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.

Blood Isn’t Good to the Last Drop

I respect feminist games criticism because it shows us how much better we could do with our designs. Many of the tropes dissected aren’t behind the times only in social awareness, but in the state of the art in gameplay. Where you find a lazy portrayal of gender, race, or violence, lazy design choices often follow, and we can improve both by amending or eliminating our use of trite patterns.

This excerpt from Phil Owen’s WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? and this tongue-in-cheek list of in-game activities that would count as war crimes in real life primed me to think about these topics in my current gaming. (Both articles have their problems, but I can appreciate and recommend them for getting those thoughts rolling.) In particular, Cracked‘s critique of “giving no quarter” resonates with gameplay irritations I’ve run into in both video games and tabletop RPGs. Why is it still so often necessary to kill every opponent on a map before concluding a mission?

Feeling the itch for some turn-based squad tactics (perhaps in anticipation of XCOM 2?), I’ve recently restarted playing the WWII skirmish game Silent Storm, originally published in the early 2000s. It does one thing well with respect to the No Quarter trope: mission objectives almost always require that you obtain information, not kill everyone. Your goal on a given map is to procure documents, film reels, prototype technologies, etc., or to subdue and capture personnel with crucial intelligence. I find that quite refreshing! Real-world military objectives–at least for forces we see as admirable or heroic–rarely focus on annihilation, and it’s great to see that in a game.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design undercuts that commendable concept. Level layouts, enemy AI, and the fact that you can’t leave the mission zone with visible enemies even if you’ve accomplished all objectives, mean that most of the time you must wipe out all opposition to advance anyway. The intelligence targets you must capture don’t surrender; you have to fill them with lead to “knock them unconscious” and carry their limp bodies away. (There are a few nonlethal weapons in the game, but their game statistics are terrible, heavily disincentivizing their use.) Enemy units sometimes flee, but they can’t actually leave the level, so they reach the black expanse of nothingness at the map’s edge, then turn around to start shooting again.

We see this trope time and again, and invariably it makes for a worse game. I love the XCOM series, but especially in the earliest versions, hunting down the last alien on the board to complete a map was an exercise in tedium. It comes up in tabletop play, too. A common complaint against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was that battles took too long to complete, and often at least part of the problem came down to playing things out until every monster in the encounter was dead. We’ve got No Quarter burnt into our heads by long exposure, but it’s a bad pattern.

We have the technology to do these things differently. The XCOM games already have morale algorithms, where enemies panic in the face of impending defeat, dropping their weapons and fleeing–but for some reason, the games haven’t taken the logical next step: have said enemies surrender, removing the necessity of blasting them to end the level. (Yes, you can knock them out with nonlethal weaponry in XCOM, which is a nice touch, but it’s still a waste of time and verisimilitude that you’ve got to hunt down and shoot routed enemies at all.) I appreciate the design patterns in Dungeon World, in many ways a superior set of tabletop play tech than D&D, whose principles of fictional flow and “bring every monster to life” lead naturally to combatants fleeing, laying down arms, or otherwise changing the nature of the conflict before they’re all dead.

These are more humane, progressive, feminist, etc. approaches to violence and victory than the tired No Quarter trope, and they make for better games too!

Unbalanced, Part 3: System Matters

Next in the series of posts about my wacky extreme opinions: is it true that the particular tabletop RPG you’re playing, its rules and setting–the “system”–doesn’t matter with respect to the fun had at the table? There are some who would say indeed not, it’s all about the players, or specifically the person running or teaching the game. This may not be so gonzo as low-carb or no-copyright, but it does get some folks’ backs up, so it fits.

Adulath Caracai:

The Radical Notion

System always matters. Good players or bad, skilled GM or unskilled, the choice of what rules to use shapes the experience of play and has a major effect on the quality of that experience.

Details, and the Usual Objections

People argue over what constitutes a “game,” but this much is true of games if not definitional: they provide a context for understanding words and actions that differs from ordinary life. A hand wave might normally have practical purpose, to draw attention to yourself or something near you, or social purpose, to greet someone. But in the context of a game, that same wave might indicate a catch completed, a point scored, or a penalty incurred. In ordinary conversation, “essence” means a thing’s intangible basic nature, or perhaps a concentrated extract of something. In Exalted or In Nomine, it refers to a sort of energy or fuel for supernatural powers. Rolling a die or drawing cards is meaningless without a game to say that the random result means a critical hit, a bust, or a flush. The game’s rules and objectives (the system, in other words) encourage players to undertake all manner of actions and say different things that would not ordinarily happen, or would happen with different frequency and meaning, in life outside the game.

