Focus on the World: Rules and Laws

They call him the Face Stealer. When you speak with him, you must be very careful to show no emotion at all. Not the slightest expression, or he will steal your face.

Many times, gamers think of the rules of games before their settings. We think of trading wheat, sheep, and ore before we think of the land of Catan. We think of playing that Ambush or Dominance card before we think of the villages and inhabitants of the world of Root. We think of the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons with levels, classes, and d20s before we think of Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Eberron. Heck, many products push mechanics and rules on their front cover. You have to go to the back cover to see what this world is even like.

Some RPGs even goes as far as removing settings entirely, becoming “universal” in their approach. More people think Aspects than the world of Dresden Files when talking about FATE, for example.

Many gaming tables (mine too at times) can lose context of the situations and worlds we’re playing in, preferring to focus on the rules of the game instead of the rules of the world.

Just as you have your dice, character sheets, miniatures, and whatever else to enforce how the rules of the game work, worlds have their own internal rules to enforce how that particular world works.

For the sake of clarity, we’ll call these LAWS, as in, the laws of physics or the laws of the universe.

While rules matter in how you interact with the game, the laws matter in how you interact with the world. In certain circles of role-players, (Free Kriegsspiel Revolution among others) laws are more important than rules. I’ll show you why laws are fantastic.

First, more definition

-put emphasis on the mechanics
-define limits to actions or interactions
-can be softened or broken to cause drama
-put emphasis on the world
-change the limits
-can be softened or broken for dramatic effect
-hit points
-movement speed
-law of gravity
-law of human nature
-law of entropy
Examples in context
-When you attack, roll a d20.
-You die if you fail three Death Saves.
-To cast magic, use the right Spell Slot.
Examples in context
-Only the Avatar can master all four elements.
-The One Ring can only be destroyed in Mount Doom.
-Agents in the matrix cannot be defeated.

Laws and what they do

Alright, we all get rules. We gamers have a deep understanding of rules. Some of us can’t stop thinking about them (myself included). It’s why we talk about “balance” all the time. Let’s talk more about laws.

Laws put emphasis on the world. When we talk about worlds, settings, whatever you want to call them, we often say how it differs from Earth, the place we’re all familiar with.

  • Imagine San Fransisco in the future, but there are artificial people called Replicants running around (Bladerunner).
  • Imagine Route 66, but there are no people, only vehicles (Cars).
  • Imagine New York City, but one kid gets bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him superpowers (Spider-Man).

Lots of worlds are built on this “Earth, but” principle. Earth, but vampires. Earth, but Greek Gods. Earth, but witches and wizards. A lot of laws come with that, built in. Laws like physics, human nature, entropy. It saves a lot of time for explanation.

Other worlds go a different route, disconnected from Earth, while still establishing laws of their own.

  • Once upon a time in a faraway land…
  • A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….
  • In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…

They’re all still laws and they help establish a shared understanding of what the world is and is like. At the table, these laws give players and GMs a sense of what is and is not in the world. Superpowers, yes. Aliens, no. Humans, yes. Gnomes, no. Guns, yes. Magic swords, no.

Laws change the possibilities, limiting or expanding them.

  • Gravity doesn’t work the same in a world set in space as it does in a world set in pre-historic times.
  • Laws of physics prevent you from flapping your arms on Earth and flying away.
  • Only wizards like Gandalf can cast magic, and there are very few of them in the world of Middle-Earth.
  • The fishmen speak only in a language you cannot understand in this fishy beast belly.
  • Spaceships can travel faster than light.

There are limits that produce creative results. Remind me to recall all the times players use gravity to their advantage in combat. There are “un-limits” that allow for more power and possibilities. It’s why we allow magic users and superheroes and crazy tech in fantasy worlds.

All of these changes produce new spaces to play in and new ideas to explore. Heck, sci-fi itself is built on “what if…?”

