Proceduralism -- possibly a manifesto

So in response to several discussion I’ve been having with others about the current state of Post-OSR, Classical, Neo-Classical, NSR, OSR design and culture I wrote up this essay. It’s a sort of cross between a statement of principles and a framework of definitions that I use to look at and design RPG things. An approach I, and I think others, call Proceduralism.

Might not sound exciting, but I think its one of the better pieces of RPG discussion that I’ve written over the years.


I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way but this feels like it has a lot in common with the concepts behind (so-called) storygames: Acknowledge the variety of systems used in play, codify those that are uncodified, use this knowledge to design systems that produce specific types of play.


I’m glad you were able to get this together!

I’m pretty vocal about the importance of having easy-to-remember and consistently applied Procedures because they seem to solve a lot of the common issues/complaints I see from other Referees. I agree that there are definitely “gaps” in knowledge transfer, and sometimes Mechanics get excised or added to try to compensate for an elided Procedure in an extant ruleset. In some cases, I can usually trace the perceived problem to what I consider to be a “load bearing” Procedure in a text being misunderstood, ignored, or house ruled away/replaced by Fiat.

When I describe the Procedures I use to my Players, I’m pretty transparent: I often liken it to an Engine that’s working behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly, but it requires fuel from the Players (in typical Fantasy Adventure Games this would be tracking Resources mostly, but awareness of the Risk that Time creates during the framework of Exploration is also pretty helpful) and occasional Maintenance (sometimes in the form of Revision/Fine-Tuning initially, but often the crucial thing is consistency). Some players jokingly refer to it as the “AI” or 'Robot Co-GM" that works in concert with their Choices, and alongside whatever Prep/Tables/Adjudication I’m bringing to bear.

They need not be rigid things, constraining play. I find they tend to take play to more interesting places more often than not. I tend to see them more as a solution for some of the issues that Fiat is likely to introduce: there’s usually a bit of bias (conscious or not) and over time it usually grows a bit repetitive.

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Firstly, this is well done, thought provoking, and useful. I am still contemplating this and may say more, but reading it through from the start I find that this closely aligns with what I’ve been working on. This is more focused on codifying extant procedures, while I’m working on a system that requires a collection of new procedures, and I’ll have to go back and reassess if I’ve left gaps by focusing on new and ignoring what’s already there.

In the light of my own efforts, there are three things I’d mention in the vein less of “this is wrong” and more “if I wrote this, I think I’d emphasize these things.”

  1. One of the major flaws I see in early systems is not just that they didn’t codify their procedures well, but that they did not give them uniformity. This means that every new procedure is more difficult to learn (more added complexity when you’re already holding a lot of rules in your head) as opposed to less difficult to learn (rules align with structures used elsewhere, so the additional procedure reinforces those structures).
    e.g. if a game has one procedure that uses a die-drop table, another that uses step-dice, a third that uses a hex-flower, and a fourth that uses handful-tables, the player learning these procedures has to learn four different rolling methods, likely none of which are the same as the core resolution mechanic.
    I’d have something like “6. Proceduralism emphasizes a synchronizing the collected procedures of a system, to ease learning and gameplay.”

  2. I have doubts about a statement like, “Therefore, Proceduralism prefers the rules that are limited in number and complexity whose functionality is aimed at producing specific play styles.”
    This was throughout the document, not just in this one bit, but this really nails down the focus on procedures to encourage play-style, and I think that’s needlessly restrictive. Sometimes procedures are just useful to have, not encouraging any particular style of play.
    For example, a game might include a procedure for entertaining chases. That can encourage a style of play, but its focus is on helping GMs with a very difficult game element that doesn’t align with a lot of combat systems.
    Does the procedure suffer if it doesn’t encourage a style of play? I feel like this edges towards says, “Yeah, it really needs to be designed for a style of play,” and that will prevent many good procedures from seeing the light of day.

  3. You tied them fairly tightly to the system being used, but I think procedures translate between systems fairly well. Hex-crawl rules can be used without change across dozens of different game systems precisely because they are a procedure, not a ruleset. I think this is one of the key strengths of well-made procedures.

Again, loved the read, already thinking more about how my procedures are designed.

