Tartary is Bollymecha part 1: the Bolly, or Dance Rules for Techno-Tyrants
Tartary is slums and pomo Orientalism and post-Soviet social commentary and Roadside Picnic getting-melted-by-your-treasure, and constant war and endless treachery and uncaring thaumatocrats and incomprehensible honour systems and tyrants replacing each other on the banks of the Oxus.
But in true Massala movie style, Tartary is also GIGANTIC BOLLYWOOD SONG-AND-DANCE NUMBERS. Which are frequently tied closely to WILDLY DESTRUCTIVE ARENA BATTLES BETWEEN GARGANTUAN HOME-MADE JEEPNEY/TEMPLE HYBRID MECHA.
Because every town worth a damn has at least one mecha fighting arena, and every kid goes through at least one summer where they dream of being a big star pilot like Prince Harbir of Amritsar or that magnificent bastard Nizam The Suzerain, Pit Boss of Komtor.
And what separates those great TV heroes and heels from the local toughs, duking it out in the local dive with their grease-powered MadMaxoskeletons?
Well, unimaginable riches, obviously. And mighty hordes of followers and the splendours of a kingdom behind them.
But all those things stem from KEEN DANCE MOVES.
BUT WHY WOULD I WANT TO DANCE?
Because dance is ritual magic (it’s actually a whole magic system, but that’s another post). It’s the path to power and fortune. And it’s the one way to really, truly, definitively win disputes.
The basic coin of social power in Tartary is Reputation; it’s a measure of how important you are. And it’s a stat on your character sheet: REP. Incoming DnD flailsnailers get their level as their starting REP, because their greatest deeds are shown on Tartary’s ubiquitous TV networks – late night or prime-time, depending on how great they are.
REP can be increased by accomplishing mighty and important stuff and by beating folks in the arenas. You do not get REP – or respect or followers or groupies – by shanking your enemies quietly in the night. You get it by dominating and humiliating them in the public eye.
And you can attract that eye by invoking the ritual of Breaking into Song and Dance.
When you begin a dance you change the rules of conflict; a shouted challenge to a barroom fistfight can be brushed or laughed off, but a formal challenge by dance-off is serious business – it means the world is watching – and it must be met in kind. To refuse a dance-off is to admit defeat and agree to whatever settlement the victor demands. It’s not good for your reputation, but like losing a duel, it’s still within the bounds of honour.
But if you then protest, or go back on the deal, or try to get back what you legitimately lost by treachery, why then you lose ALL respect and REP – effectively setting you back to level 0 (if the TV catches you…).
SO HOW DO I DANCE?
1. The Challenge
When someone starts dancing a Challenge is issued and Stakes are set.
The challenger rolls a d6 to set a target for the challengee to beat. They can add mods to this roll by Staking resources and by bringing in situational modifiers.
anything you stake may be lost if you lose the dance-off.
The first thing that can be Staked is Reputation – every point of REP staked is a +1 on the roll
You can also stake your life for a further +1. If you lose that… well in theory the victor could then legally kill you without reprisals, but that’s frowned on. Instead you’re commonly bound to do some service for the victor – either a specific task or a year of limited slavery.
If you have supporters, they can also stake their lives and join you in your dance (they could stake their Reputations but Rep cannot be pooled – only the single highest Rep counts) for +1 each
Anything you can bring in to hype the dance can provide a mod. Creativity is rewarded and appreciated by audiences. Classic moves include:
involve the crowd: make a d10 roll + CHA + REP + applicable skills to get the audience dancing on your side (vs the audience’s current disposition to the challenger). This can add +1 on an ordinary success, +2 on an exceptional success or -1 on a botch. If nobody brought their own band, musicians might also be called out of a crowd for an extra +1
stage effects: if you have an engineer on your side they can provide lighting or stage props, a choreomancer can tighten up your choreography, a great singer or musician can solo in praise of your majestic vertu, panache or malandragem. In each case a successful skill roll can add +1 (and a botch is -1)
2. The Response
The person challenged can Raise the stakes, Concede (or Fold), or Accept the challenge (Call).
If they Raise then they must beat whatever the Challenger got on their d6+mods, which will probably mean that they also have to Stake stuff and try to win situational modifiers – essentially they have to out-do the previous dance, make fun of the opponent’s claims and demonstrate their superior badassery and flair. They can entice the audience and musicians away (beating the previous skill roll to do so) and whatever else they can think of. If they beat the challenger, then the challenge is passed back to the original challenger who must Raise, Concede or Accept.
Each time a challenge or raise is issued, demands can be added to the dispute.
If a Raise is unsuccessful or if the person being challenged Concedes then (a) the challenger wins the dispute and any demands issued (argument, daughter’s hand in marriage, deeds to the mine, leadership of the pirate gang, rocket parts, whatever); (b) the conceding party loses whatever they Staked and 1 point of REP.
If a challenge is Accepted (Called) then the dancing turns to ritual combat (probably involving Mecha, discussed in Part 2), but not on a level playing field:
(a) the Accepter’s opponent (ie the last person to Challenge or Raise) gets initiative in the first round
(b) they also get the margin of their challenge’s success as a modifier to use at some point during that combat, either to modify one roll or to split up over multiple rolls as they see fit.
WHAT THE WHAT?
OK, example: Hakim challenges Waled for leadership of the tribe. Hakim has REP 4 and 2 supporters: a grease monkey and a trumpeter. Hakim stakes his REP and life, for a total of +5, his supporters stake their lives too (+2), the grease monkey adds spotlights and the trumpeter provides honking accompaniment for +1 each, for a total mod of +9. Hakim rolls a 3 +9 for stakes and mods = 12.
If Waled were to Accept this challenge then Hakim would get a total of +12 to use in the ensuing combat, which could be +12 on a single roll or +5 on one roll and +7 on another or any split Hakim chose.
Instead Waled Raises. He has REP 2 and 3 friends – a singer, a judge/orator and a high-CHA pilot with a magnificent moustache. He stakes his REP (+2) and all stake their lives (+4). Waled borrows an extraordinary hat to augment his performance (+1), the singer solos (+1), and both the orator and the pilot try to involve the crowd. This is a judgment call for the DM – can you involve the crowd more than once for multiple mods? After furious pleading the DM is persuaded by the players’ argument that oratory appeals to the crowd’s religious fervour while moustache-envy appeals to lower urges, and so both are allowed (+2). The total mod is +10, Waled rolls a 5 and beats Hakim by 3.
Hakim doubts he can win the crowd back so he Accepts the challenge, knowing that Waled will have +3 in mods (the margin of his Raise) to use as he wishes in the upcoming combat.
ONLY THE POWERFUL CAN RENOUNCE POWER
In accordance with anthropological theory, there is a moment in this exchange where power passes from challenger to responder: when a Raise is successfully executed, the Raiser gets a choice: they can force a fight or concession, or they can take the loftier path and call for peace and reconciliation.
If they choose not to fight then the status quo is restored and everyone stands down. The challenger may only challenge again if they can present a new and compelling reason to do so. This rule was enacted because of the death through exhaustion of one Garwan the Grandiloquent, a remarkable and highly popular showman-emir who was subjected to a campaign of continuous challenges for trade concessions over 13 days by representatives of the Consortium of New Julfa Coffee Shippers.
BUT WAIT I THOUGHT THIS GAME WAS GOING TO BE ABOUT DANCING MECHA?
Well duh. You think getting your Bollymech to dance isn’t going to be worth some Situational Modifier (as well as being risky)?