[In the Lab] Rulers - System Overview

Couldn't sleep this morning, so I decided to make good use of my time by writing up this system overview for Rulers, inspired in part by Rob Donoghue's commentary on the previous post.

System Inspiration
Split Decision's rich rolling, RISK for the Rule Duel mechanic, RISK: Legacy and Unknown Armies in the endgame, the storytelling elements of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple without the writing, and a bit of Aeon Flux and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village in the setting.

The Crown keeps tight control over a modern kingdom. The kingdom is the only stable area within a surreal land called the DMZ. The kingdom's citizens are divided into the twelve castes to maintain order. Despite this, a random group of citizens possess a telepathic power: They can create and impose rules on the people around them. This power is called Ruling, and the Crown is the most powerful Ruler of all.

Each year, the Crown hosts a televised event called Rulers in the DMZ. The Crown exiles a handful of rulers to the Demilitarized Zone outside the kingdom's borders. Each episode highlights their deeds and obstacles in the DMZ. At the end of the series, one exile wins the grand prize:

The winner decides a new set of Rules for the Crown to impose on the kingdom.

How to Play
Each player needs, a pencil and paper to record your character's details.

The group shares a separate sheet of paper to record ongoing game information.

The group shares three six-sided dice, one red, one black and one blue. It's handy if you have more than one set for the whole group.

Each player needs a Ruler character to play.

First, roll your three dice. You'll refer to these results in the following steps.

I'm Sector _______ and I'm a Ruler.
Add together the highest and lowest results and write that number in the space above. If your number matches another player's, increase it by one. Continue increasing it until you have a unique number. This number is how your character will be referred to throughout the series.

The kingdom is divided into twelve sectors, numbered from 1-12. Sectors represent strict levels of access an individual may have to resources and liberties. Only the Crown is Sector 1, meaning the Crown has access to the entire kingdom and may rule it as the Crown wishes. Each subsequent sector has less access, all the way down to lowly 12s who are often desperate, malnourished or convicted of serious crimes against the Crown. In other words, it's a caste system.

I must __________. I must __________. I must not __________.
Choose one result for each space. In each space, complete the sentence with that many words.

Each of these statements is a personal code. A Ruler's special powers come from intense commitment to three particular codes: Three things your character must or must not do. It is important that these be broadly applied and concise worded, otherwise the code has no power.

Codes come in all varieties, but generally break down into three groups. Codes of conduct are the most common, meaning a basic restriction on personal behavior. (I must heal any higher sector. I must assist all children in distress. I must not love.) There are also codes of access, meaning a restriction on personal liberty. (I must only eat meat. I must not look at women. I must not enter a place uninvited.) Lastly, there are codes of gospel, meaning a compulsion to teach or learn a particular subject. (I must teach compassion. I must learn sword fighting. I must reach inner peace.)

The Crown approves me because _______. [Crown Approval ___]
Choose one or two results. If two, add the results together. Complete the sentence with that many words.

During play, your Ruler will try to curry favor with the Crown by doing things he or she believes the Crown will like. The Crown's favor will be very helpful in the long-run, as this determines how long your prize may be at the end of the series.

The public supports me because _______. [Public Support ____]
Add together the result(s) you did not choose in step 4. Complete the sentence with that many words.

During play, your Ruler will also curry favor with the people of the kingdom, hoping to gain public support. This support is ultimately what determines who will win the series, so it's important to play to the crowd.

Choose an episode synopsis to decide what this episode will be about. Each episode focuses on a test for the entire group, with three obstacles that get in the way. Your character will try to pass the test, curry favor with the Crown and the people, and all without breaking code.

Tonight, on Rulers in the DMZ...
The Rulers return a group of lost citizens to the Kingdom.
Act 1 Obstacle: The citizens are criminals who don't want to return.
Act 2 Obstacle: They're being protected by automated security systems.
Act 3 Obstacle: The leader of the group is related to one of the Rulers.

The Rulers expand the Kingdom's influence deeper into the DMZ.
Act 1 Obstacle: Invisible predators stalk the jungle.
Act 2 Obstacle: Ancient ruins reveal a dark secret about one of the Rulers.
Act 3 Obstacle: Power corrupts one of the Rulers.

The Rulers befriend a local village.
Act 1 Obstacle: The villagers speak a language that causes madness.
Act 2 Obstacle: The village's well water is poisoned.
Act 3 Obstacle: A rival village lays siege.

[This is just a short list as an example.]

