Spooky action at a distance


2001: A Space Loop

This post is about how I view procedures as a specific case of gameplay loops (using the video game design term). I want to explore roleplaying through the lens of these loops. Why though? To me the advantage of understanding game loops is intentionally using them in play and design (of systems and adventures alike). By making them explicit (or intentionally subtle) the table can focus on making interesting decisions and narrating the fiction.

Game loops can also inform the base units of your fictional world. Loops that deal with space and time will be better suited for location exploration. While loops that are focused on events and narrative beats are more apt for scene based play.

In a video game, these loops are coded in by the designers, and revealed to us as either genre assumptions (e.g. in strategy game it’s expansion and growth), or as explicit steps (in tutorials for instance).

Genre assumptions in RPGs would be the culture of play. If I am playing an OSR style game, I know it will have a loop based around treasure accumulation. While if I join an Ironsworn session, I will expect taking on epic quests.

An explicit/codified game loop in roleplaying is a procedure. For a 101 on procedures check out What even is a procedure? - Prismatic Wasteland and Proceduralism - All Dead Generations. Not all loops are procedures! Some loops are subtle, work in the background of play, and use other mechanism as a driving force (like the token economy in Belonging Outside Belonging games). However, I think that by zooming out to game loops, we can gain a better grasp on procedures.

Game Loops

I’ve adapted this video game design model of game loops for RPGs.

So what is a game loop? In short: it is a repeating series of actions and mechanics the player interacts with. At the end of a loop they achieve a goal or gain information. A typical game loop consists of four interconnected parts:

  1. An action the player takes, prompted by their mental model of the game world.
  2. The game mechanics the player interacts with to resolve their action.
  3. Feedback that tells their impact on the game world. Usually provided by the referee or other players.
  4. The player’s mental model of the game world updates as they receive feedback.

E.g. In my Traveller game I want to jump my spaceship 1 hex away, that is the action I take. I consult the mechanics of space travel: fuel, jump drives, calculations (a codified procedure may help me follow these steps). I resolve the jump by making a couple of rolls. I’ve misjumped and now my jump drive is broken! I update my model of the world (by marking character sheets for example) and continue on to another loop.

We can consider our fundamental loop to be the conversation between players, on which other loops are overlaid. Imagine that talking is the equivalent of video game movement. Zooming out, a game session is contained within a meta loop: arriving at a play space, recapping, playing and finally departing home.

This meta loop impacts the loops nested within it, like ending a combat loop prematurely because you are out of time by the end of session. If you zoom out even more, the loops of life and death become apparent, millennia long loops of stars orbiting the galaxy. The ultimate loop of universe expansion and heat death.

Coming back to the blog post, what loops can we describe based on interactions with other loops and the game world?

Core Loop

The most frequent and common loop in a game. It can serve as a main branch from which other loops may fractalise.

Dungeon turns are a usual core loop for OSR style games. The players take an action of exploring or moving through the dungeon. They interact with mechanics like encounter checks or rolling saves. The referee gives feedback on their success or failure. The players learn something new about the dungeon, and the loop starts again. Dungeon exploration can lead to other loops, like combat or chases for example.

The core loop of Blades in the Dark by John Harper is doing scores/heists. Instead of a series of steps, it is driven by time limits (called clocks) which the referee sets during the game. The players make actions to influence these clocks, then face consequences.

Overarching Loop

A longer loop that contains other nested loops within it. Players usually make bigger decisions that are paid off much later than smaller loops.

Campaign play is an overarching loop of downtime and dungeon play. During a campaign, the players make long term goal, like clearing an area, building a fort, defeating a dragon. They act on those goals using nested loops like exploring dungeons and spending downtime. Then they achieve goals and changing the game world, updating their mental model. The they make new goals and start the loop again.

XCOM strategy video game has an overarching loop of defeating the alien threat. This is achieved by completing nested loops of taking down UFOs, building a base and going on ground missions.

Conditional Loop

A loop that is initiated at specific fictional moments. Conditional moves are not repeated frequently, but rather called for when they are designed to.

Ironsworn by Shawn Tomkin play consists of taking moves based on the fictional situation you are in. Each move is a conditional loop with an action, a mechanic of rolling d6 against 2d10s, feedback based on level of success, and updating the game world.

In the roguelike video game FTL, each time to travel to a new system, a conditional loop is activated based on encounters and your decisions. Such loops may be combat, trade, salvage and others.

Chained Loop

A loop that influences a future loop and/or is influenced by a past loop.

Downtime phase and dungeon exploration are chained loops. The loot gained from a dungeon will affect your experience gained in the downtime loop. Which in turn will affect how much equipment or supply you can have for your next dungeon loop and so on.

Civilization strategy games are a prime example of chained loops. A typical loop will consist of: gathering resources, building something, gaining a bonus/resource from what you’ve built. By making these loops overlay each other and pass over several turns, the game hooks you into playing it longer.

Entry Loop

A loop that serves as a starting point for other loops.

Traveller lifepath system is an entry loop. The player chooses career paths, interacts with aging and enlistment mechanics. They gain feedback and a mental model in the form of a newly created character. After the lifepath loop is done, the player starts a campaign loop, informed by their decisions in the lifepath.

A Guide to Casting Phantoms by Will Jobst and Adam Vass is a game about summoning demons during the French revolution. At the start of the game, the players collect dice and answer a series of questions about their cabal, the nature of their rituals.

Alternating Loop

Two or more loops that follow each other. The are not chained loops because actions in one do not influence the other.

In Wanderhome by Jay Dragon, play alternates between gaining token with weak moves and spending tokens with strong moves. Taking a weak move allows you to make a strong move, but does not affect the strong move loop itself.

In the farming video game Stardew Valley, loops alternate with seasons. During springtime you are planting crops, in summer and autumn they are harvested, and in winter you are busy with festive activities.

Parallel Loop

A loop that runs simultaneously with other loops. Common for adventure specific loops.

A Pound of Flesh by McCoy, Stroud and Gearing involves a timeline and event checks. The referee keeps track of them while the players are involved with adventure and downtime.

In DnD B/X, encounter tracking is done alongside light source and spell tracking. This can lead them to interact in interesting way, such as a torch fading when an encounter starts.

In the interactive fiction game Mutazione, you spend several days discovering and helping an sialnd community. In parallel, you collect plants and seeds which you can use for your garden at any moment.

Other Loops

Loops are meant to be flexible. They can fit multiple categories, or switch their type during play. The ones above are what I thought were the clearest to explain in a blog post format. If you have more loop ideas, please feel free to throw them in the comments.

Further Reading

Nested Loops and Baseline Activities - Valinard: a nice overview of nested loops. Specifically I like the phrasing below.

The smallest loops tell you whether you’ve been stabbed by a goblin; their results feed into bigger loops, like whether you survived the fight, how much treasure you bring home, until the biggest loops tell you how you made your mark on the world.

Pillars and Procedures - Playful Void: an exploration of DnD and how its core pillars (exploration, combat, downtime etc.) relate to procedures it provides.

Theoretical & Practical Proceduralism - Traverse Fantasy: a look at specific and detailed examples of procedures from DnDs to story games.

Powered by the Apocalypse, Part 6 - Lumpley Games: on underlying models of play and relationship cycles of Under Hollow Hills.

Published on June 22, 2022.

Tagged: procedure   theory  


Spooky action at a distance is a blog run by emmy verte, to muse on sci-fi, fantasy location exploration and short fiction. You can donate to support Ukraine here.