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Respect the Metagame

May 12, 2014

An Angry Response to Selfish Players

Last week, I was listening to one of my favorite gaming podcast, The NPC Cast. If you’ve never heard it, you should listen to it. Aaron and Del are really interesting and present diverse viewpoints on gaming and Chris is also a person who is on the show. And even though I’ve ended up disagree with the various NPCs in the past, I still listen to show so that I know what awful, terrible, wrong things they are saying. I kid. I kid. I agree with them upwards of 40% of the time.

So, in Episode 71: Chris’ Don’ts, Chris was listing his five rules, the five things Chris don’t ever do in RPGs. And his first rule was that Chris don’t ever run a game for a group of PCs who have no reason to work together. And, in general, this is a pretty good. Always make sure you understand what brings the PCs together and what motivations, goals, or relationships they have in common before you start running your game. I follow that rule myself. Of course, I word it in a much more positive way. “Always do this…” but that is just one of the reasons why I’m more awesome than everyone, inclduing you.

And so, as I found myself driving along, reluctantly agreeing with NPC Chris and involntarily nodding along, suddenly Aaron said something that made me slam on my brakes, swerve into oncoming traffic, and nearly die. Yes, Aaron said something so wrong that I nearly died and almost caused serious injury to others with a thousand pound pile of metal and plastic propelled by an internal combustion engine. That is pretty much the most wrong you can possibly be. And so, I felt the need to respond.

What Aaron said was that it was his right to create a selfish, mercenary who was only in it for himself such that the other characters have to convince him to go along with every mission. He said that such a character is more compelling than one tied to the group somehow.

Now, I’m going to put aside the idea that “I’m only in it for the money/what’s in it for me” is more compelling than someone with emotional or motivational ties to the other people at the table, even though that is a bats$&% insane thing to say. I’m just going to address the serious flaw in Aaron’s idea that the other characters might periodically need to convince him to come along on their adventures.

What if they don’t?

What if Aaron’s fellow party members can’t put together a persuasive argument? Or what if they simply don’t care to? What if they decide they don’t need Aaron’s skills that much after all? Or what if they are just sick and tired of having to do this all the time? Like that one friend who never wants to do anything that the rest of the group wants to do. What if they don’t?

What is Aaron going to do the night he says “wait, guys, what’s in it for me” and the other players say “nothing… well, bye.” Is Aaron going to go sit in another room and watch TV while the rest of the group plays? Or does he seriously expect the DM to switch back and forth between the adventure and Aaron sitting home along grumbling to himself? Does the rest of the party have the right to exclude Aaron? They should if Aaron has the right to make such demands. Right?

But beyond that possibility, there’s another reason that Aaron’s point is flawed. Imagine yourself in the position of the other players at the table. The adventure is about to start, you and your friends are excited to play, and then Aaron says “hey, wait, what’s in it for me?”

Aaron is now holding the game hostage. Before anyone can play the game they came to play, they have to play his social interaction mini-game: “Convince Me to Join the Party.” Aaron has effectively railroaded the other players into playing his game his way the way he decided it must be done. And if he didn’t discuss this with the players and get their blessing, that’s unfair, selfish behavior. His participation in the game is contingent on everyone else meeting his demands first. That’s exceedingly selfish behavior.

And the truth is, it really is going to turn into a hostage situation and the party probably IS going to play his mini-game and the other players probably won’t just say “f$&% you, Aaron, you sit home alone because we don’t need you that badly.” And the reason is because everyone at that table EXCEPT Aaron understands the metagame, even if they’d never call it that.

The Metagame

Now, if you make it a point to listen to my 140 character shrieking rants on Twitter on anything close to a regular basis, you know that I am firmly opposed to the word metagaming. That’s because morons have ruined that word by using it to mean “there’s no way you would know to use fire, so you just bend over and take a nice hard trolling until I say you’re done!”

But there IS a metagame. And it IS extremely important. And it is actually a GOOD thing. A VITAL thing. A thing worthy of being described in CAPS. And DMs and players who understand the METAGAME are better DMs and players.

The metagame is the structure that allows the game to happen. It is a list of unwritten rules that everyone is expected to follow without ever discussing them in order to facilitate gameplay. For example, in MOST (not all) RPGs, part of the metagame is that the game follows the group and the group will stay together. I don’t mean the group won’t ever split up to tackle different tasks or obstacles at the same time. I mean, in the larger sense, everyone is part of the same team and is working together as a team. Basically, everyone is part of the same story, part of the same game.

Most players and all GOOD DMs understand that assumption is core to most (but not all) RPGs. In fact, they understand it so well, violating the rule is an alien concept to most players. Breaking the rule would be like trying to get your knees to bend backwards. You’d never try it because they just don’t work that way.

Most players, no matter how irrational his demands, would not leave Aaron sitting home alone. And this is not because of character motivations and decsions. This is because the PLAYERS understand this is the same as telling Aaron he doesn’t get to play the game. It isn’t about the story or the characters, it is about the underlying rule that your character has to be a part of the game or you don’t get to play.

And that is how Aaron can so effectively hold the game hostage. Because most players will jump through the hoops, no matter what their characters would do, so that the game can happen the way it is supposed to happen. Which means Aaron has robbed his fellow characters of agency. He has presented his fellow players with a choice they literally cannot make. Even though Aaron can say “I can play my character however my want and everyone else can play theirs however they want,” the truth is they can’t. If they respect the metagame (and most players instinctively do), the only option before them is to play Aaron’s “Show Me the Money” Mini-Game so Aaron gets to play.

And this is why a good DM – like Chris – understands and respects the metagame. A good DM doesn’t want a situation where the only thing keeping the party functioning as a team is the fact that the game requires it. I know a lot of DMs have seen parties held together only by the metagame. I’ve seen them. These are the groups that, realistically, should have disbanded ages ago. They are the groups that can’t make a decision in a reasonable amount of time because their motivations and ideals are so ridiculously different they can’t function. Every decision, however small, gets bogged down in long committee discussions. They are groups that CAN’T break up yet CAN’T work together.

Now, sometimes, that is a compelling story. The party of people trapped together who have to find a way to make things work can be an interesting story. But that only works if they are actually trapped together. That is, if seperating is not an option. Aaron’s “convince me to take this job or do it without me” is not an example of that. Because the party can easily say no. Unless the DM contrives every mission to require a skill or ability only Aaron has. And Aaron making that demand of the DM is no better than Aaron demanding every one of the players play his persuasion mini-game.

There’s an easy way to tell the difference between a compelling narrative about characters forced to work together by circumstances and one player holding the game hostage through misunderstanding or abuse of the metagame. The compelling narrative thing is something all the players and the DM agree to beforehand.

See, when I start a campaign, I talk to my players about what the game will be about and how we’ll make it work. And, like Chris, I spend a lot of time on figuring out what glue holds the party together. With the players. And once we all agree on what that is, every player is bound by that. So if Aaron doesn’t sell his “prove to me this is in my best interests” idea to the whole group, he’s not allowed to bring that character. Because it is NOT his prerogative. Not at my game.

As surely as you can’t bring a space marine or a gnome bard to my D&D game, you can’t bring a character that doesn’t fit the premise of the game. And the premise of my game always includes a reason why the party will work together. I make sure of that. You don’t have total freedom to make whatever character you want because there IS a metagame and it is my job to make sure the metagame is respected so the game can function.

So, Aaron, if you want to play the selfish mercenary who only does what benefits him, go write a fanfic about your awesome character for me to not read. I’m going to hang out here with these other four people who want to play a game together.

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