2006-02-16 : Throwing It Open: Color

Mark W.:

What's color good for? More specifically, how is it important/how can it be made important without turning it into situation/system/etc.?


Color! Good.

Color is the concrete details of character, setting, situation and system.

What might be going on is that you're accustomed to thinking of a character's color as the character, etc.

Here's a character (with a hint of situation): a person having an illicit affair.

Here's the character, colored in: a man in his early 30s, well-off, married, educated, owning property, childless, having an illicit affair with another man, with whom he is not in love.

Here's a setting for him: a city with a substantial economic gap between its rich and its poor.

Here's the setting, colored in: London in the early 1700s.

Making sense?

So your concern - how do we make color important without turning it into character, setting, situation, system? - is groundless. Color is important, it's what makes character, setting, situation and system real.


Let me tip my hand a little...

I'm asking about this because I'm having trouble figuring out how prescriptive to be about color in order to get the results I'm looking for. There's a "focus knob" there somewhere.

How prescriptive to be about color, huh? Care to say more?

1. On 2006-02-16, Thor Olavsrud said:

I actually had a lot to say about color last week in my blog.

I argued that there are actually several different types of color that we use in play.

Here's pure color:
"Color consists of the details that allow the participants in the game to imagine a location 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."

Aside from inspiration, which is extremely important in its own right, I feel that pure color is mostly used to patch up seams and cracks in the shared imagined space, to get us all on the same page.

If we've just had a scene where Brother Jebediah is way off in the mountains trying to see what's going on at the headwaters of the river, and I want him to be in the next conflict scene initiated by Sister Hesther, then a little description of Brother Jebediah riding his blown horse into the branch as the conflict starts helps patch things together for us.

On the other hand, in my opinion, color that is expressed in mechanics is the stuff that we players really internalize. It becomes more than just color.

I describe that this way:
"For instance, in Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard, buttes and snowy mountains are pretty easy to forget about when playing, but the fact that life is never more than a few words away from the greasy smoke of black powder is in your face at all times through the escalation mechanics. The fact that these people are your kin is in your face at all times through the spent (and unspent) relationship dice. Your authority and stature as a Dog is in your face every time you call on your Coat's dice in a conflict. That stuff is potent setting."

Is this getting at anything useful for you Mark? Am I way off base?


2. On 2006-02-16, Matt Wilson said:

On the other hand, in my opinion, color that is expressed in mechanics is the stuff that we players really internalize. It becomes more than just color.

I think that's an extraordinarily important thing you're saying right there.


3. On 2006-02-16, Mark W said:

Hey, Thor. It was actually your post and another remark somewhere or other about "transforming color into system" that got me cogitating.

My specific quandary: I'm working on a game about high school. I know I want to structure it with events, rather like the Roach does. Now, these Events have System functions, and I know what those are, but I'm wrangling like mad with how tightly to define the color for them. Should the Event where you have conflicts focused around belonging and social status always be "Out on the Town"? I have the way I would color it at my own table, but I can see a whole bunch of alternatives.

I can also see that changing it has ripples, and that those ripples may not always be apparent to people who are Not Me.


4. On 2006-02-16, Thor Olavsrud said:

I can also see that changing it has ripples, and that those ripples may not always be apparent to people who are Not Me.

The moment I said that, I started wondering what those ripples might be. They sound interesting.

It sounds like the question should be: Are those ripples interesting to you?

If they are, can you think of a way to make them more apparent to players?


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This makes...
TO go "d'oh!"*

*click in for more

5. On 2006-02-17, Joshua BishopRoby said:

Color is in many ways the most important part of the game—it's the thing that engages the imagination.  It's the essence of the game, distilled into specific details.

That said, I don't find it terribly useful to define a lot of color, and while FLFS has half the book dedicated to it, very little of it is defined.  It's the difference between, say, a Star Trek sourcebook that attempts to list all of the planets in the Federation, their population numbers, what kind of star they orbit, what resources they produce, et cetera, exhaustively, and a book that sets a tone that attempts to inspire the players to fill in the details themselves.  Actually, Dogs in the Vineyard presents its setting in a very similar way.

