Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Technique: The Importance of the Words Previously, Meanwhile and Later

While working on Burning Empires, one of the things that became very clear to us was the importance of color description. You can see me wrestling with the concepts in a previous post, The Algebra of Setting in RPGs.

Especially in games with lots of points of contact (interface with the rules), it is often a natural tendency to start playing the mechanics with little or no description of what's actually happening in the fiction. Examples include scripting a combat in Burning Wheel with little or no reference to what the combat looks or feels like, playing the cards to a conflict in Nine Worlds without adequately narrating the action, or a fight in D&D that comes down to a series of rolls and statements of "I hit" and "I miss."

The lack of color description for the scene can lead to feelings of disconnection and boredom.

There is a similar risk in games with few points of contact, like Primetime Adventures, if players push too hard toward conflicts without letting scenes breathe and take on gravity. (for additional discussion of an intimately related problem, check out this excellent thread at Story-Games).

Now, the revelation that color description is important in role-playing games probably seems obvious. But if we were all to take a really rigorous look a the way we play, I suspect we would find that we mostly offer a lot less color description to each other than we think. I'm hoping that this post will become the first in a series of irregular short features on relatively simple, painless techniques we can use to introduce more color to our gaming.

But first, why is color important? Here's what I wrote in the post I referenced above, The Algebra of Setting in RPGs:

"Color consists of the details that allow the participants in the game to imagine a location [Thor's note: scene, rather than location, would have been a more appropriate word choice] and how it works. It's the stuff that makes us feel as if we're there. When we describe the leaves of the trees in the elven forest, the population of a village, the creaking churn of the watermill wheel, the clothes your character is wearing, or the manner of succession for the kingdom, that's color.

"One of my favorite Robert E. Howard Conan stories is Red Nails (if you haven't read it, I urge you to follow the link and read it now. It's good stuff!) Howard is a master at throwing in bits of color that flavor everything: the dragons in the forest, Derketa's apples, the roofed city of Xotalanc, the Door of the Eagle, and the black pillar with its red nails. The details are cool, but they're not the soul of the story. We could remove those details and completely replace them and it wouldn't alter the core story, although it would affect the feel.

"In RPGs, color is introduced by players and GMs to fill in the gaps and smooth out the seams in the imagined environment we create together. Those details are integral to making the play environment feel real to us, but they don't really serve any other purpose and the game won't fall apart if they're not there, though parts might feel a little flat."

I'm going to repeat the last bit, because I think it's really important: Color is introduced by players and GMs to fill in the gaps and smooth out the seams in the imagined environment we create together.

One of the most important points to take away from this statement is that PLAYERS, as well as GMs, are responsible for introducing color and helping everyone gain a better imagination of a scene.

With that meandering preamble, on to the very important words: previously, meanwhile and later.

One of the simplest bits of color we can provide each other while playing is context about the temporal location of a scene. Even if there is no overt connection between two scenes (i.e., they're in different places, involve different characters, are about different issues), telling everyone else at the table when a scene falls chronologically in relation to the scene or scenes just played will forge a connection between the scenes. This is a principle that has been proven true over and over again in the world of sequential art (comics). Scott McCloud explains this in an accessible and incredibly illuminating manner in his truly excellent work, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

When you tell the audience that the current scene happened before the scene we just played, or is happening during the scene just played, or after the scene just played, you create a connection between the two scenes. Because human minds seem to be predisposed toward organizing events into narratives, we just naturally start to fill in the gaps between the two events and find a way to turn them into a cohesive whole.

In other words, using the words previously, meanwhile and later to give each scene a chronological tag will help you draw the whole group into your shared narrative. Try being rigorous about using this technique and tell me what happens!


Jon Hastings said...


Great post. I always wanted to write an essay called "Color Matters, Too" (or something like that), because I felt (for a while) that color was getting the short shrift in a lot of gaming discussions.

I'm finding, though, that it really is super-important, especially in games like, say, Capes, where the mechanics are so involved that they can easily take focus away from the story.


Thor Olavsrud said...

Thanks Jon!

Unsurprisingly, I completely agree with you and I'd be very interested to see your thoughts, whether here or on the Forager blog.

joshua said...

Jon, I think Color's importance was being ignored simply because it was all that was talked about for a long time, ironically leaving mechanics behind. I think the world has a pretty good handle on what mechanics do now, though, and I think there will be a lot of high-Color games coming out for a while to experiment with that aspect of fiction games. Shock: has mechanics built in for generating color, for instance, and Agon is steeped in it.

Thor, this is really interesting. I kept putting off reading this piece because I didn't really have time, and now I'm glad I did.

Anonymous said...

Would be nice to see some examples... really, the need to use color is pretty obvious, and these words sound interesting, and it's pretty clear how temporal relation works, but YOUR point in particular about putting all this together quite frankly went right over my head.

How is it supposed to go? "Meanwhile, Conan swings the sword at the monster"? "Previously, you had drunk a potion and later you got healed"?? I don't get it. The post might be interesting to read or -ponder- on but not really useful for doing anything.

Meanwhile, why didn't you include any examples?