Tuesday 16 February 2021

Errant Design Deep Dive #2: Core Procedures

For the duration of Errant's Kickstarter I will be doing a series of posts where I go through Errant, more or less in order, diving into the design of the game and its inspirations. To follow along, I suggest reading the relevant section being discussed at errantrpg.carrd.co. Also, we have a Discord server now.

Today is a look at the core procedures of Errant, which are Event Dice and Negotiations (I am passing over Reaction Rolls because a) you know what their deal is b) they tie into negotiations anyhow). Plus, a bonus digression on what the hell is the difference between a Rule vs Procedure?

Event Dice

The inspiration here is clearly, unashamedly, the excellent Hazard System by Necropraxis. There is not much to say about the idea of the overloaded encounter die that hasn't been said before; it is frankly a wonder that anyone was able to play a proper meaningful dungeoncrawl before its innovation. The fiddliness of square by square movement per turn, encounter checks every other turn, resting every 6th turn, keeping track of exactly which turn your torch burns down, it boggles the mind. 

I had experimented with various methods of doing so; first there was the rules provided in The Black Hack; roll an encounter check every real world 15 minutes or whenever the players are noisy, roll the usage die every turn. Of course, I would never remember to check when 15 minute real world minutes had elapsed, and the game provided very little definition of what a turn was. For people who were already familiar with the structure of Old D&D that latter point was likely not a problem, but TBH was my first proper OSRish game and I was fumbling in the dark. I eventually landed on a "turn is like 1 dungeoncrawl-y type action" and printed out turn trackers, but even this was quite fiddly. I think it was with the patreon releases of Knave that I looked at the Hazard System proper for the first time, was instantly converted, and never looked back.

Hazard die provide the entirety of the game-play experience with the meaningful gameplay structure present in combat and often lacking elsewhere. The play-structure of combat is radically intuitive to anyone who has played any type of board or card or most any game: its your turn, you get to do one thing, you decide what to do, then you pass the turn to someone else. The hazard die just expands this throughout the entire game. 

A turn immediately creates meaningful decisions because it forces a constraint; you can only do one thing, and therefore not all of the other things, before the turn ends and something else happens. It creates a clear responsive structure, where one side (the players) gets to do something, and then the other side (the Guide) does; there is no remembering to roll an encounter check or counting down a torch, the game by its structure tells you what to do and when. If classic play D&D is about making meaningful decisions, then the turn is the most natural structure for gameplay to take: a turn is the unit of meaningful decisions.

So many problems of modern D&D play fall away when you take this approach. The "everyone makes a skill check until someone succeeds or everyone fails", the "nothing happens" approach to failing a skill check, these all go away if every action takes a turn.

Two notable changes I've made with Event Dice from the Hazard System.

First: multiple event dice can be rolled. This primarily occurs if party members are encumbered. Rather than reducing the speed at which this forces players to move through the dungeon, such that moving between an area takes two turns instead of one, encumbrance increases the number of event dice that are rolled. This abstractly represents being slower, noisier, and clumsier. The math works out exactly the same, to be honest, in terms of how many actions are accomplished to how many event dice are rolled, but I think it makes it easier to still keep the unit to 1 turn = 1 action then messing about with 1 turn = 1/2 or 1/4 of an action. This idea was originally inspired by this post by Goblin Punch, about encumbrance increasing the chance of a random encounter.

Second: choosing to rest causes you to roll an extra event dice the next turn, abstractly representing weariness, time elapsing in rest, and being an easy target/causing attention when resting. The reason for this is to force a proper decision between choosing to take the rest or choosing to take a point of exhaustion. In a game where your torches or other resources are counting down based on time, spending a turn doing nothing is consequential; however, in Errant torches and other consumables deplete based on the roll of the event dice. That means, barring a scenario where there is another time pressure, there is no reason not to rest, and it just becomes empty time. It leads to "well, you actually don't get to do the thing you wanted to do yet, cause you rest, but then you get to do it right after" instead of a proper decision point.


This system is lifted almost entirely wholesale from Nick, with the modification being mostly that checks are rolled using the core check rather than a 2d6 (and therefore the results for each action are tweaked). Nick is doing layout for Errant though, so technically this isn't plagiarism.

