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Three Levels of Play

fusangite

First Post
I'm re-posting the message I sent to my current game's mailing list during our debate on the awarding of bonus experience because I'm curious to hear how other GMs and players react to my theory on the three levels of play in an RPG.

I think one of our problems here in this discussion is the eccentricity of
my GMing style.

My games run on three levels: the metatextual, the textual and the
mechanical. Many GMs, including some authors of D&D 3.x attempt to collapse
these levels into a single level of play. Those who seek to collapse all
three levels into the textual are considered "role players"; those who seek
to collapse all three into the mechanical are sometimes pejoratively called
"roll players." (For the purposes of this discussion, I am deliberately not
using the term "metagaming" which is problematic and imprecise.)

Unlike most GMs, I am not interested in collapsing my games to a single
level; to offer an entertaining game to people with various styles of play,
I try, instead, to keep these levels all operating independently of one
another rather than organizing them into some kind of hierarchy of good
play. Therefore, I expect my players to turn up with all three selves when
they come to my games.

I encourage and appreciate those who as players try to decipher the big
world puzzle on a metatextual level. Everyone, regardless of their
character's intellectual faculties and culture should be able to participate
in those process unfettered by textual and mechanical concerns of the game.

I encourage and appreciate those who as players conduct their characters
in action in a credible way. Offering credible justifications for character
actions, however, is not the same as having characters act solely based on
knowledge in their possession. For instance, a shaman or cleric might rush
over to a character who is on the verge of death and heal her in the nick of
time because the character's player informed the caster's player that she
had only 1 hit point left; the fact that this action was decided-upon based
on a mechanical play of the game doesn't matter to me -- what matters is
that a textual justification is provided, ie. "he looked like he was about
to pass out from blood loss." Similarly, an illiterate character might
choose to search in a particular spot for an item the player knows is there
from a close study of manuscripts that the cannot read; I have no problem
with the fact that this action was decided-upon based on a metatextual play
of the game, provided that a post-facto justification is offered to explain
how the character decided to do this.

I encourage and appreciate those who as players make maximum use of their knowledge of the rules both on their own characters and on other players'
characters. Everyone, regardless of their knowledge of the rules, should be
able to take advantage of tactical insights gained by those studying them.

Now, to the question of experience as described in the DMG: this gets right
to the heart of why I am running a D&D game. I deliberately use the oldest,
most primitive D&D experience mechanic because I want to tell a particular
kind of story. Over the years, my players have become very cautious and fear
engaging in violent confrontations. Essentially, I have chosen to use D&D in
the past two years because I want to tell stories that contain violence.
 

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Particle_Man

Explorer
So how does this work again?

If someone has memorized the monster manual and is playing 3.0, and knows that a Rakhasa is vulnrable to blessed crossbow bolts, he could say "hey, my character thinks this beast is evil, and wants the priest to bless his weapon before he enters combat...the weapon happens to be a crossbow this time...yeah, that's it...a crossbow..."

Or do you mean something different.

This is not meant to be negative. I am just confused.
 

Mark

CreativeMountainGames.com
I normally wait for a thread to get up to or near ten posts before adding it to the DMing Advice thread but there's just no sense in waiting for this one by the often provocative fusangite... :D
 

fusangite

First Post
Particle_Man asks,

If someone has memorized the monster manual and is playing 3.0, and knows that a Rakhasa is vulnrable to blessed crossbow bolts, he could say "hey, my character thinks this beast is evil, and wants the priest to bless his weapon before he enters combat...the weapon happens to be a crossbow this time...yeah, that's it...a crossbow..."

Or do you mean something different.

This is not meant to be negative. I am just confused.

Is this a "credible justification"? I would argue that this qualifies as a barely credible justification. If someone tried this in my campaign, people would probably groan.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
OK, you complain that metagaming is imprecise and problematic, but you have no problem making up the terms metatextual vs textual and applying them to gaming? :eek: What the heck? You do know that everyone pretty much knows what metagaming is? That it's defined in the DMG?

I guess I don't see what the deal is. The metatextual game you're describing is abhorent to me. I avoid it like the plague. I have no interest in it. Although I'm well aware that D&D and other RPGs are indeed games, I don't want them to feel like games, I want them to feel like stories unfolding. The rules are there to facilitate that. They are not to be something to valued for their own sake. In my opinion at least. Metagame knowledge is even worse.

I have no interest in what you call the mechanical game, beyond how well it facilitates what you call the textual game, and what you call the metatextual game is anathema to me.

