Three layers of RPG rules

Three layers of RPG rules

When I think about what rules I want to put into and emphasize in 2400, I tend to think about rules in three “layers.”

I suspect somebody else has already written something like this (and probably even better informed by theory and history), and I’m just ignorant if it. That’s okay. It’s helpful for me to think through it myself anyway, and I have heard from others that they would find it helpful to see these thoughts reproduced someplace other than Twitter.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about.

The social layer

Lead the group in setting lines not to cross in play.

24XX SRD

I also think of this as the extradiegetic layer, referring to that which exists outside the game’s fiction and abstract mechanisms. But I know how freaked out some people get by theory-words, and I’m still trying to make amends for the tortured language I put into this world as an academic. So let’s call it the social layer. (But the Wikipedia page on diegesis isn’t half bad, if you’re interested.)

Rules in this layer are the rules of human interaction. A lot of rules at this layer should go without saying (like “no biting”), but this is where safety tools live.

I put these in the “Rules” column in every 2400 game to make clear where social rules supersede common mechanisms from other RPGs you may be more used to. There’s no formal turn order; the GM’s primary goal in managing “spotlight” is to make sure everybody feels included. There’s no “rule zero” — investing the GM with complete, unassailable authority — but instead a procedure to encourage quick rulings that everybody at the table has some say in.

The social layer is the most important layer in 2400, superseding all others. I’d go so far as to say it should be the most important layer in any friendly game.

That said, 2400 rules are organized not by importance, but (roughly) by when you’re likely to encounter each as a player. The GM rules — and most of the social layer rules — follow because they’re specifically addressing one participant, but they affect everyone at the table. I wonder sometimes if this accidentally hides the importance of this layer, or makes it less likely the player will read them. I may yet edit accordingly.

The fictional layer

Just like in the real world, the worse the harm, the longer it takes to heal.

2400: Codebreakers

I think of this as the diegetic layer (if you’ll forgive me for saying so). This is the layer of rules inherent to the the imaginary world of the game — that which exists within our shared fiction.

In many cases, these rules are entirely obvious to the inhabitants of the setting. Obviously injuries take time and treatment to heal, and heal faster if you actually get treatment from a doctor … if you aren’t lucky enough to live in a setting with healing magic. Obviously what goes up must come down … unless you’re in space … or have access to telekinesis … or antigravity technology. Depends on the setting.

In some cases, the rules of the fictional layer are not obvious to the inhabitants. More narrative-focused games can exploit this for purposes of dramatic irony, tapping into truths the players know that the characters do not. To the characters, the weapon on the mantle may just be a decoration; to players of a dramatic game following principles like that of Chekhov’s gun, that weapon represents a rule. A promise.

This is the layer “system neutral” content lives in: not “a +1 sword,” but “a magic sword that cuts armor like paper.”

I prefer to operate at this layer as much as possible for 2400. The social layer is most important, but once you’ve established basic expectations, I find you can deploy its specific, stated rules — the social safety tools — only as needed, as correctives for when things go unexpectedly. The rest of the time, I like to focus on what’s going on in the fiction, the story we’re making (or will have made) together.

The abstract layer

The highest die rolled indicates what happens.

2400: Emergency Rules

Bear with me when I tell you this one might also be called the nondiegetic layer. Its rules relate to the fictional layer the way a soundtrack relates to the film: not perceived as “real” by the characters, but still connected to what’s happening in their reality. This is the focus of most “rules” sections of RPGs: mechanisms to translate our real-world actions into game-world actions and events.

I try to keep this layer minimal in my own games. That’s not a universal maxim of good game design; it’s my preference. I have very much enjoyed many games that have a lot going on in the abstract layer, including the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and a number of games Powered by the Apocalypse. But I have shied away from this layer in recent years as a matter of personal necessity.

RPGs with a dense layer of abstract rules work best, I find, when you play them regularly, frequently, and deeply. When you play a game on the same night every week, and especially when you get so into it that you do “prep” or “homework” between sessions, you internalize its abstract rules and procedures. Those rules then come to you as intuitively at the table as the rules in the social and fictional layers.

I can’t really do that these days. My gaming time is limited by health needs and my parenting duties. And when you play an RPG with an unfamiliar rule set irregularly and infrequently, few (if any) people at the table will internalize the abstract rules.

In the absence of that internalization — that eventual promise of “getting it,” when the game “sings” — the game experience demands some combination of rules-referencing (which is dull for all involved) and technical communication (because even if somebody memorized the rules, they’ve still got to explain it to the rest). I can do rules-referencing and technical communication, but those feel more like work than fun to me.

(You can also just patch not-yet-internalized rules with tentative rulings, which I clearly have no problem writing into an actual rule in my own games. I find that tougher to do consistently and confidently in the context of a system with more rules, though. It also raises the question of why I’d bother playing with such a rules system at all if I’m not going to use it.)

Again, this is a “me problem” — a problem for my particular use case, not necessarily a problem with the design of those games. But for me, and for the people I play games with, it can still be a problem. This is why the rules I write for the abstract layer are so fiercely minimal, and tied as best as I can to the other layers.

