Dev Notes 21 - Constraint and Choice in Roleplaying Games (Part 2)

In the last Dev Note, I talked at moderate length about four different kinds of constraint that can be experienced in roleplaying games in a variety of ways. I also discussed some of the implications for each of them in terms of play experience. In this note, I want to examine how designers can address each of these constraints with intentionality and conscious choice to make the game that most fits the play experience they want to craft. I am going to show this through the lens of a game I am currently designing.

This week, we are in the middle of Game Chef 2015, an annual game design contest in which participants are given a theme and four ingredients, and they then have nine days (and less than 4000 words) to design a working game. As you might guess from my previous assertion that “constraint breeds creativity,” I love the constraints that this contest applies, and I was eager to try out my skills this year. It has also served as a perfect design space for testing out my constraint theory with a new game that I am starting from scratch.

Before I begin my breakdown, I really do urge you (if you haven’t done so already) to read the previous Dev Note. The rest of this article will make little sense without that context.

Game Chef 2015

So this year, the ingredients were stillness, dream, dragonfly, and abandon. I have managed to include all of those ingredients (more or less) in my entry, but the key to the design was definitely the theme. This year’s theme is “A Different Audience,” which very quickly led me to thoughts about not just addressing my design to people who wouldn’t normally consider roleplaying games, but because of that also changing the very purpose of roleplaying. Rather than another game that is simply entertaining or even thought-provoking, I wanted to make a game that could be healing.

What I have created is a short game called To Be Remembered, and it is a guided imaginative roleplaying exercise specifically designed for people who are hospice patients or otherwise terminally ill. It is intended to facilitate the kinds of interactions that dying people often need for closure, resolution, and peace. It even raises the possibility for some moments of shared joy.

With this goal, I was obviously trying to develop a very clearly defined player experience. This is not a time for people to try out different games and see if they like them - the game needs to work the first time. So the constraints become important for making that happen. Here’s how I addressed each of the constraints in my design:


Narrative Constraint

To Be Remembered has a very broad narrative constraint. Almost no story elements are pre-defined, because the focus is on the interests and life experiences of the patient (or “player,” as we will refer to them from here on out). This is not a game where we are exploring a previously created setting. The player is at the center of the game, and they need to have the freedom to explore whatever they want to imagine.


Tonal Constraint

This is a slightly tricky one. On the one hand, grieving and coping produce a very wide range of emotions, and all of them are valid. I did not want to prevent anyone from expressing whatever authentic feelings are generated from this experience, and in fact I included a rule specifically stating this. However, there needed to be some safeguards to make sure the game is valuable and productive for the player. For this reason, the game is organized into different types of “scenes” - Love, Forgiveness, and Remembrance - and each of these has its own tonal constraints to make sure that the scene stays on track and is resolved effectively.


Mechanical Constraint

This game is designed to be run by friends, family members, and care workers, many of whom will not have experienced anything like this before, and most of whom will be under a substantial amount of personal stress. For that reason, the rules need to be very clear and simple. Even a limited number of mechanical options could overwhelm and frustrate someone trying to run this game in those circumstances.

To Be Remembered is designed as a single-player, multi-GM story game. The roles are clearly defined, and scripts and questions are even provided to aid those who are struggling to come up with ideas. There is no conflict resolution, because there is explicitly no conflict. There is no randomization because everything is centered on what the player wants to imagine and experience. In several cases, the GMs (“guides” in the game) are even told to specifically tell the player, “Anything you try will succeed.” This is an extremely narrow mechanical constraint.


Structural Constraint

Most of the mechanics of To Be Remembered are wrapped up in the scripting that guides the flow of the scenes. There are strong structural constraints for framing the scenes - in order to aid with imagination and the creation of the magic circle - but weaker structural constraints within the scenes. Once the scene is established, it can and should be a free-flowing conversation, with the guides relying on their roles to help them figure out what to do next.


As you can see, making a conscious choice in each of these areas helps me to craft the play experience more carefully, which is absolutely essential with such a delicate project. But these considerations also appear in any game design, whether intentionally or not. However, the more intentional we can be as designers, the more effective our designs.

I hope this has raised some interesting thoughts about design. As usual, feel free to offer comments or questions wherever you saw this article posted.

-Fairman Rogers