Anyway, I'm not sure if there was a question in your post or not. I can understand what you're doing with the terms you use, but I don't understand why you value metagaming. I have yet to see you say anything about why it is desirable.

I'm also not sure what violent confrontations have to do with the rest of your post.
 
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fusangite

First Post
Mark calls me,

the often provocative fusangite

I'm thinking of including that in my sig file. How very complimentary -- that's exactly who I'm trying to be.

Joshua Dyal says,

OK, you complain that metagaming is imprecise and problematic, but you have no problem making up the terms metatextual vs textual and applying them to gaming? :eek: What the heck? You do know that everyone pretty much knows what metagaming is? That it's defined in the DMG?

The term metagaming is a catch-all category that doesn't really make sense. That's what makes it imprecise. It encompasses all playing based on information the character doesn't consciously have. I'm suggesting that this is too broad a category. It also suggests that you can actually situate yourself in your character's mindset given the minute amount of information you have about the campaign world.

I guess I don't see what the deal is. The metatextual game you're describing is abhorent to me. I avoid it like the plague. I have no interest in it. Although I'm well aware that D&D and other RPGs are indeed games, I don't want them to feel like games, I want them to feel like stories unfolding.

Much as I am loath to compare RPGs to novels, I think the metaphor might be useful here. When you read books, don't you enjoy anticipating what might happen next based on symbolic and mythic clues in the narrative? When I read GRR Martin's Song of Ice & Fire series, from the moment King Robert died, I was wondering how things would play out in Tyrion's temporary wardship of his nephews and how it would involve imprisonment in the tower. For me, being swept up in a story includes not only being carried along by the characters but also by the symbol system the author uses.

The rules are there to facilitate that. They are not to be something to valued for their own sake. In my opinion at least. Metagame knowledge is even worse.

But D&D rules aren't designed to facilitate being swept up in the story. If you want to be swept up in the story, you are using the wrong rules. If story is your primary goal in a game, I'm all for that. I've run such games. But I would never, in a million years, use D&D if that were the game I wanted to run. Classes and levels -- that's a ridiculous mechanic if your priority is story. Rules grafted to a system of physics based on Victorian-era spiritualism? How does that facilitate storytelling? Alignment!? Need I go on?

Anyway, I'm not sure if there was a question in your post or not. I can understand what your doing with the terms you use, but I don't understand why you value metagaming. I have yet to see you say anything about why it is desirable.

When I read a novel, I'm experiencing the book on all three levels: I'm counting the pages between where I am and the end of the book and imagining what the author will do with only that many pages; I'm engaged in the characters' lives and the narrative of the story; and I'm engaged in deciphering the symbol sytem, guessing what inspired the author and discerning the themes.

I guess I assume that adding levels of sophistication to things is often inherently enjoyable.

I'm also not sure what violent confrontations have to do with the rest of your post.

One of the reasons I chose the D&D rules system is that I found that my players had not been engaging in physical confrontations to solve problems. If I had just wanted to move to a rules-heavy system, I might have chosen Runequest or some other game in which combat is often lethal but instead, I chose to go with a game whose rules encourage combat. You're right. I suppose that doesn't directly bear on what I said above.
 

Wormwood

Adventurer
You raise some interesting points.

Unfortunately, I initially read 'metatextual' as 'metrosexual'.

It makes *much* more sense now.

Crab people indeed.
 

Mark

CreativeMountainGames.com
The "Provocative" fusangite said:
How very complimentary -- that's exactly who I'm trying to be.

That's what makes the difference between Message Boards and Message Boreds... ;)


(Thanks, BTW) :)
 


fusangite

First Post
Spatula said:
So how does this tie into the awarding of bonus XP again?

Sorry. I just excerpted this part of the argument because it seemed interesting. I wrote it in response to someone who felt that bonus experience should be awarded based on good role-playing. I countered, suggesting that limiting bonus experience awards to role play was valuing one level of the game over others. So then I had to explain what I thought the other levels were.
 

fusangite said:
My games run on three levels: the metatextual, the textual and the mechanical.

I like your distinction and I have to agree with you. One of the things that bothered me about the Forge's distinction between Gamist and Narrativist gameplay is that too often you wound up being forced to choose between the two.

I like crunchy rules for character creation and combat, but I'm not interested in merely wargaming.

I also like a good story, with well-developed personalities for the characters and an intricate plotline, but I don't feel comfortable with the vagueness and subjectiveness that plagues many "rules-lite" narrativist games.

