Structure and Meaning in Role-Playing Game Design

Structure and Meaning in Role-Playing Game Design

Rebecca Borgstrom

Using Exalted as her text, Rebecca Borgstrom begins with the premises that every role-playing game requires a setting, and that to establish a fictional world players work within a mutually agreed upon structure to construct meaning.

Ben Underwood:

In his essay on the free-form game Everyway, Jonathan Tweet discusses the importance of constraints for character creation.


1. Introduction

Every role-playing game takes place in a fictional world - a setting.

In a session of play, players typically generate more information about the setting than they find in the canonical game materials. They may also create new rules or change canonical rules and setting elements to suit their tastes. Even if they use the game material without modifications, they choose how to assign importance to the various rules and setting elements.

Players often extrapolate connections between small details in the provided world. This creates content that they consider implicit to the canonical game. Other groups may possess a fundamentally different understanding of the setting that is equally consistent with the information the game provides.

For these reasons, the setting that one group plays in is not the setting that another group plays in. In effect, role-playing games in their static published form do not describe a specific fictional world or story. They describe a large multidimensional space of fictional worlds and stories organized by unifying data.

Here is an example.

In the canonical Exalted setting, the Scarlet Empress disappeared in Realm Year (R.Y.) 763, five years before the story begins. Every group using the canonical Exalted setting stipulates this datum. This is a constraint on all of the fictional worlds in which such groups play, but it is not a specific fictional event. There are valid instantiations of the Exalted setting in which demons kidnapped her in R.Y. 763 and other valid worlds in which she retreated, voluntarily, to the Heavenly City of Yu-Shan. Even though it is commonly understood as a specific event in a single fictional world, it is actually a constraint that some event in the world must fit.

Cover of Exalted. (White Wolf Publishing)

1.1 Motivation

This essay studies the design of the “Traits,” “Character Creation,” and “Magic” chapters of Exalted: The Fair Folk.

Exalted: The Fair Folk is set in the Wyld, a primal Ginnungagap of myth in which quite literally anything can happen. This is the void outside the canonical game world for Exalted, a place where chaos casts up fragments of stories and events. This setting does not stipulate as absolute the default assumptions for a role-playing setting, such as gravity and linear causality.

Designing the ground rules for this setting raised the question: how can one provide useful information about a setting without constraining the world presented therein?

1.2 Methodology

This essay presents a new analytical model for role-playing games.

This model looks at the structural effects of rules and setting statements without reference to their proposed meaning in the game world. This is most useful in two cases: for evaluating abstract rules and setting elements, and for thinking about the game world as an object independent of the events of play.

This essay then explores how the desire to provide useful structural support shaped the design of Exalted: The Fair Folk. It discusses key elements of the aforementioned three chapters in light of this design goal and the analytical model provided.

For convenience, since Exalted: The Fair Folk is already a cumbersome name, further mentions will omit the reference to the specific chapters under discussion.

Cover of Exalted. (White Wolf Publishing)

1.3 Core Concept

Each datum provided by a role-playing game is a trade-off between lost possibility - the stories you can no longer tell - and structure, which helps tell the stories that remain.

1.4 Overview

In section 2, this essay defines the analytical model used thereafter. This model defines the story the players tell as the outcome of a computation performed on the space of possible stories. Game data are beneficial if the structure provided allows the players to take the “right” length of time computing a satisfying series of events.

In section 3, this essay discusses the Exalted: The Fair Folk project.

In sections 4 through 6, this essay discusses the inherent structure of a role-playing game session and the stories that the players tell. It explains how Exalted: The Fair Folk uses this structure to facilitate play.

In section 7, the author presents a short summary, conclusions, and directions for future work.

2. The Model

Consider a typical situation in Exalted: three characters, having recently arrived in the capital city of a corrupt principality, set out to reform or destroy it.

