Monday, March 4, 2013

Ludonarrative & Why It Matters

A friend introduced me to this term recently and after reading this article I've found that the term lets me talk about some of my feelings in regards to gaming in a new way, a better way in my opinion, and I figured I would share that with the rest of you. The article there is about video games, but the concept of Ludonarrative and of Ludonarrative Dissonance, Resonance, and Alienation are things that can be very real at the gaming table. For today, I figure I would talk about the term itself. Perhaps later, in another update, we can use it to really dissect some issues you may come across at the game table.

What Is A "Ludonarrative"?
Before we can begin you need to know what a ludonarrative is. The word breaks down into two parts: ludo, which essentially means 'game'; and narrative, or story to use the more common word. Put together a Ludonarrative is more than just the sum of its parts. It is the story that is told with gameplay and with narrative elements. By this I don't mean it is the story for the game (that's the plot), but rather it is the story that is told when we take that story (the plot) and combine it with the story that is being told by the game play. The article linked above does a good job of explaining the terminology using metroid as an example, so for further definition as well as how Dissonance, Resonance, and Alienation work in general I will refer you there.

Dissonance At The Game Table
Reading that article it is pretty clear that Ludonarrative and Ludonarrative Dissonance in particular is a video game thing. To expand a little on what the article says Ludonarrative Dissonance is when the Game and the Story don't match up, or otherwise completely disagree, with each other. For example, in the Unchartered Games you're supposed to be the lovable rogue Nathan Drake, but in gameplay you mercilessly gun down victim after victim. In Far Cry 3 the narrative has Jason Brody in way over his head, freaking out about having to kill someone, skin an animal, and just being some kid. The gameplay? You are death incarnate, stringing together 5 stealth kills with ease before 360 no scope head shotting a guy 2 miles away while paragliding off a mountain. In both games the game is telling one story (you are death incarnate, able to kill anyone) while the story is telling you something completely different (you're just a guy, you revere life, you tend to run instead of fight, etc.)

Doesn't seem all that easy to creep into your table top game does it? The thing is it is there and in a variety of ways. Some of the easiest ways to have it happen comes with the obstacles we place in front of our players. We say in the narrative that ourplayers are great heroes (say a level 10 D&D game or a rank 4-5 L5R game) but the obstacles we place in front of them are all on the same level. The Narrative is one where they are powerful, champions of justice and all that fun stuff. the gameplay though has them struggling in every fight and regularly coming across people who are stronger than them. The story says they are strong. The game says they are weak (or at the very least not strong.) This can happen even if your players are fighting dragons and other big things. Sure, they may conceptually know that they only seem weak by comparison because it is a dragon. But that doesn't change the feel. And the feel can wear down on folks after a while.

Conversely the players can bring the dissonance into the game themselves. The story is for them to be heroes, champions of justice. Yet, through gameplay, they don't act like champions. They lie, cheat, steal, and do everything else they can to get the edge. Sure, maybe they still save the day and kill the evil dragon king, but along the way and in the minor interactions they do everything they can to get every edge possible. Only, the players know they're the good guys. They've justified these actions as necessary and so they go forward as the heroes. In this case, it is the GM who is left with a feeling of dissonance but it can be just as real.

Resonance at the Game Table
Resonance is hard to get. There is simply put more moving parts in a Table Top game than a video game. More people with narrative control and more options for those people. A video game won't let you just randomly slug the king in the face. A table top game will. Still, just as with Dissonance, Resonance can happen.

You've probably experienced it. Those sessions where everyone seems to click. No one has problems staying in character. The game just flows out with the GM and Players working scenes, going through combats, and progressing the story. These all come about when the narrative and the gameplay line up and match each other. They start to feed off of each other, and you can get wrapped up in that energy. Its hard to have happen. Presentation needs to be spot on, as does the preparation for the story and the players have to all show up to play (and pretty much nothing but) but when it happens it is truly magical.

