Recently, in an article entitled “What are the Three Timescales in RPGs?” I tossed around a couple words without defining them. I’ve gone back to that article and linked it to the future, to this article where I explain them. I should have defined them then, so I’m making up for it now. The two terms I’m talking about are Directives and Procedures.
Directives, or directional rules, are general guidelines for play. Basically, directives answer the first question of the Big Three: What is this game about? Directives rely on a player’s ability to cooperatively work with the group toward a mutual goal. They set up the parameters in the Social Contract for what is acceptable play and what is not. Some directives are big. They give advice on how to play the game from a top-down point of view. I call them macro-directives.
-Dungeons and Dragons: Kill monsters and take their stuff.
-Dogs in the Vineyard: Rid a town of sin and vice.
-Sorcerer: Feed your demon while not sacrificing your humanity.
-Prime Time Adventures: Explore a theme using a TV/Movie as inspiration.
-Vampire: The Eternal Struggle: Explore what it’s like to be a vampire.
-My Life With Master: Escape from a dysfunctional relationship.
-Apocalypse World: Decide what you’re willing to sacrifice to get what you need.
-Inspectres: Solve a supernatural crime while competing against other agencies.
This can sometimes be called the “object” of the game, but I think some designers would have a problem with the connotation of that word.
Directives give context to all the other rules. Combat mechanics in D&D wouldn’t make much sense without a dungeon to explore. The humanity rules in Sorcerer are empty without the demon your character bound.
Directives can also be advice on how to portray something on the micro scale. For instance, think of the reams of literature about Forgotten Realms. There’s plenty of advice out there on how a DM should play someone like Elminster or Drizzt. Alignment rules in AD&D is another example of a micro-directive: “This is what Lawful Neutral means…” For a more indie-centric example, think about resorting to your pistol in Dogs in the Vineyard: it is a big deal and the rules say you should only do it when something is VITALLY important to you. The mechanics on what to do when someone loses their Humanity in Sorcerer are also micro-directives.
Sometimes, directives are called “play advice” or “guidance” within a text. If you know them by that name, you should understand what I’m talking about.
I think directives are the hard part of an RPG. If the combat rules don’t work, it’s easy to see. If you accidentally skipped a step during Chargen, the oversight will become evident during play. But missing that DitV is not a guns-blazing style western RPG or that if you are playing Prime Time Adventures to see what it would be like to live in the Buffyverse, you’re doing it wrong are easy mistakes to make.
Procedures, on the other hand, are much more concrete. Procedures are step-by-step mechanics that lead the players through some kind of process in order to produce something. Chargen is an example. So are combat mechanics, task resolution, conflict resolution, spell casting, recuperation, leveling up, conch shell narration, and so on.
Some examples from games:
-Capes: Narration Rules
-Call of Cthullu: Sanity Checks
-Dogs in the Vineyard: Town Creation
-Shock: Conflict Resolution
-Rolemaster: Resistance Roll
-Ars Magica: Troupe Generation
That list is hardly exhaustive, even within those games. The typical game will have many different procedures, each with its own end product.
I think procedures are easier for new players to grasp since they are (usually) laid out in a coherent way with bulleted lists, numbered steps, and sometimes visual representations. Small aspects of procedures can be confused by players at first, but after a few sessions they will usually iron out all the bugs.
So what are the pitfalls of each?
For directives, you must be consistent and your procedures must support them. You cannot tell the players to portray their characters one way then give them mechanics that incentivize doing the exact opposite. The classic example of this is D&D and the number of Heartbreakers that imitated it. Let me cite an example from one of my own games.
In the Core Rules for Ember Twilight, we include a play advice section. In that section we talk about heroes are flawed people in literature and legend. Then we admonish players to keep that in mind as they play. But we didn’t give them any mechanics to support that play. Consequently, this advice was almost always ignored by the players. When they did follow it, it was usually just by accident.
For procedures, you must be clear and they must reinforce your directives. Making procedures understandable is one of the hardest parts of game design to master because it requires good writing skills. I’ve talked about how to design good mechanics in “How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics” part 1 and part 2.
Procedures often benefit from having examples, anecdotes, charts, and/or illustrations to help. Not everyone can learn just by reading a set of instructions, so including fun anecdotes or graphics can be a big help.
Also, you must design procedures that actually do what you want them to do. If you want negotiation to be a big part of the interaction between players at the table, you cannot have a procedure for checking the success of a negotiation be something as simple as “Roll a d100. If the result is less than your Charisma stat, you succeed.” You need to set up a procedure that creates a back-and-forth dialogue between two or more players and incentivizes them to narrate what their characters say. Always go back and double check your procedures to make they actually support the kind of play you envisioned for your game.