Procedures vs. Directives

June 9, 2010

Thinking more about general game design and how rules are communicated. Most games use both of these to different degrees, but the question is what parts should be procedural? What parts should be directives?

Procedure Rules

Procedure rules are mechanics or rules which indicate a procedure, a process.

“Roll for initiative, then move, then pick action, then roll dice” etc. It’s a process from A to B to C, and could be represented by a flowchart. (Many people use the term “system” or “mechanics” for these types of rules exclusively).

Procedures are clear, step by step processes in play. They’re constrained, good at focusing and shaping play, and reliably producing play experiences.

Examples include:
– Most combat systems in rpgs
– Trollbabe’s Conflict system
– Universalis play overall
– Polaris’ Bargaining mechanics
– Dogs in the Vineyard Town Creation
– Boardgames. (Boardgames ONLY have procedural rules)

Directive Rules

Directive rules are broad directions that rely primarily on judgment and social contract and not step-by-step procedures.

“Describe action in cinematic terms! Offer suggestions freely! Make comments, ask questions out of character!” etc. Directive rules could be represented by broad Venn diagrams.

They very often explain what’s the point of the game, and -when- and -how- to use the procedure rules. (Many people throw around terms like “style”, “good roleplaying”, “play advice” to talk about directive rules).

Directives give direction and shape to play in a broad sense and allow the group to use the procedure rules in more flexible ways. Due to the unstructured nature of directives, they require more skillfulness to apply, and often take practice to learn.

This also makes them significantly less reliable in communicating the game and play.

The other part that makes directives tough, is that historically they’ve been used very poorly. Either contradictory to themselves, contradictory to the procedures of play, and/or assumed useless or interchageable amongst all games. That is, a lot of folks assume that reading them, much less considering and applying them is a waste of time, so they tend to be less often translated into play.

Examples include:
– Sorcerer’s use of Loresheets
– Primetime Adventures advice on addressing Issues
– My Life With Master on how to play the Master
– Apocalypse World’s Principles
– The Quick Primer for Old School Gaming
– Polaris on how to play the Moons
– The Style rules in Houses of the Blooded
– The advice in Whitewolf games

Emergent vs. Directed Play

That said, the interaction of both types of rules in a game, determines -how- the game does what it does, how it achieves it’s Creative Agenda.

Emergent play is where the Creative Agenda primarily comes from a high reliance on procedural rules- just follow the procedure and the focus naturally arises.

If you play D&D 4E and follow the procedures, you will get a tactically focused strategy game. You don’t have to think about it, or put a guiding hand on the rules- they do what they do and the resulting game naturally rises from it.

In contrast, Directed play requires the group to apply the directives, the advice, to use the procedures in an intentional way to shape play. There has to be more care and thought to how you’re playing the game to successfully produce a coherent Creative Agenda.

You also notice that games that rely on this also have the potential to drift to different Creative Agendas and it becomes harder for groups to reliably get on the same page with new groupings or players.

Sorcerer would be a prime example here. The game has a lot of instructions about what the focus of play is about – crafting situations to stress Humanity, through the use of Kickers and Bangs, and you see in games where people do this, it works, and places where people don’t, they shrug their shoulders and go, “This game doesn’t DO anything different”… when they ignored the rules that told them how to play the game.

Communicating Procedures, Communicating Directives

– It helps to have a list, outline or flowchart that people can reference.

– If it ties into other procedure chains, it helps to give references (“See Magical Backlash, pg. 232”)

– It helps to repeat aspects where other procedure/rules tie into the current one (“Again, you can always spend Luck to get an extra die!”)

– Be clear that it is literally rules and not vague mumble-advice.

– Repeat, repeat, repeat. If the directive is important, repeat it throughout the book.

– Show examples of how to use the directive to shape how you interface with the procedures and the rest of play. (“Jim suggests that maybe the two characters are actually related and didn’t know it until now! The group agrees, and decides to add a Rank 2 Relationship using the Trait rules”)

– You might need to explain how other types of directives don’t work with your game (“You can’t prep a story beforehand. It won’t work with the mechanics…”)

Be careful with this, as rpg history is full of games with random rants and One-True-Wayism. Practical advice is often mistaken with crusading, and crusading is often shoveled in under sections marked, “Advice”.

ETA: Also worth looking at – Vincent’s old post on Procedures and Principled decisions.

ETA: Vincent’s comment on Style

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