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@ozbrowning Not at all, I tend to think that there’s a lot of similarity between the ideals of openness in system and player choice that the OSR found in its analysis of early RPGs and some Story Games. I am think a lot of Story Games tend more toward universal mechanics and there are a fair number of differences in play style - including the locus of play and its goals, but they are both the OSR and story games were a reaction to the increasing narrative control of the Trad play style, which itself is a reaction to the Classic one. Story Games, especially early, is also notable for its desire to take a more theoretical approach to design.

The one distinction I’d make between your comment and my view of Proceduralism is that I don’t think it’s possible or desirable to codify all procedure - that way lies universal mechanics or 900 page rulebooks that ultimately create only migraines and chaos. Proceduralism in my view is not just a recognition of the advantages of clear procedure but an acknowledgment of the limits.

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As it often is, it sounds like we are in a similar place. I like to streamline the classic exploration procedures because I find the bookkeeping kludgey, fiddly and distracting - also not nearly punitive enough to make an impact in a 3 hour session - but otherwise absolutely. As a designer, you can’t fill everything in, and you shouldn’t want to - best to use rules to create a sort of playing field and structure the challenges of play rather then trying to direct them. Something has to be left for the table.

You make a point absolutely worth emphasizing about playing a strongly procedural games (old school dungeon crawl or something else) - transparency is essential.

It think even moreso in classic style games with high lethality both because to maintain trust you want player decisions to lead to PC death, not confusion (Player choice and consequences are the fun of these systems as far as I can tell), and because stricter procedures fence off or define certain common solutions to the challenges/puzzles/problems that make up a lot of play, and indicate where players should be inventive.

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I think I can take your points one by one - they are well spotted - but the gist is that I think we have different views on the value of universal mechanics.

Starting from (1), there’s plenty of things that might be flaws in early systems, they were striving for an understanding of a new kind of game. There’s also intentional voids. I don’t agree that the answer is universal mechanics though - to me this is totalization - or to retain the US legal metaphor, an effort toward preclusion. Esoteric (or perhaps eccentric) subsystems as found in older games have many advantages I think both because they break up in game activities (combat is not the same as exploration) and because they are more modular should you want something different for a setting or even a specific challenge. As long as the game remains fairly simple (that is you don’t pile on the individual mechanics) and the mechanics themselves aren’t too complex - no switching to tarot cards and back to dice to check a 3,000 entry table every time you want to open a door - I’ve never noticed that people can’t remember esoteric mechanics. It’s not tidy sure, but tidiness might not leave spaces for ad hoc decisions, and player invention to the same degree.

This is why I want limited rules and procedures - AD&D is in my opinion a far worse game then OD&D (without Greyhawk) because it adds too much, and complicates individual subsystems far too much for the benefit to play that they produce. A lot of early design is like this, wanting to become less gameified and more and more precise, to better represent reality. You can’t represent reality in a game, and shouldn’t want to. I don’t have one - to - one time to live the life of a fantasy dungeon robber, or bears stealing honey - I am playing a game, it is first leisure. What you get by trying is a Borges’ map of empire situation, where the simulation of the thing has to be the same size as the thing. However, I don’t think the solution here is universal mechanics or synchronization. Again esoteric mechanics and some complication allow for both voids in the rules where player ideas can flourish and produce multiple lines of inquiry or attack for varied problems.

I agree that you you can translate procedure between systems, I’m not sure you should do so flippantly. If you want to run a game or system about exploring unknown lands hex crawls may be great. If you want to run a system where the locus of play is urban adventure, I don’t know that bringing in hex crawling is functional.

In the end though I think a lot of what you may be spotting is a distinction between what I define a “Procedure” and what I’m calling “Proceduralism” which is a way of looking at and designing games that focuses on Procedure, but is of course not the only way to do so. Proceduralism isn’t a set of facts - it’s an ethos, and as one it has a particular direction. This may be a manifesto after all.


Definitely different views on procedures, but perhaps closer than I implied.

I don’t agree that the answer is universal mechanics though - to me this is totalization - or to retain the US legal metaphor, an effort toward preclusion.

