RPG Design and Ludonarrative Dissonance

Analog role-playing games distinguish themselves from other games* by their inclusion of a fiction layer: imagined events the players devise, share, and engage with as an integral part of play. Designing the interface between mechanics and fiction is thus the central challenge in creating an RPG, and often acts as the point of divergence between different philosophies of design and play preferences. For example, hardcore character immersionists prefer that wherever possible, the player’s input into the fiction should be limited to the reach and will of a single character in the narrative. Mechanics that allow a player to take on a broader authorial role, editing the environment or dictating the actions of other characters, run counter to HCI play preferences.

When setting out to design an RPG, then, it helps to know what design patterns already exist for navigating the mechanics/fiction interface, and what pitfalls those design patterns sometimes hold for players’ engagement and enjoyment. This post is more of a braindump of things I’ve run into over the years than a comprehensive thesis, but I hope it will provoke some thought!

To start, the RPG chicken/egg question: which comes first, fiction or mechanics?

Mechanics first: A player makes decisions grounded in mechanical systems, and engaging with those systems helps generate fictional content. In Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, I expend my action for the turn and a spell slot of 3rd level, choose a target location, and roll eight six-sided dice. That then translates into a fictional event where an explosion of magical flame bursts forth, scorching enemies and setting scenery on fire!

Fiction first: A player narrates fictional action, the content of which activates mechanical systems. In Dungeon World, I describe my character darting across a stone bridge over which “Pit and the Pendulum” style blades swing. That triggers the “Defy Danger” move, and I must roll two six-sided dice adding my DEX score to see if the character makes the crossing without mishap.

Note that a game will almost inevitably feature both modes, as mechanics and fiction move one another forward in a cycle. But considering where a player’s decision-making process is likely to start, or which of the two directions of flow has greater emphasis, can help inform your game’s core priorities.

If an RPG features constant mechanical engagement, but fictional content is optional, thin, or an afterthought, that produces a problem we might call boardgame regression. The design risks sliding out of RPG territory by neglecting the fiction layer altogether, resembling a board game (albeit perhaps a flavor-rich one, something like Dead of Winter). This is the most common criticism I hear leveled against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It was all too easy to play the game as a series of boardgame skirmishes, with little to no reference to characterization, plot, or even an imagined scene beyond the positions of figurines and their associated fluctuating numbers. To avoid this pitfall, ask yourself: is it possible for players to disengage from the fiction and still play? How does fictional content help drive mechanical decisions?

When an RPG features narrated fiction that only rarely or tenuously grounds itself in mechanical systems, I call this trouble slipperiness. Players are uncertain if their narrative contributions make any difference to the game state, or lack trust that the rules will back them up in the event of dispute or ambiguity. I run into this most frequently with games that give one player authority to secretly edit or override (“fudge”) game mechanics, the “Rule Zero” espoused in texts like Exalted. To guard against slipperiness, consider: how does my game differ from a minimalist collaborative storytelling setup, where players volunteer bits of story to be adopted by consensus? How do mechanical decisions and outcomes generate fiction? Is a situation where players break or drift the rules distinguishable from one where they play by them as written?

Friction in the mechanics/fiction interface needn’t be so pervasive as the above, however! It can occur sporadically in play, within specific rules or procedures. Even an overall functional D&D4 game sometimes hits moments where a mechanical outcome has occurred, but it’s difficult to picture what happened fictionally. “I use Arterial Slice on the skeleton! It’s now bleeding for 5 ongoing damage.” “Wait, what? Skeletons don’t have any arteries to bleed from.” In a Wicked Age features mechanics that only activate for physical conflict, so if a player narrates a character intimidating, bribing, or otherwise attempting to persuade another, the rules cannot help determine if their ploy is successful–a moment of slipperiness in an otherwise grounded game. The general term for these jolts is “ludonarrative dissonance” (hat tip to Kevin Weiser for that!), a place where game and fiction aren’t quite harmonious.

Ludonarrative dissonance can also arise within a game’s reward cycles. Mechanics might encourage an action that doesn’t make fictional sense. In Burning Wheel, given a minor expense a group of player characters would like to pay for, it is often in the group’s mechanical best interest to have the poorest character make the purchase with the help of more wealthy characters, rather than the wealthiest character dispensing with the buy alone. But coming up with a justification for that approach from the characters’ perspective tends to be tortured at best! Or an action that flows naturally from narrative and characterization could prove a terrible choice mechanically. In a recent D&D5 game, a player attempted to win over a villain driven by anger and despair, putting the spell “Beacon of Hope” on him to instill a sense of optimism and possibility. Reasonable, yes? But all that really accomplished, game-wise, was to make said villain more resistant to the heroes’ magic in the ensuing battle scene.

