6 - Changing the Rules
- 6.1 - Homebrewing vs Improvising
- Technique #1 - Know Thy Game
- Technique #2 - Fictional Reskin
- Technique #3 - Rules Remix
- Technique #4 - Designing Moves
- Technique #5 - Designing Classes
Don’t change the rules. End of chapter six. Thank you for reading, now you can have fun with the game as it was intended... or else the RPG police will come and get you. [rolling credits]
Sorry, I couldn’t resist, but let me now share with you some tips and tricks on how to tinker under the hood of Fantasy World. First, an important caveat.
Homebrewing vs Improvising
What we are talking about here is homebrew game design, something you prepare beforehand and introduce to the game if everyone agrees:
- Known rules should not change mid-session or surreptitiously.
- New rules should not be winged on the fly and sprung upon unsuspecting Players.
- Fudging rules and rolls will create problems. Other games might require some rule improvisation to function properly, but not this game. Be wary of old habits and keep them in check.
Fantasy World works because World and Players trust each other. In this relationship, the rules as written are the explicit foundation upon which we all stand, providing a frame to keep things honest and to build mutual trust. But trusting the rules and each other doesn’t have to mean zeal and rigidity! When some specific mechanic feels puzzling and it’s unclear how to proceed, the group can and should agree on a quick ruling to get them to the end of the session. There will be time later to do proper research, learn how the game works, and play better next time. The group can and should discuss and critique the game to check if they are experiencing any problems to understand if they stem from the rules, and to figure out how to address them.
The point is: relax. Trust the rules and trust each other - playing is not a performance: you are all learning together, you are all responsible for each other’s enjoyment, and there is no need to keep the engine running while you hot-fix it mid-race. And then, in between sessions, with time and a cool head, agree on how to play this game the way you like the most.
Technique #1 - Know Thy Game
The first rule for good homebrew design is: know the game. Try it out vanilla, give yourself time to get acquainted with its rules, to grok them, and use them as intended. This might require a few sessions, some trial and error, and definitely a bunch of goodwill from both World and Players as they get past the initial learning curve. But the rewards are bountiful:
- You might discover a game experience you were not expecting. This broadens and enriches your designer’s toolbox. Intimately knowing many different games is exceedingly useful.
- It makes taking the game apart and working on it much easier, faster, safer, and more effective. Time spent understanding is time saved, many times over, when designing.
This might sound obvious, but part of the current RPG culture actually holds the idea that all games are kind of the same, that rules don’t make much of a difference, and that “expert” roleplayers can and should modify a game before having run it even once. I disagree.
Technique #2 - Fictional Reskin
Most will get a lot of mileage out of this technique, as it is the easiest and safest to put into practice, and it’s great for what people need the most: adding new stuff to the game, be it a Move, a Class, a special rule or even a whole new Setting.
Many Fantasy World mechanics are just “frames” that grant specific shape and function to narrative elements, leveraging their inherent fictional positioning. Thus, by simply changing the fictional elements of a rule, you can craft completely new content without actually having to design new rules. Change the skin not the bones, so to speak.
As mentioned in chapter 2.1, a move always has two elements: a fictional trigger and a linked effect. These both present a good amount of fictional elements.
The Knight’s move I Am the Law activates “when you act as arbiter in a dispute”, positioning the Protagonist as an agent of order and mediation within someone else’s conflict, bringing forth the theme of institutions meddling in people’s lives through the rule of law.
If the move instead activated “when you make an example of someone” it would make the PC into an agent of punishment, retribution, or maybe of brutal rule, more akin to a warlord or an inquisitor than a Knight, evoking themes of personal power, its exertion over others, and its possible abuse.
The common move Journey leads Players to vividly explore and enrich the territory they travel through.
- Do you want a new move to do the same in urban areas? Just copy Journey but call it City Traversal and instead of triggering “when undertaking a long journey” it activates “when traversing a big urban area”. The rest of the move text will take on a new meaning without the need to rewrite it.
- Do you want to ramp up the social gameplay? Same move, different skin: the Mingling move triggers “when navigating a big social gathering”. The destination is always the end of the event, but how you get there becomes the focus. In place of maps and routes you need to know the social landscape of the event, who’s who, their relationships. New people or unexpected circumstances might make your directions vague. Navigating an event out of your social circles might mean you don’t know the way. Each step of the move would then represent a meeting, a diversion, a potential misstep or opportunity. The consequences of rolling a Snag need a bit more reworking and abstract thinking, but not much: lost Supplies represent well the idea of your PC having to produce coin and trinkets in order to maintain a certain image of themselves, while Harm can easily enough be conceptualized as social or emotional (while still being marked in the standard way, otherwise we would be modifying more than just the skin of the move).
