Structures in RPG Play

No, I’ve still not had much practice with drawing digitally. Why do you ask?

There was originally a long, rambling moan about the lack of structure in 5e for anything other than hitting things with weapons or magic. I don’t think it was particularly constructive (or well-written enough to justify using anyway) so I got rid of it. My thoughts on it are probably better summed up by my comments on a reddit thread about rules-heavy / procedure-light games, which I’ve quoted at the end of this post should it be of interest. Otherwise ignore it.

Suffice to say, I think turn structures can really help a GM, both as a way to pace a game and as a guide for making player choices matter. If they choose to do something in a turn, it means they are not doing something else. Whether they are successful or not, time has passed – the more time they spend in an area the more they risk a potentially negative event, and the more resources other than time they might have to use up.

Anything can be framed in turns – just vary the length of the turns. (Even 5e recognises this – it just doesn’t do anything useful with it!) Ensure that there is a possible consequence of that length of time passing, even if the consequence doesn’t materialise.

And so follow the guidelines for turn-based gameplay I’m putting together for the next version of Off-White Cube which I hope will guide me if no one else in giving due emphasis to character actions. These turn structures don’t always have to be spelled out explicitly to the players, but it can help, even if it’s referred to diagetically (‘ten minutes have passed’ rather than ‘a perilous exploration turn has passed’).


Turn-based gameplay helps track time, and time depletes resources.

Even simple tasks become potential time sinks; if characters probe a room carefully for traps rather than take everything in at a glance, they are more likely to find anything hidden but run the risk of their torch running down, or being found by a guard.

Turns have a basic structure in terms of activity and distances, but play can switch between different lengths of time and distance. Smaller turns can be slotted into longer turns.

If the current focus is on a long journey, a turn might represent days, or even weeks. Carefully exploring inside some dangerous complex might have turns representing minutes, but if a scuffle breaks out a turn might become seconds long.

The world is alive and active. The GM can represent this by rolling a d6 every few turns, depending on the environment, to see if the party encounter anything (or vice versa). On a 1, there is an encounter.

If the party do anything that could draw more attention, the GM might make a separate encounter check.

If it becomes important to work out who can go first, roll a d6. On a 4-6, the players’ side can act first.

Ranges depend upon the turn length. The following descriptors are used:

Near → Far → Distant

During a turn, a character can…
…act in a Near area
…move to a Far area
…not affect a Distant area

The longer a turn, the larger the physical space Near and Far areas represent.

All characters get one significant action which would take up most of a turn (e.g. probing a floor for traps rather than just glancing around), usually limited to anything Near.

In most circumstances, moving from Near to Far counts as the character’s action.


Journeys across great expanses are a regular feature in fantasy tales. The GM may provide a map for players to examine and plan around, perhaps with a hex overlay.

Example: travel between settlements
Turn Length: around 8 hours

Near: a few miles around / same hex
Far: a fair trek away / adjacent hex
Distant: a day’s travel away

Check for Encounter: every turn
Sample Encounters: bandits, environmental hazards, peaceful caravans, monster lairs

Common Actions:
• travelling to a Far area
• exploring the Near area
• hunting or foraging for rations
• resting

Characters must rest and eat a ration once per day or gain a Burden.

Different Approaches: this turn structures assumes travel through sparse wilderness, with settlements the best part of a day’s travel away from each other. Turns can be divided into morning, afternoon and night.

For more densely-filled areas (with settlements or otherwise), increase the number of turns per day, or reduce them for greater travel distances. Adjust actions to suit.

Making a journey to a Far area usually takes around a third of a day. If the Far area has a known or easily-found location, exploring it may be included in the same action.

Harder terrain may need more turns to cross. Mounts allow the party to travel further across suitable terrain.

Some map features may be immediately obvious when the party arrive in an area. Others may need to be discovered. Searching an area for hidden points of interest requires a challenge roll. Anything found may be explored in the same action.

If the terrain allows for it, the party may spend part of the day scouring the area for food. A character can find d6-d6 rations of food.

Characters must rest and consume a ration once a day to avoid gaining a Burden of exhaustion. Only simple, non-exerting tasks are allowed.

To better recover from the travails of adventuring, the party can choose to set up camp. Resting the full day with no taxing interruptions allows a character to remove a Burden. Other characters may still hunt or explore, but cannot remove a Burden.


