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.

Burning Empires: Good On Paper, But…

Adulath Caracai II:

I have a short list of tabletop RPGs with which I have an ongoing love-hate relationship. I so very much want to enjoy them, since reading them and reading about them shows reveals such enormous potential for fun. But whenever I try to actually play the damn things, the experience invariably ranges from mediocre to downright painful. Exalted, which I’ve mentioned here a few times, is one such game. Luke Crane’s Burning Empires is another, and that game is the topic of today’s post.

I’ve tried to play Burning Empires on three occasions. Two of them were face-to-face games and one was play-by-post; I GMed one of the face-to-face games and was a normal player in the other two. In all cases it turned out to be just too much of a pain in the butt to run the game, whether it was me or somebody else in the GM’s seat (though the PbP game may have fallen afoul of general PbP issues not specific to BE). I can sum up the problem in two words: cognitive load. At any given point in gameplay, you’re expected to process a multitude of sometimes conflicting rules and priorities, making it impossible to get into a flow where you can just play your character. That exhausting mental effort, plus a few other less head-hurty but still frustrating issues, make the game unplayable to me in any practical sense. In the remainder of this post, I’ll lay out some of these particular problems, then brainstorm on what I might do to fix them if I should ever dare to run the game again.

First, the stuff that looks good on paper but actually doesn’t work. For all these, keep in mind that the person running the game has to deal with it threefold or more, since they have at least three major NPCs who follow all the same rules.

The advancement system. Burning Empires and the various other RPGs in the “Burning” family are well known for their unusual, detailed system of character advancement. Characters build up their skills and attributes by practice: in order to level something up, you need to put it to use a certain number of times in play against a variety of levels of difficulty. On paper, this is a clever way to encourage you to get your character in trouble; if you constantly set yourself up to roll against favorable odds, your character will never grow. In practice, though, the system slows down gameplay to a painful degree. You need to remember several odd exceptions on each roll: some bonuses count against you when determining how difficult a roll is, while others don’t; some situations let you rack up multiple points toward advancement, while others don’t. Figuring out what counts for what level of difficulty, or how many rolls of each difficulty you need before you can advance, requires table lookups. And woe betide you if you get some downtime and want to use the rules for practicing skills off-camera! You’d better have a spreadsheet and an accountant to check your work.

Stakes-setting. The Burning games champion a particular approach to dice rolls that looks great on paper. Each roll is important–don’t roll unless there’s something exciting at stake! Know the consequences before you roll! Once the dice fall, you must live by the result! This is good advice for most games, helping sidestep some common pitfalls. Unfortunately, it steps sideways and falls into quite another pit. Before a roll, the GM and player negotiate what the outcomes of success and failure will be, which adds substantial overhead to every roll, and means that half of your collaboration–the outcome that the dice didn’t give you–will be wasted, every time! I found it exhausting.

Scene economy. Burning Empires uses a novel system for setting scenes. During any given session, each player gets a particular number of scenes for their character, and the number of rolls you can make within those scenes is also limited. In theory, this cuts out the sort of meandering, scenery-chewing roleplaying that can suck the energy out of a game, since you’ve gotta make those scenes count! In practice, though, it causes paralysis. With only so many rolls you’re allowed to make, and getting exactly the right rolls crucial to your character’s advancement (see above), players are encouraged to agonize over every roll and second-guess their actions when it turns out the circumstances don’t favor the exact odds you need. A strong-handed GM could force people’s hands and keep things moving, but that would feel like punishment, not fun.

Competitive strategic macrogame. Layered above the scene economy is a broader big-picture game where the scenes you play out feed into actions in a large-scale conflict of Humans and Vaylen (aliens). It’s a cool idea and promotes some very interesting forethought and maneuvering. Unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating system to work with unless you’ve absolutely mastered it. You need very specific skills available to the characters participating in the strategic game, and if you don’t have them, you’re hosed unless you get extraordinarily lucky. It cuts the legs out of the otherwise cool lifepath-based character creation process, since building the character you want to play takes a back seat to building a character who has the strategic skill bases covered.

Resources and the Technology Burner. This is not so much a cognitive-load thing, but it still falls into the “good on paper, ass in play” category. BE features a nifty system whereby characters can build or acquire custom technology. You stat up a gadget using “technology points” for all its bonuses and subsystems, then make a roll using your character’s Resources stat to see if you get it free and clear, or if it comes with quirks or diminishes your available funds. All well and good. Unfortunately, the balance of the system is all out of whack. Characters need to be among the richest in the Galaxy to have an even chance at purchasing so much as a rifle without loans and help from other characters. It’s built for disappointment: dream up an amazing new gadget, but in all likelihood, by the time you actually get it, it will be a piece of crap!

The typical rejoinder from BE fans is that these things all get easier with time. Being difficult doesn’t mean the game is poorly designed, after all! You just need practice. To which I say: bull pocky. The games I most appreciate are those where you can still enjoy yourself while you’re getting the hang of it. And since I’ve now played things like Apocalypse World, where the game comes together so smoothly that you can have 100% of the available fun from the very first session, something like BE has a lot to prove before it convinces me it’s worth slogging through the not-fun learning curve parts to get to the good stuff.

Enough grousing, though. I am not such a negative person as to leave it at that. If I were to run the game again, these are the things I would consider for fixing or at least mitigating the above problems. I wouldn’t necessarily use all of them, note; some of them are even mutually exclusive. Which tweaks I’d use would come from discussion between me and the players, and they’d come out the other side as house rules.

Enemy Figures of Note are players too. I’ve found that I don’t mind most of the above when I’m a player running a single character or a character and second-in-command. It gets unmanageable and unfun when it’s tripled or more in the GM’s seat, though. To mitigate this, I’d have players take roles on both sides of the game’s central conflict. You’d basically have two “teams” of players: one running Human characters, one running Vaylen. You’d still have a GM with governance over miscellaneous NPCs, executive powers like the ability to buy tech outright without rolling Resources, etc., but they’d have only one principal character to keep track of all the fiddly bits for.

Remove the macrogame and scene structure. Without the scene economy or strategic mechanics, BE would run like its predecessor Burning Wheel, but in a science fiction setting. You could build characters according to what you want to play, and act them out according to their Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits, not according to the pressures and demands of the metagame. It would require a bit more GM finesse in setting scenes and driving play, but seeing as BW is a perfectly serviceable playable thing, I doubt BE would break with a similar setup. As a side benefit, it would give freedom to have games that aren’t specifically about the Vaylen invasion, a thing that doesn’t bother me but might help some folks.

Adopt the simplified advancement system from Mouse Guard. Mouse Guard, a later Burning-based game, uses a streamlined version of those systems’ advancement mechanics. Instead of rolling against particular difficulties a particular number of times, you need to fail a certain number of rolls and succeed at a certain number of rolls using the skill. It makes perfect sense and requires a bare fraction of the calculation and bookkeeping involved in BE’s setup.

Scale Technology points and Resources points differently. This one I’m least sure of and would take some playtesting. Buying technology during character creation in BE gives you more oomph per point when you’re on a high-tech world vs. a low-tech one, but this doesn’t carry forward into the main game–higher tech levels give access to more things, but nothing costs less. If tech points per Resource obstacle scaled according to your world’s available technology (say, the default is for a zero index world, and on a low index world you can get 1.5 tech points per Resource obstacle, 2 at high index, something like that), gadgets would be easier to acquire in games where tech is a major focus.

I feel like with some of these things in place, I might actually want to run Burning Empires again. What do you Burners out there think?