Turn Order: Each episode lasts three acts. Each act lasts however many turns it takes for one player to overcome the obstacle in that act. Each player gets one turn, starting with the lowest Sector number and continuing sequentially.

Countdown Clock: Each act has a countdown clock noting the time remaining for Rulers to overcome the obstacle. In a three-player game, the countdown clock is set at 10. In a four-player game, the countdown clock is set at 13. In a five-player game, the countdown clock is set at 16.

State what your Ruler does to overcome this act's obstacle, with some constraints based on the following steps:

Roll the three dice. Add together two of the results and set aside the third. The two results added together will be either equal to, less than, or greater than your sector number.

  • If less, your Ruler attempts to overcome the obstacle but makes negligible progress. On the bright side, the people take pity on you and send you a Gift. Gifts can take many forms – food, weapons, knowledge – but they all behave the same way in play. You may spend gifts to lower your Sector for one turn. After spending a gift, it cannot be spent in this way again.
  • If equal or greater, your Ruler attempts to overcome the obstacle and makes some progress. Remove your highest result from the Countdown Clock. If the Countdown Clock runs out, your Ruler successfully overcomes the obstacle. Refer to "End of the Act" for more information.
  • If you set aside a blue die, your Ruler gains that much Public Support points OR Crown Approval points. Record this number on your sheet. Refer to "End of the Episode" and "Series Finale" for more information about what these mean in the long run.
  • If you set aside a black die, your Ruler must break a code. Cross off the code he or she has broken.
  • If you set aside a red die, your Ruler may impose a new Rule on all characters for the rest of this Act or until someone breaks that Rule. A Rule affects all applicable characters. Your character may dissolve his or her own Rule at any time. Your Ruler may only impose one Rule at a time. Refer to "Laws of Ruling" for more information on writing Rules. Refer to "Rule Duel" for more information on how to break another player's rule.

On your turn, before you write what your character does, you might wish to break a Rule. If so, your Ruler and the other player's Ruler both engage in a kind of telepathic willpower contest. It doesn't matter how far apart they are from each other, a duel can span any distance. On-screen, the televised broadcast shows the duelists' rising heart rates, dripping sweat and bulging forehead veins. Here's how to duel:

If you are trying to break the Rule, you are the Breaker. If you are trying to maintain the Rule, you are the Defender. Each player gathers one die for each of their own unbroken codes, up to a maximum of three dice. Each player rolls one die at a time.

  • If the Breaker gets an equal or higher result than the Defender, the Defender loses one die.
  • If the Defender gets a higher result than the Breaker, the Breaker loses one die.

The Duel is over when one player has no dice remaining. The player with dice remaining wins.

  • If the Defender wins, you may not write an action that would contradict the Rule. The Defender gains his last die result in Crown Approval points.
  • If you win, that Rule is vetoed. That Rule may never be imposed again for the rest of the series. The Defender gains his last die result in Public Support points.

After a turn in which the Countdown Clock runs out, the Act is over. Any Rules imposed during this act are no longer in effect. The first act is always relatively minor in scope, the second act raises the stakes, and the third act is the climax.

After three acts, the episode is over. All players may replace broken codes with new codes. The player with the most Crown Approval lowers his or her Ruler's Sector by one, to a minimum of two. The player with the least public approval raises his Sector by one, to a maximum of twelve. Public Support and Crown Approval both reset to zero. If this is the last episode, proceed to Series finale.

The Crown awards the grand prize to the ruler with the most Public Support. The winner may write a new set of Rules for the entire kingdom, using as many words as she has Crown Approval points. The other Rulers return to the kingdom, now all bestowed with the rank of Sector 2.

In the Series Finale, it is possible for Rulers to attain Sector One or Sector Thirteen. If a Ruler reaches Sector Thirteen, she is exiled forever from the kingdom. If a Ruler reaches Sector One, she ascends to the Crown with either the support of the preceding Crown or of the Public, depending on whichever category in which she has the most points.


  1. This looks like a hell of a lot of fun. I especially like the Rules constraints on the characters. It seems like those would really drive play forward. I look forward to seeing further developments.

  2. I'll polish this up at some point into a proper document. It's scattered across like ten blog posts. :P

  3. Even so, this overview has enough meat on it that I think a session could be run from it with a little work. It's a really neat idea, and it's well-executed here.

  4. If you do, I'm eager to hear your report. :)

  5. Is that a playtest volunteer I hear? :)

  6. I might be able to my indiegaming group or my friends to trying it...

  7. Cool! Ping me if you do. :)


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