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How Constraints Make Your Game Better

by Jae

Dungeons and Dragons is a very open game. Your players could decide to walk off in any direction, look at anything, or pick a fight with anyone. 

This is one of the primary hurdles that dungeon masters have to face in their games and it is often hard to plan around. You can’t prepare everything ahead of time, it’s just not possible. You also would have a difficult time running a whole game with no preparation. 

To combat this, as well as many other problems, you build your world within constraints. Let’s talk about how using constraints can solve the open world problem as well as many other common DnD issues.

What Are Design Constraints?

A constraint is an artificial limitation placed on something. When we talk about constraints in the context of DnD we are often talking about design constraints. A constraint is very helpful for your game development process because it rules out large sections of content that you don’t have to design. In a way, good constraints prune the possible scenarios that you would have to prepare for.

So what does a design constraint look like?

Maps are a great first example! A map is a codifying of the play space in which your players find themselves. Presumably, the map has edges that restrict your players from going further. Be it vast oceans or impassable mountains, these constraints limit where your players can reasonably go. 

Because of this you only have to design content for your game within the space of the map. That might be a huge area, but other constraints keep your sessions manageable, like the distance your players can travel in a session. 

Assuming you don’t just skip travel time, your players can only get so far from their starting point in each session you play, which further limits the places you might have to prepare for in a given session.

These are all spatial design constraints. They are based on player positions, but there are other types of constraints too.

There are rule based constraints, where the actual mechanics of the game tell players what they can and cannot do.

There are also meta constraints where you lay down boundaries outside of the game. An example of this is when a player at the table knows the solution to a puzzle, but their character does not and thus cannot share it.

Constraints come in all shapes and sizes, but they are almost always critical to the game.

The Rules are the Prime Constraints

If you really think about it, the rules of the game are what make the difference between you playing DnD or Pathfinder. They’re both roleplaying games, they both have very similar mechanics, but the rule set you use is slightly different. These are meta constraints that establish the game.

Even within DnD you might tell your players the type of session you’ve planned out. If you’re playing a mystery session you will run it very differently than a pure combat session or an exploration session. The context of the situation changes what your players can expect to do and it changes what you would expect to design.

This is all to say that even if you aren’t thinking about it, it’s usually what you can’t do that defines what something is.

Apply Constraint to Your Game Purposefully

When you can’t decide how you want to design a session, one of the most obvious problems you are faced with is the sheer open endedness of the whole thing. You could design anything, so what are you going to pick?

This is where self-applied constraints make your design process easier. If you start your session prep by choosing the type of session you want to run, you will narrow down the possibilities drastically. In a way, you are simplifying the possibilities into a narrow set of categories and then picking an option from that list. This is a critical part of your design process, but many dungeon masters gloss over this completely or don’t even realize they are doing it.

If you want to get better at game design in general one of the best things you can do is learn how to apply design constraints purposefully.

Knowing when you need to constrain your thinking and limit your options will help you make decisions faster and will often give you more space to think about what each decision means. A great example of this is limiting the monsters you might encounter in a dungeon. By cutting down the amount of monsters you can use, you’ll be forced to use those same monsters in more creative ways to achieve variety in your gameplay.

Knowing when to apply constraints takes practice. It’s something you get a feel for as you go. However, a good rule of thumb is that whenever you are faced with decision paralysis, you should apply a constraint. How do you know what constraint to apply? Typically, you’ll want to apply the constraint that narrows the scope of the game down the most without taking away all of the options.

A good example of this would be in session prep for an escort mission. You might not know what your players would run into on the road and have trouble narrowing down your options. So you can apply an environmental constraint, like having them traipse through a desert, and this will limit the monsters you can use dramatically.

If a restraint is too restrictive you’ll know right away when you discover you have removed all the options. In our same example, if you apply an environment that only has a single type of monster, you’ve probably restricted it too far and your constraint is too specific.

Another way you’ll want to apply constraints to yourself is in a meta design sense. An example of this would be a framework or checklist of items that your adventure must have. If you know a session needs three combat sessions, a travel section, a camp section, and a narrative section, then you know exactly what you need to build and you will have to work your session into the correct shape to make it fit.