A Class is nothing more than a high-concept idea holding together a bundle of moves. These are crafted to translate that concept and its related themes into active play. Since most moves rely heavily on descriptive elements, these are often designed to be read in personal or abstract ways, allowing moves to be relevant in different contexts and to adapt to different Protagonists and play styles. This means that an entire Class can be forged into something more specific, unique, and different just by reading it through a different lens. Sure, not all Class moves will transition perfectly right out of the box, but the core elements will be usable immediately, leaving the rest to be figured out later on, if the need ever arises at all.
Not only do you not need to develop a new Class to introduce a new Protagonist type into play, but you can also approach the same Protagonist idea from different angles by using different Classes as the base of adaptation.
- The Captain owns a nexus, leads a crew, and is all about the dealings carried out with the former and the relationships entertained with the latter...
- The Innkeeper manages a tavern and its employees against the backdrop of a fantasy town and its strange inhabitants.
- The Aristocrat handles a whole noble estate, its staff, and the other members of the bloodline under the PC’s care and authority.
- The Explorer could lean on the nomadic elements of the Captain to become the linchpin of a whole campaign focusing on geographical discovery, with potentially tragic and even horrific undertones depending on how hostile and unknown the landscape is.
- The Veteran is about showing prowess, the consequences of living dangerously, and carrying around a uniquely meaningful tool. These elements can easily be adapted to very different purposes...
- The Old Adventurer proudly bears the marks, scars, and tattoos from past voyages, showing prowess through crusty wisdom and tall tales.
- The Navigator reskins the meaningful tool from weapon to vehicle, allowing the PC to show prowess through skillful maneuvering and marked leadership, working as a more individualistic and action-oriented version of the Captain.
- The Spectacle could use some sort of art implement as their tool, showing prowess through captivating performance and carrying the signs of a debaucherous life - a less magical but more jaded version of the Troubadour.
- Want to play a Necromancer? Just reskin the Wildcaller by substituting references to “nature” with elements such as ghosts, the dead, and gothic/cemeterial symbols.
- Call to the Beast turns you into death-themed or gothic-themed animals such as crows and ravens, vultures, wolves, rats, plague vermins, etc.
- Call to the Grove animates corpses instead of plants, and requires the proximity of a cemetery instead of lush vegetation.
- The rest follows from here with both obvious transitions and open questions. You communicate with the spirits of the dead, instead of those of nature. But do dead animals leave a ghost behind? Are there other death-related entities besides ghosts and specters? What do the deceased remember of their past life?
One way to reskin a mechanic is to take a rule and apply it to a context it was not originally meant for.
- Fictional Harm rules are a perfect example. Originally they handle how characters suffer physical damage and how this translates into tangible descriptive consequences. The game already reskins them to model physical conflict between groups simply by rewriting the descriptions in the list of harm effects. The same could be done again to add more depth and detail to how vehicles or buildings take harm. Previously I suggested a way to represent “social damage“ simply by reading physical effects as a metaphor for social and emotional ones, but you could just as well craft an independent list of harm effects unique to social conflicts.
- Another reskin might see Expedience Points take on a different meaning. Call them Rage Points or Justice Points or Karmic Balance Points and you will significantly alter their impact on the game’s narrative, although their function is the same.
- The very structure of the Fellowship is itself a mechanic that can easily be reskinned. Just use the standard elements common to all Fellowship Archetypes, and fill them with different names, descriptions, and questions.
Though not technically a reskin, the use of Tags to alter the fictional positioning of something can achieve most of what “new rules” would. The catch is that the impact of these new pseudo-rules will depend on Players and World giving them care and attention.
- Being a [surgeon] surely allows a PC to Recall Lore on specialized topics. It might allow the PC to save someone’s life, maybe through free play and sheer fictional positioning, maybe by Taking a Risk. And in general, the World will perform different Reactions when responding to the PC’s actions and choices:
- Where another Protagonist would just have an NPC die in their arms or suffer further damage, the [surgeon] might just face a difficult choice or get some bad news.
- Where another Protagonist versed in “adventurer’s first-aid” might be denied the possibility to help a gravely wounded patient, even preventing them from picking some options during a Long Rest, the [surgeon] will be allowed those options.
- Being a [surgeon] might carry some drawbacks, such as being seen as a charlatan, a butcher, or someone suspicious because they challenge the culture of a superstitious group.
- The existence of [star metal] can introduce all sorts of new “mechanics”. [Star metal] blades might cut through anything. [Star metal] armor might be very light or naturally blend with ambient shadows, or, conversely, it might amplify reflected light. [Star metal] tools might be more precise or allow for normally impossible tasks. Is it rare, carrying great value, or common, radically altering the look of your setting? Can it be made into a combustible or fuel? Can it be ingested to grant abilities? Would that poison you, get you addicted, cause hallucinations?
