Game Design: Finding the Premise

Credit: Rishi Bandopadhay

Credit: Rishi Bandopadhay

For me, a good game is tight and lean. It’s tight in that it tells me a particular story and wants me to have a particular experience. It’s lean because there is nothing extraneous–all of the game mechanics, the workshop, etc.–aims at heightening that core experience. In other words, the game has a strong premise and does what it takes to realize that premise during play.

I realize, of course, that this is only one style of game, but it’s the kind that sings to me. Having a premise is not part of some unified theory of game design–but it can be extremely useful when designing a game.

Although I’m relatively new to game design–my second American freeform game is due out this year–I’ve edited a bunch, played a bunch, and I have longtime experience with other forms of narrative, such as short stories, novels, etc. What I haven’t done is read a bunch of game design theory, and I think it’s pretty likely that someone else has written about this before. I’m not meaning to crib anyone’s ideas, so feel free to post think pieces or other sources in the comments.

For me, the experience of designing a game goes hand in hand with finding a premise.

What’s a Premise?

Premise is a term I’ve borrowed from some of the theory around novel writing; it’s the core of your story. It is what your game is trying to get at. It is the universal human truth embedded in your story. A premise is what your game is about, and you should be able to state it in a sentence or two without referencing the setting or plot.

Strong premises are usually couched in universal terms–they are a way of describing how your game taps into the shared experience of being human. They are part of what makes your game accessible to a wide audience. I might not be able to relate to being a mutant with superpowers, but anyone can relate to themes of loneliness and isolation. In the words of my journalism prof Samuel Freedman, great art boils down experience to the periodic table of human emotion. Premises express which periodic elements you are striving for in a game.

Therefore, premises usually explain what your players will experience. If the premise of my game is “pride leads to downfall,” then as a game designer I need to find a way to generate those emotions in the players using the tools of structure, character descriptions, setting, and mechanics.

I think “premise” is a slippery concept, so I wanted to give some examples to help explain what I mean.

Examples of Premises


  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: The psychic wounds of war prevent healthy relationships.
  • Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein: (Male) Friendship conquers all.
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Society gaslights intelligent women.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: One must overcome one’s character flaws to find love.

TV Shows:

  • Xena: You can’t escape the sins of your past.
  • Law & Order: Crime doesn’t pay, but sometimes legal loopholes condemn or liberate the undeserving.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High school is hell.
  •  Star Trek: The Next Generation: Humanity and decency are universal values.


  • Fiasco by Jason Morningstar: Outsize ambition and poor impulse control lead to disaster.
  • Under My Skin by Emily Care Boss: New love alters old relationships forever.
  • Robin’s Friends by Anna Westerling: We must rise beyond petty conflicts to sustain meaningful friendship.
  • Let the World Burn by Petter Fallesen: Romantic passion can be a destructive force.

Some observations about the premises

Of course, the premise of a work will depend a bit on your point of view, and what you see as essential to the narrative–I can imagine disagreement with many of the premises above. But you get the idea of what a premise is.

You’ll also note that there are nearly infinite stories that could be told about each of the premises. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco particularly proves this point. In Fiasco, players select a setting–it could be a film noir setting, a setting more like Fargo, an 80s wedding, or a rock band on tour, and then build their session within the constraints of the structure of the game. Though these different settings produce different individual sessions, the core of the game, that concept of exploring failure, remains a through-thread. The premise is robust, and it’s the individual trappings–the setting, plot, and characters–that make each instance of the game unique.

Premises help you get to universal human truths, and through setting and characterization, you make those truths particular and concrete.

How Does Premise Help Me Design a Game?

For me, the process of designing a game is the process of finding the premise–refining the premise also means which elements should be added to or pared from the narrative.

Let me explain with an example. About a year ago, I had the idea of making a game about an artists’ colony. In the US, artists’ colonies are retreats where artists go for a number of weeks to focus exclusively on their work, and often result–like many other closed institutional societies–in a social fishbowl. I wanted to replicate the colony experience in a few hours for some larpers, and maybe get people inspired to work on their own artistic projects.

