Preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Tellings
Ten years have passed since Tellings was revised, refreshed, was taken into the shop for a tune-up and a much needed detailing. The last edition was the eighth edition—eight point three to be exact—updated in 2008. It has been twenty-seven years since Tellings was a twinkle in my eye. In fact, way back when, the game was originally called Rule of Magic circa 1990. Its first character sheets were printed up on a dot-matrix printer and cut and pasted together. Rule of Magic was shortened to just Rule reflecting a desire to design a role-playing game where the rule of play, the rule of intent, the rule of character, and the golden rule were hard baked into the foundations of the system.
Eventually, in 1992, the game was renamed Tellings, a riff off of storytellings, and the first full Tellings rulebook was witchcrafted together from overconfidence, late nights, and pure, unmitigated hope. The first, plain beige cover flourished two crossed quills, which would later be simplified to the cleaner, more enigmatic single quill—the Tellings quill. Since then, the rulebooks have grown in length, in style, in design, and in number. Beige to marbled gray to peachy ecru to green gray, back to marbled gray to dark blue to a leathery tan, then bright orange to bright yellow-green. Nine covers over eight editions. If you count the Rule bits and bobs as part of the ancestry of Tellings, then by all rights this new edition, this new cover counts as number ten.
Let then this book be the belated twenty-fifth anniversary edition, the tenth regeneration of the core Tellings rules! Though much of the original lines and design remain the same, the revision gets at the nooks and crannies of the game, cleaning, streamlining, and working toward clarity, precision, and added elegance. After nearly three decades of imagining, writing, playing, rewriting, and reimagining, I now very much understand that great design is about foregrounding in a game what works, what sings, what shines and embracing and integrating the imperfections, the happy accidents and glitches. Balance is a fantasy, a fallacy; imperfections can be felicitous, fun. If I may be so bold, Tellings is a well-made game, but it is not without its flecks and flaws. That is what makes the game a living text and an emergent experience. Tellings is as much a game about shared stories and group-made myths as it is about shared rules and collaborative mechanics. Over the years, the many instantiations of the rulebook are a testament to the game building, the world building, and the friendship building that is this love called tabletop or pen-and-paper role-playing and gaming.
Looking ahead, I hope that Tellings has a long, long future ahead of it, and I hope that Tellings will be a part of imagining and creating that future for players old and new.
I sense and see a need in the world for new games, different players, and better worlds. Against fear, against despair, against violence, against injustice, against devastation, games can encourage hope, possibility, change, imagination, and curiosity. But some things have to change first, particularly in fantasy games. Gary Alan Fine in the introduction to Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds says,
“Since fantasy is the free play of a creative imagination, the limits of fantasy should be as broad as the limits of one’s mind. This is not the case, as each fantasy world is a fairly tight transformation by the players of their mundane, shared realities. While players can, in theory, create anything, they in fact create only those things that are engrossing and emotionally satisfying. Fantasy is constrained by the social expectations of players and of their world.”
Games today have the potential to challenge the mundane, to unravel constraints, and to critique the social expectations of the world. What once was the assumed purview of a small, often insular subculture of people, role-playing games have the capacity for much more than entertainment and echo-chambering what has come before.
Nowadays, games and gamers must engage and design for radical diversity, thoughtful inclusion, and players and communities of many different stripes, colors, lifeways, and backgrounds. I challenge game players, masters, makers, artists, activists, conventions, and communities to game for good, to play for change. In fact, around my own gaming tables past and present I have tried to envision and attend to these things in Tellings, in the adventures I write, and in the family of players I invite together. When and where possible, whether I am running the game or playing at someone else’s table, I try to insist on a group that includes women, players of color, queer players, and players drawn from different social circles, gaming expertises, and other intersections of identities, experiences, or embodiments. It is like the Bechdel Test or the DuVernay Test or the Russo Test for role-playing games.
Games, especially fantasy games, cannot continue to rehearse and perpetuate the same old tropes and trolls. Games cannot continue to promote and privilege the same stereotypical heroes and villains.
Stories need to change, gamers need to change, and games need to change. The introductory chapter of Tellings exhorts, “To tell the tale, you must live the tale—that is the truth of Tellings. To share the tale is to become the tale—that is the heart of Tellings.” I still very much believe in those two lines, but I think it is important to push who gets to tell the tale, who gets to live or die in the tale, whose tale gets shared, and most importantly, why. That is the utopian dream of Tellings.
Edmond Y. Chang