I recently had the privilege to attend a presentation given by Orion Black (@dungeoncommander on twitter) on Circle Theory, while I was at Orcacon 2020. While I wasn’t able to stay for the practice portion of the presentation due to some noise sensitivity issues, I did learn quite a bit, and as soon as I was able, I sat down to “diagram out” my own upcoming game, Brinkwood: The Blood of Tyrants using Circle Theory.
It is my belief that one strength of Circle Theory is in illustrating to the designer where the most important intersections of their game lie, and which mechanics are essential, and which may be perhaps removed from a design in order to “focus” it better.
In Circle Theory, we use a series of concentric circles to represent different circles of influence and impact upon a story, game, or other narrative work. At the center lies the protagonist, or protagonists, of the story. For Brinkwood, I identified the player characters, termed “brigands”, as the center of my game.
Working outwards, we get to the next circle, which describes the setting or location that our story takes place in. These are, critically, the elements the protagonist will be interacting with directly. If our protagonist cannot interact with it, it most likely doesn’t belong in the second circle.
Here, I did my best to map out the “core” elements of the world I felt the players would be interacting with in a direct, mechanical way.
Finally, we move on to the third circle, which Orion describes as the “Condition” of the story. The elements of the world that are relatively immovable, or factual about the world. Elements that, if they were to shift, would represent massive upheaval and change.
I thought it best to think of these conditions as “material conditions”, pulling on my background in marxist and anarchist readings. From this perspective, these are are events, conditions, and circumstances that impact the world in meaningful, large ways. In our own world, needing to pay bills and rent are material conditions, as is needing to eat. When leftists talk about addressing material conditions, this is what we mean: impacting how people live their lives in real, tangible ways, rather than just philosophizing.
So, what are the material conditions in Brinkwood? Well, they aren’t so different from our own. Rent, starvation, hunger, oppression, and bloodsucking capitalist vampires. It is the overthrow of these material conditions (and their replacement with better ones) that forms the fundamental goal of Brinkwood, and so we include them in our outer-most circle.
So far, pretty interesting, but not exactly ground-breaking. The next part is where things get interesting. In Orion’s analysis, individual “scenes” and arcs of story consist of movement between these circles. An interesting story will not just exist in the first two circles, but will “ping” around, bouncing from circle to circle, from level to level.
These transitions, from a game design perspective, can be mechanical. Our mechanics dictate how our players interact with these different circles, as well as how they interact with one another.
In Brinkwood, the moment-to-moment action is driven in Forays and Free Play, where the Brigands interact with the second circle. But there is also a meta-phase, of Downtime and Campaign Turns that dictate how the second and third circle interact.
Furthermore, by mapping our mechanics onto the transitions between these elements, we can discover their utility within the model, as well as see if any mechanics are useless. Here, I’ve mapped out my own mechanics:
Notice how the lines cross both ways, with the outer circle and inner circles feeding back on themselves. It is important that the material conditions of the world impose themselves upon the action, as well as the setting impacting the protagonists.
I hope this breakdown has illustrated one of the utilities of Circle Theory, and how it can be applied, in a game-design scenario, to help you create games that are deep in their interactions, but not bloated mechanically. My hope is that other designers will adopt Circle Theory as a framework for thinking about their own games, and decide which mechanics aid their game in creating compelling narratives, and which might be better left on the cutting room floor.