I did not mean to be pointing towards universal mechanics, but more towards re-use where possible. I guess I’d phrase it, “When designing procedures, consider the various procedures together, with an awareness that they form a complex system of procedures.”

To fit into the legal metaphor, albeit from my not-a-lawyer perspective, if a new law is being written, it should be of the same style as similar laws that already exist. If a state legalizes marijuana and wants to add a minimum age, that minimum age law should resemble laws for minimum ages on tobacco and alcohol, because otherwise it’s making the overall set of laws more confusing.

Less “always use the same mechanic” and more “try to have common design principles through all the procedures in the same game”. Perhaps this is still something you disagree with, but it’s one of my design goals around making multiple procedures for a game system.

I want to reiterate that I found the overall piece really interesting and useful. I’m still thinking on the overall thrust of it. First read-through, I noted those things and knew why they bothered me, but I won’t know how much the whole essay is helping me think about my own system until I’ve done real design while considering proceduralism. Maybe then I’ll go, “nah, not for me,” or maybe this will become central to my design philosophy, no way to know of yet.

I’m still struggling to understand the distinction between a procedure and a mechanic. When i think of a procedure, I think of dungeon generators. But when a dungeon generator transitions from being a tool to support a GM to a rule that a player responds to, then it begins to feel more mechanic-like.

Here’s how I differentiate the two. Might not dovetail with Gus’ description precisely, but here’s an example:

In older D&D there is a Sequence of things that gradually evolved and became recommended to allows for a more orderly invocation of Mechanics. Take your typical Encounter: First, you have to establish Awareness (via Surprise Mechanics), because this feeds into Describing the Situation (via narration and Encounter Distance rolls in some cases) and can discretely limit/improve Tactical Options. Generally, at my tables establishing the Disposition (via Reaction Rolls) follow to assist in description of those Encountered. The order of these is somewhat important, because it each Step, feeds subsequent Steps. Once these Facts have been established (via the Sequence that the Encounter Procedure provides), the Referee has enough information to begin to portray the situation and query the Players for their Action. This in turn could trigger the Combat Procedures or Parley Procedures or Evasion Procedures (just about anything really, but most fall into those categories in the older games).

Naturally, you could just rule “These Monsters get the drop on the Players no matter what due to their stealthy nature”, “They will always be crowded together right behind the door”, or “No matter what they’re Hostile and out for Blood.” But with these Referee judgements, you’ve decided ahead of time that this Encounter is going to be something that discretely limits the Choice of the Players: Combat is sometimes pretty much the predetermined outcome when you elide key steps of these Procedures (and Fiat has probably done more to contribute to the perceived Lethality of these games than anything else: q.v. the oft-ignored Trap Activation chance in B/X). At each stage the Procedure is assisting the Referee with it’s orderly sequence and generating novel play so that we maintain the possibility/tactical infinity of some of these Choices and Unexpected Outcomes.

Procedures show up in little, often overlooked places as well. I was reminded recently of a particularly interesting one in Keep Of The Borderlands that I feel does deserve more attention these days (with the focus on collapsing and escalation in certain Procedures):


I think back to when Procedures first clicked for me back in the 80s. Back then, as was custom at the time, I was a Referee that after a few fits and starts began leaning heavily into Fiat for most things, deciding what would happen and guiding the Players through the stories I felt that I needed to tell them. With that Fiat came some bias of course, and one game…a group of very wounded and bedraggled Player Characters were desperate to escape the Dungeon alive. To make this more tense I decided to use the Wandering Monsters that I had always been wary of (as Referee, I thought that I should be in control of pacing and that I knew what was best, etc. :slight_smile: ). Rolling those dice (as part of a Procedure) really added to the tension in ways better than I ever could have honestly…because both sides of the screen were on the edges of their seats. Then all it took was a particularly memorable and favorable Reaction Roll with a Lizard Man for me to start really embracing what these Procedures could do for me and for my tables. :slight_smile:


@ktrey has the gist of it.

I think it’s important to note the distinction between Procedure and Procedural Generation.

Yes they both have the same word and share some similarities, but distinction I make is between rules that describe action in the game world and rules that determine how players and referee use those Mechanics. So “Roll 1D6 to determine Surprise” might be a Mechanic but it’s set within a procedural matrix that defines its importance.

