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Friday 25 August 2023

Keep it simple

This is a quick and simple RPG system that lets players focus on imagination and roleplaying without getting distracted by constant dice rolls. Dice are only used when the referee decides a roll would add drama to a situation. It is possible to play the game without ever rolling a die.

Each character is rated in Strength, Health, Speed and Intellect. Scores in these attributes range from 1 to 10. An average man has a score of 5 in all attributes. The referee assigns attribute scores in consultation with the players, or they can be generated randomly (roll 2d10 and halve the total).

Skills take precedence over attributes. Thus a character who is trying to dodge a falling rock, for instance, uses ACROBATICS rather than Speed. Only consult attributes when a feat is attempted that does not fall under any of the ten skills, or when two characters of equal skill-level are competing. The ten skills are:
A character’s ability in each of the skills is rated according to four levels: Basic, Advanced, Master or Grandmaster.

Normally the referee will simply pre-assign a level of difficulty to any task, and only characters at that level of ability have any chance of success. For example: the player characters are searching for someone lost in the slums. The referee decides this calls for TRACKING to at least Master level.

Use of dice is optional, but may be preferred in life-or-death circumstances —a daring leap from an upper window, etc. Dice can be used to see if a character utilizes their skill (or attribute) effectively. The player rolls 2d6. The roll needed for success depends on the skill-level: Basic 2-4, Advanced 2-6, Master 2-8 and Grandmaster 2-10.

Melee procedure
First compare the COMBAT skill-levels of the two fighters; the higher wins.

If they both have the same skill-level, compare attribute scores—Speed in case of weapons, Strength if a fistfight. If both have the same attribute score, compare the weapons being used (a sword is better than a dagger, dagger better than a cudgel, etc).

For circumstances involving more than one combatant, Assume that each skill-level is twice as good as the one below it. (Thus a Grandmaster warrior would be exactly a match for eight Basic warriors, other factors being equal.)

Both combatants lose a set amount of Health depending on the opponent’s weapon: fists 1, cudgel 2, dagger 3, sword 4, two handed sword 5.

The winner of the melee has the option to increase the loser’s injury by 1 point for each skill-level that their COMBAT exceeds the loser’s. Alternatively, if they have a shield, they can reduce their own injury.

Shine Points (if any) can then be spent to reduce damage.

Lastly, armour reduces the injury: 1 point for light, 2 points for medium, 3 points for heavy.

At Basic Level, MARKSMANSHIP allows you to automatically hit a stationary target in good light at short range. Each higher level allows you to cope with one more negative factor from this list:
  • poor light
  • small target
  • moving target
  • long range
  • undergrowth
Damage is sustained off Health, ranging from 2 points for a thrown dagger, 3 points for a javelin, 4 points for an arrow, 5 for a crossbow bolt. (Check to see if armour is effective by rolling a d6: 1 for light, 1-2 for medium, 1-3 for heavy.)

Moments of excellence

Shine Points are awarded by the referee when a character achieves fulfilment of a vow, has great success in an adventure, does something clever, receives a blessing or magical boon, gains the respect of others, etc. Shine Points represent the character gaining the confidence to occasionally surpass their normal limits.

Shine Points are spent to achieve tasks that would not normally be possible for the character, such as hitting a target at long range if you’re only a Basic Level in MARKSMANSHIP. Hitting that same target at long range in poor light in heavy undergrowth would cost 3 Shine Points. As mentioned above, you can also use Shine Points for other things like shrugging off damage. Once you’ve spent the Shine Points, they’re gone for good – until you earn some more.

SORCERY in this system generally takes longer to use than in most roleplaying games, but with effects more like you would expect in fantasy literature. For instance, a Grandmaster could teleport himself from city to city. Being opposed by the will of another sorcerer makes a spell more difficult.

Basic level effects include (eg) silent mirages that disappear when touched. Higher skill-levels then allow improvements up to full solid illusions at Master. The number of spells a sorcerer can maintain is one at Basic, two at Advanced, etc. Note that SORCERY can always be used to achieve an effect equivalent to another skill two levels lower. For instance, a Master can employ magic that achieves the effect of Basic TRACKING, MARKSMANSHIP, etc.

* * *

If you're familiar with the Critical IF gamebooks (originally published as Virtual Reality Adventures) or even with Knightmare book five: The Forbidden Gate you'll recognize the genesis of these rules there. I originally published them as Kashtlanmüyal in my and Steve Foster's Tekumel fanzine The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder - the spring 1995 issue to be exact. (The title? It's a Tsolyani word that means "epic dramas", or if freely translated could be "blockbusters".) I'd been serializing Tirikelu in the fanzine back then, and this was at the opposite pole of complexity. Or so I thought, for I had yet to encounter GURPS!

