Dozens and Dragons

Three Layers of Rules

peeling back the onion



  1. Introduction
  2. Friends, Fiction, Form
  3. Example
  4. Conclusion


Skimming through the table of contents of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls1, I spotted section 10.02, titled “Philosophy of a Good Time”.

I decided to skip straight to that section because A) I love a Good Time, and B) So many games seem to take themselves so seriously that the concept of fun and the fact that it is in fact a game sometimes seem to get lost and buried beneath piles of rules, rules, rules.

So naturally I want to see what any game has to say on the topic of fun.

And what I found was two short paragraphs.

The first was about collaboration and cooperation between players and GM, and about affording agency and control.

And the second paragraph was this:

You may find it helpful to remember there are three modes of “reality” to draw on at any given time, typified by this very ordinary exchange: “I go into the room and watch for traps. I rolled 9 for my saving roll, using my Perception talent. I’m going to the kitchen to grab a snack; anyone else want one?” No one of normal mentality can fail to understand the differences. The first “I” refers to that player’s character, inside the game’s reality. The second refers to the player handling the mechanics of the game. And the third is common consensual reality and the conviviality of a group of friends playing a game together.

This is the idea of “Three Layers of Rules”. An idea I first saw mentioned by Jason Tocci on twitter:

and later elaborated on on his blog:

Friends, Fiction, Form

I’ll skip over discussing the framework at face value because I think that Tocci does an excellent job of doing that in the blog post above. The 2400 series of games do a great of presenting them, and Alight addresses them in detail.

Instead, I’ll share how I recently used the Three Layers of Rules as a “3F” metaframework for organizing a new game with some friends.

  1. Friends – The humans sitting around playing a game. Scheduling, safety tools, etc.

  2. Fiction – The magical world of make believe! What kind of game do we want to play? What kind of imaginative world do we want to inhabit and explore?

  3. Form – The game rules we follow in order to play the game: how and when to roll dice, etc

The first consideration for starting a new game must always be the Friends layer, in which we attempt to slay the dreaded Scheduling Beast. If you can’t agree on a time to play, then the game is not going to happen2.

With that decided, the Fiction planning stage is when you should answer the question of, What kind of game do we want to play? Space pirates? Heists and Soundrels? Fantasy adventures? Lawbringers on the Frontier?

With those questions answered, you can address Form. What rules (or system) shall we use to play the kind of game we want to play?


As an example, some friends and I decided we wanted to play a game together.

At the first layer, we know that we are all busy with life and kids and such and are also spread across different timezones, so we probably want something async. We interact with each other via a text interface, so we know we’re comfortable with that. We decided to play the game over email. We established a few extra expectations about safety, cadence, etc.

Next we had to decide on the fiction. Most indicated that they wanted to play “D&D” so we settled on a magical fantasy dungeon-diving treasure-getting wilderness adventure sort of game.

Form was–for me, the game ref–possibly the most challenging. I wanted a set of rules that seamlessly supported play-by-post without slowing things down or getting in the way, or calling for a bunch of rolls. Ultimately, I settled on a mish-mash of Roll For Shoes and Blades in the Dark that requires no character creation beyond “Describe your character,” and which in practice requires no player-facing roles.

And that’s how friends, fiction, and form helped us start a new game together!


That’s about it. I didn’t have grand designs for this post. Mostly, I saw a bit in Tunnels & Trolls about the three layers of rules, and it made me think about other times I’ve seen and used them.

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