The FATE of Old

Back in the day (when did it happen that I could start like this?), there was a game called FUDGE. It had some new ideas like using those fudge dice and using adjectives instead of numbers. Otherwise it was more like a toolkit. Choose the attributes and stats for your campaign, pick whatever other rules you might need and have fun.

Now, my first exposure to Fate was with FATE 2 (pdf). It was more specific than Fudge but still pretty open. You still had to make up the skill list for your game. The one big thing was a new take on attributes. Instead of the GM making a list for that too, players would make up their own traits. That became popular at the time.

From such games, a caveat was learned. Very broad traits are boring. But it is tempting to make the broadest trait possible. So the Fate took that to heart. Instead of rolling those self-made attributes, you could spend them for bonuses. So you always roll a skill and, if you want, spend a charge from a fitting “Aspect” for a massive bonus. Of course, this solves the Broad Trait Problem, because any Aspect is finite. If you spend all your All Might early, you don’t have anything later and must rely on your other Aspects. Granted, the Aspect examples in the Fate 2 rulebook might not fit our nowadays refined tastes for literary expressiveness, but I’m looking at their functionality here.

There were Fate Points, too. You got them, when an Aspect became a problem, but they were a simple +1, while an Aspect charge meant a sure +2 or a full reroll. Fate Points and Aspect charges were not interchangeable. There were no scene and campaign aspects. The game also made a big point of Extras, which can still be found in the toolkit nowadays, but I’ve never seen anyone bothering either way.

It was a good system for its communicative power. Setting up the skill list, the GM says: This is what will be important for the campaign. This is what the characters will do. Making your Aspect on the other hand, you say: This is cool and important about my character.

Of course, newer editions don’t do it that way anymore. The question is why, if it was such a nice system. It’s certainly not about general simplicity, because in the same stroke that aspects were changed to simple tags, we also got Stunts, which are actually more complicated internally than the old Aspects, and another thing to keep track of. It might be a case for consistency, after maneuvers and their effects were invented. But those could have been handled without connecting things to Fate Points as well.

The only problem with the old Aspects I can imagine would be them being too good at what they do, that is limiting constant use of broad traits. We might call it the Aquaman problem. In order for Aquaman to shine, there should be water. So a particularly narrow Aspect might be wasted. But that might be fixed as well, as PDQ# has shown. The rule would be to discard Aspect charges in lieu of Stress. This could happen without regard to the current situation. Aquaman could still take a beating, but not use his Aspect actively. This would also remove the need for separate HP or stress tracks. Conditions could work unchanged.

So to use this Fate 2.9

  • Make a skill list for your campaign.
  • Use the Aspects the old way.
  • Use Aspects as stress, too.
  • Import the four kinds of actions from later editions.
  • Import Conditions as you see fit.
  • Gracefully ignore stunts.

Personally, I’d also make a ladder that requires less interpretation, but that might be another topic.

Originally posted at rpg.net, where it also got a comment by iago.

Powering an Apocalypse

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One of the typical suggestions when someone asks for making an Apocalypse hack is starting with Simple World. That might work, but it won’t give you something I would call a great PbtA game. Something like Monsterhearts, Urban Shadows or Masks. So here are my two tokens of economic exchange.

1. Pick a small subgenre with a few works as material.

Typically cited genres like Science-Fiction, Fantasy or even Urban Fantsy are by far too wide turn them into a focused game. On the other hand individual works of fiction often do not provide source material that is varied enough.

Some franchises, like Star Wars or Star Trek, may work as their on subgenre in this regard, because they themselves produced several installments over the years.

2. Actions anyone can take should either be a very specific move or no move at all.

In short, you want to avoid moves that change the used stat based on a situation. You want to avoid situational modifiers. If you feel the need to make such differentiation, either make two separate moves, or reformulate. Also err on the side of No Move At All.

3. When creating moves start with strong triggers.

Triggers are the most important part of your moves. They are a great opportunity to communicate the genre and flavor of your game. Use that. Also specific triggers reduce discussions at the gaming table. They do away with deliberation whether something is worth a roll or not. The move triggers, when the move triggers.

4. Create moves, then group them, then name those groupings as stats.

Definitely do not start your design with a definitive list of stats. Instead start with moves. If you end up with more than a hand full of moves that require rolls – moves without rolling are definitely a thing! -, you probably don’t want an individual stat for each move. Instead try different groupings. How might that stat be called in each case?

