This is going to be both a design-theory post, as well as a post for how you can look at systems and think about what they do for you vs. work against you at your table.
Some games are designed to tell a specific type of story – there may be a range of stories within that possible space, but it’s pretty well defined. My friend Quinn Murphy uses this term, “Structure” and it shows up in his Five Fires game – the characters deal with problems, and eventually it brings them back to making art or music – so the stories all revolve around people who are creative.
The thing about these kinds of games is that they can hyper focus their mechanics to only deal with the issues relevant to the type of stories they’re telling, and cut everything else out. The groups playing them have a much easier time figuring out what kinds of conflicts make sense, because the mechanics are pointing them in that direction.
Non-Structure / Generalist Systems
When you don’t have that, you end up having to do a bit of negotiation and work as a group to make up the difference – What kind of game are you playing? What kind of conflicts make sense within this framing? What is the focus of the story? How should we design characters to fit this? How should I present situations and have NPCs act to encourage that? What problems are addressable vs. impossible to change? So the first hurdle is getting on that page together.
What kind of conflicts make sense for this game?
What kind of protagonists make sense for this game?
What kind of outcomes make sense for this game?
Just because “anything COULD happen” doesn’t mean that’s a good way to try to use your time – sorting through “COULD” with “would be interesting”. If anything, entertainment is a lot about editing to interesting parts.
You can find yourself engaging in irrelevant conflicts – and I mean, engaging in mechanics in places that doesn’t actually push play forward or produce interesting choices. And this can be a giant waste of time, or even detrimental to play. So, how well the group can find the groove for where the focus is, vs. stumble over that, is key to how well the system without a structure consistently is fun in play.
We’ve been slowly working out a number of working techniques to help bridge these issues over the years:
Genre + Setting Fiction
The first trick people often used to try to solve these issues was to pick a genre with strong tropes, and back it up with fiction or setting material. All of this serves to sort of model and informally teach people where to put their conflict focuses in play. Of course, if this isn’t backed up mechanically, it is very weakly enforced or creates problems between play expectations – fudging and GM Fiat are often used as tools to deal with that design failure when it happens.
This technique is actually a pretty good one, though it’s an art more than an easy 1-2-3 procedure. It basically boils down to “skip to the cool parts” which allows you to avoid getting hung up on things that aren’t conflicts.
“Actually, the locked door isn’t really where the mystery is. It’s a background piece, let’s just move on, ok?” You just tell each other, what’s going on in play with information in Author Stance – stuff the characters wouldn’t know, but as players, they can avoid getting wrapped up in something that isn’t actually intersting.
Say Yes or Roll the Dice
Vincent Baker’s trick which has gone into many other games, basically states that if it’s not important, don’t make a mechanical conflict of it – just keep it moving. Notice a rhetorical aspect here – “Say Yes” is first – so you’re encouraged to say yes OVER rolling the dice a bit.
Dogs In The Vineyard, the game where this is from, also has a second mechanic enforcing this- “Give” which lets you simply give up halfway through a conflict – it shortens the process if you see your’e not going to win, but it also allows the people involved to drop a conflict if it simply occurs to them that this isn’t a worthwhile conflict.
Although some game systems with Flags include structure mechanics, some do not, and so you end up with a gap about how well the group can navigate using Flags to narrow conflicts into functional play space.
Narrowed Skill List
Some games show what the relevant conflicts are in their skills list – they drop everything that doesn’t matter so you can know that mechanically, “this game doesn’t care if you know history” or whatever is absent.
Side trap: Heavy vs. Light
You’ll notice that whether you have structure mechanics or not, it has nothing to do with how complex the rules are – The Window, and many other light, genreless games, lack a structure element, and as such, end up in the same position with the same problems as their more crunchy cousin games. On one end of the extreme, “rules light” shifts over to freeform, but the underlying issues remain.
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