Play worlds, not rules: understand literature and fuck the rules

On this blog here, I have been singing the song of freedom-over-rules often enough… and yet, I’m catching myself writing more about rules instead of ideas. This shall change.

FKR is about playing worlds, not rules. It’s about literature literacy and genre competence way more than any rules. The rules, in FKR, are not important. They don’t even have to be consistent: Look at the way Dave Arneson refereed his games. Rules changed almost weekly, but Dave kept up the ‘feel’ of his creation, Blackmoor.

Chirine ba Kal (Jeff Berry) once mentioned that people back in the heyday of the Twin Cities gaming groups were not playing systems. They were not playing “D&D” or anything else, they were playing Blackmoor, they were playing Tekumel and whatever setting their respective referee came up with.

The setting was the important thing.

To be able to portray a setting the way everyone knows it, referees have to be familiar (sometimes, intimately familiar) with its tropes and the way things work.

Take, for instance, William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. The way violence works in this seminal book is very specifically Gibson-esque. This is an excerpt of chapter 2. Molly, the street samurai, at work:

 Then the fear began to knot between his shoulders.  A cold
trickle of sweat worked its way down and across his ribs.  The
operation hadn't worked.  He was still here, still meat, no Molly
waiting, her eyes locked on the circling knives, no Armitage
waiting in the Hilton with tickets and a new passport and
money.  It was all some dream, some pathetic fantasy...  Hot
tears blurred his vision.
  Blood sprayed from a jugular in a red gout of light.  And
now the crowd was screaming, rising, screaming -- as one fig-
ure crumpled, the hologram fading, flickering...
  Raw edge of vomit in his throat.  He closed his eyes, took
a deep breath, opened them, and saw Linda Lee step past him,
her gray eyes blind with fear.  She wore the same French fa-
  And gone.  Into shadow.
  Pure mindless reflex: he threw the beer and chicken down
and ran after her.  He might have called her name, but he'd
never be sure.
  Afterimage of a single hair-fine line of red light.  Seared
concrete beneath the thin soles of his shoes.
  Her white sneakers flashing, close to the curving wall now,
and again the ghost line of the laser branded across his eye,
bobbing in his vision as he ran.
  Someone tripped him.  Concrete tore his palms.
  He rolled and kicked, failing to connect.  A thin boy, spiked
blond hair lit from behind in a rainbow nimbus, was leaning
over him.  Above the stage, a figure turned, knife held high,
to the cheering crowd.  The boy smiled and drew something
from his sleeve.  A razor, etched in red as a third beam blinked
past them into the dark.  Case saw the razor dipping for his
throat like a dowser's wand.
  The face was erased in a humming cloud of microscopic
explosions.  Molly's fletchettes, at twenty rounds per second. 
The boy coughed once, convulsively, and toppled across Case's

Let’s pull out the paydata:

  • blood, lots of blood
  • foreshadowing: the shot in the jugular as a warning, plus according mayhem
  • cold detail: “afterimage of a single hair-fine line of red light. Seared concrete beneath the thin soles of his shoes”
  • and then, Molly: We don’t read about her aiming. She is so professional, Gibson presents only the result of her work: “The face was erased in a humming cloud of microscopic explosions. Molly’s flechettes, at twenty rounds per second”.

For my cyberpunk campaigns, how do I use that?

  • Professionals know what they’re doing. Easy targets are sitting ducks, really. No dice required.
    At the same time, they can read their environment for trouble.
  • If the action gets more involved, and the other party is shooting back, defending itself, or attacking, I demand dice rolls.
  • Okay, the next one is obvious, but I’m mentioning it for the sake of completeness:
    20 rounds of ammo in your face will obliterate you. No dice can save you. And of course, in extension, a well-placed bullet to the face will do exactly the same.

Neuromancer demands I rule things like this. If I started messing around, introducing dice rolls just for the heck of it, the game would stop being Neuromancer and turn into something else. I mentioned it in the beginning, but it’s worth repeating:

Referees have to understand their literature. And ‘literature’ includes movies, comic books and audio plays.

Understand your setting. And, pardon my French, fuck the rules.

2 thoughts on “Play worlds, not rules: understand literature and fuck the rules

  1. Hey Norbert, this post is a good reminder for all of us; sometimes we forget. What worlds are you running/playing these days? On my side, running Top Secret and Montreal Supernatural, all diceless FKR.


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