Alienation is a weird. As I said above, when it comes to the game table there are a lot more moving parts. Alienation, because of this, can thus be caused by the player or the GM. From the player side, whenever the game doesn't seem to have room for the options we want, or we don't feel like the story is giving us the prompts for action needed we can feel alienated. The feeling is essentially the same as being bored, unengaged, or not involved. Essentially, neither story nor game has anything for you and you are there. The GM side usually focuses on not providing those prompts or having players doing things that breaks you away from them.

It is a weird position ot be in but it does happen. Most GMing advice, and most good GMs, avoid this by specifically trying to engage those players who are being left out. Still, splitting the party up (no matter who does it) effectively mandates alienation as for at least a small part of the game the focus is completely removed from the player and they're left with neither game nor narrative there for them. Though, in that case, sometimes they can be entertained by watching the story another person is showing.

Managing the Ludonarrative as a GM
The wrap up this post I want to talk about the two big tools that a GM has to manage the ludonarrative and hopefully keep dissonance and alienation from negatively affecting their game too much. The two big tools are as follows: Hooks and Consequences.

Hooks are what we use to get players involved in the game and the story. They are primarily a tool of the narrative, and much like how the beginning of a good book is designed to pull the reader into the story a good hook should put the player (and their character) into the spin of events. Some hooks are less obvious than others. Some hooks are weaker than others. The point for them all is the same. Get the players involved in what is going on.

This really can be as simple as a paying job being offered to a group of adventurers who can retrieve the Dream Stone guarded by the black dragon Darkfire or as personal as a character's old teacher writing them and asking for help with a particular project in the capital city. Either way though, the hook is an invitation to adventure. Its an open hand offered to help the person get on the plane and go away with the GM and the rest of the group on the story and adventures planned. Most experienced players will jump at hooks and can thus be brought in with weaker hooks that are easier to lay. Sometimes though, players need a little bit more.

Consequences are, in a lot of ways, the game tool to the Hooks narrative tool. That isn't to say that a Hook can't be ludo based and a consequence can't be narrative based, but by their very nature they seem to be the opposite. In another way of saying things (a way that is also wrong in it's own way) if Hooks represent the carrot then Consequences are the stick.

I say that example is wrong because it implies that consequences are the way we punish players for stepping away from the narrative and causing dissonance with what is going on. Now, to be fair, some (IMHO bad) GMs do use consequences for this but the good ones do a lot more. In fact, they do enough more that I think maybe I should use a different definition.

For the purposes of this conversation, Consequences is how the game - and narrative - reacts to prevent Ludonarrative Dissonance from happening. In other words, Consequences are a tool for change that keeps everything going, but not necessarily in the direction that it was going in.

For example, let's say that your hook was for the King to give the PCs a quest that would enable him to name one of the PCs his heir. The story would then be about the PCs coming to grips with the responsibility and power that they now had. Only, in the first meeting one of your players decides that he doesn't want to be humble around the king but wants to antagonize him, or worse attack the king. Well, a consequence for that could be that the King, enraged, arrests the group (or that PC) instead and the story now has to change to getting out of jail rather than doing this quest and becoming the heir apparent for rule of the country.

Now, that seems like a simple shift but think about it. Without the consequence to the player's choice of assaulting him we then go forward with the old story. We then end up with dissonance when the story (the king chooses a PC to be an heir) doesn't match up with the game (PC attacked the King). However, with the consequence the Game and the Narrative continue to work together, we avoid dissonance and - albeit in a small way - maintain resonance.

I'm going to talk more about this later, probably even later this week, but for now I wanted to introduce the concept. Take some time, noodle on it, and share your thoughts in the comments. I know that the more I think about it the more powerful the concept is. And the more simple certain things are for me to express.


  1. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing. I've certainly been aware of, and frustrated by, ludonarrative dissonance, but hadn't before seen the beast named and quantified. Useful info!

  2. I loved this article. Great tools for some of the players and GMs in my community. I would like to see a more detailed description on how to make great Hooks. I have been working to provide the smallest / shortest possible story hooks for the players to latch onto and then let them define much of the why's and wherefores. Often either deciding they had it right or wrong after they brainstormed on why something had happened or what it meant.

    Thanks again.