Friday, October 14, 2011


Recently a friend with a flair for game design was talking about a game-mastering concept for role-playing games. He called it “Pillars”. (I’ll paraphrase in the hopes of doing this great idea justice, and in the hopes that I don’t cut into game sales when he decides to market his ideas.) The idea is that any component of a campaign world has pillars that support it. They are plot elements that may be addressed by the players when dealing with the component. They can have almost any scale.

A world might have pillars like:
  • Magic use has a destructive effect on life and the environment in this world.
  • The world has been devastated by abuse of magic, and so society reviles spellcasters.
  • The world is ruled by a select caste of elites who have mastered magic in spite of the consequences, and work to ensure that they retain exclusive rights to its practice.
  • The world has been abandoned by divine powers that might intercede on behalf the beleaguered populace.
  • Resources are scarce and the inhabitants of the world spend much of their time and energy on simple survival.
A non-player character might have pillars like:
  • This character was threatened with an edged weapon as a child and developed a near-superstitious fear of such weapons.
  • This character has devoted much of his life and energy towards the accumulation of book-based lore. He regards books as the greatest of treasures.
  • This character has developed a love of animals, and a knack for handling them, even when they are loathsome and/or dangerous in the extreme.
  • This character avoids centers of civilization, and any large gathering of people (of any kind) is something he avoids at all costs.
A dungeon might have these pillars:
  • Because of the moisture levels in the native rock, all the wood used in doors, containers and support structures is subject to rot.
  • Torrents of water travel down most of the vertical passageways of this dungeon, draining out of the artificial lake that hides its entrance.
  • The underground river that has its source in the artificial lake emerges at the base of a nearby cliff. The cliff hides the dam that formed the lake, built across a narrow canyon.
  • Many of the deeper chambers of the dungeon, sealed off by the underground torrents and pools, have existed in a sort of stasis for many years. Preserving their contents in strange ways.
Pillars are the strengths (and weaknesses) that “hold up” a component of the story. Rather than confront the component directly, players may instead choose to discover and/or exploit the alternative solutions or opportunities that pillars represent. They provide a GM with story hooks that lead the players into more immersive experiences. And, in some cases, represent alternative paths towards earning experience point rewards than traditional combat encounters or skill challenges.

One of the challenges when creating a campaign is giving the world something like real depth. Modules and other published materials are sometimes criticized for “railroading” players. This usually occurs because the author envisioned one specific path through the events and encounters of the planned session. Pillars will help a GM sketch out some alternative paths. As players explore, they may discover pillars in the game. Pillars give players choices when they’re deciding how to deal with obstacles. A direct route, or perhaps they want to undermine one of the pillars? Choices add depth to the world the players are exploring, and create a greater sense of immersion.

Think about that when you’re plotting out your next gaming session. What are the pillars for the different components of your session? What would happen if, instead of attacking the troll guarding the magical gate, your players decided to convince the troll they were a maintenance team sent to verify that the gate was intact? Perhaps you included some pillars in your notes about the troll? For instance, what if the troll held more intelligent beings in awe, assuming that folk who used big words must be in charge? Sure, you can play through such events on the fly. But a few pillars, sketched out in your notes, give you some fuel for the creative fire of improvisation.

I’m intrigued by the potential for calculating experience awards based on pillars toppled or identified. Then it becomes an integral, game-mechanical component. Looking for metrics to figure out how far your players have progressed? Want to know when player choices might set off a reaction? How many pillars are left? When events in the world occur as a result of cumulative choices (rather than just as immediate responses), that makes the world seem more real as well.


  1. When he pitched this idea to me, I loved it, and I love it even more now that you've explained it in detail. It's a great, system-independent concept that can be integrated into a system if desired, or just used as an abstraction to help plan stories, NPCs, or even individual encounters.

    On precaution must be to allow the pillars to expand player options, not restrict them. For example, say the players are hired to assassinate a nobleman, and one of this pillars is his excellent bodyguard. If the players would rather sneak past the bodyguard, instead of confronting the encounter head on, that should be allowed - just make it a skill challenge to bypass the guard rather than a combat encounter.

  2. I think of the pillars as outline material. Players always have the option to play "between" pillars. Your example is great because it illustrates the idea that pillars may have their own pillars! The Chatty DM and Dave the Game (Dave Chalker) have talked in their blogs about the "5x5 method". It's similar to the pillars idea, but (as I understand it) it emphasizes potential story arcs, branching off from existing ones.

    With pillars, the story is more likely to come from the players. As you've illustrated, their choice of actions becomes the story.

  3. I agree that this is a valuable approach.

    Restricting players options is fine as long the players continue to have meaningful options that include avoidance of the negative effects.

    In superstitious society that hates wizards, how do you allow the wizard PC to have a good time when he's the only player that's hampered?

  4. David, thanks for commenting. I don't think of pillars as restricting player options. They're just triggers for other options. Like rolling a d20 to hit is a simulation, pillars simulate real-world depth.

    The anti-magic world I outlined in the post is the Dark Sun campaign setting. Any player stepping into it would be advised of the problems with magic. Now, if it wasn't Dark Sun, or if you set it up so that a player had to discover these limitations through game play, then you would both face some challenges. I think it might be fun, provided the GM previewed with the players that some standard assumptions about fantasy settings would be challenged in the course of the campaign.

  5. 'Pillars' sound a fair bit like FATE's aspects -- evocative descriptive elements that indicate the nature of the entity (person, place, thing) under consideration.

    It looks like pillars delve a little more into how the elements came about or suggest how they work, but almost all of the above could be pretty easily turned into aspects.

    Aspects are made to be used to gain advantage (or inflict disadvantage -- and there are reasons why you want aspects that can be 'used against you') in various situations.

    It might be worth checking it out. You can get 'Free Fate' (think "like the d20 SRD rather than the full books") at

  6. Keith, thanks for the link! I've chatted with folks about FATE, but I need to look at it more to get a better sense of it. It sounds like Aspects may be a little more player-originated than pillars, but that's just a first impression. I will check 'em out!

    One thought that occurred to me based on your comment was that pillars could be player-sourced in that, if your players come up with a cool or logical concept in an encounter, why not incorporate it into the game?

    For example, in the troll encounter I cited, the players assumed the role of a city maintenance team because the troll appeared to be in the employ of the city in some way. It was therefore reasonable to assume that the troll had some experience with officials and taking orders. I hadn't written it explicitly that way, but it made perfect sense. That's could be an example of a player-created pillar regarding that troll.