Warm & Crinkly

    “In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do and of course I’m doing it with all fjords again because I happen to like them, and I’m old fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough. Equatorial!” He gave a hollow laugh. “What does it matter? Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”
    “And are you?”
    “No. That’s where it all falls down of course.”

– The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams

I picked up my first copy of Hitchhiker's at the "Seven-Day Store" on Quantico, a convenience shop where Marines would go for Doritos and beer. They had a wall-rack of paperbacks with distinct leanings for the target audience: science fiction, spy novels, self-help books. They stocked the whole trilogy (this was in the last few months of it being a trilogy in the mundane sense), and after reading the back covers, I knew I wanted them. After begging a couple extra quarters from my father, I had just enough for the first one; I'd get the others as soon as I could.

I met Slartibartfast that night as I raced through the book, addicted from page one. Like that X-Men Annual that would show me a magic item before I needed magic items, Slartibartfast taught me fjords and "lovely crinkly edges" before I needed fjords and lovely crinkly edges. Later on, when I'd sit down to draw my first coastline for an RPG fantasy world, I'd settle for nothing less than a lovely baroque feel, and I knew I wouldn't care how equatorial it was.

Slartibartfast is the source of my obsession with crinkly coastlines, but that's just one facet of warmth, a quality I treasure at every level of RPG creation.

When I wrote about the basic qualities of good RPG writing, pre-blog readers may have noticed the abridged version of my usual laundry list, with "warmth" conspicuously absent. There are three reasons for that. First, that article was focused on RPG writing, while my love of warmth extends also into design and production. Second, warmth thus rated a place in the RPG Lexicon series, and here we are. Finally, and importantly: some genuinely good RPG writing is ice cold, and while my love of warm design is absolute and eternal, it would be unfair to include it on list of fundamental RPG writing ingredients.

Warmth in RPG design is something I love, design toward, seek out, and talk about. What's more, I'm often stopped mid-rant and asked to explain it, because I seem to be simultaneously describing a game's systems, worlds, adventures, cartography, typography, illustrations, page design, themes, philosophies, morals, politics, history and resources. But that's only because I am.

The version most people understand immediately is warmth as it applies to color: the red/orange/yellow side of the color wheel is traditionally the "warm" side, with the green/blue/violet side traditionally "cool." I'd love to tell you this stems from some deep spiritual properties inherent in the magic of color (because that would be romantic, and romance is warm) but the ice-cold truth is that of simple association: yellow with sunlight, red with blood and red-hot iron, flames with all three, and so on, while blue and it's neighbors evoke cool water, cool evenings, cool forest glades and death by frostbite. It's not magical or mysterious, but the emotional and thematic impact of color choice is difficult to overstate. It's more than just hue, too. Saturation connotes more warmth than de-saturation: the greyer a color is, the cooler it is, even if it's orange fire greying to cooler ash. Brightness, too, tends to connote more warmth than cold darkness, so this hits every part of the HSB graph (translate to RGB or CMYK at need).

In other graphic terms, straight lines and sharp corners are frosty; wavy and curvy are warm. The same associative logic applies to arrangements and spatial relationships: a perfect line is cold, but perfect parallel lines are even colder (distance is cold, too, so if they're parallel but far apart, that's even colder). A row of perfectly spaced, perfectly-aligned boxes may as well be ice cubes, especially if there's lots of cold air between them. Warm elements relate imperfectly and hug closer; they're too alive for symmetry (life is warm and death is cold). A hand-drawn line is the warmest line, because it feels more human, more organic, more personal, more likely to collide with something or even trip over itself. A perfect vector line is cold because it's mechanical, devoid of individuality, devoid of texture or deviation. Idiosyncrasy is warm.

Warmth is casual and playful; formality and conformity are cold. Warmth relaxes, kicks off its shoes, but it loves socks, because softness is warm. Fluffy is warm. Warm reclines by the fireplace, because actual warmth is warm. Sensuality is warm. Blankets and rugs, slippers and towels, warm from the hot dryer on a cold day. That's one of my favorite little ironies: if your RPG setting is wintry, it's more likely to have warmth, because if it's ice-cold (hard, sparse, dark) outside, a lot of the imagery will be about cozy coats and bulky sweaters, Viking halls with firepits, welcoming inns with hearthside ale, yellow light in frosted windowpanes, the life-saving guts of a light-sabered Tauntaun. Norway is cold but it isn't cold, because Slartibartfast gave it crinkles and Norwegians keep it cozy.

All these things bridge toward emotional and conceptual warmth, because home is warm. Home is lived-in, used, rumpled, messy. Home smells like cooking and pets and grandma's farts, and all those are warm. Brewing coffee is warm, baking bread is warm. The word WELCOME on a mat is warm, and the sentiment "welcome" even moreso, because sentiment is warm. Hugs are warm and love is warm and comforts are warm. The past can seem warmer than the future, partly because familiarity is warm, but the quality isn't limited to the past. Serenity is a warmer starship than Enterprise precisely because it feels so lived-in, homey, messy, imperfect, dirty. It wears its past on its sleeve so the heart rides with it. Fortunately, Leonard McCoy brings the warmth of a thousand suns, so Enterprise is fine.

Fallibility is warm; awkwardness is warm. Cold speaks to the intellect but warmth to the heart, so failure is warm, yearning is warm, well-meaning mistakes and embarrassment are warm. Sincerity and hope: warm. Sympathy is warm. Friendship is warm. Variety is warm. Humanity is warm. Fear is cold but every cure for it is warm. Courage is warm. Passion is warm. Contradiction is warm, and that's a good thing, because if you're designing for warmth, you'll meet more than a few contradictions, because this stuff isn't algebra (math is cold!) There are times when, according to context and connotation, any of these observations gets flipped on its ear. That makes it unpredictable but, that's okay. Unpredictability is warm! Just, not consistently.

This term is crucial to the lexicon because warmth is one of the stars I steer my work by: a core design ideal. That's not to say I don't also work with ice. Like with Norway, ice provides the contrast that makes the warmth brighter. Plus, sticking purely with warmth would be homogeneous, and that's cold. See? It's an excellent source of your daily irony.

It's also, as a gamer, a quality I crave, and I frequently go hungry. For a variety of cultural reasons, cold is the predominant temperature in RPG design, writing, and production, and has been across the hobby's history. There are, of course, many delightful exceptions, and I search them out, scoop them up, hug them, and game with them.

If you've been following this series, I'm sure you can't help but notice that the Invisible Rulebooks have a hold on me, in part, because they're rich in warmth and warmth-potential. The gaming territory they represent is the messy place outside the vehicle, as it were. It's about putting your feet on uneven ground, where the rules aren't just unseen, they're soft, malleable, irregular, contradictory, and ultimately down to the natures of fictional characters and the idiosyncrasies of a human GM. The resulting form of play is so frequently marvelous it kind of spoils me, on both sides of the screen, because that arrangement only works when there's a powerful mutual confidence in everyone's intentions and abilities. A confidence that, when it's present, warms the bones of every piece of related game design.

I'm sure there's a word for that, somewhere down the winding back-country road of the lexicon.