Friday, November 16, 2018

Destiny and Knobs

Art by Ilya Repin

Abd al-Rahman, the nephew of Al-Asma’i said: I called on al-Jahiz and I asked him, ‘Tell me about the qualities of different countries.’ He said, ‘Yes. There are ten cities; manhood in Baghdad, eloquence in Kufa, craftsmanship in Basra, trade in Egypt, treachery in Rayy, crudity in Nishapur, meanness in Marw, bragging in Balkh, and work in Samarkand.’”

This centuries-old passage is confusing for two reasons. One: what is going on here? It seems like an ethnic joke for which the modern reader lacks all context. Why go out of your way to list a handful of stereotypes? There's no punchline.

The second reason is that Al-Jahiz says there are ten cities, but only lists nine. I choose to believe that this is because the tenth city has no name, and the quality of the nameless city is destiny. So when I ran a game which used Al-Rahman's passage as the basis for character creation, I gave it to the players and asked them to fill in a score, 1-10, for each of the ten qualities their characters possessed. After someone noticed that there were only nine, and after I obnoxiously repeated that they had ten qualities, each player eventually assigned a score to this mysterious "tenth quality," hoping it would be very useful if they put a high number in it, and hoping it wouldn't really come up if they assigned it a one.

The tenth quality, destiny, did not have a specific purpose. I had no specific plans to ever have a player roll for it, but I ended up getting to use it when one player acted to fulfill a prophecy, and again when other players wanted to see whether they were "drift compatible" enough to pilot their giant mechs.

(It was a wonderful game.)

"Mecca? More like Mecha! Am I right?" Art by Ilya Repin.
In this game, destiny functioned as a knob. In the context of RPGs, I use the word knob to refer to any number that can start doing new things. Those rules-lite games that define things like strength as "anything you think strength would apply to, add this number" are games of exclusively knobs. In games that retain something like a D&D alignment without frequently referencing alignment in play, it serves as a knob.

I like to keep one number around that has room for extra meaning later; it serves as a sort of foreshadowing, and lets players know that they don't understand everything about how the story works. It doesn't take up a lot of real estate to put a "destiny" number by each character's name on the party sheet. And one day you'll find something that the knob is apt for, and you get to seem like a genius for planning something from the beginning, even though you just improvised it.

The best way to seem like you're prepared for everything is to be prepared for anything.

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