2014-07-15 : Procedure, Components, Object, Strategy, Style

Hey, some RPG theory, how about? While we're waiting for me to actually make something.

A game has procedures. Procedures are things like "on your turn, choose a legal card from your hand and play it," "when your character gets into a fight, roll 2d6 and add your Combat Value," and "to make your meeple on the screen jump, push the A button."

A game has components. Components are things like a deck of cards and scratch paper to keep score, a conversation and character sheets and dice, and a controller plus a meeple in a level full of stuff on a screen.

A game has an object, or more than one, or none. Objects are things like "at the end of any hand, if anybody's reached 100 points or more, the game ends, and the player with the lowest score wins," "make the imaginary world vivid, make the characters' lives exciting, and play to find out what happens," and "run your meeple all the way to the end of the level without dying."

Together, these three things are a complete game. When you're making a game, you create its procedures, its components, and its object-or-objects-or-none. Then you publish.

But a game also has strategy and style. Strategy and style are implicit in the relationship between the other three, emerge from the other three, or lay over the other three without changing them.

On your turn, which of your legal cards do you choose to play?

When the GM turns to you and asks you what your character does, what do you choose to say?

At every moment of play, do you choose to push the A button now? Or what?

Take my game Murderous Ghosts. Murderous Ghosts has:
- Procedures. Two little books full of almost nothing but procedures, in fact.
- Components. The two books, the deck of cards, the conversation between the players.
- An object. If the explorer escapes unmurdered, the explorer player wins.

The strategy of Murderous Ghosts is really fun. It is, at heart, a gambling game, and a string of bad luck might always see you murdered. But if you play well, you can time your draws so that you make your riskiest draws when the stakes are lowest and your safest draws when the stakes are high. Meanwhile, the ghost player is trying to mislead you about which draws are low-stakes and high-stakes, to make you misstep. But the game text doesn't include any mention of this, it leaves you to learn your own way forward.

And then tucked into the back of the ghost player's book, there are two short essays: "What Ghosts Do" and "What Ghosts Are." These are pure style. Their purpose is to inspire the ghost player to say scary and ever-scarier things. In fact, while they include some assertions and an instruciton or two, they're both over 50% made of pointed questions: "Is this ghost reenacting the horrors that it inflicted on others in life, or will it inflict on others the horrors that it suffered?"

You could play the game, see its procedures fully through, win and lose, and even enact strategies to try to win more and lose less, without ever reading these two essays.

Everybody with me? Procedures, components, object-or-objects-or-none, strategy, and style?

1. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Here's an example of strategy. Consider three great old trick-taking games, Hearts, Spades, and Knaves. Their procedures and components are almost identical. Their objects, however, are very different, and this means that their strategies are different too.

I've played so much Hearts over the years that I'm good at Spades (because I can read my hand pretty well at the draw) but terrible at Knaves (because I instinctively undervalue winning a safe trick and overvalue avoiding the Jacks).

This example takes us all the way back to 2011-06-13 : A roleplaying game has two centers.


2. On 2014-07-15, Tim C Koppang said:

Can I raise a tangential point? You make a lot of comparisons between RPGs and card or board games. How useful is that comparision? I?m not convinced that a person who has played nothing but Settlers of Catan, Spades, and Pictionary (just to choose three random games) is going to come over and successfully play an RPG if he or she has the same set of expectations about the type of activity in which he is about to engage.

Also, a nitpick: you say that "the object" is one of the three fundemental components that make up a complete game, but you also say that a game can have no object. Those two statements are contradictory.


3. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Tim:  That would be the job of the text of the RPG they're trying to play, not the job of RPG theory.

"RPG" is a marketing term applied basically capriciously to some games.

Is my use of "object-or-objects-or-none" really causing you confusion, or are you just nitpicking?


4. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Are you really saying "I'm not convinced it's useful to RPG designers to think of their games as games"? It's not an objection I can take very seriously, I'm afraid.


5. On 2014-07-15, Tim C Koppang said:

Vincent, first of all, please take what I'm saying in the spirit of honest inquiry. I'm sure you will. I just wanted to make that clear, however, because I know my written tone can sometimes come off as curt.