The Procedures directly around surprise include:

“The Referee rolls for surprise whenever there is an encounter, during dungeon exploration only groups who are entering through a closed door or are not illuminated may roll for surprise. When denizens of the underworld have surprise omit the reaction roll, as they will attack unless there is a compelling reason not to.”

Of course this isn’t the full scope of Proceduralism related to surprise rules. There’s the question of why have them (not from a “realism” perspective, but from a functional one) at all? There’s also the consideration of how they operate within the larger structure of play style?

In the case of these classic surprise rules, they function to increase risk from random encounters during dungeon exploration by heightening the chance of bad outcomes for random encounters, as well as encouraging and modelling stealth and surprise tactics from the players when they wish to ambush or mount a fast assault on known foes. They work with other rules such as random encounters and turn keeping within the larger procedure of location exploration to encourage risk and time management in opposition to player caution.


Thank you!

I think i’m starting to get a better sense of procedure. Using the legal metaphor, do you see mechanics as the substantive equivalent? a mechanic determines what a character can and can’t do and the repercussions and benefits from actions?

Honestly I know very little about legal theory.

Yes - so as mentioned in the piece, basically in US law you have two broad categories of law (at least you can break it down this way):

Say you want a Civil Harrassment Restraining order in California. First you look up how to get one. The how is Procedural law:

The California Code of Civil Procedure § 527.6 covers it.

I won’t copy it here, but you need to file a certain form at a civil court and make certain allegations in a declaration. The court reads your declaration and decides if they meet the substantive standards of the tort of civil harassment well enough to issue a temporary order and set a date for a hearing on a longer order (note this is an example I have 10 years of experience working with so I can do a quick rundown easily, but it’s also a highly truncated procedure with very quick response and results - an easy one set up for non-lawyers really - also get a lawyer if you need one)

The Procedure tells you what the timelines for the response are, how you have to notify the person you want protection from, how long before the hearing, what order various decisions, temporary orders, and hearings occur in. It’s all freaking codified … down to how long your declaration can be (not necessarily in the Code - there’s local and specific courtroom rules as well - once had a probate court that insisted certain forms be on blue paper, it was just the judge’s whim for record keeping, but if you used white or green paper your shit wasn’t getting filed).

When that hearing happens though or when the judge is making the decision to issue the temporary order they are going to look at the facts (or alleged facts) to determine if you are claiming harassment that meets the Substantive elements of Civil Harrassment - which for reasons are the same mostly as the elements of criminal harrassment as described in CA Penal Code § 646.9 (stalking), § 240 (assault), § 214 (battery) - several other penal codes, and/or Code of Civil Procedure § 527.6.

When actual violence is lacking It most commonly amounts to a credible threat of violence. To get the order you have to prove someone made a threat, that it was credible, and that it was violent. These also all get sub definitions, and there’s another way to prove it that’s also substantive law (basically repeated, intentional, targeted, obnoxiousness).

The distinction useful for games I think is the idea that Procedure is about what happens in one area (in court/or to prepare for it) and Substantive Law/Mechanics is what governs what’s allowed everywhere else (Out in the world when yer doing crimes say).

So for games the Procedure is what happens at the table and the mechanics are what happens in the game world. When I roll to hit the goblin with my sword, and all the stuff that decides it’s time to do it is Procedure. The roll I make to hit the goblin is a mechanic.

If I only have the rule “Roll a D20 higher then 10 to hit a goblin with a sword” I’m going to have to decide what kind of game I have. Is goblin swording the sole activity or perhaps a last resort when goblin backrubs fail? What do I do if I’m not feeling swordy?

So games where procedure is not codified risk the players tables deciding what the goals and are and how the mechanics fit together? It gets weird. It doesn’t work.

Like if I ring a judges doorbell and tell them that my neighbor made a credible threat and I want the judge to protect me. Might work in ancient Rome if the judge was my patron, but in the US, I’m likely to get arrested.


Thank you for writing this up, Gus! Really good explanation, especially coming at it from the angle of legal theory. The art from CRAWL looks great too :slight_smile:


Thank you for your post and answering my questions! I believe these concepts will help me with running and designing games.

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