Friday 18 August 2023

Likeability is overrated

I've said it before: in fiction (but not in life) likeability is overrated. Here's author Robert J Sawyer on one of the Five Things You Need To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories:

'An interesting character. Not necessarily a likeable one, not even necessarily a relatable one, but an interesting one. The best example of a complex main character in all of science fiction is Robinette Broadhead in Frederik Pohl’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Gateway, which is told as flashbacks during Broadhead’s psychoanalytic sessions with a computerized shrink. He’s not at all likeable, but, wow, is he ever fascinating.'

It also applies to player-characters in games. Players can be too worried that others will judge them personally by the characters they choose to play. Screw that. There's nothing more boring than a game populated by decent people, however much we'd like real life to be like that. Make your characters interesting, and never mind if they're nice.

Some more thoughts from me on that here and here. But you're always having to put up with what I think, so if you're pressed for time look at Mr Sawyer's advice. Like Pohl, he too has won the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He says, 'I was born to write for [the Star Trek] franchise!' and I concur. I would love to see his take on the ST universe.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

L'art pour l'art

Last time we were talking about the obscure science fantasy world of Tekumel and how it might achieve greater (or any) popularity if it were dumbed down to accentuate the swashbuckling fairytale elements that George Lucas exploited so effectively in the original Star Wars.

That’s not my personal preference. I’d change Tekumel, but rather than play up the creaky mid-20th century pulp elements I’d turn it into something more real. The Battlestar Galactica reboot rather than the silly ‘70s version. (You can see my take on science fantasy here and my opinion of pulp tropes in SF here.)

Point is, my preferred version would fail. We’re in a time when people want escapism and high camp. The frenzy over the Barbie movie (completely baffling to me, by the way) indicates that irony is in, seriousness is out of fashion. That’s why my recommendations about Tekumel in that recent post are opposite to my own tastes: I realize that I don’t have a mass-market mentality – and that’s a useful starting point if you’re trying to figure out how to take a cult favourite and turn it into a mainstream hit.

I just thought I should clear that up in case you’re one of the dozens of purists awaiting Jewelspider or Shadow King. Never fear, those are still going to be intensely personal projects; I’m not going to go chasing a big market at this stage. It’s always better to be true to yourself when creating something. So my suggestions regarding Tekumel weren’t because of a change of heart, but simply an intellectual exercise in how it might escape from the Negative Zone.

Will it? Probably not; Tekumel will go on selling in dribs and drabs to a dwindling and ageing band of fans till finally it crosses the event horizon and winks out. But that’s the fate of almost every book, game and movie. And the fate of every human being too. Better to have been than not!

Friday 11 August 2023

Trembling shadows

If historical authenticity matters in your games, here's the best you're going to get in the way of lanterns in the Middle Ages. And bear in mind it'll probably contain a spitting, smoky, unreliable tallow candle, not wax because those are reserved for church services. 

Or you could carry an oil lantern. That's not one of the storm-lamps you see in medieval movies. It's a dish of oil with a wick in it and, if you're lucky, a cover of horn or glass to stop it blowing out. (Argand lamps came much later.)

From the Jewelspider rules: 

"Night’s black agents thrive in a world lit only by fire. Even in a wealthy baron’s castle, those ubiquitous flaring torches are a myth; after dark the passages and side chambers are unlit. If you need to leave the main hall, you carry your own sputtering lantern (containing a tallow candle or a wick in a dish of oil) or get a servant to accompany you with a torch or candelabrum. Thick trembling shadows fill the further reaches of the hallways, giving many places for a stealthy interloper to hide."

Friday 4 August 2023

Science fantasy gets a makeover

It was Empire of the Petal Throne, not D&D, that hooked me on roleplaying, and the reason for that is I was into sword-&-sorcery and science fantasy rather than the Tolkienesque strain of epic fantasy that caught on through the late 20th century. You know how a duckling follows the first thing it sees when it hatches? Ten-year-old me discovered fantasy through Mike Moorcock’s Mars books and A Planet Called Krishna by L Sprague de Camp. There was no looking back – or forward – from that point on.

Genre is slippery, so bear with me, but technically those books belong to what is now defined as sword-&-planet or planetary romance:

‘Planetary romance is a sub-genre of science fiction that has a close relationship with fantasy in the sense that the cultures that are described are very frequently pre-industrial. The pseudo-medieval warfare with bows and arrows and swords is frequently reminiscent of medievalist fantasy, but this is also a space in which some writers explored American notions of the primitive, mapping the mythology of the American West on to the plains of another planet.’

- Farah Mendlesohn & Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy

Usually spacefaring humans arrive – or better still, get stranded – on a planet at an ancient or medieval level of technology. Sometimes, as in Vance’s Planet of Adventure series, the indigenous civilization has technology of its own. Then it can shade off into Flash Gordon territory, if the natives fully understand their advanced devices, or Tekumel, where the remnants of ancient technology are rare and thought of as magic.

Outliers here (I can’t resist a digression) include Arthur Landis’s Camelot novels, which I basically agented to Don Wollheim back in the early ‘70s. That has some tropes you’ll see recurring: human operative dropped into a more primitive world with just a few bits of kit to give him some magic powers. Swords, princesses, mystic powers, and high adventure – the familiar ingredients of Star Wars, but drip-fed rather than delivered by fire hose.

