I mean “metagame” slightly differently in the title to how it’s most often meant. The way I mean it, it’s what holds your group together. Some people talk about a social contract at the gaming table, but I want to go a little bit deeper – I want to show how the dynamic between you and your fellow players can actually harm the believability of the fiction and your ability to immerse yourself in roleplay, using a concept called “intersubjectivity”. Then, I’ll suggest ways to heal the dissonance caused by this breakdown in the metagame with a simple rule: Pay a character a complement. Read on if you want to know how we imbue our fiction with a sense of reality, and how to stop it breaking down, and be warned hatchlings: This will get quite deep (read: abstract and nebulous).
Basic: Leaning on the metagame
If you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ve seen the start of most D&D campaigns. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it, it’s pretty good. Watch it if you want a demonstration of that age-old (to RPGs, anyway) trope of a disparate group of heroes with disparate aims coming together to solve a problem that involves all of them. If you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy vol.II, you’ve seen what happens in a good number of D&D campaigns after the first few sessions. If you haven’t seen it, you probably don’t have to; it’s fun, but not outstanding. But it demonstrates exactly what happens when the party has had their first adventuring day, or maybe even their first adventuring arc, and a) has no real reason to stay together anymore other than that they are, inexplicably, the most interesting and robust disparate group of beings in the world, and b) has a good reason not to stay together in the fact that they, to the outside observer, all seem to hate each others’ guts.
This is one of the failings of Guardians 2, namely that we rejoin the heroes when they have no real reason still to be hanging around together other than that they’re all at a loose end. For people risking their lives for each other on a fairly regular basis, this seems an implausibly weak link, especially since they don’t seem to value each others’ company at all – there are so many snipes and jibes in the first few minutes of the film that they literally annoy each other into crashing their starship. If we weren’t watching a Marvel film, we would expect these guys to have got sick of each other and gone their separate ways by now. And this is the point: Our expectations are set by how the movie is framed. This means that we’ve come to see a kind-of-superhero movie about a group of adventurers who work as a team. So given that we vaguely know that they were together by the end of G1, the fact that they’re still together by G2 doesn’t need answering – except that the audience understands, on some level, that it makes no sense, and this puts a strain on their engagement with the story.
This principle applies uncannily accurately to RPGs. GMs, especially new ones, have a hard time going from “You meet in a tavern” to “You are now a tight-knit group of adventurers”. And in fairness, this is because it’s not entirely up to the GM – the dynamic between the characters comes almost entirely down to the players. The GM can throw in as many destinies and aligning character motivations as you like, but there’s always the option for the characters each to go it alone and pursue their goal separately, or even hire replacements who won’t talk back. What ends up happening, then, is that our expectations based on how the game is framed tell us that we should be an adventuring party (or group of investigators or what have you), when our instincts as social beings tell us that no-one would want to hang around with these people, let alone fight alongside them.
This is the metagame: The understanding of how the game should run that provides a frameworks for the fiction. Where the fiction doesn’t fit this – where there’s more sniping going on in your party than at a shooting gallery – a dissonance is created, and the world becomes less believable. More than this, the rational principles that start to underpin the world start to unravel. That sounds melodramatic, and it is, but think about it like this: If your group doesn’t follow the ordinary social reactions that make sense, then the demands of the game are being prioritised over the rules of ordinary social interaction. If that’s true then you can no longer make predictions based on social factors, because the game is no longer trying to model a real, consistent world where those predictions reliably apply; instead, they are trumped by the demands for where the game needs to go next. If you do something that should alienate or traumatise another character (not that this is good practice at the gaming table – it is not, in most games at least), but the story needs them on side and fighting fit, then your action has no impact.
This essentially robs you of at least some of your free will, within the confines of the game, by robbing you of the ability to take actions that actually have consequences. A group of characters that don’t exist in a consistent world in this way are just being dragged along from plot point to plot point with no real say in the matter. Each successive event, though it be momentous or empowering on the face of it, fails to land or have any emotional impact, because the characters are not credibly portrayed as emotional human(oid) beings.
This is not the only way that the “reality” (such as it is) of the game is affected by party dynamic – we’ll get more technical below. Neither is it the most insidious or problematic. At most it contributes to the game feeling flat and railroaded. But it’s a good place to start – this is the “Basic” section after all.
This is also a good time for a few disclaimers before we move on. Although it is in the players’ court to do something about the phenomena mentioned so far, the players can’t be blamed entirely for their existence. As we’ll see below, it’s extremely easy to slip accidentally into this sort of problematic territory. Nor is this a problem between players; this problem is entirely to do with the relationships that exist in the fiction between characters. If you have a problem with one or more of the other players at the table as people, gaming advice, which this is, won’t help you – you’ll have to sort that out on your own, I’m afraid.
As a final point, it’s worth noting that all this goes double for players who have difficulty with different aspects of socialising. The old stereotype that gamers are socially inept is long overdue retirement, and is not one I want to endorse or feed into. Gaming stereotypes generally are based more in lack of understanding than fact; the idea that gamers were all nerdy males who couldn’t get a date, which I internalised as a teenager, got put paid to by the nine person strong, all female megagroup I joined at university. But I digress.