The events of the story are undefined until the characters experience them in play. They could topple the Prince from his throne or save him from wicked ministers who have led him astray. They could seize command of the principality’s army to defend against an as-yet-unknown threat, or encounter an old nemesis working behind the throne and have that enemy drive them from the region.

Before the game begins there is a large space of possible stories defined by the initial premise. During the process of gaming the players progressively reduce the space of possible stories down to a single story - one set of things “happened,” while all other sets did not.

“Fun” and “satisfaction” are byproducts of this computation. This model treats them as a function of time and work - we assume that players receive maximum fun and satisfaction when the amount of time and work spent on any given part of the story is close to some optimum defined by the players’ interests.

Other sources of fun and satisfaction - gaming material that inspires the players, game books that are good reads, and so forth - are not dealt with here.

2.1 Structure and Meaning

Every time the players agree on something - implicitly or explicitly - regarding the story, that provides structure. For example, when the players agree to set their game in Germany but decide to make up the various locales and characters rather than researching them, this imposes structure on the story.

When there is sufficient structure for the players to answer a specific question regarding the imaginary world, that creates meaning. For example, when the players conclude that Mayor Franz of their characters’ hometown is corrupt, Franz’s corruption is a shared meaning that emerges from the game. If one player decides that Franz is nevertheless worthy of trust, his integrity is a personal meaning for that player that emerges from the game.

Meaning is a form of structure, but the converse is not true. If the players agree to play for exactly an hour, as in Puppetland, this imposes massive structural constraints on their game but has no specific meaning in play. It does not define any single detail of the setting or story, although it influences how each develops.

Structure in a game restricts the field of possible stories and limits the set of potentially emergent meanings. Stories are most structured after they are told. Structure and Meaning: An Example - The Storyteller proposes a premise for a new game: three characters travel to Low Fires, the capital city of a corrupt principality, and reform or destroy its corrupt government. The players agree and create three characters - Sour, Lily, and Morgan. This is structure. The players create backgrounds for their characters. Lily has family in Low Fires. She fled the region to avoid conscription into its workforce. In the course of many adventures, she cultivated her strength and found two powerful allies. Now she can return and redeem her homeland. This narrative provides additional structure and gives meaning to the events that Lily experiences. Sour and Morgan also have backgrounds that add structure to the game.

2.2 Stories

This essay defines a story as the final resolution of a specific premise, such as the typical premise mentioned above (“Three characters arrive … “)

When the players are satisfied with their ability to answer the question, “What happened regarding that premise?” their answer forms the story.

This essay focuses its attention on stories that are also traditional narratives - that is, single large-scale consistent stories defined over the course of multiple hours or even multiple sessions of play.

2.3 Gaming

This essay views gaming as a computational process.

Gaming is work, in the sense of effort over time. That work takes the form of processing the raw data - the set of possible stories applicable to the story’s premise. The players generate additional structure until a single story remains. That is, until they can answer “what happened?” in a fashion complete enough to satisfy them. Gaming: An Example - The three characters arrive in Low Fires. At this point the Storyteller does not know what will happen. In one possible story, the characters make for the Prince’s palace and launch an immediate offensive. In another, they scout the outskirts of society first, gathering data on the state of affairs. The players develop their plan: the characters will impersonate foreign dignitaries from a distant, powerful court and use this imaginary influence as leverage. Their first actions in Low Fires are to spread rumors that three great and powerful nobles will soon arrive. They sell this information to the information brokers of Low Fires society. The space of stories is now much diminished. Just as the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings cannot reasonably lead in to the second and later chapters of either The Shining or Gone with the Wind, the events now established have made their mark on the rest of the game, with permanent implications on how the story will develop.

2.4 Game Material

The rules and setting for a game facilitate play by generating some of this structure in advance. In classic “Cops and Robbers,” it is traditionally difficult to determine whether one character has successfully shot another. The “nuh unh” factor People saying “nuh unh!” when shot. obstructs simple methods of resolution. In many modern role-playing games, it is equally difficult to determine whether one character’s argument successfully convinces another; there is a similar “nuh unh” factor at work.

