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Writing to Read: Shadow of Salvation

Writing this new expansion to Shards of Infinity was intimidating, as Shadow of Salvation is the first story-focused game that Stoneblade has designed. It was a truly intimidating project, but the journey was wildly interesting and educational.

Now, that it’s done and we’re all waiting for its official release, I want to share some thoughts about some of the hurdles we faced while working out the narrative:

Shadow of Salvation includes a narrative that one person has to read out loud to the other players. The story they read sets the stage for the choices people can make that affect the gameplay experience.

Here’s the challenge: not everyone is comfortable reading out loud, which means sections that go on too long, a slip up in a sentence, or a word that can’t be pronounced can result in anxiety for the reader. Often, this anxiety causes the reader to speed up their pace, quiet themselves until they can’t be heard, or stop and comment on the text. Every time you run into a hiccup like this, it affects the experience for all the players. We tested the narrative with numerous groups and noticed: the better the reader the more attached to the story players became.

Jason Charles Miller –who coincidentally is the voice actor of Drizzt Do’Urden from Menzoberranzan– read an early version for a playtest. The clarity with which he read the story had the group completely enwrapped. On the other end, readers who were uncomfortable and inarticulate often lost their audience a few lines in. Of course, most groups fell somewhere in between.

We found that there were three areas that needed to be refined to get a readable story: Length, Vocabulary, and Dialogue.

To create a story that works for the majority, it can’t be too long. In the first iteration, the shards each had their own personalities and often spoke to the Shard Masters psychically, seducing them with offerings of power with the ultimate goal of obliterating all of reality for reasons to complex to get into. It didn’t work.  Readers would hit their anxiety point about 25% of the way through a section. Everything needed to be shortened and simplified. A thousand words were whittled down to two-hundred or less; we didn’t just kill my darlings, we laid waste to them.

Then there’s the issue of reading dialogue; the more characters in a scene the more confusion. When we could, the story was reduced down to one character, and only two, if it was made clear who was speaking. Having all the Shard Masters arguing and their shards independently and telepathically manipulating them didn’t make it through a single reading unscathed.

Next, there’s the issue of vocabulary. When we playtested, I’d often ask if there were any words people didn’t understand. When multiple groups would mention the same word, it would be replaced or removed. For example, “reliquary” is not a word people find easy to pronounce and many don’t know what it means. This word, and others like it, often tripped up a reader and broke the flow of the story. A reliquary, by the way, is a container for holy relics.

Once we refined those three components enough –length, vocabulary, dialogue– the story took shape: playtesters felt more comfortable reading aloud and their audiences understood the story.

After it was all written we faced the next challenge: formatting. I won’t go into a lot of detail, suffice to say that the way your text is laid out on a page affects a person’s ability to read it. After all, screenplays and novels have different formatting for a reason, it only makes sense that story-based games would too. Here are a few notes about that process:

  • Bolded dialogue encouraged people to give a voice to the characters.

  • Removing hyphenated lines and words at sentence breaks improved readability.

  • Keeping the story from bleeding onto the next page to improved flow.

  • Larger font size and line spacing was helpful for many readers.

  • By using images to support descriptions, readers could show off the pictures to cement a character in their audience’s minds.

Shadow of Salvation has been an awesome project to work on, and we are finally at the last challenge. The part where your work is finally released into the world and you get to hear the answer to the most important question of all: Do people like it?

Well, Shards of Infinity: Shadow of Salvation comes out this summer (you pick up a copy a Gen Con) and we couldn’t be more excited to hear your answer.

George Rockwell