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Three Levels of Play

Desdichado

Adventurer
fusangite said:
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, if you'd quoted the other part of what I said in that paragraph, it wouldn't have come across as putting words in your mouth. My real question was in the part you didn't quote:
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.
 

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BSF

Explorer
Interesting mind food.

If I understand Fusangite correctly, he does everything he can to design the game to work on the character level as well as the player level as well as the rules mechanics level. Multiple aspects to appeal to a variety of tastes.

He is trying not to make a judgement value on who is playing the game "better". He is just focusing on providing "fun" and yuo can pick the style(s) that suit you. As a result, bonus exp for RP is inappropriate since it would imply a value system that he is trying to eschew. Am I understanding this correctly Fusangite? In that context, I _think_ I understand the difference between meta-textual, textual, and mechanical.

I am intrigued.

As a DM, I do not do much to create a meta-textual game for the players to wonder about. I would be very interested in picking up any tips in that regard. Like Rel, I try to be aware of the metagame considerations. Things like the CHA skill based character is not going to be happy in an all-combat game and the STR based fighter will get bored with constant political intrigue. But, Fusangite seems to be referring to something outside my scope of experience. So, if you have the time, would you be kind enough to elaborate on how you go about creating the meta-textual environment?

Thanks!
 

fusangite

First Post
BardStephenFox asks,

Am I understanding this correctly Fusangite?

Yes. Absolutely.

So, if you have the time, would you be kind enough to elaborate on how you go about creating the meta-textual environment?

In a similar vein, Particle_Man says,

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?

Hmmm. I don't think I've ever tried to express this in writing before. Please bear with me.

I see two main ways of doing metatext in games: story-based and world-based. Story-based metatext can be grafted onto an existing campaign world whereas world-based metatext requires a ground-up approach.

Story-based metatext is pretty easy but somewhat less satisfying and more likely to impinge on the free will of player characters. For story-based metatext, what you need to do is find one or more classic archetypal stories (e.g. Beowulf); optionally, come up with a variation on the story and begin moving your characters along the tradtional narrative but with some kind of twist. Disguising traditional or archetypal narratives is actually pretty easy; usually just situating the story in your campaign takes care of that.

All you need to do is figure out which parts of the story matter to you and proceed from there. If I were to do a Beowulf adaptation, the things I would keep would be:
(a) the three part structure Grendel (Earth), Grendel's Mother (Water) and the Dragon (Fire)
(b) discovering his sword could not damage Grendel's mother and fighting her with his bare hands until he could steal an ancient magic sword from her hoard
(c) the dragon being wakened by someone raiding the hoard of an ancient and forgotten race
(d) Beowulf having to hold his breath a ridiculously long time to fight Grendel's mother

First, I would disguise the setting by moving it ahead into the high medieval period. Then, I'd probably change Grendel so that he was clever and more obviously some type of earth elemental.

Second, I would probably connect Grendel to the evil water elemental creature some other way but maintain their objective: to destroy the human city that sits on the territory that was once theirs. Obviously, I'd also design some kind of special immunities and vulnerabilities for the evil water element creature.

I would probably also add an air element creature at the end because that is suggested by the way physics works in D&D.

World-based metatext is challenging, exciting, requires research but actually doesn't take any more work than traditional world building. What is different is when you do the work and what kind of work it is. But I'm going to pause here and resume my explanation once I've had dinner.
 

Thomas Hobbes

First Post
Yowza! Really interesting stuff. Like others here, I've only ever really thought about entertaining my players on the mechanical and textual levels. I never thought "metatextual" was a word I'd hear outside of a literature class, let alone one that I'd use in a D&D context.

So anyway, thanks a lot for posting this, and I eagerly await the rest of your advice on how to incorporate the metatextual.
 

Teflon Billy

Explorer
Fusangite said:
...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...

Your D&D games are way better than those "System Designed to Mirror the Works of William Blake" games.

Your best games, however, are Gamma World games.
 