5. Playbooks should be about origins, motivations or behaviors

When inspecting your source material, it is tempting to model abilties or specialties with the gaming system. But Urban Shadows does not tell us about typical abilities of vampires. Masks doesn’t really have rules for superpowers. That’s because avid fans of your source material know these. Instead help them with patterns they might have missed. How does a famous hero’s sidekick act compared to a self-made neighbourhood vigilant? What does someone who grew up on a primitive planet bring with them when they join Starfleet?

Really masterful playbooks are allegories, too, like every playbook in Monsterhearts or Masks is “The kid who…”.

6. Try shuffling stuff between layers

PbtA games can be understood as different layers, to name a few:

  • Conversation
  • Basic Moves
  • Uncommon Moves
  • Hx, Bonds, Favor, Strings…
  • “Sex” Moves, i.e. moves that every playbook has, but different
  • Playbook Moves
  • Playbook Specialties

This listing is not complete. Games like Alas For The Aweful Sea use a combination of two playbooks for characters. Masks has a category of Adult Moves that you can buy with XP. So play around with these categories. Try whether a some bit of rules could be done on a another layer. Or maybe you find you need to make your own category.

A Small Rulest for Organisations, Part 3, Precepts

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Precepts are a way to crunchify the ideals and outlook of organisations under this system. An Organisation can have at most two Precepts. Branches of Organisations in different regions normally share Precepts. Precepts provide Boosts. These Boosts should be used in the turn they come up.

  • Altruistic: Gain a Boost once per turn, when you gift Money or an Asset tap to another Organisation.
  • Dogmatic: Gain a Boost on the next turn, if you have one untapped Authority Asset at the end of turn. The Asset must have been usuable.
  • Hateful: Choose another Organisation or a certain kind of Organisation as your enemy. Gain a Boost each turn to hit them with Raids and Sabotage.
  • Honorable: Gain a Boost, when they openly declare you are going to attack another Organisation.
  • Innovative: Gain a non-Research Boost, if you you used Prototypes at least three times last turn.
  • Liberal: Gain a Boost each turn to Calm Riots. Never use Intelligence or Military to do so.
  • Luxurious: Gain a Boost next turn, if you have unused Infrastructure at the end of turn.
  • Mercantile: Gain a non-Economy Boost each turn, if you have the most Economy in a region. There must be at least one other Organisation there.
  • Migratory: Gain a Boost each time when a Pop in a region where one of your Pops just arrived.
  • Peaceful: Gain a Boost each turn, if you do not have Military.
  • Rooted: Gain a Boost each turn, if you do not grow beyond your home region.
  • Vengeful: Gain a Boost to retaliate, whenever another organisation messes with you.

A small ruleset for Organisations, Part 2

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Continuing the last post, here are some more goodies.

Boosts

Boosts are like a one time Asset. Some Boosts are generally typed, although some are general. You can buy typed Boosts with Money. The first Boost of a type (say Research) in a turn and region costs 1 Money. The seconds costs 2 Money etc.

Random Events

Roll random events at the beginning of a turn for any region you like. Random events affect the whole region. Roll 2d6 and 1d6 of another color. Read the 2d6 on the following table. If the final d6 is 5+, the event is considered major.

2Catastrophe. A natural asset expires, if exists. If major, this region’s population limit shrinks by 1.
3Population lost. The currently largest Organisation looses 1 Pop. Again, if major.
4Bad Season: Population and Trade assets have 50% chance of producing 0.5 Money less. Or nothing, if major.
5Unrest. One Pop from the Organisation with currently largest number of non-rioting Pops riots. Again, if major.
6Asset damaged. Choose an asset in the region at random. Twice, if major.
7Same as last time. Determine minor / major anew.
8Harmony. Each Organisation with an Authority Asset gains an Authority Boost. If major, each Organisation with Research also gains a Research Boost.
9Economy boom. Trade Assets have 50% of trading for another 0.5 Money. 1 full Money, if major.
10Good Production. Pops have a 50% chance of producing another 0.5 Money. 1 full Money, if major.
11Natural Asset found. It initially takes 4 Money to develop it. Free, if major.
12The largest Organisation in the reason grows 1 Pop. If major, the second largest does as well.
Random events

This table is somewhat pessismistic. That’s because Organisations can burn Research to mess with the roll and of course PCs may attempt to avert disaster. Therefore make sure to frame events in a way that PCs may tackle them.

