Transneptune Games

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The Boundary Paradox

Earlier, I talked about how boundaries figured into Being Awesome, and into Exalted. After some thought, I realized that there was a lot going on with this idea of boundaries in RPGs.

Boundaries do two things simultaneously. They limit the game from the creative infinite, and create an identity for the game that is unique to it. Setting makes up some of the game’s boundaries, but in play it is often the case that rules do most of the grunt work. But this makes sense because all games are defined by rules. Without rules you do not have a game, you have Calvin Ball. Rules define a simply incredible volume of a game by their very presence, though a full discussion of how and why “System Matters” is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say, rules define a great deal about the tone of a game, and how it’s played.

Some boundaries are harder than others, though. Fictional positioning tends to create the weakest, but most interesting, kind of boundary. Small mormon town in the rockies in the 1800’s is fairly well defined, though the actions of the players can change or completely break the fictional boundaries that defined the town if they really try at it. Other boundaries, the mechanical ones that adjudicate the outcomes of dice rolls and the like, these are harder. It’s understood that unless your storyteller has a particular problem with them, those rules are not to be broken or altered. These rules typically outline and limit, among other things, the influence the characters have over various things within the fictional space of the game. In Exalted for example, you may be a god-king but you simply cannot get certain magics until Essence X.

I am a big fan of giving players more power, more influence, more control. But you do need to put some constraints on the players in order to make things interesting. Even more relevantly, you need to make your what-happens mechanic support the point of the game. And that requires making rules, setting the mechanical identity of the game apart from the creative infinite in a useful way.

So boundaries, even the hard ones, are necessarily all over any gamespace. This is certainly true for our game, In a Dragon-Guarded Land. For example, we make a big deal in the book about how Traits (the defining bits of your character) are facts. No one can take the fictional boundaries they represent away from your character. If your character is Silent as the Air, then they are. The important fact about that kind of boundary is how it’s less like a ceiling and more like a buttress—it defines and supports the players even while it gives their influence definite shape. This is exactly the kind of boundary that you want—a kind of horizontal boundary rather than a vertical one. One that clearly defines the fiction and informs character and player choices, but in a way that those very characters or players can later grab a hold of and use.

John’s earlier post about failure and side effect is especially relevant here, because what a side effect does is create new fictional boundaries in the game that do not put a ceiling on the character. This obviously ties heavily into Being Awesome. A while back I read some post somewhere about how straight up task failure (like in D&D, Exalted, most trad games) often breaks a player’s belief in their own character. As in, a swashbuckler who misses 50% of the time is not much of a swashbuckler! Suddenly the system is taking the assumptions that the player created about their character and refuting them. This is a disease that will mercilessly murder any attempt at Being Awesome. Complications in Leverage, as a counter-example, bound the fiction in a way that the player can use to spotlight their character’s Awesomeness.

And when I said in my previous post that boundaries needed to be broken in the interest of Being Awesome, I came to realize an interesting fact. If you try to break mechanical boundaries as part of your game, you end up in this paradoxical position of not having boundaries (as such) to break but still needing to break them for Being Awesome. This is probably doomed, though I’d love to see someone try their hand at it. Instead, what Exalted should have done is have it be possible to break the fictional boundaries of the game. Players should, when playing god-kings, say “Lunars can’t learn Adamant Circle Sorcery? Pish Posh, say I! I will show you how it’s done!”. Even this path is fraught though, because any boundary that ceases to limit is no longer a boundary. As soon as you break a boundary, it isn’t. Ideally, Exalted should have been set up to allow it’s players to change the setting in grand, sweeping fashions. In case you’re wondering, as it stands, it’s really hard to do it without many tons of XP. This way you get horizontal boundaries and genuine Awesome without having to tangle with the real boundary paradox that exists for setting- and mechanically-defined boundaries.

4 responses to “The Boundary Paradox”

  1. One corollary idea I would bring up in this context is that of Exceptions. Boundaries, and boundary breaking, are both super powerful, but if applied universally lead to the kind of breakdown that you mention. There is a middle ground to be found with exceptions – maybe Lunars can’t use Adamant Sorcery, but also maybe _this_ Lunar can (in fact, I seem to recall one of the canonical Dragon Blooded NPCs fits this to a T).

    The difference between breaking the barrier and establishing an exception is that status as an exception is a more sustainable positive state. Exceptions draw attention and interest, things that drive play. They also, somewhat paradoxically, _reinforce_ the boundaries that they broke – the more you stress that the character is an exception, the more their being an exception matters.

    Now, it’s not a totally painless solution. First, you need to stick to it: if you’re going to open to door to an exception, you need to shut it soon afterwards, otherwise you end up with a pile of Me Too. This may mean that one player’s exception explicitly shuts off an avenue from other players. Such a thing needs to be handled delicately, but done right, it can make for a stronger game.

    More importantly, the setting needs to have its exceptions excised before play. Leave a few, if absolutely necessary, but by and large any NPC exception you find in a setting has stolen a slot that should belong to a PC. Simple as that. Kill them and make room for your players.

    -Rob D.

    1. This is what appealed to me about Four Colors al Fresco. It’s very make-up is built around exceptions, and how your characters defy the rules of the world. Each character is imbued with a unique ability that is beyond normal understanding. However, the exception is constrained within a domain – outside that domain, the character is normal, or perhaps even weak.

      There’s a lot of appeal to mechanizing the ways in which a character can break the rules. As you rightly point out, though, without some sort of plan for how to make characters stand out, you simply end up with a game in which anyone can “take a level in Wizard”. I think there’s a current push to help players define characters that stand out by precluding people from taking the same schticks.

      1. Apocalypse World‘s characters, for one obvious example. I think that this is at least part of the impulse behind any group-creation mechanic, too, though—3:16 Carnage amongst the Stars even has this sort of impulse.

  2. My thoughts immediately fly to 3:16. The game’s mechanical boundaries reinforcing your role in the setting: all you can really do is go down to a planet and kill things there. If you want to break out of your role as a soldier of genocide, you’ve gotta make up the rules as you go along.

    — Alex