Ethan Skemp (eskemp) wrote in whitewolf_lj,
Ethan Skemp

Behind the Lines: Artifact Hunters (#35)

I have probably talked before about how opinions tend to be pretty split on things like in-character narration or fiction being treated as part of the actual "supplement" material of a supplement, rather than just flavor. Back in the days of the oWoD, many a book was written largely from an in-character perspective. The idea was that you would get a sense for the personality of whoever is discussing the topic, and that because it was in-character, Storytellers had some room to say "Well, on this point the narrator is wrong." All the information you need, just with a potentially biased or unreliable narrator, you were told, in-character even, that you didn't have to adhere to material if you had a better idea.

The trouble with unreliable narrators, though, is that they're unreliable. It was a controversial approach because people often felt cheated if they found out that, say, the Malkavian who was narrating the book could be lying to you, or just plain wrong. We tried to minimize the "unreliable" aspect here and there — in fact, I consider Dr. Douglas Netchurch, Malkavian though he was, one of the most reliable in-character narrators we ever created. Even so, when we went to the nWoD, we dropped the idea of having the IC narration take up most of a book. We wanted to present absolutely reliable information, even if that information was sometimes stating that certain things were outright mysteries.

But of course, there's still room for that in-character voice. And recently we've been toying with it more, often in the form of "artifact text." For those of you who haven't heard us use the term before, artifact text is a section of text that's presented to be some sort of excerpt or transcription from a document that's assumed to exist in the game world. Usually it's laid out a little differently; in some cases, it could be photocopied and handed to the players as a handout, assuming their characters found the documents in question. You see some of it here and there, but obviously the new Clanbooks are almost entirely artifact text. They represent bundles of information that a vampire could actually find in-game.

Now, the question I was asked recently (on these comments! You too can suggest topics for me to cover!) was whether or not artifact text is harder work for the development or production staff. From a development side, I'd say it's kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, you don't have to correct for potential bias. An OOC bit of description might require fine-tuning because an author is just a bit more biased than you would like to see, but in a text artifact, you only have to correct for bias if it's egregiously misleading, and not obviously so. Artifact text is an example, not quite a rule; it doesn't set policy, so to speak. On the other hand, you want to make it look right. I've talked about authorial tells before, and if an artifact text makes you think "Chuck Wendig is alive and well in the WoD and writing under a pseudonym!", well, maybe it's time to massage out the clearly visible Chuckisms so they don't distract. This is rarely a huge problem, but again, it goes back to the necessity of recognizing and accounting for writer tells.

And to some extent it's easier because it's fiction, in a way. Developing fiction is usually easier than developing rules, or at least lower-stakes; a not particularly inspiring fiction piece is not as critical to fix as a not particularly clear rules system. On the other hand, text artifacts are harder to account for in word count. A book may be the "proper" word count for its page count, only wind up running long because the artifact text takes up so much space per word by compare. That's something a developer should account for.

On the layout side: well, yes, artifact text is distinctly more problematic. It often involves a lot more font-chasing, scanning of textures, all kinds of things. Now our production team is one of the strongest in gaming, if not the strongest, so they're up to the challenge. Still, it can make them cranky, so we generally don't want to pull out lots of artifact text just for the sake of doing it. Of course, that's one of the general rules of development: if you're going to do something unusual, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. Artifact text is fun to write. Seriously. But you can't just throw it in just to make the writing task more fun: you have to consider the audience, and whether it's the best thing for getting across the information that they are presumably paying for. 

So far, it seems that our forays into artifact text have been generally well-received. I sort of miss the days when we could expect the kind of numbers on pure artifact books like The Book of Nod or (my personal favorite) Chronicle of the Black Labyrinth. We can't just throw one out for every line these days, but I miss them; I have to admit a certain wrong-headed pleasure in the occasional letter we got from someone who mistook them for "the real thing," asking about the Truth behind the gospel of Caine or the secret language of Malfeas. But we're playing around with it more all the same, and the Clanbooks are certainly a fine piece of work. It can be troublesome work: but is it worth it? Does it work for you? I'm interested, as always, in seeing what you have to say about all this. Striking the balance between the fun of in-character texts and the raw utility of out-of-character text is always a tricky thing, and I'm curious as to where you think your ideal balance is. Let us know. The experiment is ongoing.


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