Style Sheets: Part 2

2008 Feb 28

This is a continuation of the last post.

So I played my Avatar: The Last Airbender game at Story Games Boston with people who’d never really watched the show before. There was a wandering drunken boxer, and that was still kind of okay, because he was pretty funny. Then there was a geisha house, but a “real” one that was about dancing and manners, not about prostitution, and that was mostly okay. But then the game got pushed more towards sex and violence, which totally isn’t what I want in my “kid show” entertainment, even in a Friday night kid show. It definitely surprised a number of the players and ended up being okay, but not great.

The main problem with that session of the Avatar game was that it ignored many of the things that make fanfic really work, and Avatar (like Primetime Adventures, like Buffy, like Serenity, like Dark Heresy, like Dragonlance) is driven by player familiarity with the material the game is inspired by and their ability to generate content that “feels like” the TV show or novels or miniatures game that they love.

Over multi-session play experiences, groups often create a similar shared understanding of the setting, characters, and general feel of play, but this takes time. The early sessions of a medium to long-term campaign can still feel a bit rough as the game “gets off the ground” and the divergent expectations of group members are ironed out over a series of interactions. However, in a one-session game, like a con game or a game system specifically designed to produce one-shots, we just don’t have time to wait for that. Instead, we have to fake it, and faking that shared background and understanding is hard.

My experience of running Geiger Counter at GenCon suggests that is might still be possible.

Geiger Counter is a game I’m working on that tries to do for survival horror movies what Primetime Adventures did for primetime television. I hope that the game can eventually recreate movies about serial killers, aliens, ghosts, supernatural monsters, giant sharks, dinosaurs, the undead, and natural disasters. The problem I was having in playtests was that all these movies feel somewhat different, even if they are all survival horror movies, and it was difficult to even get all the players on the same page about what kind of zombie movie they were playing out. Were these zombies fast or slow? Did they eat brains? Could they swim? And since not everyone has recently watched a whole bunch of zombie movies, the appropriate tropes are not always present in people’s frontal lobes where they can be easily picked through. Sometimes they’re hiding in the back recesses and people have trouble generating appropriate content on the fly.

However, the second time I ran Geiger Counter at GenCon, the game was a scheduled event (unlike the first, pick-up playtest at the Games On Demand booth), and it was advertised as being based on Roanoke, Clint Krause’s early colonial Carolina setting for Wushu. What happened? Well, honestly, I felt like Roanoke served as a kind of “style sheet” for the game. The monster was still a bit amorphous in nature (it was ghostly, corrupting, and also moved the earth around), but the characters and the setting seemed much more rock-solid than in previous playtests because everyone was on the same page, using the same type of setting and color elements, all drawn from the kind of things that Clint described in Roanoke (even if some of the players were not familiar with Clint’s work).

So there’s my inspiration: In a Wicked Age plus Roanoke. Oh, plus the Story Games Names Book, whose influence will become clear shortly.

With that in mind, I started thinking about what a “style sheet” for Geiger Counter might look like. Robert Ahrens said he wants giant sharks in the playtest I ran on Wednesday night, so I tried to make a giant shark style sheet. I first thought about the kinds of creative elements I needed players to come up with during a game of Geiger Counter. The ones I came up with were:

  • a setting,
  • character types,
  • character names,
  • trait dice (for the characters),
  • advantage dice (gained during play),
  • menace dice (describing threats to the characters),
  • locations,
  • epilogues (false endings when the monster seems to be defeated).

So here’s the style sheet I came up with, drawn from Jaws, Jaws 2, Deep Blue Sea, and my own imagination.


