On D&D, Worldbuilding, and Ludonarrative Dissonance

To paraphrase Wikipedia, ludonarrative dissonance is a term in the gaming industry that’s defined as the conflicting narrative between the gameplay, and the story that’s actually being told by the game. A lot of ‘action movie’ narrative games are good examples of this, but I’ll just use one example to illustrate: In the Tomb Raider reboot from 2013, your titular tomb raider is inexperienced and hasn’t really raided any tombs at all. Dangers are new to her, she’s conflicted about what to do, but in this life-or-death situation she’s found herself in, she’s going to do what she has to in order to survive. This includes mercin’ dudes. Like, a lot of dudes. I mean, we’re talking genocidal amounts of dudes. At the beginning, she’s really nervous and the game has this huge build up to her first kill, and she doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. Everything is hazardous, and she just wants to meet up with a friend to get her bearings and eventually escape. But then you go into these areas where you’re expected to kill 20, 30, even 50+ dudes. That’s a lot of murder. Justified? Sure, but taking human lives by the dozen nonetheless. Then the next cutscene plays, she’s just finished doin’ some mercin’ of said dudes, and now she’s back to being incredibly conflicted and nervous about what to do. That is ludonarrative dissonance. She has no problems or hesitation committing mass murder for survival in the gameplay, but in the story, she’s still conflicted and scared about what she’s going to do next. And you might have taken that as face value under the guise that “it’s a video game,” and not really noticed anything amiss, but your brain did.

“Thanks for the incredible lesson on game design, Robert! You’re so smart and cool and fun to listen to… but what does this have to do with RPGs and worldbuilding, oh great one?” I appreciate the compliment, but you have to give me a minute, I’ve got to work my way up to it. When it comes to tabletop RPGs*, the “mechanics and gameplay” is how the player interfaces with the world – IE the skills, abilities, spells, and items that the player’s character has access to. And for the story being told by the game, well, that’s a bit more complicated. Yes, it’s the story, but since RPGs don’t have a set of boundaries with a rigid set of programmed rules, it’s more about interfacing with the world, and the worldbuilding therein. So instead of “story,” think of it more as “the world” that the player’s characters inhabit. And in video games, that rigidity and the “rails” that the player is stuck within can help to tailor the experience to the expected abilities of the character, and considerations of the world are made based on that. The way that the two mediums truly divert is in the fact that the world-at-large in an RPG – such as Dungeons and Dragons – is the story and setting, not just a backdrop. In a video game, you have that vertical ‘slice’ of the world that you’re allowed to interact with, while an RPG gives you the entire thing (within reason, that is). For example, in a video game, you can’t walk up to an orphan and give them enough money to viably change their life, learn their life story, and hire them as an informant for you. At least, not unless that’s something that the game designer specifically programmed into the game. It’s not something you can decide to do on a whim, it’s very much binary: Either you can interact with the orphan in a meaningful way and hire them, or you can’t.

*Any time I refer to RPGs, I’m referring to tabletop RPGs, or TTRPGs.

Now, this difference in how RPGs are much more truly ‘open world’ in the way that you can approach problems means that you have many more options, and a lot more world, for lack of a better term. The dissonance begins to rear its head when you consider how much more influence and power players can have in Dungeons and Dragons, specifically. At higher levels, players have abilities more akin to superheroes than fantasy heroes of old, and that’s where the cracks begin to show. Your character isn’t very powerful, but can already do this, so why hasn’t it happened? Cracks that you might not notice, but your brain did.

In a traditional modern fantasy world – Skyrim, The Witcher, Lord of the Rings – there’s a fairly well-established power level to the characters (or players) that influences how they interface with the world around them. In the Witcher, most every kingdom has a court-appointed mage that can use Magic SkypeTM to essentially video chat with other mages and people in the world, but the system is complicated and only understood by mages and a scant few other people. In Middle Earth circa Lord of the Rings, communicating across vast distances is hardly existent at all, with a major plot point being an Evil Magic Skype BallTM (Side note: I didn’t realize that my editor doesn’t have a superscript option before now) that’s used to manipulate Sauron after it’s recovered by Merry and Pippin. In Skyrim, there is no real long-form communication that’s used by the player or anyone in the setting. In all of these cases, it’s not something that’s readily available to the characters of the story at all times. Because of the set up and arcane knowledge needed, Geralt only interacts with them a few times (one of which is to do what amounts to a drunk booty call), and the mages are much more secretive and keep their devices hidden. In Lord of the Rings, once the Palantir comes to the forces of good, it has the drawback of being a two-way radio exclusively to Sauron, with Sauron able to exert Big Evil Energy on anyone who uses it. In fact, an attempt to request aid – and one of the most hyped scenes in the entirety of fiction – is when a huge argument ensues, and eventually Pippin lights a beacon, which tells someone else to light a beacon, which lights another beacon, and so on and so forth. The end result is the country of Rohan honoring an old treaty and coming to the aid of Gondor. In an Elder Scrolls game, you sometimes receive letters from a messenger, asking you to go somewhere or talk to someone or do something. Arguably, the civil war would be a lot more uniform and organized if there was arcane conversation and reconnaissance.