Games themselves have purposes, too. A sport is undertaken to entertain a crowd, to make money for a league or franchise, and to promote athleticism, tactics, and teamwork via competition. There are games intended to teach skills, promote good habits, or motivate fitness. Among tabletop RPGs, typical purposes include “fun”–the engagement and satisfaction of the players–and the creation of a story with a particular style, feel, or genre.

Put these two concepts together and it’s clear what’s meant to say that a game is well or poorly designed, and from there that system matters to play experience. A game shapes and redefines behavior via its system; a game has purposes; however the game’s system succeeds in achieving its purpose tells us how well designed it is. Exalted, for instance, tends to fail in that its stated purpose of telling stories of mighty heroes and fast-paced action does not match the rules, which tend to instantly kill characters for brief tactical mistakes, and can take tens or scores of minutes to resolve a single character’s combat maneuvers.

As an aside, it’s also been my experience that focused games tend to succeed at their narrow purposes more often than universal or kitchen-sink games succeed at their broad purposes. GURPS tries to represent all genres, and ends up doing disservice to many of them. Meanwhile, Dogs in the Vineyard is built to the narrow story structure of unraveling social ills and pronouncing judgment on their perpetrators, and does that surpassingly well. It’s not exactly a corollary of the above, nor is it universally true, but does go hand in hand with these discussions. It’s an important part of my beliefs on the topic.

At this juncture, the system-doesn’t-matter advocates might say, “That’s all well and good, but it misses what I’m saying. Of course you can have crappily designed games and well designed ones. But the point is that a great GM or players can make even a crappy game work and be fun, and no awesome game design will ever transform a crappy GM or players into awesome ones.”

I concede the above. It’s not necessary to my position that the game system’s design be the only factor in the quality of a session or campaign of it. Rather, it’s that the design always counts for something; it makes a difference for all players, both good and bad. It’s more work for a strong GM to bash out the kinks in a flawed system to get it to her high standards than it would be to run a well designed game purposed to those standards in the first place. And assuming our “crappy” players at least try to follow the rules of their chosen game, they’ll end up with a less crappy experience if they’re using a solid system than if they’re flailing about with a disorganized mess of a design.

The analogy I favor is that game systems are like athletic equipment: say, ice skates. Anyone can have a fun time doofing around on the ice with old, poorly sharpened, low-budget skates. But if you care at all about your speed, ability to turn, balance, and so forth, higher quality skates will help you. The casual skater will fall less and have a more pleasant experience overall; the pro athlete will be better able to reach the pinnacle of their potential. RPG designs are like that. Folks sometimes chafe at the fact that Dungeon World gives the GM lots of instructions on what to do and say in game: “I already do all that! I don’t need rules for it.” But the way it shakes out, new players learn how to run a good game much easier by having that advice, and experienced players still benefit from the reminders and the ways DW applies old best practices to the smooth operation of its own rules.

How I’m Not Really So Out There As All That

You may not be able to convince me that choice of game system doesn’t matter to enjoyment, but I’m not accusing anyone of “BadWrongFun.” At its absolute harshest (a distance I rarely take this to anymore, given my reluctance to get into heated Internet arguments), it’s a means-ends chide: if you care about good play experience/faithful genre emulation/etc., you’re crimping your own style if you choose a poor match of system to those goals. That’s all.

Furthermore, I acknowledge and can totally understand that good match of system to purpose isn’t always someone’s top priority. The classic “my group is familiar with this system, and it’d be a pain in the ass to learn a new one” is an example. Nostalgia is another motivation for choosing a system that might not, objectively speaking, provide as fun a time as something newer and tighter designed. I myself sometimes like to play games that are an unholy mess design-wise, to enjoy a quirky charm that other games don’t supply. Basically, one can set aside the typical purposes of smooth play, enjoyable tactical choices, and the like, prioritizing “the Werewolf: The Apocalypse experience” or “the energy our group has for learning new things” instead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just know what you’re getting into! Saying the system straight-up doesn’t matter might be blinding you to the possibility of a much better time.