Natural Assets

Natural Assets do not require upkeep and therefore very attractive. Some kinds might be damaged, meaning the means of extraction are damaged. They cannot be destroyed however. Some natural assets might be limited to specific actions, like steep cliffs are Military, but only for defense. Natural assets cannot usually move to other regions.

Treaties

You can trade anything. Money, Actions, Assets. You can share ownership with another Organisation. Some organisations might depend on it. A mercenary band might be a single Military asset, requiring contracts for upkeep.

War

War is special action with Range 0. You must commit some Pops that will not produce this turn. You must have an equal or greater rating of Military in the region. You do not have to tap your Military assets or boosts for the war. Your enemy might do likeweise. Then roll 1d6 for each warring Pop.

1This Pop dies.
2-3Nothing happens.
4Damage an Asset or kill one Pop.
5Damage an Asset or conquer a damaged Asset.
6Conquer 1 Pop. It is rioting now.
War result

The next and final installment will include Precepts as another way to individualize Organisations.

A small ruleset for Organisations, Part 1

While I’ve been gushing about Reign’s magic system before, I’m less partial to the it’s selling point: The organistion rules. The ideas is modeling various communities, cults, empires, whatever with a rules set and setting them loose on one another. The PCs control one such organisation. I won’t go into detail here, and just say what I would expect of such a system:

  • I want to use it as an adventure generator. So some random events would be nice.
  • I want locality. The Empire might be big, but I’m more interested in their local holdings and what they can do where the action is.
  • I want to zoom in and out. Maybe there are infights within the organisation, so let’s look at its factions with the same system.
  • I want characters to dump that big treasure hoard they found into their fief.

So first we need a timescale. Weeks, months, years. Whatever makes sense. During that time organisations can take actions. Second we need some unit of money. Organisations spend money. If your system has money, find and appropriate amount that constitutes 1 Money in terms of this system. Thirdly, figure out how many people 1 Population is. Finally, you need regions. Stuff happens in regions. Regions can be adjacent to another or not. Each region has a Population limit, usually between 1 and 6. Determine as you like or roll 3d6 keep middle.

Organisations should have a name. Inside a given region, an organisation can have Population, Money and Assets.

Assets have a type and a name. Like Callow’s 4th Army is a Military Asset. The Jacks are an Influence Asset and so on. Each Asset should have it’s own name. (And you should read The Practical Guide to Evil.) Your total number of Assets of a certain type in a region is your rating in that category. So all your Military Assets make up your Military rating for that region.

Turn Structure

  1. At the beginning of a turn, pay 1 Money for each Asset in a region. If you want to build a new Asset, pay 4 Money. It will be ready at the end of the turn, unless something bad happens to it. To repair a broken Asset, pay two Money. Assets will likeweise be repaired at the end of trun.
  2. Do that roleplay thing. Use organisation assets.
  3. At the end of turn, get 1 Money for every Population.
  • You can send Money, Assets and Pops to other regions. They arrive at the beginning at the next turn. Assets on the move do not work and Pops on the move do not produce.
  • Damaged Assets do not work. Assets damaged twice are destroyed.
  • Rioting pops do not produce. If they remain rioting for several turns, they will likely declare themselves independent.

You need some d6.

Assets and Actions

Actions require spending assets. Spend Assets become available again next turn. Actions have a Range. Range 0 is the region the Asset is in. Range 1 is adjacent regions etc. When timing matters the organisation with less Pop goes first. On a tie, PC’s organisation goes first.

Orders (Authority Assets, Range 1)

Issue orders and spend one Authority to have it work as any other type of Asset. For example you can call people to arms and get Military. There are two limitations. You cannot apply more orders to regions per turn than you have Pops there. You can only push each type of Asset there once. So only +1 Military etc.

Trade (Economy Assets, Range 1)

Pick a Pop in range that has not been traded with this turn and trade with them. Gain 1.5 Money. You can trade with Pops belonging to another organisation, but they can issue Orders per region to prevent that.

