The Alexandrian

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Consider, for a moment, the explicit game structure presented in the original Traveller.

(1)   Create a subsector. For this, the game gives guidelines for creating a starmap; populating that starmap with planets; determining the population, law level, and technological level of those planets; determining travel zones and trade routes; and so forth.

(2)   Own a starship. The game offers several options by which the PCs can own, lease, or otherwise operate a starship.

(3)   Interstellar movement. Providing mechanics for determining how far and how fast PCs can move between planetary systems.

(4)   Trade and revenue. Finally, explicit guidelines on how revenue can be earned by carrying cargo, passengers, and the like.

When you boil it down, this is Firefly: The Roleplaying Game.

Firefly as Marc Miller's Traveller

But what this scenario structure notably lacks is any support for play below the interplanetary level. Traveller recognizes this lack and works to patch the hole with the concept of the Patron:

The key to adventure in Traveller is the patron. When a band of adventurers meets an appropriate patron, they have a person who can give them direction in their activities, and who can reward them for success. The patron is the single most important NPC there can be. (Book 3: Worlds and Adventure)

Basically, the patron serves as a default method for delivering adventure seeds to the PCs. And Traveller integrates the patron into its larger game structure by triggering patrons through its random encounter system. (So, basically, every time the PCs fly into a starport there’s a chance they’ll be contacted by someone with a special job.)

Of course, this still leaves the vast gulf of what the game structure for the actual mission itself is. But it’s not as if Traveller is alone in having such gaps in its scenario structure. In fact, virtually all RPGs have such gaps. (And, at a micro-level, virtually all RPG mechanics constitute incomplete game structures, as our example of the Duchess of Canterlocke demonstrated.)


I’ve long maintained that RPGs naturally gravitate towards their mechanics. For example, when I added counter-intelligence mechanics to D&D, counter-intelligence suddenly became a significant part of my campaign. When I added usable encumbrance mechanics to my OD&D campaign, encumbrance-based gameplay immediately followed.

What’s even more true, however, is that RPG gameplay naturally gravitates towards structure. Because they’re open-ended, of course, RPGs are not bound to their structure (like a boardgame is) and good game structures in RPGs won’t act as straitjackets, but clear game structures nevertheless attract players and GMs alike.

Or, to put it another way: If you’re in a dungeon, at some point you’re almost certainly going to start dungeoncrawling.

An interesting corollary of this is that mechanics which aren’t (a) required by a well-defined game structure or (b) enhancing a well-defined game structure are often ignored.

As a result of this corollary, you’ll often find popular game systems ringed with a large number of rules which nobody uses. Many of these rules seem to accumulate from a vestigial urge for simulationism.

This is particularly true with specialized supplements. For example, the D20 market is crammed full with supplements that aimed to provide the “Definitive Guide to Ships”. The little simulationist urge says: “There are ships in fantasyland. So we must need rules for ships.”

But once you have them, what do you do with them?

A typical seafaring supplement, for example, usually included all kinds of rules for varying the speed at which a group traveled: The ship they’re using, wind speed, crew experience, navigation checks, weather conditions, tidal drifts, and so forth. But unless you’re using a scenario structure in which travel time matters – and in a modern era of railroaded scenarios, it generally doesn’t – all of these rules are pretty much irrelevant. Oh, having some guidelines for how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B is nice, but anything involving a lot of calculation which varies from one day to the next is basically useless chaff.

That’s how you get books full of feats that nobody takes, spells that are rarely cast, rules for ramming that nobody bothers with, and so forth. Without a supporting scenario structure, this stuff just flounders: It occasionally gets toyed with, but it rarely gets used.

But imagine for a moment that someone took the time to design a fully-integrated scenario structure for sea-based play that, for example, made playing a pirate or a privateer just as much fun as dungeoncrawling or solving mysteries. You could build entire campaigns around this structure, or just slot it in as appropriate. Maybe you could even go ahead and publish a full campaign that people can just pick up and play. Suddenly all those rules for handling crew morale and ship-to-ship combat are being used.