The same effects can be achieved through the definition and exploration of Bloods and Kins, as they are themselves just specialized kinds of Tags.
Each of the previous techniques is a way to express the unique qualities of an original setting through active game mechanics rather than through pages and pages of descriptions: a sort of Play, don’t say principle. By putting all of these methods together, one can define a whole game setting, be it an original creation or an attempt at capturing the aesthetics and some core elements of a favorite movie, novel, comic, etc.
The series of quick settings presented in the Kosmohedron sourcebook, as well as those freely available online (such as SILIKA), are perfect examples: some are drier and to the point, while others lean on a more traditional and verbose approach, but all follow a common underlying structure.
- Core Concept
This is where “fluff” goes, be it a short introduction to the setting and its core elements, a summary of its relevant history, or an explanation of the angle the group will explore, etc. Guidelines, comments, and suggestions about style, tone, and reference materials should go here. That said, the four fundamental Fantasy World Truths (about magic, gods, cities, and travel) should always stand, although they too can be reskinned to better fit the new setting.
Example Fellowship Archetypes
New or reskinned Fellowship Archetypes can be presented, being as generic (guards) or as specific (the Tooth Fairy guards of EverBrush) as the setting needs. Again, the universal Fellowship Truths should stand, as well as the core Archetype elements:
- Range: whether the Fellowship is Local or Wandering.
- Goals & Activities: the main point of the Fellowship and some example activities it may engage in.
- Starting Concepts: three possible interpretations of the Archetype.
- Scope: the possible “levels” of people and dealings the Fellowship is usually involved with.
- Reputation: a few non-neutral options.
- Roots: a few questions meant to root each member of the Fellowship into the setting by linking them to places, people, goals, problems, etc.
Example Bloods & Kins
Maybe there are a few Bloods that are unique to your setting. It is advisable to keep them within the standard humanoid frame, but Stranger Bloods can be defined too. Like most other elements in Fantasy World, the aim here is mainly to offer stimulating and evocative ideas that Players will later explore on their own. The same goes for example Kins.
Example Issues & Doubts
While these elements are meant to be strictly personal to each Protagonist, with the Doubt being created as a consequence of the Issue, it is possible to offer a few examples that engage with the unique themes of a specific setting.
For each existing Class there could be a short list of example reskins. Or perhaps a few tips and guidelines on how to translate a strong idea or unique character archetype from your chosen source material into the mechanics of one (or more) existing Classes.
The final section of any setting should offer a selection of short lists of stuff meant for both World and Players to use as inspirational material and ready-to-play options. Each entry can be as simple as a name linked to a short but vivid description, to evoke flavor and spark ideas. A few important categories are:
- Objects: this is less of a shopping list, more of a trove of evocative “things” that somehow express the unique feel and identity of the setting, from a simple pouch of sea shells to the very specific and famous Queen Demetra’s oyster of the Ages.
- Locations: Same as above, but for places. A cabin in the woods, the river Karaf, the gem-cutter neighbor in the city of Dursh...
- People: Same as above, but for individuals, groups, organizations, etc. The church of the Hanging Koala, a roving vagrant with deep blue eyes, Tosk the eternal fugitive...
- Creatures: Same as above, but for animals and other non-humanoid entities. A bale of flying turtles, the flaming Koh fishes of the northern waters, the Beast of Magdalenburg...
Technique #3 - Rules Remix
The “remix” of mechanical elements is about moving existing rules around, removing some altogether, or cloning them to serve additional purposes.
A simple application is the modification of existing Classes. Each Class has exactly 2 Core moves and 9 Growth ones. It’s enough to swap one of the Core moves with one of the Growth ones to create a variant of the original Class that, from the very beginning, sets a different tone and direction for the Protagonist. A Scoundrel might become a poisoner, a dirty fighter, or a spy right from the start, instead of growing into such specializations.
Another form of remix is the removal of options. Maybe a Fellowship archetype is not available in your version of the game. Maybe some Classes are banned from active play. Maybe some specific Moves are. A Wayfarer without the Animal Companion move (and other linked moves) would play as a very different kind of character, more like a scout or a hunter.
Finally, cloning is a form of remix too. Use any of the previously-mentioned techniques to add to, instead of change, a part of your game. Create different reskins of a Class, then let them all be part of active play. Clone the harm system to present a separate list of harm effects specific for social status and reputation, one for emotional health, and one for arcane/spiritual wellness. Complement it all with the appropriate clone of Hardiness Points.
Technique #4 - Designing Moves
Crafting new moves is probably the most common activity that most PbtA players can imagine entertaining. Here I’ll try to express some of the principles and best practices at the root of Fantasy World ones.