  • What if man could create life? (Frankenstein).
  • What if a man was stuck on Mars? (The Martian).
  • What if we lived under a government that could retrain people to believe 2+2=5 and worse? (1984).

Some laws are hard laws (no jumping over buildings unless you’re Superman or Keanu). Some laws are soft (magic in Harry Potter). Some law are terribly defined (midichlorians? belief? heritage? immaculate conception? HOW DOES THE FORCE WORK??). The best laws are better defined. Brandon Sanderson fans will talk all day about defining laws for magic systems if you let them.

Some laws demonstrate patterns and conventionsRitual and repetition builds a deeper connection to that world

  • Any unmasked goon will exclaim “…and I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” (Scooby-Doo).
  • Villains will always break out of Arkham Asylum (Batman).
  • Charlie Brown always loses (Peanuts).

Laws describe the diegetic. They can be referenced in the world. “You can’t survive that jump!” can be said in the world, not “You’ll lose too much HP when you hit the ground!”

History, characters, factions, physics, geography, possibility. These are all laws.

  • Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked (Avatar: The Last Airbender).
  • King Uther Pendragon despises sorcery and has outlawed it in his kingdom (Merlin).
  • The Spacing Guild controls all transportation to the surface of Arrakis (Dune).
  • All people, buildings, and things are made out of LEGOs (The Lego Movie).
  • Atlantis lies beneath the ocean (Atlantis: The Lost Empire).
  • There are no aliens in the ‘Verse, only folk (Firefly).

Laws make our worlds. They give them shape. They are flavor, they are boundaries, they are excitement.

Laws are dramatic, rules are static

(You could almost chant this, haha)

When rules are broken, players grimace, complain, or yell. Cheating feels gross and produces such effects.

When laws are broken, players gasp, exclaim, and ask questions. They’re more invested in the world.

Remember how one of the “examples in context” I gave was “Agents in the matrix cannot be defeated”? Well, if you’ve seen the movie from 1999, you know that this is true and everyone believes it. You’re supposed to run from Agent Smith just like everyone else…

…Until Neo doesn’t at the climax of the film. He turns to face Hugo Weaving. He stops the bullets. “He’s beginning to believe.” Agent Smith is totalled. What a movie.

We see this all the time in stories. Laws are set up, and then broken. Not all of them, mind you. Imagine if Frodo was told all this time that Mount Doom would do the trick for ending the Ring and Sauron and it turns out, nope! “You gotta go farther south to Mount Extra Doom. See ya, sucker!”

But laws are broken. And when they are, they deepen our investment.

  • No one can drink the Water of Life. Until Paul does so, proving himself to be Muad’Dib (Dune).
  • No one can run on water. That breaks physics! Until Dash does it during a very tense chase scene (The Incredibles).
  • No man can kill the Witch-King. “I am no man!” shouts Eowyn and stabs him through the freakin’ face (Lord of the Rings).
  • No one can shoot a proton torpedo in a hole only two meters wide. Until some punk kid from a desert planet does it by trusting in something beyond himself (Star Wars).
  • No one can convince Han Solo to care. Until he’s needed by Luke at the last possible moment. “YEHOOO!” (Star Wars, again).
  • No food can make the critic Anton Ego happy. Until a dish from his childhood is perfectly prepared by a rat. Best pen drop in cinematic history (Ratatouille).
  • No one can get a perfect score in gymnastics. Until Nadia Comaneci gets a 10, literally breaking the scoreboard (real life, folks. The Olympics, 1976).

These often show the climax of a story. People get emotional at these moments. Other people, not me.

Laws can do that.

So what does this mean at the table?

Define a game with rules, you get something hollow and mechanical.*

Define a world with laws, you get something living and believable.

At the table, have a world with laws first. Instead of choosing the rules as many do (“I wanna run a D&D 5e game.” “I haven’t run Call of Cthulhu in a hot minute.” “Let’s give Schoolgirl RPG a shot.”) start with the setting. Granted, some rules are closely tied to their worlds (Blades in the Dark, Lady Blackbird, etc.) but you could just as easily start with the world of Doskvol or the world of the Wild Blue Yonder and go from there!

