Through a Glass Darkly: IC, OOC, and the Myth of Player/Character Seperation

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Starting a new campaign with a new group of players is always a pain in the a$&. The problem isn’t that players are a pain in the a$&. I mean, they are. Some are. Many are. But it isn’t always the fault of the players that they are pains in the a$&es. Some are just genetically predisposed toward being dumb. You can’t blame someone for that. Some are jerks as a result of environmental factors. And I guess you can’t blame people for that either. It doesn’t matter. I can deal with dumbos and jerks easily enough. I kick them the f$&% out of the group. Why? Because just because someone’s personal defects aren’t their fault doesn’t mean they have a right to punish ME with them.

The real problem with new players is lots of them don’t know how to play. And I don’t mean they don’t know the rules. I don’t care if players know the rules. I know the rules that are important and, besides, I AM the rules. I mean they don’t know how to actually BE a player in a role-playing game. They can’t declare actions properly. They focus on the wrong things. They ask for die rolls they shouldn’t be asking for. And they are afraid to use their goddamned brains because some a$&hole GM somewhere convinced them that knowing anything without permission was an unspeakable sin called “metagaming.” And if I could ban just one word from all of gaming, it would be that word. More GMs have ruined my f$&%ing games by training their idiot players to fear the dreaded accusation of “metagaming” than I could choke to death in my entire life. And I would. Holy mother of f$&%.

When it comes down to problem players, most problem players have been created by s$&% GMs teaching them stupid things. So, whenever I start a new campaign with a new group of players, there’s always this adjustment period where I have to waste my f$&%ing time UNTEACHING the players s$&% lessons. Whee. Thanks for that every other f$&%ing GM in the entire world? Because, let’s face it, if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong.

This article is a rarity. I don’t do player advice. There’s a lot of reasons why I don’t and, no, none of those reasons are “because I wouldn’t be good at it.” I’d f$&%ing rock at giving player advice. But this article is player advice. Well, no it isn’t. It’s gamer advice. It’s advice for GMs AND players of role-playing games. It’s advice that deals with a host of issues from “good role-playing” to the barrier between “in character” and “out of character” and how to handle intercharacter communication and social interactions and all sorts of other crap. It will also even hit on some rules hacking issues. Believe it or not. It’s a philosophy I’ve hinted at in the past. And I think it’s a really good, useful, reasonable, rational philosophy that makes running and playing game a lot easier for everyone. As such, I expect a lot of people will be pissed off and tell me why it’s bad, wrong, terrible, awful advice.

Not that I care, though. I’m only writing this so the next time I have to deal with this crap with some new player, I can just send them away from the table and not let them back until they’ve read this article.

Incidentally, if you’re here because I sent you away from the table to read this, THERE WILL BE A QUIZ. And I will kill your character for anything less than a 98%. So pay f$&%ing attention.

The Mythical Line Between Player and Character

Lots of people make a lot out of the separation between player and character. And they have for years. Even the f$&%ing rulebooks themselves have seen fit to devote page space to making it clear that the players are not the characters. The player – they say – is not the character. Don’t confuse the two.

In the old days, this warning amount to nothing more than saying “just because Alice’s character is a dick to Bob’s character, that doesn’t mean Bob should personally take it out on Alice.” Basically, it was sort of an “a$&hole player protectionism.” It protected the sorts of morons who hid behind statements like “I’m just role-playing my character” or “I’m just playing my alignment” or “sorry, but my character would totally stab you and take your stuff, but WE’RE still friends.” But no one really ever bought that anyway. After all, Alice CHOSE to create a complete a$&hat of a character in a team-based game wherein four other people also wanted to, you know, have a good time. So, no, Alice doesn’t get off the hook because Alyss the Rogue is somehow separate from her.

What’s really funny though is that only RPGs and role-playing gamers feel the need to draw clear lines between player and character. I’ve never played a board game that devoted a section of the rule-book to the idea that just because my MEEPLE is playing to win, that doesn’t mean I’m a backstabbing a$&hat. Betrayal in the House on the Hill doesn’t have to point out that your friend really ISN’T a monstrous traitor. I’ve never had a video game tutorial start off with “now, listen, you with the controller, you’re not the character. Okay? And other people aren’t their characters. Okay? Just remember that if some online punk griefs you, steals your kill, pwns you, and then does a little emote that looks like they are sticking your genitals in your face.

The problem is, though, that the line between player and character doesn’t just stop at protecting a$&holes. If it did, if it only when that far, I would be cool with it. But the problem is what ELSE it gets involved with. I mean, of course, there’s metagaming. Metagaming, the act of using your own, personal brain to influence the choices of your character because you happen to have useful information. And I’m not talking about secrets that other characters have chosen not to share. That’s a whole other problem and a whole other article. I’m talking about everything from remembering the vulnerabilities of certain monsters from previous experiences or knowing which god is which without making a knowledge or deducing that a creature made entirely of bones is not going to be bothered by weapons that PIERCE AND CUT FLESH because you’ve never fought a skeleton before.

But, look, metagaming is just a tinier part of a bigger issue. That’s the issue of PLAYER SKILL vs. CHARACTER SKILL. And how much time have we wasted fighting about THAT s$&%. I remember the old days when Dungeon Magazine used to put out their writer’s guidelines and always included a long section about creating challenges for the characters, not the players. Don’t make the PLAYERS solve puzzles. That’s terrible. Make puzzles for the CHARACTERS to solve. Yeah?! How!? Other than simply making puzzles solvable by a die roll. Hey, guess what? The sort of players who like dealing with puzzles actually want to solve them themselves. And the rest aren’t going to be won over by an activity that is basically “roll die to get answer.” There is NOTHING engaging about that kind of in-game scenario. That is basically “roll a saving throw to not fail the puzzle.” Hoody f$&%ing hoo. Fun.

