Should You Design a Robust Structure For Your Game?

Workers building the Empire State Building.
Most roleplaying games on the market these days take a laissez-faire approach to play. The system will provide detailed rules for character creation and probably combat, but once play actually starts, everything is put in the group’s hands. Any structure a system might have is likely to be very loose like the timing rules in Chronicles of Darkness or vestigial like the encounter building rules in D&D.

But roleplaying games are an ever-changing medium, and some systems offer a different approach. They have actual rules governing play, turning the free-for-all into a regulated activity. These games have what I call a robust structure, and a lot of designers wonder if the concept is right for their game. The short answer is “it depends.” A more helpful answer requires an examination of what robust structures bring to the table – and what they take away.

What’s a Robust Structure?

Painting of Archimedes' death. Calm down! I’ll explain, I promise!

First, let’s clarify exactly what I mean by “robust structure.” I’m talking about systems where the rules regulate what the PCs do and when they do it. In an unstructured game, the GM alone decides when and how the players roll dice, and they do so purely by fiat. In systems with a loose structure, rules provide a few suggestions but nothing that has a big impact on play. In a robust structure, the governing rules are so intrinsic to play that taking them out would require major house-ruling.

One example is Torchbearer, a dungeon-crawling game. This system has complex rules for how to track the party’s supplies, how the PCs move around a dungeon, how much loot they can carry back, and how well the PCs can recover through rest. Torchbearer simply would not be the same without these rules.

Another example is Blades in the Dark, a system with even more intensive rules than Torchbearer. This game is about running a criminal gang in the industrial dystopia of Duskwall. It has rules for everything, from expanding the gang’s territory to getting heat from the city watch to PCs indulging in their material vices. It’s easily the most highly structured roleplaying game I have ever seen.

Now that we have a pretty good idea what a robust structure is, let’s look at the pros and cons.

Robust Structures Provide Meaningful Options

Have you ever looked at an RPG and wished there were more character options available? What about systems that have plenty of options, but they either mostly do the same thing or they give bonuses to actions that rarely come up? That’s what happens in systems like Mouse Guard, where customization options are few, and Blue Rose, where the endless number of abilities all look suspiciously similar. These problems occur when designers run out of mechanical levers to pull. They’d love to give players more meaningful options, but there aren’t enough rules for those options to change.

A robust structure alleviates this problem. If you’re making a game about spies hunting down supernatural monsters, an ability that provides a better cover identity will matter a lot more if there are hard rules for what happens when the PC’s cover is blown. That makes the ability feel solid and real, much more satisfying than a bonus to some roll that might never come up.

Torchbearer uses this method to great effect in its class abilities. Because the system has in-depth rules for when characters get sick and the penalty that it inflicts, the dwarven bonus to recover from illness is really useful. Compare that to a game like D&D, which technically has rules for fatigue, but they’re so ancillary almost no one actually uses them.

Robust structures are also great for creating useful gear and other acquirable assets, like the boathouse that Blades in the Dark players can buy for their gang. In any other game, the boathouse would be flavor, likely forgotten if the story didn’t focus heavily on nautical expeditions. But Blades in the Dark has rules for determining how difficult it is to smuggle goods, which effects the gang’s all-important bottom line, and a boathouse gives PCs another avenue for getting contraband past the city watch. The boathouse actually affects how the game is played, so the group is unlikely to forget it.

Finally, a robust structure means the GM has more options for handing out bonuses and penalties in the moment. If the PCs have a clever plan to poison their enemy, a simple +1 on their role isn’t as satisfying as a system that has concrete rules for poisoning. This is even more important for fail-forward systems where the GM can grant a PC’s intent even on a failed roll in exchange for a penalty. Handing out -1 to rolls gets old after a while, but a robust structure means the GM can mix things up and still make the penalties matter.

Robust Structures Help With Balance

Game balance is a difficult subject at the best of times, and it tends to be worse in systems where designers want lots of detail but have fewer mechanical levers to pull. Chronicles of Darkness is a prime example of this problem. It has rules for guns so powerful that they break the game and nothing to balance them with. The designers wanted a .50 caliber rifle to do lots of damage because its destructive power in real life is so high, but weapons in this system only have one real stat: damage. This makes bigger guns more powerful with virtually no drawback, so pretty soon the entire party is lugging machine guns around.

Robust structures help with this problem the same way they help with meaningful options: by giving the designer more to work with. For example, Torchbearer has different types of armor, and at first glance, platemail is clearly the best. It provides the best protection, which is what most people look for in armor. But platemail is heavy,* and Torchbearer has rules for how that added weight tires a character out faster. Torchbearer also has strong limitations on how much money a PC has, so it’ll take quite a while to acquire the funds for that gleaming suit of plate.

