Tellings, A Role-Playing Primer

{From the Tellings vaults, here is a handout I wrote in 2009 to give to brand new players to my gaming table. The years have passed, the game has changed, and I have had the great fortune to get to know new players in different cities. However, my advice has remained constant. Enjoy.|

My gaming philosophy has never been really hard-lined about role-playing in of itself but rather a focus on character development and interaction.  But now I think that part of creating atmosphere, good storytelling, and better play is thinking about how role-playing, playing a role, is necessary for the big picture.  In that spirit, I want to encourage a more energetic, dramatic, gristly, courageous, and ultimately fun gaming experience for everyone.

It’ll be great.

What I hope for from myself and us players is a more detailed game play.  Really peer into your character, your skills, your abilities, your spells, your prayers, your equipment, and your possibilities.  Read into the details.  Read between the lines. 

A sword is just a sword is just a sword.  Not unless you enhance it with a bit of imagination and style.  An Elar weaponsmaster’s sword is long, sleek, elegant and etched with fine designs, one-edged (perhaps slightly curved), with a long grip meant to be light, quick, and deadly.  Whereas, a Gaurien bastard sword is elegant in a different way: heavier, sturdy, double-edged, heavy cuillions and pommel, hammered to a burnished silver and designed as a symbol of strength, courage, and ultimately if need requires the sword to be raised, cleaving righteousness.

A long cloak, accent, the favoring of bear hide leather as opposed to cow hide leather, jewelry, stance, the smoking of a particular pipeweed from Arasa, meticulous care for a favorite horse, generosity with the poor, fear of mirrors, anger over being beaten at a game of crowns, or even the bad habit of whistling while crawling through a dungeon — all of these characteristics are built into your characters already.  Your Strengths and your Weaknesses and your Skills all give you clues as to the who, what, why, when, and where of your character.

A character with Streetwise probably spent a good deal of time listening to the gossip of local taverngoers or perhaps was orphaned and joined a gang of petty thieves or perhaps had a parent or friend in the city guard who came home after every shift and spoke of the goingson in the city.  There are a multitude of ways a character can gain information and it does not necessarily mean they are always rogues.  Furthermore, a character who is Streetwise from Grand Takare will have some differences in behavior and action than a character with Streetwise from Atrassis (the capital of Arasa).  (Perhaps as different as someone who lived in London as opposed to Bangkok.)

Also pay attention to institutions, ideologies, guilds, governments, and temples.  Characters without any particular devotion or fealty must still work within a world that is teeming with priests and mages and soldiers and rangers and performers and of course villains.  Characters that do have clear alliances and allegiances should always keep in mind whether a course of action will help or hinder their standing and their favor.  The World is a place of consequences and whether the character gains renown and respect or infamy and derision are based on how they navigate through people and places.

THE TOP TEN ROLE-PLAYING DOS and DON’TS

10.  Read the rulebook.

Read the rulebook.  Always.  Read the book right before you go to bed.  Flip through the book when you’re eating dinner.  Glance at a few pages while you’re on the bus.  Learning a whole system can be a daunting challenge.  It’s like trying to master a foreign language.  However, practice, play, and preparation are key to building comfort and confidence in both mechanics and in role-play. 

Learning the rules provides the background and more importantly the context in which your character lives, survives, and acts.  Plus it’s just time-saving: the less you have to look up, the more time you have to just play your character.  Furthermore, don’t just learn the things that are important to your character.  Broaden your experience to read spell descriptions even if you’re not a mage, to know different weapon types even if your character wields only a quarterstaff, to understand the difference between a 15 Constitution and a 10 Constitution.

Again, read the rulebook. 

9.  Practice speaking as your character.

One of the most basic difficulties role-players have is speaking (and acting) as their character.  Instead, they speak like their character’s narrator (as if they were followed by a sportscaster calling all the plays):  “My character says he’ll go down the hallway…”  “My character asks your character for help…”  “My character gets mad…”  “My character says to the stranger, ‘Greetings…'”  “My character explains to them what happened…”  No one expects a player to be in-character all of the time; this isn’t a stage play.  But, the goal is to get rid of the narrator.  Most good GMs I know have had an underlying rule during role-play: everything you say is in-character unless you preface that it is out-of-character.  Therefore, an off-hand comment to a fellow player suddenly becomes in-game and leads to some interesting consequences.  The idea is that if you realize that you are speaking as your character most of the time, then you will be more conscious of your words and your descriptions.  Look at your game Master or your fellow player and be confident in your playing:  “I’m going down this hallway.  Someone watch my back…”  “I think I’m in trouble.  Help me!”  “I throw down my sword and shield and stalk off into the woods while the others prepare camp.”