Housing (Infrastructure Assets, Range 0)

Provide housing for up to three Pops that do not fit into this regions population limit. You can house Pops belonging to other organisations. Pops that do not fit afterwards, must move to another region.

Prototypes (Research Assets, Range 1)

You ask your weird scientists, mages, godspeakers, whatever for an edge. Tap Research and reroll any one die you make in terms of this organisation system. If the die shows the same result as it had before, something went very wrong. The researching Asset is damaged.

Influence (Intelligence Assets, Range 1)

Tap to tap an Asset of another Organisation. If you want to hide your involvement, you have a 50% chance.

Sabotage (Intelligence Assets, Range 0 / 1, if your opponent has riots there)

Tap for a 50% chance to make 1 Pop riot or destroy an Asset. Tap an extra Asset to hide your involvement.

Raid (Military Assets, Range 1)

For each tap, you have 50% chance to steal 1 Money or damage 1 Asset of another Organisation. They may tap Military in defense and have a 50% chance each to damage your attackers.

Calm Riots (Military, Intelligence and Authority Assets, Range 0)

Tap an Asset and have a rioting Pop return to work. Your approach is colored by the Asset type you use.

What PCs can do

Under this system PCs can personally do things to help their organisation along. They can add to the organisations treasury. Say 1 Money is 50,000 gp, the PCs can just convert it that way.

PCs can also do missions. For example moving stuff usually takes one full turn. PC escorted transport might be quicker. PC missions can also result in a single free Asset use called a Boost, for example when the PCs personally sabotage or raid another organisation, or they might recruit completely new Assets or Pops for their ranks.

Random events, all out war, as well as some further options and tips will be in next week’s post.

Fantasy Polytheism is Weird

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Or maybe it’s WEIRD. Now, there are games that have a very good grasp on religion. Faiths of Eberron is a very fine example. But the typical fantasy RPG might work like that.

  • There are X dieties, for some natural number X.
  • Those dieties have names and attributes.
  • Those dieties each have a portfolio.
    • That portfolio is different from those of other dieties.
  • Those dieties have dedicated priests.
    • Those priests have supra-regional organisation.

Nothing of that is actually wrong, but when we look at the mediterranean religions of antiquity that RPGs often draw from, it’s not the whole story.

First, both Romans and Greeks had the idea that there many gods, like, more than you know. That’s why the Romans built the Pantheon, literally an all-gods [temple], while in Athens there was the altar of the Unknown God, that also features into the story of Petrus preaching there.

Our perception is also influenced by how the gods are depicted in the epics of Homer, Virgil and Ovidius. They are persons with feeling – often lust and envy – that mess with mortals and one another. Not all gods had such developed personalities, even if they had regular cults. This is especially apparent with the Romans. The stories of the gods and their deeds are actually all Greek. Roman gods that did not get identified with a Greek counterpart have no stories about them that we know of. This includes very well-known gods like Janus. There is also the capability of treating abstract nouns as gods. So you find altars to Unity or Pestilence. Taking things in the other direction it is common that authors will use a god for area of influence in liturature. So characters might act with Mars (i.e. warlike / violently).

Speaking of areas of influence, it’s complicated. There are usually several overlapping divinities for most areas. Sometimes they are then reinterpreted as being the same, the mechanism we find prominently with the Greek and Roman names, sometimes they are venerated in parallel. Sometimes it even seems that a goddess of a certain temple is different from a goddess of the same name at another temple.

As for priests, those existed, but super-regional clergy is a very Christian idea. Priests work a temple or city state. And while there might be fulltime priests at big temples, part-time priests are likely more common. First of all, monarchs and elected officials, will be expected to perform certain rituals for the community. There might also specifically elected or recruited priests for certain functions. Some might have regular ritual responsibilities, some might only work once per year when their specific festival comes up. Think carneval troups doing their thing at different times during the year. In any case, separation of church and state did not exist, or better yet there was no church.

The role of the priest was very different from the Christian idea. A priest would not be responsible for their community’s souls. They would not generally officiate private ceremonies like weddings. There are basically two types of priestly function. One kind would perform ritual at appropriate times, usually involving sacrifice, for the community. Similar rituals in the small were done by the heads of households. The others are various kinds of diviners that one could consult, either when planning some endeavor or when the gods appeared angry (bad harvest, earthquakes…). In the latter case the experts would suggest some rituals to appease the gods. In some cases rich people or communities might consult priests and temples outside their home region.