I think that high drama can come from tactical battles where the DM lets the dice fall where they may. Unfortunately, this often leads to character death, which is sometimes (but not always) dramatically appropriate. And this one reason why I like D&D: resurrection is always possible, although (through cost and scarcity) by no means guaranteed.

Metagaming just comes naturally. It's hard to keep from using outside knowledge to help play the game, especially in combat, where your character's life is on the line. That's why I like your "in-game justification" idea. It allows the best of both worlds: the players can make gameplay decisions in combat based on their knowledge of the rules, but to use it, they have to get "in character" and justify it. They can make roleplaying decisions based on what would be "dramatically appropriate" according to the story as a whole, but must justify it from the limited perspective of their character. This synergy is hard to beat.

Ragnar
 

hong

WotC's bitch
fusangite said:
Over the years, my players have become very cautious and fear
engaging in violent confrontations. Essentially, I have chosen to use D&D in
the past two years because I want to tell stories that contain violence.

:D


Hong "I never metatext I didn't like" Ooi
 

clark411

First Post
Although I may have missed it, before this discussion blows over the heads of many or results in lots of different interpretations..

can we please have a concrete definition of what "metatextual" is?

I mean... maybe I agree with your idea, maybe i dont- right now, I can't make that decision based on a couple examples and secondary interpretations of what the term may mean.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
fusangite said:
The term metagaming is a catch-all category that doesn't really make sense. That's what makes it imprecise. It encompasses all playing based on information the character doesn't consciously have. I'm suggesting that this is too broad a category. It also suggests that you can actually situate yourself in your character's mindset given the minute amount of information you have about the campaign world.
I suppose metagaming can be broad, but I don't see how your term metatextual (which; granted -- I haven't seen defined yet anyway) means anything different. I don't see how it's catch-all or that it doesn't make any sense, though, unless you're looking for something more precise. If so, I can't imagine what kind of precision you'd be looking for.
fusangite said:
Much as I am loath to compare RPGs to novels, I think the metaphor might be useful here. When you read books, don't you enjoy anticipating what might happen next based on symbolic and mythic clues in the narrative? When I read GRR Martin's Song of Ice & Fire series, from the moment King Robert died, I was wondering how things would play out in Tyrion's temporary wardship of his nephews and how it would involve imprisonment in the tower. For me, being swept up in a story includes not only being carried along by the characters but also by the symbol system the author uses.
OK, this I can see. In my case, this is something I do subconsciously. I don't actually give metatextual considerations much thought beyond the occasional "how is he going to get out of this in two more chapters?" kind of thing.

And personally, I like to compare RPGs to novels. Although I'm well aware that what makes a good novel doesn't make a good game and vice versa, its because of my love of fantasy novels that I got into RPGs in the first place. The closer the game emulates the novel experience, the happier I am.
fusangite said:
But D&D rules aren't designed to facilitate being swept up in the story. If you want to be swept up in the story, you are using the wrong rules. If story is your primary goal in a game, I'm all for that. I've run such games. But I would never, in a million years, use D&D if that were the game I wanted to run. Classes and levels -- that's a ridiculous mechanic if your priority is story. Rules grafted to a system of physics based on Victorian-era spiritualism? How does that facilitate storytelling? Alignment!? Need I go on?
I could have you go on. I think d20 (or even D&D, although that makes the assumption that the default "setting" of D&D works with the story/game) works just fine at facilitating the story. Character creation is relatively complex, but that just means you have more detail about your character to start with. The game itself is not nearly as complex; in play you just roll d20s and look up your modifiers on your character sheet. This leads to (especially with familiarity) the rules being transparent and unobtrusive, which is what facilitates the story. GURPS is similar in many regards, as it also has complicated chargen but relatively simple task resolution beyond that. However, GURPS also tends to promote extremely cautious play, and that's not the story I want to have my group develop.

If you're refering to games that have Narrativist rules that are specifically story-oriented, I'm not a fan of such systems, and my experience with them is that they are more intrusive rather than helpful. They also tend to work on a metagame level, which leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
fusangite said:
When I read a novel, I'm experiencing the book on all three levels: I'm counting the pages between where I am and the end of the book and imagining what the author will do with only that many pages; I'm engaged in the characters' lives and the narrative of the story; and I'm engaged in deciphering the symbol sytem, guessing what inspired the author and discerning the themes.