“What the hell does supernatural communication have to do with ludonarrative dissonance, you rambling marmoset? Why are your eyes so beautiful and blue? And what does any of this have to do with Dungeons and Dragons?!” Again, thanks for the compliment! I know I’ve meandered a bit, but we’re finally there. The big D&D connection? It’s simple: The Switchboard Warlock. I know, it sounds insane, but bear with me for a minute! In a traditional fantasy setting (like the previous examples, or the Forgotten Realms: the “default” Dungeons and Dragons setting that most homebrew settings are going to be (at the least) surface-level similar to), you’ll have kings, knights, big historical magic events, a religious pantheon of gods that created the world or something– all of the basics. The checkboxes of modern high fantasy. But when these things are being written, no one considers the effects that fairly low-level (in the grand scheme of things) magic can have on the world. Obviously when mages are rare (such as in The Witcher), this is less of an issue. But in an RPG setting, it’s established that adventurers capable of great feats are – while not quite commonplace – more common than in most fantasy settings. And the Switchboard Warlock is what I call a specialized mage that would be common enough that every kingdom, guild, company, etc would be able to have one in their employ. It’s not always going to be a Warlock, it can be any sufficiently useful mage with access to a single spell: Sending. That spell allows someone to contact any living, intelligent creature. Period**. You get 25 words, and they can respond in kind. I only use warlock in the example because they’re the most extreme, “desirable” switchboard operator, as they gain their spells back after a little break, rather than an extended night of rest, but obviously any sufficiently-gifted mage could fill the role.

*For the sake of brevity, from here on out I’ll refer to the concept of these single-solution communication mages as Switchboards, just for a generalized term.
**There’s a 1-in-20 chance that it fails if trying to communicate with someone in a different plane of existence. If the spell fails due to the target being dead, or otherwise unreachable (they’re in a lead box or something), it doesn’t actually trigger the spell at all.

“So every kingdom and major guild has contact, big deal! That’s cool and I like it! I’m adding it to my world, now!” Awesome! You can also add that each individual kingdom should probably have a Sending cipher of code words in the event that a message (or much more likely, a Switchboard) is intercepted. You can have an entire plot line about a party trying to decode a message of gibberish, the dying words of a rogue Switchboard! But you have to consider the consequences of that singular, logical decision: If everyone has a Switchboard, that means a trusted, competent mage that can double as security. It’s not a far leap to expect the mage to always have the ability to detect magic in their presence, which is an innate security increase. The party wants to sneak in and commit an assassination while invisible? Try again, there’s always an on-staff Switchboard who is keeping their magical eyes peeled, on top of being able to alert the proper authorities as soon as anything even remotely suspicious happens. This isn’t exactly fun for the players.

So what’s the solution? Make mages and player-character-tier, well, characters incredibly rare in the world? That works, but that’s going to be a lot of homebrew worldbuilding work, and will affect the world in different ways. If magic and hyper-competence is so rare that it’s not viable for on-staff Switchboards, then that party is going to quickly become akin to gods, maybe even more aptly turning the game into a fantasy superhero simulator, but now it’ll happen a lot sooner– narratively, at least. This is one incredibly valid way to “solve” this issue, if one is inclined to build an entire world and handle it in such a way (it’s what I did, back in the day, and it’s certainly frustrating from a worldbuilding perspective). But scarcity breeds a new “gameplay” issue: How do you keep the narrative interesting? If mages and powerful individuals are insanely rare, but the players want to have influence over the world, what is it that stops them from using mid-tier spells to replace a king and supplant themselves as national powerhouses? And what about villains, or even just “combat” obstacles? You can only produce so many different types of magical monsters before things feel same-y. A god-tier, legendary swordsman in his prime is still defeated by someone floating 30 feet in the air.

