2400 devlog: Emergency Rules

Emergency Rules is a (slightly) longer version of the 2400 rules, offering no setting-specific information to make space for clearer guidance for play. It was the first 2400 document I ever wrote, but not the first I ever released. In a way, I hoped it would never be needed. And, in a way, I think maybe it never was needed, even though everything in it was.

That probably sounds weird. I’ll get back to that. First, I’ll try to explain what this thing is trying to do. Then, I’ll explain why I’m not sure it actually worked.

Rulings over rules

I suspect the most significant paragraph in any 2400 module is tucked away in an out-of-the-way location, near the bottom of the back page of the current version of Emergency Rules:

Trust your gut more than the rules. Some rules are left vague on purpose. (How many help dice are allowed on one roll?) Interpret based on context. Don’t worry about whether it’s “right.”

Seriously, I mean it. Don’t worry about whether it’s “right.” Don’t worry at all, if you can help it. But if you must worry, then worry instead about making sure your friends feel safe and comfortable, and whether they’re having fun.

There really aren’t that many rules in 2400. That’s on purpose. The rules that are there are mostly to satisfy my own peculiar whims: how much I dislike mental arithmetic, how much I like rolling funny-shaped dice, and how much I struggle to pay attention as a player with ADHD when other players’ turns run longer than mine.

Those are just details, though. To me, 2400 is still my pet project to make it easy run adventure modules without “converting” them. And the way you do that is literally by ignoring those modules’ rules, interpreting everything on the fly according to your best judgment of what would make sense and be interesting.

I am not big on definitions, or claiming that games can be neatly fit into one categorical tradition at the exclusion of another. Still, it’s obvious to me in retrospect that 2400 was informed by what I was reading coming out of old school renaissance (OSR) discussions, including Matt Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (which I’ve seen cited as the origin of the phrase “rulings, not rules”), Principia Apocrypha, and newer spins on the concept like Yochai Gal’s writing on the NSR. I think this principle has become something of centerpiece of the “free kriegsspiel revolution” (FKR), referring (so I hear) to a shift in 19th century Prussian military wargames toward more fluid rulings at the discretion of a referee, to engage players who aren’t inclined to learn complex rules.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter how people categorize 2400. I think of it as having come out of what I learned from the OSR, and especially from Electric Bastionland and posts from Chris McDowall’s blog that ended up making their way into Into the Odd Remastered, but I don’t typically try to market it as “OSR” because I don’t want people to get mad at me when it doesn’t bear any resemblance to D&D hacks or retroclones. I think I tag it as “FKR” on Itch, I suppose for marketing purposes; people told me it’s an FKR game, and I want people who like similar games to be able to find it. But whatever you call it, I did want to be absolutely clear — even in a document entirely about the rules — that the game relies on rulings over rules.

An apocalyptic design philosophy

Emergency Rules doesn’t just tell you to ignore the rules, of course. My goal for it was to put the rules in context — to explain a bit about intent, the principles behind the rules, but also frame the specifics as both modular and mutable. That approach, and those principles, came largely from the philosophies behind Apocalypse World.

I also don’t market 2400 as a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, but I think that Emergency Rules should also make it pretty obvious that — at least by the Bakers’ definition — 2400 is, kind of, sort of, or at least could technically be … a PbtA game. Vincent and Meguey’s official policy is pretty broad, encompassing any game that considers Apocalypse World an inspiration, insisting, “‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ isn’t the name of a kind of game, set of game elements, or even the core design thrust of a coherent movement.” Inspiration alone (and a brief note of credit/thanks) is enough to get to use their logo.

I don’t put their logo or even the phrase on my games because — as much as I genuinely appreciate and personally subscribe to their expansive definition — I know many (probably most) consumers disagree. To the average buyer, a “PbtA” game is a hack of Apocalypse World, including certain components (like 2d6 + modifiers resolution and specific dice ranges) that the Bakers describe as “‘accidents’ of the system.”

But 2400 is absolutely designed according to the philosophy of Apocalypse World, which taught me a great deal about design. Notably, as explained on the lumpley blog:

Apocalypse World’s philosophy is: use the real things, the dice and stats and so on, to give momentum to the fictional things. […]

Apocalypse World is designed in concentric layers, like an onion. […]

The innermost core is the structured conversation: you say what your characters do. The MC, following their agenda and principles, says what happens, and asks you what your characters do next. […]

A crucial feature of Apocalypse World’s design is that these layers are designed to collapse gracefully inward […]

Forget the basic moves? That’s cool. You’re missing out, but just remember that 10+ = hooray, 7-9 = mixed, and 6- = something worse happens.

Don’t even feel like rolling the dice? Fair enough. You’re missing out, but the conversational structure still works.

I’m liberally pruning a lot of words between those fragments to draw a clearer line between Apocalypse World and 2400. Because that stuff right there, quoted above? That’s basically 2400.

2400 doesn’t use “moves” … except when it does, like the daemon rules in Codebreakers.

2400 doesn’t use “playbooks” … except that I was absolutely thinking about that form factor when I first designed it, including a printer-friendly version of each module version, and that’s also why games like Orbital Decay and Eos use checkboxes instead of numbered lists for character options.