Some games advocate creating moves on the fly as a spur of the moment “fix” or to “spice things up” with a dice roll. This might be all well and good in those games, but Fantasy World follows and advocates a different approach.
If a move is so simple/obvious that you could whip it up on the fly, then it’s most likely that you don’t need it in the first place. Fantasy World mechanics lean heavily on raw fiction as an active and relevant part of the game. Use those. Don’t improvise moves. Especially when the main goal is to inject uncertainty – What will the NPC do? Will the PC succeed? Will an event occur? You are just producing a glorified coin flip with extra bits attached. In part, this is too much work for too little return value. In part it is bad form that damages the foundation of the Players-Moves-World tension:
- Players can count on moves to know how something works, with the World being the judge of how everything else works.
- Meanwhile, moves impose specific conditions that deeply affect Player behavior and choices.
- Hence the tension: keep control by relying on a move and its conditions, or do as you please while relinquishing control to the World.
Improvising moves for the sake of “plugging holes” in the game goes directly against this fundamental principle. If the goal is to shake things up, both World and Players have plenty of effective tools at their disposal within the standard confines of Fantasy World mechanics. You don’t need to improvise moves left and right.
Instead, you should design new moves away from active game time, carefully thinking them through to serve whatever purpose World and Players might have. This is homebrew design. This, I wholeheartedly support.
Moves can serve many purposes, but in general, what they do is draw attention to a specific bit of narrative. If you have a move to handle something, that something becomes a known quantity even if the move itself offers inherently dangerous and costly outcomes; defining something makes it relatively reliable and, by extension, it will end up happening more often.
This is also why Fantasy World tries to keep the total number of moves in check. Because the more moves you have in play, the less they are effective in drawing attention, and the less they get used and become relevant in the game. Always beware of moves creep.
Because of the attention they draw to themselves, moves tend to become the way to do the thing they describe, something that Players plan for and count on, affecting how they imagine the game’s narrative. Case in point, the standard rules clearly allow for non-move ways to perform almost anything in the game, but because these methods are uncertain and require negotiation amongst Players and World, they tend to be forgotten. Therefore, the presence or absence of a move can deeply impact your game.
For example, Fantasy World determines, as a fundamental truth, that magic exists and that its existence is not a secret. But there is no Common Move for magic. Why?
Because this way magic becomes less of a tool in the eyes of Players and World. Any character with the proper fictional positioning can perform magic, but the lack of a ready-made move makes this occurrence less common.
And then when magic does occur, its lack of clear-cut rules helps preserve its aura of mystery and wonder.-something open-ended that can be explored through active play, but never fully trusted.
Also, when a Class move defines how magic works, this statement has value only within the context of that specific Class. This means many things:
Bringing a Class into play is a core Player choice, something we know is interesting to them and needs to be explored as a focal point of our adventures. This implies that it's ok to devote more mental/mechanical space to the topic.
In light of the previous point, we know that magic is something we will touch on often, so it's actually expedient and desirable to have some ground rules for it, something the Player can partly rely upon.
Finally, one class' magic is not all magic. While defining how this one character handles it, magic at large can still be explored and detailed without necessarily dictating how anyone else's magic ought to work.
These points are representative of the specific choices that went into this one element of Fantasy World, in the context of the overall game vision. Maybe your vision is different, and you'll arrange things in another way. But it's a good example of how moves (or lack thereof) can affect the final game experience, and of how they should be seen as tools to achieve a cohesive vision rather than as throw-away toys to be carelessly improvised.
A secondary value of moves is their expediency. A single move can abstract away game elements that Players and World find, when freely roleplayed, to be tedious, uninteresting, or even problematic. This is particularly valuable if, for some reason, those elements somehow tend to present themselves often in your narratives. A well-placed move can save hours of gameplay from being wasted on something the group doesn’t really enjoy.
Some groups love roleplaying scenes where their Protagonists hatch a plan of action, go over details, evaluate possibilities, and debate potential strategies. Some groups don't. This might warrant the introduction of a new move to address the issue.
Here are two examples of how to tackle the same problem through different approaches: first a move that models the whole process of hatching a plan and helps jump right into the action, greatly inspired by how the game Blades in the Dark by John Harper structures its "engagement" phase; the second is a move that instead helps Players do the actual planning themselves, while also offering a tool that fixes one of the main problems this activity presents.
Make a Plan #1
When you work with others to hatch a plan of action…
Have all involved characters agree on the following points:
What is the end goal of the plan?
Who will be part of it?
Will the approach be direct or indirect?
Will you act in an overt or covert way?
The characters can now answer these three questions as a group:
Can you exploit an inherent weakness of the target?
Can you leverage to your advantage an external event, situation, or third party?
Can your allies provide substantial help or intel?