First, I was talking about players, not designers. I.e. the way we as designers define and present our games to players affects their first experience with the activity of roleplaying. If we as designers try to position some of our games as things that are very close to board or card games, then I think it's a poor marketing choice. To many (most?) board gamers trying RPGs for the first time, it's not necessarily an easy transition. I speak from experience. That's not to say that they (board gamers) can't play RPGs, or that they will have a difficult time playing them well. It's just that it may help for some players trying out some games to think of the activity differently—i.e., an activity that isn't fundamentally wrapped up in the idea of winning, losing, maximizing strategy, etc.

Second point: yes, I'm saying that your statement about an object being required, but not in all cases, is causing me confusion. I'm not arguing with you here, though. I'm just asking for clarification. A game either requires an object or it doesn't, right? If it's the latter, and I'm simply mis-reading you, then that's on me. I can live with that.

Finally, yes, I'm saying that I think it might be useful for some RPG designers to think of their "games" as something different than "games" in the sense of a traditional board or card game. I'm not saying that all RPG designer should do this, or that there isn't plenty that we can all learn from board and card games. However, I do think that many RPGs, especially the ones that I personally enjoy playing, approach design from a different perspective with different priorities. I own and enjoy many board games. I attend a weekly board game group. I also own and enjoy countless RPGs. In my experience, there is some crossover, but not necessarily as much as you seem to be claiming.

I hope we can talk about this. I'm very interested in the topic—not in the sense of "we need to define what a game is" type of BS, but rather in the sense of: the way we approach design and marketing can have a fundamental effect on how these things we call games are experienced, played, and enjoyed.


6. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Tim: It's cool.

Some games have, in place of an object, no object. Every game has an object slot, if you'll allow me, but a few games leave it intentionally or unintentionally empty.

I'll take on your objections in another post. Meanwhile, reservations acknowledged, do you see what I mean when I say, for instance, that a game's strategy arises from its procedures and object?


7. On 2014-07-15, Tim C Koppang said:

Vincent, yes, that all makes sense to me. In broad brush strokes, I think your categories are useful. I like the distinction you are making between the way the game works (procedures, object, and components) and the way that players interface on top of those basics (strategy and style). Just to make sure I understand, would it be fair to substitute the word "skill" in for "strategy"?—in that "skill" doesn't have the same associations with winning and losing, but does imply that a player has ability at a game?


8. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Tim: Well, a player's skills belong to the player, and a game's strategies belong to the game, so no, but yes, they're clearly related. You might say, for some games, that a skilled player has found a game's strategies and can adapt and play to them, where an unskilled player might be stuck making plays that are legal but poor. (That is, procedurally sound but not strategically sound.)

And furthermore, yes, exactly: what is "strategy" for a game whose object isn't to win, but instead is to find out what the characters make of their world?


9. On 2014-07-15, Paul Czege said:

Reading between your lines:
So, when I publish a game I have to include the procedures, components, and object-or-objects-or-none. Strategy and style are optional.

How do I know whether and how much strategy and style to include?


10. On 2014-07-15, Levi said:

With you.


11. On 2014-07-15, adam mcconnaughey said:

this framework applies to more than just games.

like, right now, i'm working with a bunch of people to make Larp House a self-sustaining organization. it needs procedures (methods of choosing people for various roles, methods of achieving consensus, methods of running larps), components (money, people, time), and objects (running larps, inclusivity)

i think about this a lot, actually


12. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Paul: How indeed!

How much strategy and style are you including in the text for The Clay that Woke?


13. On 2014-07-15, Cerisa said:

So, in an RPG such as AW where the moves are connected directly to the aesthetic, is that part of the style? The procedure is self-evident, but (what I am understanding to be) the style feels like an inherent and un-removable element.


14. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Adam: Makes sense. Cool.

Cerisa: Very good question. My instinct is to say no, let's call all the moves fully procedural, and reserve the idea of style for the choices a player gets to make within the bounds of legal procedural play.

So in AW, when you read a person, the list of questions you get to choose from is part of the procedure, but which questions you choose this time is strategic or stylistic. Okay with you?


