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.

It’s Complicated, or is it Complex?

When you ask someone about their love life, and they say “it’s complicated”–

It’s not only that it’s difficult to explain. “It’s complicated” also has negative connotations, suggesting that things are tangled, confusing, or otherwise problematic.

I suspect we mean the same thing when we talk about the rules of a game or the plot of a media property. “Complicated” suggests the thing’s inscrutable, difficult to explain to someone who’s not already familiar.

When we want to say something similar to “complicated,” but with a more positive spin, we say that a work is “complex.” Complex suggests not so much that it’s incomprehensible or disorienting, but that it’s layered, rewarding close looks and thoughtful reading.

By way of examples, I find A Song of Ice and Fire complicated. There are countless little plot threads that spin up and wander around, to the point where it’s difficult to tell what the “main” story or characters are. Undertalefor all the simplicity of its systems and presentation, is complex; folks write deep, on point, thought-provoking essays unpacking its subtext all the time. Homestuck is complicated; even the recap posts necessary to keep its details straight from one chapter to the next are head-achingly impenetrable. A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse makes that complicated source material into something complex, dialing back the obsessive focus on crufty detail until it becomes a colorful garnish upon a rich, meaningful philosophical exploration.

If it’s not obvious, I don’t claim this is an objective distinction. Others find A Song of Ice and Fire to be comprehensible and enjoyable. I have no doubt that it’s possible to unpack real meaning from the reams of instant message conversations between humans and trolls in Homestuck, which I find superfluous and tiresome. Heck, User’s Guide wouldn’t exist if its author hadn’t connected with Homestuck itself on a profound level.

I am, however, going to tuck this into my vocabulary as a way to sum up the way I feel about something that’s, to grab for a neutral term in the same overall sphere, “not simple.” When I look at a cast of characters, or the moving parts of a game system, do the details complexify the work? Or just add complication?

Shattered Skies: Conceits and Tweaks

(This is the third in a series of posts about a hypothetical Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The concept kicked off here, and setting ideas for it fleshed out here.)

What rules changes, encounter guidelines, and social-contract expectations would I propose for a game in the “Time of Shattered Skies” setting?

Humans only. There are no elves, dwarves, tieflings, goliaths, etc. etc. All player characters use the Human statistics from the Player’s Handbook, including the feat-based option. From the other side of the table, there are no “monstrous humanoids” such as orcs, goblins, kobolds, etc. etc. Their stat blocks from the Monster Manual can still see play, but representing human opponents with different skill sets rather than varying species.

There are still nonhumanoid monsters. It’s hardly Dungeons & Dragons without dragons, now, is it? The aberrations associated with the starfalls represent the dominant “true monster” threat, but they may well prove to have discernible motives and needs by the end.

This supports the “jettison the genocidal bullshit” purpose. It also conveniently removes the impetus to choose a character species on the basis of its ability score synergy with a desired class, a nuisance that’s existed for most of D&D‘s history.

Collaborative setting creation… Mad Libs style. We don’t have elves and dwarves, but the myriad ranges of human diversity are still available to us. A place like Vadras, a civilization getting by in a dangerous world, accumulates people of different origins via expansion, trade, taking in refugees, and so on. Players help invent these cultures as they sketch out their character details.

“My people are from [place name], which is [a region within Vadras | a neighboring nation | a far-off place]. We are [rare | numerous] around here, and tend to be [physical feature(s)]. We are known for [cultural trait(s) and/or historical event(s)]. People also tend to think of us as [cultural trait], but that’s a stereotype. I feel I am more [personal trait] than most of my kin.”

Murder isn’t the only option. I’ve talked about bloody-minded kill-all-opponents encounters on this blog before, and my discomfort there has only deepened. I see players do things like have their victorious characters rove around a battlefield executing helpless wounded, and it turns my stomach. I promise, were I to run this campaign (or any other game, at this point), I will never screw you over for choosing not to kill. There may be logistical inconveniences in dealing with prisoners, that sort of thing, sure. But I won’t withhold experience points, or have spared enemies slit your throat in the night, or the like. Wherever possible, I’ll try to give incentives for mercy instead.

This axiom extends to the way I run encounters, too. People and magical beasts alike will try to disengage and flee when losing, rather than drag things out to the last hit point. If the player characters lose, enemies will accept surrender. They may celebrate routing you, but they’re not going to run you down and finish you off. It’s not “realistic,” I’m sure, but I don’t care. It’s a fantasy game. Use your imagination.

