Transneptune Games

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Epic Heights

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.

But Exalted suffered from the same sickness as the other two. At the outset of D&D, Mage and Exalted, you are told you are Awesome. But this is not really so. It’s true that if you look upon any small level of Exalted, isolated from the rest of the game, individual charms or small parts of the setting are Awesome. Perfect Defenses especially—you hold up your hand against the blood-stained blades of evil and say “You shall not strike me, for my will is law like the rising of the sun”. Totally awesome… in theory. But in play it becomes sanitized of that epic, Be Awesome feeling. And that fact amazes me.

So let’s review this idea of epic, because it ties into Being Awesome on more than a few levels. What is epic? In games, epic seems to mean getting what you want, getting it in a compelling way, and breaking (or not having) any and all boundaries to doing so. Getting what you want is obvious—Achilles didn’t not kill every Trojan he possibly could after Patroklos died. He wanted to kill them and he did. Getting what you want in a compelling way is a little more obscure, subject to individual interests, and is experienced by the player rather than the character. Achilles might have had to hit all those guys with a sword, but if we as players must roll to hit every one of them, then the feeling of epic is lost. At least for me. If I’m so Awesome, why do I have to roll against DV/AC eighty five hundred times? This is a psychological thing—I can’t maintain interest in a three-hour combat session filled with such utter tedium. Even Homer, who describes hundreds of ships and their names and their occupants earlier, doesn’t describe every guy struck by achilles. Their deaths are compared to the lowering of the tides or the crashing of waves, and that is in fact epic in tone. The last notion is boundary breaking, or the lack of boundaries. Achilles has no martial boundaries that have ever been written about. And Beowulf really should not have been able to kill Grendel’s mother, who is completely badass, yet he does. Not a terribly difficult idea, but this rapidly becomes a contrast issue in play. If every PC and every guy they encounter are God-Kings wielding amazing power, then effectively no one is a God-King wielding amazing power. The whole standard of expectations is shifted back onto a level plane. Other kinds of boundaries, narrative or setting or otherwise, must exist because if the players are solipsistic gods in a universe of their own making then there’s no interest. You need antagonism and contraints to shape that boundless creativity into something compelling. But you also need to break those constraints and antagonists in interesting ways to maintain an epic tone. So in an epic game especially, the boundaries that constrict the characters must change in order to reflect the fact that the PC‘s are breaking them. This ties into Kit’s ideas about heroes, situations and actions.

So back to the game. Exalted fails to be epic because the mechanics inhibit PCs getting what they want in a way that does not add value to the experience of the game. In order to break boundaries for great epicness, one must have boundaries to break, and I understand that. But Exalted shies away from doing this, from letting players break the rules of combat or war or socializing. At least, on any level that isn’t utterly trivial. It even shies away from setting-based boundary breaking, as X and Y type Exalt can’t ever learn Q level sorcery or martial arts or whatever. And further, as mentioned before, if every one in the game is a God-King, same as their antagonists, then there is no contrast to give what very few boundaries they can break significance. Because everyone can break them, they aren’t boundaries. So in Exalted we have alleged God-Kings, who are rarely different from their fellows in power, saddled with a very clunky system that tries to bring them down at every turn. And even if they can get what they want—to block that guy’s sword, for example—the aesthetic of it is totally screwed because he has seven more attacks this tick and you have to roll them all. On top of that, instead of just saying you can block it, you have this Mote mechanic that says that no matter how great you are as a swordsman, you can only get that sword-related action you want so many times. So where is that epic power of ancient God-Kings?

The big lesson that I took away from all this, the one that constantly advised my contributions to In a Dragon-Guarded Land, is that you need a Unity of Effect in your game design. Poe spoke those words about fiction, but they are especially relevant in games because of the lack of control designers and storytellers have over the destination of their material. Every element of your game must, on every level, support and enhance the point of playing your game.

In my next post, I hope to explore more about Being Awesome, epic tones, and how these are both different from heroism.

4 responses to “Epic Heights”

  1. “Every element of your game must, on every level, support and enhance the point of playing your game.” Standing ovation; let’s be friends.

    The medium must suit the message. Dread is a perfect example of this. Polaris is also a good example. At least, in my estimation.

    That was a cruel tease by starting with setting Exalted on a pedestal…really got me riled.

    You raise a REALLY interesting point re: boundaries and breaking them. As a DM, you don’t want things to seem hokey– but there’s got to be limits and they are indeed there to be broken. Looking forward to seeing where this conversation goes.

    1. How does one make every element of the game, on every leve, support and enhance the point of playing? That, I think, is the trick. Especially while trying to uphold some other general principles.

      That said, it’s more than a good aim; it’s what every game should be.

  2. Zac in Virginia Avatar
    Zac in Virginia

    Last time I played Exalted, I felt deeply constrained by the rules when it came to picturing my character as competent.
    Easy example: my PC was an Abyssal diplomat-caste with a Charm that let me hurl green fire (eldritch fire, perhaps!) at my foes. Unfortunately, perhaps because I hadn’t sufficiently twinked my character (i.e. it could have been my fault for not gaming the system), my green flames almost always whirled around my foes without hitting them.
    Ron Edwards talked about the whiff factor – it’s not about being amazing all the time, it’s about having your character’s failures be *interesting*. It is totally okay if I miss with Eldritch Blast – provided that it doesn’t just go poof, harmlessly, and do absolutely nothing. Success and failure should both move the situation forward in an interesting manner (in the case of success, sometimes maintaining the situation as-is can be interesting).

    In the particular case of Achilles, I think you could have his failures be “forward-moving” without too much trouble. Part of it would depend on establishing what’s at stake around him, and part of it would depend on how he’s characterized.
    For example – he’s a pretty prickly dude. He has amazing physical defenses, but if someone insults his honor, he’d be hard-pressed not to go off like a shot to teach them a lesson, at the expense of, say, the Greek forward position on the battlefield. When the player rolls a success on an attack roll, cue the “Your sword severs the heads of their spears!” and the “You cut his arm clear off, in an arc of blood and screams.” Success on the dice, if your character is supposed to be competent, should mean that you have just been authorized to Be Awesome.

    I think it ultimately comes down to consistency of character vision – that is, do the events of the game positively reflect your expectations, at least to a certain minimal degree?

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