The thing of it is, your players are better equipped than you are to come up with color that they will like.  My armchair, barely-informed opinion is that you should define 'why which situation is important' rather loosely—your players are more than capable to add in stuff that will make it bang for them (especially if you give them guidelines and procedures to do so).


6. On 2006-02-17, Neel said:

I find that the distinction between color, setting, and situation changes over time and during play, because what's what depends on how the players are understanding and making use of the fictional detail.  Here's an example:

Suppose the players are playing in a Cthulhu-ish game, and at one point broke into the office of a professor of Greek literature to find out if he's a cultist of the insect god. One of the players, in an effort to add verisimilitude mentions that there is a stack of copies of The Bryn Mawr Classical Review gathering dust in a corner. At this moment in time, the fact that the professor subscribes to this magazine is just a piece of color—it has no significance to how things play out.

Now, a few scenes later, the mad professor kidnaps one of the PCs at gunpoint. The player relates that the PC pushes a copy of The Bryn Mawr Classical Review onto the central position of his desk before he's escorted away at gunpoint. The detail about the professor's journal subscriptions has just changed status: now it's one of the central facts of the situation, because it's now a detail that the other players could potentially use to explain how the other PCs figure out who kidnapped the first PC, or not.

This can also be used to change the status of other details. Suppose one of the other players is playing an illiterate character, and she then describes her PC seeing the journal, but not recognizing the connection. The other PC's illiteracy might also have been color before this moment, but now it takes on relevance—the course of the narrative is irretrievably altered because of it, and all the subsequent action is going to be suffused with terrible dramatic irony.


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This makes...
JBR go "Setting > Situation > Color"*
IJC go "Situation>Setting"*
TC go "Situation = Setting + Character"*
IJC go "Situation can also = Character + Character"*
VB go "Situation = Character } Setting"*
TAO go "Setting + Situation + Player = Story"*
SLB go "Situation = (Character / Setting) * Color - 4*pi/System"*

*click in for more

7. On 2006-02-17, Mark W said:

Let me see if I can throw out an example that's more generally accessible, because y'all are telling me good things, things worth knowing, but not the thing I'm trying to understand the most.

Judd's First Quest tSOY mod has the players name the three pools and assign abilities to them. Mechanically, everything works just the same as in vanilla tSOY. It feels important to me, somehow, whether Vigor is Vigor or Might. And whether the Sword skill works off of Might or Cunning (Reason).

For my high school game, I want people to be able to play with their high school stuff. I went to an all-male Jesuit private school. My source materials for the project range from Quadrophenia through Hogwarts to Azumanga Daioh. Providing evocative, grabby Color that the players can grab hold of to make the game their own rather than "that Breakfast Club game" is what I'm onto.


8. On 2006-02-17, Judd said:

Funny that you should bring up 1st Quest, Mark.

The pools can be quite different.  Where the color can come in is how they are refreshed, because that is all stuff the GM wants to see his players do in quiet between conflict moments in the game and they are all color...though some could be fuel for Bangs.

Anyway, I am planning to post some sample worlds on my livejournal tomorrow but yeah, the Pools are color but not only in how they are named but in how they refresh.

Some of the pools are quite different...thanks, Brennan!


9. On 2006-02-17, Jason M said:

Here's what I'd do - I'd make the game about your high school.  Or the ur-high school, the John Hughes high school, whatever really excites you.  Structure your events around that and make them as amorphous and universal as practical without losing the cool.  Then, in the back of the game, suggest other high schools and give some examples of how your event framework still works.

viz. Dogs, with the paragraph about playing Hezbollah or Puritans in the back.

In the Roach all the color related to events is in their names - that's all you get, and that's all you need.  No two faculty senate meetings ever play the same.