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cptg1481

First Post
Oldest, most primitive D&D experience mechanic

fusangite said:
...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.

Dude, while I may agree and disagree with you on some levels, I appreciate the depth of thought put into your statements and find it provocative. I think it is funny to watch the squirming posts of those who must somehow feel threatend by your interpretations as if they would somehow be bound by them if they just said "not my style but I appreciate your points".

I was just wondering what the oldest and most primitave D&D experience mechanic that you refernce is? Is it the AD&D EXP system where one gets EXP based on the gold he takes from the dead enemies? Or is it just the recommended method in the DMG without bonuses for roleplaying and plot advancement?

Totally, not a critique, just a question.

Captain G.
 
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fusangite

First Post
I was just wondering what the oldest and most primitave D&D experience mechanic that you refernce is? Is it the AD&D EXP system where one gets EXP based on the gold he takes from the dead enemies? Or is it just the recommended method in the DMG without bonuses for roleplaying and plot advancement?

I meant, generally, a system that involves both experience points and levels, with experience points based solely on physical danger. But yes, right now, I'm using the DMG CR method without the roleplay and plot advancement bonuses.

Totally, not a critique, just a question.

Hey -- if there is one thing I'm not online, it's sensitive. I wouldnt especially mind being berated if someone felt like giving me a hard time.
 

fusangite

First Post
Thoughts on creating a metatextual campaign...

First off, I'll begin with my metaphor. Imagine that you're looking at an attractive abstract pattern on your computer screen. It may be that someone has carefully drawn this pattern pixel by pixel or it may be that the pattern is actually a Julia set-- an infinite abstract pattern generated by a single complex equation.

Most campaign worlds are constructed pixel by pixel -- some gigantic bitmap that someone has lovingly created; let's call that the imaginative campaign world. The kind of world I find most exciting is one which is, instead, generated by a single complex equation; let's call that the mytho-poetic campaign world. The difference between the two types of world is what happens if you zoom in or move off the screen. If you zoom in on a section of the imaginative campaign world, depending on its resolution, you will either find a carefully hand-drawn scene or blocky pixelated images. On the other hand, if you zoom in on a section of the mytho-poetic campaign world, you will initially see blocky pixelated images-- these will then resolve to images as detailed at the larger image. If you move off the screen of the imaginative campaign world, there will either be nothing or another, adjacent bitmap. If you move off the mytho-poetic campaign world, you will experience much the same thing as if you zoom in: blocky images resolving into smooth detail. Of course, the speed with which the image resolves is based on two things: the speed of the processor and the difficulty of the equation.

Sorry for the lengthy extended metaphor. So, what does a good campaign world equation look like? A good mytho-poetic world is constructed much the way you make a conspiracy theory: substitute correlation with causation. Examples of good world equations: What if the 7 angels of the 7 churches of Asia plus the Son of Man are the same people as the Eight Immortals of the Tao? What if Arthur's original quest for the Holy Grail described in Spoils of Annwfn took place in the Americas and the key grail artifacts were actually the key artifacts described in the Book of Mormon? What if the nine worlds of Norse myth were actually the outer nine planets of the solar system?

Start with one preposterous instance of a myth system, science, historical event or epic story appearing symetrical to some other myth system, science, historical event or epic story and you'll soon find other correspondences. In the Eight Immortals story, there was the text in the Book of Revelations that only someone whose name was written in the Lamb's Book of Life could enter the New Jerusalem taking on new meaning when it was noted that one of the ways the Monkey King of Chinese myth became thrice-immortal was to erase his name from the list of fates of all mortal beings. With the Holy Grail thing there were the different forms of the grail corresponding to different Mormon artifacts: the Lance of Longinus/Javelin of Teancum, Sword of Laban/Excalibur, the grail carved from the emerald which broke from Lucifer's crown when he was cast down from heaven/one of the Seer Stones of Zarahemla.