Exalted provides rules for combat and social situations. These allow impartial arbitration of a character’s success. Numeric character traits determine the base probability of success and dice rolls collapse that probability in practice. If the players can use these rules without contradicting their own ideas of genre, the rules structure the development of the story. They facilitate play because deciding between the stories of a character’s success and the stories of a character’s failure is quicker and less stressful.

In a similar fashion, descriptions of regions, people, cultures, and other setting details do some of a game’s storytelling work in advance. Game Material: An Example - The Storyteller does not know if the information brokers believe the characters. Referring to the Exalted rules, the Storyteller has the players make Manipulation + Socialize rolls - rolling a handful of 10-sided dice and referring to the characters’ established Traits - to determine if the characters succeed or fail. The result is success, further shaping the story.

2.5 Genre and Play Contract

The players’ ideas regarding the game and its genre also provide structure. In a game of Exalted, players generally commit to playing characters in an epic swords and sorcery saga. What this actually says about the story depends on the individual players in question, but it always says something, and it helps decide which way the story goes.

In a similar fashion players can facilitate play by making rules regarding how they’ll play the game. They may define one player as the Storyteller, whose authority on most game events is final, or decide aspects of the story they want to tell before play begins. Genre and Play Contract: An Example - At this point, it is up to the Storyteller to decide how the government reacts to the rumor that the characters have spread. In the abstract, there is no reason to think that anything in particular happens as a result. Unless the player group has a commitment to realism, there is no reason for the government to react realistically. Unless the player group has a commitment to drama, there is no reason for it to react in an interesting fashion. In practice, the player group as a whole and the Storyteller in particular have specific ideas about the kinds of stories that are interesting to tell. In almost any game, accordingly, the Storyteller reacts by processing the new information in context of the desire to tell the right kind of story and looks for “what happens next.” In this case, the Storyteller observes the players to figure out what they think is likely to happen. The players feel that the next step is to send Morgan ahead as a messenger, formally announcing their presence. The Storyteller concludes from this that the players are still working on establishing legitimacy, so she decides that no one in Low Fires has particularly strong reactions yet - but she begins working on how people will react when faced with mysterious emissaries from an unknown region.

2.6 How Good Games Go Bad

There is a certain “natural length” for a set of events in a role-playing game. This is the time frame that maximizes the players’ fun and satisfaction.

If the game has too much structure, events will proceed too quickly. For example, if a player is interested in the resolution of an epic long-term conflict, and the game rules suggest resolving it with a single Long-Term Conflict roll, the player might not have fun.

If the game has too little structure, players have to spend large amounts of time resolving questions and events that don’t interest them. For example, in games like “Cops and Robbers,” arguing over whether a robber was successfully shot is not necessarily fun for all players involved.

In practice, most games have a tiered resolution system. The amount of structure scales up or down, depending on how much time the players want to spend. Exalted is one of a large class of games where the impact of a single roll varies and the number of situations played strictly by the book varies, based on the player group’s tastes.

In games like this, where the amount of structure is scalable, there are two common failure modes for the game.

In the first failure mode, something happens for which the game can’t provide scalable structure. In a game of Dungeons & Dragons modeled on Much Ado about Nothing, the rules are almost no help. They do not speak to the matter of who finds love with whom, or when. Similarly, in Exalted, the game provides no information on how to permanently destroy the setting’s most dangerous antagonists. To matchmake in Dungeons & Dragons, or kill a Deathlord in Exalted, the player group must have a strong and shared vision of the relevant genre. If they do, or if they want to spend a long time hashing out the relevant issues, there’s no problem. If they don’t, the necessary structure isn’t present and figuring out what happens takes too long.

