Fiction First Resolution System: Getting Rid of Ability Scores and Some Other Heretical Stuff

Art by Seb Mckinnon

Those of you who follow my more mechanics driven posts will have perhaps intuited that I've been trying to create a system that enables a rather particular sort of play for quite some time now. This playstyle hews far, far more towards the Arnesonian than traditional OSR material, so if that's a red flag to you, go no further: here, there be a prioritization of the fiction the likes of which would drive the mechanically minded to madness. Or something. Anyway, the truth is that I like a bit more concreteness to my games than the old, old school crowd, especially when it comes to mechanics that interact with narrative. 

If this is starting to sound suspiciously like storygames, worry not, sweet goblin child, for it is not that either. Rather, it is something that I don't exactly know what to call yet. A system designed to put the shared fiction of the game-world first, and lend weight and reality to it with minimal reliance on non-diegetic rules. 

Something that irks me about both more mechanically driven games and storygames alike is that they each fundamentally distance the players from the fiction: mechanically driven games through using numbers to provide abstract representations of in-fiction occurrences, and storygames by giving the players licence to alter the narrative as co-authors, thus drawing attention to the ephemeral nature of the fiction itself and sapping the perceived reality of said fiction. This system is designed to avoid both of those things. 

If all this has just sounded like a pretentious word salad so far, well, it is. I'm just trying to explain and justify (to myself, more than anyone) what drove me to make this game and what I'd like it to do.

Suffice it to say: I made a game to help me run games the way I already intuitively run them. It hasn't got a lot of numbers, there's a huge value placed on fictional positioning, and I think it works pretty well. I'll be sharing the different systems that make it tick in a series of blogposts over the next bit.

This first post will be explaining the core resolution mechanic of the game. Throughout this series I'll be commenting on the mechanics in italics, offering some insight into why I made certain choices, and giving examples where necessary. 

So finally, without further ado, here's a thing I made. If you have a weird poet brain like me but you don't want to play storygames, you might like it. If you aren't in that camp, I hope you like it anyway, or if you don't, that you aren't too to mean to me in the comments.

Whenever a roll is called for, roll 2d6. If what you are doing is relevant to your characters Training, add the Rank of the relevant training.  If you are making use of a Motif, add the Rank of the relevant Motif. If you roll 10 or higher, you succeed.

As you'll see later on, Training and Motif ranks don't scale very high: 3 is the max for training, 4 the max for a Motif, and you don't always get to use a Motif. Point being, rolling generally sucks and the odds usually aren't in your favor. Both of those things will be covered in the coming character creation post, but for now just know that Training is essentially a characters profession, and that Motifs are signature items a character can use to gain an advantage.

Resolving Actions
Declare your characters Intent: what they want to do. Intents should be relatively discrete actions: "Sneak past the guards and infiltrate the castle" is not an Intent, but "Sneak to the next pillar over" is. Intents also must be reasonable given the fictional positioning, but this should be a given if you are familiar with roleplaying games. GM takes your character’s Traits, the circumstances, as well as the difficulty of your Intent into consideration. Your character’s Traits determine their capabilities. 

If a task is reasonably within your characters capabilities, you succeed at it automatically.

You may choose to roll to gain an additional advantage, performing an action more quickly, quietly, to greater advantage, etc.  Specify what advantage you want to gain and roll. If you succeed the roll, you accomplish your task with the specified advantage. If you fail the roll, you fail the task.

If a task is just barely within your character’s capabilities, follow the procedure above, but you must roll to succeed at your task at all. If you succeed the roll, you accomplish your task and may choose to make additional rolls as usual. If you fail, you fail the task.

Traits replace ability scores in this game. They have no rank or number associated with them. They're just descriptive words like "Athletic" "Hulking" "Nimble" "Clumsy" or "Fragile" that help the GM to determine if you need to roll to see if you succeed or not. Like Training and Motifs, Traits will be covered when I do the character creation post.