So, to write a mytho-poetic campaign, you come up with your conspiracy theory-like idea. Then you do heaps of highly selective research to find little facts which, taken out of context, make your theory appear credible. Then, you should be able to deduce roughly what each part of your world is like based on the interplay of these ideas. Of course, you still have to do work when characters do something unexpected and you need to do some episode prep but I find that I do 50% of my total campaign prep at the beginning while I'm fashioning my conspiracy theory and the other 50% preparing for individual episodes. But I find my total campaign prep time is about the same.

OK -- all for now.
 

Particle_Man

Explorer
This is interesting! I think it would be cool if you wrote up some adventures/campaign worlds and sold them, actually.

That said, does the metatextualness rely upon at least one player having read the same books as the DM? Because otherwise, except in some "big myth"/"big fact" cases like Norse myth and the planets, I don't see how players will get the correlations. For instance, I don't think any of my group would have gotten the whole Beowulf/Elementals thing. Does that happen a lot with metatext? Or can one use more "obvious"/"popularly accessable" metatexts, like what if "Star Wars" were mapped onto "Lord of the Rings"? Maybe this is a case of tailoring it to shared knowledge between the DM and at least one player.

On the other hand, even if there is no "light going on" in the players, I could see that borrowing two ideas and smooshing them together can make a good framework to hang a world on. It follows Koestler's theory of creativity in humour, science and art, which holds that you have two matrices, well, smooshed together. Like the respected professor that sits on a chair that collapses under him. The "show respect" matrix meets the "physical bodies that are unsupported fall to earth" matrix, and humour results.

I am not sure I got how the pixel metaphor maps on to the mythopoetic world. Do you mean that the whole world has a metatext, a country has the same metatext, a city has the same metatext story, etc.? Or do you mean that the world has one metatext plot, a country has one chapter of that plot, a city has a few metaphors in one chapter of that plot, etc.?
 

fusangite

First Post
Particle_Man said:
This is interesting! I think it would be cool if you wrote up some adventures/campaign worlds and sold them, actually.

That said, does the metatextualness rely upon at least one player having read the same books as the DM? Because otherwise, except in some "big myth"/"big fact" cases like Norse myth and the planets, I don't see how players will get the correlations. For instance, I don't think any of my group would have gotten the whole Beowulf/Elementals thing. Does that happen a lot with metatext?

It does sometimes. There are ways around it -- hinting at what the texts are, picking, as you suggest, accessible and recognizeable texts, not caring whether the players "get it"; if the game is in an alternate earth, you can always have the characters discover references to the texts you're using, if not, you can import your own versions of these stories into your campaign world and write your own variants on these myths or pieces of fiction. Obviously, how much you want your characters to engage the metatext will condition what kind of source texts you use.

Or can one use more "obvious"/"popularly accessable" metatexts, like what if "Star Wars" were mapped onto "Lord of the Rings"? Maybe this is a case of tailoring it to shared knowledge between the DM and at least one player.

It's important to find points of symetry that look superficially obvious and are not a stretch in the mind of the DM. I'm guessing the way in is the istari/jedi: Radagast/Yoda, Gandalf/Kenobi, Saruman/Vader. And what of the two Blue Wizards?

I am not sure I got how the pixel metaphor maps on to the mythopoetic world. Do you mean that the whole world has a metatext, a country has the same metatext, a city has the same metatext story, etc.?

Yes. Every place, every city, every character is derived from the single central equation. You're only inventing part of it when the characters decide to go there; many of its features are implicit in the metatext of the campaign.

Or do you mean that the world has one metatext plot, a country has one chapter of that plot, a city has a few metaphors in one chapter of that plot, etc.?

This is also often true. Or rather, it is true of the places the GM intends for the party to go. But when the party chooses to go somewhere else entirely, the GM doesn't simply invent the place they go to, he also deduces it from the big campaign equation.
 

BSF

Explorer
Hmm, I can see how that might work. I am going to have to give it some thought and figure out how well I might be able to pull it off.

Thank you for the explanation. Please, feel free to share more! :) I am intrigued, but I think I need to sleep on it to really digest it.
 

