Gaming Tabletop

Role-Playing & Metagaming

dnd_groupRole-playing games. They are something unique in the gaming world because of, get this, the ROLE-PLAYING. It’s even in the name.

Now, role-playing does not just mean using an accent or creating a complicated character back story, although I love doing those things. Role-playing means giving the player agency and choice over their character’s destiny.

Recently, in a less-than-sober discussion on The Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast, The Angry GM and I got into a debate about metagaming vs. role-playing. Now Angry is a great gamer and a stand-up guy, but he seems to think that player agency isn’t important in RPGs and that players should only make the choices that he deems to be correct. Evidently, regardless of role-playing or character development, a player should always make the choices based on what action is optimized by the mechanics of the game. Personally, I think that defeats the purpose of an RPG. If I wanted to play a game where there was one specific correct answer, I’d play a video game. Or maybe Trivial Pursuit.

RPG has a G in It

It’s good to see that Angry has a basic grasp of spelling, and I agree that the game aspect of RPGs is very important. It’s the game mechanics that quantify what happens so that players are able to work together with a shared understanding of the game world. I do not advocate ignoring the rules in favor of role-playing, but I don’t believe that the game mechanics should dictate a player’s actions. Is flanking a logical mechanic? Yes. Does that mean that my warrior should drop everything in the heat of battle to make sure she is flanking one of multiple attackers, even if it means turning her back to other foes and abandoning NPC party members to their fates? That’s when role-playing kicks in and player agency really starts to matter.

These are the beautiful moments that inspire us to play RPGs because THERE AREN’T WRONG ANSWERS. These are the moments that mimic actual life the most because there is no way to predict the outcome from our choices. Is flanking the best tactical choice? Maybe. But maybe if we let the elementals get too close together they combine into a giant elemental and kill us all. Or if I let that NPC die the party will be branded as criminals or be unable to complete our quest. And, maybe Angry is right and the party and NPCs will all die because there was no flanking. Or maybe we will all survive in spite of not flanking and feel like total bad asses.

THAT is the magic of RPGs. The G is DESIGNED to allow multiple outcomes.

Fictional Characters are not Real People

rules-dick“So the “real people” argument is bulls$&%. Characters in games are not real people. They are fictional. Their actions have to make more sense. But that doesn’t discount the “stupid decision” possibility. After all, the hardened warrior can get drunk before the big battle because his brother was killed by a cartoon character and then f$&% up the battle. Fine. Sure.” – Angry GM

Angry is trying to have it both ways here. It’s ok to make bad tactical choices in favor of role-playing as long as it passes his personal Bechdel Test of in-character actions. He is saying that my character choosing not to disengage an attacking opponent to dash across a battle to attack another enemy, just to get a flanking bonus, is bad role-playing because my fighter would know about the tactical (ie. game mechanic) benefit of such an action. My guess is that he hasn’t listened to our actual play podcast, otherwise he would know that my character doesn’t care about her own life and fights to regain the honor she lost when her children were murdered, so fighting alone against a foe would be a natural choice for her. He might also know that the orcs in our game would find it incredibly shameful to not be able to handle one elemental on their own and might even take offense if my character ran over to help them, implying they couldn’t handle it themselves. Also, ALL THE ORCS in our party stayed to fight when the situation seemed hopeless and were ready to die in battle because that is how orcs behave in the world we have created.

I guess a character being an alcoholic (the example he gave in his article) is reason enough to toss out the mechanical advantages and still be a “good” player, but the character history and racial culture that we have created as a collaborative group of role-players isn’t enough justification for our actions.

Our characters are only as real as we make them. If we let the game mechanics drive all of their actions, then we guarantee that they stay as two dimensional as the character sheets they are printed on.

The Difference between a Choice and a Calculation

“A choice occurs when a character has several, exclusive options and those options are put into conflict…But most of the “sub-optimal choices” that players defend…are usually choices about tactics in combat.” – Angry GM

You seriously don’t think that a person’s options and desires aren’t put into conflict in battle? Wanting to survive, wanting glory, wanting to accomplish the mission, wanting to protect those around them, wanting to see loved ones again… there are too many desires to count on a battlefield and most of them conflict with each other. These factors influence what a character might deem the best choice in a given moment.

