Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Boldface Highlights Adventure Essentials

Tim Shorts tried something different with his recent, Patreon-supported micro-adventure, Into the Ruins. He used bold type to highlight “things of note” within scenario entries. Certainly boldface type has its traditional place in paragraph formatting, most notably as an introductory paragraph subhead labeling the subsequent text: “Chamber 3: Guard Post. Five orcs cluster around a wooden table, tossing dice and drinking ale....” But reading Tim’s micro-adventure and then perusing some classic modules from my youth demonstrated that peppering adventure text with notable boldfaced words has been a layout convention since the beginning of the roleplaying game hobby. I suppose I’ve always been subconsciously aware of this, but it took Tim blatantly pointing this out to bring it to my attention and kindle my interest in how it was used in other published work, particularly modules supporting my earliest immersion in Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced D&D.

As a veteran editor I’m sensitive to the use of extraordinary formatting, especially practices that seem to have no immediately apparent rationale. People like consistency, whether when eating food* or reading text. Editors and authors rely on style guides to provide rules for using italics, primarily when referring to proper titles of books, magazines, and films, as well as foreign words and a few other instances. Boldface does not share that hallowed place in many academic style guides. A quick survey of my reference collection (The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and my every-handy Harbrace College Handbook) shows many discourage the use of boldface or ignore it completely, usually for archaic considerations of typesetting and wire-service technicalities. The Acorn Stylebook, from my first job as a reporter at my hometown weekly newspaper, notes “Bold face may be in either Roman or italic type. It is used for cutlines [photo captions in newspaper-speak], subheads, headlines, etc.” Oddly enough it discourages the acceptable practice of italicizing titles of books and other media but says italics can occasionally serve to give emphasis to certain words.

[*If I gained anything from being subjected to Gordon Ramsey’s “screaming chef” reality show Hell’s Kitchen – aside from a revulsion toward the reality show genre – it’s that consistency is key to providing good food service.]

Gaming publications, however, rely on boldface as a necessary staple; while italics might offer some light emphasis, nothing stands out on a page of text like a boldfaced word. While the venerable Star Wars Roleplaying Game Style Guide used italics to highlight attribute and skill names in the text, game stats employed a host of boldfaced labels for easy reference. The short-form paragraph stat formats often led off with a bold name header: “Gorlik the Bounty Hunter. All stats are 2D except....” Full stat formats listed each element with a bold title noting every key stat. Publishers often put “read aloud” text in boldface to help gamemasters find these references on the page and presumably make them easier to read (and not stumble into non-player information); sometimes these simply appeared in boxes rather than boldface. These formatting conventions remain pretty consistent within gaming publications. Other publishers relied on boldface like West End used italics to denote game jargon. But highlighting key elements within non-stat text using boldface type?

Yet TSR used the technique frequently in rulebooks and adventures, at least in the early 1980s, the period from which I have most of my classic D&D and AD&D material. The first-edition AD&D trilogy of rulebooks primarily use boldface for references to internal sections or other books; but by the 1981 Moldvay-edition of Basic D&D (and presumably the Holmes interpretation of the original little brown books, which I do not own) boldface sees far wider use to highlight core game concepts (“caller,” “mapper” and “saving throw” for example), spell names, and internal/external references. At first glance the ubiquitous use of bold type in early D&D modules seems...reckless. Every few sentences words pop out in bold beyond the expected use to denote entry numbers and titles, or sometimes noting the first few words in a paragraph as a reference marker. But looking at these a bit closer, one realizes there’s some rationale, not always consistent among products, but a method to the seeming madness. A quick review of the old D&D and AD&D modules I have shows a somewhat consistent use of bold type to highlight important text: primarily spells (hold person), magic items (sword +1), and internal/external references (“Using the Wandering Monsters table...”) but occasionally monsters or monster types (undead), single-letter references (such as a map notation: “This room is similar to #6...”), and just seemingly appropriate bits to emphasize. This is by no means a comprehensive review, but the use of boldface seems to follow these somewhat consistent conventions, at least within individual products. At some point in 1983, however, the use of boldface for emphasis was phased out in favor of italics (though it was still widely used in subheads and paragraph labels).

Boldface certainly helps words stand out on pages of solid text or those with minimal graphic elements. (Tables also break up infamous “walls of text” while also imparting or summarizing essential reference information.) Looking at earlier works such as The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor (one of the few Judges Guild products I’ve acquired as examples of early gaming publications) one notices the limited font choices (if any) and how vast paragraphs of game information can make the eyes gloss over without typographical techniques (boldface, all-caps) to emphasize key elements.

I’m no expert, nor have I made a comprehensive review of all roleplaying game products ever published; but I get the general impression the use of boldface for internal text reference is not widespread in roleplaying game publishing from the late 1980s onward. Even skimming my admittedly limited collection of Old School Renaissance (OSR) materials – many of which purport to embody the spirit of classic games that shaped the hobby – shows few embraced this use of boldface emphasizing key rules and adventure elements. Maybe we need to consider returning to this trend...with some consistent rationales, of course. Reading those old D&D modules one sees how easily essential encounter elements stand out on the page: the spells adversaries can use, the magic items characters can find among the treasure, references to other chambers that relate to the current encounter. Highlighting these with boldface helps gamemasters quickly find information while skimming pages of text, making their job easier whether they’ve read the module beforehand or are running it on the fly.