Respect the Metagame

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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.

29 thoughts on “Respect the Metagame

  1. I’ve been playing a video game that subverts this. A “what’s in it for me” mercenary keeps coming up with stupid reasons to stick with the party. “They over played me, it wouldn’t be right to leave now.” “I’m headed that way anyways.”
    Which brings up that it’s the players job to make sure the character fits. If he’s a jerk-face loner, it’s up to the player to play him in a manner that makes him a part of the group. Otherwise the player, not the character, becomes the jerk-face loner.

  2. Well, I don’t want too many people to overstate this “it is the player’s job” thing. It is not JUST the player’s job. You can say it is the player’s job until you are blue in the face, but if the player doesn’t do their job, it is the DM’s job to correct the situation with the player. That is why Aaron’s character would never get past the approval stage at my table. I’d stop him. That’s my job.

    Ultimately, nothing is the players’ job. Players SHOULD be aware of things and they SHOULD do certain things, but you will eventually run into the player who doesn’t. And then, it is the DM’s job to fix the situation. Practically speaking, everything is the DM’s job.

  3. One of the PCs in an Edge of the Empire game I’m in was doing this. He didn’t want to leave the ship/mechanics bay and explore the planets unless he was more or less forced. So we just left him on the ship. We got into firefights and adventures and made contacts and found loot. He stayed on the ship. He eventually asked about being included and someone in the group told him “well, we were trying to include you but you kept making it seem like a hassle and that you wanted to stay in the ship. No one is saying you can’t come with us, but we’re not going to ask you every time and it’s not the GMs job to make stuff happen on the ship everytime you want to split the party.”

    Said character now leaves the ship quite regularly and while the character can still be an ass, at least he is involved in things again.

  4. There’s no point in playing if you’re just going to say “What’s in it for me?”. Everyone is around the table to enjoy the adventure, not come out on top, so to speak. There shouldn’t need to be any talk of what’s in it for me, other than discussing any reward for your “quests” from your “quest giver”. Anything aside from that is entirely selfish.
    And if you’re going to be that a**hole who says there aren’t enough incentives to play that adventure, then by all means, they should be given the option to just not play. That’s their choice. Nobody is forcing you to play. Yeah it’ll probably screw up the group, but if you’re going to be that d*ck, please, don’t play.

  5. This is a great article! I had a friend who would regularly do this, and your absolutely right – it’s simply holding the game hostage. It’s not character development; it’s being a jerk for your own selfish purposes. I have a new campaign starting soon, and a player who sometimes falls into this problem, and I think I now have the language and understanding I need to help make the group successful. Thanks!

  6. This. This is why it is difficult for me to fathom a Chaotic Neutral character. Not because, if played correctly, such a character can provide interesting narrative and all that. But because the players I have tabled with tend to play this type of alignment so they can be the mercenary type.

    I have a player in my current game who is running a CN PC. Well, it says that on his sheet. But he doesn’t play as a mercenary. He doesn’t even play the PC as a “Jerk with a heart of gold.”. Myriad (the name of the character) is perhaps one of the best team players in the party. And I think it is because his player gets the metagame.

    Thanks for sharing this. Good stuff.

  7. “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.”

    I’m interested in reading some further elaboration on this.

    (Also, unrelatedly, your Non-RPG Sites bottom-of-page links are slightly out of date inasmuch as the Extra Credits dudes left the Escapist and are now strictly YouTube.)

  8. I’m currently DM’ing a campaign that has had some similar issues with PC interaction.

    I have a PC who has been running off to do his characters vengeance one too many times, leaving the rest of the party frustrated. He wasn’t considering what his role playing was doing to the rest of the party.

    This particular player is a bit of a challenge to confront in the metagame, so I tried solving it in game with a dream his character had about his vengeance gone wrong, dead innocents, etc.

    The next session his character was so deeply concerned with the dream/vision he had, that he took a step back from his normal routine to re-evaluate his actions, having realized that they were doing more harm than good.

    Had I tried to metagame with him, he probably would have just sulked about it and been passive aggressive about it.

    I feel like as DM’s, we are part Dungeon Master, part fickle Deity, part psychologist.

    By the way, I love your site. Reading your articles really kickstarted my motivation to create a better game for my players.

    Thank you.

  9. I think one of the reasons why I’m so sympathetic to Aaron’s character is that I play fast and loose with new characters. Angry DM is very particular about which characters he lets in the adventure, why? Because he’s assuming they’re going to at least attempt to last until the end of the adventure. I don’t know Angry DM very well, but I’ve read enough of his work to know he doesn’t expect any of the PCs to live.

