from the ten thousand foot view
do people think of when they think of game design? Generally things like
character generation, resolution mechanics, combat rules, etc. Sadly this common
view often causes people to miss most of the game as it is actually played. This
in turn results in either poor design that fails to achieve its goals, or in
poor evaluation of existing games (which causes endless flamewars).
the simplest terms, an rpg campaign consists of two very different influences-
the Game itself and the Meta-Game. These terms are generally understood by most
gamers and are a useful short hand. That split however covers too much ground
for my taste and I’ve identified five layers (one in Game, and four in the
Meta-Game) that differ significantly enough from each other that a solid
treatment of the subject must give each their due.
game operates within (and is in effect designed for) these five layers. Let’s
consider each of them in turn:
layer is made up completely of the actual rules, i.e. the game’s mechanics.
These rules must be objective and visible.
objective, we mean that the mechanics would be resolved the same way and produce
the same outcomes (assuming equal rolls, card picks, etc) no matter who the
players are (assuming they are of course following the rules). For example, in
HERO it takes a roll of 11 or less on 3d6 to succeed with an unadjusted 11-
skill. Thus a die roll of 10 will be a success for any player in any group no
matter the opinions and thoughts thereof.
visible we mean that all data, resolutions and decisions in respect to the
mechanics are visible to all players at all times.
is very important to realize that this level’s primary purpose is to define
LIMITS on the available actions and results. In chess rooks can move vertically
and horizontality but never diagonally. A broadsword does a specified amount of
damage- no more, no less in D20. Etc. It is by forcing limits that the mechanics
assure objectivity, visibility and provide a framework for play.
play at this level is based upon known certainties. Examples: “The orcs have
massed their greatest fighters in the center, we should…” or “I have a 68%
chance of taking down the goblin, but only a 33% chance on the bigger hobgoblin.
We’re outnumbered right now and that’s gives heavy modifiers against us so
In general tactical game design exists at this layer.
layer consists of any hidden mechanics.
includes but is not limited to such things as pre-plotted movement (seldom used
in RPGs, one example slightly modified is The Burning Wheel), various
rock-scissors-paper resolutions systems (hand-to-hand combat in Top Secret,
RSP itself in many LARPs, etc), hidden movement (defined by Line of Site rules
for the most part, D&D 3rd edition for example defines the range limits of
sight under various conditions), hidden damage, and simultaneous assignment
(such as the drop of the initiative die in The Riddle of Steel)
effect of this layer is to move decisions away from the visible certainties
above to one of predicting the decisions of other players or guessing what
information that they are hiding. Examples: “Tom tends to mass his power in
the center but he likes the cover forests give as well. Let’s deploy here so
as to be within range of both and send scouts in those two directions” or
“I’ll buff with this hand, Bill can never tell when I’m buffing”.
should be noted that this layer remains objective and as such contains many of
the characteristics of the Game layer. But it has moved into the Meta-Game to a
large extent as the focus switches from visible characters and their abilities
(stats, locations, resources) to players and their abilities (to guess and
general, strategic game design exists at this level.
layer consists of any subjective or invisible mechanics.
Mechanics are those that rely upon the interpretation of the GM (or a player) to
determine the final effect. D&D alignment is the classic example of such a
subjective mechanic, the GM is required to determine when and if a character
violates his Alignment and the player is required to role-playing with its goals
and limits in mind. Another example is fumble mechanics where the actual effect
is left up to the GM.
way of looking at these mechanics is to view them as ‘guiding mechanics’ or
‘advisory mechanics’. They may point in a direction, but how far you go and
sometimes even if you make the trip at all is squarely a heavily subjective
decision of the GM/Player.
