The verb used for the making of roleplaying games is “design”. I design a roleplaying game. The word “design” encompasses the deliberate choices that guide how a prospective player engages with a published roleplaying game.
After all, a published game book is a guide that seeks to give the reader tools to run and play a specific kind of a roleplaying game. There are big differences in how each game connects to the creativity and initiative of the people playing them but the core function of the game book remains the same.
In this article, I try to figure out what we mean when we talk about “designing” roleplaying games, and specifically roleplaying game books. I divide roleplaying game design into hard and soft design to make visible different kinds of design strategies.
Discussion of design often concerns game mechanics such as dice rolls, random tables and stats. This is hard design. It consists of probability spreads, failure points and task resolution. As a rule of thumb, if you can outsource running the mechanism to a computer, it’s hard design.
The counterpart of hard design is soft design. It’s the design of ideas, social dynamics and frameworks. It’s what happens when you run a workshop to get the players into the right state of mind or use setting design to fire up the imagination of your participants.
Soft design is best understood if you see a roleplaying game as a facilitated social situation.
This dichotomy resembles those made in earlier design theory discussions, such as the one about “crunch” and “fluff”. This brings us to my motive for writing this article. My personal design practice often falls into the category of soft design and it’s difficult to even talk about it using the current language frameworks. Terms such as fluff are unappealing because they tend to be deployed for a derogatory purpose.
It is my hope that this article carves out rhetorical space for soft design.
Hard design concerns itself with clearly defined systems of rules that are meant to be followed exactly. Often consisting of interlocked subsystems, game mechanics created by hard design follow logic and systems thinking to create the desired experience.
A very common format for hard design rules is “If X, then Y”. For example: If you have a shield, you get +1 to AC.
Soft design is about empowering the participant and guiding their imagination. Examples of soft design tend to be fuzzy and open-ended, circumspect and minimal. They are suggestions more than rules. Ideas, guidelines and exercises shape a social situation without the kind of overt coercion exerted by hard rules.
A children’s game of pretend is pure soft design. It’s based on character and setting ideas and can change and develop according to the creative vision of the participants.
The difference between hard and soft design can also be seen by comparing game mechanical design and play design.
To function, hard design requires compliance. It’s less concerned with the inner processes of the player than whether the player does as required by the system. If the player is compliant, the game works as intended.
Soft design is fundamentally an invitation. If the player responds to the invitation and makes an honest effort to engage the game, soft design works. If the player doesn’t respond to the invitation with their creative imagination, soft design fails.
Neither hard nor soft design is inherently better than the other. Rather, the right mode of design depends on the desired outcome. Both design methods have their own aesthetics, strengths and weaknesses. Most games use a mix of both methods to achieve the desired effect.
One advantage of hard design is procedural clarity. After you’ve internalized the system, you know what to do and how things work. As a player you can predict the future behavior of the system and tactically game it to achieve something you want.
Many people find the systems created by hard design inherently pleasurable. They experience aesthetic joy at using elegantly designed or otherwise engaging game mechanics. Similar joys are the main attraction in many boardgames and videogames.
Hard design is less dependent on particular play culture. Because the rules are unambiguous, they can be followed straight from the page without understanding the context in which they were written. Or at least, they can be followed to some degree. Personal experience suggests that most designers, myself included, struggle to grasp how their design will be interpreted in another play culture.
Soft design is great for social nuance and high resolution interaction dynamics. It allows us to interrogate minute cultural details and phenomena spontaneously during play. It leaves space for improvisation and the spontaneous picking up of social cues and details from other players.
Safety, calibration and trust work well with soft design because most of the existing calibration tools are already based on it. A focus on the game as a social situation makes it easier to ensure all present are comfortable and in a good mental space to continue. Soft design is resistant to social power games such as “rules lawyering” because of its lack of complex game mechanical structures that reward mastery.
Aesthetically, soft design is great if the intention of the game is to focus on social interaction. Soft design fades into the background much more naturally than hard design, often becoming essentially invisible. This is desirable if interacting with game mechanics is not an important part of the game experience.
The soft design of a given game is much easier to convert to other media than hard design. Pretty much every time a game IP becomes a novel, a movie or a videogame, the parts that carry over are soft design elements such as themes, stories and characters. (There are some exceptions, such as D&D-based videogames which adapt game mechanics.)
Examples of Hard Design
The best known examples of hard design are the game mechanical components of D&D. Hit points and AC. THAC0 for older players. Combat, character creation, spells. Balancing all of these into a functional whole is the work of hard design.
The really hardcore pure hard design tends to come from the world of Storygames. Often created under the slogal “System Matters”, these games are recognizable from the way the game book contains very little setting material. This article was sparked by reading one such game, the Finnish Blightburg by Mikko Karttunen.
Indeed, in the last fifteen or twenty years there’s been a huge explosion of creativity in the realm of hard design, with all kinds of games coming out. One well-known example is Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco which presents a set of mechanics which, if followed, lead to Fargo-style mayhem.
Fiasco is also an example of how many games that rely almost solely on hard design have a small soft nugget at the core in the form of a genre statement. Defining genre is a classic soft design technique meant to guide the participants in their creative improvisation. It’s soft design because it’s open-ended. Another mostly mechanics-based game doing this is Vincent and Meguey Baker’s Apocalypse World, where the genre statement is “Mad Max style post apo”.