    So for me, if Aaron’s character doesn’t play well with others, we get a five-minute vignette about how he has to be convinced to join the group (hardly railroading), and then a resolution: either he joins or he doesn’t. If not, roll up a new character (or in my campaigns, grab another pre-rolled character). If he joins reluctantly, that’s okay too, because maybe this means someone refuses to rescue him in a key moment, or maybe he betrays someone else, and that too, is grist for the mill, as characters pop in and out of play.

    • Clearly, you do not know me at all. Frankly, until you sit down at my table, you have no idea how I run the game.

      I AM particular about what characters I allow into the game. Not because I want all the characters to be able to survive my grist mill, but because I want my campaign to last and I want all of the players to have a chance to enjoy the game. Death is easy to deal with. Group collapse is a pain in the ass.

      As I’ve always said: you don’t need my permission to run your game any way you want. But me, I don’t like this level of selfishness. A player can choose to play a character any way they want, they have that freedom. When they create a character they KNOW will be an obstacle to the group and the premise of the game, they are saying their own desires are more important to them than working together with the group to let everyone have a good time. The player who is willing to suck five to ten minutes out of the beginning of every adventure, then possibly have to reroll a character and suck more time out of it, just because that story is more compelling to him? That player is selfish. That player is a dick.

      Selfish dickery has no place in team sports like D&D.

      • I don’t see the case as selfishness. I see it as a player making an attempt at coming up with an interesting character. It’s their way of contributing to the game experience.

        And is it so wrong to create a character that includes some obstacles to the group? Isn’t overcoming obstacles what we play the game for?

        And even if it is selfish, is that so wrong? Is it wrong to ever desire the spotlight?

        Too often I think groups suffer from the opposite problem from the reluctant joiner. Rather, the group has little idea why they’re together at all. Having that reluctant character is valuable because it opens up the conversation of “what are we doing anyways?” and it can reveal reservations in other characters. Now hopefully this doesn’t mean that the whole group decides to sit in the tavern instead of going on the adventure, but if the DM has done his job, the hook should be strong enough to ultimately convince the group to go.

        Now, I think you might have a point if this was consistent behaviour. If you had a player that only ever rolled characters who didn’t play well with the group. Or even if the player keeps the same character, but makes them drag him or her along on every adventure.

        But I think in a normal D&D session, natural group dynamics should kick in surprisingly quickly, and there will be almost unconscious character development of that reluctant PC, and pretty soon they find themselves attached to the rest of the party simply because they’ve fought beside them a couple of times. Or else they have to make a willful effort to remain aloof and uncaring, which is an alien state for a person to be in, which makes that an interesting story in turn.

        • I think your case is badly aimed. Not that the idea is impossible, but it pretty much presuppose that your “reluctant character” is played by someone who already understand the metagame pretty well. The problem is not with character who are reluctant mercenary dicks, but when players choose to play like this without even an understanding of what harm they could be doing if they don’t actually help making it work.

          I can see a PC helping the group in integrating his reluctant PC ahead of time or by playing him well and giving clues and hook to grab him… but the point of the rant was to criticize selfish players that don’t give a damn or a thought about those metagame issues and just force everyone to give offerings and oblige him or bog everything down.

        • I don’t see the character as interesting, just obnoxious. They are pretty much the same as the paladin/knight with utterly inflexible self-guidelines or the thief who steals from his own party. There’s a word for a character completely motivated by vice or other selfish interests: villain! Why would I want a character on my team if I know that his only reason for being there is money? What if the villain has deeper pockets than I do? Will Sgt. Greedyguts switch sides for a fat sack of gold, or shank me in the back for a bigger share of treasure? What stops him from upping his price any time we really need his help? It makes me think of a cleric who charges gold for his healing spells; that is a party member I don’t need. If we constantly have to hoodwink the paladin to get something done because his honor demands he punish us for anything even remotely shady, that’s a headache I don’t need.

          I’d rather have an ally who’s half as good at that job but twice as fun everywhere else. Of course some character traits can be fun obstacles for the party. But ones that engender serious trust issues or steal the fun for the party and pile it up for just one person, those are wrong. Desiring the spotlight is different from holding it hostage. For my money, the best way to get the spotlight is to be awesome! Have a character that creates fun for the other players as well as yourself.

