Designing with Science! Or Hierarchy Theory for Dummies

edited September 2010 in Story Games
So, I am a little bit of an oddball in the design community I believe. My day job is in government science (ecology) where I deal with large environmental systems. As a product of this, I have been exposed to a lovely little piece of ecological systems theory that might be intriguing from an RPG design perspective.

Hierarchy Theory is based on the principle that everything occurs at multiple nested scales. For instance, you may have a Kingdom (Level 1). This kingdom contains a number of different components, including Forests (1.1), Plains (1.2), Farmland (1.3) and Urban (1.4).

Each component is broken into sub-sections. Urban land is broken into Village of Northheim (L1.4.1), the Village of Niflheim (L1.4.2) and the keep on the borderlands (L1.4.3). Each of those is broken down further and further.

The lower in the hierarchy, the easier it may change and the faster any change can take place. Changing the Kingdom is very hard to do and might take a generation. Changing the character of urban lands may be easier; bandit raids or famine could change the character of the urban lands. Changing the state of a single village would be even easier; destroying a building or adding a new well could change the character of the village within a week.

The interesting thing in my books is that a change at a lower level can nudge a higher level to change it's nature. Bandits burn one building in one village and people in all of the urban areas become more wary. Continued bandit attacks lead to the entire Kingdom taking note and pressure being placed on the king to do something.

The extra little conceptual bit to the theory is that each component can change state, if enough pressure is placed on it. Enough stress and Northheim might change from being a happy and economically beneficial village into a fearful dysfunctional one which is a drain on the local economy (1.4) and of concern to the Kingdom (1). Each component of the greater whole is a giant switch that can be toggled.

Just to finish off this overwrought post, consider that each component can be more then physical. Physical, socio-political and economic elements can be their own components in the greater whole. You might convince people (political) to take matters into their own hands and form a militia since the local knights clearly aren't doing their jobs. The political affects the physical, which in turn affects economics.....

Does this rambling, based on a scientific underpinning, inspire any ideas in the community? Any other games out there that run with similar concepts? Could you write a novel game with this?


  • I think you want Aria, the only RPG designed by sociology majors for sociology majors. I actually have a couple of copies, which is good given how short the print run was, and I love it for the reading but I could never actually play the thing because of exactly how intricate and interwoven Hierarchy Theory tends to lead the results.

    Universalis is kind of the flip side, recapitulating the ontology, as it were. Given that you can build things from the bottom up with a sort of object-inheritance hierarchy, you can get excellent mechanical/narrative modules which work together nicely without, necessarily, going off into crazy-land.

  • I could see a system like this working well for a gangster game. You would use this type of system to call down authorities similarly to the Grand Theft Auto game. As you catch the attention of different authorities it activates or alters other law enforcement organizations going all the way to the top if you're successful.

    On the other hand, it could work well for a revenge game where you go after a crime family, starting with a low level enforcer and ending with the boss.
  • The other aspect that sparked my interest was treating the base level as "the character". Affecting a character's philosophical outlook or convictions is harder then affecting their current moods or opinions. You know, to encourage the "I stab him in the hope with my ennui" aspect of a game.
  • Jason, I really like this. I must think about it further.
  • I imagine a game where setup involves drawing up a matrix with all these elements named and described in it, and then as you change lower-level elements using game mechanics, you're able to flip higher level pieces that you couldn't change directly. If you could tie this in to something like Aspects and clusters in Diaspora, that would be neat. You could play to clean up town, or to turn it into your gangster paradise. It would be interesting for a game like Vampire, too, where the city is practically a character in the game.

    First person who takes this theory and expresses it as a fun set of game procedures wins!
  • Hmm, one of my first design concepts for Game chef was actually using this principle, though I have abandoned it. It was using the City, Skin and Edge, involving social change within a society. Showing skin is taboo, but it encourages change, The PC's are youth who are trying to regain freedom by removing their shackles and showing their true selves to the world. At the same time, they are stuck to the Edges of the city where the enforcement is more lax.

    So, mechanically people would be trying to change themselves and change small portions of the city in order to start moving society on a whole. Social conflict based on the PC's flipping these switches in society.

    Free for use if anyone likes that idea and wants to implement the thing.
  • This grand picture of Hierarchy.... pictorially would be manageable for me. With as you say toggle switches which allow interaction between the nested scales.

    But whats important for me is the creative responses at the toggles and effects through the system, from individuals, groups and ideas (rumours).

    Then you got everyones perspective on how this multi level nesting system works! A lowly peasant to the man at the top or as some believe the alien Lizard race behind it all.

    This would be great for a game where outcomes from player/s input came creatively from the Nesting system and rippled throughout it.
    That would be big player input though!!

    Could you illustrate this theory for a dice mechanic and maybe counter moving system?
  • I am reminded of populations of neurons now. I could see a relationship map where every time you activate a node, it impulses all the nodes its connected to. You compare the impulse with the threshold for its connectors to also activate. You influence the system by adding modifiers to the connectors, changing thresholds, creating new connections.
  • "I imagine a game where setup involves drawing up a matrix with all these elements named and described in it, and then as you change lower-level elements using game mechanics, you're able to flip higher level pieces that you couldn't change directly."

    A Matrix, you say?
Sign In or Register to comment.