Get +1 SCHEME for each YES. In order to answer positively, at least one PC must briefly describe how they intend to go about it based on established fiction. You can't just make things up on the spot. Instead, you can interrupt this move at this stage to go establish the needed fiction, either through direct action or by hatching a dedicated plan.
Once the SCHEME rating is final, the World will frame the involved characters in a situation where they are facing the first obstacle of the mission, but first, they roll+SCHEME:
10+ = The situation is under control.
7-9 = The situation is ok but... + Open Reaction.
1-6 = The situation was ok until... + Closed Reaction.
Make a Plan #2
When you work with others to hatch a plan of action…
Instead of debating what to do, have each PC briefly express their idea for a section of the plan.
If everyone agrees, that section is noted down and the PCs move on to outline the next section.
Otherwise, each PC can spend a mix of XPs, HPs, and Supplies to "vote" for their own or someone else's idea for the current section.
Each resource has a value of 1 vote.
PCs must exceed, not match, others' votes.
Resources are not bid, but immediately spent, no matter who wins the vote.
All resources spent in voting are recorded as SCHEME points in a common pool. These are XP that anyone acting to accomplish part of the plan can access to buy Advantage or to fuel Moves, but not to obtain Growth marks.
During this process, the World should warn and advise the Players in case of unrealistic expectations, overly-simplistic plans, or grossly obvious missing pieces.
Both World and Players should take note of each section of the plan as they get agreed upon or voted on.
Once the plan is shaped to the satisfaction of all involved PCs, the planning phase ends. The World will then go through all the plan's sections one by one, doing one of two possible things:
Acknowledge the success of the section, describe it, or ask Players to do it themselves.
Frame a situation in which the PCs face some problem that emerged during the section.
The highest value of a good trigger is its unambiguous clarity. The easier it is to tell if a move has been triggered, the better the move is. This means facing a difficult balancing act between using more words to offer exhaustive information and avoid misunderstandings and using fewer words to craft a more terse and concise message. In this, aesthetic considerations come last, if ever at all: a good trigger doesn't need to be cool, evocative, or suggestive. That’s what the move's name is for.
The most common kind of trigger is the one that outlines a character action.
When you observe something…
Moves are mandatory, engaging the mechanics every single time that the trigger is described. In general, the more clear, concise, and unambiguous the trigger is, the better the move will be: easier to remember, to spot in actual play, to use correctly, etc.
By adding a modal element to the trigger, the whole move becomes more specific and less frequent, allowing the Player to describe their Protagonist’s actions in such a way as to occasionally sidestep the trigger.
When you observe something for a long time…
When you observe something from a great distance…
When you observe something through the eyes of your heart…
This will often hinder, albeit slightly, the clarity and effectiveness of the trigger, but the added flexibility might be worth the price. An alternative method is to set the modal element as a conditional part of the effect, thus keeping the trigger free of clutter while still granting the Player some latitude. Of course, the cost of added complexity is merely shifted somewhere else, not really avoided, but the trade-off might better suit some situations.
When you observe something…
If you do it for a long time...
If you do it from a great distance...
If you do it through the eyes of your heart...
Another common type of trigger defines not an action, but a state of things. This might look like a specific set of external circumstances, or as a direct statement of fact.
When you are hungry…
When it rains…
When people look to you for guidance…
You are a valiant knight…
You know the secrets of cheese-making…
The sun is your ally…
These moves are inherently more passive, and therefore less engaging. Again, it might be an acceptable price to pay if it helps you design the game effect you have in mind, but it’s usually best to keep them to a minimum.
The best way to conceptualize the effect of a move is to ask the question: how do I want the fiction to change? Sometimes, this is already satisfied by the trigger. Especially with triggers focused on PC actions, a Player might have already described something that would impact the fiction meaningfully. Job done. But other times the trigger was really just a necessary set-up for the desired narrative to come, in which case something else needs to happen during the resolution of the move effect.
When the fiction is already where the designer wants it to be, the effect can be simpler: be it a mechanical effect or a narrative outcome, it just needs to represent or reinforce what has already been described through the trigger. Of course, nothing prevents these moves from also injecting further change and consequences.
When you hug someone…
…you feel better.
…you feel better. Get an Advantage.
…they pick one: feel weirded out and give you 1 XP, or reciprocate the hug and get 1 XP.
…they will understand how you feel, beyond any communication barrier.
Roll+INTENSE. The embrace:
10+ = it's nice and they take it well.
7-9 = it's awkward and they will communicate that.
1-6 = it's wrong and they will react accordingly.
When the trigger is only a setup for change, the effect is what needs to bring about the desired narrative change. This can happen in a few common ways:
- The move provides a fixed outcome.