          A selfish streak might be a good jumping off point for character development: “I used to be all about the money until that day in Gorgon Gulch…” or “My whole mercenary company turned rogue for a trunk of gold, but I found I couldn’t break my contract. A man’s only as good as his word.” To me, that’s development that should have already happened before leaving the tavern. Ideally, these issues should be handled in the character development stage when everyone is working out his or her back-story and connections to the other characters or building a theme to tie themselves to the game world. It might be more of an issue for someone joining in later, but the discussion should be repeated to build at least some party solidarity.

        • But, ultimately, there are equally interesting characters that do not present obstacles to the group. And presenting obstacles to the fun of the players is a bad attitude, by it is nature. It is one thing if you want to make things difficult for the characters, but when you’re blocking access to the game until the other players do what you want – whatever that may be – that is the very definition of selfish behavior. While it may be an interesting character, it isn’t the ONLY interesting character. And interesting should never be the only criteria for a character. The character should be interesting AND fit the game AND fit the group. If you can’t do all three of those things, you’re making your character wrong. And I will stop you at my table.

  10. First of all, great article. In fact, I’m liking all of your stuff I’ve read so far; Thumbs up.

    Next, with regard to this little ‘debate’ the answer is simple: If you have an “interesting” character who comes with “obstacles” then you…discuss and get clearance from the rest of the group. “Hey, guys, I have this great idea for X, but you’re going to have to motivate him a little bit by Z, but once that’s done, he’ll stick like glue even if he complains. Does that work for you folks?”

    Communication is the easy way to beat a lot of stupid arguments like this one.

  11. I’m with the Angry DM on this. If people are coming together to play as a group, then “GROUP” is the operative word… Sure, it can be cool to have PCs with quirks, eccentricities and even outright peccadilloes, but if it’s harming the group dynamic, then it’s gotta be stopped.

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  13. I don’t mind a bit of player conflict but I make it clear to everyone that PCs are no different than NPCs and can simply be dropped from the group, no hard feelings. If you roll up a character that no one in this game likes, or if something causes your character to become a jerk, the others are free to vote you out of the adventure. It’s not personal, it’s about role-playing. You’re free to save that character for later in another game somewhere else but it won’t work with this group.

    If I, as DM, were to create an NPC that wishes to travel with the group (even for a short time), they would have no qualms about just moving on without the NPC if he’s a jerk. Same should go for PCs.

    Tell them ahead of time that no new player will be rolled during a game unless the entire group is willing to take the time for it and the player whose character has been rejected, kicked out, voted off the island, whatever, can sit around and watch until next session or until I can find an easy way to introduce a new character to the group whichever comes last.

    Also, it’s pretty easy for another PC to say something like, “I refuse to work with anyone who is that selfish. Either Nork the Egotistic Barbarian leaves, or I do.”

    There is also a possibility (though definitely not encouraged) that the character could find it rather difficult to get up one morning because there’s a large spear stuck through his heart and he’s dead. If you can simply kill a monster of whatever level that’s asleep, why not a PC? As I said, not encouraged but, realistic? Possibly.

  14. This is always a sticky situation to handle. One if you don’t allow players the freedom to play the characters they want (with the associated consequences of course) you risk loosing a player (unless its a gnome bard those need to die in a fire).

    On the other hand by allowing a player to play a character like this you risk loosing all the other players.

    With a player like this I would take them off to the side and work out a way where he can still play the character like a dick (like he obviously wants) in a way that will provide enjoyment to the rest of the group while still letting him play his character (mostly) the way he wants to.

    I think to many players and DM’s don’t take enough time to really listen to each other during character concept and generation to create characters that can cause conflict in the group while at the same time maintaining the enjoyment of the game for everybody.

    I know that in the example that Angry is posting about I would discuss with the player the options of being able to play a greedy bastard like he wants like this.

    You know instead of making the party come up with the reasons rather lets play that out by always trying to get more money or any money out of those you are “helping” aka that poor farmer who’s daughter was kidnapped by the evil cattle baron you are going to try and get him to give you his life savings, the family cow, hay to feed the family cow, his plow, and his sheep’s virtue to go rescue her. The rest of the party might do it for free but damn it you are going to try and get paid for the job one way or another. I would also encourage the player to come up with a reason why he is a greedy bastard. Maybe he gives all the money he can to an orphanage or he is trying to save up to pay remove a curse from one of his family members, I usually encourage a situation or reason that can be resolved in game even if not right away.

