Doctrine of proceduralism

Proceduralism is the degree to which a game relies upon explicit procedures. It is one of many different descriptors that can be used to understand and classify games. Other examples of descriptors include mechanical complexity, optionality, loci of narrative control, and so forth. My intent when I build game systems and content is to encode procedures efficiently into the process of play rather than adding rules overhead necessary for the desired relationships. That is, I want the procedures to feel like a part of the game that players sit down to play, not some cost that must be paid. This has been my intent especially with the Hazard System.

In my view, many game designs underweight the immediate cost of performing game procedures during play. For example, in early versions of TSR D&D, encumbrance is handled by measuring weight carried in coins and summing over all gear carried. Though the coin counting encumbrance procedure would probably have the intended effect if it were used, it is often ignored because it takes effort that does not seem to be play. Though individuals differ regarding their tolerance for such hassle, there seem to be few inherent benefits to adding purely transactional costs to the process of play.

Further, procedures are maximally effective when all players in a group comply, meaning that procedure effectiveness is often subject to the player with the least tolerance. In a traditional tabletop RPG, a conscientious referee can often take on an additional burden to mitigate the cost of procedures on other players, but this has its own drawbacks.

This is probably a domain-specific manifestation of general decision-making myopia. For example, people tend to underestimate the amount of time a future task will take even given domain-specific experience. (This is the Planning Fallacy.) In games, this tendency often comes, I think, from a designer focusing more on the desired outcome of a procedure and less on the effort or hassle involved in the practice of using the procedure.

To formalize different kinds of proceduralism, consider that a procedure may either feel like play or feel like work. Call the first kind of procedure intrinsic and the second extrinsic, mirroring theories of motivation. Intrinsic procedures are not always simpler. Instead, they focus attention and effort on the game processes that are most rewarding to the players. For example, more procedural combat rules may be more engaging due to the immediate stakes. That is, they feel like play rather than work or hassle. Procedural fluency then could be thought of as the overall balance between intrinsic and extrinsic procedures.

The definition above incorporates player taste. While my general sense is that heavier logistical procedures are almost universally experienced as aversive, there do seem to be some exceptions worth noting. For example, competitive players or those that value game mastery may appreciate highly extrinsic procedures as long as they can be used, respectively, to gain a relative advantage over other players or overcome game challenges effectively. Though there may be some fit effects between procedure and player personality, even entirely ignoring this nuance there seem to be many opportunities to make game procedures more generally fluent given that few tabletop RPGs pay attention to the concrete experience of procedures in play.

Though play testing could evaluate a game on any number of different dimensions, such as inter-player power balance, compliance with some aesthetic standard, or pedagogic efficiency, I believe that procedural fluency is a particularly good candidate for evaluation. Some questions that might help identify procedural disfluency include:

  1. Are players following the rules?
  2. What are players handwaving?
  3. Are players creating shortcuts?
  4. Do the shortcuts accomplish the same goal?
  5. Is the reward payoff disconnected from the procedure’s deployment?
  6. Do players not understand the intended impact of the procedure?
  7. Do the procedures feel like a drag outside of the game itself?
  8. Is the procedure designed to solve an extra-game problem, such as argumentativeness?
  9. Does the procedure require prosthetics such as spreadsheet software?

Finally, to distinguish this doctrine from the old “system matters” position, it is worth emphasizing that proceduralism is only one dimension of many that define a game and that the experience of a particular game arises from far more than just following the procedural rules.

7 thoughts on “Doctrine of proceduralism

  1. Michael Prescott

    Good article. One of the oddities that stands out for me is Battletech damage. It’s ridiculously crunchy, and you can’t skip it, because mechs are only impaired or destroyed as a result of internal systems being affected. The only explanation I have for why people stick with it is that damage resolution is itself evocative of the demotion derby flavor of Battletech.

    As you cross off armor bubbles, first from your left torso outer armor, then your left torso internal structure, then the two slots your XL-class engine takes up in there, you’re imagining the autocannon rounds ripping through metal, causing all this calamitous harm. Pencil and paper proxy for a bullet-time explosion.

    I suppose in your model, this would be an intrinsic procedure.

  2. Michael Prescott

    Can you define procedural fluency? Not sure I have it. You refer to it as an overall balance between extrinsic and intrinsic procedures (like the ratio, or a sort of functional harmony?), but I think it’s the inverse of the nine-point list.

    In other words, players are following the procedures without handwaving or shortcuts, they understand the impact, it doesn’t feel draggy to use and doesn’t require prosthetics.

    Point 8 feels weaker than the others. It’s not nearly so easily measured, since designers don’t publish their intention for all of the procedures, only some of them. I think what actually happens is more important than what the designer was hoping to do.

    But, I take the point that procedures intended to affect the social dynamics might be trickier to get right. A few examples come to mind – the role of the Caller in B/X which I imagine is meant to impose a kind of teamwork or consensus-building among players. Also, the strictly non-collaborative group worldbuilding in Microscope, which I suspect is meant to cut out quarterbacking and groupthink.

    I’ve never seen the Caller role used, so perhaps that’s a sign of disfluency. With Microscope, there’s also tremendous pressure to circumvent that rule (although I really like the resulting effect, it’s not comfortable).

    1. Brendan Post author


      Yeah, I agree that outcome is more important than intent, but perhaps communicating intent somehow within the mechanics could be one way to improve the perception of a procedure as intrinsic. Lacking clear intent, a rule probably needs some other engaging or incentivizing element. For example, GP as XP seems to work for several different reasons and a given player need not understand all of them.

      Regarding balance between intrinsic and extrinsic, it’s hard for me to think of a tabletop game where extrinsic could go to zero, but probably the more intrinsic and the less extrinsic the better (for persistent engagement). Maybe favorable ratio would be a better phrasing?

      1. Ynas Midgard

        Yeah, action declaration seems like a chore, really, even in the simplest of combat systems.

        I used to think that the role of the caller was to mitigate intraparty conflicts, but by doing that it would sacrifice a lot of the players’ autonomy. Now that we’ve been using it for a couple of sessions it’s actually pretty exciting. It still allows players to do their own things (they can still betray the party, for instance) – it just sets a different pace, determined by the caller.

      2. Brendan Post author


        It’s too bad, really, because some interesting dynamics such as potential spell interruption could be facilitated if action declaration didn’t feel so awkward. So it goes.

    2. Alex Schroeder

      We don’t use a caller, but in my game with up to six people sitting at the table, there’s often indecision. I’ll sometimes ask: who has the highest level? who has the highest Charisma? And then I’ll say, OK, you decide. And this little hand waving is enough to break the ice. One person gets to propose an action before anybody else. Unless there are strong reasons against the decision made by this “caller”, people will just move along. And I’ll keep looking at the “caller”, asking them first, when several people say contradicting things I’ll say that I understood their boss wanting to … and then I repeat what the “caller” said. It usually works and I like the effect. But it’s not an explicit role at the table. It’s a technique to break through consensus finding paralysis.


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