Ludonarrative Dissonance

So I’ve found a new term that describes a problem that pretty much every gamer has ever encountered, anywhere: ludonarrative dissonance. It satisfies my logophile tendencies (I mean, my blog’s name is Aggregate Cognizance) and it pretty much hits the phenomenon on the head.

In short, as you can see from the TV Tropes entry, it describes those moments when the game doesn’t really fit the narrative. Most everyone who have played video games know this phenomenon well. It happens a lot in tabletop rpgs too, which I’m sure isn’t a big surprise to anyone. Whether it’s from a character build that doesn’t perform as advertised, or a die roll that contradicts what’s going on in the narrative, or when the rules actively get in the way and stop the action, it’s like the game hits a speed bump that launches it into a brick wall. It stops. Hard.

It looks like a problem without an easy solution. But while I was poking around the Internet, I came across this blog post discussing the combat example from Basic D&D – an example I remember really well. The first thing I take from actual example is how different the designers show the game being played from how I remember the DMs in my area actually running it. Even me (especially me). Our games didn’t flow anywhere near as naturally as the combat described there.

The blogger does a good job of doing a play by play of the combat example. Of interest to me in terms of ludonarrative dissonance is how the archer fires her bow out of initiative order. I may be wrong, but I chalk it up to the DM trying to avoid a situation that doesn’t make sense given the unfolding situation. If the archer already has her bow readied, there’s no reason she can’t just fire an arrow regardless of the timing. Classic DM call, considering that there appear to be no rules in BD&D that specifically cover it.

In the end, the interface between what’s going on in the player’s imaginations and the rules system is highly imperfect. Strict adherence to the rules in spite of what’s going on around the table is always going to create those hard stop moments – resulting in ludonarrative dissonance. The best that we can do, as GMs and players, is recognize when we need to disconnect from strict by-the-book interpretations wing it a little bit in the name of keeping the game going.

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