Wednesday, 8 January 2020

BRINGING META ELEMENTS INTO THE FICTION PART I - Player/Character

This is the first of two posts in which your author (me) will take a stab at the disc-horse (or at least give it a half-hearted flogging) concerning incorporating non-diegetic (i.e. meta) game elements into the diegetic fold. If that doesn't sound like fun to you then please, skip ahead: no one will ever know. You could read this post about a giant psychic parasite that lives inside a pyramid instead.

In a sense this post (and its forthcoming daughter, to be linked here at some point in the future) is a response to a conversation running back and forth across multiple platforms, from which I'd hitherto abstained but to which I now feel I have something to contribute.  Back in September, Cavegirl published this post on diegetic and non-diegetic game elements to elevate (and clarify her contribution to) the ongoing discourse surrounding RPG mechanics.

It is, as you can appreciate, a somewhat delayed response. The intervening period of fermentation has led to it taking on taken on some other aspects.

A picture of a lot of dice, including polyhedral dice.
Dice: because we are talking about GAMES.
DIEGETIC AND NON-DIEGETIC ELEMENTS IN A TYPICAL RPG

Using the definition of diegesis expounded by film studies, Cavegirl identifies the following (and some more, excluded for the sake of brevity) as being diegetic components of some popular RPGs:

  • A PC's equipment.
  • A character's height, weight, eye colour, etc.
  • A wizard's spell-slots in D&D; a wizard can meaningfully talk about 'I have two spells left today, and they are Sleep and Spider Climb' without breaking the fourth wall.
  • Being injured: the victim has - in the fictional world - been hurt, and might be bleeding, have broken bones, etc.  
These are all facets of the game that are true in-universe, and of which the characters that occupy it have spome awareness (alternatively they have the potential to be aware of these facets).

Conversely, the non-diegetic elements exist outside the fictive universe, though they play a role in its ongoing realisation. Cavegirl identifies the following elements, which are quoted verbatim below though again abridged for reasons of brevity:

  • Dice rolls.
  • Numerical measures of things like HP, attributes, etc. Those are abstractions being used to quantify a more complex fictional thing for the purposes of game-play.
  • Experience points, inspiration, bennies, etc that give the player a resource to use on a meta-level that doesn't represent anything in-world.
  • Lines & veils over what content and themes will make it into the game.
  • Metaphors and themes of the game. For example, I'm in a V5 game where we're explicitly exploring ideas around power, control, and moral judgement; these things are gonna come up and be relevant. Our PCs, however, aren't aware that they're being used to discuss these themes; they're just people.
As stated, this is an abridged list, please refer to http://cavegirlgames.blogspot.com/2019/09/terminology-diegetic-vs-non-diegetic.html for the full list and the complete article.

In addition to expanding on earlier definitions of diegesis the two lists highlight the fact that diegesis is a separate phenomenon to the mechanics/lore axis more commonly referred to as "fluff vs crunch".  Mechanics, though mostly resolved non-diegetically through dice rolls, cards or other abstractions in-universe phenomenon, may also manifest diegetically. Conversely a theme that is not mechancally expressed  (and thus can be considered part of the game's "fluff" as opposed to its "crunch") might exist beyond the purview of the characters, and so is a non-diegetic component of the game.

The penultimate section of the post proposes that awareness of diegesis in games allows for a greater degree of analysis and exploration and (implicitly) fun, providing us with a final bullet-point list of  some non-diegetic elements that can brought into the game world, or at least examined in closer detail, I just quote one, concerning lines and veils, as it illustrates the distinction beautifully:
Can lines and veils be made diegetic? For example, there's a difference between 'this is a game where you won't encounter sexism' and 'this setting is completely gender-blind and no society sees any differentiation between genders; sexism is a meaningless concept in this setting'. 
In the above example, a decision has been made to incorporate a non-diegetic element into the game world. Functionally nothing has changed, but the lines and veils have taken on a different flavour thus changing the game experience.


