Why Less is More #02 - Talking

In this second article in the Why Less is More series I’ll talk about the Ritual Communication rules. These are easily the most important rules in the whole FateLess system. Let me show you why...

Who Can Say What

Fundamentally a roleplaying game is: a bunch of people sitting around a table describing stuff to one another. It’s literally a conversation. Rules then add fun and functionality to this conversation. Rules that directly influence and shape this conversation are arguably the most important. This is doubly true for gmLess games, where there is no single person with the specific authority to lead and moderate everyone’s contributions.

In FateLess most rules try to have a clear and direct effect on the game conversation, and the most important ones are presented in the very first chapter of the rulebook, right after the introductory concepts. These are the foundation upon which everything else lies. One is about what Players can say, while the others are about how it can be said. The first rule is:

You can only describe what any PC is perceiving right here and now by sight, smell, touch, etc. Or what your own PC thinks and feels. Nothing else. Ever.

This mechanic, more than anything else, helps the Players to summon that something something I was talking about in the previous article, to feel almost as if there was an invisible game master at the table handling an imaginary world that you, the Players, are discovering through the actions of your characters. Almost.
It also helps a lot in focusing Player’s ideas, fighting off the blank page panic that comes from not knowing what to do because you could do anything. PCs exist in the game within a limited fictional space. Each of them is always present in a specific scene, happening at a specific time and place, under a specific set of circumstances. This limits which actions are possible or not and puts the Player’s imagination in a very specific and solid place, where she only needs to “look around” to know what is what, and what to do next.
This rule also allows Players to be genuinely surprised and puzzled by the game. No one ever knows “the truth” about anything, because there is not an absolute pre-established truth. Everything is perception gathered through the PC’s senses. PCs observe and judge how everything looks and feels and smells, but their conclusions might be partial, inaccurate or even completely off target. In this the Players know only what the Characters do, helping greatly with immersion in the role.

Another effect is to actively prevent any one Player from imposing (in the most friendly acception of the word) her own vision to the whole table. Both for her own good, by preserving her sense of wonder and surprise, and for the good of the others, as the gmLess structure would work poorly with someone behaving as a de-facto GM.

In a similar way this also leaves doors open in the face of group mentality. When a bunch of people brainstorm and speculate it’s easy to influence one another and eventually reach a (maybe unspoken) consensus. One idea leads to another, and before you know it everyone agrees on what now looks apparent and obvious. If handled properly this is a very positive effect, tieing everyone’s contributions to a common pattern that adds solidity and meaning to the whole fiction. But left unchecked it risks making the game somewhat uneventful, as the most obvious idea will often end up as dominant. This way instead the most obvious idea might still be contradicted without damaging the solidity of the fictional world.


In FateLess there are four “ritual” words that, if invoked formally, regulate the flow of the game conversation in a very direct way: the Pause, the Veto, the Disagreement and the Quoth. They serve many fruitful purposes, but are also one of the most overlooked and even criticized elements of the FateLess ruleset.
A comment I often receive is that such structures look nice but are in truth useless:
  • if you have a “good” group you don’t need them to begin with
  • if you have a “bad” group they won’t be enough to save the game
  • also, such direct metagame procedures break immersion, which is bad, right?

Broken Immersion

At face value what they do is to block the flow of the game so that the Players can clear the air between them out-fiction. What actually happens is the opposite, as they smooth the flow of the game by clearly separating in-fiction and out-fiction talk.
At least for me it is much more distracting to silently wonder if the other Players are talking on-fiction or out-fiction, to seamlessly transition from what is being described as happening in the game and what instead is just chatting among Players for the sake of clearing an obscure point, arguing a position or making a joke. A clear aside is both less distracting and more efficient, allowing the game to resume faster, as everyone is aware that “we stopped the game” and is thus less keen on closing up the issue and resuming active play.

Communication Enabling

A fundamental effect of these procedures is to facilitate communication about touchy subjects. People are not telepathic, nor innately attuned to one another’s tastes and ideas, and it is very important to gently poke someone that is adding to the game stuff we don’t like. But it is never easy to say “I don’t like what you’re saying”  to a fellow Player even though, especially in a gmLess environment, it is a primary necessity.
Veto and Disagreement give you permission to do that, officially. Even if you never raise the hand saying VETO! the simple existence of such rule in the book says loud and clear that it is ok, and actually expected of you, to speak up and say “I don’t like this”. And then, if you actually do that, it offers a clear and transparent way to do it without harming the flow of the game. Even the best and more cohesive of groups benefits from such a structure from time to time, and when not needed it completely vanishes in the background.

Clockwork Players

Another effect is what I call winding up the spring. A very common problem of most gmLess games, regardless of how good or bad the group is, is that after an initial understanding Players tend to stray from the path they originally agreed upon. You begin a game and all are (apparently) on the same page. Then it is just a matter of time before the page is lost, people forget their initial intentions, grow complacent and stop paying attention to how everyone else would like to see things done. This is often a silent killer, lowering the perceived standard of the game up to the point where you are not really happy with it, you are no longer committed and enthusiastic about it, and eventually the game dies down because entropy.
Both Veto and Disagreement are very effective tools that help everyone stay on the same even after many sessions, gently correcting the course and surgically fixing small details before they become bigger concerns.

Of Mice and Habits

Also, the ritualised and formalised nature of these tools slowly but surely builds good habits in the Players. They become used to naturally point out what they don’t like and why, and to readily accept such critics and change their ideas however is needed. They get used to quickly and cleanly cooperate, listen to others, accept and build on other Player’s ideas instead of forcing their own. They learn to be open and expressive without fear, because if something is wrong the others will be there to catch you and support you, instead of judging and scolding you; they learn to ask for help and inspiration, to share responsibilities and to be proactive.
Session after session this all becomes part of the normal flow of the game.

Bad Apples

And what about the “bad” groups? In my experience, and this is also written in the rulebook in its own focus bubble, there are two kinds of “Bad Players”.

One is simply an unskilled person, someone who means well but is not used to cooperation. In this case the ritualized communication is of huge help in teaching them, as painlessly as possible, how to properly play with others; the more the group plays, the better everyone learns to sync with each other's’ ideas, tastes and play style.

The second is a person that consciously behaves badly. There might be a number or reason for this, but in no case the rules of the game will ever be able to stop or prevent it. This is a social issue and should be solved by chatting among friends, outside the game. What the FateLess mechanics do to help this process is to highlight such negative behavior and strip it of any possible alibi: everyone has tools to let the others know what is ok and what is not ok; if someone repeatedly breaks this trust or abuses such tools, it shows... a lot.
In this way social problems can be found and addressed after just a couple of scenes or maybe one session, instead of after a couple of adventures or maybe one campaign; which also means that such problems get tackled before they have a chance of becoming big and ugly elephants in the room.

Quoth the next article...

So far what I described applies mainly to Pause, Veto and Disagreement. The last ritual word is the Quoth (shorthand for quoth the die) but I’m gonna cover it in a future article as its function is different than the others and has more to do with helping Players create new and unexpected content than to regulate the game conversation.