That’s it for now. If you are interested in more tidbits about these topics, please let me know.

There is no such thing as railroading

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In an earlier post, I already explained why “Railroading” is not a good term for a GMing style. Whatever that style may be. Today I’ll be sharing my thoughts why that other, negative meaning of “Railroading” is not a constructive approach either. In case you are not familiar, players might complain about “railroading”, when they feel their choices in the game do not matter.

Now, we should certainly take such a complaint seriously. After all someone at the table didn’t have a good time. But that also means that we should not assume that GM did railroad the players. After all, that would assume the GM wanted the players to have a bad time. And usually we are all friends there.

Instead, we should try to find out where that feeling on the side of the complaining player came from. Usually it is a miscommunication. So you feel your choice is ignored. Maybe:

  • The other person did not understand that you were making a choice. Maybe they thought you just wanted to add some color to the scene.
  • The other person did process your choice, but came to the conclusion that it made no difference.
  • Maybe there where outside constraints – like time slots – that made the other person gloss over your choice.
  • Maybe the other person did not feel secure enough to handle your input. Especially newer GMs sometimes feel insecure when they have to step away from what they have prepared.

So when you feel railroaded, maybe not use that word and try to find out what really went on there. I remember a game when a player complained about railroading afterwards. They were going through a jungle in search of the survivors of a crashed airship. They found the trails of the survivors and trails of local inhabitants following them. Apparently the players were assuming persuit and prepared for a conflict with the locals. Then, as the crashed crew approached a certain stone formation the trail of the locals turned into another direction. What I wanted to communicate: The locals consider that place cursed and therefore stopped their pursuit. One player thought I somehow wanted to disregard their input about the locals and complaint about railroading afterwards.

So players are just going to feel railroaded. If you are a GM that maybe sucks because you cannot create a non-railroady adventure or something. What you can do is communicate openly and say things like these when appropriate:

  • We have only about 60 min left. How do you feel about speeding things up a little?
  • When you are not sure what people want to achieve, ask: “OK, what do you think should happen?”
  • Sorry, I haven’t prepared anything for when you go that route.

The latter is especially dear to me. I played Eberron with my home group at the time and preprared something in Stormreach which is an outpost on the souther continent which is filled with monsters, treaures and giant ruins. Instead of following the plot I laid out, the players would rather wander into djungle in search of said ruins, monsters and treasure. “I’m sorry, I haven’t prepared anything like that”, I said. “No problem. You’ll do fine”, they told me. And so they went. And it was OK.

Also set expectations early and make things clear before play really starts, like so:

  • This is an introductory scenario. I prepared a few scenes to show the various parts of the system. The story is a bit thin, please bear with me.
  • In this adventure not everything is what it seems. It is a good idea to ask the locals for information. Some of them have reasons to lie.
  • This is a very deadly dungeon crawl with lots of nasty traps. Should your character die, we have spares.

In all of these cases, I have seen people complain about railroading, which really taught me that people have wildly different expectations on how play should be.

Some Laws of Magic in RPGs

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Your magic rules will be believed to be the whole of magic

Magic rules, if you have them, work differently from rules for other things. If your rules say that a human character may move 30 ft. on their turn, players will understand this to be an abstraction. That is because we quite familiar with human ambulation. But not so with magic. So if you write that a 5th level magic user can cast a fireball for 30 damage, that will be the whole of it.

Now, you might be OK with this (also see the next point), but if you also want to have magic wonders of old and rituals darker than night, some players might feel a disconnect: How can my character do that? One way to grasp this vast “other magic” is using rules in the way of long-term projects like in Nobilis 3 or the Workshop rules in PbtA. This is the Ritual from Dungeonworld.

When you draw on a place of power to create a magical effect, tell the GM what you’re trying to achieve. Ritual effects are always possible, but the GM will give you one to four of the following conditions:

· It’s going to take days/weeks/months.
· First you must _________  .
· You’ll need help from  _____________  .
· It will require a lot of money
· The best you can do is a lesser version, unreliable and limited
· You and your allies will risk danger from  ____________   .
· You’ll have to disenchant  ______________  to do it.

It’s basically quest generator.

