Something struck me yesterday and now I have a massive two-part post I have to make about it. Here’s the first part.
I’ve been thinking about how setting and tone are conveyed by game texts ever since I started messing with In a Wicked Age. Traditionally, Forge-influenced indie games have conveyed setting and tone through short descriptive passages, since we don’t generally have 100 pages to spend describing setting elements and communicating flavor. The text of Polaris is a great example, where Ben has those elaborate, beautifully written passages at the beginning that explain Utmost North in very mythic tones. You could read those out loud to your playgroup (and you do, in some cases, as ritual passages), and get everyone on the same page. The Mountain Witch takes a somewhat different approach, though, with shorter descriptive pieces and a greater reliance on the players’ background in samurai tropes and tragic narratives. And Dogs in the Vineyard takes yet another approach, using a conversation voice to describe how society functions in frontier towns, more of a social science approach than a mythic one. Still, these are all variations on the same general approach.
In a Wicked Age approaches the communication of setting in an innovative fashion. Like Polaris it uses short phrases written by the author of the game, which the text tells players to directly incorporate into the play experience, giving the author, in effect, more of a direct voice in the play of groups they may have no direct contact with. However, where Polaris‘ ritual phrases are invoked to help structure play and conflict resolution, the oracle entries in Wicked Age are interpreted by the players to create the characters and situations at the core of play. In a general sense, in Polaris, Ben’s words guide how the game is played, while in Wicked Age, Vincent’s words guide what the game is about.
The issue of author-audience relationship is really interesting to me. How do game designers help groups come up with dynamic and appropriate setting elements, characters, situations, and color? The system stuff gets talked about the most, I think, in terms of creating fuctional player interactions and group decision making, but the latter has generally not been the focus of Forge theory or the stuff that has come after it. Most Forge-influenced indie game designers seem to think that elements of play are more likely to engage and excite players if the players themselves have a direct hand in creating them. However, game designers themselves often have strong ideas about the kinds of elements that are appropriate or best for their game. This is in some ways like The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast (a.k.a. the idea the story simultaneously belongs to the players, “their story,” and the GM, who “tells the story”), where it’s difficult to have creative elements that are chosen both by the game designer and the play group. If you go with the designer’s elements, the play group might not engage with them, but if you go with the players’ elements, created on the spur of the moment, they might flop or just be less appropriate for this particular game or situation.
In a Wicked Age gives us one potential compromise. The setting elements are totally Vincent’s (or whoever created the oracle you’re using), but the players decide how they are implemented in play, what’s important, what’s not, etc. But there’s another approach that I’m thinking about: creating style sheets for roleplaying sessions or campaigns.
I know about style sheets mostly from doing web layout using CSS (cascading style sheets), but I’m sure they’re used in all sorts of writing, graphic design, computer programming, and many other technical fields. The basic idea is to create a standard set of rules to provide a fixed set of constraints within a seemingly limitless environment. For example, say I want to create a series of headings that are all bold, size 3, underlined, and blinking red (because I like ugly headings). Normally, I would have to program each of those tags in separately, like:
[b][text size=”3″ color=”red”][u][blink]THIS IS A HEADING[/blink][/u][/text][/b]
But I could create a heading style in a separate file, called a “style sheet,” and only list all those tags once, in that file. Then, if I wanted to code the heading, I could just do something like:
[h1 style=”ugly”]THIS IS A HEADING[/h1]
And I started wondering why that same principle couldn’t be applied to creative elements within roleplaying. Like, can we create a style sheet for play, such that normal player contributions become the equivalent of bold, size 3, underlined, blinking red text? So that player input is instantly transformed to be appropriate and dynamic within the game and social environment of the playgroup? I suspect that we can.