Beyond that, though, there’s also the sharing of information. What a fight that is. Holy crap. Carol makes a knowledge check to identify the Acidfire Ooze and the GM gives her a spiel about cold damage and using baking soda to neutralize the thing and then suddenly the whole damned party is breaking out the Arm and Hammer and Frost Weapon Oil and, I don’t know, throwing ice cubes or something. And then, suddenly, the GM is flipping out because Carol didn’t SHARE that information yet, did she? ARE YOU ALL TELEPATHIC?! NO! STOP WINNING THE GAME!!!

Meanwhile, getting away from all that crap about character knowledge vs. player knowledge and gotchas and stuff, we have the other side of the whole argument. The players arguing about communication. How many GMs have had to deal with this crap where a player mouths off about an NPC who is RIGHT F$&%ING THERE and then the NPC reacts and the player flips out because “that wasn’t IN CHARACTER!”

Or, or, or… what about the six goddamned hours of strategic discussion before every action in combat. What about how everyone’s turn in combat seems to be a f$&%ing group effort unless you stamp that crap out. Oh my f$&%ing god, how many GMs have whined to me for a solution to THAT problem. “What do I do!?” On the one hand, yes, it sucks to preface every action with a goddamned five-minute discussion of chess strategy. On the other hand, I’ve seen GMs freak out because ANY discussion between the players is bad during combat because they aren’t telepaths. As if you need to be a telepath to yell things to each other in a fight.

And… and…

Even that isn’t all. Yes, I know I’m raving and you’re having trouble seeing the connection between all of this stuff. Back off for a second, I’m getting all of this out of my system. It IS all related. I promise.

Where was I?

And? AND?! Then there’s the crap about speaking in the first person vs. speaking in the third person. You know: do you speak in your character’s voice or do you describe your character’s actions. Is it “guys, we need to run, we’re going to die” or “Rothgar says the party should run. He says they are all going to die.” And then there’s the goddamned telepathic character issue where Ali… Bo… who am I up to? I did Carol. Dan. I’m up to Dan.

There’s the goddamned telepathic character issue where Dan feels the need to explain his f$&%ing internal monologue with every decision. Yes, that’s actually a fight. I mean, I hate that crap myself. Because it’s really crappy acting and role-playing. In the words of the robot Devil from Futurama, “you can’t just SAY how your characters feel.” And he’s right. In a good story, we hear the character’s SPOKEN WORDS and see the character’s ACTIONS and have to figure out the motivations and feelings. But did you know some people think I’m terrible for trying to curb that kind of crap.

But worse, worse is the argument between the players that comes from that crap. Elaine says, “my character doesn’t think she can help Fred’s character, so she’ll just keep fighting instead.” And then later, Fred’s character is mad at Elaine’s character. And Elaine is mad at Fred because SHE explained her thought process and Fred’s character shouldn’t hold Elaine’s character responsible because Fred understands Elaine’s choice by Fred insists that his character didn’t know what Elaine was thinking and he can only react to her actions.

Hell, I recently had a player try to explain to me their motivations behind a choice because an NPC was made at a choice the character made. “Yes, I know YOU made the choice. But the NPC is responding to the choice. She doesn’t agree with your choice. Personally, I don’t give a f$&%. I’m playing the NPC.”


Okay… okay… I got it all out of my system.

I didn’t realize I was holding that much s$&% in.

Now, here’s the deal: all of the stuff I said above is utter horses$&%. It isn’t fun or engaging. There is nothing FUN about stopping the game to argue about what the characters know or what they can say or who knows what or why your character should be forgiven for some action or whatever. Nothing. That isn’t fun. Because it’s all about the PLAYERS fighting. Or the PLAYERS arguing with ME! I mean, arguing with the GM! And that crap – which RUINS FUN – doesn’t come up in board games or video games, even the cooperative multiplayer ones or the ones with traitor mechanics. And you know why?

Because other media doesn’t try to build an IMAGINARY NONEXISTENT WALL between players and characters.

It’s a myth. It is a f$&%ing myth that the players and the characters are separate. Or even that they can be separated. And even if they could be, it doesn’t make anything more fun. It usually makes things less fun, more complicated, more stressful, and more argumentery.

And don’t even bring realism into it. Because those who sacrifice the FUN of a GAME for REALISM deserve NEITHER.

So many GMs and players have given themselves ulcers and wrecked their games trying to maintain the wall between player brain and character brain. At best it creates confusion. At best, you constantly hear the words “is she saying that IN CHARACTER” or “are you going to tell everyone that information” or whatever. At worst, you spend half your game arguing about what bits of information the players can and can’t act on. Wheeeeee!

You Can’t Compartmentalize

Let’s get one thing straight: no matter how great a f$&%ing role-player you think you are, YOU are always a part of the equation. You’re not BEING a character. You’re attempting to make choices for a character based on your understanding of their motivations and the world and the consequences. Everything you choose for your character is warped through the lens of your own perception, your own understanding, your own experiences, your own biases. And, a lot of the time, you’re guessing. You’re guessing what it would be like to be this completely different person in completely different circumstances in a world that doesn’t exist. Two players playing identical characters in identical situations will still arrive at different choices because their choices are skewed through the lens of their own perceptions and experiences. Even actors – who don’t have to make decisions for their characters because some screenwriter already made the decisions – even actors bring something of themselves to every role they play.

It is impossible for you to ignore your own brain. Moreover, it is impossible for you to ignore information that exists in your head. That’s why the metagaming fights are so stupid. And I’ve already explained that s&%$ in detail. Don’t open that fight up again if you disagree. You’re wrong.