8.  Role-playing is a group activity.

I think most players find that once they start practicing speaking and acting as their characters then the rest of the players catch on.  In most groups there is usually one or two players who are very comfortable with role-playing and their skills and experience should be used to encourage newer or more self-conscious players.  It’s all about cooperative learning and cooperative sharing.  Prompt each other.  Ask each other questions.  Take an interest in one another’s characters.  And notice actions, reactions, and specific instances where a character’s personality shines through.

Furthermore, be careful of grandstanding or any form of role-playing narcissism.  It’s all right to be a character who is selfish and attention-seeking, but the behavior cannot cross from persona to player.  I have Mastered for groups where an individual player will purposefully use their character as a way to draw attention to themselves — usually, it manifests as a form of power-gaming, of greedy playing:  my character needs to win, my character needs to get the treasuer, my character needs to be the most powerful, or even my character needs to be the most adored, cheered, comforted, or pitied.  Once a character begins to purposefully sabotage the group, then that character (and perhaps player) must find a way to get along or move on.

7.  Learn to parlay (and to listen).

Once you begin to master speaking and acting as your character and once you begin role-playing as a group, then realize that interacting with the world, with other characters, with creatures, with NPCs can be just as satisfying as busting heads and razing dens of evil.  Many times, groups of characters take for granted that the people they meet might not be enemies in disguise.  Politeness often pays off.  Rudeness often creates conflict.  Parlay does not necessarily mean always being diplomatic.  Then act.  Sometimes conversations break down.  Sometimes inquiries become insults.  But remember many times vital information is hidden in the minds, speech, and personality of people the adventurers encounter.  Without conversation, the story is nothing more than a chain of events with little glue and justification.

Perhaps the most important lesson of parlay is the willingness and skill to listen.  I used to play with GMs who would have significant conversations between characters and NPCs.  Anything said during the parlay was the sole-responsibility of the player to remember.  If you were busy pouring yourself more soda or in the bathroom or doodling on your neighbor’s character sheet, then your character was assumed to also be not paying attention.  It was the responsibility of the game Master to provide meaningful conversations and it was the responsibility of the players to pay attention and to ask good questions.

6.  Don’t be afraid to run.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  Actually, the fear of mortality and the de-sensizitation to failure is a difficult hurdle to overcome particularly in veteran players.  Fear is perhaps the most difficult emotion to role-play.  And it is fear of your character perishing, of your character being corrupted, of your character failing that makes challenges interesting, worthwhile, and exciting.  Suspend the idea that you’re only playing a character and that there is simply another character waiting in the wings to replace one that is lost or that the game Master will somehow save the characters in the end.  Realistically, your character probably has a sense of self-preservation, and when the heroic spirit is stretched too far even heroes run.

I personally am not a game Master that likes to rely solely on death as the defining deterrent for lazy role-playing.  I have had GMs who were always ready to kill characters in the hopes of encouraging players to be careful, inventive, and determined.  However, death need not be the only final consequence.  But the game Master must remember to challenge the players and their characters.  There must be conflict and threat and overwhelming odds.  But killing off characters creates disruptions in the story, holes in the telling, and therefore should not be done without conscience and dramatic reason. 

5.  Avoid roll-playing.

You’ve read the rulebook a million times.  Now go beyond the charts and figures.  Role-play.  Not roll-play.  It’s a pun but a most important one.  For me, RPGs are about stories, about sharing ideas, about exploring imaginary worlds, about magic, and about being heroes.  I want to encourage everyone to remember that good mechanics are important for any game but good role-playing is just as important if not more so.  Your character is more than just a sum of what’s written on your sheet.  Your character is a warrior not a list of weapon proficiencies and combat maneuvers.  Your character is a mage, an artist of fire or light or thought, not just a number of technique points and spells in a book.  Your character is a sailor or a woodsman or a performer not just a Sailing roll or a Tracking roll or a Singing roll.