Now, obviously, none of this is relevant in your regular, beer-and-pretzels, friends-hang-out-to-play-a-board-game style of RPG, which I imagine a grand majority of the D&D-playing populace is. But I don’t think they’re the ones interested in reading an extended thought-vomit on how subtle mechanics and player options can significantly influence the setting of an entire world. Back to the topic at-hand. The Switchboard is one example, but the entirety of culture and how things would shake out from it completely shifts when you consider the arcane as plentiful. Let’s look at Ceremony, a 1st-level ritual spell that takes an hour, and some powdered silver. Priests, or clerics, or what-have-you with this (fairly mundane, in the grand scheme of things) capability can perform a wedding ceremony on any “adult humanoids willing to be bonded together in marriage.” For the next week, they’re considerably harder to hurt while within 30 feet of each other. This immediately gives marriage a heavy association with war. Spouses going into battle hand-in-hand, the reception no longer at a bar or house, but instead the battlefield. A +2 AC bonus in 5th Edition D&D is absolutely nothing to sniff at, and I see a scenario where cultures would grow and evolve based on the concept that the only “true marriages” are ones that can survive a week of war, blessed by commanding officers (Paladins) of some holy order. Is this really cool? Yes, but it’s just another case of a mechanic being implemented without consideration of how it might affect the world. 

One more example is the fairly mundane “Plant Growth” spell. It’s not quite as common as something like Ceremony would be, and it’s not going to be nearly as useful to players as something like Sending, but the fact that it’s an option for many classes means that it has to exist, and have a bearing on the world. To quote, “over 8 hours, you enrich the land. All plants in a half-mile radius centered on a point within range become enriched for 1 year. The plants yield twice the normal amount of food when harvested.” The end-result is the fact that one employed mage can, with an assumed 40-hour work week, enrich 3.927 square miles of farmland in a week, or (assuming 4 weeks of vacation time and farms not being completely optimized in circles, along with a quick cut-down based on non-optimizations), about 175 square miles of farmland in a year, which is also 112,000 acres. In late medieval times, 30 acres supported one household, so we can halve that with Plant Growth. So those 112,000 acres that would normally support about 3,750 households is now able to support about 7,500. And there’s no risk of a famine ruining things, or a ‘bad year’ ruining anything. One person is able to double and normalize the amount of households that can be supported by farmland to a frankly-insane degree. But there’s also a really interesting worldbuilding tidbit that comes out of this: On a long enough timeline, every farm would be optimized into half-mile-radius circles, and there would be logical fallout from that. An enemy nation sends a spy for intel? They’d know if the country has enough mages on-hand for that based purely on the layouts of their farmland. Very similar to how people in ye olden days could tell the amount of cargo and defenses that a ship was carrying based on its draft (how low in the water it was), because things are heavy. It’s very much interesting for roleplaying reasons, but requires actual consideration.

Now, how does all of this create ludonarrative dissonance? Because there’s a part of your brain that would ask you all of these questions. Why doesn’t every person of affluence have a personal Switchboard? How can a famine exist when a mage can be hired to make the entire countryside produce double the normal amount of crops for a year? This isn’t inherently an issue with Dungeons and Dragons, or 5th Edition in particular, but instead the worldbuilding surrounding it all. Things are established to be very high fantasy, but the setting hasn’t strongly evolved or changed to meet the mechanics. Whether this is a failing on the writing team, the design team, the management and communication in between, or just no failing at all because “it’s just a game, stop thinking so hard about it bro!” is completely up to your perspective on RPGs and storytelling, but in the back of your head are all of these things that should be influencing the world, but don’t. From crop circles to switchboards, marriages to war, there are so many things that could make for an interesting setting, and should be handled completely differently than they are.

In a non-interactive story (books, movies, even a play), the viewer doesn’t have the ability to alter the plot, and the setting is just a back drop that the story is set in. In a video game, you can interact with the world in pre-programmed ways, no matter how open-world or “sandbox-y” the game is– yes, there is worldbuilding, but you’re still limited in how much control you have over what you can do. But to wrap back around, in a tabletop RPG where you have “free reign” to interact as you wish, the story and the worldbuilding are very much one and the same, and you’ll realize as those get closer that questions about the world begin to crop up. Strange oversights where the world feels fake, divorced from the mechanics of the game– even basic things that your character can do. And sure, you might not have noticed it, but your brain did.

Posted by Robert Wall