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[Epiphany?] Procedural vs. content-oriented games

kenco

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trad games are content-oriented, their rules are focused on what the game needs. A high fantasy game needs spells and monsters and swords and castles, so you get rules for casting spells, slaying monsters with swords and for building castles.
I think 'content-oriented' is a better description than 'what the game needs'. A game also needs procedures, although they might not be written down. Spells, monsters, swords and castles, castings, slayings and buildings are all elements that appear in the fiction - content.

It's not black and white. Even the earliest RPGs included procedures for how to do stuff.
Modern indie games are procedural, their rules are focused on what the game is. A roleplaying game is a playful conversation about a negotiated fiction, so you get rules about who holds rights to which part of the fiction, when to take turns in the conversation, what you can say and not say and when and how to use the dice mechanics.
I get this. Modern games focus more on what the players do than older games; older games spend a larger proportion of their verbiage on concrete stuff that appears in the fiction.

However, I think the early games do have rules about who holds rights to which part of the fiction, what you can say, and when and how to use dice mechanics. I concede some of these rules are poorly expressed (but e.g. the division of roles between player and DM in Basic D&D seems pretty clear), and the rules on 'when to take turns in the conversation' might be more explicit. However, even OD&D included a Sample of Play text that made the roles of Player and Caller fairly clear (although the Caller's interactions with the other Players are not presented).

When I think about it, an important difference seems to be that the procedural games provide a more-or-less complete/ continuous play procedure. There are fewer gaps in the prescribed procedure where someone trying to learn how to play from the book has to decide for themselves what happens 'in-between' rules A and B. The entire flow of play is spelt out step-by-step for each phase of the game. There are fewer places where you can choose procedure A or procedure B or your own procedure X.

There also tends to be an intent in procedural games that all of the high-level procedures will be used. Clearly there is no assumption in Dungeon World that every Character will be played, every Move used or every Monster encountered. Whereas the earlier games, by focusing on fictional situations in isolation, are more susceptible to a charge of wasting space on unused rules (e.g. domain rules in AD&D, or high level Assassin rules).
Perhaps more concisely, using two popular specimens as an example: D&D has rules for character creation, combat, magic, monsters and dungeons - Dungeon World has rules for playing Dungeon World.
Yet Dungeon World also has very rules for character creation, combat, magic, monsters and dungeons - although very different (arguably fewer) rules for creating dungeons than does D&D. Also traps, magical items and NPCs. Dungeon World also has a greater total quantity of explicit rules than OD&D.

So it seems to me that Dungeon World has both fictional content and play procedural elements.
...this explains why so many classic roleplaying games are so messy. ...There's some neat ideas... so badly explained ..., ...the authors didn't have the faintest clue of what actual play was supposed to look like ... Or take the good old AD&D DMG. Just an unsorted, unfocused and unprioritized throw-it-in of stuff they felt the GM might be using ... with odd bits of advice that just don't actually tell you how to run the game.
There is truth in this. I don't know MegaTraveller, but I know AD&D. As a tutorial on how to play the DMG is awful.

It is possible the authors of Megatraveller had not the faintest clue of what actual play was supposed to look like. I haven't read it. I am more familiar with D&D, and I think that in that case one or more of the following is also plausible. The authors:
- know their own actual play style and unconsciously feel it is so obvious that it doesn't need explaining
- know what kind of actual play they want to enable, but are terrible at explaining it
- regard how to put the contents together as a problem best left to each play group (i.e. not an opportunity, but a genuine difficulty, best handled locally)
- regard it is part of the fun of the game to sort out your own kind of actual play from the ingredients provided (i.e. an opportunity)
- think (rightly or wrongly) the variety of different needs and uses for the 'contents' so complex and diverse that written rules could never describe actual play options for all potential uses - so given space constraints in print publications, why try?

The last three are related to the possibility of not embracing the idea of a 'supposed to' way of actually playing. This is different from not knowing what it could look like. It might involve assuming that users will want to use the pieces in their own way for their own purposes and will be able to do that.

Compare that to the PbtA games, with their discussions of style and theme and their GM and player move lists. Or take Fiasco, which has about an A4 page worth of dice mechanics, but a rulebook full of "how to do this".
Surely discussions of style and theme amount to introducing kinds of content? It's not a list of types of people encountered in a town, but it's parameters for what's going to happen to your character in a strange town. Likewise each player move is also explicitly tied to defined kinds of fictional content. It's triggered by a specific fictional event, and produces fictional outcomes within a specified range.