It's worth noting that the "only roll if your characters Intent is just barely within your characters capabilities" is not just the usual "only roll if the outcome is in doubt" rule. In this game, you should only be rolling if your character is attempting something at the very edge of their ability.

Avoiding Danger
If danger threatens your character, the GM will tell you, and inform you of what its effects will be. 

You can choose to avoid part of the danger and suffer the rest, offering a compromise. This compromise should be about half as bad as the danger you would have suffered. Compromises are also governed by fictional positioning: they must be something you could feasibly do to mitigate the danger. Thus, if  you're in a more advantageous position, you may leverage that to obtain a more favorable compromise. Taking a compromise represents your character playing it safe, choosing to sacrifice in return for guaranteed results rather than throwing a hail mary or trying some risky gambit.

Or you may choose to roll, avoiding all of the danger if you succeed, and suffering all of the danger if you fail. 

So right here is where you're either on board or you're not. "The compromise should be half as bad as the danger? That's incredibly nonspecific and there's no numbers! How are we supposed to keep things fair?" Well, true, there's no numbers. But it's not nonspecific. Rather, it just requires everyone at the table to have a concrete, shared understanding of what's going on in the game world. If there's an avalanche, and the GM tells you "a boulder's hurtling towards your head, if it hits you, you're toast," nobody should be confused about the stakes, and therefore you should be able to offer a compromise: in this case, something your character can do to mitigate the harm they would have suffered. Maybe they throw themselves to the side, not wanting to risk too much movement on the sheer cliff face, but still wanting to avoid the boulder. Their leg gets smashed by the rock, but they're still alive.

The real secret sauce here though is that by forcing the players to offer compromises to the GM, the players actually get to use their characters capabilities (and the position that they're in) to try to get an outcome that seems fair to them. Of course, the GM is the final arbitrator if the compromise passes muster or not, but if they're being dicksish and trying to get away with minimal suffering, A: stop playing with them, and B: just make them roll to see if they avoid the danger or not.

Finally, the astute among you (which is all of you, let's be honest), may have realized that this really trends towards making danger extreme or absolute. Yes, it does. This is a game that encourages the GM to say "if the trap hits you, it'll sever your arm" rather than abstracting the potential threat of the trap to a damage die. If you don't like to run games like that, this probably won't be your cup of tea. However, I'll point out that dealing in extremes doesn't necessarily mean this game is a splatterfest, either. The fact that the players have the ability to mitigate the danger simply by compromising means that the lethality of system is relatively low (okay, well, it's high by modern ttrpg standards, but low by OSR standards). The last thing I'll say in favor of the combination of having primarily extreme outcomes and laying the outcomes on the table is that it makes for remarkably tense situations. When the players know that if they screw up they're toast, and they know exactly how toasty they'll be, they're far more likely to do ridiculous stuff to avoid failure, and they don't feel like they've been tricked if they do fail.

Danger During Actions
If danger threatens your character while they are performing an action and you choose to compromise, you may choose to suffer the full effects of the danger, but complete your Intent.

In addition, if you roll during your action and fail, you both fail your task and suffer the danger. This means if you didn't have to roll to accomplish your Intent, but you chose to roll to avoid danger and failed, you fail your Intent as well.  

This adds in the final moving part to the pretty simple "can my character do this without rolling or do they have to roll" dichotomy. The majority of the time, you'll be in situations where your characters Intent is well within their capabilities, but there's still danger associated with your course of action. This in my playtest experience has made play a lot more dynamic than it otherwise might be. Instead of "I dash to the pillar. End Turn" "The beholder fires his disintegration beam at you... miss. End Turn" you get "I dash to the pillar." "Okay, the beholder's firing his disintegration beam at you while you do that, do you want to roll or compromise? If you take the hit full on you'll be dust" "Ah, crap. Well, I compromise, I'll raise my arm to block the beam from touching my body. My arm will be dust, but I'll make behind the pillar, right?" "Seems fair, alright"

Effects of Danger 
If the GM needs inspiration or a guideline for the effects a danger could have on a player, roll a 1d6
  1. roll twice and combine
  2. something negative and harmful happens to the player
  3. negative and non harmful happens to the player
  4. the player loses something 
  5. situation gets worse, the player is struggling
  6. situation is going to get worse 

This table isn't really necessary, but it's been really helpful for me in brain-fart situations and to avoid repetition in negative outcomes. Maybe it'll be helpful to someone else too. 

