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.

About  Guest Author

The article you just read was written by a Gnome Stew reader. We can’t say which one in this bio, since the bio appears with all guest articles, but whoever they are we can all agree that they possess supernatural beauty and magical powers, and are generally awesome. Gnome Stew readers rock!

5 Responses to Character Meta-Mechanics and Immersion

  1. This article seems super weird to me. It’s like… all the questions that “everyone” asks and then resolves, one way or another, in their first year or two of gaming, presented as if they are some sort of deep existential quandary. (Really? We haven’t got past ‘what do hitpoints mean’ yet?) It’s like I’ve been magically transported back to the 1990s.

    Your game system doesn’t have some sort of ruling for dealing with completely helpless targets? What is this? AD&D 2E? And you haven’t got to the point where you’re willing to just handwave this sort of thing? Vampire and White Wolf mitigate these issues by “focusing on roleplaying”? Really? So all it takes is the rulebook saying “The story is more important” and all these rules issues magically evaporate? Because that’s pretty much all the WW games did. They were just as weird and crunchy as anything else during that time period, but they kept telling you “It’s all about the story, even though the rules don’t support that!” like it was some sort of magic mantra… and the author seems to believe this works?

    I dunno. Maybe I just don’t play games that have these issues anymore. I think people who have these issues with, say, D&D (since that basically seems to be what the article is about) maybe…should find a more modern game that doesn’t have these problems? If you’re really looking for a world simulation, D&D isn’t it. Never has been. Older editions might’ve been closer, but not much.

    So yeah. I dunno. Readers. Are these sorts of issues actually still problems in your games? What games do you play?

  2. Hit points are really the only place this is necessary, and there have been plenty of rationalizations of that over the years. If it really bothers you, there are plenty of games that just have a toughness attribute or something similar that makes characters grow in that area the same way they grow in other attributes. Basically, if you play anything from the last decade or so other than D&D/Pathfinder it’s already a moot point.

    As for the “killing blow”, that’s GM fiat. Just say “OK, he’s dead”. Combat rules are made for being used in combat – a killing blow should require a roll if the unconscious guy’s friends are trying to stop you. If you require a roll for every little thing just because there is a rule for it (especially when the rules don’t even apply to the current situation) then you are a poor GM.

  3. I did like this post. The problems the author cites, though, do tend to show up more in games with levels (like D&D / Pathfinder), where a character suddenly gains a whole range of new abilities, than they do in games like World of Darkness, where experience tends to be spent to slowly boost powers. I remember that AD&D had a rule whereby characters were expected to spend time training to go up levels — but no one I ever played with ever required training. You just leveled up.

    In regards to the crunchiness and sometimes brokenness of Vampire: the Masquerade that Airk mentions, that was definitely there. From a pure rules standpoint, some of the rules didn’t make a lot of mechanical sense, I agree. I do have to say, though, that as a relatively novice GM (18 years old, only ever played D&D before), I found the book repeatedly emphasizing the idea that story was the most important thing to be a real eye-opener. Look at some of the old setting books for D&D / AD&D — there is hardly a mention of story in any of them. (The original Dragonlance setting book was terrible for this. I went back to it recently and was actually shocked to not find a chapter on storytelling in Krynn; I have been conditioned to expect that sort of thing by more modern game sensibilities, definitely popularized by V:TM.) What White Wolf did for the hobby was to shine a spotlight on the need to pay attention to story and literary conventions in a way that TSR tended to ignore.

    But that’s a digression. In the end, whatever system you play, there are some things that are just going to draw attention to the fact that we’re playing a game with rules and pieces. Kudos to Aaron for offering a few ideas to smooth over those sharp edges.

  4. As Airk said, this is issue crops up mostly in D&D-derived systems, and my advice would also be pretty much “Well, change systems, it’ll do you good in so many ways.” But I must admit that, having read this article, I’m tickled by the idea of, say, a Pathfinder campaign in which leveling up is an Action of immediate tactical significance. For instance, you could introduce a rule that the Level Up Full Action unleashes a spell of the player’s choice with the character as the target (and immune to any negative effects), but are rendered Staggered for a round by the cosmic forces that are imbuing their body and soul with abilities NPC classes can only dream of.

    On a related note, over the years I’ve toyed with the idea of what I’ve come to call “Terry Pratchett D&D” in which the setting is defined strictly by the system read very literally. In this world it would be common knowledge that anyone proficient in heavy armour is very bad at Spotting things (3.0 ed), or that the fastest way of learning languages is to kill things (AD&D 2e). This works well in webcomics, so why not at the gaming table? 😉

  5. This article is essentially saying there are three methods to deal with this “problem” – I’ll call them “Bypass” (Use Different Rules), “Explain” (Inject Story Into Meta), and “Evolve” (Inject Meta Into Story).

    The problem is that the article is missing the fourth option – Ignore. These are game rules, accept that and move on. The only time any of the other three methods are necessary is if you’re trying to use the rules as a physics engine. Of course, I tend to approach RPGs as “story engines” or “setting engines” as opposed to physics engines, so YMMV.

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