A Review of Narrative Designer: Fabulator Ludus by Stephen E. Dinehart IV

Last week I finished reading Narrative Designer: Fabulator Ludus. It’s an interesting book and I’ve been thinking hard about what to say about it. For regular readers of this blog, I recommend this book as a set of first principles to consider when you are designing material for your tabletop role-playing games. Stephen’s book is intended to apply to a broad array of designed experiences of which tabletop role-playing games would be one. Much of what he has to say is in line with my own perspectives.

Stephen has a masters degree in screenwriting from USC, worked on AAA video games, designed attractions for theme parks, and written screenplays for major studios. I became aware of him when he partnered with Jim Ward on a tabletop RPG called Giantlands.

Narrative Designer is a monograph encapsulating Stephen’s thoughts about narrative design. “Narrative designer” is a term Dinehart is credited with coining and used primarily video game industry. The broader entertainment industry has taken it up when hiring for projects like toy lines. “Narrative Design” is, in the broadest sense, bridging story structures to the structures of interactive experiences.

The universe is our magic circle in the hyperverse, an open interactive system, a narrative architecture, a game unto which we are born to play and tell. Our conscious movement, play, within this system and the sharing of its fruits, is at the very core of what makes us sentient beings, and most centrally human.

Stephen Dinehart IV

Homo Fabulator Ludus

Stephen’s purpose is “…to further the understanding of what makes for human experience, how its narrative architecture generates story, and how to manifest the underpinnings for a total artwork that lends itself to the activation of real-world, active protagonists in us all…” Through designed experiences (including and especially games) he believes that we develop a better understanding of ourselves and each other. With that understanding, we can live better lives and make a better world where everyone can love and play.

He begins with the definition of what he calls “the player teller.”

Humans discovered or developed story as a tool. It is perhaps our most powerful tool. We use it to tell each other where to get food, what dangers lie in wait, and how to survive in a natural world that is indifferent to our existence. We use it to communicate to our children who they are, where they come from and how to be in the world.

Most animals play, particularly in their early stages of development. Anyone who has been around puppies or kittens have observed this. It is how they practice to become competent hunters, scavengers or defenders of the pack. Humans are no different. We play to learn how to use our bodies, how to interact and cooperate with one another, how to fight and to re-enact the stories that we are told.

The combination of these two behaviors; play and storytelling is where “fabulator ludus” can be found. A person who creates a story through play.

Perception, Drama, Play and Conflict

Stephen describes a model for how humans form perception. I struggled to comprehend the model and had to take it slowly and with a dictionary. He uses a great deal of challenging vocabulary to explain the model. I’m still not sure I understand it entirely. Sprinkled throughout the chapter are some valuable concepts that were clear to me making it worth the effort.

At the basic level the chapter reminds us that perception is formed over time from an aggregate of our own experiences, the stories we are told and the games we play.

He provides a brief but effective overview of how narratives in the form of drama, propaganda and play help to form attitudes and beliefs. I was on much sounder ground throughout this section and found myself nodding vigorously in agreement as he described how drama and play are most effectively combined.

Narrative Design and Its Components

Again, I found myself agreeing with Stephen as he defined narrative design, it’s function and how it is achieved.

Interactive Narrative Design is a craft which aims at creating systems that further suspend disbelief and communicate more effectively with audiences through a higher degree of verisimilitude to life. Systems that deliver narremes, narrative elements, to a player so that they may cognitively craft a story based on their navigation within said system.

Stephen Dinehart IV

Long time readers of the blog and my recent email newsletters will recognize how such an idea would resonate with me. Dinehart’s conception is that the greater experiential depth to the narrative system has, the deeper the play experience will be. He emphasizes the importance of player agency while acknowledging that the author/designer is limiting what actions the player can take in that world. Most importantly he tells us that all the different elements of story-play are dependent on each other. The greater the interaction between them the better the experience will be for the audience.

He describes the various elements of the experiences the designer must produce to achieve deep engagement with the audience. I once more found myself in agreement that it is critical to understand how the individual elements interact with each other as well as the whole. He defines what the various elements of interactive narrative structures are, how various theorists going back to Aristotle have interpreted these structures and how a designer uses them effectively to generate emotion and communicate themes.

Total Artwork

In the chapter entitled Total Artwork, Stephen describes the work of interactive narrative design as, “..a fusion of the art where by the world rendered by artists hands seem to the player as life itself. Drama of the highest form.” This “total artwork” is intended to create a more powerful experience by inviting the audience to be an active participant in the work itself.

The Narrative Designer is a craftsman who fuses the art of classic drama, of the universal story, with interactive media (temporal experience) to create a narrative structure that suspends disbelief, engenders proactive action and creates a space of possibility for meaningful story-play. Creating new spaces of possibility in which the audience becomes actor, a true protagonist read to manifest her will into being.

Stephen Dinehart IV

General Impressions

The book is self published and suffers, slightly, from some of the pitfalls of self publishing such as the occasional typo. The layout, typography and printing are all just fine if you are concerned about that sort of thing.

I consider the ideas in this book to be a deep and profound statement about the storytelling strategies and mediums that are currently emerging. Stephen takes a more spiritual/metaphysical path but we arrive at much the same destination.

My view is this. Transmedia storytelling, augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D sound, metaverse games are all developing at a rapid pace. Soon, those who specialize in one area of storytelling like the dramatist, screenwriter, comic book writer, fiction author will be eclipsed by the narrative designer. Those category of storyteller will still exist, however, the master storytellers of the future will be Narrative Designers.

I’ve given you an overview of the book. There is a great deal of implied knowledge within the book. If you aren’t well read in the area of literary theory or ludology (an area I’m only beginning to learn about myself), this may seem a bit overwhelming. The language, terminology and writing style are advanced level material. You may have to pull out your High Gygaxian dictionary for this one.

The books is only 100 pages, despite the challenging style of writing, it can be digested in pieces over a three or four reading sessions. I recommend note taking materials, or a highlighter. However you manage difficult texts, you will want to prepare yourself for a demanding mental challenge.

Final Thoughts

If you are interested in tabletop role-playing game design, video game design, design of interactive stories or experiences then you should pick this up. It is not a lazy beach read. A focused and close read will reward you with some useful insights from someone who is working as a successful professional in the area of narrative design.

This was an unsolicited review. I do not receive any payment for it and I purchased the book. I have had several pleasant interactions with Stephen on Twitter and Linked In but do not otherwise know him.

You can purchase his book here: This is NOT an affiliate link.

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