  • Settings: small beach town, Caribbean resort, remote fishing village, aquarium, SeaWorld, marine research facility, desalination plant, navy seal training base, illegal fishing boat (whaling ship, poachers), arctic research icebreaker, coast guard rescue ship, merchant marine vessel, modern pirate / smuggling vessel, military submarine, multi-million dollar underwater resort.
  • Character Types: local law enforcement officer, medical examiner, local politician, young innocent, professional shark hunter, marine biologist, dolphin / orca trainer, novice fisherman, professional fisherman, local hooligan, coast guard officer, scuba diver, wealthy yacht owner, water skier, real estate developer, scientist / researcher, shark wrangler, venture capitalist, corporate lawyer / inspector, former navy seal, ship captain, blue-collar sailor, concerned hotel employee, concerned mother, teenage son/daughter of any of the above.
  • Character Names: I’m gonna leave this to the Names Book.
  • Trait/Advantage Dice: Trait and advantage dice come in several general varieties…
    • Personal Attributes: excellent swimmer, shark attack surviver, etc.
    • Valuable Knowledge: shark specialist, chief geneticist on giant shark project, I know these waters, etc.
    • Tools: chum, fishing pole, harpoon, flotation barrel, shark-proof cage, hypodermic spear, pressurized air tank, rifle, gasoline tank, radio, etc.
    • Relationships: to any other characters.
    • Secondary Characters: sailors, policemen, junior researchers, etc. that the player controls.
    • Dark Secrets: head of the giant shark project, self-destructive Captain Ahab obsession, will doom you all to ensure my own survival, etc.
  • Menace Dice: three tons, teeth the size of your hand, hyper-intelligent, plays with its food, high risk of drowning, there’s a squall blowing, the engine’s dead, we’re sinking.
  • Locations: the beach, the docks, the open ocean, the listing boat with no one left alive, the shark tank, the cafe, the island, the record room, the fishing boat, the ice shelf, the hotel lobby, the pier, the lifeguard station, the coast guard ship, the rescue helicopter, your cabin, the main deck, the pilothouse, the foremast, the starboard side, underwater, the shark-proof cage.
  • Epilogues: I left this part blank, because I was running out of time, figuring most of these would be based on the events of play.

In the next post (since I need a part 3 now, after testing it out last night), I want to talk about how this worked in play and what I’m taking from it.

8 Responses to “Style Sheets: Part 2”

  1. Wow! Great minds think alike. I just put something similar up on Scattershot: Universe 6 ( It’s only like one of the elements of your ‘Fish Story’, but similar. Scattershot’s mechanics call for the gamemaster to work of a sheet a lot like a PC sheet and he gets his ‘plot points’ from activating things like Deathtraps (

    I can’t wait to see where you’re taking this!


  2. Antoine Fournier Says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    I think that’s realy interesting.

    I am working a way to present something like a minimum structure for scenarios for the games I play. I draw ideas from Vincent’s oracles, his blog post “Willing, provoked, inspired”, what Graham Walmsley calls “Holding ideas lightly” in Play Unsafe and Eric Provost’s prep advices for the Red Box Hack. The point is to present enough info for people to be on the same page and inspired and not too much so that their creativity and liberty to play are not constrained.

    Your style sheet gives me a lot of ideas. I hope it will work fine for you.

    Also did you think about the power of images for your style sheets ? For my scenario thingy, I intend to include something like 5 drawings of cool locales to fire the imagination. Stock photo and movie screenshots can work too. But of course that’s a rather heavy prep thingy.

  3. Fang: Cool. It’s interesting to see so many people taking this kind of thing in different directions.

    Antoine: Definitely link me to what you’re doing if it’s posted (in English?) somewhere. That sounds great. Images are a great idea, actually, that I hadn’t really considered. Let me think on that a bit.

  4. Antoine Fournier Says:

    I’ll send you the link as soon as it’s done. And in english !
    It will be for the RBH at first, because it’s my current toy and because the saillant points of a game are easy to grasp. I am just trying to find a way to make my own game prep work for someone else.

    Something more : your style sheet thoughts + Brutal Poet gave me some other ideas for the RBH Show-off action. Perhaps this game need some kind of “Awesome fighting action” style sheet. I think I’ll make a post about that on Story games. I’ll let you know.

    You’re a real muse, you know.

  5. Mendel Says:

    Coming of Age setting sheets are very much the same, although with some future mechanical nods – i.e. look at these options and strategies if your playing this setting.

    To my mind, the key design issue is keeping the sheets suggestive, but not exhaustive (or even feeling exhaustive). They should be a jumping off point, not lists to select from.

  6. John Harper Says:

    I’m really looking forward to part three.

  7. Antoine: Sweet. I look forward to seeing your stuff.

    Mendel: Totally. Your thoughts jive very well with what I learned from my playtest and what I want to talk about in Part 3, which is reassuring.

    John: Me too. I just haven’t found time to get to it. Hopefully tomorrow.

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

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