This might seem arbitrary at first, but forcing yourself to design within a framework will make you think about how each piece fits together. You might even limit yourself to a set of game mechanics that you have to use in every section of your session to force creativity around that segment.

The Players are the Keys

You should consider your players’ abilities when designing a session. By setting a goal to include at least once specific obstacle that each player is well equipped to handle, you’ve constrained yourself in a way that will force you to make every player feel like a valuable part of the team. 

Often dungeon masters will use stock sessions or prebuilt scenarios that have not been designed around your specific players, and this can make a lot of the problems and obstacles feel generic. Stock, off the shelf adventures have to be designed in a way that prevents any random party from becoming stuck. But your adventurers might have obstacles that only one or two players are capable of overcoming, which further engages them in the session.

These types of smart constraints are driven by the information you have on hand. Things like your players’ characters and their abilities can inform your design choices a lot. Other types of smart restraints come from existing story elements, geography, and other contextual items from your game. Even meta knowledge about what types of sessions your players like can help you use constraints creatively to ensure that your sessions are engaging for your specific players.

Breaking the Rules and Defying Constraints

Sometimes constraints are a bit too restrictive. You might have put a lot of limits on your design process and through that exhausted the possibilities very quickly. Once you have done this you have an opportunity to mix things up that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Breaking a constraint after sticking to it for a long time can be used to add a point of interest to your game. For example, if you are in an area that only has a few types of monsters, throwing in a monster that clearly doesn’t belong will stick out to your players. This allows you to build in reasons for why the obvious limitations of any area were broken and can lead to interesting story developments.

You can do this with mechanics too. If you restrict yourself to a set of mechanics for a whole session, you can switch things up by adding in contrasting mechanics. Let’s say you give your players a staff that makes heavy blocks appear that allow them to reach higher areas or cross gaps. This is a mechanic you can get a ton of use out of. After you’ve done all the things you want to do with this, you can switch things up by changing the staff in a way that removes blocks instead. Your players will have to think about all the puzzles they went through and then dissect the implications of reversing the mechanics instead. This is just one example of flipping a mechanics constraint in a way that can lead to more gameplay experiences later on.

NPC and Dialogue Constraints

We can’t end our discussion about using constraints without talking about narrative and dialogue. The sheer open endedness of DnD is terrifying to a lot of DMs, but never is it more challenging than in NPC conversations. Your players will ask you the most ridiculous questions and your NPCs have to have answers!

When building an NPC it’s hard to imagine the whole scope of the character’s life, and you shouldn’t have to! The broad strokes should be the constraints that you use to build your NPCs and avoid being caught off guard with silly questions.

NPC constraints usually fall into two major camps: background and objectives.

Background constraints are things like where the character is from, what they do for a living, and what their culture is like. These are characteristics you should apply broadly, as they give you hints at answers your players could ask any NPC.

Objective constraints are goals, motives or ideals. These are the things that inform your NPCs’ actions. In its simplest form, this would be something like alignment. Good characters (generally) won’t do evil things. The longer you plan on keeping the NPC around, the more nuanced these constraints should be. 

Personal goals could be defined broadly (acquiring wealth) or narrowly (taking revenge on the goblin that ruined the NPCs 10th birthday). These constraints allow you to answer what a character would do by comparing it against the rubric of their goals and objectives. Does this action get them closer to their goal? If so, they would do it. If the action takes them further from their goal, they would be less likely to do it.

A simple but robust NPC can be constrained into a very easily improvised character with just the following:

This simple list of items really restricts what is reasonable for your NPC to do or say, and those are the good kind of restrictions. They limit the types of answers you could give to any question down to a reasonable amount of choices.

Constraints Are Abstract

Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with the endless possibilities your game could offer, remember you can always narrow your scope. If you don’t know what to do, start dropping options until you’re back at a manageable number of choices. Placing constraints on yourself seems limiting at first, but it actually frees your creativity so much more. 

These limits are also fake. You put them in place as another tool in your toolkit and you can remove them just as easily. No matter if you’re limiting your playing field, environment, rules, or mechanics, you’re still helping yourself refine your game and working towards removing the looming distraction of an open world. Give self imposed design constraints a try, you’ll be surprised just how much they help you in crafting your sessions.

Happy DMing!

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