But, here’s the weird thing: it’s kind of crazy to expect people to remove themselves from the equation anyway. You are playing the game because some part of you wants to play the game. Some part of you wants to be in the story. You want to make the decisions. You don’t actually want to just find out how some person who isn’t you would handle things. You want the agency over the decisions. If you didn’t, you’d just read books or watch movies. Or you’d just boil every adventure down to a series of die rolls with no decisions. And, of course, the game and the story have to satisfy you. They have to appeal to your sense of what makes a good story, what makes interesting characters, and what makes a fun gaming experience. You want to win the battles THROUGH your character. You want to make the choices THROUGH your character. You want to solve puzzles THROUGH your character. Whatever.

The Murky Mirror

So, what’s my point? What IS the philosophy that I follow in my games that forestalls all of those issues and just lets everyone have fun? It’s actually pretty simple. I call it “the murky mirror.”

The players and the characters are reflections of each other in a murky mirror. They aren’t perfect reflections. But they are synchronous. If the players are sitting around and talking, then so are the characters. They are saying basically the same things, though they might be using different words or abbreviating or whatever. Hell, I know the characters aren’t even speaking English. But if a player is communicating, so is their character.

So, for example, when the player is saying “my character refuses to help because he thinks the orcs are all savages because he saw them murder his parents,” his character is probably saying something like “scum like you butchered my parents and I’d rather have every one of my fingers broken then lift one of them to help a monster like you.”

I don’t get picky over exact words. I don’t worry – anymore – about the goddamned telepathy issue. If the player is communicating something, she wants it shared. So obviously, her character is sharing it. And I tell my players so. Don’t say anything out loud that you don’t want people overhearing. Simple as that. If you don’t want your dark secrets out, don’t say them.

Of course, the other side to it is that if it isn’t possible for the characters to communicate, then it isn’t really possible for the players to communicate either. If I see my group stopping every turn in combat to discuss every action, I will stop them and force whoever’s turn it is to make a decision or lose their turn. “You only have a few seconds to act, everyone shut up, what do you do?” Yeah. I say, “shut up.”

Beyond that, if the players are discussing combat tactics, well, I react to them. If they say something like “okay, we all need to protect Gertrude because that curse makes her vulnerable and she’s the only one who can heal us,” the orcs – if they understand common – they are sure going to target Gertrude. It’s a double-edged sword.

I even follow this philosophy when it comes to the sharing of information. At the start of a battle, I work the results of knowledge checks into my flavor text. After all, I hate players having to ask questions like “do I know what that is” or “can I make a knowledge check.” So, if someone recognizes the monster – or whatever – I explain it. “Harold, you recognize the thing as a Greater Spider-Bear and here’s what you know about its abilities and vulnerabilities and stuff.” And then, I assume Harold either shares that information right away or shares the important bits of it as it becomes relevant. It doesn’t matter how it actually goes down. It might be that Harold says, “don’t use poison, guys, it’s immune” at the start of the fight. It might be that Harold yells “wait, don’t cast that poison mist spell, it’s immune, use fire” when he sees his friend casting a spell. You might ask how Harold knows what spell his friend is casting. I assume that he either recognizes it or that Ingrid says, “I’ll blast him with this poison mist spell!” It doesn’t matter.

The point is, a lot of stuff goes down in the game and we don’t cover every single moment. We don’t, for example, discuss the PCs taking bathroom breaks. They happen. But we don’t cover that on screen.

The murky mirror actually covers a lot of issues. For example: should the players speak AS their characters or ABOUT their characters? It doesn’t really matter because we’re seeing an imperfect reflection of what happens in the game world anyway. What about anachronisms and weird phrases unique to modern Earth? Like, if a player says, “oh my God” instead of “by the Gods” or calls the world Earth or mentions Hell in a world that doesn’t have one or has, like, nine of them. It’s all the same.

This also covers a lot of arguments up. The players can’t backpedal on saying stuff out loud because they “only meant it out of character.” Sorry, bucko. If you want the other players to hear it, you had to say it. And if the players can hear it, so can the characters. And when it comes to jokes and banter amongst the players, well, it’s easy to assume even that reflect jokes and banter between the characters. They are just telling different jokes.

The murky mirror also lets me keep the game moving. For example, if the characters are at an intersection and the players are having an increasingly convoluted argument about whether to go left or right, eventually, something is going to hear them and come to investigate. Because if the players are arguing loudly and doing nothing else, so are the characters. In another recent game, the characters were driving a cart and the players were arguing about which turn to take for a whole. So, the city watch yelled at them to move along and stop blocking traffic. The point is that the game world doesn’t PAUSE just because the players are talking amongst themselves.

Another powerful aspect of the murky mirror is that it allows you to easily set the standard for the tone of your game. The world is going to react to whatever the players say or do and the players know it. If the players say and do a bunch of silly, crazy, or funny things and you just roll with it? Well, that means your tone is comedic and you’re all in it for laughs. If you’re just doing casual dungeon-crawley monster-hunty fun, same deal. You just roll with it. But if you react to the crazy bulls$&% in realistic ways that cause real problems for the characters, they quickly stop the crazy bulls$&% and your game’s more serious tone wins out. I’m not suggesting using the approach to punish players for adopting the wrong tone, mind you. Don’t blindside them. Let them know that you follow the murky mirror approach. And, that brings me around to the other part of this…

Inner Voices and Second Thoughts

Now, the murky mirror approach has smoothed out a lot of my games. And it is especially useful when you’re gaming with strangers because it’s very simple to explain. You don’t have to spell out a whole bunch of standards for what counts as in-character and out-of-character and you don’t have to have a whole lot of arguments about who knows what about what was said at the table. But, in order for it to work, the players also have to trust you not to screw them just to screw them. And that means you also have to let the players off the hook sometimes. Especially when the players are getting used to it.

See, it can actually be kind of hard to get used to this sort of thing. Every table has different stupid, wrong standards about what counts as “in character” as well as standards for all of the other issues I talked about above. Beyond that, though, different players are trained to expect different responses from the world because of previous experiences with other stupid, wrong GMs. All of that boils down to the fact that you might just have a player at your table who came entirely from jokey, banter-filled games and whose GM let him mouth off to every Tom, Dick, and Gothar the Indestructible without consequence.