So that's all for right now. Next time we'll be going over combat, and then finally character creation. I realize I dropped the terms "Training" "Motifs" and "Traits" on you and didn't flesh them out, but I didn't want to pack too much weirdness into one post. If you really can't wait to use this system for some reason, just know that Training is a characters skillset at starts at rank 1, and that Motifs are items that give characters bonuses. Each character gets 3, one at rank 4, one at rank 3, and one at rank 2. Traits are just words that describe your characters capabilities. Each character should have about 6. All this will be explained more in depth but for now, thanks for reading and I hope you found this diverting at least. If you have any questions or criticisms (or god forbid, praise) drop it in the comments, and look for the next post in a couple of days!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Deleted and re-added my comments because the formatting went a bit funny. Anyway...

    I like your post. For several reasons. First, it explains things well and a uses a lot of more modern gaming nomenclature in a way my older school brain finds easier to understand. Like properly explaining ‘fiction first’, at least in terms of what you mean by it and the effect it has on the game and the play of the game.

    Second, I’ve seen a lot of what you suggest mentioned in various places, but typically not as well explained, or only bits and pieces aimed at a particular context, often more story gaming sorts of things. I’ve often thought ‘that isn’t just useful in (insert trendy gaming context here), it can be (and has been) used in old school games too’. I like the way you pull these ideas together and explain them clearly and concisely in what to me is an older school framework. I think a lot of what you’re suggesting is perfectly valid for many games, to be honest.

    I played games with people in the mid 80s and 90s who preferred games to use more descriptive terms, not numbers (they hated abstact hit points), and to have rolls determine specific results as a result of an action. Many of these people had moved on from DnD-like games to Call of Cthulhu. They used the rules to generate characters and then pretty much ignored them. They mostly handled the gameplay in what is now being described as more arnesonian type ways: hardly ever a dice roll, and only very simple dice rolls at that, for extreme situations. As in your example - if you trigger this trap it will sever your arm. I was more an old school numbers man at the time, so while I enjoyed many of those games, the style didn’t particularly ‘stick’ - then. Or so I thought: it did make me start to roll dice less: mundane things, or things clearly within a character’s level of skill became things I just let happen rather than a mostly pointless dice roll. These days my style of play and running is more like what you describe. Much less actual dice rolling, for a start. More use of a descriptive terminology.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  3. ...have been perusing your blog, again. Found three other posts that particularly inspired. You could run a semi-arthurian fey tinged game based off these posts: certainly it would have a more old style fairy tale flavour, and not the cutesy style fairy tales at that. Using the fiction first sorts of ideas you’re presenting I think it could be a quite fantastic experience and quite appropriate.

  4. Sorry, man—it’s brilliant. 🤩

    More specifically, the whole “These are the stakes, do you roll or compromise” is subtle, capable of great nuance, and a great way to marry diagesis to the mostly-arbitrary brutality of HPs.

    Can’t wait for the next posts!

  5. Have you ever read Swords Without Master?

    In a weird way, it accomplishes little of what you are trying to do.

    1. I love swords without master! It's one of the only storygames I really enjoy, and a big inspiration for this sytem.

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  7. Deleted my last comment before I realized I could've just edited it. I misunderstood something in the danger rolls.

    My personal bias is to avoid rolling, but rolling dice can sometimes be fun. I make it clear to my players that they should avoid rolling dice because it always implies risk, but those moments are sometimes climactic and fun in their own way.

    Anyways, how would you break down different characters aptitudes to avoid certain harm? Like one character might be more resistant to charms, while another has a good immune system?


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