RSKennan

Explorer
fusangite said:
Thoughts on creating a metatextual campaign...

First off, I'll begin with my metaphor. Imagine that you're looking at an attractive abstract pattern on your computer screen. It may be that someone has carefully drawn this pattern pixel by pixel or it may be that the pattern is actually a Julia set-- an infinite abstract pattern generated by a single complex equation.
*Snipped well-put analogy*

It's late, so if I've misinterpreted what you've said here, please, let me know. :)

I agree with you; that the more compelling story is reflected into itself, but I don't see Jungian archetypes or usage of Campbellian deconstruction to create story as a bad thing. IMHO, modeling a campaign on the synthesis of two or more specific myths/stories is a fine way to find a creative direction, and I don't see that as exclusive to the idea of using a broader approach, and filling in the blanks. Certainly it takes a lot more work to do that with broader concepts (say the "Mythic Hero" rather than specifically honing in on "Rama" ), but the reward is (at least the perception of) more degrees of freedom. It's a trade-off, and either method, if carefully executed, can work well.

Synthesis is one method of story design, but something you've also hinted at is a pure "What-if" question. I call it the interrogative method. What if:

Humans were mutated orcs?

Magic was nanotech?

All sentient beings were actually the pets of a greater being, and the world was the cage?

The game world was actually the place where bad folks go when they die? (One I once considered using)

This kind of questioning might not result in the same strength of story direction, but can result in a world every bit as vibrant as one built around the synthesis of two or more ideas. Either one can be self-reflective; the themes can hold on the macro scale as well as the micro.

For the record, Morningstar uses both methods.

I've started rambling a bit, but this is a fun discussion. I'll stop for now, but I'm enjoying this.
 

Rel

Liquid Awesome
Hmm, by now I'm seeing that the words "metagame" and "metatext" are more divergent in meaning than I originially thought. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I have run a few games with metatext elements over the years. The one with the most powerful (and heavyhanded) metatext was a Mage game where the campaign started with the characters being kidnapped to a "pocket world" built around the world of The Wizard of Oz. They didn't realize it at first, but as soon as they found Munchkinland, complete with the conniving mercantile members of the Lollipop Guild (subtle, huh?) they were on to it. It didn't take them long to figure out that they had to make their way to the Emerald City to meet the Wiz if they wanted to get back home.

Now in that case, one could argue that this was actually character knowlege because their characters were from the modern world and presumably had a chance to see the movie or read the books. Regardless, they had a lot of fun dealing with the various elements of the pocket world from the flying monkeys to the apple-throwing trees to the poppy fields.

This sort of metatextual basis for a story or world helps lend it structure and I think it can be an aid to the GM in determining what sorts of challenges the party will encounter over the course of the campaign. But, like any sort of structure, it can also be confining.

Sometimes, especially if they haven't yet identified the metatextual basis for your story or world, the players want to take things in directions that will make it difficult to continue the thread of your metatext. This will of course depend heavily on how tightly the story is bound by that metatext and it may not present a problem at all. You can also try to invent alternate paths that they can follow that still maintain the concept of your metatext. For example:

Let's say that your metatext is following some myth that calls for the heroes to confront a "powerful dragon". You dangle the following plot threads in front of the party:

A powerful dragon is terrorizing the Black Peak mountains and must be stopped.

The lord of the Serpent Isles has been building up his navy and appears as though he may be readying for an attack on the western coast of the kingdom. The king has asked that you pay him a diplomatic visit to determine his intentions.

The new head of the Thieves Guild, Manny the Viper, is much more violent than his predecessor. Violent crimes, some directed at the City Watch itself, have skyrocketed and this needs to be dealt with. Killing The Viper or simply arranging for his overthrow by a less violent Thief are both options.


Those are pretty blatant, but I haven't finished my morning coffee yet. Anyway, I think the big question you should ask when thinking about adding significant metatextual elements to your game is: Will this enhance the experience for the players (including me) or at least not hurt it. It's ok to do it even if you have players who haven't read the source material and won't pick up on it. But I'd be careful about anything that required specific events to occur in specific order or at a specific time for the campaign to be a success.

