Style Sheets: Part 1

February 28, 2008

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.

More soon.

10 Responses to “Style Sheets: Part 1”

  1. Leigh Walton Says:

    See, I thought you were going to draw a contrast between communicating setting and tone through text vs. through imagery & graphic design.

  2. Jmstar Says:

    IAWA (then A,G&G) was hugely influential for Grey Ranks and showed me a way to include not *my* voice but the *setting’s* voice into the game. The difference makes perfect sense to me, anyway. Following this with interest!

  3. Indy Pete Says:

    I understand the idea, but I just can’t see a way to actually codify this.

    To illustrate: how can you codify a player contribution such as ‘Yo mama’? That is a general insult which – possibly – sounds good in a retro-American rapper-gangster-style setting, but which sounds terribly anachronistic if uttered by a Dog in the DitV setting. How do you transform such a contribution in DitV to ‘Yoah mama lies wit’ pigs, and like all whores she will burn for all eternity’? (OTT, but I trust you take my point.)

    Right now the group I play in sits down beforehand and ensures that everyone is on the same page setting-wise, mood-wise and so forth – that is how the ‘stylesheet’ is ‘imported’ 😉

    I’m all ears; cheers
    Indy Pete

  4. Brennan Says:

    I’m interested to hear more. Obviously, Mortal Coil does a lot of player-generated setting (that’s pretty much what the whole game is about).

    In How We Came to Live Here, I am working on ways to convey setting effectively. I’ve had one playtest where the player interaction with the setting was a disaster by my reckoning: The players had a good time, but the world didn’t shake out the way I generally want it to in that game.

  5. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Leigh: That’s a topic for another time.

    Jason: Yeah, actually The Roach and Grey Ranks both inject outside voices in different ways. The fixed locations and events are part of it, but so are the Roach Cards, yeah? You the designer tell the characters to go MURUB each other.

    Pete: Hopefully you’ll see where I’m going after this next post.

    Brennan: Yeah, I had the same issue as you running Avatar and Geiger Counter, which is what the next post is about. It’s definitely a complex issue.

  6. […] Thousand One Roleplaying and Everything After « Style Sheets: Part 1 Style Sheets: Part 2 2008 Feb 28 This is a continuation of the last […]

  7. ptevis Says:

    One of the biggest issues I’ve been struggling with in the development of Penny is getting everyone on the same page about the world. Sure, it can be fun to play without a net, but we’ve had more than one playtest derail because two players disagreed about the level of wackiness/supernatural involvement/etc in the game.

    For me, the issue is that I don’t want to enforce any of those particular things in the rules text. The game design, in fact, is agnostic on those issues. So how do I deal with this?

    The solution we’ve come up with is pretty much a style sheet. There’s a separate document that lays out facts about the world. There’s a default one that basically creates a psychodrama tone. But one of the options in the game will be to use an alternate one to flavor the game differently (“You’re actually dead.” “You were committed at the behest of a government agency.”) or to create your own. Or, if you like to live dangerously, play without one.

  8. shreyas Says:

    Huh, it’s interesting that you’re workin’ on this at about the same time that I’m trying to figure out scenarii for Mist-Robed Gate, which are more or less trying to accomplish the same thing.

  9. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Paul: As part 2 shows, this is basically the same problem I’m facing with Geiger Counter, and I’m attempting a similar kind of solution. Can you link to an example of one or more of your style sheets for Penny? I’d be really interested to see them.

    You asked me a while back about what it was about Penny that I didn’t find grabby. Honestly, I think it’s the default psychodrama aspect, where you don’t really know what’s going on. It’s hard to be hooked when there’s nothing to be hooked by, when it’s all mysterious. I could definitely get into “You’re dead” or “Bourne identity” style play, though, so the inclusion of those possibilities makes it more interesting to me. I’m also not really hooked by Don’t Rest Your Head, if that makes any difference, because it seems so random and arbitrary. Then again, I love Transantiago. Go figure.

    Shreyas: Parallel development strikes again. Though I think that there are a bunch of people (like Jason, Brennan, Paul) messing around with this right now. Blood in the water and all that.

  10. […] Sheets: Part 3 This post follows from Part 1, Part 2, and the […]

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