Kids Want Structure

Coming up in K12 education (I worked there for nearly a decade), it was a common enough refrain: Kids Want Structure. They work best when they have appropriate limits set on their choices, or are given a menu of choices to pick from, than when they are given full control over every decision. Many of the disciplinary policies (PBIS, Love & Logic, etc) stress this, and seem to have evidence that points to some success in helping to control classroom behaviors.

What on earth does this have to do with gaming, you might ask? Pretty much everything.

We say kids want structure like kids are some different species when in fact most people want structure regardless of their age. Broadly speaking, life is easier to navigate when your options are limited to a smaller number of easily ranked choices. Gaming is no different.

We talk a good game about wanting to have complete freedom in the games we play, an open sandbox world where the characters can do whatever they want to. We rail on on about railroads and quantum ogres, random encounters and fudged dice. But at the end of the day what we want is the illusion of freedom. We want to have been misled so skillfully that we don't even notice our noses being pierced and the brass ring inserted.

This doesn't end with players, though. GMs, like me, will tell you that there's nothing finer than a unified rule set, one that'll let you play in any genre, any time period, any way you like. And then we'll sit, stymied by choice paralysis, trying to decide just what the hell kind of game we want to run!

This explains, to some degree, the success of the narrative-styled games like Fate where some if not all of the world building is handed off to the players. If you as the GM are given a set of limits in the form of your player input, suddenly your creative juices begin to flow faster and you're able to build on the foundation they've set for you, using their perhaps simple and narrow ideas as a scaffold upon which to to unleash your own heretofore unknown plans.

But you don't need to be playing Hillfolk or Gumshoe or Dungeon World to experience these things - look to the number of people who picked up the earliest D&D 5th Edition stuff and immediately set to work creating new classes, new powers, new pacts - they didn't know they necessarily wanted it, but here was this beautifully rendered system full of implicit limitations, serving as the walls against which to bounce things to see what sticks.

Kids, grownups, gamers (who are kind of a hybrid of the two) - we all really enjoy having a structure to play within. It's easier, honestly, to write a fantastic poem when you're forced into iambic pentameter, four quatrains and a rhyming couplet, after all.


  1. Something I regard as a characteristic of the modern game is an elevator-pitch campaign, an answer to the question "who are we and what do we do". We're burned-out spies uncovering the vampire conspiracy. It lets players know what they're in for, but it also means that GM material can focus on the one supported campaign frame rather than trying to cater for different styles of game.

    Compare with ten or fifteen years ago when it was pretty much expected that you would include multiple campaign frames and let the GM pick one to develop (and GURPS, I'm glad to say, still does that).


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