Naively, the current RPG community breaks down into three basic camps. New school, old school, and indie or story game. While this is an oversimplification, a perusal of a number of games on offer lends some substance to the categories. Fourth Edition D&D and Pathfinder: new school. B/X D&D and Lamentations of the Flame Princess: old school. Apocalypse World and Torchbearer: indie. This division exists based on a number of factors, including marketing reach, the fuzzy borders created by online forum participation, player expectations about game objectives, and differences between the actual texts of written rules.

Many rules properties have been highlighted as potential differences. For just a few examples: lethality, quantity of character options, thematic coherence, rules coverage comprehensiveness, friendliness to ad hoc rulings, loci of narrative control, amount of prep required, rules heaviness, the number of resolution mechanics used. None of these factors is necessarily primary, as the old/new/indie categories are vague, though many of them are important. A dimension which I have rarely seen discussed, however, and which seems core to the difference in the approach many of these games take is the idea of proceduralism, by which I mean the degree to which a game directs your actions as a player or referee.

Many old school games do not provide direct procedures. Instead, they give examples of the kind of things participants might do, often with a short script-like example of play. This is both a weakness and a strength. It is a weakness because it is notoriously hard to learn how to play an RPG (which involves conversational form, conflict resolution, rules math, and many other components) from a text alone. It is a strength because it leaves the borders of potential wide open, assuming that you want to use the rules more like a toolkit than a how-to manual.

Of the old school games that I have read, OD&D and the Basic/Expert series have the most direct procedures. The first most likely because Gygax was essentially just telling you to do what he had done (“Before it is possible to conduct a campaign of adventures in the mazey dungeons, it is necessary for the referee to sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper”) and the second because Moldvay was trying to create a self-consciously pedagogical text (more than a game with focused design, I would argue). Both of these works are only peripherally (or unintentionally) procedural; certainly nobody reasonable would claim that a referee that did not “sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper” was breaking the rules of OD&D.

Skipping forward a bit over the “story focused” 90s, we arrive at the Forge, the post-Forge indie scene, and the games that arose from those seedbeds. For some concrete examples, consider Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Torchbearer. Apocalypse World puts forth the rules as conversation mediators; they are things that kick in “when someone says particular things” and that “impose constraints.” Dogs in the Vineyard, Chapter VI: The Structure of the Game begins: “If Dogs in the Vineyard were a board game, this would be the board” and then presents an outline in the form of alternating directions to player and GM. And later in the book: “Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.” That is a pretty strong directive.

Torchbearer moves play through a series of different phases in a predefined manner, sometimes requiring character tests for transitions. Town phase leads to adventure phase, which may lead to camp before adventure again, or back to town. To someone used to D&D, this may just sound like shorthand for referee narrative, but it is structurally different. After three adventures, there is a winter phase. Wait, what? But what if we adventured three weekends in a row? No, that is not how Torchbearer works; you can’t do that. It breaks the rules, which abstract time in a certain way. D&D flirts occasionally with turn structure at different time scales, moving from the dungeon, to the wilderness, to the domain (“wargame”) turn as needed, but in a less defined, sometimes confusing, and certainly often overlooked manner.

A game may be procedural in one domain but not others. For example, combat in all editions of D&D is more procedural than many other fictional activities. The game grabs hold of you and does not let you go until you have performed the necessary steps. Though there are little islands of such proceduralism, no edition of D&D really tells players what to do when moving between these islands. This is not necessarily a flaw, but rather a different rules property that creates its own set of consequences.

It seems to be an implicit article of faith among many game designers that proceduralism has pedagogical advantages, and that games written with strict procedures are easier to pick up. This is possible, but far from established, and any such claim must also take into consideration extratextual resources such as the oral knowledge of communities, both distributed on the Internet and as passed between groups of friends in person. The game is more than the text.

At a first glance, this may seem like a critical evaluation of the procedural tendency in many of these more recent games, but that is not the intent. In fact, the rules project that I am working on right now (which grew mostly out of my “JRPG Basic” Gravity Sinister experiments) is highly procedural. The many procedural additions I have made to my ongoing OD&D game have mostly resulted in gameplay improvements. You can see further gestures toward this direction in A method of play and Gravity Sinister gameplay. However, all that said, it seems to me that there are some real trade-offs involved in going in either direction along the proceduralism axis. This is not at all a case of more procedural games being more advanced or more evolved than less procedural games.

18 thoughts on “Proceduralism

  1. Scott Anderson

    There seems to be a lot more about this topic that one might say, or more precisely, that you have much more to say on this topic.

    This post feels like an introduction rather that an entire thing unto itself.

    More please?

  2. Yora

    Strict procedures that cover many situations make a game easier to learn or play? That’s something rather unexpected to read, at least for me.
    My personal experience has been the opposite, that structured and detailed processes make it much more difficult on new players.

