On the Usefulness of Style Guides

The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game is done. It’s off to the printers and I couldn’t change a thing about it if I wanted to. And now, finally, I know enough to actually write a correct and accurate style guide. You know, those lists of what gets capped, what shows up in bold, etc. It’s the list of game-specific terms you use and how they should look in print.

And they make me crazy.

On an intellectual level, I understand the need for style guides. I understand why project managers want a style guide established before a bunch of writers scattered all over the world start typing on their computers and yet still have to turn in stuff that can all be gathered into the same book. A style guide can definitely help with that (at least on the surface. An outline is a necessity, too, but that’s another post).

However, on a practical level, I don’t know how to design a useful style guide before the text exists. I really did try on the Basic Game—I’ve worked on several Cortex Plus projects, so I used those as a base. And my style guide was obsolete before the Basic Game was even out of development, let alone in rough draft form.

Once I start editing in earnest, I don’t have time to put together a style guide. The time spent doing that is time that I’m not editing. There are probably legitimate arguments that suggest that it would save me time overall to put all those notes in one place, but I’m not convinced of that. No matter how useful the concept of a style guide is, it seems like a moving target that’s more likely to waste my time than help anyone, at least on the first book in any line of games.

When I’m immersed in editing, I have a pretty accurate style guide in my head, one that’s developing as the game starts to coalesce. Writing down that style guide seems like a waste of valuable time. I’ve also never seen a style guide fully survive contact with the writers. In the end, I’m still going to be the one going through the whole book and bringing everything into line, so it doesn’t necessarily seem like a problem if it’s all living in my head.

Plus, the book’s style continues to develop all the way through the final post-layout proofing. Decisions I thought were made get rethought once I actually see the whole book all at one time and all laid out. I know I made the very patient Cam Banks a bit crazy (probably Jeremy Keller, too, although he dealt with my proofing notes with nary a complaint—at least to me). But I stand by the decision I made at the last minute to reverse the capping convention on a category of terms. (And yes, ensuring that there’s some kind of consistent hierarchical rule governing which terms are capped and which are not is exactly the kind of stuff I obsess over.)

For Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and for the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, I did finally design style guides, but only after the first books were out of my hands and unchangeable. I know they’ll come in handy on the subsequent releases for each of those games. A style guide is critical when a line of games will have several books that should all follow the same style conventions or when you have several editors working on the same project—thus the need for style guides for future Marvel products and the Dresden supplements.

So, if you’re publishing your first game, what should you do about a style guide? In theory, it’s a good idea to have something pulled together—a list of the terms you’re using and what you want them to look like (capped or not, emphasized through a special style, etc.). It’s also worth noting any conventions that are important to you, either because you want them followed or ignored (for instance, how do you want to deal with gendered pronouns? How do you feel about using parentheses vs. em dashes in the text?).

But know that a style guide needs the flexibility to change and adapt as your game comes together. It should never be a straightjacket that stifles the writing and development of the game. Its final form should be the result of ongoing collaboration between you and your editor—that person you hire to get all worked up about whether using this word in this context means it ought to be called out in italics. And sometimes that means changing things even after they’re laid out because something just doesn’t seem right.

What are your experiences with style guides? Any advice or suggestions to make them more useful and accurate at the beginning of a project?

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