This method is simple but powerful because it is reliable and clear. It’s a tool Players can rely on to make something specific happen. This gives them more control over game events, even if the consequences might still be unexpected.
When you search for lies…
You will find them, if there are any.
- The move provides a selection.
This is a great way to shape the narrative in a specific way while allowing Players to have a say on critical descriptive details. As a designer, you can craft a list that offers options that stay in line with a certain type of narrative, that are suggestive and inspiring of a certain style and aesthetic, or that will limit the possible follow-up events to a specific array of outcomes.
When you look around…
You can ask one question from...
[here are a few different examples of lists with specific focuses]
...this action-focused list:
Who is my true enemy?
Where will danger come from?
What's my best escape route?
...this emotion-focused list:
How do they really feel?
What are the relational ties in play here?
How can I make them feel X ?
...this setting-focused list:
What does their Pah tell me?
Are there Ley Lines in the vicinity?
What would a true dragon-born do?
The move provides randomness.
Adding a dice roll can serve many purposes.
- A dice roll can inject inherent tension into the move effect, simply because of the unpredictability of the roll. This can in turn be heightened or dampened through more impactful results: a more rewarding 10+, a more punishing 1-6, or a less reliable 7-9 can all increase the stress of rolling dice, where the opposite will help smooth out the emotional rollercoaster. Both are important options to handle.
- A dice roll can make extreme results feel fair and acceptable. It’s the dice’s fault, not someone’s malicious intervention.
- It can lighten the burden of direct decision-making by letting the dice decide for you.
- It can help model a specific scenario: maybe a move is not really supposed to ever “fail” and thus all of its outcomes represent “success” but with different secondary details attached to them; maybe a move will always represent a bad situation, so even the best possible results are quite problematic.
Look Around is an example of a move with no real fail state, while Threaten and Brawl represent moves with very problematic outcomes even of successful rolls.
The move asks for Player input. This can be used to great effect.
- It can help the World understand what a Protagonist might worry or care about, thanks to direct feedback from their Player.
- It can help the World get direction and inspiration about some new setting element no one has defined until now.
- It can make very negative outcomes more palatable and unproblematic because the Players themselves define them, instead of feeling wronged or humiliated by someone else.
- Most importantly, Player input can be seen as a cost: producing narration, even prompted and guided one, takes effort. For some, it might be a delight, for others less so, but it always takes more brain-power than just acknowledging a pre-set outcome or picking from a list, and it adds more personality to the narrative. Consider rewarding this effort by designing moves that, in exchange for Player input, grant more positive or less negative effects, depending on how the move works.
- All that said, regardless of the amount of guidance and rewards they provide, be wary of moves that ask for too much. Frequent but small input is generally good, as it teaches Players to feel more confident about their contributions to the game. Conversely, infrequent but very complex and demanding input is universally bad, as it can challenge and intimidate even seasoned veterans.
- Of course, beware of the opposite extreme too. Too frequent input can, if not carefully shaped and supported, feel draining and even perplexing.
The equivalent of Take a Risk in other PbtA games often ends up being the most triggered move of all, with its 7-9 outcome being the most frequent of all, asking the World for constant and repeated input based on very vague directions (a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice).
These are the most common and important “structures” you should consider when crafting the effects of a move. Each can be used in isolation to be the core of a whole move that does that thing, or they can be mixed together to concoct more articulated moves.
A perfect example is the Look Around move. It presents a simple and clear trigger that maps on a Protagonist action...
When you observe a situation / place / object…
Then it establishes a fixed outcome:
…the World will tell you what is obvious and clear.
Then it introduces a conditional:
…and then will ask you: "Do you want to know more?"
Then it asks for Player input:
If you say YES, explain how you act to get extra info and what you pay close attention to.
Then it asks for a dice roll.
Then roll+VIGILANT. During the inspection, you can ask the World questions, one at a time. If you act on the answers, you get an Advantage.
10+ = ask 2 questions.
7-9 = ask 1 question.
1-6 = ask 1 question + World Reaction.
These results themselves are complex:
The move models the outcome so that failure is impossible, as the PC always gets to ask at least one question.
The move heightens the effect of success by granting not only access to fictional knowledge, which would be the obvious result, but by also ensuring that such knowledge is useful no matter its specific nature because acting on it provides Advantage.
The move also limits the effect of success by only ever granting 1 or 2 questions, instead of 3 or more. This is more about keeping the narrative focus tight and on point, than about maintaining an imaginary and not-so-important "power balance" within the game.
For similar reasons, the move adds a negative outcome (the World Reaction) to the 1-6 result. This makes the 1-6 feel different than the 7-9. And the risk of a worse outcome adds just a touch more tension to a move that is otherwise meant to be very safe.
Then it offers a list too!
List of questions:
Where's my best way out / way in / way past?