The easiest way to limit magic is to make it specific

If you are familiar with contemporary fantasy literature and “hard magic” in the style of Brandon Sanderson, you are familiar with this one. That is, many RPGs start with the idea that magic can do anything, then limit it with the likes of spell points.

A simpler approach is to make a limited list of things that magic can do. RPGs with this method are 7th Sea and Reign. In Reign you can be a Sunwise Healer. Then you can heal. You can Soul Forger and forge the souls of animals and conficts into swords. You can be a Fire Dancer and, when you shake it, things get hot.

The game doesn’t bother with spell points. It doesn’t have to because individual mages and magic overall cannot do very much in the grand scheme of things. But mages do fill certain specialist positions in society. For example in the Empire (all magic traditions are regional), there are the Smoke Formers. Their ability is to wave a fan and smoke becomes a solid object for the time. More smoke and formers for bigger objects. What could our beloved Empress do with those guys?

Hire them for the army as engineers. It’s much easier to have some smoke formers wave a way, when you need a quick bridge, then actually build one. Also you have no problems with your enemy using it.

If mundanes shall compete with magic, there should be simple countermeasures

Now, using the above approach, mages will occupy certain niches in society. If you instead want to compete mages and mundanes for the same niches, you have to work a bit more. After all, the basic character fantasy of playing a mage is that things are easier than doing them the normal way.

So yes, magic can do it easily. But most of the time someone took the effort to block that magic. And the best ways of doing that is use non-magic means. For example, we might say that magic flight cannot cross water. Suddenly moats are all the rage and you can still have an age of sail.

Doing Morality right

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There are a few stark indicators that a rule in game, although well-intentioned and fitting the game’s theme, is done badly.

  1. Large parts of the audience admit they do not understand the rule or misunderstand it without realizing.
  2. Most players just ignore the rule.
  3. The rule spawns endless discussion on the intarwebz on how it is meant to be used.

This is about the third kind and I’m not talking Hypothetical Observers from Mage: The Ascension. No, let’s talk Alignment for now.

D&D’s alignment is something a set of moral codes with cosmic relevance. Or maybe cosmic forces which require certain behavior to tap. The most well-known version has 3×3 alignments. These are 3.5 writeups for easy reference.

In later editions the role of alignments for downplayed. 5e has them in theory, but they are mechanically relevant no longer. So even the designers thought there were problems.

To make better alignments, or any morality system really, I posit:

  1. Since players have to act this part, these rules should be succinct and easy to remember.
  2. It would be fun, if players could discuss the exact meanings. To do so, there should be general, abstract rules.
  3. Since players should take different roles, each position should have merit. Some conflict is good, but not in a way to make cooperation impossible.
  4. The system should have some impetus for certain behavior. Chickening out by choosing a null option should not be in the cards.
  5. But it is a bad idea, to punish players for not acting the part, because playing one’s own character as one sees fit, is so very central to role-playing. Thus the carrot is generally better here, if mechanical reinforcement is sought.

The last concept seems to be general consensus nowadays. D&D5 does it even with their new personality traits and Inspiration. Of course, this a system for personal motivations and quirks, not something that makes the character adherent to some philosophical or metaphysical standpoint.

But D&D’s alignments aren’t so hot with the other points either. It is actually hard to say what each alignment is about and therefore harder still to argue about in character. Neutral or Chaotic Neutral are often used as the aforementioned null options.

Now, are there games that do this better? – I’m glad you asked. Nobilis 2nd Edition did. How does it work:

  • Each affiliation or code has 3 precepts for easy memorisation.
  • When you struggle because, you try to uphold your code, you gain Miracle points (carrot).
  • None of the codes is called Good or Evil. Heaven / Hell and Light / Dark might indicate some flavor of the kind, but none of the codes is actually “nice”.
  • The precepts are made so that the Affiliation’s interests are not irreconcilable. For example Light wants to safe humanity, while Dark wants to corrupt individual humans.
  • If you do not like any of those codes for your character, you may write your own, making you one of the True Gods of Earth.

Using this as inspiration, I scribbled down six Heroic Alignments. This is certainly still rough, but may serve as an example.

Shield

  • Everyone has their strength. 
  • The strong must protect the weak.
  • If the monsters are too powerful, their rampage must be mitigated. 

Spear

  • Aspire excellence in all things. 
  • Help others do likewise.
  • There is no excuse to stay weak.

