Wednesday 2 June 2021

Rules Heavy - Worlds and Classes

Lots of fantasy worlds rely on a sort of fairy-tale logic, often taking the form of absolute rules. Lots of these made the transition over to D&D.

  • Vampires cannot enter a home unless invited.
  • Minotaurs can never get lost.
  • Hags always gather as a coven of three. 
Except these two, apparently. Maybe the snake is a witch? See how rules provoke interesting solutions?

You might have heard some of these before you even played an RPG, just through old stories. Then you get weird D&D inventions that bring their own rules. Stuff you could only really know from playing or at least reading about this game.

  • Black Puddings split in two if hit with slashing weapons or lightning. 
  • Sleep spells don't work on Elves.
  • A Rust Monster's touch corrodes any ferrous, non-magical metal. 

I love these Absolutes in monster design, especially in comparison to more watered-down versions of these effects. In writing this post I was looking through the 5e Monster Manual and was shocked to see that sunlight merely causes a Vampire 20 damage (out of 144hp as standard) and disadvantage on some rolls. That's the same amount of damage it can regenerate each turn once it gets back into the shadows. I can feel the disappointment of luring the vampire into just the right spot before blowing a hole in their castle wall, letting the burning sunlight fill the room before... they are dropped to 124hp and run to the shade to recover. 

I'm not necessarily advocating for instant-dusting here, but this is a rule of the world that I'm trying to exploit here, and I want to feel like that was clever play! Maybe they get just one chance to escape or the sunlight pins them in place while they slowly sear. 

But I sort of want there to be a rule there. Not a mechanic like "take 20 damage and disadvantage", but a proper rule of this fantasy world. Vampires turn to dust in sunlight. 

See, I spend so much time talking about tearing rules off systems and throwing them into the bin, but I get the appeal of rules. There's a part of me that enjoys learning them, and I feel the satisfaction that comes with exploiting them to your advantage. But for me, the joy of using fictional rules to lure a Vampire into a track far outweighs that of finding two feats that synergise with each other to grant me higher damage output. 

It all fits into this Qualitative Design thing I've been going on about. I'm keen to try this out with an actual game now that I'm finally able to get some friends around a table, most likely something like this:

If your action is Unchallenged, then there is no need to roll unless you are pushing for an extra benefit. 

When there is opposition or risk to your action, weigh up whether you have an Edge. Generally this means you have the upper hand through careful preparations, innate capabilities, or specialist tools. If the obstacles or opposition facing you outweighs these, then you do not have an Edge. 

Roll 2d12. Keep the High die if you have an Edge, and Low if you don’t. Consult the chart for an answer to the question “Do I get my desired outcome?”.

Whatever the outcome, things move forward.

When you suffer harm you can Ask the Stars for the fallout or go with the narratively appropriate result. This is noted where appropriate and affects your future actions. 

Very FKR, I think. 

Talking about this is all well and good, but I wanted to put it into practice through character design, dipping into the idea of playbooks. Nothing new, of course, but I like the idea of giving each player a small, folded-A4 playbook that gives you rules of the world, rather than a new set of mechanics to learn. A wizard's should feels more like a spellbook than a rulebook. A fighter's might list the ins-and-outs of all those specialist weapons and manoeuvres that can be attempted. A rogue's might contain some actual exploits that your character knows about getting around the city, perhaps coming pre-loaded with contacts, secrets, and even tip-offs. 

And these are truths that might not be confined to your character. That same fighter can explain to the thief how a Warhammer is the perfect tool for the job in this situation, which might just give them the edge they need in the fight to come. Forget niche protection. Don't you want to share your cool stuff with your friends? 

There's some similarity with PBTA here, of course, but I think there's an important distinction here. PBTA moves exist in a weird limbo where some advice tells the players to never speak the name of the Move, but the name Moves lures you in like a big button you want to press. 

I want this book to almost exist diegetically (take a shot). This is stuff your character knows, or at least has written somewhere. 

