October challenge: format as flavor

The message is the medium, Marshall McLuhan said, and for a game design, the format it comes in contributes to how it feels. The days of issuing everything in a boxed set of multiple 64-page booklets were superceded by the single-volume 8.5″x11″ hardback running hundreds of pages, and if you look at those games, there is an intriguing chicken-and-egg effect, in which the games themselves became more sprawling to fill that page space, while at the same time the content of the games had to escalate to match, leading to ever thicker core books. (Remember that the original D&D boxes didn’t individually cover everything you’d need: they progressed in stages, teaching you at first how to explore dungeons in Basic, then the wilderness in between dungeons in Expert, the cities you would eventually encounter in Companion, and so on.)

Now, we have a surfeit of options for publishing: games can be completely ephemeral, existing solely as data files that can be in whatever format we desire, but with the expectation of print-and-play, they still conform largely to one or more of the extant output options – but there are still dozens of those, from playing-card sized reference tools to the upper ends of the European A- or B-series sheets.

The way a game is formatted affects the way it feels and says something about what the game is like, or at least it does if the designer puts any thought into that (and indeed if he or she has any input into that end of things). I laid out Delve at half-letter pages so it could be printed conveniently on four sheets of paper, folded into a booklet, and stowed for quick play, because that’s the sort of game it is; House of Cards, meanwhile, is in digest format, not only because it’s the size in which one would most commonly find Victorian compilations of fairy tales or children’s stories, but because it’s also become associated with the indie story game movement, and the game attempts to convey those influences. (Grace Palmer‘s amazing page borders and Sara Otterstaeter’s woodcut chapter illustrations certainly don’t hurt, either. They’re still some of my favorite art ever.)

Now that the October games are approaching completion, I’m starting to consider the form they would take, in order to best fit the feel of each project. I like the idea of the “quantum jumping” RPG mimicking the spiral-bound presentation booklets one would get at a motivational seminar, written as if it actually were the introductory manual for a New Age self-help program. Meanwhile, the “agents of fate” game would be best packaged in a traditional RPG format, but with small page dimensions to easily pack it with the playing cards that would be necessary. (I considered whether actually making it the same size as playing cards would be a possibility, but I imagine the lists of powers for each office would inflate the size of the text to a degree that makes that untenable.)

My first instinct for the quest-giving game is to make it a digest-sized hardback like my copy of Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but that might be a little bit on the nose! It should be portable, of course, to facilitate play, and the rules are relatively short. (Note that, if one chops out the purely narrative portions of Baron Munchausen, it is likewise only several pages long. But the Baron loves to talk, as we all know!) I’m planning to prepare playmats for adventurers to set in front of them, as an organizational tool and quick reminder; one is tempted at first to perhaps print the rules on the back of the playmat, but with tokens arranged on top of them, you don’t want to be lifting the mats during a game. Depending on the size of the mat (which only needs three “compartments” – one for your level tokens, one for the tokens wagered for someone else’s quest, and one for the spoils of a successful quest) one could format the book at the same size, putting the playmat on one page of the centerfold spread next to a quick summary.

It is unlikely that any of these games will actually have a print run, being released electronically for players to print, or not, as they wish. But the impact of layout decisions on a game’s overall feel can’t really be ignored in that case either, because the possibility of players printing them remains on the table. (We have not yet achieved a fully electronic universal gaming environment, nor do I think we will at any point soon.)