Torture doesn’t workI find it similarly distressing how often the supposedly heroic protagonists in RPGs turn to depraved interrogation techniques. I don’t want encouragement of prisoner-taking to become encouragement of war crimes. In this case even the realism objection doesn’t hold much weight; it’s a bad idea in real life too. Cuffing a sassy villain over the head to shut them up, OK. But getting out the knives or whips or whatever to get them to talk? I’m gonna veil the scene, inform you that your attempts to “break” the bad guy have failed and moreover brought additional consequences on your head (allies realizing you’re a monstrous fuck and wanting nothing more to do with you, for instance), and now let’s have an OOC conversation about why this shit is unacceptable at my table.

The above isn’t the only thing I’d kibosh if it came up, of course, but it’s most likely to be a new expectation for people.

Bonus experience via hybrid Chuubo’sShadow of Yesterday quests. Players can pick up extra eeps by taking actions laid out on quest cards. You’ll start play with a couple–something related to your alignment, and something expressing your character traits, perhaps–and can adopt more in play. The DM can suggest ones for you from those they’ve sketched out for the campaign’s themes, and you can propose your own related to storylines that catch your interest as they come up. There’s never any penalty for ignoring or abandoning a quest card, but if you dig in, they can speed up advancement, mitigating the need to constantly get in fights to level up. Examples, tuned for 1st-level characters:

Chaotic Good: You’re a rebel for righteousness, dedicated to making people’s lives better via disruptive action. Once per scene, you may earn 5 XP by doing one of the following:

  • Flaunting or breaking a law to help someone else
  • Lightening the mood with an in-character joke
  • Stepping away from the group to satisfy your conscience
  • Openly defying or exposing a corrupt institution

If you have a change of heart and become open to the value of law and structure, or turn your interests toward selfishness, you may change your alignment accordingly. Discard this quest and earn 25 XP.

Armiger’s Call: So you’re blessed with godsluck. What are you going to do with it? Once per scene, you may earn 5 XP by doing one of the following:

  • Boasting about your strength or your exploits
  • Wondering aloud why you received this gift
  • Spending time caring for your arms and armor
  • Training for or worrying about an armiger’s test
  • Conversing with another charmed hero about their adventures and plans

When you declare allegiance to a family or organization, earning and accepting their emblem; or swear before witnesses that you will walk the path of the warrior-vagrant, you complete this quest and earn 25 XP.

That’s it for now! I have at last exhausted my brainstorm, other than perhaps more quest card ideas. What do you think?

The Time of Shattered Skies

(Continued from the previous post, this entry paints the broad strokes of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting arising from my daydreaming there. Credit also goes to my wife for throwing the political conflict idea into the mix. More yet to come!)

In the land of Vadras, one need not be born into a landed family, join a monastery, or amass great wealth to rise to the middle tiers of society. Whether serf, scoundrel, nameless, or disinherited, you can rise from your lot if you demonstrate the peculiar quality called charmed life, godsluck, or heroism. Those with this gift can fall from great heights and emerge merely shaken, weather deadly poisons as easily as a bad meal, and shake off mortal wounds with a bandage and a night’s rest. Those who put this superhuman endurance to work with martial prowess are called armigers; those who channel arcane powers magi; and those who receive boons from Heaven when they pray are divines.

If you do two or more of those, or call forth forces of nature by no god’s leave, or achieve victory by artifice without ever drawing blade–

Well. It is not a perfect system. Perhaps in faraway Meroc they have names for these things.

These gifted individuals have shaped Vadran history for centuries. The houses of the aristocracy compete to gather charmed heroes to their flags. Those who prove their mettle, and swear to defend noble interests with it, earn titles, land, and power. Every highborn family has special heraldry and emblems to identify its heroes as armigers, magi, or divines, and boast their relative strengths. Many have died trying to earn those badges: both heroes who overestimate their skills, and common folk fooling themselves they have heroic skill in the first place.

Others refuse the lure of feudal power, content to remain folk heroes among the people who raised them. These are the warriors-vagrant, the hedge-magi, the mendicants-divine, unpredictable and proud. Their gifts come unannounced by badge or banner, and their sudden interventions have upset many a grand scheme.