And if your new scenario structure were really successful, suddenly you’d have opened up a whole new market for support products.


The “gravitational effects” of clearly defined game structures may also help to explain why even partial scenario structures have often proved monstrously successful in the RPG industry.

For example, consider Shadowrun and Paranoia. Neither game features a comprehensive scenario structure, but they both have default methods for delivering scenario hooks which also tend to lend a common shape to their scenario concepts. And you can see evidence for the efficacy of these techniques in the number of “traitorous Mr. Johnson” stories you see from Shadowrun and the number of “briefing room horror stories” you see from Paranoia.

In fact, even partial scenario structures seem to be very effective at providing a commonality of experience which can draw a player base together into more meaningful communities. (This is particularly true for default scenario hooks.) Such communities provide a strong network effect which further strengthens the game.

This commonality of experience also makes it possible to produce supplements which target that common ground. 76 Patrons for Traveller or Mr. Johnson’s Little Black Book for Shadowrun are obvious examples given the context of our current discussion, but it’s particularly true when it comes to adventure modules: You can trivially produce an adventure module for D&D which could theoretically be plugged into 90% or more of the current campaigns being run in the system. On the other hand, it would be essentially impossible to produce a Heavy Gear module for which that would be true.

Of course, having a viable market for those kinds of adventure products makes it easier for a publisher to produce adventure products. And having adventure products available makes it easier for new GMs to start playing the game. Which further enhances the network externality of the game.

Go to Part 11: Complete Game Structures

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10 Responses to “Game Structures – Part 10: Incomplete Game Structures”

  1. Quirky DM says:

    This echoes my own experiences. I once tried to run a campaign where the characters were acts in a freak show travelling circus using D&D rules. I couldn’t get my head into the game properly because there was no structure to make the game feel like a circus environment. It was still a dungeon crawl where we use wagons and tents as the home village instead of an actual village. Without the underlying structure to emphasize the circus elements, there was very little theme to the game and it felt flat to me.

    You have an ability to analyze these structures and express them amazingly well. I’m enjoying this series.

  2. Noumenon says:

    Yeah, this is really good. Mass combat is another thing where people make up rules, but my game structure never leads to mass combat.

  3. Auroch says:

    Quirky DM: Was that a high-level gestalt game run on Giantitp’s forums? I remember doing character creation for an Interplanar Circus of Crime campaign that petered out quickly.

  4. jdh417 says:

    “You can trivially produce an adventure module for D&D which could theoretically be plugged into 90% or more of the current campaigns being run in the system.”

    D&D’s very open ended nature, along with a lack of standardized setting and completely generic characters produces an interesting conumdrum. Lacking a specific background, you can make up just about anything for a setting. But this also forces published adventures made for D&D to be as generic as possible so as to fit into anybody’s campaign. With this sort of inspirational material and because nothing is specified in the core rules, home made settings tend towards shades of gray and can easily accomodate the published adventures. The typical D&D adventure doesn’t simulate a fantasy story or really anything, any more than Monopoly simulates real estate development. The D&D adventure is it’s own genre. The medium is the message.

  5. Hautamaki says:

    Noumenon, I find mass-combat rules very useful and almost always incorporate mass combat into adventures of 5th level or higher.

    I think the default assumption as characters progress and goblins are no longer a meaningful threat is to simply phase goblins out of your campaign world and replace them with more dangerous monsters. This breaks the verisimilitude for me though; goblins don’t disappear or stop threatening civilizations just because you gained 5 or 6 levels. Rather they just start to attack in greater numbers. Instead of wiping out a small goblin band in a cave, you now have to deal with goblin armies, sometimes led or accompanied by rarer high level more powerful monsters. But what of the thousands of 1st level goblin warriors? I personally enjoy having the PCs, or if I’m a PC, making arrangements for the local militia or duke’s forces to deal with the threat of the army while the PCs rove the battlefield as an elite unit carving a way through the mooks to the heart of the enemy forces to confront the general and his personal bodyguard. This can be a fantastic session-long battle to serve as the climax of a long campaign.