For example…

Improvise rulings to cover gaps in rules; on a break, revise unsatisfactory rulings as a group.

24XX SRD

I’d like to offer a couple concrete examples of what I mean, of how this way of thinking has influenced my approach to design.

First, I welcome you to take a look at the “powers” list in Project Ikaros, or “talents” in Eos or Legends. Here are a few:

  • Superheating: Scald or melt with a touch.
  • Sincerity: People may or may not believe you’re right, but always believe you’re honest.
  • Abjuration: Enemies cannot approach or attack while you chant, so long as allies do not attack.

These lists favor fictional rules over abstract rules. Thinking about what I need at the table, and what I find easy or hard to adjudicate, led me to fill pages with abilities I hoped would be self-evidently useful. They operate at the fictional layer because I find it easier to just describe the obvious result of being touched with a superheated hand than to I find it to track abstractions like hit points. And I still think of them as “rules” because they still provide guidance we need to abide by; I may well need my player to remind me, “I put on my most sincere smile, and count on him to believe me…” That governs what is allowed to happen next. It’s a rule.

Here is a longer example. As noted earlier, every 2400 game includes an explicit rule to “improvise rulings.” This starts as an abstract rule: It is meant to advise the GM that their duties include just making up whatever when they reach for a tool on the fairly sparse abstract layer, and realize there isn’t a specific tool for what they want. Their role makes them an on-the-spot game designer by necessity of the brief format.

The second part of this rule — “revise unsatisfactory rulings as a group” — clearly has implications for how abstract rules are made and edited, but I consider it as existing on the social layer due to its intent.

(“Layers” is a useful metaphor, but still just a metaphor. I don’t need to debate whether it makes sense when a rule might be justifiably placed in more than one layer. I’m just using the term to explain design processes, motives, and ways of prioritizing during decision making.)

I put that “as a group” part into the rule about rulings because the common RPG “rule zero” is a little too easy to abuse, even unwittingly. Maybe not for you! But yes, for me. And I don’t want to abuse it. I want to remind myself that I’m not in charge of the group; I have a different role from the other players, but we’re all just a bunch of friends getting together to have a good time. I need to remind myself to check in with everyone, not to get too drawn into the fictional layer to the exclusion of all else. Making an explicit rule to “revise unsatisfactory rulings as a group” is my way of saying, “I am afraid that if certain social rules are left unsaid, that sometimes, some of us — myself included — might forget them, or might be afraid to use them.”

In other words, I devote extremely precious real estate to this clause in every single 2400 game because social rules are rules too; leaving them unsaid risks risks leaving them unobserved; and that’s unacceptable because they’re more important than abstract rules.

Admittedly, I don’t know that making this a “rule” actually will have that effect. I have no data to suggest as much. All I have is anecdotes from people saying that even when they’ve had “safety tools” available, they thought maybe they shouldn’t use them. They felt apart from the rest of the game. And I want to reassure you they’re there to be used.

Yes, “rules”

Use your head before your dice. […]
Put fellow players before the game. […]
Be flexible about scene framing.

2400: Emergency Rules

Some may bristle at such an expansive definition of “rules.” I imagine I’ll especially see disagreement around my deliberate placement of the abstract layer last in their hierarchy, making clear that I consider it a distant third in importance.

It’s okay to disagree. I’m not in charge of RPG theory. But I choose these words on purpose.

Even those who agree with this hierarchy might see this as just a matter of semantics, or even a less accurate or less productive semantic approach. As one very thoughtful fellow asked on Twitter

I wonder if, rather than defining social norms as rules, it might be better to understand the abstract layer as norms. Rather than a specific set of instructions we have to follow, they’re a group of behaviors that we all more or less agree on, but aren’t always clear or explicit, and so need to be constantly negotiated in both big and small ways.

I think he’s absolutely right. As a human being who just wants to have fun and do right by his friends, I do think of these things more as norms. I suspect thinking of them as “rules” is weirdly reductive. I’d much rather reframe (abstract-layer) rules as just another kind of norm to be negotiated too.

But as a game designer, that feels like a tall hill to climb. I don’t think I can write that into a four-page game. I could concede that the problems I’m trying to address aren’t solvable through game design itself (and that’s probably true), but I’d rather try to do something than shrug and do nothing.

I strive for pragmatism in design theory. Being pragmatic means asking yourself, “How do we get what we want from this?” And I think my games might work better for me, and maybe for you, by presenting play culture and fiction as kinds of rules too, and stressing that some rules are more okay to break than others.

I know some very thoughtful people out there who have been playing RPGs for years and still read the “What is an RPG?” chapter in every game just to better understand the design philosophy behind them. I know people who eat up the “Principles” chapter in games built to emulate Apocalypse World. I love this. These are my people. My beloved outliers.

But again — striving to be pragmatic — my understanding is that this kind of behavior is unusual. I suspect a lot of readers skip those chapters. It’s no sure thing that readers will grapple with whatever notes on philosophy, principles, or play culture we put into our games. Heck, they might not even read that stuff, let alone think about how to use it.

But damn near everybody will want to know the rules.

Featured image photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash

3 responses to “Three layers of RPG rules”

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