Surely Gygax' list of inspirational reading is a kind of discussion of style and theme?
...helps me explain the discomfort of many long-time players ...They have...developed their own procedure... don't appreciate being told what to actually do at the table.
I think this is very true. As someone else says, its hard work to learn a new 'procedure', especially when you are very fluent in - and somewhat satisfied with - your own. Or if several members of your regular play group are.

On a related point, some of the more procedural games seem more limiting to me than looser structures. By narrowing the fictional scope and prescribing procedures for every eventuality, they tend to restrict the range of fiction and play procedure available at each moment and in aggregate. There are great advantages to that; but there are also costs. One of the big costs is that if I am not into the kind of fiction targeted (or the kind of procedure employed), I don't have much choice. If I want to do my own thing (even - especially - if the rest of the world thinks that thing is lame) I'm stuck.
I guess I just got lucky that the procedure I came up with by myself is a good match for the procedures contained in most of the procedural games.
Maybe I wasn't so lucky. I feel like I've got a lot out reading and experimenting with procedural games. It's shifted my attitude and broadened my range. But I still prefer playing my own game. :)
 

Knaight

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This also explains why certain procedural games work so much better than others among traditional gamers - I'm thinking about Microscope in particular here, which seems particularly far afield but often works better for more traditional players than something closer. It's probably precisely because it's so weird; they have existing procedures for playing an adventuring party, they have existing procedures for playing a set of disparate characters doing disparate things, but they don't have a set of existing procedures for large scale nonchronological timeline building, so those procedures are welcomed. This pattern extends to a fair few other games as well, most of which are kind of weird.
 

SunlessNick

Mildly Darkened One
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Unfortunately, all the procedural games I know of are either actively antithetical to this style of play (via unavoidable in-play metagaming and personality mechanics) or, at best, seem at best mildly at odds with this play style. Do you have any idea why this might be?
How hand in hand is it with the idea of giving players a larger role in defining the setting and plot beyond their character's actions? When the larger world is the sole responsibility of the GM, you don't need mechanics for it beyond its interactions with the PC's - when it's not, you need mechanics for its interactions with the players themselves.
 

yukamichi

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Validated User
I think that "trad" games are a lot more procedural than you are giving them credit for. Even "content-based" games are forced to describe their content in terms that can hook into the game's procedures. Describing a weapon in terms of speed, size, damage, complexity of use, price, these all only mean anything within the context of the game's procedures.

For me, the distinction is less about procedure/content, and more about what the procedures model. Trad game procedures, I think, tend to model states and concrete interactions, whereas dirty hippie games are more concerned with abstract concepts, situations, events, etc...

In the former, the abstract concept of death probably shows up most often as an outcome (for example, as a result of the interaction between a long sword and an elf). In the latter, death might be a trigger, an impetus, an adversary, etc... Death is the content of the latter the same way swords or elf-ness are the content of the former.

While it's true that a lot of post-Forge games show a kind of clarity in enumerating their procedures that many of their predecessors lacked, I think that's actually a separate issue from their thematics or system concerns. A lot of that, I think, comes from Vincent Baker's conceptual work on IIEE and the like. And while it was probably a necessary part of creating games that were radically different from what came before them (in part because of what jsnead said, that people internalized their own procedures from games that did a poor job of making them easy to understand), it's not actually the thing that differentiates the two traditions. One can have trad games with clear procedures and dirty hippie games that are hard to understand how to use.
 

Levi

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...I also feel like the distinction between RAW (rules as written) and RAP (rules as played) needs making.

A hexcrawl is a procedure-oriented game, but that's often RAP, not RAW.
 

Kelton

Son of Excluded middle
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A hexcrawl is a procedure-oriented game, but that's often RAP, not RAW.
I don't actually remember a game that has hexcrawl written as a default mode, right there in the book (I don't have much experience with DnD prior to 3.5, frex).
As in, text explaining you will be exploring the map, some relevant rules, etc, to get into that style if you are not familiar. There are plenty guides in OSR space, but they kind of have lock on this it seems.

Wait, that's not true. Mutant Year Zero did that. But that's the only one I know.
 