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This makes...
WMW go "Yeah, that's kinda where"*

*click in for more

10. On 2006-02-17, Roger said:

I think the easiest way to see Colour on its own is to start by looking at games that don't have any.

These are purely abstract games, like Go, Reversi, Backgammon, Chess.  Alright, Chess has a very little tiny bit of Colour.

What I find interesting is that the pure system of these games tend to imply Colour, or lead us towards it.  The random mechanics in Backgammon have a different feeling than nonrandom Chess.

Now that we recognize abstract, Colourless, games, we can deColour other games.  We could start with something easy, like Monopoly.  Strip off the real estate veneer and it's just moving tokens around, acquiring or losing other tokens.  (Indeed, it's so easy to do this with Monopoly that there are a great many variant Colours available, which differ only in Colour.)

It's tempting to treat this as another back door into System Doesn't Matter.  Look, I change DitV into Jedis in the Vineyard just by repainting it!  I can turn MLwM into a morality play about androids!

And, yes, you can do that, with varying degrees of success.  But I would suggest that, ideally, the System harmonizes with the Colour.

For example, let's say we have a system in which there's always a 5% chance of failure, however expert the characters may be, and always a 5% chance of success, however terrible the odds may seem.  That's purely an artifact of the System, but it implies a certain Colour.  A system in which a more-expert character always triumphs over someone less competent implies a different Colour.

If these two things—System and Colour—are not in harmony, the entire product can seem vaguely unsettling.  Occasionally this is easy to spot, such as when a game ability called "Power Attack" turns out to be more useful when you're using a dagger than a sledgehammer.  Other times it's very hard to put a finger on.  I think the reason some people are unhappy with the Sanity mechanics in Call of Cthulhu arise from this dissonance.

If it's done really well, the author doesn't need to be very prescriptive when it comes to Colour.  He doesn't need to tell the players that the game is about uncertainty, distrust, and betrayal.  The System makes it inevitable that it will be about those things.


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This makes...
NinJ go ""System doesn't matter" as an argument only works..."*

*click in for more

11. On 2006-02-18, Ben Lehman said:

I don't know if this is going to be helpful to anyone else, but it's how I think about it:  Color is grammar.

That seems pretty stupid at first blush:  Color is alive and breathing and fun and grammar is for old fuddy duddy high school English teachers.  What I really mean is: Color, for the gamer, is the same sort of concern as grammar is for the writer.

Let me make an example.  The first half-sentence of Polaris is

Once upon a time, as far north as north can go...

So we can take this sentence and rearrange the same information into a different grammar:

A long time ago at the north pole... which is pretty different, colorwise.  I'm tempted to call it "without color" but in fact it's just that the grammar is closer to what we use in modern, white, middle class, educated American discourse.  So we're all pretty used to it (even those of us who aren't modern, white, middle class, educated, or Americans, because of exposure to newspapers and television.)

But we could also say:

A long time back, way up north a' ways and wow, that's pretty different color too, much more "rustic down home" rather than fairy-tale ethereal.

In some ways, all of these sentence fragments are the same.  They contain the same information, they perform the same framing role in the sentence.  The substantial difference is the grammar.  (or, okay, if you still hate using grammar, you could say "style."  Potato potato.)

This is a very useful metaphor for me, in terms of color in gaming.  What we're doing is pretty much the same, but how we present it to our audience (in this case: ourselves) is dramatically different.  Check out the difference between:

"Okay, I point the gun in his face.  That's an 11 raise."


"I cock back the hammer, stop to wipe the sweat off my brow, and point the gun in his face.  The black barrel is searing hot in the noonday sun.  That's an 11 raise."

The factual stuff we did (the raise, the pointing the gun in the face) is identical.  But the two presentations have different color (which one is better, of course, is totally a matter of context.  More details are necessarily better.)



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This makes...
BL go "About my example"*
CB go "Resonance!"*
MVH go "Sometimes, yes."*

*click in for more

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