A number of systems even toss combat modifiers that they normally reserve for the Game Layer here. In HERO System for example the GM is advised to give a bonus (+1 to +3) for creative and/or unexpected types of attacks. In Age of Heroes, I leave specific terrain modifiers up to the GM after providing a few examples.
layer consists of pure subjective resolution/methods, ‘group contracts’, and
resolution is free form or mechanic-less play. The classic example is a GM or
player just calling the outcome of an action: “I think your character is more
than able to track down the guy by using legwork, you find him that evening at 8
subjective methods covers more ground first comes to mind including the
‘world’ and adventure design essential to RPGs. If the GM has decided
(without resort to mechanics) that the mob boss has three bodyguards, each
highly skilled- he has engaged in the pure subjective resolution of a question.
sections of most games are turned over to Subjective Resolution/Methods. One of
the interesting aspects of that is that by nature you can’t design rules for
it, each person does that himself according to his own needs and desires. At
best one can provide advice. Thus in game design terms, this method is defined
not by rules enforcing limits, but by the absence of rules preventing subjective
decision-making. It is worth remembering that not including rules is as a result
game design as well.
Contracts are those agreements made by members of a group to either engage
(“we want to do a lot of hack and slash”, “Let’s try to keep the game
focused on court intrigue”, “players should create characters that work with
others”) or refuse (“we don’t want evil characters”, “no rape will
occur in this campaign) events, ideas or storylines. Such group contracts are
often informal although there are exceptions, and they tend to be added on top
of the game outside the control or influence of the designer.
itself is typically done at this layer with the players determining the
personality, actions and reactions completely on their own without input from
The main characteristic of this layer is that it’s subjective. It is also limited only the constraints accepted by the players themselves. Since it’s contained mostly within the minds of the players, it is also in large part hidden with uncertain influences or outcomes.
are influences unrelated to the game itself, but even so they still carry great
impact. There is almost no way to define all the possible examples for the
extent of their reach. Common ones are “GM’s girlfriend syndrome’ or
‘Sherri worked late and is off her game, let’s be easy on her’.
is however one point in this layer where game design does matter: the decision
to play the game at all. Here we get game design that attempts to make entry
easy and attractive either by way of light and simple rules, by seductive
settings, or ‘new’ concepts. These days we see lots of effort to design at
this layer in an attempt to expand or open up new markets, often at the cost of
of the first things a designer should do is decide which parts of the game are
to be handled by which Layer and for what reasons.
will in large measure determine the character of the game and the campaigns that
result from it. Those things contained at the Game layer will be highly defined
and limited. Those at the Near Game will defined and limited, but unknown to
some in the short term. Those at the Near Meta-Game will be guided, but not
specifically controlled. The Meta-Game level itself is its own lord and master.
The Far Meta-Game may cause the design to forgone certain mechanics as ‘too
complex for his market’ or otherwise unacceptable.
example, I designed Age of Heroes to handle character creation,
advancement, combat, etc at the Game Layer. A few elements (like the Personal
Appearance Stat) are covered in the Near Game. I assigned a large number of
areas (all the world design, storyline, and role-playing) to the Near Meta-Game.
I gave no attention to the Far Meta-Game not really caring why people chose to
important concept to keep in mind is the fact that it’s quite possible to move
elements I lumped into specific layers above to another.
number of games for example move some parts of role-playing from its normal
Meta-Game subjective method to a subjective mechanic in the Near Meta-Game.
(D&D’s alignment) or even to the Game Layer (CoC’s Sanity at certain
points). Another example of crossing Layers is those systems that determine at
the Game Layer which player has control (and sometimes for what ends) in the
such ‘crossing’ of layers is typically defined in one and resolved in
another, I’ve coined the time “Calling to the X Layer” (such as Calling to
the Meta-Game) for this type of design. It’s an increasing common method that
many are finding exciting.
attempting to judge the usefulness of a game system can benefit by considering
five layers if they are interesting in not greatly misrepresenting other
people’s campaigns and tastes.
example, it’s easy to say that D20 or Age of Heroes are purely hack and
slash designs given that most of the rules cover combat and near combat events.
They have forgotten the importance of the Meta-Game level and the fact that both
games are specifically designed to use it for certain parts of the campaign.
It’s entirely possible for a group to spend five gaming nights in pure
role-playing without a single die being toss, and then engage in a single
evening’s combat. To characterized such a campaign as hack and slash would be
a grave error- and a defining statement of the limits of looking at a single
the Layers and your own tastes in them can be helpful anytime you’re thinking
of trying out a new game system. It will quickly point you towards things not to
your taste and allow you to house rule it away from the start or to turn your
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