The point is that for some people, roleplaying games can be an outlet for a form of social expression that doesn’t come naturally to them in other settings – that RPGs have this role is starting to be touted by psychologists, teachers etc. as a core reason why they are to be valued. You may not recognise that some of your gaming group have these problems, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily won’t. Character relationships becoming passive-aggressive or verbally hostile, even if that dynamic doesn’t extend to the players, can take the fears characteristic of people with autism or Asperger’s and transpose them into what was billed as a setting for safe social expression and experimentation. It should be obvious that this isn’t what you want to happen at the table. This doesn’t key into any of the interesting features or concepts this article is intended to analyse, but it’s another reason to keep an eye out for when this sort of thing starts to happen, and to try to head it off.
So what is the pernicious, beleivability-sapping version of the breakdown in character relationships? Put simply, its foundation is the friendly jab or putdown. We’ve all been goofing around with our friends at the table when someone does something stupid and it goes embarrassingly wrong. It’s fun to take a moment to make fun of them for looking like a fool. I’m not saying you should cut this out of your game, and I’m certainly not saying that deflating a character’s ego is a bad thing. Far from it; characters who aren’t grounded in that way often wind up being insufferable to play with. What I’m saying is: Don’t let that become the core dynamic of the group. But we’ll get to what I actually recommend in the next section. Right now we’re analysing symptoms and their upshot.
Characters in RPGs are not real, shockingly. That is, they don’t have objective reality. What they do have is a sort of fictional reality, which, if you’ll excuse the word-bending, is just to say that in the fiction they are real. This fictional reality is not objective, but it is intersubjective, which is the next best thing. What this concept, culled from philosophy, means here is basically that they are agreed to be a certain way by a group of people, i.e.: the players and the GM. So my character is a redhead if, and to the extent that, my gaming group agrees that they are a redhead.
This sort of existence has an advantage over existing purely subjectively, meaning in the mind of only one person. The advantage is this: Suppose I’m playing a game in my head, and I accidentally stop thinking of the main character as a redhead and start thinking of them as brunette. Importantly, I don’t notice that I’ve made the switch, and there’s no record or system to determine for me what colour hair the character has or should have other than my own memory, which is fallible. There is thus no sense of playing with the same character over time, as I can’t ensure consistency of any of their features, trapped as they are inside my own little subjective bubble. In a similar way, there’s no sense in which I can discover anything about the fiction, since everything has to be created by me, and because any rules in the world of the fiction are subject to my imposing them.
This is all very abstract and weird, but the point is this: In a subjective game world, what you see is all there is, and goes away when the lights are turned off, as it were. In an intersubjective game world, by contrast, what is agreed upon by the players and the GM is what there is. So if I forgot a character’s hair colour in an RPG, the GM and the other players would set me right. The facts, fictional and untrue though they are, are set independently of my knowing about them (although not independently of anyone’s knowing about them). This is how the game simulates an underlying reality for the fiction.
I’ll write something soon that covers why it’s vitally important that the GM never lets on that they’ve improvised a whole scene, situation or character, but it should be reasonably clear already why that’s a sound principle. The players need to believe that details about the world already exist somehow, even if only in the GM’s notes, otherwise there’s no sense in which they can explore or discover anything – the best they can do is watch as the world around them is spontaneously generated. So to any GMs reading this: First, you’re in the wrong section, but read on anyway; second, keep tight-lipped about your process. Your in-game methods should be as much a black box as your notes about what surprises are coming up.
So we’ve seen that the world of the game is made to feel real, discoverable etc. by consensus. But there’s more. Rules and stats form an interesting part of this process. If you have a debate about who’s stronger in an RPG, the only way to settle the matter is by pointing to something that everyone agrees represents such-and-such about the fiction, such as the characters’ strength stats. Stats thus provide the skeleton of the sort of reality that RPG characters have; whatever you might say about your character’s background, likes and dislikes, appearance and so on, the mechanical stuff on the character sheet is set in stone, there for everyone to see.
So how do putdowns come into this? Well, I wasn’t kidding when I said it was important for characters with big egos to be grounded by the occasional putdown. That’s because the occasional putdown, along with perhaps some tacit agreement from the others at the table, establishes that the character’s high opinion of themselves doesn’t reflect the reality of the game world. Since all the players are equal collaborators in creating the fiction, it’s very hard to go against the opinion of the majority and not just feel like you’re kidding yourself. Friendly putdowns (emphasis on “friendly”) thus provide, in a very pertinent sense, a reality check for a player whose opinion of their character is a little too high, and who needs to step back for a moment and realise their character’s place within the order of things in the game world.
But giving that classic move, the friendly putdown, a direct role in determining how things stand within the fiction can lead to problems. These arise when the move is overused. It’s not difficult for an RPG party (again, meaning specifically the characters) to tacitly adopt the snipe as their main form of intra-party social engagement. This has to do with several factors, not least of which is the number of RPG characters whose default state is to be unwilling to take anyone seriously apart from themselves (whom they take if anything, too seriously – more on this in the next section). Another factor is the established trope of the Legolas/Gimli back-and-forth. Players tend to use this as a kicking off point for some light ribbing between characters with different personalities, but aren’t generally very good at moving to the next stage of developing an actual rapport, and, finally, a strong friendship. Instead they tend to languish in the original stage of surly jabs and casting aspersions about the other’s abilities, integrity etc.