Sit down with a world. “Welcome to Middle-Earth.” “You live in a broken spaceship with only bell peppers and no beef, just beyond Europa.” “This is the world of Zrathania that I made myself.”

Establish the laws. “The Warforged died out years ago.” “The world hasn’t been the same since the bomb.” “Immortan Joe is the biggest, baddest warlord around.”

Treat the world as a real place. “No, you can’t do that, that’s impossible.” “What could you possibly give them to make it worth their while?” “They retreat to live another day.”

Trust each other. “That’s a great idea!” “You do that while I try this.” “Oooh, I can’t watch!”

Be fair. “Oof, the villain died rather quickly.” “Sorry, but you should’ve thought of that a while ago.” “You agreed to the impact before I rolled the dice, so let’s stick to the results.”

Act in good faith. “Let’s see what Jamie wants her character to do.” “You’re smart enough to know to grab your flashlight in a situation like this.” “Are you sure you want to do that?”

Play worlds, not rules.

If you enjoyed this content, fund its continued creation on Patreon. 🙂

Lastly, join the Free Kriegspiel Revolution Discord for more discussions like this.

*Competitive board games are different. The people at the table make that one come alive more than the game itself. Settlers of Catan is REALLY boring with just computers.

19 thoughts on “Focus on the World: Rules and Laws

  1. I see what you’re trying to get at here, but might I suggest “truths” instead of “laws?” The connotation of “law” to me is “something that cannot be broken under any circumstances,” where “truth” sounds like “something people hold to be true, but might not be.”

    1. Both terms are working for me, I admit I like a lot “Truth” because it reminds me the worldbuilding part of Ironsworn.

      Otherwise I like a lot this way to explain what I call the “balance between boardgame and roleplaying aspects” in pen and paper RPGs.

    2. Laws can be and are broken. They’re man-made. Laws like human nature and physics are labelled by men, but they do not work the same in all contexts. Laws against theft and murder hint at truths beyond them, imperfect as those laws are.

      Semantically and philosophically, I hold truth above the law. I reject post-modernity.

      Though I do enjoy Ironsworn as oddsquidam reminds me. 🙂

  2. Tim and I talked about making a change to the article, and it’s better for it. However, there are now some things in his article that don’t match with this one as they’ve been removed here.

  3. Love this. I definitely see this issue in game design as well, where people are so focused on mechanics as opposed to exploring the unique setting they’re creating. And while game mechanics can be fun in and of themselves, we’re all really sitting down to experience something wild, fantastical, and lived-in together.

    1. Yes, design from an ivory tower. Happens all the time on Reddit design groups. “I want this dice pool to be really fine-tuned for this point-buy skill tree I’ve been developing for six months. Any thoughts?”

  4. I don’t believe in the universal system. Even when my friends play GURPS we finely tune which modules to frankenstein together into our own game. In the games that I write, I go out of my way to bake the situations you describe here into the “rules”.

    For instance: Magic in one of my systems is different for each culture, as each culture believes the world to be a different shape and that it’s made of different things. So the spells cast have to be within the context of the knowledge base the caster comes from. The players love this stuff, they think it’s super fun and immersive. But it also means I have to put the real legwork in of defining exactly what each culture believes and values in order to have a functioning game mechanic. I’d say that kind of attention to gameable detail is absolutely worth it.

    1. You should, uh, write a nice blogpost on that so others could consume it. That’s the interplay of culture (world) and magic (laws/rules). I (and others) dig that a lot.

      1. That’s actually really flattering! I do have a tiny, fledgling blog, I guess I know what the next post will be 🙂
        Do you have any recommendations on where to share the posts I make? I’m very new to the blogging thing and don’t really have any readers.

    2. “I walk when I think, I sit when I write, and I stand when I run RPG’s.” That’s a great line, love it.

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