Villages, towns and cities are an opportunity for the party to rest, restock and generally prepare themselves for further adventures, but may themselves be the source of adventures.

Example: a fortified border town
Turn Length: about an hour

Near: a street
Far: the next district
Distant: the other side of town

Check for Encounter: every 3 turns
Sample Encounters: commotions, drunks, guards, merchants, thieves

Common Actions:
• travelling to another district
• purchasing from a vendor
• socialising with the locals
• resting

Different Approaches: this turn structure assumes a town you could cross in few hours at most.

You could have a larger settlement by increasing the number of turns to cross it, or have a turn cover a larger area. Similarly, you could have a smaller, more intricate village by reducing the length of a turn.

Making one’s way to another part of the town is usually a straightforward affair, and a party will notice most of the important features the settlement has to offer.

Local prices can vary from town to town, or even shop to shop. For most basic, cheap items, this is probably not worth representing, but for rarer, more expensive items the price might vary by d6-d6 x 10%.

Settlement inhabitants are a great source of information. Taverns in particular are regularly occupied by loose tongues, but characters may make themselves known to other informative members of the community such as town guard, elders and nobles, guild masters, the criminal underbelly, etc. Each may require specific to pass on their knowledge, from gold to favours.

Inns, patrons and friendly contacts may be able to provide sustenance and accommodation. Resting characters may transition back into the Long-Distance Travel turn for the purposes of resting to avoid exhaustion.


Exploring a dangerous environment inhabited by territorial people or creatures means moving slowly from area to area, ensuring the room or space ahead is safe.

Example: dungeon delving
Turn Length: about 10 minutes

Near: this room
Far: the next room or corridor
Distant: out of sight and earshot

Check for Encounter: every 2 turns
Sample Encounters: ominous echoing roar, patrolling orcs, restless undead, sudden gusts of wind

Common Actions:
• entering a room cautiously
• rushing from room to room
• searching a container or wall
• working at an obstacle

Different Approaches: this turn structure assumes ‘rooms’ (or caverns or chambers) are roughly 30 x 30ft in size, with flexibility either way. A handy rule of thumb would be to consider a Near area to be as far as a torch lights up in the darkness.

The fact that it takes up to ten minutes to move into a room represents the care the characters put in to checking the floor, walls and ceiling for traps that might be triggered by their presence. This should allow alert them to the presence of any such traps, though not to how to avoid or disarm them. That is up to the players to describe.

Characters may opt to move through rooms without such care. The GM will judge how many areas they may enter before the turn ends according to player description. Note that this way characters will not spot traps!

There will be features in rooms not obvious at first glance. Characters can put their time to examining a Near area, finding anything that could be reasonably found in ten minutes.

The GM may ask for challenge rolls for characters to tackle obstacles in their way without taking too long or drawing attention to themselves. Obstacles that can be overcome in ten minutes of consequence-free attempts usually don’t need a roll.


Sometimes there is no choice but to fight for dear life / honour / fun.

Example: bar brawl
Turn Length: mere seconds

Near: within tackling distance
Far: a short dash away
Distant: out of immediate reach

Check for Encounter: every 3 turns
Sample Encounters: bystanders, a cave in, a fire, reinforcements

Common Actions:
• manoeuvring
• enacting a stunt
• shooting across the scuffle
• fighting opponents

Different Approaches: turn-based combat abstracts actions into several seconds of activity, rather than single motions.

If the structure of one side performing all its actions and then the other doesn’t match the sense of a whirling scuffle, consider diving turns further with common actions as a guide:

  1. roll for turn order
  2. side 1 manoeuvres, then side 2
  3. side 1 enacts stunts, then side 2
  4. side 1 shoots, then side 2
  5. side 1 fights, then side 2
  6. start the next turn

Characters can use their few turn to move to a Far area. or engage a Near foe in melee. Engaged characters can only fight for the rest of this turn. A character engaging another may fight as part of the same action.

Characters may attempt to do other things while the combat goes on around them. Doing anything when there’s a fight happening all around is tricky. Challenge rolls may be required to accomplish a task under pressure. Failure can mean that the character must try again next turn.

Unengaged characters may safely shoot Near or Far unengaged targets.

Roll a d6 and inflict that much damage on the target (their defence might modify this). A 1 will never do any damage. If a 6 is rolled, roll again and add it to the total.*

Characters may fight any opponent they are engaged with.

