Every failure has made me a better designer. Seeing the fail states if games, either in playtesting or after publication, has shown me a dozen different areas where I can hone my craft. Recently I decided to step back and look at the broader patterns which highlighted four different core design structures that need to be carefully tended in order to produce a compelling outcomes.
Every game can be viewed as a combination of four distinct structures, and the balance of effort among these areas will vary greatly depending on the nature of the project. How you combine these elements is an important decision for any designer and it’s worth your attention. Two of these structures (System and Setting) are well trod territory, but I rarely see mention other two (Situation and Subtext) and wanted to share my framework more broadly.
System consists of the rules and procedures of play. This is all about how you play the game, and how the person at the table will interact with the fiction you create. Rules mechanics and resolution systems all fall into this structure. A weak system tends to result in a game experience that depends on the personal competences of the participants in order to create a compelling play experience. The expression of a game “so good that we never touched the dice” dice stems from weak systems.
Setting consists of the fictional context for play. A setting can be as broad as a galaxy, or as small as a tiny pub where everyone knows your name. Setting often represents and existing genre of fiction, but there is plenty of room for innovation in this realm. A weak setting feels bland and generic. There is no flavour to play, and the narrative is shallow. Indistinct character personalities and lack of immersion into your roles are symptoms of weak settings.
Situation consist of the inciting incidents and the purpose of play. This is all about why you are playing the game, why your characters matter in the setting, and why the system will help them shape the narrative. A weak situation feels aimless and undirected. The participants have no strong direction or guidance in how they should be acting or what they should be doing. If the players are purely reactive to the GM’s plot or the fiction feels “on the rails” it’s a sign that the situation isn’t giving motivation.
Subtext consists of the deeper meaning and symbols associated with the game. Every game is a reflection of the real world in some way, and the subtext is all about intentionally crafting the messages and politics encoded in play. A weak subtext feels unintentional or unimportant. The participants are driven to achieve their practical goals, but those goals don’t align with the player’s personalities or passions. If a game that feels uncomfortable to play, or seems to accidentally perpetuate harmful philosophies, it might be a sign that the subtext is unintentional in nature.
An example in action. My first game was titled the Spark Roleplaying Game and it was a mixed bag. The system was fairly robust and moderately well implemented in hindsight. It didn’t have a single cohesive setting, but did give some amazing tools for creating your own settings at the table as a group. The lack of a singular setting led to very weak situations and only allowed for the simplest of subtext. The game had all of the basic functionality necessary to play, but that game itself wasn’t compelling enough to stand out from the crowd.
The 8 Structural Questions.
Consider answering these questions to explore how these different structures fit into your own game projects.
1. What does your system encourage players to do at the table?
2. What is the most important mechanic, rule or procedure in the system, and why is it key?
3. What about your setting is mundane, relatable and human?
4. What about your setting is wondrous, fantastic, and exciting?
5. What is the situation that encourages the players to interact with each other in play?
6. What is the situation that encourages the players to interact with the setting in interesting ways?
7. What kinds of player behaviors are encouraged by the combination of system, setting and situation? ]
8. What is are implications, morally or politically, of those behaviors?