As we work on Rosette, our tabletop roleplaying system, we've been working hard to focus on what makes our game distinctive. We really like tabletop games with a distinct focus. Especially with generic rulesets, you can end up with a set of perfectly fine rules that provide no compelling reason to use them over others.
Because of this, we're choosing defining phrases for our Rosette books. In a similar way to the "arc words" used in continuity-heavy television series, these phrases serve as mantras to bring up repeatedly in the text and remind the reader and ourselves what the game is about. White Wolf does a similar thing with their roleplaying systems: Geist is a "game of second chances," Demon is a "game of techgnostic espionage," and Mummy is a "game of immortal souls." Their God-Machine Chronicle even has a defining phrase: "What rises must fall. What has fallen may rise again."
At the moment, we have three books to which we need to assign phrases. The first is the core rulebook, Rosette. Its phrase will be primarily out-of-character, a guide to the players on how to approach the game. The other books are our setting books: Belief, a game about reality-bending, and Concord (working title), a game about high fantasy. These setting books have more narrative-focused defining phrases that serve to provide a theme for the stories the players should tell.
Despite having worked on these games for years, we're still refining them. Here are the defining phrases we're currently using as a focus for each book.
Quick, creative collaboration.
Rosette is focused on providing a streamlined play experience that allows players (including the Game Master) to work together to create a story. The slogan of "quick, creative collaboration" condenses this concept into a simple phrase. It guides us as we write the rules, and it can guide the players as they play.
Rosette should be quick. If you find yourself bogged down in math and minutia, then we've made mistakes in our design. If you find yourself talking a lot with the GM on what is and isn't allowed, you should build more trust and confidence in how your group wants to tell the story.
Rosette should be creative. You can play any character, not just mix-and-match clichés. You don't have to take combat skills if you don't want to; any conflict can be solved without violence. The rules exist to enable interesting story instead of the story being an excuse to exercise the rules.
Rosette should be collaborative. The GM doesn't hand down edicts from on high. She works with the players to tell a story. Nothing can happen to your character without your consent, but the rules frame what sort of thing will happen. The GM and the rest of the players work together to decide the consequences of scenes. Players can add details and twists to the story using their characters' Quirks.
The defining phrase of "quick, creative collaboration" provides a guideline for creating and using the rules. It also influences the kind of stories you tell with the system. You can tell a story about a grim, painstaking, violent battle, but the defining phrase reminds you that the actual play at the table will go smoothly, that violence isn't the only possible resolution, and that the players must buy into the mood in order for it to work.
The world is not as it should be.
Belief is a game about reality-bending. The players are controlling or dealing with characters that have the power to shape the world through force of will. Without strong motivation, this has the danger of becoming a formless game of Calvinball. To prevent this, we provide a vague but dire purpose: "The world is not as it should be."
Believers, the semi-eponymous reality benders of the setting, share myths about a lost world called Eden where the force of Doubt doesn't exist and anyone can shape the world how they like. Each Believer has a different idea of Eden, but most feel driven to somehow transform the world to be more like that mythical place.
The setting also has Regulators, sometimes known by the Believers as the Keepers of the Chains. Some of these are members of organizations while others are independent actors, but they all feel that Believers are a threat to be managed. To Regulators, the existence of Believers is what is wrong with the world. They work for a world which is safe and operates by reliable rules.
"The world is not as it should be." The longing for a different world generated by this defining phrase provides a guiding impulse for Believers to gather Crutches to support their effects. It also shapes the mood of the game: your characters, whether they're Believers or Regulators, should feel like foreigners in their own world, longing for a reality that they may be wholly unable to achieve.
Everything's connected now.
Concord is more of a working title than the others; we still just call it Rosette Fantasy among ourselves. However, it already has a strong vision. In a world that was nearly destroyed by magic, people are flourishing again, but in order to survive they must work together and recognize the interdependence of the world around them. "Everything's connected now."
With our fantasy setting, we want to set ourselves apart from Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. We have elves and dwarves and halflings, but they have a distinct feel and flavor that borrows more from fairy tales and myth than from the normal genre tropes. Our actual inspirations are works like the Avatar animated series, The Deed of Paksenarrion, and the films of Studio Ghibli.
We're also actively discouraging the "murder hobo" approach. The player characters are not just wanderers looking for something to kill for treasure. We're working on a concept currently called Connections, where characters must have ties to the setting that they can use like Quirks, ensuring that the stories revolve around the players' relationships to the world. The creatures and monsters that the characters encounter all have reasons for existing and motivations for providing conflict; there are no "escaped magical experiments" in this game.
The final word of the phrase is important: "Everything's connected now." Things used to be simpler in this world, but ever since the near-apocalypse, working together and understanding how you affect the world around you is essential to survival. This is a standard trope in fantasy, but it is often just a background element. In this world, however, an entire nation was lost just generations before, and the world is still dealing with its refugees and the punk kids that treat it as a flag of rebellion. The cataclysm that threatened the world nearly destroyed the land of faerie, and so the native creatures of magic cause trouble as they seek survival in the natural world. Understanding history is vital to understanding the present.
"Everything's connected now." In order to exist in Rosette's fantasy setting you must pay attention to how your actions affect those around you, and you have to depend on your companions and your associates to support your goals. The stories you tell all involve a way in which this tenuous web of existence has been endangered.
Defining phrases provide an easy way to quickly describe the core of a game. With a consent-based, collaborative system like Rosette, where the GM must work with the other players to generate the story, it's especially important to have everyone buy in to the setting, themes, and mechanics. These phrases guide the story and provide a simple touchstone. When in doubt, if you're playing Belief, return to "This world is not as it should be."
This technique isn't unique to tabletop RPGs, of course. Organizations have mission and vision statements. TV series and films have catchphrases, taglines, and slogans. Whatever project you're working on, it can benefit from distilling it into one or more phrases that can serve to guide your work and communicate your intent to the people who you're making it for.
Do you have favorite arc words, vision statements, or similar phrases from games or other works you like? Share them with us in the comments!