The Meta-game

In response to this post. I wrote:

“Anyway, my problem with blithely saying that it’s all one feed-back system is that it obscures the origin of the different parts of the experience of being in character.”

And very reasonably asked in return:

Could you separate out what those different parts are? And what this origin is?


Well, I do talk about it quite a bit in the post you quote from, but I was tired, so perhaps wasn’t as clear as possible. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m not sure you’ll grasp what I’m talking about. My experience has been that my view on this is pretty singular, since I’ve had little luck explaining it to Susan, Luke, Ivan or anyone else. Am I wrong, or everyone else? I choose to believe everyone else. πŸ™‚

But before I talk about that, a brief aside: two conversations, with the same topic.

The basic principle at work in my thinking is, very simply, that the player and the character are not the same “thing.” I tend to think of this in quite literary terms, because I’m also deeply interested in narrative theory. I’d like to quote a brief description of Laurence Sterne’s writing:

The deeply humanist vision of the author was so comprehensive that he would not allow even fictional humans to be reduced to soulless automata. In Dickens, Joyce and Perec we find this same investment in the independance of the characters. Only amateur novelists treat their creations like chess-pieces.

We wouldn’t willingly conflate the author with every one of his literary creations: we acknowledge that while the author is in a total sense, in control of the characters, that they might reflect things not inherent in the author. The degree of authorial control is however open to question. I would quote here a passage by Moorcock on his writing-process, except still has my copy of that book.

neo-classical literary theory held that artistic creations had a kind of autonomous “meaning” imbued by the author and the task of reading was really finding this meaning. More recent thinking holds that what the reader brings to the work is just as important as what the author deliberately puts there. I have read several articles which liken this process to a “conversation.” Although the analogy is imperfect because it is a static message with an evolving response.

So, broadly, that is the theoretical framework for the comments which follow.

Traditional, and even some shared-narrative, games place the GM as a “storyteller”, fulfilling the larger part of the traditional authorial role, while certain privileged characters within the narrative are given a different author: their player.

The player/character will experience different things in the process of the game. Everything that the character experiences will necessarily be vicariously experienced by the player, but the reverse is not true. One “extreme” mode of play here is for the player to suppress their awareness of the experiences of themselves and supplant that with the vicarious experience. Immersion, in short. At the other extreme we have players who manipulate the actions of their characters like “chess-pieces.” We might disdainfully categorize D&D players into the latter, as a convenient example of a “war-game” dressed up fancy.

But better than either mode is probably one where the player retains some consciousness of themselves, thinking in two different consciousness streams. Because the player-stream naturally has much greater awareness than the character-stream. So, by retaining some consciousness of that, they can get more from the character-stream than if they really did experience whatever moment is being played out.

Now, an actual-play example. In ‘s mage game, there was a fight between ‘s character Sergei and an NPC played by , with some peripheral parts played by others. As a character, experienced a close and difficult fight, exciting and thrilling and all that. As a player-author, he experienced the construction of the fight choreography, and the implications for a wider story than his character’s. So: the different aspects of the experience came from multiple levels, and what made that fight “cooler” for him than other fights was certainly to do with the activity in choreographing it.

But not all such “additive” experiences come from that dual realization in play. In Dale’s WFRP game, we are a rag-tag group of miscreants, frankly, trouble makers. In my usual way, I have had immersion as a goal, alternating with a more tactical sense. Johann must unfortunately exist in two phases due to the nature of things. Anyway, I was talking about the game with , and lamenting the wooden-ness of one other player; but what explained to me was that the play was sophisticated on the level of the meta-game, as an aid to the functioning of the story. As Johann, I blithely ignore such things, but my player’s awareness of that activity helped make the total experience more satisfactory.

The conclusion I reach from all this is that RPGs work on two distinct levels, and while they cannot easily be staged totally in isolation, they are nevertheless contributing different things, and aiding the game in different ways. To combine them as all “part of the game” loses, IMHO, a very useful bifurcation, for no reason better than to facilitate simplistic dialogue or ignore inconvenient frictions between the two.

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6 Responses to The Meta-game

  1. steve_hix says:

    I just googled and wikipedia’d “singular narrative theory” and came up with nothing. And the only Laurence Sterne I could find wrote ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ and died in 1768 – so I doubt he was writing about Dickens and Joyce.

    What’s singular narrative theory?

    • steve_hix says:

      Shit, ignore the Sterne comment. I just noticed the ‘of’ in your paragraph πŸ™‚

      • mashugenah says:

        No worries. πŸ™‚ I guess though that as a follow-up on Sterne, I would point to the way that neo-classicists divided up the named characters in epic according to whether they were “characters” or “machinery”. The obvious point being that PCs are “characters” and NPCs are “machinery”. One of the things that people didn’t like about Paradise Lost was apparently that they were unable to re-interpret celestial beings as “characters”, since in older epics, such beings are exclusively “machinery.” I like this analogy for roleplaying too. In a literary sense it renders the action of the novel as a process that the “characters” go through: the plot, “machinery” etc, being simply there to facilitate some kind of change or exploration of the “characters.” In RPG terms, we would perhaps see the discussion above (about separation of player and character) as a discussion of how much access the players should have to that “machinery” or how confined they are to their “character”.

    • mashugenah says:

      Sorry, not sure where that second “singular” came from. 😦

  2. mr_orgue says:

    This is very interesting. I would like to engage on this more, but think there’ll have to be some thinking about it for a while first.

    πŸ™‚

    • mashugenah says:

      That’s the trouble with long erudite posts at this time of the year. πŸ™‚ People are busy, and by the time they’ve got a spare minute, life has moved on somewhere.

      This kind of thing has been near the front of my mind since I began running Gaslight in May this year. But it was the bizare relationship I had with Sam K when I was playing in his game that sparked off a lot of the thinking I’m just unpacking and developing now.

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