What Makes a Good Procedure?

Sam W

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I want to propose a set of criteria for good procedures and take a look at some procedures. We will look at some good ones, some ones not in my favor, and take some conclusions to logical extremes to see why they fail. This is mostly going to apply to OSR-style procedures, in particular, we are going to look mainly at random generation procedures.

The Criteria

The criteria I want to propose for what makes a procedurable desireable are:

  1. The procedure should have a small mental overhead to perform,
  2. The procedure should reinforce challenges the game sets out to perform,
  3. The procedure should be developable as part of the game world.

To clarify, ‘mental overhead’ is the amount of thinking required to complete the procedure: remembering what to roll, sorting through the relevant table, and interpreting the result (if necessary).

Notice that point 2, for our OSR case, has a substitution that can be made: the challenges of the game. OSR challenges are often diegetic puzzles and resource management.

And finally, the results of the procedure should have clear in-fiction interpretations that make sense for the game at its current state. Moreover, you should be able to develop the results of the procedure into further fiction.

These criteria, when all met, create engaging and streamlined procedures that encourage the desired play. It’s a win–win for player and referee, as no one has to do the mental heavy lifting and something interesting happens in the game.

Let’s judge some procedures on these criteria.

Combat Procedures: Initiative

We are going to look at the default initiative systems of 5e, Knave, and OD&D and critique or praise their adherence to the principles.


If you’re not familiar, 5e runs initiative as follows: everyone rolls an ‘initiative check,’ then initiative proceeds by highest scores of individuals.

Mental Overhead: Poor. This is a particular intensive way to track initiative. It needs a special check (why would a simple Dex check not be sufficient?), and keeping track of a random order of players. At a big table, this is a disaster to track. Moreover, there is mental overhead in planning your turn and not being bored between your turns.

Challenges: Good. What are the challenges of 5e? To me, 5e challenges players to use their special abilities to act as heroes. 5e has a “spotlight” initiative system: everyone gets their moment to shine. This is perfect for heroic moments and big moves.

(You may disagree on the challenge 5e sets out to pose, in which case, you can modify this argument as you see fit).

Developable: Poor. I find 5e initiative to be immersion breaking. It precludes direct collaboration, and simplifies many time–tracking aspects of combat - i.e. why does every action take the same time to perform? Moreover, there is no extension to the procedure to allow nonstandard actions: teaming up, as mentioned, or taking multi–turn actions. There is nothing you can do to extend the procedure in a fictional way.


Knave gives a 50-50 chance of all players going first each round, rerolled every round.

Mental Overhead: Fair. It’s easy to do but easy to forget. I would be too accustomed to alternating turns to remember to reroll every round. The side-based initiative is great on every other account. Easy to manage who is going when, and easy to come up with actions to perform when you can collaborate. Also goes much quicker.

Challenges: Excellent. Luckily with Knave, we have designer’s notes. Knave sets out for combat to be easy to track and keep ‘players engaged.’ It also looks to make combat more dangerous. I think the last two points are well upheld (as is the first one, as previously discussed). It is engaging, as you need to be on your toes and be reactive to win (since the order is so unpredictable), and combat is dangerous, as you can get smacked twice in a row.

Developable: Fair. Knave seems to have one kind of fight in mind with this initiative procedure: a head–on melee. There are no accomodations in the rules made for suprise attacks of various kinds, like an ambush; nor is there accomodations for special attacks like a crossbow sniper’s headshot. These things can be figured out at the table with a house rule, but the basic mechanic seems to be restrictive for those cases.


I am going to specifically look at the White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game Alternate combat system, with the 4M phases (for contrast with Knave, which is otherwise very similar). You roll side based initiative (50-50, rerolled every round). The referee may also determine surprise at the beginning, suggsted either with a judgement or a roll. Then prepared spells are cast (Magic), followed by Missile attacks, Melee combat, and then Movement, all in initiative order within each phase.

Mental Overhead: Poor. You need to alternate sides in the correct order in each M-phase, and keep track of the four phases. For a table of less than 4 players, you’re keeping track of more phases than players! This can be a logistical headache.

Challenges: Excellent. OD&D looks to be a tactics–based victory in a chaotic battle. The phases keep good track of time to allow some planning, but the side–based initiative keeps everyone on their toes.

Developable: Fair. This suffers from the same drawback as Knave: it has minimal ability to accomodate non-melee situations.

Bonus: Into the Odd

Into the Odd runs side-based initiative, with a first round for players if they succeed on a Dex save.

Mental Overhead: Excellent. Uses an existing roll for determining surprise, and proceeds side–based.

Challenges: Good. Into the Odd’s likes to encourage lateral thinking an unfair fights. The extra first round reinforces that well.

Developable: Good. That free round could be extended, or eliminated entirely in the right scenario. Headshot? Boom. Easy to figure out how to do.

Addendum: Intended Goals vs Achieved Goals

There’s a saying that goes back in game design: the behavior that you reward is the behavior you encourage. When creating a procedure, keep this in mind. The challenges posed should give rewards when overcome; whether the reward is a level, gold, or an item. How can players act in your procedure? What routes do they have to success? Do they reward the challenge you intend?

The Way of Game Design is one of freeing players without leading them. They must find a path in the provided structure without it being obvious or designed for them.