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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tekumel and the Power of "Maybe"...

We're back from a much-needed break - and maybe we go to a monthly format again.  But until then, we do have a little something to start the week...

So, getting to it, we stumbled upon this old article on the Hill Cantons blog and were immediately reminded of what a kindred spirit M.A.R. Barker was.  Not only did he imagine the weirdly exotic world of Tekumel (which should have been more than enough to secure his place in gaming history), but he also seemed to have the "right" ideas about how gaming should be approached.  I mean, if we're gonna look at a game; any game, under the pretense of adventure, then story matters.  Even if it's just the story created when people get together and make decisions in the heat of whatever battle they've stumble into....

The party flees an approaching band of orcs and finds their escape cut off by a collapsed tunnel.  Now this is a tactical problem.  But it still implies story.  Why are the characters underground?  What are the orcs doing there?  And how did the two parties find themselves at odds?  And, more importantly, how do they get themselves out of it?  At this point, we haven't invoked rule one and really, we shouldn't have to.  If gaming is a participatory social exercise, then the narrative, meaning what happens in the course of an emerging story, is what matters most.  Rules are needed.  But only stories are fun.

In Tekumel, the setting (and story)
overshadowed the system, which is how it should be...

Rules are great (and admittedly, rather necessary).  But I, for one, could never entertain myself just by toying with game mechanics.  The rules always need to map to characters and events.  And story isn't just something built into the background.  Story can also be forward looking - and really should.  In the above example, the characters might hide themselves among the fallen rocks or simply surrender to the orcs and hope to reason with their leaders or successfully escape once a suitable opening reveals itself.  Both make for a great story, but both are only fun when we understand them as a story about characters.

And with that in mind, we're convinced that rules (and dice) are only necessary owing (and ultimately reducible) to the following core principles:

(1) Special powers and abilities necessarily modify outcomes and operate under certain conditions and/or with specified (and generally, quantifiable) effects.

(2) While some actions are always successful and others doomed to fail, many can go either way, and rolling dice creates excitement because an action might succeed, perhaps by the barest of margins.  That is, dice emulate risk and uncertainty.

(3) Moreover, the element of risk and uncertainty is more convincing (and seems more objectively fair) when even the referee doesn't know the outcome in advance!

So let's imagine a hypothetical game where everyone is just a person capable of a general range of actions.  Dice are minimized and the "challenge" lies in thinking up a suitable strategy in the first place.  Melee is easy.  Roll 4 or better on 1d6 or suffer 1-3 hits based on the target's size and/or power (10 hits is fatal).  Success kills the enemy and failure forces another round with the potential for even greater injury.  Non-combat actions, in all their variety, are easier still.  Just roll 4 or better.  If the characters and story are interesting (and if the players get caught up in events), they'll have a blast despite the lack of rules because, ultimately, we don't play to tinker with dice.  We play to become legends!

Of course, precedent would eventually kick in, certain rulings codified, and additional rules developed to account for the stuff of the setting, and at this point, the above becomes a proper game, complete with detailed charts, tables, and source books.  But our hypothetical game simultaneously reveals not only the hobby's biggest strength, but also its inherently self-limiting nature.  Because ultimately, all we need to know is that success is either yes, no, or maybe - and then have 'em roll for the maybe part!  Everything else is just the story...    

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