So let's try this out with the Ranger.


A Ranger is a traveller charged with upholding the laws of the wild, but you know some tricks to exploiting them too.

The Laws of the Wild

  • You have sworn to uphold the Laws of Beasts, Day, and Night. 
  • These laws apply in any wilderness, even where it exists in small pockets. 
  • Any that swear to the life of a Ranger can use the exploits below for as long as they uphold their responsibilities.

Laws of Beasts

  • The territory of beasts must be respected - Studying a beast’s behaviour in secret reveals something about their surroundings. 

  • The wisdom of beasts must be respected - By consuming a small piece of their diet and making them comfortable you can hold simple conversations with an animal.

  • The strength of beasts must be respected - If you and an animal swear to protect each other, you begin to share each other’s senses and emotions.  This bond grows over time, with ranger and companion taking on traits of the other. 

Laws of Day

  • Safe passage must be granted to those that mean no harm - While travelling through the Wilderness you can never be surprised.

  • The land must provide for respectful travellers - While travelling through the wilderness you can always find a vantage point, hiding place, or food source.

  • The sun must be granted its followers - You can strip some wood from a tree without damaging it. If you do so, the wood whispers something to you about the history of this place.

Laws of Night

  • The night must remain dark - You can see in the dark in places rich with wildlife.

  • The night must remain calm - You can move silently under starlight. 

  • The night must be allowed to sing - You can mimic animal noises while under moonlight.

Necessary Slaying

Creatures that breach the laws of nature should rightfully be destroyed. There are numerous techniques to aid in this.

The Hunt

  • If you have a piece of a creature, or sample of their leavings, they are easier to track. 

  • If you witness a creature attacking another target, you are more adept at avoiding their attacks. 

  • When you witness a new behaviour in an unnatural creature you may ask the GM a yes/no question.

The Kill

  • If you have time to line up an attack from above your accuracy is near-absolute.

  • If you witness a creature suffering harm you get a clue to its weak point. 

  • If a creature begs you for mercy, you get a clue to the source of its unnatural evil. 

The Tribute

  • Spilling a slain creature’s blood returns a spoiled environment to its natural state. 

  • Preserving a slain creature’s heart grants a single instance of protection against its unnatural ability.

  • Working a slain creature’s bones into weaponry grants an edge against similar monstrosities, but makes the weapon fragile. 

Survival Gear

You know of the following, but there are more to be discovered. You start with two:

  • Wildrope: A strong rope that blends perfectly into its surroundings.

  • Signal Daggers: Small blades that can be easily concealed, thrown with great accuracy, and always catch the sunlight.

  • Wire Snare: A simple trap, strong enough to harmlessly entangle most mundane creatures.

Lots left open to interpretation, of course, but that's just sort of where I am right now. Perhaps my mood will change when I have to actually use these rules with other people at a table. 

I'd like to expand this with some extra sections with blanks left to be filled in. Perhaps the Ranger notes things they have learned from their travels in here. Maybe they even start the game with a scribbled map, encouraging them to fill the blanks as we go. 

There's nothing to stop other players from doing this, of course, but by putting those sections square in front of the Ranger player you're setting some expectations.


  1. This idea is super rad, however I wonder if the wording in the example could use some tweaking to signal more what is an ability of the Ranger and what is a truth about the world which would apply to everyone. Really cool stuff though, intrigued to see more.

    1. "Any that swear to the life of a Ranger can use the exploits below for as long as they uphold their responsibilities."

      I'd like to see what the equivalent might be for a Fighter or Thief or Mage.

    2. That would be one fix, though I think it might go against the idea that these are rules of the world that you can share with other players. If you have to play as a Ranger to do any of these things, you are still in the realm of niche protection. It makes sense to guard some of these behind like an oath or something, but I think it could be fun of some of the knacks, like a way to remove some bark without damaging the tree to get it to tell you a secret, are shareable.