In the second failure mode, the structure in the game contradicts itself. The available data actually eliminates all the possible stories. This is most common when the rules demand one resolution and the players’ expectations demand another - e.g., the rules make it clear that an antagonist can kill all the protagonists and that isn’t the story that the players want to tell. How Good Games Go Bad: An Example - During this process, the Storyteller might read official game material regarding Low Fires. She discovers that the government of Low Fires has officially grown increasingly xenophobic and has been turning away most emissaries. She reads descriptions of the people and institutions responsible for this policy. This is a large unexpected dose of additional structure surrounding the resolution of the players’ plan. Discovering this structure has two possible effects. If the material is worded in such a way as to be compatible with the current direction of the story, it reduces the Storyteller’s work. There is an impending point of conflict: the emissaries risk being turned away, and the Storyteller already knows the important details of the opposition’s force. If the material totally shuts down the current story - that is, the characters will be turned away, and the entire fake-emissaries plan will fall flat - the Storyteller might have to abandon some of that structure. This is a stressor on the game itself, possibly forcing the Storyteller to spend time improvising material that she’d hoped to derive directly from the Low Fires book.

2.7 Commentary

This model focuses solely on the amount of effort gaming requires, with the presumption that this effort is fulfilling up to a point. Other factors are studied only as they manifest in this model - for instance, disputes between players increase the work of a game, while a shared sense of genre adds structure and reduces the amount of necessary work. The quality of the game experience is outside the model’s scope.

3. The Project

Exalted: The Fair Folk is set in the void beyond the world. This void is called the Wyld. It is a mystery. It is outside the world, outside traditional rules. It is not bound by the laws we know.

In the broader narrative of Exalted, stories of the Wyld are stories about impossible, indescribable places and things beyond the boundaries of the known. More important, they are stories about how more ordinary characters deal with those things. For this reason, the Wyld is “about” exploration, and spirituality, and mystery, and limitless possibility, and hope, and the recognition that people never know quite as much as they think they do.

Exalted: The Fair Folk is a game set in the same place as all the things you can’t quite make out in the corner of your eye. It’s about that place where words on the tip of your tongue live, where the ideas you’ll have tomorrow come from. It’s about knowing that no matter how much you know about the world, something could come from outside that world tomorrow and change everything.

3.1 Challenges

In Exalted: The Fair Folk anything can happen, and almost everything does. This puts the game at large natural risk for each of the two failure modes.

To avoid the first failure mode, the game must provide significant structure for any describable event. If, for example, zombie philosophers burst from the soil and deconstruct the characters’ worldview - hoping, no doubt, to devour their dazed victims’ brains - the game’s rules must handle these events smoothly.

To avoid the second failure mode, the game’s structure must not conflict with the player group’s expectations for how such an event plays out, even though the game cannot isolate those expectations before publication. Some player groups may think of zombies as unstoppable horrors; others as the grist for dark comedy. The game’s model for the zombies must support the appropriate outcome in either case.

3.2 Approach

The approach taken in Exalted: The Fair Folk is to model in the setting the mechanisms by which the player group determines the story. The low-level physics provided for the Wyld focuses on providing layers of additional structure to support the storytelling process instead of providing meaning or data in advance.

4. Something from Nothing

In a session of Exalted: The Fair Folk, the players play out the story of events in an indescribable world - a world that is functionally a mystery, still a magical thing outside the normal bounds of reality and comprehension, even after a session of play.

To do this, players need a base assumption set about the world that allows sessions of play to occur.

These are the assumptions that Exalted: The Fair Folk assumes that the players will probably want to make:

For the purpose of play:

• Characters exist.

• Characters are distinct.

• Characters can act.

• Characters can interact.

• Characters have motivation for conflict.

• The concept of a setting exists.

• The concept of a story exists.

• Players each have a defined role in the process of storytelling.

Setting constraints:

• The setting is meaningfully “outside” the normal world.

• The setting is meaningfully “chaotic.”

• The setting is meaningfully “indescribable.”

