The Alexandrian

Go to Part 1

As a final rumination on the subject of game structures, I want to discuss player-known and player-unknown game structures and the differences between the two in actual play.

Let me demonstrate what I’m talking about by way of example.


In the earliest hexcrawling structures, the players were supposed to be aware of the hexes. Volume 3: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures for OD&D, for example, reads, “When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and as they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex.”

In designing the structure I use for hexcrawling, on the other hand, I specifically eschewed this approach: Although I found the abstraction of the hex map useful in many ways, I didn’t want the players to directly interface with that abstraction. Instead, I wanted them to interact with the game world.

So while I used the abstraction of the hex map for its convenience in mapping and keying, my players had to figure out how to navigate the world purely from the view point of their characters.

The original version of hexcrawling is a player-known game structure: They can see, understand, and even manipulate the game structure that you’re using to represent the game world. Most combat systems are another excellent example of player-known game structures.

My version of hexcrawling is a player-unknown game structure: They perceive only the game world and don’t know exactly what structures you’re using to prep and run that world. Another common example of a player-unknown game structure are random encounters: Did they run into goblins in that hallway because the encounter was keyed there or because the GM rolled a random encounter?


My decision to obfuscate my hexcrawling procedures is not unusual for me. As a GM, I’m generally trying to find simple methods of organizing my prep work so that it can be easily and efficiently referenced and used during play. But I don’t necessarily want my players to see the structure that I use: I want them to see the messy, chaotic world that their characters live in.

The method I refer to a “The Second Track” in Advanced Node-Based Design is an example of this: I organize two distinct and easy-to-manage groups of nodes, but then I mix them together in play to create a more complex reality.

I discussed another example as “Minor Elevation Shifts” as part of the Jaquays Techniques: “When the PCs come to a staircase they may naturally assume that they are going up or down to a new level of the dungeon. But by including minor elevation shifts within the topography of a single dungeon level you can confound their expectations … These techniques aren’t just a matter of confusing the players’ mapping. You are disrupting their ability to intuit the organization of your maps by analyzing the reality of the game world. While maintaining clean and simple maps for your own use and reference, you are creating a world that not only seems more dynamic and complex, but actually is more dynamic and complex.”

More generally, if the players don’t know the structure you’re using then they can’t engage the structure: Instead, they have to propose actions in-character.

See if you can imagine for a moment what combat would be like if the players had no idea what the underlying structure of the game was. I don’t just mean a scenario in which the GM is keeping their hit point totals secret from them: I mean that the players don’t know what rounds are; they don’t know what attack rolls are; they don’t know what hit points are. What effect would that have on how combat is experienced at the game table?

On a similar note, running a new game structure in a player-unknown configuration can be a great method for diagnosing inadequacies, shortcomings, and dissociations in the structure. If you come to your players and say, “Here’s a system for Gee-Whizzing and it has rules for A, B, and C.” Then your players may focus exclusively on the options that have been presented to them.

But if you just come to your players and say, “Let’s do some Gee-Whizzing.” Then your players will be free to propose any action that occurs to them: If they stick to A, B, and C then you’ve done your job well. If they’re proposing D, E, F, and G then you’ve got some holes to fill.

Similarly, if you find that your structure keeps expecting the players to make decisions that they aren’t making (or that they can’t make without being aware of the structure), then that’s a huge tip-off that your structure is dissociated.


This is not to say, however, that player-unknown structures are the be-all and end-all of gaming. On the other end of the spectrum, player-known structures are specifically useful because they allow players to make decisions informed by the game structures in play.

In my hexcrawling structure, for example, players must select their mode of travel: Normal, Hustling, Cautious, or Exploring.

(Normal movement has no modifiers. Hustling increases navigation DCs. Cautious movement is made at ¾ normal speed, navigation DCs are decreased, and the chance for non-exploratory encounters is halved. Finally, while exploring, characters move at ½ normal speed and the chance for encounters is doubled.)

For roughly a dozen sessions or so, I kept this structure hidden from the players: Instead, I applied the appropriate mode of travel based on the actions they proposed. (For example, if they said that they were going to start moving carefully through the woods in order to avoid encountering any of the orc warbands they knew were looking for them, then I would slot them into the “cautious” mode of travel.)

Eventually, however, I concluded that it made more sense to make this a player-known structure: First, because the players were assuming – in the absence of additional information – that these types of decisions were irrelevant in the game structure I was using. (And because of this false intuition of the game structure, they stopped feeding me the cues I was using to assign modes of travel.) Second, because choosing a mode of travel had a significant impact on the efficacy of navigation in the system. (Hiding this structure from them actually made them less competent than their characters.)

You can see a similar principle in the familiar debate of whether or not GMs should tell their players the target number for an action check.  (My opinion is that you should only obfuscate the target number if that obfuscation mirrors a lack of information on the part of the character. Otherwise, providing the DC is the quickest way to overcome the vast difference in bandwidth between the character’s perception of the world around them and the player’s perception of that world. For example, a character standing in front of a chasm can actually see the chasm. The player, on the other hand, is completely dependent on a very narrow band of audio communication from the GM.)

But I digress.