Another common problem in game balance is the meaningless penalty. You see this in abilities like Antisocial from Legend of the Five Rings. In that system, taking the Antisocial disadvantage gives a PC extra points at the cost of being worse at social skills. But that’s only meaningful if the PC has any social skills. If they don’t, then it’s just a penalty on rolls the character was going to fail anyway, and the player can simply disengage from social conflicts.

A robust structure solves that problem by providing the framework by which all PCs must engage within the game. If Legend of the Five Rings had strong rules for what happens when a character doesn’t show up to the emperor’s court, then taking Antisocial would be a real choice. It gives extra points, but failing even simple etiquette rolls means the PC will be so out of favor that their lord will send substandard equipment for the PC’s next mission.

Robust Structures Deliver a Specific Experience

Most systems offer a lot of flavor and advice for what a campaign using them should look like, then leave everything entirely in the GM’s hands. Star Trek Adventures is meant to emulate the optimistic tales of Jean-Luc Picard and Benjamin Sisko, but the rules don’t really help make that happen. A GM who puts in a lot of effort can still make things work, of course, but they don’t get much support from the system.

That dynamic changes with a robust structure. It allows designers to build their desired experience into every session. In fact, it was the need to impart a specific experience that led to the creation of Torchbearer in the first place.* Lead designer Thor Olavsrud wanted to bring across how dangerous and wondrous it would be to delve through monster-filled caverns, and he wanted to bring back the magical feeling many of us remember from our first D&D session. A robust structure lets him do that and creates a system where the environment itself is a force to be reckoned with and adventurers are always hungry for the next treasure.

Not only is a specific experience useful for a designer’s artistic vision, but it also makes the game far more appealing to many players. When players are fired up from reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, they’ll want a game that simulates the experience of navigating a treacherous criminal underworld in a fantasy setting, and that’s just what Blades in the Dark gives them. Meanwhile, players who binge-watch Battlestar Galactica and want the experience of fleeing from the Cylons while their ship falls apart will have to depend entirely on their GM; the licensed BSG system has little to offer in that regard.

A robust structure gives the system focus and offers groups a better idea of what to expect. They’ll know from picking up Torchbearer that they’re in for a gritty adventuring experience, complete with never being sure where their next meal will come from – that’s what the system is geared to produce. Pathfinder, on the other hand, could provide that experience if the GM was really on top of things, but the system has no built-in structure for doing so.

None of this is to say that GM skill is unimportant when the system has a robust structure. Instead, it means the GM can spend their time and energy on fine-tuning the experience, rather than building it from scratch. If the system provides all the basic requirements for playing a politician of the Galactic Republic, the GM is free to design dastardly villains and compelling dilemmas rather than house-ruling what happens when a PC loses popular support.

Robust Structures Limit a System’s Uses

A steam train running on rails. Only so many directions to go. Chester General by Ben Brooksbank used under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about robust structures so far, but they are not without their downsides. One of those downsides is reduced flexibility. When a system is tightly focused on one experience, it can’t be easily adjusted for a different experience. Running Torchbearer outside of a dungeon removes most of its balancing factors and requires major house rules. Using Blades in the Dark for anything other than a story of climbing a complex power structure is even harder.*

This means that robust structures don’t serve well as a general system the group can pull out for numerous types of campaigns. Their appeal is limited for groups who want a single workhorse system, even if that system isn’t particularly good at any single game style. Burning Wheel can be used for any fantasy game with a gritty aesthetic, while Torchbearer starts to fall apart the moment its players aren’t delving below ground in search of treasure.

Robust structures can also be a liability for systems that are intended to simulate an entire setting or a very broad experience. Mage: The Ascension, for example, is simply about being a mage. From there, the PCs can do any number of things, from struggling to get by in Technocracy-controlled New York to epic-level forays into the spirit world. It would be extremely difficult to create a robust structure for that experience because it can mean so many different things. Of course, Mage does suffer balance and complexity issues from taking on so much, but that’s another post.

Robust Structures Add Complexity

Clocks: how do they work? Darkening Clockwork by Matt Katzenberger

There’s no way around it: robust structures are complex. They have to be in order to work. All of the mechanical levers and focused experiences I talked about earlier depend on that added complexity. And whenever you add complexity, some players won’t be interested enough to learn it.

If a player is really into dungeon delving, then they’ll have no issue learning the additional rules of a game like Torchbearer. In fact, they’ll probably enjoy it. But if a player is on the fence about dungeons, or even dislikes them outright, then learning additional rules will be an unpleasant burden. They might do it anyway for the sake of the game, or they might check out and not enjoy the campaign. Worse, they might actively refuse to learn the rules and then get frustrated trying to play a system they don’t understand.

While unstructured systems can still be absurdly complex, especially around combat, they don’t have the added burden of rules governing play. It takes very little effort to roll whenever the GM decides it’s time for a roll, and that’s what some players want. Roleplaying games are their chosen mode of relaxation, and they want things simple.

