SLOUCHING TOWARD PROCEDURALISM
“Here we come across another, very positive feature of play : it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it "spoils the game", robs it of its character and makes it worthless.”
- Homo Ludens
Homo Ludens is a foundational work in the scholarship of games or “play” and of cultural history more generally. Written by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and published in 1938, it defines play as a distinct natural activity that exists outside everyday survival, only for the purpose of freedom and fun. However, a major element separates play from other leisure activities—play requires rules.
Play produces “games” or what RPG communities like to call “systems”, each of which has a set of rules, even the games of animals. Huzinga’s example is dogs playing at fighting, pretending to be furious. The dogs nip and mouth each other, but never bite to injure as they would in a real conflict. Even the play of puppies has unwritten rules that fall largely into the concept of “fairplay”, exactly the same concerns that dominate human play, including RPGs. RPGs though are a complex game, and have correspondingly complex sets of rules, including unspoken ones.
Rules come in more than one variety as well, especially in complex games. In RPGs we often focus on what I differentiate as “Mechanics”; rules that largely cover how events within the fiction of the game work. What dice we roll and what they mean when the system models a fight for example. Mechanics are almost always the primary focus of rule books, because without them it’s impossible to play the game at all, or at least it’s impossible to play as a distinct system, and that’s the goal of most designers: to share their distinct vision of play with others.
Yet there’s another sort of rules. Rules about why and how we play more generally that I will call “Procedure”. Procedures are a form of rules for outside of play itself, the rules for using the rules. While mechanics define why and what is happening in a game, procedures define how it happens at the table. Procedure is the way we, the players, do something in the game.
This is a somewhat loose definition, and there’s overlap between procedures and mechanics—edge cases where rules may be both, where they serve different purposes at different times, or where it’s hard to tell which category they fit in. However, the existence of troublesome borderline rules isn’t grounds to dismiss this entire distinction, because most of the time the distinction is intuitively obvious, and more importantly it’s useful. The distinction between mechanics and procedure allows one to look at games: rules, design principles, ethics, and cultures of play in a new way, viewing what might seem like eccentricities as necessary parts of the entire rules structure, interrogating them as potential elements of intentional design. However, even with this distinction in mind the relationship between how, what, and why in a rules-based system is complex, but this complexity isn’t just for RPGs or games, similar issues appear with all complex rules-based disciplines and there are applicable tools available for a better understanding of Procedure.
I am not adapting my definitions of procedure from Huizinga, or from the theory of games at all. Instead, to dig into the meaning of Procedure, I went to theory of another rules-based structure, an older and more fiercely contested space, with far more theory around the distinction between substantive and procedural rules—legal theory.
Proceduralism is a significant approach in the theory and practice of law, and especially American jurisprudence. This may feel like an odd leap, from law to games and back, but it’s not entirely my own, it's also Huizinga’s and he makes a compelling argument that the legal system shares many elements with a game or contest.
“The judicial contest is always subject to a system of restrictive rules which, quite apart from the limitations of time and place, set the lawsuit firmly and squarely in the domain of orderly, antithetical play. [...] The lawsuit can be regarded as a game of chance, a contest, or a verbal battle.”
- Homo Ludens