Who is the most vulnerable / threatening to me?
Who's in control here and now?
What has happened recently or is about to happen here?
What is useful or valuable to me here?
What here is not what it seems?
What should I focus my attention on?
These questions serve a double purpose. On one hand, they are a guideline suggesting to the Player some useful options, helping them avoid drawing a blank. On the other hand, they are focused on practicalities that help both Players and World think about solutions and actions, rather than building atmosphere or evoking setting elements. This move is meant to be a simple and often-invoked tool for practical usage, and the available questions reflect this design choice.
An ideal move is self-contained, its trigger and effect conveying all the knowledge needed to use it in play without the need to consult any external source of information. Alas, this is not always possible, and the excessive addition of explanatory text can be more harmful than beneficial. As previously mentioned, it is a difficult balancing act between being direct and succinct, and being clear and unambiguous.
A helping hand can come from the addition of notes: explanatory text external to the move body, but directly related to it. These should never include functional parts of a move or instructions Players and World would be required to follow in order for the move to work as intended. But they can be home to a few comments aimed at explicating some common misunderstandings, doubts, and edge cases. It is also a good place to offer examples and suggestions on how to answer the questions the move might pose to Players and World.
Within Fantasy World and its design philosophy it is possible for a move to be formally well structured, with clearly presented trigger and effect, but still be bad by falling victim to some habits and conventions from other games that don’t really work well in FW. There are two common patterns to pay attention to.
- Try at all costs to avoid moves with purely numerical/mechanical effects as they don't really “move” the fiction. This is especially true of moves with a trigger that amounts to a passive statement, but even moves with a more proactive trigger are basically a wasted opportunity, bogging down the game with fictionally inert clutter for no meaningful gain. A particularly strong trigger might lessen the problem, but arguably this might make the missed opportunity even more of a pity.
You are tough! Get +1 Armor.
This is my personal definition of a complete waste of space.
You are arrogant!… use Daring in place of Intense.
This alters the fiction in an homeopathically inconsequential way. It also mostly affects what the PC's Player would imagine in their own head, adding nearly nothing to what gets described and shared at the game table. If it ain't shared, it ain't there.
When you, emotionally or relationally, push others away… gain 1 XP.
This has a powerful trigger, with the effect acting as a hook to entice the Player. And simplicity often equals strength. Good! That said, one wonders if such a purely mechanical effect is not a missed opportunity.
Why was this move designed? Which themes is it supposed to bring to the fore? Can't the effect also offer some input and guidance about the possible meaning or consequences of the PC's triggering action?
- Avoid moves with vague World directions, as they make the World’s job exceedingly more draining and difficult. Want the outcome to be open, letting the World have their way? Assign them a World Reaction. Want to make the outcome less markedly problematic? Make the World Reaction be Open. Or offer the Player a clear choice. Or offer the World one. Or define a fixed fictional outcome. Whatever you do, just use the standard jargon of the game to reference known rules and mechanics.
Don’t just drop the ball on the World’s lap hoping that they will figure something out. This is lazy design disrespectful of the energy it takes the World to run the game.
A very common culprit of this sin is catch-all moves like the ones that originally inspired Take a Risk.
Such moves tend to offer a clear 10+ : success, you did it.
They also have a clear 1-6: the World makes a Reaction as open or closed as they want.
But they fall apart in the middle 7-9 section, as they try to present a partial or problematic success.
The problem is that the move tells the World what to do, but not how. And it often does it in some poetic, non-standard way. Coming up on the fly with "a worse outcome, a hard bargain or an ugly choice" is not always easy. It's usually ok the first time a PC rolls it in a given scene. But when the situation becomes complex and protracted, which is exactly what the moves snowball produces due to its worse/hard/ugly effects, rolling one 7-9 after another, after another, after another gets very old very fast.
Take a Risk is specifically designed to avoid these and other problems.
Having expressed the fundamental ideas and best practices informing the design of moves in Fantasy World, there is something to be said about breaking such patterns. It’s a more difficult road, requiring quite a lot of work, effort, and testing. And it’s a more dangerous road, leading more easily to problematic results. But it’s a possible and sometimes very useful road that, if taken carefully and without excess, can yield useful and unique results, examples of which have already been seen throughout this book.
- A move can be used to abstract away a complex situation with just a single mechanic. But on the other hand, it can also be used to zoom in on the details of something. The Long Rest and Journey moves are perfect examples of this: in part, they abstract away what could otherwise be a long stretch of game time, something that could even take up multiple sessions, into a single procedure that lasts only a few minutes; but in part, they pretty much frame and orchestrate a whole sequence of mini-scenes. This is accomplished through a quite long and complex text, explaining what to do and how to do it in multiple steps and incorporating multiple mechanics and techniques.
