Imitation of Life (Art Within Your Art – Style Guides for Gaming)

As role-playing gamers many of us constantly strive to improve the quality of our storytelling. Many commercial games achieve this through a constructed “Style Guide” (Magic the Gathering and the ancestral system in particular have been successful with them) for each new world or setting they have produced, allowing them to maintain multiple distinct identities for their worlds. Campaigns aren’t that different and in many ways are less limited because direct art-to-mind connection of the RPG.

Creating “Style Guides” for Your Campaign

We don’t all find ourselves with art directors, graphic designers and creative management teams. And none of us can singularly replace the dozens of professionals that go into creating a setting, movie or video game. We can however bookmark things we find online or take pictures of “Real Life” things that capture the essence of what we are going for with a particular setting, adventure or locale:

  • Organize It – Consider using Google Drive (and Docs), OneNote or some other online service to organize and store the art, media, and other information you find for each guide you assemble and any sub-folders or structure you need.  If you go analog make sure you have a good manual tab system or a fantastic memory. The use of an online system also allows for sharing, picture uploads and mobile device options that can make people have a very easy time accessing your style material (if you want them to).
  • Scale It – Is the guide for a culture? A country? A city? Sometimes we can better define a place by the broad tapestry of its surroundings. Then close in on the differences from the local scene. Maybe an area has a similar architecture to Meso-American pyramids but the new capital is influenced by the colonial empire across the Northern sea and has wood buildings. Co-verisimilitude is possible by juxtaposing campaign elements in this way lending reality to both as either becomes more fleshed out.
  • See It – Visuals will be a huge part of a good “Style Guide.” They are faster and have a greater information density than words and are deliciously easy to assemble. NPC galleries and location guides can be packed after just a few hours of image searches. Just remember that this is fair use, personal stuff and that if you EVER consider going public with your usage you should credit any source as clearly as you can. Otherwise, go nuts. Landscapes, buildings, characters, clothing… anything can help establish a tangible reality and even the most mundane images can save vital game time communicating if you are struggling to illustrate or describe something.
  • Hear It – Music is a vastly under utilized prop for creating quick setting-feel. Maybe the villages of the Northlands are backed by some slip jigs and the temples of the south have more meditative sounds. Similarly,  scenes can be adjusted with situation-themed music selections (battle music tracks) and story-themed (a NPC may have a specific track that always accompanies them). Do try to assess musical interests of your gamers as to be aware of personal issues that may arise (maybe Sid’s roomate isn’t going to be excited by death metal battle music? and Tanya may not appreciate references that are stereotypical) and remember that the point of the “Style Guide” is to enhance immersion, not to detract.
  • Taste It? – Visuals and audio are both enormously power but don’t underestimate the value of textures, tastes and smells. These can be harder to add to your guide but pictures and first-hand descriptions of experiences can make for easier translation into words for behind the screen.

While the depth of a “Style Guide” will vary highly from GM to GM, and even campaign to campaign, don’t hesitate to grab inspiration for later when it strikes you–Even when nothing comes of it, it may help you appreciate things in new ways and saves valuable time if it does.

If you are looking for more mechanical options to shape the style of your game check out our products available on d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.

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