As designers and players, we’re into narrative-focused, story-oriented games. Such games typically eschew complex mechanics in favor of one or two thin premises and a boat-load of charm. So what then, do we have to say about the “crunch”—the technical rules—in our games? Surprisingly, we spend a fair amount of time debating how to mechanize everything from war to afternoon tea.

Game mechanics are not optional in a role-playing game. If done correctly, they can re-emphasize the narrative, in the same way that a picture frame can help a viewer focus on a painting or courses in a meal help a diner enjoy an elaborate meal. If done wrong, they become a distraction to telling a story. In some examples, they may subvert the role-playing altogether as players concentrate more on leveling up than saving kingdoms or winning love.

Here’s the thing I find essential: Mechanics in RPGs are as much a form of world-building as the setting of a game; perhaps moreso. As Austin pointed out about Exalted, when the mechanics of your game don’t support the fiction of your story, the entire affair approaches farce. That, incidentally, is one of the reasons that indie games so frequently have novel mechanics and concentrate on stories of a particular type. By stripping down the system to just the pieces that are essential to establishing the feel of the game, a designer can push players towards styles of play that those mechanics are good for.

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Peter Brook’s excellent The Empty Space has been my reading of late. It’s a wonderful book on theater, but not wholly irrelevant to thinking about role-playing games, either. There are many parallels one can draw between gaming and other media—novels or short stories, plays, improv, movies, TV shows—and much to be gained from looking at media with longer critical traditions.

So, Brook has been talking about the problems with the various participants in an instance of theater. He has moved from the actors and directors through the audience and reached the writers. Audience and actors are clear enough roles in a role-playing game, and director is even relatively clear, but there’s an important sense in which there is no writer—or, to be more precise, no one author. Each participant takes on this role in some fashion at different times, even in the most GM-heavy game. So what does Brook have to say about group authorship?

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Hey there! My name’s Austin, and I form the third part of Transneptune’s game design trifecta. I got into gaming in high school, starting with Dungeons & Dragons. From there, I spent many winters playing World of Darkness and thinking about a game called Exalted. The latter influenced my game design ideas in pretty big ways, so I’m going to begin with saying that despite its many problems, I do love that game in all kinds of ways. But nevertheless, here are some things I’ve observed about Exalted.

The first thing I noticed about Exalted is the idea of Being Awesome. The Stunt mechanic exemplifies this idea. The concept that player characters should Be Awesome is not an integral part of every game nor should it be. Its sense of whimsical empowerment is particularly unsuited for Noir, Mystery and Survival Horror. But when I was playing Mage: the Ascension and D&D, I was always haunted by the suspicion that the game was promising more than it delivered. D&D may have elves, but when I played it, it was no LotR. It was just a bunch of morally questionable guys killing orcs and taking their stuff. When I met Exalted, I thought I had found what I was looking for, the Awesome.

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Role-playing games traditionally don’t have an audience. Not as such, anyway. Rather, all the participants are audience and auteur. Many indie games (Polaris, Shock:, perhaps even In a Wicked Age) play with the idea of rotating narrative authority, such that at any given time, some of the participants will be audience. Some of these games give different (mechanical) roles to the audience, but I want to talk about something slightly different, more general.

Playing a role-playing game can be exhausting. It takes focus, creativity, willingness to put forth ideas without fear of judgment, and more. It can be very useful to take some time as the audience to recuperate from a turn in the spotlight. Some people will have more energy for the spotlight roles, and those that don’t, shouldn’t be ashamed. But the most important thing about this, I think, is that while the audience role may be receptive, it is not passive.

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I’ll chime in in kind!

I’m Kit. Similar to John, I got my start in RPGs with AD&D years ago, and took a meandering path from there through other games, until I ended up firmly in White Wolf’s World of Darkness territory for most of highschool and college. I had repeatedly skirted the amorphous land of indie games, until moving to Boulder, where John showed me the light, as it were.

On to the point. I’ve been thinking about situation, action and character lately. My friend Griffin has provided me with some interesting food for thought in discussing Aristotelian drama. Leaving aside much that’s extraneous, what seems applicable to roleplaying games is this: characters respond to situation through action, creating new situation, and actions in response to situations express character. If we take “character” less as “an agent or avatar in the game world” and more as a literary entity, the marks on our character sheet (assuming we have one!) exist just to remind us how to react to situations, to express that character.

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The first step of creation is to go from nothing to something.

Hello! My name is John LeBoeuf-Little and I’m working with Kit and Austin under the auspices of Transneptune Games. I thought I’d kick off this blog with a post about my background and what we’ve been cooking up here in the labs. I’m sure the others are going to chime in shortly in kind.

I’ve been gaming since I was in middle school, having pleaded my way into my infinitely cooler sister’s Dungeons and Dragons game. Later on I moved onto the World of Darkness, including assisting with the Rice Mind’s Eye Theater LARP with a very good friend of mine who started the game in his back-yard. I’m a bit of a game snob and recently have been enamored of all things indie. Which is somewhat how I got roped into helping design In a Dragon-Guarded Land.

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