The Two Rules

MORK BORG. It’s a grim fantasy RPG I like for it’s dark tone and striking, very striking design. It obviously had an influence on Skorne, including the Revelation reference of breaking the seven seals to bring out the end of a doomed world.

Side note: I can do without the filth of MORK BORG. It’s one thing to have a game that takes place in Mordor, it’s another to have it take place in the Battle of the Somme filled with excrement and witchcraft…

Because I enjoy elements of MORK BORG, I was also interested in the sci-fi sequel CY_BORG, interested enough to watch Ben Milton’s review at least. In it, players play out the fantasy of playing cyberpunks and taking on the corporate system. One passage from the book stood out to me:

RULE #00

Player Characters cannot be loyal to or have sympathy for the corp, the cops, or the capitalist system. They may have themselves reluctantly forced to do missions for them or their minions. But make no mistake — they are the enemy.

I love Ben’s take on this:

I always find it a little funny when books or really any form of media tells you how you’re supposed to consume it. I get that they’re trying to get you into the headspace of how you look at the world in a cyberpunk genre, but when a book tells me that I’m not allowed to do something, that’s usually the first thing I’m going to do, which I feel like is the more punk way of approaching this.

It’s so human. We’re rebels. “Touch nothing but the lamp.” “You must never go there, Simba.” “Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Grab. Go. Bite.

Having an explicit rule on player behavior invites that behavior, or at least a snarky version of that behavior, especially with your goofball teenage-minded friends. It’s why your friends take more interest in “Gub gub the goblin” that you made up on the spot: they’re pretty obviously not essential to whatever else you have going on. But you’re not above this either: when’s the last time you played an open world game and went exactly where the plot told you, no detours?

When designing a game, you have to be mindful of this principle of human nature: we don’t do what we’re told.

When you’re playing an RPG, you’re seeking its beating heart: make choices and see the impact and play on. Explicitly restricting the choices (and feelings?) of a player goes against those rules of autonomy, the blood of that beating heart. There are only two rules of autonomy and what’s possible. As Jack Sparrow puts it, the two rules are:

And he’s not referring to what people are ALLOWED to do; that doesn’t qualify as “can” and “can’t do”. And RPGs allow for this freedom, it’s what makes it the best medium for imaginative, choice-based play. Capitalize on this and you bring out what makes RPGs great and why many people find them appealing.

But there is another level to this and why this rule was made in the first place: How can we design a genre? How can game masters and designers set expectations about a game without the blunt instruments of “do this” and “don’t do that”? There are three, each of which have a rules-facing and fiction-facing side:

  1. Setup
  2. Rewards
  3. Punishments


This is the beginning, very much in the control of the GM and designers. Character creation is the obvious rules-facing side where a player must comply with the first steps in order to start play. “Roll 3d6 down the line and choose a class.” Otherwise, you’re not even playing in the same game. The fiction-facing version is outlining the opening scene of a campaign or session: “You find yourself 10,000 coins in debt. You start in Sleepy Hollow. There is a crippled dog here.” Basically, this is everything a GM establishes before saying “what do you do?”


These are the positive consequences. The rules-facing side is experience or other intangible rewards. “Mark 1 XP per gold pillaged.” “Here, have a FATE token.” The fiction-facing is the tangible and intangibles in the world. “Having looted 1,000 quarters from the dragon, you now have 1,000 quarters.” “The queen makes good on her promise and bestows the title of noblemen to you and your buddies.”


There are the negative consequences. Rules-facing? Death and dying rules. Saves. Stress. Fiction-facing? Thievery makes enemies, dishonor brings the world crumbling down around you. Everyone has had a session where the players breaking the law leads to a night in jail.

These are the tools in the rule book and in the world and are plenty more sophisticated than “STOP, CITIZEN!”

The Application

Think about it this way: what ACTUALLY happens when a character in CY_BORG sides with “the corp, the cops, and the capitalist system?” Do they freeze up? Does their programming prevent them from doing this? Do the designers of the game write them a strongly worded email? Does the GM spritz them with a spray bottle and say “bad dog”? It’s absurd.

Actions happen. Choices are made. So instead, how can we use the setup, rewards, and punishments to keep the game within the boundaries of genre?

Setup: “The corp, the cops, and the capitalist system are against you from the start and always have been. Here are some weapons to take them out before they lock you up and shut you down.”

Rewards: “When you do a mission against the system, mark 1 XP. Level up every 3 XP. Every mission against the system also increases your reputation score with the underworld. Punks may even come to respect fellow punks.”

Punishments: “When you side with system as their operative, lose your character. Make a new character on a mission to take them out.”

Rather than rule out a behavior, guide it. In Skorne, you can side with the baddies. But if you do, there’s an explicit rule that you hand over your character. Unfair? If signposted, absolutely not. Siding with the baddies is like jumping in lava: when it happens, you’re dead to the party, give the referee the character sheet. Might that character come back as a ghost? Sure. A character that turns evil may return, but they’re evil because you made a choice to have them so.

Now, you may be asking, “Sam, what about the players that still go off the rails despite the setup, rewards, and punishments of the game?” To which I reply, “I guess it was all about trust all along.” See, there are few literal “can’t do-s” in within the magic circle. These are instead outnumbered by the many “please do-s” and “please don’t-s” we operate beneath.

Back to trust, not authoritarian demands that we reject on a gut and soul level.

One thought on “The Two Rules

  1. I gotta say, if someone told me “there’s a game called Skorne, and you can do anything in that game, even side with the enemy!”, I would assume that that precludes “but if you do, then your lose the ability to play that character and have to make a new one.”

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