Pillars and Procedures

As all of you who care little for my current project are no doubt aware, I’ve been spending a lot of my time on Advanced Fantasy Dungeons. It’s a project perfect for me right now: I don’t have a working PC and I can’t lay out any games; work and home life are challenging and I find generating worlds and adventures challenging when my energy levels are low; this project is large but in bite-sized morsels and I always have a clear inspiration to return to when I’m stumped.

But at night, I listen to podcasts to help me sleep. Listening to Blogs on Tape made me realise something. The ‘Pillars’ spoken of in fifth edition — a clear metaphor in my opinion — indicate a different type of board on which to play the game. These boards are procedures, which is why the exploration and social pillars feel weak in fifth edition.

In second edition, most of the pillars aside from combat feel a poor foundation for the type of play intended, and part of the fun in this project is trying to tease out that implied intended play (often through examples of play) and make it work.

Why do they feel poor foundations? I think I’ve been approaching it from the wrong angle: Each pillar of play relates to a procedure, that’s what makes it a strong foundation. A procedure is like a board in a board game. The rules are usually very similar, but on a different board, we players take a different approach. We don’t want the pillars to be identical. The procedure should be different, reflect its purpose and rewards, while calling on the same notes.

I also think that the declarations made in fifth edition skewed my perspective: Exploration is not actually a pillar. Instead, our remaining pillars are multiple iconic locations: The wilderness, the dungeon, the town and the stronghold. So, what are the procedures for these pillars?

Combat play has a cycle each round of attack and response, with transitions to and from combat managed by surprise and initiative at one end, and by either morale failure, retreat, or death at the other.

Social play has the reaction roll, followed roleplaying and social manipulation to adjust this reaction.

Wilderness play has a cycle each watch, of choosing an action (travel or rest), rolling for an encounter, and resolving the action.

Dungeon play has a cycle each turn, choosing an action, resolving the action, rolling for exploration, and resolving the exploration roll.

Town play is the downtime cycle, consisting of declaring and resolving downtime actions around the local settlement.

Stronghold (or perhaps domain or courtroom) play is superimposed on town play as you gain level, incorporating long-term politicking, building infrastructure, maintaining obligations to lords and followers, and waging war. The cycle is one of making decrees or giving orders, your followers carrying them out, messengers delivering news of the outcomes weeks or months later.

Key to this understanding of procedural pillars are two concepts: One, they interrupt and transition between each other fluidly, and to a degree characters can outgrow some pillars (generals only enter the dungeon with armies and the dukes have stewards who go to town for them) and grow into others (down-on-their-luck rogues do not hold court or have advisors).

Basic rules such as checks, clocks, and resources cross pillars. Character choices such as class, heritage, ability, proficiency precede the pillars. Rewards such as information, treasure, relationships and experience proceed from pillars. These are all key to understanding how we as players fit into the procedure of play for the different pillars. These therefore should be understood outside the context of individual pillars first.

What’s the point of all this though? Honestly, for me it’s clarifying what the structure of a roleplaying game pedagogical text should look like, because a lot of the texts are simply like this through habit. This, however, clarifies things significantly, and allows me to replicate the call and answer structure of second edition sensibly. I’m now thinking something like this:

  1. Introduction
    1. Recurring Rules
    2. Resources
    3. Character Creation
    4. Rewards
  2. The Player’s Guide
    1. Talking
    2. Fighting
    3. Wilderness
    4. Underworld
    5. Town
    6. Domain
  3. The Gamemaster’s Guide
    1. NPCs
    2. Monsters
    3. Wilderness
    4. Underworld
    5. Factions
    6. Politics
  4. Appendix of Lists
    1. Equipment
    2. Spells
    3. Treasure
    4. Monsters

Here, each GM section reflects the asymmetric play of the game, filling in the gaps. Principles for each section should remain the same, the section just fills in gaps: How to describe a dungeon, how to restock it, how to make random encounters meaningful, how to dole out secrets and have NPCs feel real.

Honestly, this is a simpler method of organisation than the game plan, and I might supersede the previous index after this model. But more meaningfully, I think the concept of pillar as procedure gives clarity on exactly how game texts can more meaningfully be organised, and in this light I understand a lot of criticism I hadn’t been able to articulate until now.

Idle Cartulary,

28th April 2022


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