The Four Structures

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 behaviours are encouraged by the combination of system, setting and situation?

8.       What is are implications, morally or politically, of those behaviours?

Design Geology

Every game comes from somewhere; from personal experience, to intellectual puzzles, to something inbetween.  Each designer is naturally faced with a question of which element to use as the foundation for their games. This blog post explores three different approaches, with the strengths and weaknesses I have seen in them.  These approaches are:

Stalagmite Design: Concentrating on mechanics first.

Stalactite Design: Concentrating on themes first.

Pillar Design: Concentrating specifically on the interaction of mechanics and theme.


Bottom-up, concentrating on mechanics

Mechanics are the foundation of gameplay. Games are, defined by the presence of rules and procedures that guide play. These could be as simple as deciding who gets to speak next, or as complex as a tactical conflict matrix. These mechanical elements inform that actual activities at the gaming table; what to write down, what to say, when to roll dice, or when to play cards. The stalagmite design concentrates on determining how we act, and when we act during play.

Stalagmite game designs are established with an intentional focus on specific mechanics of play. The entire experience of play is fundamentally driven by those systems. This is typically done by concentrating on a resolution mechanism, but other forms of system design can also qualify in this category. Some excellent examples of Stalagmite designs include…

Burning Wheel, with the life path system, volley-based expanded conflict systems, and the well-crafted Artha cycle.

Microscope, with a robust procedure for generating a timeline collaboratively, and detailed procedures to reinforce equal collaboration at the table.

Stalagmite design is a strong at producing verifiable and repeatable play experience at the table. The focus on core activities of play means that there is a great deal of attention spent on the various decisions made by participants, which can make for a robust and consistent game design. It can produce groundbreaking designs that move the craft forward, and support a wide variety of settings.

Stalagmite design has dangers associated with it. I have found that many of these games have a tendency of having fragile themes during play, that can fall flat and feel more like a board-game than an immersive roleplaying experience. The concentration on activities during play means that there is often a reliance on a few individuals to interpret/describe events so that a coherent story emerges from the gameplay activities.



Top-down, concentrating on themes

Roleplaying games are defined by the narratives they produce. These themes inform the assumptions, the politics, and the values of the creators. Strong games are also artistic statements that communicate ideas through play. These could be done through a focus on certain perspectives, constraints on communication, or on specific settings. The Stalactite design concentrates on who acts, where we act, and why we act in play.

Stalactite game designs are established with an intentional focus on themes and messages. The entire experience of play is designed to reinforce the narrative, and to shape the fiction into reinforcing the themes. This is typically done through establishing strong characters, complex relationships, and a rich setting. Some excellent examples of Stalactite design include…

Montsegeur 1244, a game about Cathars under siege who choose to renounce their faith or burn at the stake. This has pregenerated characters, a premade relationship map, and no random factors. The game is intensely focussed on themes of faith, love, and martyrdom.

Posthuman Pathways, my own game about transhumanism, transformation and sacrifice. The entire system is predicated on the fact that players are constantly faced with hard choices and are obliged to sacrifice something important on the wheel of progress.  

Stalactite design is strong at producing emotionally compelling and memorable play experiences at the table. The focus on ideas and themes tends to make for a very dramatic narrative, with compelling character dynamics. It can be an excellent tool for making political statements or discussing sensitive subject matter.

The dangers associated with Stalactite design is that it can be very dependent on the players. Everyone in the game needs to have robust improvisational skills, because the mechanics of play tend to be minimal. Participants also have to all be on the same thematic page, as any disconnect can ruin the experience for the group. These games also tend to be short-lived, burning brightly for a single session and fading afterwards.



Middle-out, concentrating on situations

Stalagmite design starts with the mechanics. Stalactite starts with theme. Pillar design is the third path, where the designer intentionally chooses both a core mechanic and a core theme that interact in a specific way. Pillar design is a way of concentrating on the specific situations that you want to encourage with your design. It’s a compromise solution in many ways, neither as thematically driven, nor as mechanically developed compared to the other options.

Pillar game designs are difficult to craft, because of the difficulty in pairing the two disparate elements. In order for a pillar game to be successful, it needs a core mechanic that is engaging that is either reinforcing or intentionally contrasting the theme. A successful pillar game might be a game about the price of violence, where the strongest tools are violent ones. It might instead be a game that gives tools for resolving conflicts in other ways, and rewards those who abstain from violent options.

Some excellent examples of Pillar designs include…

Headspace, a game about technology (normally portrayed as a dehumanizing force) and teamwork (which requires humanity). The game mechanics centre on a piece of technology, known as the Headspace implant that allows people to share skills. When skills are shared, you also share emotional baggage along for ride. If focusses on emotional consequences as characters work together, and learn about each other’s dark pasts.

Red Markets, is a game about capitalism and zombies. It’s a game where you have to keep careful track of your equipment and maintenance costs as the fundamental experience of play. The only way that you can manage those costs are by spending money, which can only be earned by risking your lives by facing the undead hordes. It’s a game about poverty, and the no-win situations it causes. It’s also currently on kickstarter!

Dread may be the strongest of all of the examples of pillar design. It’s a horror game that uses a Jenga tower as the core mechanic. The physical tower provides a strong sense of suspense and anxiety, underpinning the intentional themes of the game.

Pillar design is good at producing games with a memorable experience. They are relatively unique and focused. They are often quite difficult to design, and are relatively rare. It’s an area of design that I believe warrants further exploration, and it is driving my new design work.


I would welcome your thoughts on this article, and the lens through which I am viewing design. Are there any hidden strengths for any of the approaches that I have neglected to mention? Are there downsides not yet identified? My comments are open.