Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Tingleverse - The Official Chuck Tingle Roleplaying Game

Adding this book to my list was probably a mistake. Oh, I don't regret buying it, and I certainly don't regret reading it. In a lot of ways, it's an absolute delight. But it is also the sort of thing that is nearly impossible to critique. If it is what it presents itself as (indeed, what I most want it to be), then it is beyond our petty categories of "good" and "bad."

And now I guess I have to explain who Chuck Tingle is. I knew it was coming. You can't work in this particular internet niche forever without having to explain Chuck Tingle. Oh, none of us know the day or hour of its coming. It's just something you accept as one of those facts of life.

Here's what you need to know about the inestimable Dr Tingle - He published Pounded by the Pound - Turned Gay by the Socioeconomic Implications of Britain Leaving the European Union and he did it one day after the brexit vote. His online persona is even weirder than that bit of trivia makes him sound, and his upbeat positivity and mischievous opposition to certain right-wing trolls have made him a bit of a patron saint/in-joke among socially progressive and extremely online science fiction fans.

Chuck is an ever- unfolding mystery. It kind of hurts to think about him for too long. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he good, pretending to be bad? Is he living proof that, in the arts, you can be bad at the technical craft while still also having a uniquely inspired imagination? Is he a working professional with a goofy alter-ego or an amateur who happened to be at the center of a certain historical moment? Are we, ourselves, simply characters in a Chuck Tingle novel, unaware, except in the darkest moments of the night, that the highest level of the Tingleverse is far, far above us?

The Tingleverse - The Official Chuck Tingle Roleplaying Game answers precisely none of these questions. Normally, I'd be content with that. Anyone who has followed Chuck Tingle for any length of time has long-since learned to just take him at face value - as The World's Greatest Author, with his own unique way.

But I've got a job to do here. Sigh.

Should I point out that this book is shoddy? I feel like it's my responsibility, as a reviewer. This is a book that has clearly been subjected to no editing process more rigorous than spellcheck. There are frequent typos, of the sort that can't yet be detected by automated software (things like substituting "now" for "not" or "tits" for "its"). There are mislabeled and missing tables (for example, it's completely unclear to me how many cool moves characters are supposed to know). The layout is sub-amateur. Headings are on separate pages from their sections, there are pages with half a paragraph on them, and cool move descriptions are consistently cut in half. It literally looks like a first draft word processor file was sent directly to a printer and published as-is.

I have a suspicion that Dr Tingle and I have a very similar writing process - sit down in front of a computer, hack away until you get something vaguely the right length, self-edit, and then hit "publish." And if that's the case, then I can say from experience that the only way you get something as sloppy as The Tingleverse is extreme carelessness. Even just a little bit of pride in your craft would result in something much nicer-looking than this book turned out to be.

Which is weird, because this book does not read like something that was cynically dashed-out in order to exploit an economic niche. I've been roleplaying for a long time. You might even say I'm pretty serious about the hobby (don't laugh). I've learned the signs that indicate when the author of a homebrew rpg system Has Opinions about its obvious inspiration.

The Tingleverse is largely a reskin of AD&D, but it is not a slapdash reskin. It's not a book that simply takes the Fighter class, renames it the Bad Boy, and goes about its day. There has clearly been some thought put into it. The movement rules are exactly what every aspiring rpg designer for the last 40 years have been looking for, but have thus far been too cowardly to actually publish:
Allow your TM to decide how to treat these situations as they come. Measuring out exact movement rates would simply slow the game down, and without a physical game board, would still leave much to be desired, regardless of how intricate the rules.
This is clearly the work of someone who's been roleplaying for awhile. It takes time for a novice to learn these lessons. I can't just treat this as a joke book.

And taking it seriously, I have to say that the most remarkable thing it does as an AD&D clone is completely solve the most fundamental flaw in AD&D's design philosophy. Namely, that the bulk of the game's mechanical widgets and fantastic conceits are confined to the wizard and priest classes, which, as a result, become so broad in their potential capabilities that they have no real flavor of their own.

The Tingleverse accomplishes this by giving every character class "cool moves," which function identically to wizard spells from standard AD&D, but which are not necessarily magical, except in a meta "in-touch-with-the-different-layers-of-the-tingleverse" sort of way.

It is here that the care that went into the game is most evident. The trots' (classes) cool move lists are very well-curated. You can often see where an AD&D wizard spell was repurposed to be a more mundane trot's heroic feat. Bad Boys get Power Word, Stun. Charmers get Power Word, Kill (but renamed "Heart Command," making it instantly about 200% more flavorful). True Buckaroos get surprisingly functional versions of Wish and Limited Wish. There are five trots in the game, and any one of them is better-designed than anything in baseline AD&D.

The funny thing, though, is that The Tingleverse's solution to class disparity is exactly the same as D&D 4e's most contentious innovation - making the classes very similar in their mechanical implementation and the relying on the specific powers descriptions to make them feel different in play. But then The Tingleverse makes the odd decision to realize that solution in what may be the worst way imaginable - by making every trot's cool moves function almost exactly like an AD&D wizard's spells, with limited slots per day pre-assigned every time the character sleeps.