Futhermore, we all want our characters to be as effective, efficient, frankly as powerful as they can be.  But, this end goal is often destructive to role-playing.  Mix-maxing Attributes or picking just the skills for maximum damage or sacrificing finesse wholly for power is counterproductive.  Sometimes choosing a off-the-beaten track skill or developing a purely role-play ability can be very rewarding.

4.  Remember what the character knows and does not know.

Akin to avoiding roll-playing, players should try to separate what they know as players and what they know as characters.  It seems a bit schizophrenic, but it can make a big difference in how the game is played, how situations are handled, how you face a challenge, and how you are rewarded for that challenge. 

As a game Master, I have asked players, “How do you know that?” or “Why do you think that?” or “Would your character react that way?”  Most of the time, I’m prompting players because they may be using their own knowledge and experience instead of the knowledge and experience of their characters.  Granted, characters are as smart, clever, informed, or knowledgeable as their players want them to be.  However, characters do have histories, do have skills, and more importantly don’t have access to everything in the rulebook.  Just because you’ve read the rulebook a million times doesn’t mean your character has nor should they behave as such.

Take nothing for granted.  New players rarely have this difficulty because everything is still fresh.  However, veteran players often jump to conclusions that their freshly made characters may not do so as readily.  The goal is to remember the distinction and to be conscious of the fine line between player and character.

3.  Role-playing is in the details.

If real life is in the details, then a character’s life is also in the small things, the minutiae, the colors, the bits of personality that separate them from someone else.  The first place to start with the details is what the character looks like, what the character dresses like, what the character presents to the world around them.  Be specific.  Be concrete.  Be honest in your description.

Details also means choices.  Your character is always making choices.  This weapon over that weapon.  This tunic over that shirt.  This path over that path.  This course of action over a different action.  The more choices your character has made, the clearer the picture of your character becomes.  Don’t be afraid to make those choices and changes in those decisions when the story calls for it.  Personalize.  Customize.  Stylize.

Then when your character speaks, moves, sits down for supper, invokes a spell, or challenges a foe, some of the details will reveal themselves.  Volunteer hints and flecks here and there.  A turn of the wrist.  A hint of perfume or cologne.  A sparkle of color.  A design on a shield.  Repeat the details.  In the end, they will make your character memorable.

2.  Trust your game Master (and players).

Trust.  In any relationship, trust is probably the most important quality to uphold.  Trust means honesty, means confidence, means understanding, means patience, means reliance, means doing the right thing. 

Trust that your game Master will lead you and your characters on a worthy and wonderful adventure.  If disagreements about rules or encounters arise, let the game Master make a final decision and move on.  Return to the disagreement after play is over.

Trust that your fellow players will help you and your character explore and succeed in the adventure.  Leave personal feelings and grudges outside of how you role-play your character.

In the end, communication between the players, friendship between the players is most important.  Players should help one another with questions, with solving issues, with explaining rules, even coaching in role-playing.  Players should also realize that the discourse between group and game Master is not one-way in favor of the GM.  The GM must be open to suggestion, to comment, and to encouragement and praise as well.  On the other hand, the GM must also nudge, develop, and sustain the players, their interest, their skills, their curiosity, and their characters’ lives.

1.  Play a character you enjoy. 

I have GMed for a fair number of people in the past and I myself have had a slew of different characters for different games.  The one constant that I have noticed is that players have the best time, the best gaming experience when they create a character they are interested in, they are invested in, and ultimately that they enjoy.  Why pretend to be someone you don’t like?  Now there are gaming purists and method-gamers who like the challenge of playing personas completely anathema to their own being.  I am not one of those players.  Therefore, as a rule, I encourage people to stick with what they know, what they like, and what sparks their imagination.  However, as a caveat, I discourage players from creating clones of their favorite characters.  A dash of change, a note of difference is important and provides vitality.

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.

Sincerely,
Edmond Y. Chang
October 2017