And then there is also the fact that the players aren’t experts in your world the way you are. Even if you are running a game in a well-known campaign setting, your version of it is always different and you’re the only one who knows it.

Given that, the murky mirror can REALLY f$&% up some players before they get used it. And even long after they get used to it.

Thus, it is very important for you – the GM – to act as an Inner Voice for the players. To warn them before they get themselves into serious trouble over a joke or a genuine mistake. It’s one thing to have some soldiers chastise them for holding up traffic because they take too long to make a decision. That has no consequences. It just reminds the players that the world doesn’t stop for their discussions. But imagine a situation in which you run a serious campaign and the party has an audience with a no-nonsense, powerful king. A player, not thinking about the murky mirror, tells his fellow players “I think we should tell the king to go f$&% himself. We don’t need him.” That could cause a major disaster if the king acts on it.

And THAT is when it’s your job to jump in and say, “do you really want the king to hear you say that” and give the player a chance to take it back. After all, the point of the murky mirror is to make things easier and more fun and less bitter and fighty for everyone. You shouldn’t be using it to gleefully pounce on a player who makes a stupid mistake.

Think of like triggering an opportunity attack. If a player moved in such a way that they trigger an opportunity attack they just as easily could have avoided, you wouldn’t yell “gotcha! Opportunity attack because you moved one square too close! Hahaha! Suck it!” No, you would say “hey, you probably meant to move one more square that way to avoid the opportunity attack, right?”

Wouldn’t you? You’re not a dick, are you?

Likewise, if the players spout bad or wrong information or make conjectures based on a poor understanding of the world, it’s your job to jump in and correct them. “Actually, that’s not true in this world. In this world, orcs really are all evil. Their blood burns with violent rage and hatred because Gruumsh made them that way.” But then, you should be doing that kind of crap anyway.

The point is, you need to watch what’s happening in the murky mirror closely and steer the players away from unintended disaster when the murk gets to be a bit too much. That’s how you build trust.

The Players are the Characters

At the end of the day, we really need to rid ourselves of the notion that there’s a hard line between player and character. There isn’t. There can’t be. There shouldn’t be. And trying to impose that hard line just leads to a lot of arguments and bitter feelings. Not only that, it also leads to pissing me off. After all, someday, your players are going to end up at my table and I’m sick of unteaching them all of the garbage you filled their head with. So just give it up already.

And then we can finally stop listening to braying jacka$&es making jokes about how “you said you’d kill the players, not the characters, and that would be murder, hahahaha, get it?!”

I hate those f$&%wits too.

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65 thoughts on “Through a Glass Darkly: IC, OOC, and the Myth of Player/Character Seperation

  1. This just went to all my players. It makes great sense especially for one or two of my players who constantly futz the line of IC & OOC

    usually I’m the only one reading and running to get better. This is a nice change of pace. And maybe just maybe they will stop the BS backbiting with each other a bit.

  2. Articles like this are why I say Angry is my DM mentor, and why I recommend him as the first blog/website to read top to bottom to any aspiring non a$&-hatted DM who isn’t on a sadistic ego trip d%@{ing with their luckless players who will soon find something else to do with their spare entertainment time.

    Philosophy articles provide values. Values guide decision making in the absence of clear cut rules and keep the decisions consistent with the tone/feel (or other theater-specific academic terms I don’t know) of the game. And that makes it possible for the game to be fun for as many players (and the DM) as possible.

    Thanks again.

  3. This article is why I love Angry. He might be mad as hell and doesn’t suffer fools, but it’s because he wants to run the best damned games possible. That opening rant was the Angriest he’s been in a while (but then again, he’s been railing against this particular idiocy for years), but the Murky Mirror and Inner Voice sections show that he’s not an @#$hole who delights in cruelty; if anything, it actually betrayed some compassion for his players.

    If I call him the Gordon Ramsay of TTRPGs, will he take it as a compliment?

  4. Murky mirror needs a TM after it. That’s a nice evocative phrase for something that was basically how roleplaying, or players making decisions for their character(s) in an imaginary world, was originally done. Somewhere along the way the concept of what roleplaying is got hijacked, and ‘in-character’ vs ‘out-of-character’ became this whole thing.

    • This was my thought as well. It’s been a while since I’ve read those “what is role-playing” sections in the early games that I started with but to my mind the concept was “the character is the player’s avatar in the game world”. There was not a separation, the character was you in the world. They may have different physical characteristics and skills but they represented you, the player and were your vehicle for reacting to the game world.

    • Hi Tanarii! Yep, another really good article. I’ve always sort of run my games this way, but now I will be doing so consciously they will probably improve. PS thanks for pointing me at Angry’s article on dealing with time – I loved it.

  5. My reptilian mind says that I like this article.

    I don’t do murky mirror stuff because I tend to let my players do pretty much what they want, even if it’s spending 2 hours devising an ambush for a bunch of horse riders coming at full speed.
    I don’t care, half of my players like it and the other half doesn’t. You’d tell me to pick a side and kick the others away except they’re all my or my wife’s friends(or my wife in person) and I’d rather not piss them off.

    I’ll tell them about the murky mirror and whether they want to try it or not…after I find a good french translation for it.

  6. I agree with most of this but what about when a players character is not present and they then react to it. Specially when it was something the character (s) that were present would not want to share?

    • I think the best way is to send players off or take players out of the room but i don’t because my players find it hard to focus so if I get them actually playing i don’t want to stop them.

      • In most games, secrets aren’t necessary. And in many of the games that do deal with secrets, they cause nothing but problems. And players have a tendency to hold back information from the group for NO F$&%ING REASON. A player who has important information and chooses not to share it with their team is as big a dick as the one who steals from the party or hogs the game. It’s just another form of antisocial dick behavior.