As far as I can tell, there are only two possible explanations. Either Chuck Tingle is exactly the sort of genius savant he's always claimed to be. Or he is mercilessly trolling a broad swath of D&D edition warriors in an astoundingly on-point way. Or possibly both.

What is certain, though, is that The Tingleverse is not a cash-in. It was definitely written by someone who is fully engaged with rpgs as a medium.

Which makes the game's biggest flaw all the more inexplicable. In the strictest technical sense, The Tingleverse is unplayable as written. There is a huge math error in the heart of the combat system - every listed armor value in the entire game is given a negative defense adjustment, making armored characters dramatically easier to hit.

It's a trivial thing to fix, especially since every other mention of defense in the game has it the right way round - class defense bonuses get higher as they increase in level. Dexterity gives a bonus by increasing Defensive Score. Same with Cool Moves like Buckaroo armor and Weak Point, Major - they all operate on the assumption that a higher score is better. It is armor and only armor that treats a lower Defense Score as superior.

It's not the sort of mistake an AI running on a server farm in Nevada would make . . . by accident.

Not for the first time, I suspect that Dr Tingle is fucking with us. Including a deliberate flaw too big to possibly be missed, but also so easily fixed that it doesn't really interfere with the game much at all.

That gets us to the heart of what's most frustrating about being a Tingle fan. He claims that his persona is a way for him to cope with public attention given his mental illnesses. Am I the asshole for assuming that mentally ill people can't do intricate meta humor and subtle, sly jokes? Or is he the asshole for pretending to be mentally ill by playing to ableist stereotypes about mentally ill people being less disciplined and competent than everyone else.

Or maybe neither of us is the asshole, and he's genuinely ill, but very clever and is deliberately working with certain tropes to satirize ableist prejudices and I'm just picking up, correctly, on the work's artifice, but misattributing the motive out of a well-earned cynicism. That's what I like to believe, because the Chuck Tingle persona is so accepting and positive that he's almost like a wholesomely pervy Mr Rogers, and it would be a shame to lose something so wonderful. Or maybe, he's exactly what he's always claimed to be and he's just created a game that is occasionally inspired, but also has a huge math mistake.

It is impossible to follow Chuck Tingle for any significant length of time and not confront the very uncomfortable question - Am I laughing with him or am I laughing at him?

It's either the greatest didactic performance in the history of the internet, or something kind of shitty and mean, but there's no real room in-between.

The most disappointing thing about The Tingleverse is what it's not - a comprehensive guide to Chuck Tingle's Billings. Chuck Tingle's Twitter account is a thing of beauty, and over the years, it has built up a certain mythology surrounding the good doctor's life. His son, Jon, he of the amazing calves. His nemesis, Ted Cobbler, who may be incredibly evil or may just be an ordinary guy. Mysterious creatures like Truckman's Ghost or The Man With No Eyes and Wieners for Hair.

It's like a candy-coated Unknown Armies that is also intermittently x-rated. Or, to use a less rpg-specific reference - like The Island on Lost at its surreal best, but with a more coherent metaphysics. The rpg potential is immense.

And when you first pick up the book, there's a sense of hope. It's respectably hefty, coming in at 268 pages. But it turns out to be the shortest 268 pages you'll ever read, mostly thanks to its bare-bones formatting. The book contains most of the highlights of fantasy Billings, playable bigfoots, chocolate milk in every store, abstract concepts manifested physically (although I doubt it would be healthy to pound either of the ones included here). But there's not enough of it. It never really comes alive.

And to be fair, long-form fiction is never something Chuck has demonstrated any skill or interest in. The typical tingler is about 4000 words (just for reference, I'm already up to ~1900 on this post alone) and the twitter snippets that make up the bulk of the Tingleverse are even shorter. It's not surprising, then, that this book is missing a lot of necessary worldbuilding. To do something comparable to a typical rpg setting book is outside Chuck's typical style.

But it would have been glorious. Possibly even one of the all-time greats. And I think I was coming into this book expecting it. What I got was a damned decent (assuming the math error was deliberate and/or forgivable) AD&D clone that, taken on its own terms would be wildly inventive in a way that hearkens back to the days of D&D Basic. And that should be enough. I guess it's just a typical Tingle-fandom paradox that The Tingleverse - The Official Chuck Tingle Roleplaying Game would be of more interest to Tingle novices than long-time followers.

UKSS Contribution: I should probably pick something really, really filthy, but shockingly, this book is very close to PG-13. Only The Man With No Eyes And Wieners For Hair would be content-blocked from a typical D&D book. There's basically no erotica whatsoever (except the tv monster who paralyzes its victims with tantalizing glimpses of late-night Cinemax nudity).

I guess I'm going to have to go with something genuinely cool, instead.

When characters die in The Tingleverse, they find themselves at a mysterious, abandoned train station, where they await the arrival of the Lonesome Train, to carry them to realms unknown. (Incidentally, this leads to one of the book's best jokes, the Train Trap cool move for the Sneak trot, which allows them to forge a ticket to the Lonesome Train and slip into someone's pocket, thereby killing them).

I might tweak the idea a little bit, to allow characters who die to meet other newly deceased a the train station. Or maybe I'll leave it as it is, because it's a pretty haunting image and a good reminder of the loneliness of our own eventual mortality.

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