2400 doesn’t use Apocalypse World dice ranges … but it was Apocalypse World that made me first fall in love with dice ranges, and — even more crucially — insisting that something changes after every roll. I don’t give an explicit list of “MC moves,” but 2400 is still structured on their premise: that after a roll, the GM explains what changes in the fiction, and the answer is never “nothing.”

2400 doesn’t use “principles” … except in the first version of Emergency Rules, which specifically used the phrase “GM principles” and “Player principles.” I’ve since cut those words to save space, but the back page is still dedicated to guiding principles, expanding upon what’s written in the “Rules” column of every 2400 game.

2400 is designed with the same “innermost core” as Apocalypse World, “the structured conversation: you say what your characters do. The [GM], following their agenda and principles, says what happens, and asks you what your characters do next.” And it is explicitly modular, adding special rules where I think they might help, but trying to keep them pretty self-contained so you can easily skip rules you don’t want to bother with — an attempt to support “collapsing gracefully.”

Again, I won’t tag 2400 games as “PbtA” because I don’t want folks who don’t follow hyper-nuanced design discussions to feel like I pulled a bait-and-switch. But I also find it dreadfully boring to consider “PbtA” limited to Apocalypse World hacks when it also fairly describes Undying, Murderous Ghosts, and entire new branches of design like Belonging Outside Belonging and Forged in the Dark.

So if anybody calls 2400 a “PbtA” game, I welcome you to say, “Well, it depends…” and point them back to this post … and to Emergency Rules. It is free, after all. Maybe then people would actually read it! But right now, I don’t think many people do, and I think the format — of 2400 games more generally, and the contrasting format of Emergency Rules itself — might be to blame.

Why it might have failed

2400 games are brief and dense. This format can be both a blessing and a curse.

Brevity makes the games feel approachable, easier to read and use, and deliberately open to interpretation. But the brief format also leads me to phrase things poorly sometimes to make it fit just so in an already itty-bitty font. Emergency Rules meant offer clarifications and guidance to make up for things that just don’t make enough sense.

Some readers, players, and GMs do not need that guidance; they are confident they know what they’re doing, and I trust them to do whatever makes the most sense for themselves. And some people clearly do need that guidance … but if writing Emergency Rules succeeded in providing that guidance, I wouldn’t still be getting the same questions so often on Twitter, Discord, and the 2400 Itch forum.

This leads me to conclude that a separate rules supplement might not have been the best way to get this information to people. People who have read it have told me it was helpful, but I’ve definitely seen multiple conversations end with people realizing they didn’t even know they owned Emergency Rules already. I’m open to revising the content, of course, but I think the real issue is that people aren’t reading it — and I suspect that’s largely an issue with the format.

2400 has grown to include a lot more games than I initially intended or ever expected. I’ve heard from some folks that it’s overwhelming to buy it and just get so many files. And even if you’re excited and undaunted by a big folder of files, it’s basically impossible to tell at a glance that Emergency Rules is the one that has the rules clarifications. It’s not like I named it like a “READ ME” file.

Plus — with all due respect to every designer out there who has created a wee, free game that’s just an interesting rule set I love (Messerspiel! Tunnel Goons! The Pool! And more!) — there are a lot of free, generic micro-RPG rule sets out there. I strongly suspect 2400 has found an audience not so much because of the rules in and of themselves, but because the modules have catchy covers and self-contained examples of how to use its rules.

Well … every module but one.

I like the cover of Emergency Rules, but nothing there screams what it’s about. Nothing is enticing you to dive into it and explore it and get excited about it. It wasn’t supposed to do any of that, of course. It’s just a rules reference! But alongside a bunch of files that are designed to get you excited, I suspect it falls into the background and just doesn’t get read.

(In retrospect, this probably should’ve been obvious to me. Another huge influence on 2400 was John Harper’s games, like World of Dungeons, Ghost/Echo, and Lasers & Feelings — all super-short, but nary a “rules document” in sight.)

This is why more recent 2400 installments, like Battle Moon and Data Loss, have much more space devoted to rules. I don’t plan to do that for every 2400 game, but it seemed worthwhile to do in games that heavily focus on combat. Players with experience with other RPGs bring a lot of expectations from those, and often try to fill in the gaps in 2400 with what they learned to do elsewhere. Sometimes that leads to the game falling flat at the table. My hope is that putting more guidance directly into the modules themselves will help, even if it does mean fewer character options.

If you’ve already read this far on my blog, then I imagine you’ve already read Emergency Rules. So if you have any feedback on how I could clarify anything at all about how to best run this game, please let me know. That feedback might not make it into this document, as I’m not sure it actually gets read very often, but it’ll almost certainly inform a longer-form 2400 book … someday … when I feel like I don’t need to make yet another 2400 module.

Featured image edited from original CC BY Beeple (Mike Winkelmann).

5 responses to “2400 devlog: Emergency Rules”

  1. I suspect the big reason why Emergency Rules doesn’t get read as often as it should, is just its title. It sounded – to me – as “rules to run a fictional emergency situation”. I get the “break in case of emergency” pun, but “Expanded Rules” would probably convey its content better

    As for further clarification, I usually appreciate examples of play, if the format/page count allows (or as a stand-alone leaflet, maybe?).

    • Ohhhhhhh good point about the title.

      I may put some examples in an upcoming release, but if they don’t fit, it’s definitely on the agenda for the (still entirely hypothetical but nonetheless intended) book in the future.

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