Diegetic Mechanics in TTRPGs

Apologies for the big words. But you know, I have to get some traffic to my neglected blog. By diegetic mechanics, I mean those mechanics pertaining to the collaborative fiction. Or simply, in-world. So how can mechanics be in the world if they are rules, you ask? Let me start with context and an example.

These last few months, I’ve been running a (yet unpublished) game I call Adventures in the Storm Kingdoms. It is my homage to the old Stormbringer game from seminal publisher Chaosium by way of experimentations in the Free Kriegspiel Revolution design space. I may write later how the game came from a long unfulfilled desire to retroclone Stormbringer 1st Edition, and how it surprised me and became an engine for Moorcockian multiversal heroic fantasy in a literary mode instead. The minimalistic game design work I’m doing on this game is teaching me how tabletop roleplaying games rules can come from the world, and why they don’t always need to be expressed in dice-and-numbers mechanics.

If you haven’t followed my link above about Free Kriegspiel, here is the tl;dr: players interact with the world as presented by a referee who adjudicates actions and applies whatever rules they feel necessary to simulate the world. Most FKR groups prefer simple rules and character sheets with few to no numbers on them, but neither of these is an obligation.

How an obfuscation spell made it all clear

It dawned on me last week, when one of my players wanted his character to call on a demon of Chaos to help escaping a haunted tower. James (the player) had previously defined the demon as The Mistress of the Hidden when Jo-Jo (the character) needed to turn invisible. We’d established that the price for the spell would be to hide something from someone in the future to please the demoness with some chaotic mischief. I could tell the whole story, and how it ended up retroactively explaining why another antihero couldn’t find his lantern (while the original reason was the item had disappeared from the virtual character sheet and we’d assumed it had been lost and we’d all forgotten about it), but the important part is: we collaboratively designed a set of magical rules that require neither numbers nor dice rolls.

Jo-Jo’s Mischievious Magic

When Jo-Jo calls upon the Mistress of the Hidden to misdirect or disappear, she must promise to repay the demon by causing mischief in the near future. The Mistress will state the price in advance (James and Eric can both suggest ideas, and they must agree on the price).
Jo-Jo doesn’t have to accept it, but no magic will take place is she won’t.
If Jo-Jo hasn’t paid the price for the last spell when she petitions the Mistress again, the demands escalate and the price becomes heavier and bloodier. The Mistress may refuse to work her magic, or even play a trick on the young sorcerer to teach her a lesson.

I am just writing this to illustrate my example, but this is more or less what I have in my mind — and as a half-decent FKR referee, I’ll explain the rule to the players when needed. I’ve also given titles to the demon, as the game requires to better define a spirit. She is the Mistress of the Hidden, Unnamed Duchess, First Spy of the Courts of Chaos, and lover of the Great Deceiver, Aronax the Black.

The List of Unpaid Prices

If the Mischievious Magic rules aren’t stated in the game (or even in my campaign notes), the situation prompted me to add one rule to AitSK: the List of Unpaid Prices. At any given time, the referee should keep in plain sight a list of what promised rewards and prices have been agreed upon by sorcerers and spirits. It functions as a reminder, but can also give inspiration to set up interesting situations and choices. I’m looking forward to see it work in play.

An icon of Arioch as a Melnibonéan youth with orange skin, a chaos star as a halo, and a bleeding heart in his right hand.The background shows black and white chtuloid chaos beasts with red eyes.
Arioch Icon by Tristan Alexander (used without permission)

RPG settings have tons of diegetic rules

If you have never stopped to consider the thought, look at how the worlds we play have many rules that don’t interact with the rules / system / mechanics. Wizards don’t have healing spells. Dragons fly despite physics. Megacorporations treat freelance street operatives like shit. These are all diegetic mechanics (or rules of the setting, if you like).

So my question is, why would any in-world rule have to be modelled by mechanics? Our magic rule doesn’t require any die rolls. It sure could have a bunch of them, with tables of modifiers and parameters and options, as detailed and headache inducing as you care to make them. It works just fine as is in our rules-lite context, but it would also work fine in Rolemaster.

So why do we play with all these dice pools and modifiers? Do we love late night arithmetics so much?

But rules make the world more real, Shirley?

People will argue that we need rules to simulate the world and/or genre we want to emulate.

Sure, you can give halberds a +1 Reach Factor, an extra Attack Die when grabbing at a mounted opponent’s plate armour pieces, and a better Penetration Quotient against quilted leather than it does have against chainmail. Oh, and don’t forget the rule for going under a halberdier’s guard and easily stab them with a shorter weapon!

You can also ask your players to trust you to take all these factors into consideration when they become relevant. You then are able to come up with rulings and/or odds of success that portray each given situation much better than any set of rules ever could, however detailed.

You’ll need to know what you’re doing, so maybe do some research on halberd combat, or use a table from Halberds & Helmets (okay I didn’t go and check how detailed Alex has made his weapon lists — probably not a lot, but you know what I mean). Or make your own list of science-fantasy weapons that explain what each of them are good for in plain language. Whatever it takes for you to feel comfortable adjudicating situations without slowing down the game to a crawl by looking up rules and modifiers every five minutes.

An ink sketch showing the Chaos lord Xiombarg in his female form, riding a skeleton headed bull demon
from a James Cawthorn sketchbook that I can’t seem to find online (sadface emoji)

More on the topic of diegetic mechanics

On this subject, I highly recommend a series of articles called Less Rules to Do More by Justin Hamilton of the Aboleth Overlords blog (I’ve actually asked him to riff of them in an article for KNOCK! #3). And for an example of how this could work, foremost OSR thinker Chris McDowall has recurring blog posts (and some modular games) about what he calls primordial gaming.

You can learn everything there is to know about Free Kriegspiel roleplaying by following the links in my Obliviax Oracle post.

2 thoughts on “Diegetic Mechanics in TTRPGs

  1. Suggestion for the List of Unpaid Prices : writing each of them on square index cards and display them on the table (organized in grid, in crux shape, in round shape, etc.) ?
    Also, its easy to shuffle, reorganize or randomly pick one.

    1. That’s not a bad idea! I might try this tomorrow for our first in-person game ever. Thanks, Pascal!

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