Book

  • Laws should be codified, known and respected
  • The words of legitimate leaders are akin to law. 
  • Charity is dubious and prone to corruption.

Chalice

  • Sharing is the highest virtue.
  • Prefer consensus over vote; everyone must be heard.
  • Tyranny must be resisted in all forms.

Sword

  • The laws of men are fallible, justice is eternal.
  • Justice commands that debts be paid.
  • Let no criminal escape.

Cap

  • Do no harm, lest you will be harmed.
  • Feel free to help that along, if fate needs a hand.
  • Traditions should be tested. 

Incidentally, the 3 Precepts pattern was used for the gods in the D&D’s 4e Players’ Handbook. So if you want something directly from WotC you can use those (click the individual dieties to see their precepts).

What’s a rule anyway?

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When people talk about rules in RPGs they often refer to things like stats or dice. But that cannot be the whole of the story. Because in games rules are quite simple there to let us know what to do and what not to do during play. Therefore things like the existence of a GM and what they ought to do must be a rule. How to properly play a character is a rule. 

We can differentiate the following kinds of rules:

Ownership: A player can own a fictional entity. Like a player usually owns a PC and the GM owns pretty much the rest of the fiction. If you own an entity you can mostly do what as you wish with it, unless other rules interfere. Of course ownership can be distributed in many different ways. For example, if the Elf player not only owns their character but also elvish culture, they could make statements about it without being gainsaid. Of course there are lots of games without GM / player split.

Principles: Principles are guidelines on how you should play entities you own and how to act towards other players. (The term I took from Apocalypse World.) Examples might be to fudge dice, talk in first person, ask lots of questions, say yes or roll dice and many more. Principles are often considered tips, like GMing Tips or Player Tips, but by the definition above, they are actually rules. And that’s a good thing. Because if they are rules, we can actively rule them when we make games. Together with ownership, principles constitute a vast design space that is often ignored.

Setting: One principle that is present in every game is to respect established content. There could be no ongoing story if everyone ignored established facts. Many groups and games do a bit more. They accept content wholesale before play even starts. Like, when we play Star Trek 22nd century, we know that there are Klingons but probably no Dominion. We should consider Setting a kind of rule, because when we make a game, we can craft the setting in such a way that it fits our game’s premise. If you want to formulate setting information, it usually works like so: Since elves have pointy ears, do not describe elves having round ears.

Procedures: Also called mechanics or rules in a stricter sense. I like the term procedure, because that’s what they are, step-by-step descriptions of what you should do under certain conditions. We can recognize two important subtypes of procedures. 

  • Generative procedures create new instances of a certain type of entity. Like character generation. 
  • Interactive procedures come into play when fictional entities interact in a certain manner. Usually when these entities are owned by different players. Combat systems are typical examples, but also when some PC jumps over the GM’s chasm. They are sometimes called “resolution methods”. I don’t really like that term, because sometimes it is doubtful what is actually resolved. Consider a single attack that does 3 HP damage in an ongoing fight.

So if these are all rules that help us to bring about what our game is about, what are RPGs about? I have seen two kinds of answers over the years.

Core Stories

Core stories are roughly what the characters do. The name “core story” is taken from an essay by Mike Mearls called Core Stories in D&D. For D&D the essay has to say:

A party of adventurers assemble to seek fame and fortune. They leave civilization for a location of extreme danger. They fight monsters and overcome obstacles and acquire new abilities and items of power. Afterwards they return to civilization and sell the phat loot. Next week, they do it all over again.

Emphasis on next week and all over. In short, when you’ve read that shiny new game and wonder what should actually happen during a session, that game is lacking a clear core story.

Premises

Premise is one of those big word from Forge Narrativism featuring prominently in this essay by Ron Edwards. In plain words, according to the essay, the game’s Premise is a “problematic human issue”, like:

  • A possible Narrativist development of the “vampire” initial Premise, with a strong character emphasis, might be, Is it right to sustain one’s immortality by killing others? When might the justification break down?
  • Another, with a strong setting emphasis, might be, Vampires are divided between ruthlessly exploiting and lovingly nurturing living people, and which side are you on?

So a Premise is a kind of question that cannot be solved, only answered. And it’s the players job to do the answering.

If you know any other takes for what RPGs are about, please tell me.