I am not a tactician (although teaching Kindergarten probably counts as a form of combat experience) but I know enough of war to know that the choices aren’t always as clear as when we are looking down at a battle map. If I revert to my Omnipotent self every time there is a combat, gazing down from my third-person view of the whole battlefield, aren’t I defeating the point of playing a role-playing game? At that point, I should just save a lot of time and effort and go play RISK?

Stay Together and Work Together

03e2c569a4f0df88eddcd3cc1af89a1d“As a GM, my job is to create challenges that are challenging but winnable and then let the party succeed or fail against them on their own merits… You know what f$&%s that up? When someone decides suddenly and arbitrarily that for this challenge and this challenge only, they are going to behave like a lobotomized lemur.” – Angry GM

So, Angry likes to play tabletop RPGs as long as the players do exactly what he wants them to do. How dare his players make choices on their own that might ruin his fun? DON’T THEY KNOW WHO HE IS?!?!

But seriously, shouldn’t each gaming group get to decide for themselves what they find acceptable? Shouldn’t it be up to our GM if he gets pissed at our tactical choices? After the orc combat that Angry is so fixated on, none of my group was pissed about not using game mechanics to the utmost. Our GM wasn’t frustrated. We felt totally bad ass because we beat a hard combat, upheld our character’s honor, progressed our story, and HAD A GREAT TIME.

At the Happy Jack’s RPG podcast, we use the term “collaborative storytelling” to describe tabletop RPGs. It is the most accurate term that I’ve come across to really capture the essence of RPGs. In some ways, Angry is right. A PC trying to lose in combat is unacceptable and can really mess up the day of the other players if they aren’t prepared for it. My advice is to follow the lead of your gaming group. If you play with a group of heavy role-players, don’t be the min-maxing douchebag who starts killing things when the party is talking their way out of combat. If you play with a mechanics and combat-focused group, don’t be the drama queen Thespian who has their mage always attack with a sword because he likes that it’s shiny. Both scenarios are frustrating for your fellow players and simply aren’t cool.

Focus on the collaboration. Compromise with your fellow adventurers so that everyone can have a good time. That is, after all, the whole point of games, right?

Please note: Angry may be my current arch-nemesis, but I greatly enjoy his rants and fully intend to buy him a drink on the day we meet in person. We disagree on a few issues, but that is half the fun of the internet, right? You should follow him @TheAngryGM or read his rants on madadventurers.com or theangrygm.com.

About the author

Kimi

Kimi (aka GoldenLassoGirl) is known for her cosplays, comic book knowledge, and tabletop gaming podcast/stream. Read more about her at http://www.goldenlasso.net/about/

10 Comments

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  • I’m presuming your anger is just a tongue-in-cheek response to the AngryGM’s style.

    “Role-playing means giving the player agency and choice over their character’s destiny.”

    “If I revert to my Omnipotent self every time there is a combat, gazing down from my third-person view of the whole battlefield, aren’t I defeating the point of playing a role-playing game?”

    How does having a third-person (bird’s eye?) view of the battlefield take agency and choice away from the player? What is, to you, the point of a role-playing game? This hyperbolic line in the use of game mechanics that you have drawn is entirely arbitrary. What is unacceptable for you is for others, and what is acceptable for you isn’t for still others. Are you aware of your character’s hit points? Do you leave the room every time the GM imparts knowledge that your character wouldn’t hear or see or experience? If another player slit your 100 HP character’s throat with a 1d4+2 damage dagger while your character was asleep, would you rule your character dead? It’s subjective.

    “But seriously, shouldn’t each gaming group get to decide for themselves what they find acceptable?”

    “If I revert to my Omnipotent self every time there is a combat, gazing down from my third-person view of the whole battlefield, aren’t I defeating the point of playing a role-playing game?”

    Which is it? People should be able to game as they please or are they missing the point of role-playing games if they don’t play your way?

    “My advice is to follow the lead of your gaming group. If you play with a group of heavy role-players, don’t be the min-maxing douchebag who starts killing things when the party is talking their way out of combat. If you play with a mechanics and combat-focused group, don’t be the drama queen Thespian who has their mage always attack with a sword because he likes that it’s shiny.”

    And one could just as easily have a douchebag thespian who starts narrating how he’s killing things while a drama queen min-maxer is trying to talk his way out of combat. Min-maxing and role-playing are not mutually exclusive, and one can min-max any aspect of the character and game, such as combat or social interactions. Particular games and gaming groups just emphasize the importance, variety of options, and fun of combat so most min-max combat over other aspects of the game.