• The setting has a meaningful “fairy tale feel.” This is a structural decision made by Geoff Grabowski on behalf of the publisher, not an intrinsic characteristic of places beyond the known.

These tenets are the building blocks for an Exalted: The Fair Folk setting. To facilitate player agreement on these tenets, seven of them are listed explicitly in the book and the existence of other tenets is noted.

In addition, to give them more structural depth, these tenets are recognized explicitly as key concepts and assigned a large number of connotative qualities. The premise here is that a working vocabulary facilitates the construction of a mental model for the world. It helps determine which questions are worth asking, so that players can derive meaning from the answers. This technique is used repeatedly in Exalted: The Fair Folk.

Specifically, the tenets are described as shinma. They are anthropomorphized as beings, terrible god-monsters from whom the tenets’ existence flows.

One such shinma is Nirguna. The term is a Hindu word meaning “without attributes.” Nirguna defines existence. Through Nirguna, things exist. Insofar as things fail to exist, this is a failing of Nirguna.

Nirguna is also described as “the nothing and everything dream, the raw beating heart at the core of the Wyld.” It has aspects such as “Namadiksha, the gift of names” and “Neti Neti.” The first refers to the ceremony by which parents name a child. The second means “not this, not that,” and is an Upanisadic formula indicating through negation the undefinable nature of the universe.

Nirguna is written to keep players from worrying about why there is a “something” to exist in the Wyld at all. If they do not care, they may shrug and say, “Nirguna.” If they do care, the list of connotative meanings is a springboard for exploration of these matters. Something from Nothing: An Example - Let us imagine that the Storyteller decides to run a game of Exalted: The Fair Folk set in the Wyld beyond the world. The players might reasonably ask: “what do you mean ‘set in’? How can there even be a place beyond the world?” To this, the Storyteller can now reply: through the grace of the shinma. If the players or characters need to know more than that, they can figure it out during the course of play.

5. Context

Having established the existence of a world, it is useful to delimit the context of play. For the purposes of this essay, this refers to time and space.

Distance in the Wyld is mutable. The Wyld is inherently unmappable. This means that the book cannot provide a simple comprehensive atlas for the characters’ travels. Tactical movement is also complicated - it may, in one story, be reasonable to measure each step carefully and, in another, to travel in one jump from an earthbound plane to the distant sun.

However, the context of the Wyld is not entirely unapproachable. In telling a story that involves distance or time, the players must assign each event in the game world a rough time and place. Only the times and places where events happen are relevant to the story. These times and places are distinct only to the extent that the story differentiates between them. In short, distance and time exist only insofar as the players have information about them.

This frees Exalted: The Fair Folk to organize the spatial context into waypoints and journeys. Each waypoint is a place in which events happen. Characters can travel between the waypoints, taking journeys, but no real details are known. In short, unaccounted-for time during travel is spent on a journey, where the only meaning is that travel happened. Everything else happens in a waypoint.

This structure imposes no additional constraints on the Wyld itself. Waypoints can move in the Wyld and their physical size varies. At the same time, the waypoint structure creates a loose grid-like system for the Wyld that allows the players to think about questions of distance.

Similarly, Exalted: The Fair Folk organizes time in terms of scenes and stories. During scenes, events happen, with “downtime” between them. These scenes group naturally to form stories, delimiting a meaningful series of events. Context: An Example - Having determined that there is a place beyond the world, by the grace of the shinma, the Storyteller sets up a waypoint space. This is a set of waypoints, journeys, and the connections between them. This is the setting of the game. Each scene of play takes place in a waypoint; unremarkable travel occurs on the journeys.

6. Game Structure

Having defined the Wyld as a waypoint space abiding by certain tenets, the players need the following additional information to proceed to creating the story:

• Specific defined methodology for proposing new events and situations;

• Motivation for picking certain events over others;

• Resolution mechanisms for disputes regarding the story’s direction; and

• Ways to assess the story’s meaning in the broader context of the fictional world.