    • Back in high school, I was super OCD about this sort of stuff, and insisted that players either left the room or blocked their ears whenever their characters either weren’t present or were unconscious. It slowed down the game like nothing else, and rarely added a great deal to the game.

      Now, I never bother with it. I assume that party members fill each other in on anything important when they meet up yet, and there generally aren’t a great deal of situations where a character can truly benefit from information they couldn’t possible have yet.

  7. How does this apply to actual discussions of game mechanics? Do you just pretend those don’t exist at all? It’s -sortof- easy to “mirror” this stuff when you are dealing in mechanics that map easily to the fiction, but lots of games have stuff that doesn’t. “Should I spend a benny?” Or encourage discussion “I think this sounds like Hunt, but I guess it could be Prowl, what do people think?” or whatever. These are harder to mirror than “What’s the range on Fireball again?”

    • Look up the stuff Angry’s written in the past about resolving actions and skill checks; he’s covered similar topics before.

      For most abstract game mechanics stuff, you can probably assume the PCs are discussing things in terms of in-game-universe equivalents. E.g., “Should I spend a benny?” might translate as “Should I put extra effort into this task, knowing I won’t have the reserves for later challenges?”, but only if you must know every specific line of dialogue your character is saying. Otherwise, just assume the PCs somehow incorporate abstract stuff like bennies and Inspiration into their tactical discussions and don’t sweat it.

    • The other side of “Should I spend a Benny” might be something along the lines of “This guy looks tough, do we need maximum effort here?”

      Figuring out what skills need to be used in given situation should be a GM adjudication thing, rather than a player one. I can’t say I recognize the system you’re referencing, but I think that this would apply: The character would simply look at the tracks and try to follow them, rather than figure out in their head whether, say, their wilderness training(Survival) or detective training(Investigation) would be more applicable. Thus, player would say, “I want to track this guy,” and the GM would ask for the skill that needs to be checked.

      On the other hand, figuring out exactly how things map isn’t really important. It’s mostly for the in-universe stuff inside the GMs head.
      –OK, Adam has said something about having reserve power available(Benny’s), so the enemies might be more wary of him.–

    • The philosophy is applied to determine if you even NEED to resolve using game mechanics! Look for articles on Intent and Approach. In a larger sense, you the DM are the reason WHY your players dither about these questions. The reason they are dithering is you have not presented them with enough information to make a decision/declare an action. Not to suggest you lead them, but if they do not have a clear Incitement to do something (from another article), they are going to dither. In the presence of a clear incitement, they will make a decision whether to use a resource or not.

      An example of a clear incitement from the article is, “You only have a few seconds to act, everyone shut up, what do you do?”

      An example of a less clear incitement from my own work is, “The guards see you and start walking towards you, falling into step with each other. What do you do?”

      A bad (but typical) example, “Blah blah blah description of scene, blah blah blah exposition on NPCs…(and stop).”

    • “Should I spend a benny?” Could map to something like…
      For a task: “This {lock/climb/negotiation/etc.} is really hard. Are we sure its worth the effort?”
      In combat: “How tough does this guy look to you?”
      Or for either: “Are we in a hurry?”

    • I don’t see how asking “should I spend a benny/Action Point/Fate Point/Hero Point/Void Point/Drama Dice/GM Freebie Bonus That’s Almost Always Called a Point” is any less realistic or game-y or whatever than checking the range on Fireball. You’re splitting hairs where it’s pedantic and unnecessary. Just let the game mechanics be game mechanics.

      If it makes you feel any better, I see stuff like Freebie Points as being “meta” in and of themselves – it represents fate or the universe or whatever bending to the player’s will, because the player said so. Because the players are the characters, through a glass, darkly, as the article suggests.

      Also, adjudicating actions is YOUR job as GM. Don’t ask the players what they think they should roll. That’s not their decision. Angry has talked about this at length.

      • Huh? I’m splitting hairs? It was an honest question. My group often has discussions at the table about what how to map stuff to game mechanics. The “action point”/benny example wasn’t perfect, but no one got the reference in the second example, so I guess you people just only play games where the GM rules with an iron fist and nothing is ever up for debate?

        • I dunno, I just feel like Angry answered that question in this article, and you’re tripping over details. The game-ier game mechanics are… game-ier, and yeah, there’s not a lot of getting around that. If I indicated that there shouldn’t be any debate, I was going more for John Lennon than Judge Dredd. Just… let it be, man. It’s an RPG – all three letters matter. Sometimes it’s more RP, sometimes it’s more G. The whole article is about how sometimes we obsess over the RP part, to the detriment of the G part. Find balance. Let it be both.

          • There’s only room for one dick on the website and it’s my site. Back off, please, deadlinedance. It’s a legit question.

            That said: look, Mike, that was exactly my f$&%ing point. Don’t worry so much about this. Just assume the characters in the world are having some kind of relevant discussion. You don’t have to know what it actually is. I’m trying to reduce EXACTLY that kind of pointless nitpicking. You don’t worry about figuring out exactly what Common actually sounds like, do you?

      • In some games, that is, quite simply, incorrect, and players get substantial say in what they roll. The “angry adjudication” system clearly does not apply there, but this could, hence the question. Would it be possible for you to be a little bit more open minded about different games?

        • Its not to hard to imagine an in game analog to the question of whether to roll diplomacy or bluff, etc.

        • I’ve personally only encountered one game that *necessitated* players picking their skill rolls (7th Sea 2nd edition, and that system is a whooole cargo ship full of problems), and Angry is admittedly not very big on games that work like that; he is pretty D&D focused.