15. On 2014-07-15, Ben said:

I'm not sure we can say that it's possible for a game to have no object or goal at all. It seems to me that all activities have an object, even it is only implied. After all, "explore the character's relationships" or "tell a dramatic story" are both objects.

Can you give an example of what you mean when you say that the "object" slot can be empty?

I do agree that strategies must arise from a game's procedures and object(s).


16. On 2014-07-15, Ben Lehman said:

With you.


17. On 2014-07-15, AsIf said:

Ok, I'm looking at this model in programming terms...

-Procedures are functions and object methods.
-Components are the operating system, specialized subsystems, and the input hardware, as well as all object classes (Items, Characters, Locations and Events).
-An objective (clearer word) is an end point or terminal condition.
-A strategy is an optimized process flow or algorithm.
-Style is the UX design and the user manual.

Firstly, the line between Procedures and Components is not really a line.  This gets a little self-reflexive because Object Classes are actually comprised of Procedures (called object methods), while Subsystems are comprised of Functions.  If we say the book is a Component, which makes sense, then it too is comprised of Procedures, including meta-procedures ("how to play this game" etc).  Maybe the metaphor breaks down at this point.  Or maybe the two are subsumed into a broader category called "Mechanics".

Anyway.  What's missing?  Data.

Data are all scores, stats, measurements, tags, and all naturally- or heuristically- quantifiable descriptors and modifiers which serve as arguments (to functions) and values (for the properties of virtual objects).  In an RPG, all verbal PC data (and perhaps a lot of the world data) is created by "users" after the game is published and read, but most games do include at least some pre-instantiated objects with their own data values (if only to serve as examples).

Data are the "blood" of Virtual Components and the "food" of Mechanics.


18. On 2014-07-15, adam mcconnaughey said:

hmm, i think sometimes different parts of a game can be assigned different roles by different sets of players.

for example, a group playing primetime adventures can treat "model a tv show!" as an object, which produces a different type of game than treating "model a tv show!" as style


19. On 2014-07-15, Paul Czege said:

Way way more style than strategy.


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This makes...
PC go "I mean explicitly"*
PC go "and edit"*
VB go "I got it for you."
PC go "cool, +1, thanks"

*click in for more

20. On 2014-07-15, Cerisa said:

Right, so if moves are procedural, then aesthetic would a sub-component of sorts seperate from these categories... perhaps "presentation" is a better term? Presentation is how you communicate the procedures, (not-)object(s) and components, and also can put the player in the correct frame of mind so as to fall into certain strategies or styles that you are interested in.


21. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Ben: Minecraft is the go-to answer. What happens with Minecraft is that its procedures include, I dunno, a dozen different phenomena that can be taken by the player and assembled into ad-hoc objects of play. Like, the way time passes plus the fact that monsters come out at night means that you can decide that for now your goal is to make a safe shelter before the sun goes down. The game's design eagerly goes along with the objects you create for yourself.

I think that object-less games are pretty rare, even object-less RPGs.

AsIf: As a matter of policy, I'd rather deal with the awkwardness of "object" than the subtler misleading implications of "objective."


22. On 2014-07-15, silby said:

I'm sold on strategy being an emergent or implicit property. If we restrict ourselves to games where the components are numbers, the procedures manipulate the numbers, and the object is to get the biggest of a particular number (most games), it's pretty evident that the strategy is a result of those things which define the game, but you couldn't define the game from its strategy. ("Go first" is the winning strategy for many simple games of two players, so there's no unique mapping from strategies to games.) This generalizes to weird games like RPGs just fine I think so I'll leave that argument as an exercise for Vincent.

So for games about numbers (again, most games), style falls into the "lays-atop-without-changing" category. Eurogames, "abstract games", combinatorial games, games of chance, all have "themes" which are not really themes but aesthetics to make the numbers easier or more fun to think about or engage with. They are essentially marketing. If, to use another valence of the word "style", it's "stylish" to make a certain chess play or a certain poker bet, that's in many ways a consequence of the game's definition or of the strategy emerging from it. ("Under X analysis this is a suboptimal move, but player Y has style.")

