A Tale of Two Game Styles: Procedural and Immersive Playing

Often times, there are rules debates about some arcane detail about movement or combat, that can go on quite a while and reach no conclusion. One such debate kicked off recently about OSE (Old School Essentials) and why players who start into the OSR with it sometimes stick so religiously to the rules as written. Is it because the flavour text of the Moldvay version (B/X) is missing? Is it because they miss the examples of play?

And in that course the examples of play themselves came under scrutiny, and the fact that they do not adhere to the rules very tightly. In fact, they tend to go quite off the rails in some respects; namely, their use of missiles.

In my view, that is their strength: It re-inforces the oft-repeated mantra that the rules should only facilitate play, not dominate it. In the view of others, it is wrong and a mistake on Moldvay’s part. And they do have a point in that he could have pointed out and explained such instances where the example referee went counter to the rules: like when he allowed the party to fire at incoming enemies (classic pass-through fire in older editions before B/X, but not present in B/X and not explained).

Nothing within OSE gives any hint to allow such actions, and so for someone who knows only this rules set it would be weird and confusing if a referee was to allow, or even worse, use such tactics as the monsters.

The example of the held action

One particular example that bugs me is that in a game I read about – an OSE game – a player had a trigger for a pit trap and decided to cleverly use the environment to his advantage. He waited at the trigger and announced his intention to open the pit trap as soon as the oncoming enemies walked across it.
Sounds all reasonable and natural.

However, the GM, on the monster initiative, had the enemies use their movement to walk right over the prepared pit and end their move already on the safe ground after it, almost on top of the trigger-player, who had to scramble to get his shield up. He had been forced to watch the enemy traipse toward him and across the point he wanted to target, unable to move a muscle.

The player argued that he wanted to trigger the trap while the monsters were on it, not after that, but the GM argued that there was a sequence of combat and every side could only act on their initiative. In other words, the only way to get the monsters with such a triggered trap would be if they were to end their movement right on top of it, and stood right there when the initiative of the player came up.

In other words, there is no hold action in B/X or OSE, and for this GM that means that such an immediate reaction to an enemy action is simply impossible; see RAW: rules-as-written.


Now, Moldvay himself wrote:

and repeats the point even more pointedly as:

Of course, a valid argument can be made that a certain amount of adherence to the rules is obligatory, to make sure everyone is on the same page and players know what they can and can’t do within the confines of the game. On the other hand, the stricter the rules adherence, the more numerous the disappointments when people’s imagination start to take wing, only to get those wings clipped.

Notably, there are always some players who lean more towards the fantastic and even cinematic, and others who lean more towards the tables and lists. Some that feel the vibe of this Moldvay-excerpt from the B/X rules …

… reveberate in their souls, and others that are deeply fascinated by the clever detail of this table in the AD&D 1e Player Handbook:

And while people with either preference can well play with each other, given some tolerance for each other’s quirks, there are invariably moments where one kind of player perks up and has his eyes shine in excitement, while the other stifles a yawn.

There are those who engage in deep dialogue with NPCs and tell them about their parents, while there are those who declare that they, as GMs, would kill off any PC who came with a back story, that they don’t allow any knowledge of the world and the powers that be except what the player characters can gather from cleverly interrogating NPCs, and that they want to get to the sweet problem solving and killing soon and would want to skip the lame travel nonsense or campfire blabbing of a night rest, except if the camp might be charged by a rabid boar.

Some see characters as people with hopes and dreams who become friends and suffer emotional trauma when they lose a trusted friend, others see them as playing pieces to move forward on a slightly more intricate chessboard.


As I am sure is already very obvious, I fall more on the immersive side of the spectrum. Which is also why I like shorter rule books like OD&D and B/X and embrace the gaps over more voluminous libraries like the later editions, including 5e with the three basic books numbering hundreds of pages each, two books of Everything numbering hundreds more, and multiple extras.

But when I recounted the tale of that trap-incident, it didn’t take long for the procedural people to defend the example referee, and who found no fault whatsoever with the impossibility of laying such a trap, because, after all, the rules clearly state that first one side acts, then the other.

They would not convince me to let go of imagining the game world as an actual, living world with some fuzziness between side A and side B, and I would not convince them to let go of grid-think.

And to get to another example, on a grid I invariably put the miniature representing my character somewhat sideways on a square, so that it overlaps a grid-crossing and parts of its base stand on three neighbouring squares. I don’t do it on purpose, it is a subconscious thing of breaking out of the grid, and it has become a kind of running gag in my playing group, where the others are just waiting for me to place my miniature and start laughing because it stands on four squares AGAIN.

Why? Because in my mind there is no grid. In my mind there is a clearing in the wood, or a cave, and my character does not go three fields to the north and two to the east; my character goes “over there” within my movement reach. But then, of course: Such a movement reach limit is necessary, otherwise the game would develve into some kind of kids game with “bang, you ded!” “no, am not! you ded!” “No, you!”

Bandit Keep to the Rescue

So I was left to puzzle how to communicate this issue that is more one of communication than of fact listing, when Bandit Keep dropped a video that fit the issue so exactly that I just have to link it here.

Long story short, and he is (as usual) right: Arguing about that in principle makes little sense and leads us no-where.

We could probably reach an understanding about my pet example that a better referee would have told the player before the move that he would not be able to trigger the trap, thereby allowing the player to come up with another idea, instead of letting him sit there and spoiling his idea post fact. (Probably! Some GMs like to drop such surprises on their players and just make an inscrutable face, saying “well, you should have guessed!” But those are not our topic here.)

Both sides are needed for a successful RPG:

Without narrative you basically play a boardgame and it is hardly worth naming your character any better than “my level 2 fighter”.

Without procedure you play gm-less freeform RP and buying dice was a waste of money.

At a regular table, we just have to gauge and find an acceptable balance between procedural and narrative game situations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s