This creates a dissonance between the mechanics an the fiction (which is different to the dissonance mentioned above). Say you have a group that has this dynamic of sniping as a first resort. If the fighter takes out five well trained, well armed enemy soldiers in thirty seconds flat (very doable for a D&D fighter of about fifth level or so), and the party goes back to saying that they’re a clumsy oaf five minutes after combat ends, this creates a contradiction. The players establish collaboratively how things stand within the fiction, so the fighter must be an oaf, but this doesn’t gel with what everyone’s just seen them do on the battlefield. This usually grounds out by diminishing the achievement, to the detriment of the game; these enemies can’t have been much more than cardboard cutouts, to be knocked down so easily by an oaf, so they can’t be much of a threat. The world warps around the reality as the players make it to fit how they see the game world, and this creates dissonance with the mechanics, which aren’t geared to that way of seeing things.
As a quick note, the players are, of course, not the only ones with a say in creating the fiction, or even the ones with the most say – that, obviously, is the GM. But this doesn’t change the point. It would hardly be an effective solution for the GM to step in and explain to the player doing the putting down that they are in error. For one thing, it’s not exactly the GM’s job to police party banter (except to when it ends up filibustering the plot), and it would appear odd to do so. For another, although the GM can point out the obvious contradiction to the player, it’s not actually the player orchestrating the putdown – it’s the character. And characters are allowed to be wrong about things, even obvious things. Players would thus likely stick to their guns and maintain that such behaviour, fallacious or not, is just them playing in character, which is their prerogative. The priority the GM enjoys in creating the fiction actually plays the other way, and means that they have even more of a responsibility than the players to stop themselves from overindulging, usually via their NPCs, in the same vices (I’ll write an article soon about the importance of managing your manner and presentation as a GM).
Treatment: The “One Nice Thing” Rule
Obviously, the treatment for this sort of party-wide ailment is to cultivate a good dynamic, where the friendly putdown forms part of a rapport, without eclipsing the whole of the characters’ relationships to one another. As mentioned, though, players don’t tend to be very good at this sort of thing, especially once the wrong balance of banter has set in. And, as also mentioned, the GM actually doesn’t have a lot of power to enforce it. So how to make sure you get off to the right start?
Part of this effort is going to be simply not going in too hard for the sort of banter that disrupts another player’s power fantasy. But we can be more concrete than that. I want to propose a rule, which I’ll call the “One Nice Thing” rule. It’s very simple to follow, and fairly easy to boot. It is as follows: By the end of session one of the campaign, your character has to have said at least One Nice Thing to another character. A good example of One Nice Thing – the core example – is a sincere complement. Try to make an event of it; have it happen after they helped out in a fight, or achieved a session goal. There aren’t necessarily a lot of quiet moments in a session, especially a first session, so you may have to make one, but it has to land, and be noticed. By the end of session two, you should have done the same thing again, preferably to a different character; sharing the love will help to knit the whole party together.
Sappy right? But hear me out. This isn’t me labouring under some assumption that players don’t know how to socialise, and trying to provide an instruction booklet. RPGs are, after all, social games – there’s a good chance that if you play them you’re decently good with people. No, players are good enough at being sociable human beings, it’s just that the points noted above make the pitfalls particularly hard to detect, because the mechanisms by which they work are particularly subtle. The One Nice Thing rule is just a heuristic to help you and your group avoid stumbling blocks that will land you in a problematic rut.
As much as anything, it is also a litmus test for characters – it constrains the type of character that you’re allowed to play, because the setup of a collaborative, party-based RPG puts constraints on the type of character that’s appropriate (I’m construing “party-based” very broadly, of course). If you think that your character wouldn’t pay such a compliment, say, because they aren’t that open or in touch with their emotions, that’s fine. The One Nice Thing for that character can be an expression of grudging respect for another’s abilities or ideals. It still has to be verbal – curt nods are cheap and easily forgotten (and cliché, if we’re being honest) – but it can be in line with the character’s personality. If you genuinely can’t imagine your character showing some sort of sincere appreciation for another party member’s being there, though, then you’ve made a character that doesn’t work within a party-based game. Grab a solo gamebook for your system to put them through, and roll up another character for use with your group.
As much as it may feel strange to so deliberately and ponderously take someone aside and say One Nice Thing to them, it will pay dividends; friendships fostered between characters mean that players will take the time they would have spent tearing each other down and deflating each others’ power fantasy of being a cool, powerful hero and spend it building each other up instead. And because, as discussed, this sort of collaboration is at the core of building a sense of a real world in which the characters exist as things separate from any one person in the gaming group, it will give a sense of reality to the version of your character that you want to portray, and allow you to immerse yourself in their story and their world. Plus, it’s just nice to have a group of characters that gets along.