My first draft of this game was heaving on the bells and whistles,  each mimicking a different aspect of the colony experience. The game had 7 identical periods! People were switching characters all the time! There was self-directed meditation! And people drew from stacks of cards to create characters.

Though the play storm went great, the first play test was a failure. I had reproduced the feeling of a colony with some success, but the game had no shape and often felt tedious to the players; I had a long way to go in concentrating the reality of colony life into an experience that would be interesting to play for a few hours. The game’s lack of focused premise was part of the problem–in larp, as in literature, it’s necessary to concentrate real life, and usually, to weed out the boring parts. I was generically reproducing colony life rather than working with one particular aspect or dynamic, which is probably all it’s possible to tackle in a four-hour game.

So I asked myself, “what interests me most about this setting?” as a way of zooming in on a premise. I decided that the most interesting part of the colony experience to me was the juxtaposition between working on intensely personal writing during the day, and then switching into cocktail-party mode at night. I suspected this juxtaposition had forged fast bonds between me and other colony artists.

And that became my premise: Switching between reliving a trauma and cocktail-party sociability bonds people.

With that in mind, I looked at my over-complicated game design and stripped away the mechanics that made no sense–the character-switching, for example, which mimicked the way people were entering and leaving the colony all the time, but didn’t support the core experience I wanted to produce.

The most recent play test of the stripped down and refined game, at Intercon in March, went much more smoothly, and I will publish the game, called In Residency, later this summer.

You can also use a premise to add elements to the game. If this is a game about uncertainty driving unpleasant choices, then I better find a way to make the characters feel that uncertainty, and I better give them some unpleasant choices to make.

All of which is to say that I rarely begin with a fully-formed premise–though some game designers might!–rather, through the process of designing I discover what my premise is, and that in turn tells me what to add, what to keep and what to cut from the game.

So for me, to find the premise is very much to design the game.

The Premise Should Be Accessible to All Players

Once you have identified the premise of your game, it’s important to ensure that all players can access that premise through their characters. If this game is about magic, and five of the six players get to use magic, the sixth one is going to feel cheated, left out, and pissed.

This does not mean that every player has to have the same experience. Premises are flexible, and it is possible to engage with them on many different levels. If the premise of the game is “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I could give group A absolute power and let group B bear the consequences of the ensuing corruption. Both groups would be engaging with the premise through different angles. But what I wouldn’t want to do would be to make a group C off in the corner that wasn’t affected by the dynamic between A and B.

Sometimes, you can evoke the presence of something through its absence–and this is totally OK so long as you do it intentionally and not by accident, and it’s OK if it works for the narrative, and for the players who portray that character. For example, if this is a game about nine friends falling in love, and one is left out, that might be OK–perhaps that character ends up as a sounding board for the others, which heightens the theme for most of the players, and gives the unloveable character a longing for love that will never come. The absence of love then becomes a presence in the game that serves to mirror and reflect the core premise, adding an additional dimension to the overarching narrative.

Premises and Sandbox Design

I think premises work best when you’re going for a strongly narrative design, as opposed to a sandbox design. In a narrative design, the designer drives the arc of the story with the tools available, but in sandbox design, the designer gives the players the tools for fun, and lets them use those tools to create their own narrative.

As a player, I have a tough time with sandbox design* for two reasons–I end up with decision paralysis (should I do this? or this? what am I supposed to be doing? oh god! everyone is having fun and I’m left out because I’m doing it wrong), and because I like knowing where the arc of the story is going. In a sandbox game, you often have to create that narrative for yourself.

So in sandbox design, I think it is largely up to the players to create their own premises, while the designer decides what tools to place within the environment. So I’m not sure whether asking premise-based questions would help much with this sort of design.

