Archive for March 5th, 2008

Style Sheets: Part 3

2008 Mar 5

This post follows from Part 1, Part 2, and the Interlude.

So, if you’ll remember, I created a style sheet for the giant shark Geiger Counter game I ran last Wednesday. The first part of it looked something like this:


  • 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…

And, after looking at it, Mendel commented:

…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.

Right there, he nailed the first issue I had in play. When your eyes glance over a series of lists like the one I just posted above, you’re not very likely to read the whole thing. Yes, there are brilliant little gems hidden in some of those lists, but you’re not going to read the whole list to find them. This makes them much less useful than they might otherwise be. Players glanced at some of the setting concepts and then chose something entirely different: a man-made, tethered, floating island military research facility in the Indian Ocean. And they looked over some of the character concepts, but after that the style sheet was pretty much useless. Once they had character concepts, traits were easy. Likewise, locations sprang up from the chosen setting.

In the future, I’m gonna try a style sheet that looks more like this:


  • Settings: small beach town, aquarium, marine research facility, cutting-edge underwater resort.
  • Character Types: local law enforcement, medical examiner, local politician, professional shark hunter, marine biologist, real estate developer, teenage child of another character.
  • Trait/Advantage Dice: personal attributes, valuable knowledge, tools/weapons, relationships with other characters, secondary characters you control, dark secrets
  • Menace Dice: three tons, teeth the size of your hand, hyper-intelligent, high risk of drowning, there’s a squall blowing, the engine’s dead, we’re sinking.
  • Locations: the beach, the lab, the starboard side, underwater, the shark-proof cage.
  • Prologues: the first victim, an experiment goes wrong, a distress signal.
  • Color Scenes: kill a minor character, “maybe it’s gone,” somewhere far away, flashback.

First, you’ll notice that the lists are much shorter. Players would be expected to glance oven them and treat them as examples, not as a list to pick from. I also think it would be important for the group to brainstorm a bunch of character and location ideas together before picking specific roles, as was discussed in this thread about Primetime Adventures. They could even make characters collectively and then pick which ones they wanted to play, if they wanted. This might help transmit the idea that the characters are supposed to collectively serve the story, not the selfish interests of individual players, though clearly the text should indicate this as well.

Second, you’ll notice that I added ideas for prologues instead of epilogues. Epilogues generally follow the content established in play, but prologues, since very little has been established at that point, might be a useful list of examples to have. Then again, this list looks fairly universal, not limited to giant shark movies, so it could be that a master list could serve all genres.

Third, I added a set of scene concepts to use when players are having trouble imagining what the characters should do next. Often, I find that what’s needed is to update the outside context, moving away from the characters before moving back to them. So the list of “color scenes” are suggestions for scenes where the main characters don’t even have to be there. Again, this looks like it could become a master list and not part of a subgenre style sheet.

Fourth, I got rid of the examples of Trait/Advantage dice, leaving just the core categories (which are clearly universal and not subgenre-related). I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that, with the group collectively working on character concepts, that other players can help come up with traits when a given player may be stumped. We’ll see how that works in play.

I’ll update this after I run the game again at JiffyCon, as I learn more about how style sheets are used in play. I’ll try to break the different lists up into Master Styles (trait/advantage categories, prologues, color scenes, conditions) and Genre Styles (settings, character types, menace dice, locations), seeing if that makes it easier or just more confusing.