Play Worlds, Not Rules – What is a world and how do I play it?

The Free Kriegsspiel Revival (FKR) is all about putting the world before the rules. The idea is that you play out the events of your game and refer to rules only when (and indeed if) needed.

I’m deliberately using the term ‘games’ as it is not specific, but typically we are talking about roleplaying games and wargames.

An FKR game can be contrasted with games where you use rules as a matter of course and then transition into free-play only when the rules do not cover the interaction.

This all leads to the big mantra of the FKR:

Play Worlds, Not Rules

What is a world?

Contrast Game of Thrones with the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale (both of which star Mark Addy).

The Game of Thrones setting is a very gritty and grim place. Protagonists have all sorts of vile and cruel punishments laid upon them. Noble houses vie with each other for dominance, whilst backstabbing, assassinations and familicide are all par for the course. Heroic and noble intentions count for nothing. Realpolitik, and chance, will determine your fate.

A Knight’s Tale is set in a light-hearted and anachronistic version of 1300s France and England. Protagonists are injured whilst jousting, socially embarrassed and, at worst, put in a pillory. Nobles vie with each other for reputation, whilst dancing, flirtations and jousting are all par for the course. Our protagonist succeeds through his honour, sportsmanship and his hopefulness. The friends he made along the way determine his fate.

Both of these are worlds. Both worlds could use the same ruleset if they were run as a roleplaying game, just as many, many groups play D&D 5e and have wildly different experiences.

These are pillories – and the point where the protagonist is in one is the Act 3 low-point. Not exactly The Red Wedding, is it?

Playing the World

To make either of the worlds work, (regardless of the rules) the GM would have to make decisions so that the game have the desired feeling.

That is playing the world. Every single time the GM makes up a PC, or a quest, or a location. Every time they speak in character. Even when they describe the weather, they are playing the world.

The GM does it every time they make a decision (conscious or unconscious) so that the game has the desired feeling.

Whenever the GM puts that desired feeling before the rules-as-written (or even the rules-as-intended) they are playing the world, not the rules.

The non-GM players are also playing the world all the time. Every character decision, piece of dialogue, throwaway action. Every puzzle, problem or conflict that is solved is (or should be) done in a way that fits the world.

I recently read that the ISS will de-orbit in 2031, which makes me feel mournful.

Further examples of different worlds

The world is not just a planet – games set in Earth’s medieval period, and in the present day, are in different worlds.

The world is not just a time period – games set in 1944 New York and 1944 Berlin, are in different worlds.

The world is not just an approximate location – two games set in King Arthur’s court, but where one focuses on the intrigue and romancing of the nobility, whilst the other focuses on an elaborate heist by some near-do-wells to steal Excalibur, are in different worlds.

The world is all-encompassing. It is genre, tone, location, character traits, aesthetics, story beats: It is everything that makes a fiction.

The world can even change from session to session.

Season 7 Episode 4 of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (Take Me Out To The Holosuite) sees the protagonists take on the crew of a Vulcan starship in a game of baseball. It’s a classic sporting underdog story. The previous episode sees the crew’s therapist help a turncoat former(?) spy manage his panic attacks. Episode 8 of the series (The Siege of AR-558) centers on a gritty battle to hold the line in a war against an overwhelming foe.

These episodes follow the same characters in the same time frame, but vary wildly. They are all in Star Trek, but they are in different worlds.

Sometimes, worlds overlap within a given installment.

The Star Wars original trilogy has three main worlds. I’m not talking about Tatooine, Dagobah and Bespin.

  • World 1 = The Rebellion against The Empire – it’s the world of the Death Star, hidden rebel bases, secret plans and dogfights
  • World 2 = The Criminal Underworld – it’s the world of Jabba’s Palace, bounty hunters, cargo smuggling and greasy alien bars
  • World 3 = The Force – it’s the world of Ben Kenobi, lightsabers, Darth Vader and searching your feelings

This is something that Fantasy Flight seemed to understood – they made different core rule books for each world, designed at supporting that world, so that the world and the rules were in less conflict.

The three worlds overlap often. A great example is during the first Death Star run, which puts the rebels vs empire conflict at the front. Luke can only succeed because of help from the criminal world (via Han Solo) and the Force (via Ben Kenobi).

The story has masterful command of the three worlds that define Star Wars.

As a GM, and as a player, (or as a wargamer) the FKR tells you to strive for understanding of the world of your game. Put the world first, and use the rules only when it feels right.

Play Worlds, Not Rules.

Further Reading

All of the above is my interpretation of ‘Play Worlds, Not Rules’. Some other folks have views, and some of those are below.

4 thoughts on “Play Worlds, Not Rules – What is a world and how do I play it?

  1. Great stuff! Very much aligned with how I now articulate the concept, too, especially to players either new to adventures games or those who ask “how can I get better at immersion?” Immersion, used here, having more to do with internal consistency in the game world as a player-character than social escapism. But the latter tends to improve with the former, I’ve found, too.

    Like

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