And, if any of my players are reading this, there is no metatext to the current campaign. I'm just making that crap up.

Or maybe I'm lying when I say that (muhahahahah!).
 

ST

First Post
fusangite --

Interesting stuff. I recommend you drop by The Forge (www.indie-rpgs.com) They're very heavy on discussion of RPG theory, and in fact have discussed many of the things you bring up. It'd likely be mutually beneficial for you and them for you to bring some of these ideas over there.

in fact their discussions of GNS (Gamist, Simulationist, Narrativist) theory seem to map to mechanical, textual, and metatextual.

There's also the benefit that nobody posts responses like "I dunno man, I just like to have fun", because they're there specifically to discuss theory. :)
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
I don't see how fusangite's model maps to the GNS model, really. Sure, his mechanical consideration and the gamist perspective are a close match, but what is textual? Narrativist? Then what's the metatextual?

No, I think the two models, while both are operative, can't be matched to each other.

Personally, I like the GNS model better, because it describes play styles, while the fusangite model are three overlapping layers. I still think the metatextual layer is a bit dubious, at least in terms of how I understand it, though.
 

takyris

First Post
Hey, Fusemastah,

That's surprisingly similar to how I plan novels. Or maybe not surprisingly.

Take two different mythologies, bounce them off each other, and whammo -- idea that PCs didn't see coming.

My current d20 Modern campaign -- which, arguably, boils down to "Secret Battle against Werewolves and Mermen Using Alien Tech" came from a ridiculous attempt (by me) to handwave a way for both the Land-bridge-from-South-America-to-Africa theory of Atlantis AND the Antarctica-used-to-be-temperate-but-the-crust-shifted theory of Atlantis to be correct (when, according to most scientists, neither theory is correct, by any stretch).

Long long time ago: Race of early humans found alien tech, advanced extremely rapidly. Conquered its small continent, kept other humans as slaves, worked on plans to wipe out rest of humanity in order to wipe slat clean. Alien tech included gene-resequencing and mass teleportation devices. These guys were the Old Atlanteans

Long time ago: Slaves of these guys found out what was gonna happen and rebelled -- they teleported a large section of the continent of Atlantis partway across the world, also activating a doomsday device that would repolarize the Earth and shift Atlantis into the antarctic zone.

Some time ago: Old Atlantean survivors adapted themselves by resequencing DNA for cold-weather adaptation and survival without most of their technological resources (ie, they grew fur and resistant to common weaponry). Unable to mount an assault against the New Atlanteans (the descendents of the slaves, who established their own indomitable island with the best remains of the Atlantean tech), the Old Atlanteans opted for revenge, and used their teleportation device to rip New Atlantis from the middle of the Atlantic ocean and drop it to the bottom of the Pacific (where nobody is looking for it, where no research ever puts it, and where it is soley to make it easy for my PCs to get to it, since the campaign is based in California and Washington state).

A little while ago: The New Atlanteans survived briefly at the bottom of the sea, since they possessed energy shield technology, and were able to resequence their DNA before it failed and let the water crush them and most of their city. They opted for a new form that would enable them to survive underwater (ie, gills and other amphibious features).

Today: The PCs scrounge around for all kinds of Antlantean ruins, trying to figure out why some sources say that Atlantis was Antarctica and some sources say that it was in the Atlantic ocean, but nobody ever says it was in the Pacific, which is where it seems to be now. And werewolves and merpeople keep attacking the party to recover artifacts, and the PCs have no idea why. :)

Two mythologies get smushed together, and voila -- metatextual campaign, sorta. :D
 

Storminator

First Post
Joshua Dyal said:
I don't see how fusangite's model maps to the GNS model, really. Sure, his mechanical consideration and the gamist perspective are a close match, but what is textual? Narrativist? Then what's the metatextual?

No, I think the two models, while both are operative, can't be matched to each other.