    “Metagaming is making decisions based upon out of game knowledge.”

    By your own definition from “Tabletop RPGs: Tips for New Players” the use of knowledge of such aspects as a flanking bonus is not metagaming. The rules are part of the game, so use of the rules in one’s decision making (role-playing) isn’t metagaming. If, by game, you meant story instead, I hope that your GM makes all of your characters, rolls all of your dice, and keeps your hit points to him/herself to save you from metagaming.

    • I’m presuming your anger is just a tongue-in-cheek response to the AngryGM’s style.
      You’re a quick one! Can’t get anything past you! Or was it maybe that bit at the end where I said I liked him and was going to buy him a drink someday?

      How does having a third-person (bird’s eye?) view of the battlefield take agency and choice away from the player? What is, to you, the point of a role-playing game? This hyperbolic line in the use of game mechanics that you have drawn is entirely arbitrary. What is unacceptable for you is for others, and what is acceptable for you isn’t for still others. Are you aware of your character’s hit points? Do you leave the room every time the GM imparts knowledge that your character wouldn’t hear or see or experience? If another player slit your 100 HP character’s throat with a 1d4+2 damage dagger while your character was asleep, would you rule your character dead? It’s subjective.

      Having a view of the map doesn’t take agency and choice away from the player… unless the GM expects them to base their actions on what they see as a player and not what their character would be seeing. We all have to use the mechanics of the game (which I mentioned in my article) because that is how players have a shared understanding of the world, so yes, I know my characters hit points. I try to let it guide my RP when my character is hurt, etc. Actually, my gaming group usually has the GM and the other person leave the room, but we have been known to clear the room for our actual play podcasts so the listeners can hear the secret scene. We also use note passing to great effect. Yes, unless they missed or didn’t cut deep enough, I think my character would be dead regardless of the damage of the weapon. I agree that it is totally subjective and that these are just my points of view, which really are a reflection of the larger gaming groups that I’ve been a part of.

      Which is it? People should be able to game as they please or are they missing the point of role-playing games if they don’t play your way?
      Yes, and as you mentioned before, it’s subjective. Angry seems to think I’m missing the point of RPGs if I don’t use the mechanics to the utmost.

      And one could just as easily have a douchebag thespian who starts narrating how he’s killing things while a drama queen min-maxer is trying to talk his way out of combat. Min-maxing and role-playing are not mutually exclusive, and one can min-max any aspect of the character and game, such as combat or social interactions. Particular games and gaming groups just emphasize the importance, variety of options, and fun of combat so most min-max combat over other aspects of the game.

      You are correct! There is a lot of gray area, but to cover all the different options I would have had to write a book, not a blog article.

      “Metagaming is making decisions based upon out of game knowledge.”
      By your own definition from “Tabletop RPGs: Tips for New Players” the use of knowledge of such aspects as a flanking bonus is not metagaming. The rules are part of the game, so use of the rules in one’s decision making (role-playing) isn’t metagaming. If, by game, you meant story instead, I hope that your GM makes all of your characters, rolls all of your dice, and keeps your hit points to him/herself to save you from metagaming.

      Ooo, you are a feisty one! Is a flanking bonus out of game/story knowledge? Yep. It’s something that is a logical tactic in many fights and most warrior characters would be aware of, but it’s not ALWAYS the right choice as far as the RP. My GMs do not do all of those things for me, but overall my gaming groups tend to be very conscious of metagaming and work hard to avoid it. There is no way to COMPLETELY remove all of my OOG knowledge from our actions, but does that mean we should just not even try? … I’m not sure how meta knowledge effects the rolls of my dice, but that’s a cool trick if you can control your rolls with it.

      Thanks for reading! Keep on gaming!

      • Indeed. “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast – I would catch it.”

        * Players will (mostly) play along with the materials and game that the GM has prepared
        * Players will create a group that has a storied past and a reason to stick together
        * Players will, for the most part, keep their characters working together on the same team, and any thieving from or betrayal of other party members will be above board and allowed only at the consent of the group

        Those are all GM expectations that limit player agency based on what the players, not the characters, know – except that they don’t. They limit player agency as much as a speed limit sign limits your agency to drive at whatever speed you wish. Expectations in and of themselves don’t limit player agency. There might be friction and frustration caused by going against these expectations, but that is not the expectations themselves and rather the personalities and feelings of other people.

