Dev Notes 20 - Constraint and Choice in Roleplaying Games (Part 1)

Give me a genre, a location, and something you might do on a date...

As roleplayers, we often think of ourselves as improvisers. My friends at the One Shot Podcast Network (Patreon funding now!) are actually trained in this particular mode of performance, and they have excellent insights into how such training supports their gaming. Part of the fun of improvising, both on stage and in gaming, is the power of making choices in the moment. And because we enjoy this, sometimes we think that more choice is always good, that the freedom to make up whatever we want will let us explode in fountains of creativity. It turns out that this is not the case. And trained improvisers know this very well, which is why so many improv exercises and performances begin with the selection of constraints.

Whose line cast

Welcome to roleplaying, where the characters are made up and the dice don't matter.

Constraint is not the opposite of choice. It is merely the practice of having the available choices or parameters for choice presented to the chooser instead of created by the chooser. In the absence of external constraints, we all first narrow our own list of choices before making our final decision. No one considers all possible options equally and chooses from them. Whenever we come too close to doing that, we inevitably suffer analysis paralysis. There are just too many choices for us to consider, and we shut down rather than moving forward. One way or another, we need to make the list more manageable.

This is why constraint is important - it helps us focus our creativity. I would even go so far as to say that constraint breeds creativity, that creativity cannot exist without it.

I think most people would agree with that broad statement, but part of the problem we run into when we talk about roleplaying games is that we don't all mean the same thing when we use the word constraint. That's because there are a number of different kinds of constraint that can exist in roleplaying games, and our preferences are often defined by the types of constraint that we prefer. In this part, I will outline what I consider to be four key constraint schemes in roleplaying games. In part 2, I will discuss how we can leverage these various dials as designers, GMs, and players.


Narrative Constraint

Narrative constraint defines the elements of story that are available for use in a particular game. A clearly-described setting is the most obvious example of a narrative constraint. The more narrowly the game is framed in a specific place and time, the tighter its narrative constraint. Generic systems or games in which the setting is created as part of play have very broad narrative constraints, but typically the GM and/or the players develop their own parameters very quickly. Also, games with worlds that are more sandboxy with many different locations are slightly more open than games that focus on just one location.

In addition to setting, strong thematic elements can constrain the narrative by clearly defining the kinds of people or experiences that are likely to exist in the game world. Games that are very closely tied to a particular genre are examples of this.

Games with a high degree of narrative constraint: Shadowrun, Weird Wars Rome, Night Witches, Dogs in the Vineyard

Games with a low degree of narrative constraint: any generic system (Savage Worlds, Fate, GURPS, etc.), Our Last Best Hope, Microscope


Tonal Constraint

Tonal constraint defines the moods and emotions that are typical of the stories and play experiences produced within a particular game. Horror and comedy games both tend to have narrow tonal constraints, because elements that take you out of the mood can very quickly overpower the elements that keep you in it. Narrow tonal constraint requires strong investment by everyone at the table - there's a very strong implicit social contract when a group decides to play such a game.

A game with broad tonal constraint allows for a variety of experiences and encourages each person to play the game the way they want to play it. If you've ever seen a large and well-run campaign LARP, you'll recognize that this is the dance the storytellers are constantly doing - trying to keep everyone happy with scenes and storylines that fit their personal style. However, there are many tabletop games where this is done more on a per-session basis, where the GM offers a variety of tonal experiences over the course of the story. In fact, most "adventure" games can be said to have broad tonal constraint, because they leave the mood of the story largely up to the GM and players.

Games with a high degree of tonal constraint: Dread, Toon, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu

Games with a low degree of tonal constraint: Dungeons and Dragons, The Last Parsec, Traveller, Awesome Adventures


Mechanical Constraint

Mechanical constraint defines the mechanical options available within a particular game. The way this one works is slightly counterintuitive, so it needs a little bit of explanation. In general, high mechanical constraint means fewer mechanics, because, by definition, there are fewer things that you can do mechanically. Often in such games, those mechanics become much more abstracted so that you can describe what you are doing however you want each time you use a particular mechanic, but the actual mechanical options are more limited.

This means that broad mechanical constraint can only be enabled by providing a vast array of mechanical options. These are the games with lists and tables of powers, skills, equipment, etc. If the game you're playing has entire supplements just for gear, that is a low mechanical constraint game.

Games with a high degree of mechanical constraint: Apocalypse World, Fate Accelerated, theatre-style LARP systems

Games with a low degree of mechanical constraint: D&D 4E, Pathfinder, GURPS, Burning Wheel


Structural Constraint

Structural constraint defines the way a story or experience is built within a particular game. It often involves mechanics, but in a different sense. Structural mechanics determine the flow and organization of a play session in terms of the players themselves. They are the mechanics that focus on how play proceeds and who has narrative control at any given point. Narrow structural constraint can be seen in games where there is a very formal procedure for passing one's "turn" to the next person or for determining where the story goes next. Most GM-less games operate on strong structural constraints.

Broad structural constraint allows for players (or GMs) to jump into the middle of something or interrupt an ongoing action or scene. Such games are more likely to have someone who is in charge to coordinate these various impulses and arbitrate disputes between them. Usually, the less structural constraint a game has, the more authority tends to be invested in that person in charge.

Games with a high degree of structural constraint: Fiasco, Swords Without Master, Hillfolk

Games with a low degree of structural constraint: D&D 5th Ed, many OSR games, most LARPs (of any kind)


Feel free to respond with your thoughts wherever you found this link posted, and come back soon for Part 2!

-Fairman Rogers