No System Without Fiction

Sam W

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Let’s say we’re playing an FKR–style game. What system should we use?

What’s wrong with this question?

Establish Setting, not System

FKR gameplay is all about holding true to in–world logic and genre expectations. It’s not about no rules, but about playing worlds instead. We additionally do, or at least something I want out of this playstyle, is to have radically different gamefeels for different worlds – a historical caravan game should feel much more grindy and slow than high fantasy adventure. Similarly, a trained warrior should have different damage resolution than machine gun spray. So why are universal systems the norm?

Universal systems offer nothing that model how the game world works. They do nothing setting–specific. And as fun as it is to design systems, having setting–agnostic systems should be a last resort. Maybe this is due to the idea that we should build interesting worlds, and not focus on system, or that more system means less focus on setting, but I don’t take these as good reasons to not have a fleshed out system.

I also don’t think that having an elaborate system will allow min–maxing. There are both simple and complex games which can’t be min–maxed at all: rock, paper, scissors and chess being respective examples.

Flipping the Process

What should we be doing? Designing interesting worlds, and backing it up with appropriate mechanics. Say we want wild magic that has unpredictable magical catastrophes. We can lift Maze Rats magical catastrophes table, or even lift the Wild Magic table from 5e, or mix and match these two. Do we want a troupe of trained warrior and their battlemaster? Let’s lift Pathfinder’s action system, or design our own similar system.

Please realize that I made mention of crunchy resolution systems to counteract the idea that FKR needs to have as few rules as possible, but this crunch are not necessary. Think about what kind of actions you want to encourage and subvert, and make it worthwhile and rewarding to engage in that way.

So let’s do an example.

Urban Fantasy System

Let’s do fantasy urban, a la Perdido Street Station. There’s some magical effects that’s understood as a form of scientific study, a variety of different inhabitant species, including bug–people and catcus people, and the city is ruled by its seedy underbelly.

If we are getting into undercity brawls, I think I like a Tunnel Goons type approach to combat, highly abstracted as blows go back and forth, knives are pulled, etc. It also keeps the fights unpredictable with a heavy die roll component. You might even be incined to swap out 2d6 for 1d12 for even more variability.

Character creation draws heavily upon the city features. Are you a thug, from the slums by the river, or a haughty academic? Let’s have two upbringings: high–class and low–born. These allow criminal contacts and connections, respectively. These are NPC’s you know that can provide services, favors, or whatever else you can convince them of. Detail them in your character.

Species of characters have different strengths, physically and otherwise. Bug–people have great situational awareness, while cactus–people are excellent brawlers. Give advantages to these kinds of situations.

Magical ability is a science. Let’s make it a crafting system, perhaps? Collect the right ingredients and anyone is a wizard. You need something magical as a power source, then a conduit for it. Here’s a small sample of magical trinkets.

Waterstone + doll = dancing droplet
Dragons’ firegland + silicon = glass–shaper
Psyche Mushroom + hair of target = mind–reader
Dandelion seed + mountain peak air = instant meadow

The Focus on Fiction

Mechanics and systems are players’ way of interacting with the world you have created – it should be interesting as well. Don’t let the focus on setting mean you divorce your system from it.