I call it science fantasy because I don’t seem any intrinsic difference between those planetary stories and, say, Lin Carter’s Thongor books, which are set on a lost continent in Earth’s distant past but still have all the familiar elements. Likewise our own Abraxas setting.

As science fantasy stories are set in ‘exotic’ civilizations, there’s usually a lot of world-building. That could explain why science fantasy has been largely superseded by the Tolkien/Game of Thrones/Witcher variety, in which the settings are more-or-less identikit medieval Europe. We in the West seem to be less enamoured of other cultures than we used to be. In the last century, exotic customs were occasion for surprise and delight. We found them intriguing, and the more troubling elements like suttee looked like they’d been safely banished by modern secularism. Nowadays the news tends to focus on the less quaint features of other cultures: morality patrols, girls being denied education, ancient artworks being blown up, the demonization of gays and albinos, gang-rape of low-caste women, 'honor' killings, and mobs murdering people of other religions. Is it a coincidence that many Westerners have retreated into a genre of fantasy that depicts a cosy cosplay version of their own past? A kind of fantasy where bad things are only done by bad people, so as not to have to face the different and disturbing ways that a whole society can behave? Of course, actual medieval Europe wasn’t a bit like that, but the difference is it is comfortably dead and gone so fiction can feed us the denatured version.

I’m only speculating as to the causes, but certainly there’s little interest these days in all the cultural minutiae we were presented with in games like Empire of the Petal Throne. In most Tekumel games these days, the participants no longer bother to try roleplaying Tsolyani. What grabs them is all the science fantasy stuff. They want to stand apart, to be the clued-up modern folk luxuriating in a sense of superiority over all those 'primitive' NPCs.

If you've hung around here long enough you'll know that the rich diversity of human culture is precisely what I personally find enthralling; and when it comes to fiction, the more different from modern Western democracy the better. But I've also noticed that the books, movies and games I like are not usually the million-sellers. In this post I'm trying to figure out the kind of makeover science fantasy needs to avoid bombing like John Carter. What does it take to turn it into the opposite of the kind of niche culture-gaming that can barely muster a cult following? It seems that if Tekumel were ever to break out of its ever-shrinking ghetto, those Star Wars style mass-market fantasy tropes mentioned above are the strengths it should play to.

What would that look like? Imagine Star Wars several centuries on. A single planet isolated from the rest of the empire or republic or whatever. Science is largely forgotten, apart from a few Christopher Johnson types who everybody else thinks of as wizards. If you find a light sabre it’s like picking up a magic sword. Droids are tantamount to elves, immortal and nonhuman. The Force is – oh well, that’s always been about black and white magic.

So this reboot of Tekumel would take its cue from Star Wars, blurring all the ethnographic particulars and instead foregrounding the elements that are easy for modern audiences to grok:

  • Alien powers that have set themselves up as gods
  • Remnants of near-magical super-science
  • Shapechangers meddling in human affairs
  • Secrets of the ancients known only to a few
  • Robotic guardians that are dangerous but can be reprogrammed to become servants (Terminator, golems, etc)
  • Swordplay and derring-do
  • A world in which a few people can make all the difference

Culturally it would retain only the specific Tekumel USPs that might resonate with modern audiences:

  • Non-white societies
  • Women, gays & trans characters are fully accepted and equal
  • Stereotypical nonhumans are there for flavour (the Stepin Fetchits of modern fantasy)

The weird linguistics would need to be downplayed. I've spent four decades listening to D&D players sneering at Tekumel's "unpronounceable names". Gamers can't be bothered to figure out consonants like tl and ts, never mind ng and nd. In any case, most Tekumel players already don't say the name of the planet correctly. It should be TAY-koo-male; they tend to pronounce it TECH-you-mell.

A reboot like this wouldn’t  involve entirely abandoning the more obscure bits of Tekumel culture. They just wouldn't get mentioned. It can be useful for any fantasy setting to have those ‘iceberg details’ supporting it, as long as they don’t get in the way of the 95% of players who want to ignore them. Given easy docking points for new players and a familiar rules system, maybe it could avoid the demise that Steve Foster predicted and prescribed for thirty years ago.

Why I think Tekumel would be worth such a reboot is because it has dwindled to barely a cult interest, and yet it does have those USPs and it’s a truly American sui generis of fantasy, something original in a field where almost everything else is a mutant strain of Lord of the Rings. Also, it has a champion in Steve Jackson, who once offered to publish a set of three GURPS Tekumel books. M A R Barker, who I think everyone agrees had extremely poor judgement, turned that down for a publishing deal with Lou Zocchi to release an RPG that nobody even remembers anymore. Tekumel has become in effect the obscure but authentic R&B that achieved breakthrough success only when diluted and dumbed down to become white rock & roll (think Numenera in this analogy). Maybe there’s a way to give it one last shot, even if that means chucking out most of what diehards like me cherish about it.