Personally, I like the GNS model better, because it describes play styles, while the fusangite model are three overlapping layers. I still think the metatextual layer is a bit dubious, at least in terms of how I understand it, though.

Oh My -Frickin- Lord!

Did anyone else just get hit in the head with the Mechanical-Textual-Metatextual <-------> Gamist-Simulationist-Narrative metatextual conspiracy-theory?!?

Smash those two together and you get the metatextual thread about RPG design where people post on all three levels! Some respond to the content, some respond to the metatextual construct and others just because it's on a message board!

PS
 

fusangite

First Post
RSKennas says,

I agree with you; that the more compelling story is reflected into itself, but I don't see Jungian archetypes or usage of Campbellian deconstruction to create story as a bad thing. IMHO, modeling a campaign on the synthesis of two or more specific myths/stories is a fine way to find a creative direction, and I don't see that as exclusive to the idea of using a broader approach, and filling in the blanks.

The Campbell/Jung approach is good for creating fantasy worlds. However, in such worlds, the metatext is merely allusive; it cannot be predictive. The advantage to more deliberate metatextual construction is that the players can use it to make deductions about current and future events in the campaign.

Certainly it takes a lot more work to do that with broader concepts (say the "Mythic Hero" rather than specifically honing in on "Rama" ), but the reward is (at least the perception of) more degrees of freedom. It's a trade-off, and either method, if carefully executed, can work well.

Agreed. I returned to D&D because it affords my characters a different kind of freedom. In an imaginative world, you can only go to cities the GM has already constructed. In a mytho-poetic world, you can go to any city you want but the problem is that wherever you go, it will become what the world structure requires it to be.

Humans were mutated orcs?

Magic was nanotech?

All sentient beings were actually the pets of a greater being, and the world was the cage?

The game world was actually the place where bad folks go when they die? (One I once considered using)

This kind of questioning might not result in the same strength of story direction, but can result in a world every bit as vibrant as one built around the synthesis of two or more ideas.

Yes it can. But, as you can see, only the text will allow people to "figure out" what is going on. A metatext of this nature does not provide for a third level of play or an alternate system of deduction. As such, while technically a metatext, it is only accessible to the players in hindsight.

I don't wish to argue that mytho-poetic worlds are more vibrant than imaginative worlds. The reverse might well be the case; the problem of the imaginitive world (as you have described above) is that it only permits play on the textual and mechanical levels. For a level of play to work, there must be some predictive value associated with it. What you are creating above is a world which has a metatextual level in which the players are bystanders. All worlds have metatext (whether consciously placed there by the GM or coughed up via some "Jungian slip") but only some (ie. mytho-poetic worlds) permit metatextual play.
 

fusangite

First Post
ST says,

I recommend you drop by The Forge (www.indie-rpgs.com)... They're very heavy on discussion of RPG theory, and in fact have discussed many of the things you bring up. It'd likely be mutually beneficial for you and them for you to bring some of these ideas over there.

I just signed up this afternoon. Thanks so much for pointing me in this direction; it looks like my kind of board.

in fact their discussions of GNS (Gamist, Simulationist, Narrativist) theory seem to map to mechanical, textual, and metatextual.

I've got to go with Joshua on this. Simulationist play and narrativist play are both textual approaches.

Takyris, your story sounds quite interesting but I'm not sure it would yield metatextual play. Archaeology and pre-history have pretty impoverished symbol systems. Are there ways for people to decode what is going on in a non-textual way?

Finally, Joshua, I have no problem with the GNS model; it is clearly descriptive. What I am realizing, though, is that what I am really doing is describing the three predictive modes for play. Mechanical, textual and metatextual play all work off distinctly different models for predicting how future situations will play out. I would tend to think that situationist and narrativist play both work off the textual model for predicting outcomes.
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Speaking of predicting outcomes, I think now that I understand your model better and what you're trying to do, it seems that players catching on and finding the game predictable is one of the greater dangers of engaging in the type of metatextual layers you're trying to incorporate.
 

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