There’s one last rules/fiction pattern I’d like to call attention to, as it’s one I’ve struggled with in recent memory. I’ll call it the justification veto. In a justification veto setup, a player has access to certain mechanical resources–skills, character traits, or what have you–that need to be brought into the fiction in a meaningful way for them to grant bonuses. A classic example is Aspects in FATE, freeform descriptions of a character’s tropes that if I can explain how they help me with the task at hand, grant the ability to spend a Fate point for a reroll or dice result boost. That “if I can explain how” is the rub, though. If I’m a couple points away from succeeding on a roll, the rules urge me to find a way to bring one of my Aspects into the scene. The success or failure of that effort, however, rides on my ability to narrate that Aspect in a convincing manner for the context. If the other players (particularly the “GM” whose word on such matters is final) feel it’s too much of a stretch, the use is vetoed: neither the proposed narration nor the bonus take effect.

Justification vetoes are a very natural pattern to draw upon, helping ensure that mechanical bonuses are grounded in coherent fiction and vice versa. I’ve used them myself, in my game Blazing Rose! But the experience of pausing game flow for a “Mother may I” petition can frustrate players, especially those with different levels of skill in navigating mechanical systems vs. weaving persuasive narrative-grounded arguments. (I would not be at all surprised if neuroscience revealed these skill sets operate in disparate regions of the brain.) If that’s an experience you’d like to avoid in your design, put this pattern in a “use with caution” column.

A few games work around the justification veto’s drawbacks in clever fashion. In Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, applicability is not a binary “yes, you may” / “no, you may not”; a player may use any skill on their character sheet for literally any purpose. (An example in the book describes using a Cooking skill for the intended action “I blow up the Earth with my mind.”) Rather, the GM’s assessment of how much the action stretches the skill diminishes its effectiveness, making it more costly to get favorable results with. That still encourages matching mechanical elements to appropriate fiction, without the inherent frustration of shutting down a player’s contribution outright!

What pitfalls have you encountered in the interface between rules and fiction? What design patterns or play behaviors help avoid them? What other insights have you gleaned from the matter of clouds and boxes?


* “What’s a game, then?” Well, hypothetical wiseass, I don’t have an essentialist definition for you that would reliably include all games and exclude all non-games. As a usually-useful approximation, though: a game is a rules-structured, temporally bounded activity sustained by one or more behavioral reward cycles.

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3 thoughts on “RPG Design and Ludonarrative Dissonance

  1. SabreCat says:

    Not adding to the main post because it’s quite long enough already, but the phenomenon called “parlor narration” in Forge parlance is another of these mechanics/fiction pitfalls. If the rules mandate that you say *something*, but the content of that is sort of loose and arbitrary, and doesn’t feed back into the game state in any meaningful way, you may be encountering parlor narration.

  2. oberon the fool says:

    Good breakdown.

    I often have issues where the mechanics won’t support my awesome description, leading to the classic “I guess I just hit him with my sword” phenomenon. And that’s not just in trad games either, but plenty of the new stuff as well. Sure it’s cool that a good description gives me bonus dice in Sorcerer, but when I blow the roll anyway, I feel like I wasted all that energy for nothing.

    This is why I tend to prefer games where the description and the mechanics are only loosely linked. Don’t Rest Your Head, Psi*Run, anything based on Otherkind, really. People continue to gush that PBTA is Vincent’s magnum opus, but for my money, Otherkind is far more versatile and satisfying, and I think it’s a crime it’s only been used a few times while PBTA has grown like kudzu over the gameosphere.

    • SabreCat says:

      That’s an intriguing set of preferences! I unfortunately haven’t played anything you mention except for PBtA, eheh, so I have to reach a little further afield to guess at a similar play experience. “description and the mechanics are only loosely linked” thus takes me to the extreme case of Wushu, where the two are almost entirely divorced. I say things; you say things; we roll dice. Mechanical outcomes never adjust or inform what is narrated, serving only as a pacing mechanism to answer the question, “OK, when do we stop talking and rolling dice?”

      I don’t hold character concept as sacrosanct as you do, so I’m less perturbed when the dice prove my dude less awesome in a given moment than I imagined him. I can sympathize, however, with the dissonance that occurs when a mechanical outcome effectively undoes some bit of established fiction. “Oh, shoot, I said I swung over the pit and landed on the other side, but that natural 1 says I fell.” Part of that is a skill developed for a given game or game style, learning where and when narrative authority must yield to the resolution mechanic for a moment before proceeding. I suspect the Forgeites were grappling with issues in that space when they devised the “fortune at the beginning” / “fortune in the middle” / “fortune at the end” rubric.

      When I don’t want dice etc. to get in the way of freewheeling narrative contribution, I tend to go for games whose mechanics act on the scene level (Blazing Rose, Primetime Adventures) and/or where the decision to leave matters to chance lies in the hands of the person describing the action (Itras By). There, the mechanics help you decide how to describe things, or lay out a destination for you to arrive at, but stay out of the way with respect to moment-by-moment imagination.

      Our play preferences, and designs in turn for those of us who pursue such, are often informed by our particular flavors of gamer trauma. So I wonder if Vincent et al. played in one too many narration-heavy games with someone whose florid descriptions of swashbuckling were vastly less entertaining to the rest of the table than they were to the person in question! “Let us have no more of that: I give you Apocalypse World.”

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