In many ways, this works on the same principle as I was discussing above around turns. A conversation consists of each side doing something in each turn, and you only have so many turns to get what you want from the encounter. For games based around balancing resource depletion, degradation, and deprivation against risk to extract the greatest reward possible (e.g. XP for money exploration games), this system is especially well-suited. Rewards require challenges and challenges require constraint.

I also think it is very cheeky and clever of me to put "having a conversation" as a core part of the game but not the rules for combat. Well done Ava, you have Expressed A Point Through Game Design.

Rules vs Procedures

So what exactly is the distinction between a rule and a procedure? I don't know if I have a clear-cut answer to that. I've stated that "procedures are not rules, but neither are they vague, general guidance. They provide a framework to structure the game." But in truth the distinction can get quite murky.

The inspiration behind most of those procedures is the various thousands of blog posts I've read over the past half decade in the blogosphere; Nick's post on his social system is a great example. Bespoke little systems and mechanics detailing how each individual had decided to come up with and deal with a situation in their own game. Essentially, a presentation of each persons "rulings, not rules" that they came up with, slightly formalised and polished and placed on the internet.

I talked earlier about how The Black Hack and other light minimalist rulesets I was drawn to had a lack of structure that made them hard to run for me, someone new to GMing OSR style games and with a lot of anxiety that I wasn't doing things the right way. The expansion of procedures detailing how to deal with different situations was in large part a way for me to alleviate some of my anxiety at the table while also exploring and figuring out my own individual style as a referee. I would see how someone else did something, tweak it to my own tastes, and then see how it worked at the table. 

One of the most interesting things I noticed about this process is after the first few times I had tried out a procedure at the table, which usually did involve me anxiously checking my notes to make sure I ran it "correctly", I would become much more relaxed and loose when running them, not doing so precisely to the letter of what I had written but enough to achieve the result I wanted. I've used many analogies for this process before: about how you need to know the rules for classical painting before you can go abstract, about learning the musical score so you can improvise, about how once you've internalised a recipe and properly learned to cook you don't need to follow it exactly and instead break it down its component steps and riff on it to achieve what you want with what you have. The core idea is the same: you need a bit of structure in order to actually be creatively empowered to do what you want freely. Developing these procedures provided me with, as Nick puts it in the above linked post, "a baseline which can be adhered to or deviated from in whatever way serves the game best."

I think that last part gets to one of the differences between a rule and a procedure. You can't change the base mechanics of a game (in this case, Errant's core blackjack check) without having knock-on effects on how everything else in the game works, but I often in play will adjust an element of the event dice to reflect the situation we're in (for example, saying the exploration turn is scaled up to an hour, and therefore a torch will fully deplete every turn instead of on a roll of 3; 3 will still lower supply). 

Another difference that is procedures can often be either prescriptive or descriptive. To take negotiations as an example, a player can explicitly say they're trying to make a Giving check, or they can just say what they're doing, I can say or think to myself "Ok, that sounds like a Giving check" and just run it as such. Same with defining actions per turn; I can either call out the start of a new turn and ask for an explicit action, or let players noodle about, and once they've done too many things and ask to do one more thing say "alright, but that's going to start a new turn."

Not every procedure meets both criteria; for example the lockpicking procedure is entirely prescriptive as players have to announce which of the three actions they are taking, but it does meet the first point. And event dice, while being a procedure, are enmeshed in the game's structure enough that removing them would definitely cause changes to the game (though it would still be playable).

And of course, there is much murkiness sometimes. I mean, if a procedure is ultimately a set of instructions for how to run particular game states, all "rules" are procedures also. But I think there's enough of a distinction for it to be meaningful.

In general, Errant vol 1. contains the rules and the "harder" procedures which would change the way the game works if they were removed or changed: that's the core rules, event dice, inventory management, the classes, magic, and combat. All of this stuff can still be hacked and kitbashed of course, but I would say they form the base of the game. Vol 2 features the stuff that is more easily swapped out or around: rules for travelling overland, lockpicking, chases, mass combat, downtime turn actions, things like that. 

Though, that being said, the way Downtime Turn procedures interact with the rest of the game, particularly the XP rules, is one of my favourite things about Errant and I feel the game would lose much of its charm and unique identity if it didn't have those. But we will talk about those at a later date.

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