It is a ripe time for ambition. The Vadran princess Nehamara prepares to ascend her mother’s throne, but her younger brother Esrech mounts a campaign to take her inheritance. As of now, it is a game of rumor and politics, the prince arraying voices to discredit her. But few doubt that he would shy from launching a coup, should the game drag on too long. Every charmed hero finds the question, “if it came to civil war, who would you support?”, coming up in conversation with uncomfortable frequency.

Meanwhile, the skies burn nightly with falling stars. Where they land within the borders of Vadras, fear takes root. People report sightings of horrific creatures. Fires burn without cease. Folk vanish from the fields, never to be found. If some supernatural force has begun an assault upon the land, it is a dangerous time for Vadras to be divided.

Here and now, a power stirs within you. How will you use it?

Superheroes in Dungeons

Dungeons & Dragons is the uncommonly spry grandparent of the hobby: old-fashioned, a little goofy, but fun to spend time with if you can put up with the odd bit of yesteryear nonsense. For all my love of impeccable, focused independent game designs, I still find myself rubbing elbows with the same six ability scores and crowing over rolls of 20 three games out of four. It’s not that it’s the only game in town, but everyone knows it so well that random samples come up full of it.

I haven’t yet run (“DMed,” c’mon, precision of language) the latest edition of the game, though. What might I do with it, had I the opportunity? Those who’ve played with me know I can’t help but author little deconstructions of the venerable property. Even as I praised Fourth Edition‘s bold focus on tactical board-game battles, I gleefully hacked it to reward players for inventing setting elements and plot twists. I’d be shy of trying to live up to the sprawling fun that hack produced, not least because of the spectacular way the game finally imploded, but I do daydream about the next great wrench to throw.

Jettison the genocidal bullshit. I have no patience anymore with stories of “evil races” needing to be put in their place by shiny colonial saviors. And D&Desque fantasy species in general–why do we still call them “races” in 2016, anyway?–range from trite through cringeworthy to entirely pointless. I find myself pulled in two directions: (a) run a game where the only sapient species are humans, ala the original Final Fantasy Tactics or the majority of Game of Thrones; or (b) run a gonzo-cosmopolitan setting like Planescape with the “give everyone personhood” principle from Dungeon World’s Planarch Codex. There are no monsters, only people who look different from you, trying to get by!

Superheroes in dungeons. Somebody I know tends to grump about how the current game isn’t lethal enough, what with people bouncing back from near death after just a night’s rest. I have no trouble with that, personally; it’s Dungeons & Dragons, not Cowards & Convalescents. But it does make me wonder about the setting implications of the player characters’ resilience. What if we acknowledged that there’s something kinda weird and awe-inspiring about how bloody hard it is to kill even a second-level wizard these days? I picture a D&D gone all X-Men, with governments trying to exert control via “hero registration” and a populace by turns afraid and worshipful. Under the right regime, I could see old-school elements like titles by level, and having to pass tests to attain them, making sense…

Chuubo’s Marvelous Dungeon-Crawling Posse. Alternate experience rewards are all but necessary if you want to hack D&D‘s play priorities. When the only way to advance in the game is by killing things and taking their stuff, by God, there will be a lot of killing things and taking their stuff. One of the cleverest things in Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine is the Quest advancement system. You pick out cards for your character that represent a part of their life: a project they’re undertaking, a problem they’re working through, a mystery they face. Each card has a list of key events and roleplay behaviors that, when you make them happen in pursuit of the quest, earn you points toward advancement. I think that could port nicely to D&D! Written well, they could turn arbitrarily restrictive “alignment” and easily forgotten “character traits” into something players would enjoy engaging with.

Add all three musings together, and you get… something. Stay tuned?

See What Sticks

I praise the Flag Framing approach to GM prep from Deeper in the Game every chance I get. It works! Some of the best game sessions I’ve been part of have owed their oomph to those techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to pull it off. Sometimes the game doesn’t provide good flags and I’m short on time to do detective work. Sometimes the players’ interests are more scenery-chewing things they want to gawk at in the setting than flags I can challenge them on. Sometimes I look at legit flags and draw a complete blank on how I can stress or foreground them.

In these situations, it helps to have a fallback strategy. Something that’s maybe not the ideal solution, but which can fill in the gaps if you’re failing too hard that day to be optimal.