6.1 Methodology

The method for shaping events in the Wyld is in-character action. Each player takes on the role of a character who is an agent of change in the void beyond the world.

Exalted: The Fair Folk defines its principal characters, the raksha or Fair Folk, to have the following key characteristics:

• They can shape reality to cause any event appropriate to the story to occur.

• They display apparent awareness, intelligence, and personhood.

• They are susceptible to tactical measures of performance and player evaluations of personality.

In theory, the latter two measures are subjective. One can therefore model any setting that allows the meaningful exploration of premises as including these creatures - for example, when a rock rolls down a hill, declaring, “a raksha caused that rock to roll down the hill,” or, “that rock was secretly a raksha that chose to roll down the hill.”

In practice, due to other design constraints, the raksha are not the perfectly abstract templates for action presented here. Methodology: An Example - To shape the story, the players create three raksha - lords of the madness beyond the world. The first is a warrior. He is addicted, despite his distaste for them, to such orderly things as “events” and “places.” He chooses a body and a role that expresses his nature - Sour, an older man prone to ranting. The second is a visionary. She has dreams for what the Wyld should become. She also manifests a body and a role - Lily, a lean woman with a mysterious past. Lily does not deign to define the mystery at present; beyond the edges of the world, the requirement that a mystery must exist for one to be mysterious does not apply. The third is an artisan. He gives the name Morgan. Sometimes he manifests in stories as a tall human and sometimes as a bear.

6.2 Motivation

In order to have a game, the raksha must prefer some events over others. This is a weak point in the Exalted: The Fair Folk rules. The set of motivations chosen is not an “ideal and minimal” set taken from the study of narrative, psychology, or game theory. Instead, the rules model four specific tactical rewards:

• Emotional advantage, specifically, weakening another raksha’s self-control;

• Authority and power, specifically, imposing obligations on other raksha;

• Control over resources, specifically, claiming the possessions of another raksha;

• Higher-level goals, specifically, achieving something that makes another raksha more vulnerable to manipulation of other sorts.

In general, players are driven to the tactical behavior that a system rewards. They also have a drive to tell the “correct” story. The game cannot predict the players’ concept of a correct story. Thus, to keep these two drives from conflicting, Exalted: The Fair Folk must separate tactical rewards from game events. The connections between the events in play and the tactical actions taken by the raksha are almost entirely descriptive. The only solid connection is that shaping “appropriate” events, that is, events that fit the descriptive templates provided, gives a bonus toward success on the tactical action. Thus, raksha seeking to earn one of the tactical rewards are drawn to a set of story types appropriate to the tactical reward. Motivation: An Example - The Storyteller creates an antagonist - the Prince of Low Fires. Since he is their antagonist, it falls to Lily, Sour, and Morgan to do something about him. They decide to set out to his location in the waypoint space and impose such obligations on him as to restrain his malice. “What kind of place does he live in?” one player asks. To answer this question, the Storyteller creates the city of Low Fires and the principality around it. She decides that the Prince’s will has shaped most of the surrounding waypoint space into a corrupt principality, giving it a reasonably solid and predictable form.

6.3 Dispute Resolution

Exalted: The Fair Folk uses a turn-based system for shaping reality. This is a standard approach to resolving large-scale conflicts in role-playing games. Since it is difficult to reach consensus if the players all talk at once, their individual contributions to a conflict are studied in order, organized, and sequenced by the game’s initiative system - its rules for breaking larger goals into atomic actions, which the players take in sequence.