          I’d have to hear more details on how these systems work. I assume (or at least hope) that the core book explains how to adjudicate actions in their particular action resolution system. I’m open to hearing about different systems, though I would hate to make you re-type an entire chapter or anything. Give me a name, and I can at least find a core book somewhere myself and flip through it.

          • There are many.

            But first, I don’t consider Angry specifically focused on D&D. It just happens to be popular and accessible, and enough people use this system for there to be a demand. I’d say Angry’s advice works with most systems – especially those that achieve an “old school RPG” flavor in a modern system.

            As for systems that have skill lists, I’ll start with an obvious system: Savage Worlds. It’s very popular and while it’s core mechanic uses poly-dice in an interesting (but very limiting) fashion, it also features skill lists that are independently managed.

            I also played a game called G20, which is a home-brew hybrid of Role Master. Role Master’s core mechanic depends upon percentile dice and more tables and charts than you can imagine (some call it “Chart Master”). Not only does this game have hundreds of uniquely listed skills that are individually maintained, but each character class has their own list and for those skills in their list, the rate in which they can be improved is influenced by the character class. For example, a thief character can advance his stealth skills more quickly (or at lest cost) than martial weapon skills. Vice versa for a fighter character. Surprisingly, the system works reasonably well, if you don’t mind lugging around 20 or 30 books and spending time flipping through them constantly – especially during the level-up process. (G20 fixed a lot of this, but didn’t totally part from reliance on the books.)

            And finally, I bring up the old standard Tunnels and Trolls. Its original design has no skills, but when Michael Stackpole got a hold of it and designed his spin-off game, Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, he added a skill system, which has been replicated in T&T’s latest, “Deluxe” version. In my opinion, the implementation is pretty weak.

            A final comment on what was said here: “Don’t ask the players what they think they should roll. That’s not their decision.” I don’t remember what Angry has to say about this. I have no problem allowing players to offer their opinions on what they should roll on. Fortunately, D&D 5e doesn’t provide a lot of options, so the discussion is short. Besides, they are going to be like players and choose whatever option offers the best bonus. Resisting grapple, for example, specifically allows the player to choose Strength or Dexterity. For a character with Str 18 and Dex 10, the decision is obvious.

          • Indysligo, your statements of RM are kind of inaccurate: you DO NOT need 20-30 books. One version of RM(Fantasy) needs only one(up to lvl 10, then you need 5), the other needs 3(Classic). Also, professions don’t have their own list, every profession can learn every skill, the difference is the cost to get a skill rank. One version of RM has like 30 skills(the Classic version), it’s the other that has hundreds. Also, everything Angry said about the “dating your skill system” applies to RM. The core mechanic is d100+skill+/-modifiers and beat a target number, for *everything*. It was doing d20 way before d20.

    • Even abstract ideas represent a real-world (real-imaginary-world) thing. If you’re talking about spending your daily, your character might be saying, “Dang, my angle is really hurting from that last battle” and your comrades might say, “save your strength, we can handle this” or “you’re going to have to buck up or we’re all lost!”

  8. I generally agree with this and like the concept, however it does mean that players that make jokes at the table, which we all enjoy, can’t play a jokeless serious character.

    That bugs me a bit. Thoughts?

    • It’s like “I’m a volleyball player so i can’t play soccer because i use hands to play sports”
      Just learn to use feet and don’t pretend you do if u don’t.

    • Okay, so, let me understand this: you enjoy joking around and having a good time and so does everyone else at the table. That’s fun. So you’ve purposely decided to take away that option because, somehow, that will be more fun. Fine. Okay. But then, THEN, you want to have the fun you purposely decided NOT TO HAVE anyway? And you think I’M the problem?! Seriously, think about what you’re saying. Why play a character you (a) CAN’T or WON’T play and (b) is LESS FUN for you and everyone else?

      Holy mother of f$&%.

      • People often find it unfun to talk to NPCs in certain ways and very fun to talk to friends they’ve known for years in certain ways. For example, you might enjoy telling your friends dirty jokes and they may enjoy that, but for realism’s sake, (for example) the cult of purity may not like you telling dirty jokes to their members. The ideal for many would be to be able to OOC make dirty jokes and IC be serious and normal to the cult of purity.

        If the person played a jokey character IC then your companions would have much less fun than if they are jokey OOC in many situations. Your companions may not appreciate you mouthing off to NPCs and being rude to them because of the social problems that causes but may enjoy you mouthing off OOC about stuff to your fellow players.

        • I guess maybe you need to choose a f$&%ing priority instead of saying “I’m not going to play my character but I’m asking you all to pretend I am.” That isn’t role-playing. And this is such a bizarre corner case I can’t help but feel it’s a hair splitting attempt to find an objection. Either way, though, if that bulls$&% is so important to you, DON’T USE MY ADVICE. Simple.


            Two of the common types of players that dnd 4.0 suggests exist who would both value the OOC and IC divide are the watcher who wants friendship and such and doesn’t want to have game stuff come between them being friendly to others, and the thinker who wants to carefully devise solutions with minimal loss of resources and who doesn’t want to be unable to talk over problems due to OOC and IC being combined.

            That’s why I raise the issue. I’ve had a number of campaigns where most of the players really enjoyed planning, often in front of enemy hordes, and a number where social banter was the main source of enjoyment. And of course, a number where there was too much OOC stuff and it slowed down fun, and so your advice would be helpful.

  9. I’m shocked: The Murky mirror is the more powerful, elegant and immersive way i can imagine to role play in an RPG.

  10. My only concern in this area has been players taking advantage of narrative structure to learn things. They know they are in a story, so they are overly concerned about Chekhov’s gun.

    Or else they waylay the entire session to investigate the throwaway narrative element of an escort into the city for the strange people on flying mounts….

    Neither of which are fun :/

    • I think that this empowers the characters to make good decisions. You have to remember that the players can only percieve what you describe to them – a noise, a hobbo in the streets, a gun in the wall – and you can only describe so many things before it gets boring.