    1. Brendan Post author


      “Strict procedures” and “that cover many situations” are different dimensions.

      Many story games support only very limited scenarios, but make use of strict procedures. For example, a game about climbing in the Himalayas:

      THE CLIMB is a short, six-person, live-action game about an expedition to a virgin peak in the Himalayas.

      Or a game about being a besieged Cathar:

      Each player takes on the role of one of the besieged Cathars who will face the choice between life and faith.

      Or a game about a fugitive trying to escape on a skyship:

      How will Lady Blackbird and the others escape the Hand of Sorrow?

      Point being, there is a logic to having a constrained situation with clear guidelines about “what to do” as a player at any given point. Someone who has never roleplayed before can sit down and just follow the directions. That’s what I am talking about here, not “heavy” games like 3E D&D or GURPS that attempt to have well defined rules for resolving all kinds of specific situations.

  3. Aaron

    The way I look at it is that there are only two advantages to playing a tabletop RPG verses a boardgame or video game.

    1) Increased freedom of action (or agency) of the characters. No fixed set of “moves” or “actions” to choose from as well as the ability to attempt any action reasonably possible (IOW, not being completely blocked by a six foot high pile of rocks as in most video games).

    2) Increased interaction between the characters and the elements of the game world. Any item encountered can be treated as a real object of that type. Boxes, pictures on the wall, skeletons, etc aren’t just set dressing or background images.

    Proceduralism, by it’s very nature, reduces both of those things. Depriving tabletop RPGs of their very reason for existing. It is anecdotal, but over the last couple of years, I’ve played in every G+ OSR game that would take me and I have yet to see a DM actually use D&D’s strict turn structure. In the game I’ve been in the longest, over a dozen sessions at least, I can’t remember a single time I actually ever used my movement rate.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Certainly you have seen folks follow a strict turn structure in combat, no? That is not substantively different than strict dungeon or wilderness exploration turns (which I use in my games).

      You can have tactical infinity along with a procedural structure. Sure, your PC can kick the box, throw the skull, or disguise themselves in the armor of a defeated orc, all things that might not be possible in a computer game. In combat, you still get a turn, with an action, some limited (if maybe poorly defined) movement, and so forth. You must follow an initiative order (depending, of course, of the specific systems active). Following that procedure and acting within those constraints does not destroy that freedom.

      This is not an either/or proposition.

  4. Vanguard

    Aaron, can you elaborate a little bit? It doesn’t follow that proceduralism reduces either freedom of action or interaction with the game world. At least, not as a rule.

    In Apocalypse World, for example, the set of moves are not the only actions your character can take. Rather, when your character takes them, dice are rolled to determine the uncertain outcome. You can still do whatever you want within the fiction of the world. Following that, you can absolutely pick up anything within a scene and interact with it. They are not merely set pieces, as you seem to allude.

    Proceduralism is very much an answer to the old ways: rulings, not rules, GM Fiat, etc. There is nothing wrong with those approaches, but they are inconsistent. Example: how long does a torch last in D&D outside of combat? Whatever answer you give, it’s going to be applied inconsistently because the game does not have a way that measures time in any useful way. Not everyone is going to find this problematic, of course. But some people are, and procedurlaism offers a solution.

    Let’s look at Torchbearer. The game has a rigid turn sequence (turn = each time the dice are rolled). Torches last a fixed number of turns. While the use of turns is certainly very game-y, it also has the very real effect of turning torches into a resource. It may seem counter intuitive, but this actually increases verisimilitude because packing enough torches and accounting for light actually makes a huge difference.

    I want to step away from isms for a moment and make a stupidly obvious statement that cuts to the core of what all of this is about: you do what a game has rules for. D&D, for example, is largely a game about killing monsters, which is why knowing exactly how long your torch lasts doesn’t matter that much. Torchbearer, on the other hand, is a game about resource management and needs those rules to support this aim.

    The real question to answer is: do you need or want these rules? Not everyone does but some do, and the best decision you can make as a player/group is choosing the ruleset that supports what you want to do.

    1. Brendan Post author


      “you do what a game has rules for”

      While there is something to that, I do not think it is quite true as a generalization, as explained here:

      There are lots of rules for combat in trad D&D not because you are supposed to be engaged in combat all the time, but because it is particularly important to resolve failure conditions impartially and in an engaging way.

      More to say on some of your other points in a bit.

    2. Brendan Post author

      “Example: how long does a torch last in D&D outside of combat? Whatever answer you give, it’s going to be applied inconsistently because the game does not have a way that measures time in any useful way.”

      Actually, there are rules:

      A torch or lantern will cast light 30 feet in all directions. A torch will burn out in 6 turns (1 hour); a lantern filled with one flask of oil will burn out in 24 turns (4 hours). It is important to remember which characters are carrying light sources. A character could not, for example, carry a lit torch, a drawn sword, and a shield at the same time.