Some Questions to Help You Focus Your Premise

What are the stakes?

How would you make me care about this game if I wasn’t interested in the setting? What’s the universal human story here?

What one element of this situation are you MOST interested in?

What elements of the game are working best? How can you focus the game on them more strongly? What sort of experience are those elements creating?

What do you want your players to be saying about your game after it’s over? What’s the take away?

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about novelistic premises–and I think there is some ground worth plumbing here, you might check out Six Ways to Define the Premise of a Story, which details methods for inventing and describing premises. Per the comments, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing also contains some wonderful stuff.

*This is not to say that sandbox design is not cool and wonderful and worth exploring, even for me, just that it’s not my favorite because I have a hard time making my own fun in game settings.

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13 thoughts on “Game Design: Finding the Premise

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for posting.

    Sydney Pollack also used the terms “template” or “spine” to refer to the central concept driving a story:

    I particularly like the idea of analyzing characters in terms of how they relate to the particular premise / template / spine. You can absolutely have freedom to create characters that don’t fit the spine, provided they are in opposition or otherwise in relief to it.

    For example, my game “The Whispering Road” is about young people learning to help each other. One of the “classes” is the Mentor, an older character charged with helping another character mature. The Mentor doesn’t usually have much character development, but instead exists to push the other characters towards the game’s premise.

  2. My favourite form of premise is either a hard question, or a statement so bold that it is, in effect, a question. Such as, say, “Faith and friendship get us through hard times”, but then having the game itself test both belief and the bonds of friendship to the brink of destruction.

    On sandboxy games, I know a couple that do very interesting stuff with premise. Apocalypse World has premise cunningly built into the character types (“playbooks”), like the operator who just can’t keep everyone happy, or the gunlugger who is great at hurting people but is stumped by problems that can’t be shot — and when that’s the case, all problems start looking like nails to your great big hammer.

    Here’s a link to a Danish/Fastavaller discussion of using premise in game writing, using Lajos Egri as the point of departure.

    • Troels: I like questions too. Over on G+ someone asked me what I thought the premise of The Curse was, and the best I could come up with was something like, “How much uncertainty can you tolerate when the stakes are high?”

      Brent: I like knowing about the Pollack–I’ll have to check that out. But I want to give you a little pushback on the idea of supporting characters. To me, at least, I want all the characters to have skin in the game, so to speak. I think thematic echoes can be interesting, but I’d argue for a way of really making the premise directly relevant to each of the characters. For me, a character that is interesting to play has at least some potential for change, even if it is potential that is missed. In fiction-writing terms, this is often a “last chance to change” story. Anyway, I haven’t read The Whispering Road, so I don’t know whether I’m reading something into your comment that’s not there!

      Edit: PS. I looked up Lajos Egri, and sure enough, The Art of Dramatic Writing is one I read in grad school for fiction-writing. He definitely deserves a mention on the source list.

  3. Great article, which has got me rethinking some of the projects I’m currently working on in terms of theme.

    I’m not convinced these ideas can’t be applied to sandbox play, if by sandbox you mean a game that isn’t being driven forward by the GM. Lots of games that aren’t GM-driven (you mention Fiasco, which is an example) use a range of tools to put everyone on the same page in terms of what the game is about and what they should therefore be focusing on with their creative contributions. For those games, those tools are a central part of the design and definitely susceptible to the kind of questions you’re asking above.

    PS I just realised you may be using these terms in a LARP-specific way. So possibly my comment is at cross-purposes.

    • Josh,

      You make a fair point that has been raised in some other threads on social media, so I’ll say part of what I said in my G+ post:

      I totally agree that sandboxes can have premises sometimes. But I think it’s a matter of degree. In a sandbox game, the players end up doing what they choose. I’ve played games of the sandboxy game Dogs in the Vineyard that have ended up being about lots of different things. They’ve been interesting games in their own right, and I’ve learned a lot from playing.