    3. I would prefer to do it like, these are your "base kit" and then you can pick up anyone else's specials one-by-one as you advance, instead of gaining hit points. Kind of like Kirin Robinson's Old School Hack.

  2. Pretty good... you started me thinking about trying something similar for modern/near future campaigns, too.

  3. Fantastic stuff. I would also love to see this for other "classes/archetypes". In addition, my initial thought is this has great potential for handling magic in general.

    1. Spellbooks seem like a definite opportunity here. Looking forward to exploring it a bit more.

  4. Love this, qualitative design is extremely my jam. We seem to be undergoing some convergent evolution; my head's been very occupied by tarot-style oracular tools along with question/answer based resolution systems and character principles/truths.

    I've been extending this out a bit as well by creating a list of shared assumptions/touchstones/inspirations/truths about the setting that is placed in the center of the table and can be referenced by everyone.

  5. The interesting thing about vampires though is that the idea of them turning to dust in the sunlight is a fairly recent invention; "Nosferatu" is its earliest appearance. In the novel "Dracula", the 'man himself' is unharmed by sunlight; he just can't use any of his vampire powers.

    I love the system you came up with though! I've been experimenting with something similar; I stripped the Ability Scores out of ItO and use EB's Luck roll to handle things. If they attempted something that it made sense for their character to be good at, I would just hand wave the roll and say they accomplish it. I like your pseudo-Advantage "Edge" system a lot more though!

    1. Not being able to use their powers in sunlight still works a lot better for me than "20 Damage". Interestingly, the 5e Vampire does lose most of their powers in sunlight, but it feels somehow dampened by that damage being so weak on top of it.

  6. I've been thinking of running an FKRish game with the GLOG Deltas as the primary means of progression but there's the issue that a lot of the Deltas don't fit classes in the usual sense. I think World Truth Playbooks fills the gap in what I want here pretty well.

  7. Really intrigued by this!

    That last part immediately made me think you would tie character advancement to a specific task related to playbook...

    "Ranger gains XP for filling in the map: names, creatures, hunting territories, unnatural phenomenon, hidden paths, etc"

    1. Sure, but as a more experimental approach I'd like to try a game where filling in the map and gaining all that extra knowledge is its own reward, making your character more powerful through how they apply that knowledge.

  8. I feel like calling "vampires turn to dust in sunlight" a "rule", blurs the lines more than needed. It's just a fact, a truth about the world. It doesn't matter what system is being used to play the setting, the setting has a fact. That fact might get interpreted by the system in some way or another, but it's still a fact.

    1. Yeah I'm playing it a bit loose with the word "Rule" here. "Fact" is certainly a better direct fit. Guess I really wanted that clickbait "Rules Heavy" title eh?

  9. I think you're onto something really interesting here. The idea that lore and rule is one and the same is very much my alley. It tackles the problem that some FKR games fall into when not everyone in the group being on the same page when it comes to genre or tropes. Of course, those "problems" can easily be solved by table consensus, but having an actual "book of laws/truths" (even if split into playbooks) is an amazing idea!

    Having a book at a table (which also can be diegetic - take a shot;) can lead to a bespoke versions of the game for each group that plays the game(if we assume that truths can be added during the play). Also it really lends itself to more magical/fantastical games than the traditional D&D-esque fantasy (borrowing more from fables, or stuff like the movie Labyrinth).

    I hope you keep at it, and even if you don't I might muster some motivation to write my fable-esque game about discovering truths ;)

  10. Love this! I only heard about FKR recently but seeing as pacing is the biggest problem I have with most games I'm really interested in playing some FKR. What you've got here is already fantastic, I'd love to see some other playbooks.

  11. I love this. The idea of ‘rules not mechanics’ summarises and solidifies something I’ve been trying to articulate for years. Gameplay is about meaningful decisions, these build narrative with players able to look back and say ‘x happened because of y’, ‘Ah, yes, but z meant you had to x’ and do on. Not just RPGs but all games.

  12. This is amazing, such a simple but evocative sets of mechanics/lore put together.