When we came up with the Circumstances system in Becoming Heroes, I’d thought we’d hit upon a really awesome mechanic that allows for fantastic moments of awesome. And I still do. But that observation has been tempered in a number of ways in the last year, and it deserves reconsideration.

Let me fill in some blank areas. I’m male, I’m white, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a good job. I am, sort of, the canonical example of privilege. I may have mentioned elsewhere that it occupies a lot of my mind. I bring this up because during last year’s Gen Con, and recently via Twitter, I have seen people in positions of less privilege identify loss of character authority as a sore spot.

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So in the Dragon Age computer/console games, you fight these endless hordes of faceless monsters called Darkspawn. The hero of the story must kill their leader in order to neutralize the giant horde of them that is threatening the ambiguously middle-ages european landscape. These monsters are the giant threat that the hero must deal with, but ultimately the hero’s victory over the Darkspawn is unsatisfying because the hero faces a foe that represents no moral quandary. Even the final boss, the Big Bad, is a mook! It is as faceless as its minions—despite being a fallen Elder God it offers no commentary, no insight whatsoever on the human or trans-human condition. It merely roars and directs its mindless masses. Luckily, I am finding that the sequel is much better about this, though certainly not perfect.

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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.

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This distinction has been brought up many times by many people, though not as much in reference to gaming, and not in so many words. The gist of this distinction is historical: Epic protagonists from ancient sagas like Gilgamesh and Beowulf do not undergo the same kind of psychological change and examination that modern ones do. Gilgamesh is what he is, and his story does not examine or care about the choices he makes nearly as much as their consequences. A lot of creation myths and parables also fit this pattern. When the character is well-defined and consequences are interesting, it can make for a decent story.

The more interesting story in my mind is the one that examines the protagonist’s choices and their motivation. Consequences figure into their psychology, and their future choices, but aren’t the focus of the story. I want to know who this protagonist is, what makes him great, and why he has decided to use his talents the way he does. If Gilgamesh is a good example of an Epic protagonist, then Gregory House might be a good example of a modern one. In the show, his actions are largely secondary to the motivations he has for them. Other characters spend the majority of the show analyzing and overanalyzing his motives, emotions and affect.

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Reading through Leverage, there’s something very interesting to be learned from the section on creating a job. In Leverage, both the show and the game, the crew’s marks are pretty much always rich and powerful, guarded by as much physical, financial, and legal protection as they want. Yet they are all still vulnerable.

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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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