      But my favorite thing is knowing where the story is going and feeling specific feelings of the type the game designer thinks it is important for me to feel within the scope of this premise, because for me, at least, those feelings usually end up being more intense than the feelings I might get from sandbox play. And I think that achieving that effect requires a level of specificity in set-up that is not compatible with sandbox play?

      I’d also say that something like Fiasco scripts the relatively pretty tightly through the use of structure, compared to a game that presents players with a dilemma and leaves it up to them to solve it or whether they want to explore the environment further. The premise that things end badly is consistent throughout the games, yes, but the particular shades of disaster are left open. The specific instantiations are left open by design. It’s a cool idea.

      But the larps I’m talking about script that particular instantiation and have, I think, less replay value but provide intense emotional experiences very reliably. It’s possible to have games of Fiasco where the disasters are more socially uncomfortable, or more violent–there is a lot of latitude. But if you play, say, the jeepform game Doubt, then you are definitely going to experience a relationship challenged by temptation. Sure, there are still possible shades of play here in terms of why the relationship is dysfunctional, but the overall experiences are much more similar to each other than to games of Fiasco. (Take it from someone who has GMed this over two dozen times).

      So can premises be useful in designing tabletop games? I’m sure they can–but I think they are even more vital to the design of freeform and larp scenarios of this tightly-focused style.

      And perhaps what Troels said above feels more relevant again here–questions make good premises for roleplaying games, because in this medium you have to leave some choices up to the players–it is a participatory medium.

      I’ll also say that I’m not interested in making a general statement about premises–just about how they interface with my very favorite sort of game design.

  4. That’s really interesting, Lizzie. I haven’t played the kind of LARP you’re describing, I don’t think. I’ve certainly run LARPs with very strong set-ups, in which everyone is handed a character with defined motivations and which can therefore be expected to have predictable interactions with other pre-defined characters; but what you’re describing sounds significantly less freeform even than those (and most of the LARPs I have played have been a million miles away from that).

    Is it fair to say that the style of LARP you’re talking about is like sketching out the story in broad brush strokes, but leaving the players to improvise the detail of each scene? Or am I mis-imagining what this sort of game must look like?

  5. Larp is such a broad church these days: the spectrums between rigid and open character setup, and between strong and no designer/GM narrative control, are two of the sliders on the standard mixing desk*.

    It might be argued that a game with strong narrative control via predefined scenes etc should be called a freeform (American / continental European meaning) rather than a ‘larp proper’: but my own view is that if you’re role-playing live, then it’s larp.

    * See:

  6. Someone made an interesting argument before that a lot of games with strong narrative actually sit in a midpoint between what you call the sandbox and direct emphasis on a book-style premise; instead of phrasing the premise as a statement, they transform it into a question, and the inherent uncertainty within the game is resolved in play: Does using inhuman power always lead to doom? When is self destructive behaviour the right thing to do? Can love defeat self loathing? Can the powerless become truly better than their society, maybe even save it?

    You can still play to that premise by pushing towards that uncertainty, using the tools the game provides. And by the end, you have transformed that into your own answer, “yes it can, by this means”, or “no it can’t, if this happens”. The designer sets up the question and some props towards solving it, and then you resolve it yourself, hopefully surprising everyone, possibly just leading to a sort of “hmm, interesting” moment.

  7. Good article but most of the examples you give are not Premises at all. They are Themes.

    A Premise is a story-specific incidence of a Theme. A Premise is a story-establishing statement with at least one character in a given location or circumstance, and an indication of the Theme they will be facing.

    “Friendship conquers all” is a Theme.

    “Against the encroaching might of the Dark Lord of Mordor, can the Fellowship of the Ring save Middle Earth?” is a Premise.

    • The definition I’m using comes from Lajos Egri, as discussed upthread. But yes, some people use “premise” to mean “plot summary.” To me that usage is less helpful than Egri’s description, both in fiction writing and in game design.

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