Terry Pratchett, so far as I can tell, came up with the term “narrative causality.” Narrative causality is when an event takes place in a story for the express purpose of driving the story in a particular direction. The hero doesn’t have a lucky break because he’s lucky. He has a lucky break because if he didn’t the story wouldn’t go where the story teller wanted. If you understand story structures and the writer is a hack, you can read the first third of a book and know how its going to go without the bother of finishing the rest of the book. That is “narrative causality.” Many of the fantasy novels published in the 80’s and 90’s fall into this category.
Pratchett wasn’t the first person to notice that stories have reliably predictable structures but he was one of the best at using that idea for humor and satire. It is a thread that runs throughout the Discworld and is particularly entwined with the fates of kings.
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmothers. A thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.
It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.
Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett
This spurred me to think about an idea I call “ludic causality.” I see, particularly in contemporary ttrpg designs, that certain challenges are presented to players because it is assumed that the characters have certain mechanical notations on their character sheet. The player, is presumed to want to use the thing on their sheet so the designer is obligated to throw a challenge into the adventure that allows the player to use that mechanism.
This has all kinds of implications for table top RPG’s. It can influence practically every decision we make as both game masters and designers. I want to argue that it should influence our decisions but, for the style of game play that I prefer, it should be minimized. I prefer my games to be high in conceptual thinking and lower in mechanical thinking. I want players to spend more time thinking creatively about how to deal with a problem and interacting as a team and with me as the game master than they spend staring at their character sheet and reaching for the dice.
I realize that I am guilty of over using ludic causality sometimes. Why is there a +3 sword in the hoard? Because the party can’t fight the monsters that I want to use in future adventures if they don’t have better magic items. Why am I using this particular monster? Because the party is heavy on fire magic and this monster has an immunity to fire. Why did I put 100,000 gp worth of treasure on this level of the dungeon? Because if the characters find all of it, it works out to the amount they need to level up.
You see this sometimes in AD&D modules, the tournament modules in particular. A designer would come up with a cool little sub-system and create an adventure around it. Why does the adventure exist? To make use of this cool little mechanism I made up. My preference as a GM and as a player is for the designer to come up with a cool concept and then build a mechanism to model that concept. I think you get a much more satisfying gaming experience.
Because ludic causality is the norm in the WoTC versions of the game, and D&D is the bulk of the role-playing hobby, we now have a whole lot of gamers who think ludic causality is the “way you play.” Instead of waiting for the game master to describe the scene, note the particulars and ask questions, they are immediately reaching for the dice to use some tool on the character sheet. They have been trained to interact with the ludus and not the shared imagined fictional space and events.
This is the primary difference between what we call “old school” games and the more recent editions of D&D. Old school games, at their best, are built on the concept and resolved with the mechanism. New school games are built on the mechanism and the conceptual imagined place/events of the game are decorative facades to hide the machinery.