    But without mass-combat rules to guide what happens on the macro-scale, the actions of the PCs feel somewhat trivial; if no matter what they do, the DM is just going to hand-wave them into that final climactic encounter with the enemy general when they are at just the right amount of remaining resources for the battle to be balanced, and the good guy armies are just going to win (or lose) anyways no matter how the PCs choose to contribute, then the whole session long battle is meaningless and gets boring and tiresome very quickly.

    jdh417, I run a home-brew campaign into which I have plugged the Keep on the Borderlands and the Keep on the Shadowfell as well as a few minor one-off adventures and managed to maintain a consistent narrative throughout. The PCs are battling the resurgent forces of chaos and evil and the common theme here is infiltrating cultists attempting to resurrect their dead gods or summon hordes of demons and undead or what-have-you. The overall campaign of the PCs to rally the forces of good and stifle the forces of evil very much has a narrative structure to it that resembles an epic fantasy novel.

  6. Quirky DM says:

    Auroch: No, just me and my friends in face to face. I don’t need to take the blame for more failed campaigns than I’m already responsible for. :)

  7. jdh417 says:


    The resemblance is only superficial and derivative. Which was sort of my point. The generic setting is the default setting and it’s oppressive on creativity. How many epic fantasy novels published have actually been influenced by D&D adventures, more than older fantasy stories, and not the other way around? The snake swallows its tail.

    As long as everyone is having fun, it doesn’t really matter though.

  8. Hautamaki says:

    jdh417 you raise a good point, and in the end you answer your own implicit question.

    What is the goal of the fantasy novelist? To create something new and exciting, to transport readers to a place they’ve never been before.

    What is the goal of the fantasy RPG player? To experience a fantasy setting first hand, and, more importantly perhaps, to turn it into a shared social experience.

    There is a key difference in goals here. For the fantasy player, creating something new is rarely the point; rather the point is to experience something familiar in a new and exciting way. That it is a shared experience contributes greatly to the lack of novelty; shared tropes, shared concepts, shared vocabulary; in other words the usage of pre-existing and well-understood terms is essential to greasing the wheels of the social interactions. An individual fantasy novelist is not only free to, but encouraged to come up with something completely new. The fantasy rpg players stick to what is already well known and understand because to do otherwise risks clogging up the social experience in confusion.

  9. Justin Alexander says:

    jdh417: “But this also forces published adventures made for D&D to be as generic as possible so as to fit into anybody’s campaign.”

    There’s an interesting culture shift that can be dated to around the time of the first edition of AD&D as Gygax started to nail down not just the rule system but the cosmology of the game. In other words, the game gained continuity. And the consequence of that continuity was the same for D&D as it is for any other intellectual property / mythos: Innovation gets heavily replaced with iteration.

    Star Trek or the Marvel Universe serve as good examples of the same phenomenon in other media. Every so often somebody will come along and try to bring the Fantastic Four “back to their roots” as an amazing team of science fiction adventurers. The problem? The Marvel Universe has been explored, categorized, and locked down. You can’t just dive down into the atom or pop over to the dark side of the moon to see what’s there: Chances are, we already know. (Jack Kirby recognized that when he left Marvel in the late ’60s. And the problem has only grown worse since then.)

    In terms of D&D, that means in the late ’70s you could have a series of modules that said: “Ya know what?! There are dark elves living underground! And they worship a spider goddess! And she lives in a robot spider!”

    40 years later, though, we’re still just regurgitating those same dark elves with minor variations.

    I’ve been making a conscious effort with my D&D to “open up the kitchen sink”: I saw something cool while playing Mass Effect yesterday? It’s going in my D&D campaign.

    One of the things I actually loved about 4E when it first came out was the Shadowfell… until I realized it was just a different set of rigid continuity. On a similar note, I drank up the 3E Tome of Magic and Monte Cook’s Chaositech (despite some of their mechanical problems) like a thirsty man in a desert specifically because they tossed new ideas into the D&D kitchen sink.

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