But for weird games, my intuition is that style is part of the game's definition. So for instance: "Make the imaginary world seem real" is an objective, not a procedure. So what's the procedure by which we pursue this objective? Let's say we have just one, "Ask questions and build on the answers." Okay, great, that plus another player with complementary procedures gives us everything we need for a weird game. (The components being the players.) But our players don't know what their weird game is about, and I think aboutness in a weird game is irreplaceably part of the game's definition. (I could go further and say weird games are precisely those games which have aboutness, but I won't!)

So anyway if we tell our players "This is a game about the apocalypse" we've equipped our weird game with something to be about. The game as realized by its players is (and here's my actual claim) a different game than if we tell them "This is a game about the end times", or if we tell them nothing. I think that a weird game's aboutness is close to what its style is. In a weird game, the style interacts with the components and the procedures and the objects and affects what they do. You can legally play a weird game with no style, but then it's the wrong weird game, or not weird at all, and you might not even be able to fulfill the more objective objects.

For instance, a true story: Diplomacy is supposed to be a weird game, where the game is about making and breaking deals with your opponents, and the style is all backstabbing and broken hearts. I played it online once, and I didn't really get that the game was supposed to be weird, and I just tried to move my armies and boats around without really talking to people much. I didn't have much fun. Also, interestingly, that's probably a poor strategy.

So, I think your gamut of things that games have is pretty good, but I don't think style is in the same category as strategy, as an emergent thing that is dependent on other parts of the game's definition.


23. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Cerisa: Presentation, yes. Right on.


24. On 2014-07-15, Vincent said:

Silby: How do you like this? When you're playing an abstract game, style has relatively little value, and strategy relatively much. When you're playing a weird game, the opposite.


25. On 2014-07-15, silby said:

Vincent: I'm not sure (plenty of weird games have abstract subgames), but I'll let you get away with it.


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This makes...
EJS go "assuming by "value" you mean"*
VB go "yep!"*
VB go "But also I'm not going to push it."*

*click in for more

26. On 2014-07-15, Justin K. said:

Regarding games with no object:

Games like Minecraft were the first thing that came to mind for me, too. Any number of other explory, survivaly games can occupy that space as well.

In that sort of game the procedures and components push the player toward some ad-hoc object. The particulars of the object can vary depending on the player's stance, approach, or values, but the object will have its foundation in the procedures and components. That all seems fairly right.

It might be the case, then, that a game can have no object in its design, but all games do have some object in play. I think that might be a worthwhile distinction.


27. On 2014-07-16, Cerisa said:

Silby: Could "The Apocalypse", or our shared/personal notions of it, actually be a component of a game, rather than the style? In the same way that swapping out all the tetronimos in Tetris for pentaminos (clearly "components" under this analysis) would drastically effect how the procedures interact with it, maybe when I change out "The Apocalypse" to "Fantasy Adventure" or "The Wild West", I perform a similar swapping-out-of-game-pieces.


28. On 2014-07-16, Cerisa said:

Actually, now that I'm dwelling on this more, I'm wondering: is there necessarily a difference between strategy and style? I think I could make an argument that an entire section of ghostly inspiration for a role-playing game is, in fact, offering strategies to be used in one's efforts towards the (a) object of making the game creepy.


29. On 2014-07-16, Michael Pfaff said:

Crusader Kings II is another game that really has no object other than, don't lose (when you have no heir the game ends) for as long as possible. But, really, success can be anything the player desires or shoots for.


30. On 2014-07-16, Ben said:

I like that distinction, Justin.

However, I feel that the implicit object of Minecraft is pretty clear: avoid death.

In versions of the game where there is no active threat and you are just free to build as you please, I would call that a digital toy rather than a game. To me, a toy is something meant for play, but without any inherent goal.

Basically, I feel that goal-oriented and non-goal-oriented systems are so fundamentally different that they should be in different categories.


31. On 2014-07-16, Dan Maruschak said:

As another example, I designed this simple one-page game to have only procedures, no explicit or implicit object (maybe I'm wrong about there being no implicit object, but I don't think I am).


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This makes...
JMW go "Maybe an object for it:"*
VB go "it clearly accommodates an assortment of objects."*
JMW go "Heh"
CB go "Sweet!"