As a final point of consideration in player-known structures, consider the Point of First Contact in that structure. As described in an essay at D-Constructions:

For better or for worse, most RPGs have freeform moments and structured moments, and it’s a really good idea to think about how the latter start. […]

The first die does get a lot of focus in play because it’s the break moment. It’s the moment you start concentrating and reach for your first contact with the rules. So it pops up in your mind and yells “THIS IS IMPORTANT”. To an extent, therefore, it doesn’t matter what your CORE mechanic is because your first gets more attention. […]


It’s worthwhile, therefore, to make sure your first contact IS important to the kind of game you want to run. In Smallville your first die is your value – what you believe in, why you care about this struggle at all. In Marvel it’s what kind of team you’re in – are you the kind of person who performs better in a team, with a buddy, or solo. Right way we have something central to Marvel’s enduring dynamic.


What’s your first point of contact? In every sense?


This has been a very long series of essays. It’s touched on a lot of different subjects (which is perhaps unsurprising, given that the topic is one that lies at the heart of virtually every moment at your gaming table). But if you gain absolutely nothing else from it, I hope you can take away two important points:

First, I think a lot of the linear, railroaded scenarios that we see in roleplaying games are the result of GMs who have a limited (or nonexistent) toolset. Often I think GMs don’t even realize that these types of tools exist. But they do exist and there’s nothing complex or mysterious about them. Once you know they exist, they’re not even particularly difficult to master.

Second, if you’re a GM, I think you’ll benefit greatly from consciously thinking about the game structures you’re using: Innovate. Experiment. Create. Share. Playtest.

One of the most exciting thing about the Old School Renaissance for me has been its role in rediscovering highly effective game structures that had largely been forgotten by the mainstream gaming community. Over the past few years, we’ve seen how much fresh creativity and original gameplay can be generated out of tapping a robust game structure like hexcrawling that has lain dormant for years.

But I think that’s barely scratching the surface. If we can get stuff like Carcosa and Points of Light and Kingmaker out of hexcrawling, what else have we been missing out on?

Game structures are merely ornately-wrought keys. The really interesting stuff is what lies beyond the doors those keys will unlock.

Thinking About Urbancrawls
Gamemastery 101

Share on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Digg this

5 Responses to “Game Structures – Part 16: Player-Known and Unknown Scenario Structures”

  1. Superguy says:

    Hi there. Long time reader, first time caller. I’m a big fan of your work.

    This has been a fascinating series of articles. I was hoping you’d consider writing more about linking the transitions between dungeon-crawling, hex-crawling, and, for lack of a better term, world-crawling.

    It seems to me what you’re talking about is Jaquaying the Campaign, a nice extension of your argument for Jaquaying the Dungeon.

    Also, do you think you could put up a link somewhere to an up-to-date archive of all your articles? I’ve had a devil of a time locating some of them for re-reading when I can’t remember their titles.


  2. S'mon says:

    A great and thought provoking series, thanks.

  3. Arne Babenhauserheide says:

    Hi Justin,

    I read all 16 of your essays on game structures during the last 4 days and found them very interesting!

    Thank you for putting them online here!

    They got me thinking at once – and actually got me to think about the mechanic we use in our free 1d6 sourcebook (Technophob¹). Until 3 days ago, we had a (not yet public) GM-section which only focussed on the wishes of the players and did not say anything about structure. Now I added explicit notes how a session works. And incidentally it’s a space setting, too, but we still mostly ignore the space travel for story purposes (because that requires a ship and ships are expensive… :) ).

    So you had an instant effect on how we work with the book. And I think you enabled me to make it much easier to get into the game.

    We now have a “structure” section which says very roughly: You start in the space bar, Kjeol called you: He has a new deal – and he organized a subspace glider to get your small vessel into the vicinity of the target system. Tasks include smuggling stuff from the spaceport somewhere and to someone, getting stuff from hideouts and plundering wracks, which the folks in the technophobe-territorries leave filled to keep their population from encountering technology they don’t want them to have. Afterwards the chars get back to the bar, get paid, spend great nights in the space station – and at some point get a new call.

    …you might notice that we borrow quite heavily from Shadowrun. The reason is that this approach makes it very easy to play with missing players, which recent statistical calculations² I did show as absolutely essential.

    ¹: Technophob is a sourcebook for the german 1d6 ruleset – and also in German. Hackers from an anarchistic alternate earth enter an unknown universe and find a central system at the brink of breaking down due to millennia of keeping people in control by a licensing system which controls the creation of real-world objects via nanotechnology. If you want to read it, you might need Google translate or similar…

    The beginning of the draft for the playing guide currently looks like this:

    ²: The calculations are in German, too, but for them the translation should not be as devastating as for prosa-text :)

  4. Corsair114 says:

    Thank you for the informative series of articles here, Justin.

    I’ll be taking them to heart in the design of my own RPG. :)

  5. Strongbif says:

    I found these articles while trying to diagnose my problems running Dungeon World, given that I’m quite good at MC’ing Apocalypse World. I think you’ve pointed me toward the answer.

    In Apocalypse World, the implied game structure is very close to explicit and baked into pretty much all the rules:

    Default Goal: Keep (your life|your resources|your ideals) going
    Default Action: Respond to an emergency

    It turns out I’m instinctively great at this game structure because I love cooking up disasters.

    It also turns out that I flounder with the dungeon crawl structure, which I have little experience with (my GM’ing progression went 7th Sea, Deadlands, Savage Worlds, Apocalypse World). I’m constantly fighting my instinct to run Dungeon World like Apocalypse World, and the ruleset seems to impede me, too, or I’m using it wrong.

    So now I need to discern or create a game structure that fits DW better for me and my players, and I don’t feel up to the task. You’ve given me a start, though, so thanks.

    Default Goal: Preserve the lives of the last refugees of the bright city.

    Default Action: Investigate a threat from within or confront an external threat. (???)

Leave a Reply



Recent Posts

Recent Comments