- A move can be used to guide the construction of something. This is usually only worth it if the resulting construct is meant to be very important very often, like the Veteran’s weapon or the Wayfarer’s animal companion.
- A move can have multiple segments absolving different functions, like the Core moves of some Classes, where one part is a sort of passive one-time questionnaire asking a lot of Player input for the sake of fleshing out their Protagonist’s starting identity, while another part is active and follows a normal trigger+effect pattern. Or, for a less overblown example, the effects part of a move might simply list more than one effect: it will do A, and B, and if the conditions are met, it will also do C.
There is a very good argument to be made against such aggregated moves, which should probably be crafted as separate moves, each with its own name, a simpler text, and more straightforward usage. But such a Frankenstein move could also provide specific benefits or answer to unique design needs.
Technique #5 - Designing Classes
In Fantasy World a Class is a bundle of moves linked by a common thread. Each Class is introduced with a brief description and a shortlist of 3 themes it might help explore through play. It counts exactly 11 moves, of which 2 are Core ones and 9 are Growth ones.
Fantasy World Classes could be seen as narratively neutral by design. They do work as unique lenses through which Players can experience the game world, and while this does facilitate the presence of a few broad and universal themes, they don’t really do much in terms of high concept. Being The Weapon Person or The Honor Person or The Magic Person says nothing about the kind of stories the Protagonist will be able to experience, while being The Chosen or The Underdog or The Tragic Love presupposes very specific narrative structures, story arcs, and character roles. In a nutshell, Fantasy World Classes have no destiny. The story of each Protagonist will always be what stems from the tension between their personal Issue and Doubt, and the friction with those of other Protagonists.
When crafting a new Class, the safe bet is thus to stick with fantasy jobs. What set of skills and powers can the Class represent? What activity or approach to action does it portray? Which fantasy elements will it bring into the spotlight? This neutral focus is not strictly necessary, but it is what interferes the least with other core mechanics.
Each Class starts the game with exactly 2 core moves. These are fixed, not a Player choice, and should both be designed to strongly express the core identity of the Class. This approach has many advantages:
- The amount of information new Players need to know is drastically limited.
- Ill-informed choices, and the time and stress they involve, are eliminated.
- Player focus is kept on concepts, ideas, fiction, and themes, rather than on rules.
- Class identity and expectations are safeguarded, at least as a starting point.
Personalization must not be a matter of shopping for this or that power. Uniqueness comes from outside the Class: from Fellowship answers, from Blood and Kin, from Issue and Doubt. Then, additionally, at least one core move from each Class offers a venue for personal expression right before the start of the game, while the other move should be simpler and focus more on representing a salient element of the Class.
Each Class offers a range of 9 moves that can be accessed through Protagonist growth. These can reinforce the ideas expressed by the Core moves, building on them, altering or expanding the original mechanic, or counting on the use of a Core move to then further develop what its effects can mean or what they can accomplish. Growth moves can also be used to diversify a class, representing some alternative paths of specialization, or mixing things up by introducing a more story-aware move: fantasy tropes and clichès abound, and this is the place to offer them up for Players to pick and choose.
Some Growth moves have requirements. The rule here is simple:
- Growth moves can require access to a Core move.
This is mainly to represent how some moves make no sense without a specific Core behind them, helping to avoid cross-Class madness. Changing the rules to disregard this limit is not particularly problematic, but will require World and Players to negotiate the if/when/how a move can actually work.
If a Growth move modifies the way a Protagonist performs magic, and the ability to perform magic is defined by a Core move, what does it mean? Is the Growth move useless? Or can the Protagonist perform magic in some other way, maybe thanks to a Tag or proper fictional positioning, and then affect it with the aforementioned Growth move?
This is what you'll need to define once you remove the requirement.
- Growth moves should not require access to other Growth moves.
This is a design philosophy choice more than a structural need. All Growth moves within the same Class should immediately be accessible, with no artificial hierarchies or strict progression pathways, no A then B then C. Each Class is already focused and limited enough and should not lock interesting moves behind other ones.
There is no specific magic behind the number of moves Fantasy World uses. Simply put, the 2+9 formula seemed to fit the needs of the game. It’s enough to allow for some diversity, with each Class potentially growing into a few different variations of itself, while also being tight and focused enough to prevent diluting the high concept and core themes.
The same goes for all Classes being defined by an equal amount of moves. It’s an aesthetic choice that I find makes the game easier to use and understand. Other PbtA games are all over the place in this regard but, at least for some of them, I would say that the asymmetry and imbalance in their playbooks (their version of Classes) serves the purposes of each specific game fairly well. Maybe a playbook really does work better with just 2 moves. I am a bit more skeptical about a single playbook needing 28 unique moves, but such games exist too.