Thanaeon

Mostly simulationist
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I also find it both disappointing and puzzling that I know of no procedural games that work with the simulationist/immersive style of gaming that we prefer. If I encountered such a game, I'd be strongly tempted to try it. Unfortunately, all the procedural games I know of are either actively antithetical to this style of play (via unavoidable in-play metagaming and personality mechanics) or, at best, seem at best mildly at odds with this play style. Do you have any idea why this might be? I know both Ron Edwards and Clinton Nixon held this playstyle in rather extreme contempt, but "indie" games have moved away from some of their ideas over time, and yet this playstyle seems to still be completely ignored (unless there are some new games I'm entirely unfamiliar with).
I'd say that Blades in the Dark could count as a simulationist procedural game. Personally, I like to think of this style, which my homebrew system is squarely in the middle of after that game totally and single-handedly rewrote my RPG system preferences, as "structured freeform." There's a strong central mechanic and in theory, you don't actually need anything except that and applying it to each situation, but in practice the games benefit from having support systems codifying its rules for key subsystems (which frequently include combat as well as aspects that the game focuses on, like the crew mechanics in BitD. What this produces is a game that's extremely flexible in its application - a single combat may be done away with through a single roll of the dice or an extended, more detailed contest, as befits the situation. And so for other stuff - you get the push-pull of intention and consequences of something like Apocalypse Engine, but without the strait-jacket rigidity that ruins that system for me. (Especially if you're willing to tweak BitD in the tiniest of ways and ignore some authorial intent from time to time, but you really don't need to do it that often at all. Like, I ran a dozen-session campaign where I probably used some non-RAW solutions maybe three times or something like that.)
 

downer

Fairy Tale King
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However, learning new procedures is both difficult, and also something that would actively get in the way of how we like to game.
So long as you have a set group of players who are familiar with your procedure, there is really no need to have a procedure encoded into the rules. You can just pick up new content rules and keep your procedure. That's pretty much a luxury situation though. Most people change groups every now and then, players come and go and then there will be problems getting people up to speed on how to play. If it's all there in the book, those can be avoided.
Do you have any idea why this might be? I know both Ron Edwards and Clinton Nixon held this playstyle in rather extreme contempt, but "indie" games have moved away from some of their ideas over time, and yet this playstyle seems to still be completely ignored (unless there are some new games I'm entirely unfamiliar with).
The issue predates the Forge. Pendragon is much older than that whole debate, but already has both the laser focus on its style and theme and the strong procedural aspects that mark the newer indie games (albeit in very different ways). I doubt players interested in immersion/simulation would have much fun with it, despite the basic mechanics being all trad, simply because its so steeped in literary reference and knightly cliché.
Agreed - in addition to being actually informative (which coherent / incoherent never was for me), it's also value neutral - I'm a big fan of terminology that doesn't inherently denigrate my preferred playstyle or type of game.
That was part of the reason I posted this. I have often been unfairly antagonistic to players like you, and I'd like to mend fences and help us find a way to express our preferences without sniping at each other's preferences.
But then it's pointed out often that Old School and Forge-inspired games have a lot in common.
Precisely. You know, I've often wondered about the existence of the 10-minute-turn in AD&D (and even longer about its five-minute counterpart in The Dark Eye). Nowadays, I realize that it is there because in hard-kore old-skool dungeon crawl mode, the entire game is turn based. There's no free play time. And that gives you a strong procedure - the GM goes around the table, asking for actions for the game turn, then runs through it, then starts another. Should combat break out, they simply switch to more finely-grained turns.
 

downer

Fairy Tale King
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I feel like this is a reframing of "book is coherent / incoherent" from the Forge.

Also, a better framing. So yeah.
It's been a while since I read the Forge stuff, so I'm not sure what "coherence" means in their loaded jargon. I wouldn't say that content-oriented rules need to be incoherent in the normal sense of that word. They can easily drift off into rambling incoherence, since there is no actual pattern for the author to follow, no ultimate way of checking if a given rule is where it needs to be.
 

Levi

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I don't actually remember a game that has hexcrawl written as a default mode, right there in the book (I don't have much experience with DnD prior to 3.5, frex).
As in, text explaining you will be exploring the map, some relevant rules, etc, to get into that style if you are not familiar. There are plenty guides in OSR space, but they kind of have lock on this it seems.
That... Is why I used it as an example of "rules as played" rather than "rules as written"?
 
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