I guess I assume that adding levels of sophistication to things is often inherently enjoyable.
Fair enough. As I said above, I do those things primarily subconsciously rather than on purpose, but I can see your point. Be that as it may, the examples you use of non-literate characters knowing where to look for something because of text that the players could read, for instance, don't seem to be the same kind of metatextual experience you're describing in this post. I see a real disparity between enjoying a book because you can discern the pacing, symbolism, or what have you the author uses, and being OK with players making decisions for their characters that are completely irrationaly from their characters' point of view. Although granted, you did make the caveat that in-game justification is a requirement. Of course, if you do that, I don't see what the big deal is. You can never completely excise metagame considerations from play, so it seems to be an implicit assumption of anyone who wants to minimize it that you don't really have a problem with it per se as long as your decisions are justified in game. Maybe some people want to push even beyond that where possible, but I don't really see how that could be done anyway.
fusangite said:
One of the reasons I chose the D&D rules system is that I found that my players had not been engaging in physical confrontations to solve problems. If I had just wanted to move to a rules-heavy system, I might have chosen Runequest or some other game in which combat is often lethal but instead, I chose to go with a game whose rules encourage combat. You're right. I suppose that doesn't directly bear on what I said above.
Agree, I like games that feature some combat. I want combat to be scary, but not so scary that players look for any way to avoid it (unless that's the character's schtick, of course.) Again, as I said above, one of the reasons I picked d20 as well.
 


Particle_Man

Explorer
fusangite said:
Particle_Man asks,



Is this a "credible justification"? I would argue that this qualifies as a barely credible justification. If someone tried this in my campaign, people would probably groan.

And if someone tried it in my campaign, Rakhasas (or at least that Rakhasa) would suddenly be immune to blessed crossbow bolts and vulnerable to something else. I wouldn't reward metatextual gaming -- I would penalize metatextual gaming. :) But that is just my style. I think I would need to know more about your criteria for what passes as metatextual and what is "mere" metagaming, or disallowed. How credible does something have to be to be credible justification?

Btw, if you want more combat-heavy stuff, you might want to look at Savage Worlds as a game system. Apparantly, it allows for more use of tactical maneuvers, as opposed to "Stand there and swing my sword".
 

fusangite

First Post
Bagpuss asks,

Are you allowed to turn up and just have fun without thinking to hard about it?

Absolutely. The game is a failure if it requires metatextual or mechanical play. The whole point (for me) is to write games that are fun no matter what level(s) you're experiencing them on.

clark411 asks,

can we please have a concrete definition of what "metatextual" is?

A metatextual reading of a novel or a a campaign world is about decoding the symbol system the author/GM uses in order to hypothesize about what is going on.

Example #1:

When I began reading George R R Martin's Game of Thrones, I was struck by the emerging civil war between the Lannisters and the Starks and its obvious echoes of War of the Roses. Given that I knew Martin was referencing the War of the Roses, obviously the character of Tyrion was some kind of figure of Richard III. I then wondered what aspects of Richard III, aside from physical appearance Martin would invest in him. Obviously, the character wouldn't be an exact correspondence because Richard III was a York not a Lancaster. So, when he ended up in charge of King's Landing and his two nephews' care, I was quite delighted, especially the way Martin ended up inverting the Richard III myth and having Tyrion end up imprisoned in the tower.

Of course, all this got more complicated when we met the Dornishmen later in the series and realized that what Martin was actually doing was overlaying the Seven Kingdoms of the Reconquista overtop of the Seven Kingdoms of the Heptarchy so that Cornwall and Granada were synthesized into Dorne.

Example #2:

This is my favourite long gaming anecdote that I have tried to reduce so that it doesn't take 30 minutes to tell. This is the experience which sold me on metatextual gaming.

I played in a game in which the characters lived in a world called Midgaard. It was one of the nine worlds which were, in this specific order, Vanaheim, Elfheim, Midgaard, Asgaard, Jotunheim, Svartelfheim, Niflheim, Utgaard and Hel. There is no way I can replicate the incredible richness and genius of this campaign-- it is the second-best campaign I have ever been in. There were many stunning realizations that I cannot do justice to. But eventually, we the players figured out that the nine worlds actually corresponded to the outer nine planets of our system; once we removed Mercury from the model, suddenly, we saw the alphabetical correspondence. Venus, Earth, Mars, Asteroid Belt, etc. The only thing that didn't fit was Hel. This profoundly informed our reasoning as players-- the home of the gods was not a planet. Had it been destroyed in Raagnarok as our myths implied?

We hypothesized like mad about this, as players, because our characters lived in a magic-rich medieval-style society on Midgaard. Our characters could not experience the realization that the adventure was taking place sometime in the past or future of our solar system.

