Today’s guest author, Aaron Renfroe (whose Battle Boards I reviewed last year, is the owner and operator of Custom RPG and has been in the storytelling business for 17 years. He has plans to write a series of articles for Gnome Stew and is currently working on crafting his own setting. Thanks, Aaron! –Martin
Character meta-mechanics are the elephant in the room in most roleplaying games. By character meta-mechanics, I mean those mechanisms that exist to protect and advance characters in ways that interfere with the suspension of disbelief. Most settings are, at least on the surface, internally consistent. Character meta-mechanics, on the other hand, exist to transform stories into games, and are often written in ways that conflict with anything resembling immersion.
Even when the rules are consistent within themselves, the fact that they behave as an interface between our reality and a collaborative game world makes them difficult to implement gracefully. Whereas well-written rules bring a game world to life, these meta-mechanics can shatter immersion (sometimes called breaking verisimilitude). This article is intended to introduce a few methods to help alleviate some of the dissonance introduced by character meta-mechanics. In doing so it will allow players, as well as story-focused Game Masters, to feel that the games they are playing are more immersive than ever before.
The majority of systems and gamers alike simply assume all the rules work. Because of the matter-of-fact way they are implemented, new gamers rarely question the reality of the rules. Experienced gamers, or any who have asked probing questions about the mechanics, have learned the hard way that the rules exist to perform a function. Even in the case of extreme, immersion-breaking mechanics, players learn that they have to utterly suspend disbelief, no matter how incredulous the scenario. Dodging a fireball with an explosive velocity somewhere around 1,800 meters per second? No problem. Sci-fi games get a pass by using the words advanced technology. For Game Masters who want to run a game that is as immersive and story-focused as possible, this hand-waving is a problem.
Consider this: in a setting where the inhabitants are at least as smart as some of the brightest people on earth, how would they not discover the laws that govern how hit points or levels or any other similarly overt mechanic functions? When Bruce goes from being unable to remain conscious from a single punch to surviving multiple gunshot wounds overnight, how does no one notice and ask questions? Unless we’re talking about a superhero game, the answer is pretty obvious: people would. While it is true that most roleplaying games are treated as simulations, in order to achieve a deeper, richer level of storytelling, I propose that we address these questions head on.
If the assume they work approach is off the table, what are our options? Here are a few that I’ve found useful in my gaming groups over the years.
Use Different Rules
The first fairly straightforward way to handle immersion-breaking mechanics is to play a game that makes it easier to suspend disbelief. Vampire the Masquerade and other White Wolf systems, which emphasize story and roleplay, do this decently. While they do not succeed entirely at making the glaring issues with meta-mechanics go away, their emphasis on storytelling and immersion makes it simpler for Game Masters (or Story Tellers, if you prefer) to smooth any dissonance between rules and story. If your group likes the ideas behind those systems, but not the settings or other mechanics themselves, retrofitting similar rules into your game is possible —- if chunky.
Inject Story into the Meta
Assuming we’re not willing to inject a lot of new rules into an existing setting or jump game systems, we’re left with manipulating the story. The first of two solutions in that vein is the inject story into the Meta approach.
In this method the Game Master expands on how things work by injecting story. For example: when a character goes from level 1 to level 2, the Game Master describes how hit points (or anything else that jumps by leaps and bounds) changes in meaning for that character. In this fairly traditional approach, concrete mechanics are tied to an abstract idea. Players are told that their characters are tougher, more experienced, and are therefore able to survive ever-increasing punishment. Likewise, the Game Master may describe how characters gain a sixth sense that allows them to prematurely react to events that human (or humanoid) reflexes have no business responding to.
This method works because it emphasizes how special player characters are while grounding them in a type of logic. Provided the whole game world is consistent with this approach, it can shift most of the weight of imagination from the Game Master to the players. Once they begin imagining their characters as so highly-trained (or experienced, or whatever), that they can overcome the mundane laws of physics, there is relatively little need to explain away meta-mechanics with the story injection method.
For most Game Masters who want to at least acknowledge the way character meta-mechanics impact story, I would argue that this approach is the most effective. With relatively little effort you can address how your NPCs handle the ever-expanding capabilities of the characters without constantly dealing with the fact that they are becoming, by one definition or another, superheroes. Given that the level of immersion each player enjoys is different, this method also allows you to customize story to suit those players, while hand waving it for the rest.
Inject Meta into the Story
The final, and arguably most difficult, approach is to inject Meta into the story. In this method the Game Master alters the setting of the game in such a way that the meta-mechanics are as much part of the story as the invisible rules mentioned at the start. In a sci-fi setting, characters don’t gain levels; instead, whenever they would earn a level, they must receive a special drug that elevates them to a new tier of ability. If you’re running a fantasy setting, adventurers may literally be a different breed of person. Perhaps they are the equivalent of mutants, capable of acclimating to damage and challenges in ways other beings cannot. By introducing a story element that ties directly into the Meta, the Game Master is essentially subverting the game to make the story paramount. Be cautious when implementing this method, however.
When meta-mechanics are tethered to the story, the “crunch” (rules) may take second seat to the “fluff” (anything not codified as a rule). This can ruffle feathers, particularly if your group is tactical when it comes to character creation. For example: if you introduce the idea that characters must undergo some procedure before they are allowed to grow in power, what happens if the group is in the middle of an adventure and the procedure you introduce is not available? Typically, games allow players to adjust their characters whenever there is down time. By tying a story constraint (the procedure) to the mechanical act of gaining power, you enforce a different type of play that isn’t in the rules.
One obvious solution is to make the story element unobtrusive. In the above example, perhaps the procedure requires only an injection of a cheap chemical whenever the character’s body is “receptive” for further enhancement. For a fantasy setting, you might describe the process of gaining a level as a spiritual one —- maybe the adventurers are tied to some divine power that changes their flesh and minds —- and require only a short meditation to transition from one level to another.
By minimizing the requirements for character advancement, however, there is a risk of providing little more than lip-service to the meta-mechanics you are injecting. If that works for you and your group and helps maintain immersion, great. If not, you should consider introducing a caveat to the rules that introduces the new standards clearly, allowing your players an opportunity to adjust their play style accordingly.
Regardless of which approach you take, you should always consider the impact of your decisions on your game and the players at your table. If you are thinking of injecting requirements that change the way a game system is written, I would suggest discussing the pros and cons with your players and using their feedback to help guide your ultimate choice.
An Inspirational Aside
This article was inspired by a question one of my players asked me years ago. It was during an infiltration campaign in a fantasy setting. His character had successfully sneaked upon a cluster of sleeping guardsmen during a critical turning point in the story. With a good dice roll, he’d be able to either move past the threats or, if he was willing to risk his life for a little more reward, he could attempt to dispatch the guards. Like most ambitious new players, he chose the latter approach. When his character got to the first unconscious target, I told him to roll and see if he hit. The player was incredulous.
What, you mean I can’t walk over to the unconscious guard, put a shovel on his throat and stand on the shovel and instantly kill him? I have to roll?
Everyone at the table shook their heads and laughed knowingly. We’d all had similar thoughts in the past, but like any well-broken in players, we knew better than to ask. His question stuck with me all along though, reminding me of my own doubts and questions from when I started playing tabletop games.
Now, older and wiser, I definitely know better than to ask hard questions. But I have the experience and wherewithal to take those questions to their logical conclusion.