There’s been a lot of talk lately about proceduralism as it relates to various D&D-likes. I’ve written about procedure as it relates to Advanced Fantasy Dungeons here, but informing my views on the topic are these posts by a bunch of luminaries:
- Doctrine of Proceduralism
- Theoretical and Practical Proceduralism
- What Even Is a Procedure?
Read the above to wade into the weeds on a definition for procedure. I will simplify for my purposes:
- A procedure tells you what order you execute the rules in.
- You may be able to transition between two or more procedures as the narrative or rules guide you.
- Some rules might be unique to or only impact specific procedures.
I instead want to talk about what types of procedures I think I’m seeing, how they’re misinterpreted even by designers, and the impact choice and identification of procedures in TTRPGs might have on play.
I’m going to make a leap that I began with in my post Pillars and Procedures: Historically, D&D’s procedures are space and time oriented. The primary procedures in 0e through 2e could be analysed thusly:
- Dungeon (turns)
- Wilderness (watches)
- Battlefield (rounds)
- Home (days)
Home here is used as analogous to “Downtime” in modern terminology, although no such term has been used historically that I can find. I’d go so far as to say historical D&D actually uses non-diagetic or real time for “Home”; Gygax’ infamous maxim “You cannot have a meaningful campaign unless strict time records are kept” implies strongly that early D&D downtime activities such as training and magical research were to happen when your character wasn’t adventuring.
Having hypothesised that space-time oriented procedures are present in D&D, I’ll assert that procedures are present in many other modern RPGs.
- Blades in the Dark, for example, breaks its procedures into downtime, score, and freeplay, details order of execution and for downtime and score procedures, and maintains free movement between these procedures.
- Wanderhome has a single fairly rigid journeying procedure, of creating a place, choosing a month, and creating the kith who live there, but leaves activity once in a place freeform until the travellers leave to go to another place.
- Kingdom has a repeating crossroad – scene – check – reactions – resolve procedure, with no alternate procedures to transition to. Kingdom is necessarily
- Microscope has a similar procedure of Focus – history – legacy – explore, but that isn’t necessarily
I’ve noted these in decreasing similarity to the example of historical D&D. But we can go much less similar, by looking at journaling games.
- 1000 Year Old Vampire’s procedure of prompt – experience – memory – move forward is anchored in the ever advancing march of time
- Body//Hack’s procedure is to advance forward through the prompts linearly one real-time day at a time
Lyric games are even more dissimilar, and conjecturing about the procedural anchoring of the Invitation, Flying Games or I EAT MANTRAS FOR BREAKFAST are each their own post. Suffice it to say that if they do have procedure, they are not anchored necessarily to time and space, but to memory, emotional response, and to physical objects, among other things.
Why do I care that even the most abstract of games can be analysed to have procedures? Mainly because I’m starting to think that for most TTRPGs, procedure might be a foundation that allows us to improvise and create in a supportive way, and that awareness of the presence of procedures as authors and designers might help us create more supportive and satisfying role playing experiences. But how can I do that? How about some counter-examples? Because since identifying this as a potential design flaw, I’ve been considering some games, some that I love, and some that I do not, in the light of it.
Let’s start with the big one: The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. 5E lays its perceived core principles out as pillars (as good a name in my opinion as anchor or foundation): Combat, social, and exploration. Combat is thoroughly proceduralised in the Player’s Handbook, but means of transitioning between it and the social and exploration pillars are unclear, and there is little procedural or rules support for the other two pillars, certainly little player-facing support in the core two rule books. This is a two-fold problem: Firstly, and I think my experience of playing is not unusual given what I see in APs, the pillars are misidentified; I don’t think there is a social pillar at all, it’s a rule that is dispersed through the game. Secondly, if there is an exploration pillar, it’s not supported by a procedure. This breaks parts of the game intended to leverage off it: The ranger’s skill set and many powers and spells handily break exploitation altogether by eliminating resource management so that the only question becomes “Where do we go next?”. Of course, we can fix these problems, but Im not discussing how to hack 5E to make it better, most designers I know started that way. What I’m saying is that misjudging the procedures renders the game unsatisfying.
Let’s go to a game I really like then: Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Why have I always found it less than the sum of it’s parts? Let’s look at the core procedure: Intro – take strings – react or pursue – build to a climax – end of session move – debrief. This procedure makes me feel unsupported by the goal of telling an action romance story, because it gives me no indication of what to do next. I can improvise, and because Thirsty Sword Lesbians has stellar playbooks it’s gets by on their strengths, but movement through stories or sessions is completely reliant on the GM pushing certain directions, recognising certain vague cues, or the entire table being psychically in tune with each other all of which are possible, but none of which can be guaranteed. When I play Thirsty Sword Lesbians, the foundation we improvise story off is not sturdy.
So, how do we recognise a procedure, now that I’ve identified examples both good and not so good? I think we are looking at two things: Our themes, and the foundations that we use to support our roleplay towards that theme.
So, for (historical) Dungeons and Dragons, I’d argue the primary theme is exploration, and so we need location-based foundations: Dungeon, wilderness, and city procedures The odd foundations are when we’re not exploring: Downtime and combat procedures serve to bridge gaps between explorations, but are optional, and in fact are often avoided or ignored altogether.
For Thirsty Sword Lesbians, the primary theme is queer action romance (“swords cross and hearts race”), and so location-based foundations don’t make sense. Scene-based foundations make more sense. I’m not rewriting this game, but perhaps considering what types of scenes exist and how they might transition one to another may provide the increased support I feel I need.
Through this lens, then, perhaps I oversimplified Wanderhome earlier: Wanderhome has nested and interlocking systems, of both place and events, individual events being detailed and providing support I brushed over earlier in the summary.
Anyway, I think I’ve lingered on this too long, and I’m not sure I’ve come to a satisfying conclusion. I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on broader procedures, whether this logic does in fact hold, and whether consideration of procedure in the larger TTRPG space is warranted. I limited my analysis of various games significantly largely for space and energy, but I’d be interested in counter examples or interesting examples of foundations I didn’t consider.
23rd June 2022