreted as an incomplete foot.)

Here we find the source of iambic pentameter—which many people have only heard of in reference to Shakespeare—referring to verse in which a typical line is composed of five iambs. The various metrical feet make most sense in this context, where they’re used to indicate where a line’s cadence varies from the standard. They’re less useful when looking at lines in isolation; each reader may scan the line differently, or indeed the same reader on different read-throughs. Nonetheless, I’m going to use them to analyze some 1e Exalted Charm names, because why not?

Let’s start at the beginning with:

SOLAR ARCHERY

wise ARrow: Amphibrach.

SIGHT / without EYES: Half-iamb / anapest.

ACcur/racy / without / DISTance: Trochee / pyrrhic / pyrrhic / trochee.

there IS / no WIND: Iamb / iamb.

TRANCE of / unHES/iTA/ting SPEED: Trochee / iamb / iamb / iamb.

ARrow STORM / techNIQUE: Cretic / iamb.

FIery / ARrow / atTACK: Dactyl / trochee / iamb.

DAZZling FLARE / atTACK: Cretic / iamb.

PHANtom / ARrow / techNIQUE: Trochee / trochee / iamb.

SOlar / SPIKE: Trochee / half-trochee.

imMAC/ulate / GOLden / BOW: Iamb / pyrrhic / trochee / half-trochee.

RAIN of / FEAthered / DEATH: Trochee / trochee / half-trochee.

So far, setting aside some short-and-clunky Charm names like Wise Arrow (as amphibrachic as any limerick—”There once was / an archer / from Whitewall”), we’re seeing largely iambic lines with a few divergences, those largely being trochees or incomplete feet at beginning or end.

Let’s continue:

SOLAR BRAWL

feRO / cious JAB: Iamb / iamb.

FISTS of / IRon / techNIQUE: Trochee / trochee / iamb.

OX-/stunning BLOW: Half-iamb / anapest.

DRAgon / coil / techNIQUE: Trochee / pyrrhic / iamb.

THUNder/clap RUSH / atTACK: Trochee / iamb / iamb.

HAMmer on / IRon / techNIQUE: Dactyl / trochee / iamb.

SLEDGEhammer / FIST PUNCH: Dactyl / spondee.

CRASHing / WAVE THROW: Trochee / spondee.

HEAven / THUNder / HAMmer: Trochee / trochee / trochee.

SHOCKwave / techNIQUE: Trochee / iamb.

The cadences here are similar in many ways to archery, with early trochees and closing iambs. But there are more trochees overall, and we get our first look at the spondee, a forceful, heavy-hitting foot that’s well-suited to Brawl. There are a lot of strong, thudding stressed syllables here, like the plodding Heaven Thunder Hammer. None of these Charms have more than three metrical feet.

Let’s try another Ability:

SOLAR MARTIAL ARTS (SNAKE STYLE)

STRIking / CObra / techNIQUE: Trochee / trochee / iamb.

SERpentine / eVAsion: Dactyl / amphibrach.

SNAKE FORM: Spondee.

ESSsence / FANGS and / SCALES tech/NIQUE: Trochee / trochee / trochee / half-trochee.

ARmor-/pene/trating / FANG STRIKE: Trochee / pyrrhic / pyrrhic / spondee.

SNAKE / strikes the HEEL: Half-iamb / anapest.

CRIPpling / PRESsure-/point STRIKE: Trochee / trochee / iamb.

unCOILing / SERpent / PRAna: Amphibrach / trochee / trochee.

STRIking / SERpent / SPEED: Trochee / trochee / half-trochee.

ESSence / VENom / STRIKE: Trochee / trochee / half-trochee.

Setting aside Snake Form (as its name, and thus cadence, is predetermined by the martial arts Charm format), we see even more trochees, whose top-heavy gait delivers a sense of snakelike speed.

Hm. So how useful has this exercise been? I’m not sure. It certainly suggests that onomatopoeia has a long-standing place in Charm naming practices. (Witness the pause-and-lunge pacing of Armor-Penetrating Fang Strike.) One can also discern some overall patterns. For instance, out of 32 Charms, 27 start with a stressed syllable and 26 end with a stressed syllable. Two Charms have a single foot, 12 have two feet, 13 have three feet, and 5 have four feet.

Still, there’s something to be said for taking the time to look at lots of canonical Charm names, roll them around in your mouth, and determine which ones sound and feel right. It’s a good way to get your brain on the right wavelength to come up with new high-quality names for homebrewed Charms! I’ll probably do this again sometime—perhaps when I’m out of other ideas for stuff to blog about.

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