My fallback lately: throw it out there, see what sticks. Instead of prepping NPCs designed to push players’ and player characters’ buttons, have a grab bag of characters and situations that you draw from when you need a fresh scene–and discard if they prove not to catch players’ attention. All the advice about maintaining energy and pacing from “Flag Framing” applies. We simply replace the up-front flag querying and planning part with a process of experimentation.

You start a scene. You introduce a character from your list. She’s got eyes of night and falling stars, and she’s talking about turning people into clockwork mecha! Weird! Are the players intrigued? Reveal a plot seed you’ve got. The deviant scientist trying to reanimate the dead? Starry Night’s heard a rumor about it and is planning to investigate! Is it something the players feel like getting into? If not, move on to something new!

The players will ignore some things. They’ll find some NPCs annoying or uninteresting. Never bring those up again! But far more often, they will find certain NPCs fascinating, or cook up some theory about the way NPC A relates to plot hook or rumor B. Riff on those! Jot little notes about what made your players’ eyes light up, and use those notes as the basis for your second session. As you go, you’ll start spending more time reincorporating than spitballing, playing your NPCs just like advised in Flag Framing. It’s whenever you’ve got a void of energy or inspiration that you look to your bag of hooks.

This approach works particularly well with games that

  • feature lots of unique off-the-shelf NPCs and story seeds; and
  • don’t require meticulous balancing of challenge levels or encounters.

I’m currently doing this with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. I could see using it with the third edition of Exalted. Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons would work, if you’ve got one of the better setting books from any edition (Planescape?) involved. Dungeon World… you might want something like The Perilous Wilds to help you generate on-the-fly hazards, but the random NPC tables are often intriguing enough to use in this style until you can build a proper Front.

Note that I’m not even considering the old illusions-and-railroads method of plotting stories out, trailing breadcrumbs for the PCs to follow, and yanking them along if they don’t catch on. That just sucks. Never go there.

Is this something you do? Do you have a way to make a Flag Framing approach work even when the material at hand isn’t clicking for it? Let me have it in the comments!

The User’s Guide

While browsing about for Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine resources, I happened upon A User’s Guide to the Apocalypse, a fan supplement of uncommon size and depth.

It is extraordinary.

I haven’t finished reading the thing, but even from partial experience, the layers of meaning in the project boggle the mind. User’s Guide* can, to scratch the surface, be read as:

  • A playable alternative campaign setting for Chuubo’s
  • A reflection on life and relationships while dealing with abuse or the lingering trauma thereof
  • A love letter to/eulogy for a now unraveled online community
  • A codex of or guide to Replay Value, a Homestuck alternate universe
  • Speculative fiction of the cautionary tale variety, exploring the potentially disastrous nexus of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and gamification
  • An existentialist parable, grappling with the search for meaning in a universe where, given sufficient time, all things are futile
  • A deconstruction of video game tropes, particularly those belonging to the MMORPG genre
  • An examination of digital addictions to games and discussion fora
  • A sociological commentary on the communities that come and go across the Internet

The author herself lays out the first few I listed; the rest unfold in emergent fashion from the work. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I still had a foot in the educational sphere, to teach this text or write a thesis on it!

Prior to discovering User’s Guide, I hadn’t quite understood alternate universe fandoms, or AUs. The idea of an alternate universe for a fictional setting was straightforward enough, but e.g. Undertale with its Underfell, Reapertale, Flowertale, etc., etc., each with their own fan art and other assorted media, mystified me. User’s Guide, though, made it click. When a fandom grows large enough, like-minded individuals within it gather into sub-fandoms, and one way such a group can coalesce is around a particular AU. The AU itself—whether via the ongoing efforts of a central author, or the roleplay and works of its fandom, or both—takes on a life of its own. It brings back a sense of belonging to those longtime fans of the parent work who feel crowded out by its becoming too popular or mainstream. And it revitalizes fannish activity when the depths of the parent canon might otherwise seem tapped out.

Now I’m in the curious position of becoming a fan of a specific AU’s commemorative project, without any familiarity in the parent work. I know Chuubo’s, of course, but I’ve never made it further than a couple of pages into Homestuck. I’ll take a look again, but it may be that’s how it stays! If that’s how it goes, all the more credit to User’s Guide author Elaine “OJ” Wang for managing to so mesmerize someone who doesn’t even get Homestuck.

* The author tends to refer to the work as “RV Chuubo’s,” but I find that a bit cumbersome for casual use. Not least because it suggests a Chuubo’s campaign involving road trips with really bad gas mileage.