*click in for more

32. On 2014-07-16, Vincent said:

Ben: The leap to "that's a toy, not a game, so we can exclude it from our consideration" is, like the leap to "but RPGs aren't like other games, so we can't understand them on the same terms," an impoverishing one. A capitulation to stubborn ignorance and prejudice. We should try to avoid making it until we have no other way forward.


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This makes...
BL go "+1"

33. On 2014-07-16, Josh W said:

Ok, here's what I think about strategy and style; these are play elements that in their specification have to go through the player's intelligence or personality.

If you fully determine the strategies that should be played in the game, you have noughts and crosses; player behaviour is a solved problem, which makes it a matter of your capacity to implement rote behaviour.

Style and strategy are to an extent what the players bring, and so they require the space for them to remain open, but on the other side, if you give too little help in creating them, then there's a lot of pointless search on the player's part.

So if you define mechanics in such a way that "use your judgement" "consider what makes you feel scared and cold" are the instructions, then these are implicitly statements conditional on a players internal states, (to get a little bit cybernetic for a moment), they only ever partially determine the players role and their contribution.

Strategy and style are just two cuts of a more general category of "things that the players must bring to the game (for it to work, for them to have a satisfying role in it), but can be helped to bring".


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This makes...
JMW go "Woops, I mean explicitly, not implicitly"

34. On 2014-07-16, Vincent said:

Josh W: Agreed.


35. On 2014-07-16, Vincent said:

Everybody, go look at Dan's game Four Panels, if you skipped over it.


36. On 2014-07-16, Moreno R. said:

A particular case: Spione.

Most of the book is about history and cold war stuff, there are no game procedures, but if you have read it you have a much clearer idea about style and strategy (when I play with people who have not read the book they tend to bring James Bond and Hydra into the game sometimes...).

But then, in the last chapter, among the rules there is the clear indication of using the manouvers to "bring the spy into the cold".

Without understanding what "the cold" means, that rule is useless, and if you don't follow that procedure the game usually don't work (it can work if the player still have an agenda that is similar enough, but not if they play aimlessly)

So, the part of the book that explain what "the cold" is, in historical and literary terms, is style or procedures?


37. On 2014-07-16, Vincent said:

On Four Panels: The forebears of our games, RPGs, are military sim tabletop games on one side and literary exquisite corpse games on the other. A lot of the qualities that we think of as unique to RPGs appear first in exquisite corpse games, and often they're easier to examine and understand there. This is why I go on and on about Eat Poop You Cat.

Even if you just imagine yourself playing it, you can get a sense of the role of strategy and style in Four Panels, yeah?


38. On 2014-07-16, Vincent said:

Moreno: Style.

For the sake of procedure, you can define "the cold" in a paragraph. The spy's isolation from friends and allies, the spy's emotional and effective alienation, the spy's abandonment, the tension between the spy's incompatible self-identities. I'd be shocked and dismayed if the procedural chapter of Spione doesn't include just such a paragraph.


39. On 2014-07-16, Vincent said:

We played I Doubt It as a family.

The 8-year-old is too young to bluff, too young to read a bluff, and too young to buy into the abstract and conceptual rewards of playing a game like I Doubt It to win. Consequently, on everybody's every turn, he would say "I doubt it!"

This is a procedurally legal way to play, but such a debased strategy that the game can't survive it.

People who bring James Bond or Hydra into Spione are doing the stylistic equivalent.


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This makes...
EJS go "yeah!"*
BL go "EJS, I'm not sure..."*

*click in for more

40. On 2014-07-16, Moreno R. said:

Thinking about the worst rpg session I ever played, almost every time the problems were the stylistic and creative choices, not the knowledge of the procedures or the willingness to follow them. This doesn't happen so frequently with other kind of games. Did you have similar experiences? If you have, do you think it's because rpgs are more vulnerable to stilistic differences, or because often they suck at explaining the way they should be played?


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This makes...
MR go "That should have been "the worst rpg sessions"...."

41. On 2014-07-16, Vincent said:

I'm so sorry, Moreno, but I'm SO FINISHED analyzing and reanalyzing bad times. Are there good sessions you could look for strategy and style in instead?


