Ludo-Narrativism and the Analysis of Thematic Design

Whenever I start one of these preachy rants, I always have to remind people that motif is not theme. Just because 50,000 people on board game geek use the term theme incorrectly doesn’t mean it’s right. Motif is the skin or veneer of a game. The art that is used to present a genre or concept. Theme is the culmination of all subtext.

Usually, games have dark themes based around conflict. Casual games avoid these issues by being about collecting butterfly colors, or racing to drink eggnog as fast as you can against a robot with bunny slippers. Traditional roleplaying games, like the original Dungeons and Dragons, are about macro or micro obstacles, with dark cultists in dungeons trying to summon the demonic ball of wax into a cauldron, or fighting a jerk dragon who has been eating the local cows and people.

I think you’ve gotten the point. Let me move on.

Before the term Ludonarrativism was coined, I would talk about the intersection of rules and story until I was blue in the face. I can remember about 50 different conversations with industry alums where I preached why games like Shadowrun are so bad, and why nothing FASA ever made felt like what it was supposed to feel like.

I mean for me. You can play whatever you want. No one cares, Doug.

I, of course, was always wrong, because I dared to question simulationist design. Even when Vampire came along, it didn’t really upset the applecart of simulation-forward games. Numbers added to other numbers and TN numbers were target numbers. The dice performed the same exact function across 1,000 different designs. The only difference between GURPS and D&D would be the types of dice being rolled. The gamemaster is still the authority over what the dice roll means. It’s all the same game.

This is called reliant focus play, if you’re keeping track.

For my money, one of the best Indie RPGs ever made is Dogs in the Vineyard. It is a hyper-focused game built around religious zealots imposing their views on others. It is often times referred to as a game of ideological Virgin, Mormon Paladins. It is filled with authority, agency, dogma, and judgement. Hobbyists claim the theme of judgment is entrenched in the game, and the mechanic can only be hacked for other games about judgment.

In short, for those who don’t play the game, there are four levels of conflict that open with talking, then pushing/shoving, then knives, and then guns. You can jump straight to guns from talking if you want, but you only need escalate an argument if you are on the losing side and you refuse to back down.

Damn. I love this game.

Eventually, all of the dice are resolved, and backlash… well… it lashes back. This is where characters can die if they’ve taken a debate too far. But what’s so great about the system is that the dice can (for the first time ever) be used to change the mind of a fellow PC. I’ve never seen a game do this before. Vincent has gone on to use variations of this system in other games like In a Wicked Age and Poisoned.

But Dogs in the Vineyard remains my favorite, as it’s the perfect blend of theme and narrative.


There’s always a but.

But. I think people get the theme of Dogs wrong and it’s what limits people’s ability to hack the system well.

I’ll do a post eventually about why I hate the Apocalypse World hacks because they DON’T do what they are supposed to, but I’m focusing on Dogs right now.

Because people see Dogs as a game of judgment and not a game of conviction, it doesn’t resonate in other game design vectors. Since the PCs aren’t there to render judgment like Inquisitors, or uncreative LG Paladins, the game grinds to a halt whenever people use it for something else.

I once ran a King for a Day campaign with it. Trust me. With some editing, it works.

But the ludonarrative-style of Dogs in the Vineyard translates perfectly when the player and gamemaster understand this narrow, but perceptible difference between judgment and conviction. It works best when people use the dice system to dissuade/persuade one another, as well as NPC, from dangerous behavior, and less so when they try to control and beat down every problem before them.

Escalation of violence and bullying should be rare. And should come with a preloaded cost, as well as backlash. In this context, the game becomes more powerful, despite the limitations placed on it. Now the system can be used for legal battles, arguments with a supervisor, negotiations with the troll under the bridge, and preachers trying to change the mind of their flock.

To name a few.

But. Dogs’ inability to get over with fans the way Apocalypse World has is mired in the fact that Dogs is not a narcissistic endeavor, but a shared experience of similarly-minded characters trying to fix communities within their jurisdiction/purview.

To further explain that final point, let me nudge you toward various ‘outposts’ that people have developed for the game. I’ve played in and run this game about 30 times now. I know what works and what doesn’t. The first four times I played it, the game sessions were purposely built to rush to violence and cleanse the town of worrisome NPCs.

Often times at the expense of all the other things the game tells the players to look out for.

When I finally sat down and wrote my own adventures for Dogs, I wrote a three-part story, set in three distinct communities, where violence solved nothing. And the problems facing the communities were ingrained and spiritual — or just symptomatic of core traditional values that hurt people rather than hold the community together.

I know. I know. I’m getting high-minded here. We just want to kill orcs, jim. Let me wrap this up.

Understanding ludo games, shifting perspective on theme, and realigning game systems to actually do what they are designed to do is the cornerstone of good gaming. But we are taught through the previous 1,000 different games that we’ve suffered through on the pathway to modern design is that because we have dice, we must roll them to crush skulls and cleanse the setting of all negativity. But, in fact, the games we run should look for answers, sometimes, that aren’t violent.

Certainly if you wanted to run a Space Marine campaign where the Inquisitors are burning planets to the ground, then of course you want a crunchy, hyper-simulationist game where your character kill the enemy at the rate of 500 orks per second. But if the game has even an ounce of nuance, then the ludosimulationist model might not always work, and the gamemaster may be forced to examine themes, before examining systems.

I should point out right now that I don’t think Fate is very good at this either, but someone always brings it up as if it’s a solution to these headaches.

That’s it for now. Sorry for the rant. Enjoy your… um… March?