The Importance of Tenets

I have personally experienced cases where individual players have gone through tenet phases without adding anything substantial to the set of tenets, while other players have added things that they were excited about. In fact, I’ve been that player once or twice. And I’ve observed the same phenomenon in all of these cases – the player in question basically drops out of the game. Oh, they may participate nominally. But they don’t have the energy that the players who put in “real” tenets do. They’ll pass a lot, and they’ll tend to only add a little color here, jump in on complications with secondary pools, etc. and never really instigate conflict. They may create characters, but these don’t seem to end up going anywhere – even other players don’t “get” the point of the characters.

It’s not enough simply to agree tacitly to the other players tenets, either. Or even just modify them via challenge. These indicate a superficial interest in playing what’s being thought up, but not the kind of investment that you really want a player to have. RPGs have a sort of “problem” in that the material that’s produced is really only engaging if you are invested in that material. Audiences of RPGs (and worse, readers of transcripts of RPG play) note that they find such output to be rather boring. It takes a long time to produce action, and the process is so visible, generally, that it’s not at all like watching TV or similar media. The only time these sorts of games are fun is when you’re actively participating because you have invested in what’s going on.

Universalis has a method to make such an investment explicitly. Instead of the general agreement that you have in most games simply to play the material that’s provided, Universalis doesn’t provide any material up front that the player might invest in. The players have to produce it themselves. And, again, tacitly accepting other’s Tenets is not a sign of investment. It’s a sign that the tenets are inoffensive at best. The only way to know that a player is really going to be engaged is if they get that bright look in their eyes as they toss a Coin in and say something like, “But the monkeys are intelligent!” That’s the point at which you know that the participant has made the game, in part, theirs. And that they’ll have a real personal interest in making it come out in an interesting fashion.

Interestingly, I find that if you skip the tenet phase entirely, this works too. Essentially everyone is agreeing to a big gimmick in which you all are agreeing to walk the tightrope without a net. Just being in on such a bold dare seems to engage people. And what happens then is that people understand that the tenets are really going to be established in the first few turns that each player takes as they happen in play. This dynamic can work well.

The point is that the tenet phase, even if omitted, must be an agreement forged amongst all the players about what will be fun to play. If any individual player is not an active participant in coming up with the totality, they simply won’t be as engaged as the players who have invested a bit of their creativity in determining what the game will be about.

So don’t let a player fall by the wayside. If you see them floundering during the tenet phase, don’t succumb to the temptation to close the phase and just “get on with it.” And don’t accept just any mailed-in tenets, either. If a player doesn’t seem to have an idea, they might be tempted to just toss something out there that comes to mind, but which they aren’t really interested in, just to have completed a social obligation to appear to have invested. Make sure you get that bright-eyed look from them before you head into play. This might only be one tenet if it’s important enough. But you’ll know it when you see it.

—-Mike Holmes

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