    This sets up one some interesting encounters not just in the game but also with the party in general as they can get involved to either aid or hinder the mercenary tendencies. Some groups will even play this to full effect by doing the bad cop good cop cliché with the mercenary being the bad cop of course.

    Guess my point is rather than just saying no to a character concept work the player and the group to try and find a way to make it work while still preserving the fun of everybody at the table.

  15. I’ve seen so many campaigns ruined by the selfish lone-wolf character, which is actually to say the selfish lone-wolf-wannabe player. It’s even fascinating how many players will act like that when they are in a thrown-together-and-desperate-to-stay-alive situation. Some will still sacrifice the good will of the party to steal a couple coins that clearly aren’t even important in the plot-line anyway. Over the years, I’ve slowly come to realize there is no point in addressing the in-game reasons players present for such behavior. A player who does that is a player who wants hold the game hostage (I like your take on that above). If a player does that, the pay-off IS in the metagame, and in my experience they will keep doing it in every campaign you invite them to. …Ultimately, the solution is obvious.

  16. That’s the distinction right there Nor, there is a big, big difference between a selfish lone-wolf character played by a good player and a selfish lone-wolf character played by a selfish lone-wolf player.

    A good player playing the selfish lone-wolf character is going to work with the DM and the other players to make that character enjoyable not just for him or her as a player but for everybody else as well. A great DM will facilitate this discussion and work with their players as well.

    A selfish lone-wolf player on the other hand will only care about their own enjoyment.

  17. I was a victim of a kind of inverted example of this a while back.

    My character had come from an alternate future where the party (without him) had become famous, and due to different things happening in this timeline, he wanted to make sure this party got together to stop the Big Bads. When it looked like one of the other members was going to leave town, my character tried to stop him and ended up telling him his backstory. The player decided his character didn’t believe this, and by the time the group ended up getting together without intervention (both the DM and the player conveniently neglected to give me any indication that he was coming right back), he managed to convince every other character that I wasn’t to be trusted. I was only able to maintain any contact with the group by using my prodigious stealth abilities to keep up with them without the characters knowing, and even when I was finally welcomed into the group, the term “welcomed” is kind of a stretch for how the relationship went.

    Oh, and then the group had the gall to be upset that I was sneaking around furthering the plot with the DM behind their backs (incidentally, what is your view on players having secrets from other players?), after they let it be known I wasn’t welcome actually being part of the group.

    Yeah, sure, maybe there were better ways for me to try to get the group together in character. But using that as an excuse to forcefully exclude someone form the group? I think that’s pretty much inexcusable, an egregious lack of respect for the metagame.

  18. Funny thing is, I’m in a group right now made of characters who don’t get along. No one hates anyone else in the party, but every character does their own thing. No one gives orders, and no one would follow them if someone did. But every last fight. Every last skill challenge, Every last action is either pushing the party, as a whole, where they want to be, or picking someone’s pockets. I guess that’s the meta game at work, but the part that amazes me is every action, viewed in a vacuum, is made in character, to serve only that character’s interests. I honestly don’t know how we do it.

  19. There are many ways to play difficult and alignment that don’t have to derail the game. My favorite is the Chaotic Neutral who sees the rest of the party as a means to an end. He can still be selfish, but at the end of the day, he is more likely to succeed in his future scheming protected by a larger group. A good player can poke at the other players a bit, “Does this bug you? I’m not touching you… Does this bug you?” and read when he’s reached the groups threshold to know when to back off. You can be a little selfish and be a part of the group.

    That said, there is no use for someone who sucks up everyone’s time with masturbatory silliness.

  20. I don’t think a selfish loner character is inherently bad. It’s actually pretty cool – as long as you can make it work. And making it work means realising that despite being selfish and a loner, that character is going to HAVE to work with the other characters and not be constantly trying to betray them or demanding their selfish motivations be met. So that probably means building something into the story like that they have their own (selfish) reason to want to kill the baddie/go to the place/rescue the dude or whatever. If it’s a long-term thing then at some point they will probably have to bond with the party in some way and become more trustworthy or it’s going to get silly and tiresome always building in seperate justifications for their presence.

    But yeah, I agree with Angry. The important thing is that group cohesion trumps individual character concepts, because group cohesion is part of the game’s format. I think maybe some players get confused about this (fail to understand the metagame, in Angry’s terms) because tabletop RPGs offer so much freedom compared to videogames that they assume that means they have TOTAL freedom, and they really don’t.

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