"…and he spoke. He spoke a single word. At least, I somehow knew he was speaking but I cannot honestly swear that I heard him speak or tell you what that word was or what it was like, except that the air rang like a bell. It wasn't so much a sound as … as a force. I've been blown up before - or as near as damn it - and that instant of enormous silence when the blast wave takes and lifts you is … something like it was. Something like, but not the same. And in that instant, the whole of the building was gone - not blown away. Not flattened. Just gone…"
In some traditions, there is the understanding that there are words so intrinsic to the fabric of reality that just to speak them unleashes mystical energy of a scale and potency that mere magic cannot hope to emulate. Words that can bend space and time, create and destroy or twist the nature of things into completely different shapes. Such is a word of power.
Naturally, such power is not easily wielded - the nature of such a word means that it cannot be spoken without unleashing its effect, and potentially cannot be written or even called to mind without some consequence. As a result, it is unlikely to be contained within - or even vaguely similar to - any mortal language and is likely to be hard to pronounce properly (or even to learn) for most users … and the results of getting it wrong may be dire indeed. Volume and intonation may shape the precise effects, but it is likely that most mortals will be unable to speak a word of power, let alone shape its effects - even a successful attempt may leave the user temporarily or permanently mute or otherwise crippled and a failed attempt may be even worse, especially if the word is left half spoken. Words of power are the stuff of gods and titans - although maybe not even their everyday speech - and only the greatest mortals should dare to aspire to them.
Such things are particularly important in traditions such as the Judeo-Christian one in which the universe was created by divine speech as opposed to handiwork - much the same would apply to the Australian Aborigine tradition of the world being sung into being. In this case, words of power are the literal words that a deity or other great power spoke to create and by mastering their words and language, their creations can imitate their works. This may also be considered blasphemy and/or hubris … possibly by the powers themselves.
Less potent versions of the same concept might well include languages that echo words of power - these will typically be arcane languages used in magic (especially in the scribing of scrolls if such things exist), serving as a sort of programming language for reality, but may equally be the language(s) of the gods, potent for invoking their aid and other forms of theurgy. Related to these are those languages inherently connected to evil powers, the mere speaking of which can be harmful.
Game and Story Use
- The arcane language could well be an inherent feature of a magic system … and players should be discouraged from having their mage characters hold conversations in it like some fantasy equivalent of Latin.
- Conversely, a character that cannot speak because their voice re-shapes the world is sort of cool, if only as an NPC.
- Likewise a species for whom words of power are part of everyday speech.
- Where a titanomachy exists in your world's history, it might perhaps have been inspired by the titans being only able to speak in words of power and thus being too dangerous to leave alive.
- This would obviously tend to make words of power something that the gods are opposed to - perhaps a dark secret of the remaining titan worshippers and other unholy things.
- Learning a word of power should be a major acheivement in the campaign - as noted above, it should not be easy.
- Using it should also be something not undertaken lightly or without significant cost … if your players are tossing them about, you've probably underpowered them.