42. On 2014-07-16, Paul Czege said:

A decade ago after a problematic playtest of >i>The World, the Flesh, and the Devil I decided an important challenge I wanted to work on was how an RPG enforces its genre. Ultimately I realized that you can trust players to stick to genre if they understand it, and in fact the challenge was how an RPG teaches its genre. You'll see my solution in The Clay That Woke


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JMW go "Nice!"

43. On 2014-07-16, Moreno R. said:

@Vincent: Oh, yes, but it's more difficult to find good examples. When something doesn't work, when someone do something at the table that is ruining your fun, it's easy to notice. When everything work, instead, I usually am so "in the moment" that I can't tear myself from the game enough to think about how the pieces are working.
Probably it's a consequence of my total lack of interest in designing games myself: it's like with my car, I am not interested in understanding WHY it work, the important thing is that it works...

But thinking about it, I have a "positive" example of style over rules, that I noticed precisely because there was something that was not working.

We were playing Annalise, with a new player added at the last minute (I met him literally during the first session). His only experiences were very traditional rpgs, and Annalise is not a simple game for people who never played a GMless rpg before, so I had some doubts about it, but he was a friend of another player that specifically wanted to try that game that his friend had described to him in enthusiastic terms.

And, as I suspected, he had a lot of difficulties with the game procedures, I had to remind him how the rules for Moments worked in every single scene, he never remembered how he could use Claims (and he had taken very few of them), etc.

Truth to tell, I was not very happy about his presence at the table when these difficulties did slow down the game to a crawl when it was his turn, but then....  I did choose him as the Guide for the next scene for my character, because he was the only one who had not played as a Guide at that point...  and he did frame the scene, and play the NPC, demonstrating a clear understanding of the aesthetics at the table, and making these NPC really interesting characters.

I was much more relaxed afterwards. Because, as I wrote in the previous comment, usually the problems at the table are about style. The procedures can be learned, playing the game. Difference in style are much more difficult to overcome.
He never did really master the rules of Annalise, in the few sessions of the game duration, but he got better, and even with these procedural problems, I think that everybody enjoyed the game very much. And now he is a regular player in our group.

Is this positive enough? :-)


44. On 2014-07-17, Simon C said:

Do you think that a game where the object is "make the imaginary world vivid, make the characters' lives exciting, and play to find out what happens," has a fundamentally different relationship to the "style" aspect of the game than does a game where the objective is "run your meeple all the way to the end of the level without dying.


45. On 2014-07-17, Vincent said:

Simon C: Astute question!

I don't, no. Definitely not.

In general I think that games have circumstantial differences, not fundamental differences. Is easy to take two individual games whose differences are large - GURPS and Pac-man, for instance - and declare that you've identified two classes of games. But somewhere out there, there's a game that demonstrates the true circumstantiality of the fundamental distinctions you think you've found.

Um. But more specifically, remember that a game's object alone doesn't create strategy or style. Its procedures do too. Take any two games that share the same object, like "run your meeple to the end of the level" or "first to 50 points wins." They might or purely might not have any other features in common. There's no predicting.

I figured out what I mean by style vs what I mean by strategy. I'll post about it in a little while and it'll clarify a lot, I hope.


46. On 2014-07-17, Vincent said:

Simon C: So does my new post help clarify why I say no?


47. On 2014-07-17, Vincent said:

Everybody: The construction of "style" in my new post reveals to me that style doesn't have a very strong relationship with the game's genre at all.

The question, instead, goes like this:
- Does your game care if its players are on the same page, aligned, genre-wise? If so...
- Does it use its procedures to bring the players into genre alignment?
- Does it use its object-or-objects-or-none to bring the players into genre alignment?
- Does it rely upon good strategic play to bring the players into genre alignment?
- Does it rely upon good stylistic play to bring the players into genre alignment?
- Does it rely upon instruction outside of play to bring the characters into genre alignment?
- Does it, worst case, sabotage genre alignment by putting it in conflict with any of these?

(For most RPGs, complicated as they are, the answer will be some of each in a variety of proportions.)


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CC go "Reminds me of Procedures vs. Directives"*

*click in for more

48. On 2014-07-27, Johnicholas said:

Has anyone used the McCarthy's Decider protocol in an RPG context? or is there a RPG that independently discovered something like their Decider protocol?


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