      — Moldvay Basic, page B21

      I would guess that Torchbearer’s “grind” was actually an attempt to make the basic D&D rules more salient by plugging them into a particular kind of resource cycle.

      It is true that the D&D light rules are only meaningful if you are tracking turns and encumbrance. Many or most players do not, including many of the old school folks that I have played with online. Better systems can make this sort of thing work more smoothly, however. I have had good experiences using this system:

      Which is one of the procedural modifications alluded to in the original post that has made the game flow more smoothly for me.

    3. Brendan Post author

      “D&D, for example, is largely a game about killing monsters”

      While this is one (common) interpretation, it is not the only one, and if you look at the risk/reward balance encoded in the rules, D&D is actually more about treasure hunting and problem solving. The amount of XP gained from treasure dwarfs that from killing, and the lethality of the system makes it so that fighting unnecessary battles is not wise if the referee is being impartial.

      In my own games, to emphasize this and fight against what I see as a limited view (that D&D is about fighting monsters), I only give XP for treasure. That’s more for elegance and simplicity than it is to actually change the dynamics of the game though.

  5. Vanguard


    “While there is something to that, I do not think it is quite true as a generalization, as explained here:”

    Well, of course. It was a generalization. The reality is always going to be more complex. To revise it: games incentivize certain behavior with reward systems and when you engage in those behaviors you follow a set of procedures to determine uncertain outcomes. There will always be things that happen during any game that the rules do not cover, that are not incentivized, to some degree. But the game will largely be driven to those incentivized behaviors.

    “Actually, there are rules:” (Torches)

    I disagree that those actually rules because the games doesn’t really have any mechanism for measuring whether or not an hour has passed beyond asking the GM, “has it been an hour?” (unless you just measure time as real time). I understand there is something that approximates rules for this, it’s just very inconsistent which is the kind of thing proceduralism tries to correct.

    “While this is one (common) interpretation, it is not the only one, and if you look at the risk/reward balance encoded in the rules, D&D is actually more about treasure hunting and problem solving.”

    I would say this depends on the edition, really. The earlier ones? Absolutely. 3.X forward, however, and I would say the bigger emphasis is really on killing monsters. While the DMG (particularly for 3.X) suggests rewarding other kinds of behaviors (completing quests, being helpful, etc), it does not give you any rubric on how to reward those behaviors. Certainly not in the way that it lows out the XP values of each monster, which brings me back to my point about incentivizing behaviors.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Pretty much everything I write on this blog about D&D is regarding 2E and earlier, mostly basic and original D&D. Given that D&D means a whole lot of different things to different people, I try to preface D&D with “trad” or something like that, but it looks like I forgot to do so in that sentence about risk/reward balance. To be extra clear, I’m not talking about 3E or 4E D&D.

    2. Brendan Post author

      Vanguard wrote: “I disagree that those actually rules because the games doesn’t really have any mechanism for measuring whether or not an hour has passed beyond asking the GM”

      No, this is wrong. An hour is 6 turns, and there are rules for what you can do in a turn, just like in Torchbearer. These rules may often be handwaved in practice, but they are there.

      More from Moldvay Basic, page B19:

      TIME: Time in D&D adventures is given in turns of ten minutes each. A turn is not a measure of real time, but is a measure of how much a character can do within a given amount of time. A character may explore and map an area equal to his or her movement rate in one turn. It also takes a turn for a character to search a 10’xlO’ area, for a thief to check an item for traps, to rest or to load a bag with treasure. The DM should decide how long other actions that characters might try will take.

      MOVEMENT: In the D&D rules movement is given in the number of feet a character may move in one turn. All characters are able to move 120′ or feet in one turn when exploring a dungeon.

      Also, similar to Torchbearer’s cartography test mechanic, though not requiring dice rolls:

      The DM may wish to allow characters to move faster when travelling through areas they are familiar with.

      1. Telecanter

        Actually I agree with Vanguard here. In order to run traditional D&D’s time rules the DM has to make infinite judgment calls– how long to dig through this pile of clothes, how long to unlock all the prisoners, how long do take off the peasant costumes– and these are largely hidden from the players. This is one factor that kept me from being a DM for years, I just didn’t understand how people were talking with mathematical rigor about imagined actions.

        The method I currently use is from Roger of Roles, Rules, Rolls. There is a large token on the table and it rotates from one player to another each time a turn passes. When do I have the players pass it? Well, that is still pretty loose, a single “scene,” we’ve finished one thing and are thinking of the next. The point is, now the players can see when time advances. And I can say to them: when the token comes back around to you the torch will go out. So, I guess you could say Roger gave me a procedure that made time and thus resources more “real” in my old school game.

      2. Vanguard

        @Brendan (sorry for mispelling your name earlier!)