        In this instance with the battle the expectations are analogous to the difficulty of the encounter. The GM comes in with certain expectations (party level, number of members, character classes, intended difficulty of the encounter, mastery of the system, etc) and attempts to build the encounter to create an overall difficulty for the encounter. Different GMs and groups all have different expectations. The expectation of the GM (difficulty of the encounter) doesn’t limit your agency as a player. Consider chess, as it’s finite and also a game: your opponent sitting across from you (the difficulty, or expectation) does not change that you have the same number of possible starting moves. So what does limit your agency? Your desire to win. To still be able to win the game you have more possible moves (and room for more mistakes) against a rank novice than against a grand master. Your desire to win D&D is what limits your agency, not the GM’s expectations.

        So you metagame, it’s okay. It isn’t inherently bad, and is necessary to make the game function. In allowing the 100 HP stabbed character to die, you’re metagaming. The rules of the game are the lens through which we interact with and experience the world, and you are taking your knowledge of what happens when someone slits the throat of a sleeping individual in our world and applying it to the game world, in spite of the rules (especially when in differing circumstances that character would laugh off a 1d4+2 attack). I would rule the same way. It’s metagaming, but it’s not bad, and the rules system itself is partly to blame for the disconnect.

        Metagaming is also a continuum upon which various individuals draw their own line of what’s acceptable and what’s not for a priori knowledge. Some people are okay with a character immediately reaching for the fire upon encountering a troll, others not, purely because it hasn’t been established that a character has some knowledge of a troll. But that line is arbitrary and can be extended to anything without a priori knowledge. I don’t hear many in uproar about gravity being similar to Earth’s and characters knowing about that. Less facetiously, the HP difference between a high level character and a low level character. How do you describe, in the world of the game, the difference between a level 1 wizard and a level 20 wizard such that it explains how one can suffer one or two hits from a kobold while the other several times over?

        “There is no way to COMPLETELY remove all of my OOG knowledge from our actions, but does that mean we should just not even try?”

        A false dichotomy. I’m sure you’ve already found the answer with your gaming group, wherever it is on the continuum that is acceptable for the group as a whole.

        “I’m not sure how meta knowledge effects the rolls of my dice, but that’s a cool trick if you can control your rolls with it.”

        It’s how the results of the dice affect you. From a purely role-playing perspective I presume that your orc is always trying her(?) best to would her opponent in battle, but due to this being a game that uses a random number resolution mechanic some results come out better than others. From a role-playing perspective, there is no difference between rolling against a 10 AC to hit an enemy and failing every time and rolling against a 25 AC and failing every time, but given your knowledge of your bonuses to hit and being able to see the die result you garner some knowledge as to your chances of success. The less you directly interact with the mechanics the less likely you are to metagame, so if you think metagaming is bad and want to avoid it, you should remove yourself from the mechanics as much as possible.

        Incorporating these dice rolls into the narrative, such that a low miss against a 10 AC opponent constitutes fumbling on your part or luck or whatever and and high roll miss against the 25 AC opponent is the opposition easily deflecting your blows is also metagaming, as it’s using out of story information to influence the story.

  • Yeah, this is a good, detailed, smart post … which doesn’t really disagree with Angry.

    I read through a lot of Angry’s stuff at the blog. The main idea when he tongue-in-cheek talks about players doing ‘wrong’ things is about sabotaging the game. There are certain actions and behaviors in D&D that just destroy the gameplay for everyone else.

    To equate that with taking away player agency to the point of ruining the game is like saying, if you don;t let that character continuously sabotage the game, you are ruining the game.

    • I disagree. I do think that someone who is not part of my gaming group judging my actions as “wrong” is challenging my agency as a player. It’s up to my gaming group to defend their own fun if I am endangering it. I play RPGs so that I can make choices, good or bad, and someone taking that away from me or limiting my choices does kind of ruin the point of RPGs for me. I don’t aim to continuously sabotage the game (I doubt I’d be invited back if I did that) but it’s important that players are free to make their own choices.

      • This, I agree with right here. If my group is okay with how I play my character, then that’s all that matters.

  • This isn’t a response to what Angry said; it’s a response to a strawman.

    I listened to the podcast where you and he disagreed. The reason he got, well, angry, about your characters making poor decisions was because the way you put it, it sounded like your team was split up and taking a beating and nobody even TRIED to turn the situation around because it would be metagaming to use your knowledge of the combat map. It sounds like that’s not actually what happened, in which case Angry was wrong to call you out. But that’s the problem with having arguments when drunk: neither side is able to correctly articulate their point.

