Mridangam, the roleplaying game of Indian dance
Nerd alert: This is a post about obscure roleplaying game theory. :)
When I worked in game design, there were a number of indie designers whose work I admired, like Shreyas Sampat. Years ago, Sampat published a fascinating thought experiment called Mridangam. Mridangam is a game written for an alternative history of our world — an imaginary world where roleplaying games evolved from Indian dance instead of American war games.
Here are the opening paragraphs:
In the city of Srikakulam, it was once the tradition that the Rikha and Sibarat theatre dynasties would engage in a competition for the firstborn princess’s hand in marriage. Before the Sky-Dwelling King, the finest storyteller of each line would oppose the other in an improvisational performance that began with the seed of a myth.
The loser of the contest would be given as tribute to the barbarians of the eastern plains, who demanded the stories of Srikakulam in exchange for their fatted yaks and protection from the silver-faced pirates of the distant north. (i.e. If you win, you become a princess; if you lose, you get to be a bride of the royal eastern mounted yak men.)
In time, this competition became a meaningless charade; the gestural language of dance-drama fell into disuse, and soon the laity forgot its meaning. Rather than using the gestures to communicate messages to their audience, the dancers began to use them as a secret sign language, to communicate amongst themselves while they performed.
In 1956, Rachana Melwani created the first roleplaying game, when she realised that she and the other dancers were telling stories that only they could fully understand. She pared down the gestural language, reducing it to a simple system that could easily be understood by the laity. This is her creation.
Each of the dancers in Mridangam takes on a heroic persona. A dancer may only speak in her character’s voice. To indicate that she is speaking the character’s thoughts rather than his words, a dancer may hold the palm of Ardhachandra toward her face and look into it, as though examining herself in a mirror. If a dancer wants her character to do something besides speak, this must be stated as something the character thinks or says. For instance, if she wanted her character to climb into a chariot, she may say, “Now I must climb into my chariot.”
Sampat’s text goes on to describe the hand gestures of Mridangam, and he then explains how each gesture can resolve conflicts and move the game’s story forward.
Mridangam was originally published in Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying, Volume 1, back in 2006. Sadly, Volume 1 was the only issue of Push ever published. (Experimental roleplayers are both a tough crowd and a small market.)
I live in fear that Push will vanish from the internet, so I asked the lead editor Jonathan Walton to let me host a backup of Volume 1 here on my site, and he agreed. Thanks to Walton’s generosity, if the above link isn’t working, you can also grab Push in PDF right here.