        I still disagree that those are actually rules. They are certainly examples one can follow, but the second you take an action outside of those examples, we are in the realm of “rulings, not rules” and GM Fiat. Or, to quote, your post, “Many old school games do not provide direct procedures. Instead, they give examples of the kind of things participants might do, often with a short script-like example of play.”

        And I agree about Torchbearer. They clearly wanted to codify these procedures in a consistent way, which is why the game has a turn structure unrelated to time but as a measure of potential drama, the dice roll.

        Anyway, this was a great post and I agree with the commenter upthread – it seems like this is the start of a larger series of articles. We want more!

  6. Gus L.

    I was just looking at the 1986 B10 – Night’s Dark Terror, which is a pretty good old module (popularly placed in the same category of quality as B2) and one of the things I noticed about it is that it focuses on adding procedure for tracking days and weather. This is laudable in a wilderness focused module, and B10 goes as far as including a calendar with weather pre-set, moon cycle and checkboxes to aid the GM. This sort of procedure adds a lot to a game I think because it allows the GM to not worry about certain aspects that are often unimportant, but really important when they do matter. For example, tracking light and torch use is generally unimportant in old style D&D. Everyone has plenty of torches. Yet when you do run out, such as if the party decides to camp in the dungeon or the porter falls down a pit with the back up supply, it becomes a huge game moment. If the GM has a simple sheet to track torch use she need not get bogged down writing notes and such when it’s not a key factor, but will have the information ready when it becomes one.

  7. pieraldi

    I think it’s good to reflect a bit, (as an ancient), on the start of all this. Back in the day, Fantasy RPG was a reaction to highly structured but poorly documented military simulation games. Chainmail was published in that time with a direct and clear statement that rules are a the framework for your imagination. As a play tester of that era I can tell you that this argument was alive an well then, as it is now. I tend to punt on the conflicts as I did then. I still advise to setting the game up as the GM, choose and brief your players on the model you will use then play! I tend to enjoy GM whimsy in contrast to the never ending desire of GM’s and players to “rule” games to death. In the spirit of such things I now proclaim; “Red Death”, Roll up people!

  8. Thor Olavsrud

    Interesting discussion. I’m with Brendan on this one. Pretty much anything in Moldvay that led to a roll of the dice — listening at a door, checking for traps, picking a lock, engaging in combat, shoveling treasure into a sack, searching a room, mapping a section of the dungeon — took a turn.

    When I was writing the Grind and light rules for Torchbearer, I very consciously set out to highlight those particular rules and bring them to the forefront. I knew from playing a lot of D&D that the game got a lot more interesting to me when I actually played by those rules and when I actually tracked how encumbered characters were.

    I knew very well that most people didn’t play with those rules when they played D&D. I gambled that, at least for some portion of D&D players, they ignored those rules because they were cumbersome to deal with, not because the resulting game wasn’t fun. So I set out to make procedures around those things that were clearer, simpler, or at least more obvious about the effect they might have on play.

    I wanted strong procedures around the stuff that I felt would really evoke the experience that I wanted to convey.

    However, it was also really important to me to leave a lot of breathing room for players and GMs. You can still try anything. In fact, by creating the strict grind, we were then able to create further incentive to coming up with creative, outside-the-box plans with the Good Idea. Come up with a clever idea and you can bypass the grind. It’s even possible to circumvent the strict inventory system with the right idea — I’ve seen dwarves faced with more gold than they can carry turn around and pound that gold into jewelry they could wear.

    The idea wasn’t to get rid of non-procedural play. It was to refocus the procedures to highlight stuff I thought was fun.

  9. Ynas Midgard

    I am very much in favour of creating interesting and engaging game procedures (both player-facing and GM-eyes-only) because they emphasise what games are really good at: giving a set of rules (and thus, options) and making the best out of it. For myself, this is pretty much why I like games at all; they have a clear objective and a framework that controls how you can reach it and that determines whether you’ve reached it.

    Note that this applies even to RPGs. If a game doesn’t have rules for some particular action, the GM makes something up: he offers you an effect in exchange for something you need to do. For instance, if you only want to wake up a sleeping orc, you can kick it, there’s no rule involved. If you want to cause him damage, the GM creates an analogy: kicking is like wielding a weapon, you need to make a hit and then you deal some damage. If you want to kick an orc into a pit, he makes up two things: how to determine if you’re successful, and what falling into the pit does to said orc; etc.

    Some games I would really love to play unfortunately lack many of these procedures (like WW/OPP games). It is not enough to have a wonderful setting and some great rules; there needs to be a system of how to apply those rules; a framework, or game structure (see Justin Alexander’s series on the topic).

    I would also like to hear more of your thoughts on this topic, Brendan; or you could finish your JRPG D&D so we can see it for ourselves in action 😛


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