    I get that Angry’s rants are often inflammatory and hyperbolic, but that’s kind of his shtick. Getting lost in arguing with his humorous hyperbole is disingenuous. What Angry was saying wasn’t that you must always make the perfect tactical decision in combat, damn the consequences; he’s simply saying that making poor choices because you don’t think your character would think of the better choice is folly.

    None of the examples you use in this article are actually what Angry is arguing against. If you choose to forego a flanking bonus because your character is the type who would fight alone for honor or pride, or because it’s more important that you spread out aggro to keep the enemies away from their goal, then those are perfectly valid choices.

    What Angry was arguing against was when you forego the flanking bonus because “Well, my character doesn’t KNOW about the mechanics of flanking, and can’t see the battlemap, so I don’t think she’d know to go flank that guy.” And while it’s true that your character doesn’t know the rules, these rules are meant to portray something in-game that your character would know about. And while it’s true that your character wouldn’t be able to see the battlemap, your character has trained in tactics and has ways to get a better feel for what’s going on – at least enough so that she should know where she’ll be most effective.

    Angry wasn’t “trying to have it both ways” with his alcoholic example. He was delineating making choices for character reasons from making choices for arbitrary “wouldn’t know better” reasons.

    So, in conclusion: making suboptimal tactical decisions for character reasons: acceptable. Making suboptimal tactical decisions because you think your character wouldn’t know better: not acceptable.

    • Hi! Thanks for reading my post!

      “I listened to the podcast where you and he disagreed. The reason he got, well, angry, about your characters making poor decisions was because the way you put it, it sounded like your team was split up and taking a beating and nobody even TRIED to turn the situation around because it would be metagaming to use your knowledge of the combat map. It sounds like that’s not actually what happened, in which case Angry was wrong to call you out. But that’s the problem with having arguments when drunk: neither side is able to correctly articulate their point.”
      More than the drinking, I think it was a case of him not really knowing what took place in our game. I’d be interested to know what he though if he had listened to our actual play.

      “I get that Angry’s rants are often inflammatory and hyperbolic, but that’s kind of his shtick. Getting lost in arguing with his humorous hyperbole is disingenuous. What Angry was saying wasn’t that you must always make the perfect tactical decision in combat, damn the consequences; he’s simply saying that making poor choices because you don’t think your character would think of the better choice is folly.”
      I think you may be softening what he said a bit. He was pretty clear that he didn’t think “war trained orcs” would ever make a choice other than the optimal mechanical/combat choice.

      “None of the examples you use in this article are actually what Angry is arguing against. If you choose to forego a flanking bonus because your character is the type who would fight alone for honor or pride, or because it’s more important that you spread out aggro to keep the enemies away from their goal, then those are perfectly valid choices.”

      Ok… but he didn’t say that. You are saying that, and I agree with you!

      “What Angry was arguing against was when you forego the flanking bonus because “Well, my character doesn’t KNOW about the mechanics of flanking, and can’t see the battlemap, so I don’t think she’d know to go flank that guy.” And while it’s true that your character doesn’t know the rules, these rules are meant to portray something in-game that your character would know about. And while it’s true that your character wouldn’t be able to see the battlemap, your character has trained in tactics and has ways to get a better feel for what’s going on – at least enough so that she should know where she’ll be most effective.”
      Right, but here is when I argue what what is most effective in D&D mechanics wouldn’t necessarily be most effective if the combat were real. The flanking bonus would probably have helped if I had chosen to go that route, but it would have meant turning my back to other attacking foes. While in D&D this might not be a huge deal because of AC and other benefits, on the real battlefield it would be deadly. Am I wrong to want to play it more like a real battle and not turn my back on a foe? That’s really kind of the root of the debate.

      Angry wasn’t “trying to have it both ways” with his alcoholic example. He was delineating making choices for character reasons from making choices for arbitrary “wouldn’t know better” reasons.
      Fine, but shouldn’t my gaming group get to decide what they think is ok and not ok in our group?

      “So, in conclusion: making suboptimal tactical decisions for character reasons: acceptable. Making suboptimal tactical decisions because you think your character wouldn’t know better: not acceptable.”

      I agree with the first point, and still believe that the second point depends on the situation.

      Thanks again for reading!

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