We bandy about a lot of pretentious terms when we’re talking to each other. One is this idea of narrative authority. When we say narrative authority, we’re talking about who is allowed to say what happens in the story. One of the things about indie RPGs I find most compelling is the way responsibility for the story gets divided up among more people than in classical RPGs. But it’s only been recently that we’ve been talking about interpretive authority.
Again, terminology gives me hives so I’ll clarify what I mean here. When I say interpretive authority, I’m talking about the ability for someone at the table to re-interpret something in the story. It’s not creation whole-cloth. Rather, it’s when a previously introduced element is recast to have new properties or meaning. Unlike with narrative authority, which is concerned with “what is?”, interpretive authority is concerned with “what does that mean?”. When a bridge across a chasm is later determined to be a rope-bridge and consequently turned into a bunch of rope to tie up villains, or the combination to a safe ends up being the birthdate of a character formerly unrelated to the safe owner, the person who decided this new property exercises interpretive authority.
John and I were talking recently about Exalted, a game that Austin has a deep and complex relationship with, that I have never cared for or about. I was trying to hash out what my problems with it were, and we stumbled on something I think is interesting. What follows may be rambling.
Other people have talked about implied setting before, notably Ryan Macklin. The short version is that there are two ways to communicate the setting of your game to the potential players: one, stated setting, is by outright telling it to them (“The Order of the Basilisk was formed in 1132 by the archmage Rowan Farlight, to counter the forces of the warlord Grum…”) and the other, implied setting, is by hinting at it through bits of the game’s content (“Spell: the Basilisk’s Eye. When you cast this spell, anyone loyal to the warlord Grum glows with a faint aura visible only to you…”).
What I want to talk about, though, is a distinction that is related, but different: the distinction between living setting and calcified setting. ETA: by living setting, I mean setting that is amenable to addition, typically through play. By calcified setting, I mean setting that has a definite canonical form that does not admit of change.
This is a post about a general topic, inspired by an issue I’m working on in Et in Arcadia Ego. I’ll start with the specific.
In Et in Arcadia Ego, conflict and drama revolve around social issues. The question of duels is still an open one, but generally speaking, no one is going to throw a punch. So, that said, I’ve been thinking about what kind of harm and consequences one can derive from such a conflict. To do that, I’ve had to think about what I mean by “harm and consequences”.
Recently, I joined an Exalted game a friend of mine was running. After nearly a year of indie-only play, I came to the game with fresh eyes. I was surprised once I got into it, though, at my comparative lack of frustration at the long list of obtuse rules. Don’t get me wrong, many rules in Exalted make me want to set the world on fire. But I didn’t just slam the book down and back out of the game. Instead I got roped into this wonderlandian rabbit hole of Exalted character generation. I wondered why it hooked me so much when I knew that ultimately, Exalted just isn’t my schtick. It got me thinking about pre-play in general, and what keeps people attached to crunch and rules-heavy games like Exalted or D&D.
And then it hit me. At no other point in these more traditional games do you make nearly as many decisions as you do when making a character. The joy, the real good stuff, is in that early sweep of decision-making. You get to define a person, optimize them, stylize them, dress them, power them, engineer them for the moments of badassery you want them to have. There’s a relevant quote from the movie You’ve Got Mail here:
“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”
Well, Gen Con was utterly fantastic, despite feeling like I’ve been run over by a steamroller even a few days later. We got to meet nerd-famous people, hang out with friends, and to at least some extent, play games. One of those games was run by me, and was a game of Becoming Heroes inspired by Dr. Who. A few people expressed interest in hearing about it, so I figured I would write it up and post it here. Caveat: this post is long, despite only representing two hours of play.
A bit of context. Graham Walmsley was the inspiration behind running a game at all; left to my own devices, I would’ve stayed in the booth for another few hours. I’m much, much happier that we did get to run a game. Unfortunately, Graham couldn’t make it to that actual game, so I thought that I wouldn’t have an audience. Games on Demand is magic, though, and within a few minutes there was a full table of players eager to learn the game.
Right. On with the show.
I’ve been talking with Alex P. about the theory of multi-party Magic: the Gathering games. He brought up the idea of exploration of the design space as a valuable resource. Magic‘s designers have defined a large and interesting (but easy-to-grok) design space, and have gradually been exploring it.
So, I’ve been wondering how this might relate to RPGs. The well-explored routes seem to be either
- Release one book, that explains the design space as much as that space will be explored, or
- Release many books that, largely, tend to expand the design space, because what was previously defined was already full.
What I’m suggesting, I guess, is to release one book that doesn’t fully explore the space defined by the rules, and when more books come out, have them stay within the bounds defined by the premises of the rules, rather than add new space to the rules.
Gen Con was fantastic. Thanks to all the people, too many to name, who made it awesome. We sold well, we played well, and we had a great time. Particular thanks to Ryan Macklin, Jason Morningstar and Allie McCarthy for their help with advice on how to sell and pitch.
For anyone who bought the book and didn’t give us their email (I think that there are one or two of you), contact us so we can get you a PDF copy.
Thanks for a wonderful year, and we hope to see you all next year!
Well, there’s one more day of Gen Con, and Transneptune Games has had—and hope to keep having—a great time. I’m taking a breather from the gaming, socializing, selling and accidental game designing, to recuperate.
If you’re here, and you’ve not said hi yet, come by booth 1745 in Entrepreneurs’ Avenue. Unless you find us tonight, we probably won’t be able to run Becoming Heroes for you this year, but hopefully we’ll see you next year and we can play it—and whatever games we’ve produced between now and then.
3:16 Carnage amongst the Stars action announcements Apocalypse World authority balance Becoming Heroes being awesome blank pages boundaries cards character creation choice D&D death design designers Dread epic Et in Arcadia Ego Exalted Fiasco fun game tasting gaming Gen Con GM history How We Came to Live Here Leverage mechanics models motivation Mouse Guard My Life with Master narrative space Primetime Adventures setting situation Spirit of the Century story theater theme theory world-building
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