      Also, the fact that the players know that their characters are in a story its what makes the game fun. Imagine that you sit on the table for 4 hours, and the DM just describe non-interesting things that happens in your everyday life, and in the end says “well, you got to bed, after brushing your teeth. You turn out the light and look trough your window, imagining if there is something cool outsider, but you’re top tired to get out, and you have class early in the morning. The end”. Woundt you feel cheated?

      No one plays an RPG HOPING that will be an adventure. We KNOW IT. And we expect some things from a story. Hell, in 90% of Angry articles he talks about how is important to a story to have a certain shape and momentum, and to make sense. We expect things in fiction to make sense, more so than in real life.

      So I think you should use those “narrative tropes” as a tool. Dont fight It, embrace them.

    • I don’t know that players are always seeking “fun”. Or maybe they see the “throwaway narrative element” as a low-hanging interactive bit.

    • The gm does not need to allow red herring to take long. “You search the colorfully named brothel for hours and find nothing relevant”
      “I’m sure its important, let’s keep looking!”
      “Still nothing. The next day …”

  11. Another great article. Also, It made me miss the old Angry Rants in The Mad Adventurers Society. Could you talk to fiddleback to see If you could post those rants in your website, Angry?

  12. One of the games I’m playing in has a new GM, and I was trying to think of a way to tell him to cut this s#!+ out.

    Thanks for doing the thinking for me. Again!

  13. “Because those who sacrifice the FUN of a GAME for REALISM deserve NEITHER.”
    I actually laughed out loud, literally. This needs to be in a T-shirt or something, one of my favorite one liners.

    On a more serious note, I sometimes wonder if the whole “you’re not your character” disclaimer is about the satanic fame RPGs got in the past. You know, the news “Guys kill another guy in a TTRPG” crap. I mean, I don’t know how much of that crap the US had to endure, but among the spanish community it hurt the game pretty badly in the 90’s and even in the early 00’s.

    I always thought the whole metagaming arguments were crap, and always accepted none of it in my table, back when I ran games. I’m happy now to have a well written(if only a little too ranty lol) article to back it up(too bad it’s not in spanish). Although to implement the full Murky Mirror philosophy would require some “adjustment period” in most tables. Outrooting this problem is going to take a lot time, and fighting, it’s too ingrained in current players and GMs unfortunately.

    • That’s a great insight, the “Satanic panic” thing. I think the obsession with in-character/out-of-character has multiple causes, and that seems like it was definitely one factor.

      Also, yeah, I wanted to applaud that one-liner too! Benjamin Franklin would be proud.

    • “I sometimes wonder if the whole “you’re not your character” disclaimer is about the satanic fame RPGs got in the past.”

      I immediately had the same thought reading this. Just look at what happens in the Dark Dungeons Chick tract. WoTC’s lawyers would just have to point to the book and say “The product clearly states that characters and players are separate entities, therefore D&D is not responsible for players believing they can cast spells.”

      I remember my Grandmother being pretty incensed just by my character being polytheistic in D&D, so it makes sense to me.

  14. The other day, I was listening to an Actual Play. When the PCs arrived at a town they had been charged to protect, and found that black smoke was rising from the town, and then proceeded to spend several minutes standing outside the borders of the town making jokes about the NPC Brewmaster they just met, I had to shut it off.

    It’s because of nonsense like that that I’m taking this article to heart. The players were dumb, sure, but they knew they could get away with it because the brewmaster wouldn’t react to their OOC jokes and that there was no real urgency, the disaster would wait for them to finish joking around.

  15. Very nice article with some wonderful insight on how to keep players on task and also end a variety of petty language squabbles at the table! I do like the murky mirror concept, even though I know that I myself would have to do some mental restructuring when playing a ‘serious’ character, as I have a hard time not making puns or jokes just to lighten tense or depressed players, or just to have fun being casual with friends.

    The only real problems I see with implementing this come from personal experience. I’d like it, as one of my players is constantly saying terrible things about other characters, both players and NPCs and, as soon as anybody tries to react to it in character, he immediately backsteps with “I wasn’t talking in character!” However, one of the players at my table has autism, so he frequently misses social cues and has a hard time telling when certain things are appropriate or not, and I don’t want to punish him or others for that. Another one of my players has some social anxiety and is frequently worried about saying the wrong thing to people or doing the wrong thing in game and won’t make any decision without asking the entire table for approval. If I try to make it so that conversations impact the flow of the game on a more tangible level, I just know he’ll want to clam up even more out of fear of making an irreversible mistake, and, again, I don’t want to punish him for being shy or anxious.

    So, yeah, I think this article and the information in it are great! Yet I don’t think I’ll be able to make much use of it for my group without seeming unfair or making folks not enjoy the game as much.

    • Personally, I would give those specific players more leeway than the others. Assuming everyone else at the table also knows they have autism or social anxiety, they should be fine with it.

      After all, as Angry said, “don’t be an asshole about this shit”, and punishing somebody for a known condition like autism or social anxiety is like giving a bard penalties to Charisma checks because their player is a stutterer.

    • > “has a hard time telling when certain things are appropriate or not, and I don’t want to punish him”

      Why not TEACH him? Learning what is and is not appropriate is a HUGELY important life skill.

      • I agree that it’s a very important life skill! However, we’ve taken opportunities to tell him in the past when something he did wasn’t cool or would be interpreted poorly and that’s when he would apologize, remind us he has autism, and explain how that’s why he misses social cues. Then he’d usually go quiet or ask us about everything he’s about to say before he says it (which ends up annoying some of the other players) and, by the next game, he’d make the same mistake again. It’s been years now and I think it’s just the way he is.