Eventually, our characters were captured and enslaved by Dark Elves and taken to a special building they had discovered that they needed our magical affinity to understand. The building was millions of years old; the back room was occupied by some kind of enormous magic engine that seemed to affect time in some way. The front room was occupied by a series of high seats looking out at the sky through an enormous bay window and spread out infront of the seats was a huge computer system which seemed to glow in all colours of the spectrum that we couldn't figure out either.

We went away puzzled from the session, feeling like we were on the verge of figuring out what was happening. In the shower, 5 days later, it occurred to me that even though the building was rooted to the ground, the engines in back indicated that it was not a building but a ship. And what is that part of the ship faces out into space? The bridge. And what colour is the computer? ...Obviously, we had located the Rainbow Bridge -- the building's purpose, therefore, was to take us to Asgaard!

Sure enough, armed with this understanding of the significance of where our characters were, we focused all our energy on getting the computer to run because we knew it was the Bifrost Bridge. (We later discovered the Dark Elves' code name for their archaeological dig was Project Heimdall.) Sure enough, the building transported us back in time to when (based on the Russian Phaeton hypothesis) the Asteroid Belt was a planet; and, living there were the creatures our characters called the gods. At every stage, our characters' motivations were justified in terms of their own world's events but, as players, our choices were based, to varying degrees, on our understanding of the world's metatext.

[/end examples]

Most fantasy worlds resist a metatextual reading because they are not designed to be figured out in this way. Most people who create fantasy worlds use the Jungian/HP Lovecraft method of reaching into the collective unconscious and pulling out whatever jumble of myth, history and invention they find. But I think the best writers and GMs create worlds that can be understood on both a textual and metatextual level. In my best games (ones where I'm not hampered by the D&D rules system), every puzzle I create is solveable on both a textual and metatextual level. The brilliance of the Midgaard campaign is that we still could have used the ship to take us to Asgaard without the realization of what it was.

Joshua Dyal says,

If you're refering to games that have Narrativist rules that are specifically story-oriented, I'm not a fan of such systems, and my experience with them is that they are more intrusive rather than helpful. They also tend to work on a metagame level, which leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Here, we are in full agreement. Such rules systems are crap because they are actually designed to tell a particular story that is not necessarily the story you want to tell as a GM. No. If I want to run a story-oriented game, I design a small rules set specifically for that game.

I see a real disparity between enjoying a book because you can discern the pacing, symbolism, or what have you the author uses, and being OK with players making decisions for their characters that are completely irrationaly from their characters' point of view.

People keep putting these words in my mouth. If you cannot offer a credible justification for your character doing something, they shouldn't do it. So no -- I don't think people's characters should make decisions that are "completely irrational from their characters' point of view."

Well, I've blathered on enough. Thanks everyone for discussing this with me.
 

Particle_Man

Explorer
Ok, now I think I understand where you are coming from. It seems like it would be a nice feature, but a lot of work by the DM to set up, especially if the players don't "get" the metatext (on the other hand, sometimes players don't even "get" the main plot of an adventure, mistakenly killing the one person capable of saving the kingdom, etc., so this is not just a metatext issue).

I have never experienced it myself as a player, but I suppose it is possible that the DM did all sorts of metatextual stuff and we players just plodded on through at the "lower" levels.

How much time does it take to add the metatext details to a regular campaign, or else to do a metatext campaign from scratch, compared to a nonmetatext campaign?
 

Rel

Liquid Awesome
I think you're provocative too, fusangite. Keep it up.

I also think that I can buy into your trichotomy to a pretty strong degree. I think few would dispute that the ideas of a Role-Playing focus and a Roll-Playing focus (to use just one pair of terms that are ascribed to those styles) exist. But the metagame is important too.

When I say metagame, I don't mean in the derogatory sense where the player uses the blessed crossbow bolt on the Rakshasa even though his character wouldn't know a Rakshasa from a Were-Tiger. I mean in the sense that there is a game going on outside the world in which the characters are immersed. I find that my players are more happy when I pay attention to the metagame.

If they've just completed a lengthy diplomatic conversation that has provided lots of plot information, I will often try to move them expeditiously toward a combat. Why? Because it's fun. And because I know that it will give the characters with fewer diplomatic skills and more head-bashing skills a chance to shine. And because the combat itself may move the story forward. And because I as the GM have to do a lot of thinking on my feet during the diplomacy and the combat will give me a break to assimilate what I made up on the fly during the diplomacy into the broader campaign picture.

My point is that the metagame is never far from my mind as a GM and I think it stays in the minds of the characters too.
 

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