Roll a d6 and inflict that much damage on the target (their defence might modify this). A 1 will never do any damage. If a 6 is rolled, roll again and add it to the total.*

* You could inflict (or receive) any amount of damage. Combat is scary!

Reddit Thread‘Rules light games are harder to GM than ones with codified play procedures.’

Idle Doodler:

On the basis that, judging from your replies to replies, by rules-light you meant procedure-light games, I’d definitely agree. A simple structure to fall back on allows a GM something of an autopilot mode (for want of a better term).

I find one major aspect of GMing to be managing the pace of a session, and a pre-existing set of procedures ensures that the GM (and other players also) has a framework within which to work.

For the last year I’ve been running an West Marches-esque open table campaign with Barrowmaze – each session is a group’s expedition out exploring. By close of play the party must be back in the safety of the hometown, which forms the overall structure. Within gameplay, we use these procedures*, dividing periods of play, essentially, into seconds, minutes and hours.

They are flexible enough to allow a lot of free form gameplay within them – social interactions with NPCs, for instance, would fall roughly into the minutes category, without being too rigid as to how many minutes (if the conversation was extensive, we might assume that it lasted more than the single turn, but we’re still in the same structure) – but help keep track of in-game time, which affects what risks they might face out in the wilds (more dangerous the further they travel / night is a bad time to be exploring carelessly / too leisurely a search of a room risks discovery).

Without these procedures, I’d either find myself trying frantically to accurately work out how much time has passed, or plucking a number randomly out of the air, or just hand wave the consequences. The first is time-consuming and pace-destroying (players sitting around), the second is inconsistent and unhelpful (players not having a firm basis upon which to make decisions) and the third is unsatisfying (players not being under pressure to make decisions – instead of evaluating whether they should push on or retreat to safety with their wounded allies, they can just camp right outside the lion’s den to heal up).

* the earlier versions of the structures described in this post.


If you don’t mind, could you explain what a procedure-light game is? I keep googling these terms and only coming up with this thread. Examples of comparisons between procedure-heavy against procedure-light would be helpful to me

Idle Doodler:

I suspect I won’t do it justice, but I’ll give it a go!

I’d say that a game lacking procedure is one that doesn’t give you much guidance as to ‘what happens next’.

Elsewhere in this topic u/Rowenstin mentioned that for D&D 5e,’outside combat the rules are “dunno, roll persuasion or something lol”. I feel all the effort is on me and that by throwing the rules away I’d lose very little.’

I’d say 5e has plenty of procedure / structure for combat, but for all that it talks about the three pillars of combat, exploration and social interaction, it doesn’t give you much on the latter two. We know to roll for initiative, that each turn everyone can move and use an action, bonus action and maybe reaction. If someone does nothing or finishes their turn, we move on to the next.

If the PCs talk the to a guard to try and get into a castle, and the guard refuses, what happens? Can they try again? As GM, we could probably work something out, but it’s all on us to work out what to do. The more experienced we are, the easier it is, but there’s no guidance for a newbie GM.

One area where I’ve found this particularly problematic (and particularly when I was using 5e to learn to GM) is searching a room:

— One character wants to look for secret doors and rolls Perception. They roll a 3. They don’t find anything.
— Another character, realising that was a low roll, chimes in and says they want to do the same. They roll an 8.
— A third character joins in. Rolls a 7.
— The first character asks to try again. They roll a 19 and finds / doesn’t find a secret door.

Throw enough dice at a search and eventually a high enough roll will appear. As an experienced GM I’d say fine, the first three searches all took a 10-minute turn to do. The second attempt by a character comes in the next turn, but because a turn has passed I’m going to roll to see if there are any wandering monsters – that way there can be consequence to character actions.

But as a new GM I wouldn’t have had the idea to structure the time it took to search specifically, especially after all the detail I got about 6-second rounds in combat.

To be honest, going by the way I first learned to GM via the 5e PHB and DMG, there wasn’t much point to asking players to roll dice for any checks outside combat – they would always come back round and try again at problems without any meaningful consequence. Pretty much everything outside combat was improv acting with dice deciding how long we spent on a particular scene.


There is an excellent series of articles on the Alexandrian on structure (/ procedure) in RPGs. This one in particular might give an idea of the lack of procedure, but I’d recommend all of them as a good read.

Definitely check out those articles on the Alexandrian if turn structures are of interest.

3 thoughts on “Structures in RPG Play

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s