        • Well, every Angry article has two parts. Part A is where he analyses the problem down to the core and exposes the root of it and how to look at it. And then there’s Part B where he proposes a fix. For me, personally, it’s Part A is where the great stuff is. What sets him aside from every other blogger or even game writer. It’s the part that empowers ME to look at the issue and allows me to find a proper solution to fit my own needs. Part B usually works for me, but sometimes I find it’s either not fitting for my table or the system I use doesn’t have the exact feature when the fix is for D&D. But thanks to Part A I can find my own way to work around.
          I’m saying this because you need to do the same thing. You have two players for which this solution, as written, may not work. So maybe either cut them a break, or maybe simply implement a not so strict method. I’d suggest to just talk to the people involved, find if they are comfortable with it. You never know until you try.

  16. So, the reason I’ve made the distinction between what the character knows and what the player knows, is due to scenes where only certain players are present.
    Specifically, let’s say the rogue has stealthed ahead, but gets caught. The rest of the party is only one or two rounds away (I fully embrace do not split the party).
    I want to be able to surprise the rest of the party, but I also don’t want to have to take the player aside and play out his capture where the other players can’t hear it.

    This, or situations similar to this (basically, any situation where one character will get information one or two rounds ahead of the rest of the party, but that information will have a significant impact on the other characters actions) have led me to give out the information to all the players at once, but ask them not to act on that information IC until indicated they can do so.

    This has been a very effective way to build tension, and so I use it regularly.

    However, I like everything else about the murky mirror. How would you suggest this be handled?

    • Bah I meant scenes where only certain characters are present, in the first paragraph.

      • You don’t achieve surprise that way. The players have to wait with what they want to do. Whatever that feeling is for you, it is probably not resulting in a surprise.
        I take scouts into the kitchen, so they get to know the stuff that happens but the rest doesn’t. That way you surprise the other players. If you are original that is…

        • As I already said, I dislike bringing people into the next room. That slows down the game (the rest are going to learn it in the next few rounds anyway! Not only do I slow it down by going to the next room, but I end up repeating myself) and announces to the rest of the party that hey, something is happening, so they should act as if something is up anyway.

          I’m also not going for surprise, I’m going for tension ‘ this terrible thing is happening, and I can’t help!’

          • If you are going for tension surprise is just only way to achieve it. But you wrote “I want to be able to surprise the rest of the party” so sorry for assuming you were going for surprise. I don’t want to persuade you of anything, what worked for me might not for you, but:

            Tension comes from the uncertainty what the outcome of a dramatic situation will be. I dare to suspect that the tension in your example lies not in “We can’t do anything” but in “Will we be there in time?”.

            The disadvantages you mention are only partially true. Yes it takes time but not as much as you would assume. When someone scouts you don’t tell the story twice. The scout on coming back will naturally shorten things up to the no nonsense part (everything clear; three orks; I’m dead; whatever). The other players have nothing to do but so do they when you play it at the table. The advantage is they can talk which they can’t if you are playing because that is disrupting.

            If the scout comes back and says “guys I think we changed the dimension, there was a mage and…” or “you don’t find the rogue” you ask the player to now play a doppelganger etc.
            Then tension is built in a different way. “Will the scout survive” is now only part of the tension. “What is/was going on” is the primary tension you build by that.
            We used that for scouting, for visions, for night watch, etc.

  17. Angry,

    I was going to ask what you think of punishing characters for their players’ thoughts/quirks/phobias (like having a PC be unable to fight spiders if their player has severe arachnophobia, or threatening to punish a PC if they think of a pink elephant when their player will obsessively think of pink elephants the moment you tell him not to), but I can already hear your (presumed) response:

    “No, you goddamned idiot, there’s a difference between having consequences for what players CHOOSE to do and fucking them over for things they CAN’T help doing. Namely how many of your players decide to come back to your table.”

  18. There are plenty of forums, websites, blogs, etc. out there that publish nothing but gaming advice. They might have articles on the specifics of mechanics or how to plan story arcs or how to manage personal interactions at a gaming table. And this site does all of those things as well. However…

    None of the other sites seem to get into the core of the issue. The “why”. The underlying principles that would result in the advice given. Most of the time it is just “do this because!” and that’s it. The thing I absolutely love about Angry’s columns are that everything is consistent. Everything fits with everything else. All of the advice, the tips, the systems, the guidelines, all of it. It all comes from a coherent core of principles and moves outward from there.

    Sometimes the result of this is that it requires a radical departure from ideas that were previously held. But, one thing I’ve always felt is that if the only reason that I’m doing something is just because I’ve always done it that way, there’s no reason not to change the way I do it if a good reason comes along. And Angry’s articles always provide the underlying reasons, the core concepts from which the advice or guidance originates. And I think this is what sets this website apart from the rest and it is definitely why I come back everyday to see what new articles have been posted.

  19. Excellent article.

    I’ve never been too fussed about the dreaded “metagaming”. The way I see it, any half-competent adventurer’s should have accumulated a decent amount of general knowledge about the things they are fighting, whether from research or mentors or stories shared by other adventurers in the local tavern. I draw the line at players reciting stuff verbatim from the Monster Manual statblocks (ie. “I remember the standard Ogre has 14 AC”, “This guy seems like a Hobgoblin Captain, they have multi-attack”), but otherwise I have no problem with players sharing and using what they remember about resistances and weaknesses and the like.

    When it comes to players discussing their tactics for ages during combat, I like to try to stop them dithering too much on each turn, because they can spend literal hours on a single round that you let them. However, I also tend to assume that much of that discussion actually represents various strategies the party had developed during their downtime. So, rather than the characters actually talking in intricate detail about what they’re going to do in real-time, it’s more like one character shouts “Use the Piercing Claws stratagem!”, and everyone just uses the tactics they had all discussed for such a situation ahead of time.

  20. Interestingly, the book assumes a higher level of player/character separation when in the keen mind feat it fives the ability to accurately recall things for up to a month.

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