Designers can compensate for the extra complexity that comes with structure by keeping the game as simple as possible while still accomplishing their goal. In fact, that’s always a good idea. Unneeded complexity is nothing but an extra burden on the players. Designers can also take steps to make their structure more forgiving and easier to learn. The structure might start off very minimal and increase gradually as players learn the game, or the system could put more responsibility on the GM and less on the players. However, none of that will make the complexity disappear completely.

Robust Structures Can Easily Go Wrong

A castle leaning over. I don’t think that’s the right angle. Ruined Castle by Kamil Porembiński used under CC BY-SA 2.0

The final drawback to robust structures is that they’re difficult to make, and the consequences for getting them wrong are high. If a system has bad character creation, it’s annoying once. If it has bad combat, the GM can avoid combat. But when the structure of itself is bad, it’s hard to get away from.

That’s what happens in games like Burning Empires, which takes on the ambitious goal of simulating the invasion of a scifi world by alien mind-parasites. That’s a really cool idea in theory, but in practice the rules are more restrictive than helpful. The system limits how many scenes can occur in each session, which puts debilitating restraints on the story. Once the allotted scenes run out, nothing more can be done that session, no matter how much sense it makes in the fiction. GMs can house-rule the number of scenes, but that messes with the system’s balance.

GMs in particular tend to bristle at mechanics that constrain rather than assist, and it’s hard to blame them. They have a story to tell, or else they wouldn’t be putting in all the work of running an RPG campaign. Any rules that get in the way will be annoying interlopers at best and hated obstacles at worst. This is a major concern for designers since GMs are often the ones buying new games for their group to try.

No aspect of game design is easy, but robust structures are especially difficult because they are baked into every other aspect of the game. They are also fairly rare, so there aren’t a lot of other systems to draw on for examples. If you’re a designer thinking of adding a robust structure to your system, consider if the benefits are worth the extra work. Robust structures can do a lot for a game, but they aren’t always the right choice.

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  1. American Charioteer

    The rules for exhaustion in DND 5e are fairly robust if a group wants to use them (and most GMs I know do use them). But it is also possible to play a game that eschews exploration and exhaustion completely. The game takes a different approach to robustness: making up for a lack of rigidity with an extreme volume of material. This includes both published material and plot ideas and advice on the game’s very active forums; there aren’t many other games where a GM can post a conundrum they face in their campaign on Reddit and have a dozen responses from veteran players by the next day.

  2. Joe

    A good article! I always like seeing your notes on RPG design, it isn’t really a topic there is a lot of information on.

    A thing I though of related to the last point is that structured games seem like they could have real problems with problematic/triggering rules.

    (cw, abelism and trauma)

    Take the horrifically abelist morality system from the New World Of Darkness, that they thankfully removed for Chronicles (for those unaware, if you do evil things you develop mental illnesses, and keep them until you redeem yourself. Yeah, it was as bad as it sounds). The fact that the game was fairly unstructured made it easy to ignore when I played it. If it was more firmly tied into the game as a whole, it may well have made me give up on the whole thing.

    The same can apply to rules that are personally triggering to players particularly in horror games with rules about trauma, mental illness or long-term injury- even if done respectfully, they are inherently at risk of bringing up traumatic experiences. If that is something a player or gm can’t get past, it’s much easier to ignore it in an unstructured game then a structured one.

    Obviously, not having problematic rules is important in any game. But it seems like something go wrong is much harder to rectify the more structured a game is.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s a good point Joe. The more structured a game is, the less room the GM has to easily maneuver and thus avoid harmful material. This is just one of many reasons it’s usually best to avoid potentially harmful material in an RPG, since if that’s something the players really want they can bring it in themselves, but if they don’t want it now someone’s day is ruined.

  3. SunlessNick

    Calm down! I’ll explain, I promise!

    Best caption ever.

  4. Michael Campbell

    Writers of Role-playing games should aim to create systems containing the words “And by extension you can…”

    E.g. “The concealment penalties apply to the cover and concealment section of the combat rules but those same concealment penalties can be extended to a burglar’s hiding from a security guard’s patrol, if the Game Master so chooses.”

    The game should look to outline how to extrapolate to solve for unforeseen values rather trying to foresee possible player choice.

    Also “If the PCs have a clever plan to poison their enemy, a simple +1 on their role isn’t as satisfying as a system that has concrete…”
    I disagree. That’s like saying that a baseball player who gets back to home-plate gets a mere one run added to the scoreboard and since that eventually gets boring, people will eventually give up on their love of baseball.
    The timing of the hit, the speed of their running to first base, their perception of field placement, their crafty stealing of second and third.
    Getting runs on the board is about two things; commitment and creativity.
    I’m sure the same can be said of a mere +1 bonus.

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