In analyzing the role of soft and hard design we can look at how central the mechanical system is to the game experience. In many roleplaying games, you play the game by engaging with the mechanical system, like you would do with a boardgame. When you work the system, you’re playing the game.
A game like this is pretty much 100% hard design.
In other tabletop roleplaying games, you play scenes freeform and occasionally use the system to resolve specific issues. In these games, there’s a balance between hard and soft design. The system parts are governed by hard design and the freeform experience is guided by the game’s soft design.
Examples of Soft Design
Soft design consists of preparatory workshops and discussions, GM guidelines, player direction, setting material and visuals. It guides the participants into the right mental space so that when play begins, they do the right thing without being compelled to do so.
Indeed, when it works, soft design looks like game design magic: With no visible rules or mechanisms, the players behave exactly as needed to make the game work.
I first got into soft design reading the Storyteller advice sections of old Nineties World of Darkness games like Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse. They introduced ideas like foreshadowing and flashbacks and had a massive impact on how I understood roleplaying.
From a design point of view, these techniques were very soft: As the Storyteller, you used foreshadowing when you felt like it. There was no mechanical component; you had to use your social and aesthetic understanding to figure out when it was appropriate.
Indeed, in the World of Darkness games it sometimes felt like there was a war between hard and soft design, system and the world. The rhetoric of the game suggested one playstyle and the game mechanics another.
Vampire offers another very successful example of soft design, the Clans. The Tremere and the Toreador, the Ventrue and the Tzimisce have been embraced by the play community as much more than just elements of setting design. Players know the related clichés intimately.
The Swedish game company Fria ligan sets out core principles in many of its games such as Mutant: Year Zero and Tales From the Loop, basic axioms that guide the reader. They’re not hard rules. Rather, they’re ideas and concepts that, when followed, create the kind of play the game is about. Two examples from Tales From the Loop are:
“Your home town is full of strange and fantastic things.”
“Adults are out of reach and out of touch.”
The tradition of freeform scenario writing revolving around the Danish con Fastaval is probably the world’s most sustained, high quality example of wide scale soft design. Fastaval scenarios use character design, scene design, prose and facilitation to create powerful, unique roleplaying experiences.
I’ve played a few Fastaval scenarios that have features hard design elements such as points you can win or lose but those have been exceptions.
I made an attempt at publishing a roleplaying game relying exclusively on soft design with my game Chernobyl Mon Amour. It’s core activity is playing romance in the Zone of Alienation and the design tools revolve around setting, character and play goals.
Personally, much of my experience with soft design comes from the related field of larp. Although it works differently from tabletop roleplaying games on many aspects, you can make the same division of design methods there too. My native creative milieu of Nordic larp is almost 100% soft design based, using workshops, characters texts, fiction design and carefully selected metatechniques to create collective experiences.
It’s worth noting that D&D also has some soft design elements. When I started roleplaying in the early Nineties, these were the big campaign worlds like Dark Sun or Birthright. They encapsulated ideas and frameworks that players could then elaborate on.
In later years, the focus has shifted to big campaign adventures such as Curse of Strahd or Out of the Abyss. A mix of sort and hard design, these present premade encounters (hard design) and story elements (soft design).
Making the distinction between soft and hard design has a definite accessibility angle. However, it’s not a simple question of one being better than the other. Rather, both have advantages for different types of people.
Anecdotally, when people have talked to me about what they find difficult in roleplaying games, their comments have often been diametrically opposed. Because I’ve run and designed many “low-crunch” games (meaning, games largely based on soft design), people who find game mechanics off-putting talk to me. For them, charts and dice make a game hard to approach. These people find soft design accessible.
I’ve also experienced the opposite viewpoint. Running my low-mechanics games, I’ve heard comments from some players saying that they’d prefer a more solid game mechanical backbone. For these players, elements of hard design would increase accessibility.
This also came up in comments for my game Chernobyl Mon Amour. Some commentators were perplexed about how to run the game while others said that it was easier for them to run than almost any other game. This reflects what kind of design best serves the needs and capabilities of each player.
In terms of accessibility, it’s best to have a wide variety of design. This way, people can find the solutions that work for them. Since hard design is the dominant paradigm of current roleplaying game publications, I think it’s possible to open up roleplaying to new players by creating games using soft design.
Existing roleplaying games use soft and hard design in different ways. Many big, well known games use a mix of both. Some, like D&D, lean towards hard design while others, such as Mutant: Year Zero, to soft design. Individual game traditions such as Storygames and Fastaval can lean quite hard in one direction but that shouldn’t be seen as evidence of design incompatibility. Indeed, I’ve seen a lot of fruitful interaction between diametrically opposed design traditions.
I wanted to write this article because I found it difficult to locate my design practice in frameworks such as Ron Edwards’ GNS Theory. I wanted to create an analysis of design where I exist.
However, I hope these ideas are useful beyond the needs of my own design. A rich roleplaying field features all kinds of design ideas, often in direct contradiction to one another. All design must serve a creative purpose. All can result in beautiful games.