In practice, this seems to work well for Exalted: The Fair Folk but could benefit from a shift in focus. The rules on shaping reality assume that each raksha is telling a story of their own, and these stories interweave to form the larger whole. However, this makes the events of the game dependent on which raksha is shaping them at any given time. Future versions of Exalted: The Fair Folk would benefit from treating each raksha’s contribution as something closer to the corresponding player’s contribution - “story elements” or “narrative threads” or other things that rise temporarily to prominence within a larger story framework. Dispute Resolution: An Example - The raksha launch their attack on the Prince of Low Fires. Lily, Morgan, and Sour travel to Low Fires and use various tricks to present themselves as emissaries of a distant foreign power. As they do so, they lure the Prince into participating in the story that they tell. These events “hook” the Prince of Low Fires into the story. It becomes possible to win tactical advantage against him by cleansing the government of the city that previously existed only as an instrument of his will. The story plays out much as it would in a normal setting, but the edifice of normalcy is provided entirely by the players’ acceptance of the shinma, the limits of the waypoint space, and the will of the raksha involved. To the extent that these things shift - that the shinma prove unreliable, the characters leave the waypoint space, or the rules by which the raksha choose to play their game change - that edifice collapses and play takes a different direction. In this fashion Exalted: The Fair Folk attempts to support the events the players have chosen to focus on - three characters traveling to a corrupt principality to reform it - without imposing a fixed structure on the setting itself. If the players change course and decide that the Wyld spontaneously gives birth to giant monsters that attack Low Fires, the rules support these new ideas as well.

6.4 Integration with Creation

Exalted comes with an existing universe - Creation, the world shaped by the Primordials and inhabited by humans, spirits, and the eponymous Exalted. This is a highly structured world about which much is known. Creation and the Wyld regularly interact - not directly, but through the raksha visiting Creation or the people of Creation visiting the Wyld.

Previous material about Creation and Creation-Wyld interactions suggest that Creation is “more real” than the Wyld and its powerful figures “more powerful” than the raksha, but that the raksha were powerful enough to pose a threat to the world. In short, the raksha’s ability to overwrite reality should be a notable edge when facing Creation opposition - but not the overwhelming advantage that “the ability to overwrite reality” suggests.

To translate the effects of the raksha’s shaping into Creation terms, Exalted: The Fair Folk provides a palette of “naked” mechanical effects. “Naked” effects are game mechanics that have a meaning in the world but for which that meaning is not provided - such as the rules for magic in Sorcerer, where the same rules apply whether one’s power comes from inner demons, hermetic magic, or selling out to one’s corporate masters.

Specifically, when mortals find themselves opposing a raksha’s shaped reality, they suffer penalties to their dice pools (their probabilistic chances of success) and a reduction in Willpower - not the real-world concept of determination and skill but a system trait that shares some of its qualities. The events that cause these penalties, and what they mean at the time, are not specified. They are simply structure that helps measure the overall impact of the raksha’s shaping.

Current feedback suggests that providing structure with the connotative meanings of existing mechanics (dice pools and Willpower) is not as useful to players as creating setting-based connotation such as the shinma. Players are more likely to look for an existing, defined meaning for game mechanics and more willing to impose their own meanings on setting material.

7. Conclusions

Exalted: The Fair Folk attempts to model in its Wyld the meaning of “this is a world in which sessions of a role-playing game take place.” This concept turns out to have substantial intrinsic and explicit meaning that a game can exploit to facilitate play. In creating a structure to support these meanings, Exalted: The Fair Folk replaces an essentially unplayable premise - “you are entities in a place where anything can happen, and nothing means anything” - with a game of competitive storytelling that players describe as difficult to fully wrap their heads around but rewarding to play.

7.1 Directions for Future Work

In the course of a role-playing game session, players use the existing structure of the game world to generate new information. Understanding this process falls within the domain of epistemology (what does it mean to know something about the game world?) and information theory (what does it mean to derive new information from existing structure?). It is the author’s conclusion that it is possible to go significantly further in developing a formal language for studying this process in a rigorous fashion, and that this would facilitate more efficient role-playing game design.


Exalted: The Fair Folk. Rebecca Borgstrom, Genevieve Cogman, Michael Goodwin, John Snead, and W. Van Meter; White Wolf. 2004.