The Conscience of the Character

This is where we start to crossover into the metagaming discussion, and the concept of player knowledge versus character knowledge.

By way of revision, consider this classic example: a group of veteran players roleplaying novice adventurers encountering a troll. The veteran players are all familiar with creature's vulnerabilities, and describe their characters firing up the torches and readying vials of acid in order to combat its regenerative properties. However, their characters possess no such awareness, and the question might be raised as to whether the players should have their characters perform such actions.

Generally speaking, this is not something that traditional OSR games fret about. Discussing the example above, the Alexandrian proposes that characters may have come by this knowledge through in-universe folklore, suggesting alternatives, going off on another short tangent about "gamist" vs "dramatist" tendencies before concluding that the appropriateness of metagaming is contextually dependent, though implying that in old school games the gamist streak is the strongest element. Indeed, extended out of character discussions concerning how best to disarm a potential trap (only for it to become apparent that there was never a trap there to begin with) are a feature rather than a bug, to the point of being an OSR trope and the subject of a great many DM anecdotes.

Having said that, there is a stronger narrative element in how the new generation of the OSR (third wave? New School Revolution) approach the game, and some tables like to incorporate OoC discussion into the narrative somehow. During a recent online Die Trying Game run by Wingilbear  the aforementioned declared that OoC discussion represented the back and forth of ideas between the most intelligent party members, with the rest listening in, which was a simple but elegant solution to any issues people may have experienced with verisimilitude.

(Taking the concept a little further, Patrick Stuart  has twice turned this into an in-universe psychotic condition. In Veins of the Earth, DeR0 pills cause characters to actually hear the players' table chatter, and in Silent Titans a Freud-a-like NPC addresses PCs by their players name, not their character's name, and attempts to analyse their concept of "character" and "player".)

It was that off-the-cuff remark by Wingilbear that prompted me to recollect a passage in Matt Finch's excellent Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (available for free at Lulu). Therein Finch outlines the key differences between old school and modern D&D with four "zen moments", the second of which emphasises the importance of player skill over character ability:
...these games aren’t simulations of what a dwarf raised in a particular society, and having a particular level of intelligence, would do when faced with certain challenges. Old-style play is about keeping your character alive and making him into a legend. The player’s skill is the character’s guardian angel – call it the character’s luck or intuition, or whatever makes sense to you, but don’t hold back on your skill as a player just because the character has a low intelligence. Role-playing is part of the game, but it’s not a suicide pact with your character. 
The underlining is my own addition to the text: the notion of the player as guardian angel or even conscience is compelling, for it invites a portal by which to bring a classically non-diegetic relationship into the narrative. Speaking of portals...


Isekai



Briefly, a diversion into a parallel world discourse...

There has been some speculation as to whether some early games of D&D (or Arnesonian pre D&D) involved the  players imagining their characters as being avatars of their real selves transported into a fantasy world. Sadly my weak google-fu has not yielded any articles where this is stated by any of the original grognards, if you are aware of a reliable source please let me know below.

The Isekai model does provide a convenient explanation for the almost godlike awareness of the character, given that they previously existed as a real world nerd and have maxed out their knowledge of fantasy tropes. Certainly there are several portal fantasy stories referenced in Appendix N, but the preponderance of  the anime interpretation of this genre comes with a certain amount of baggage. It's not for everyone.

Regardless, there is certainly an issue in the event of character death: does that mean the player is dead, too? If you die in D&D... do you die in real life?


Roll Up Another One

A widely acknowledged (and entirely accurate) prejudice concerning old school games is their high lethality: what's less widely appreciated is the ease with which a fresh character is rolled up and dropped back into play: while suspension of disbelief might be considered, getting a player back into the game takes precedence over verisimilitude. Like the conflict between player and character knowledge, this presents us with an opportunity to shift the game's universe around to maintain immersion without changing our style of play.

In Vagabundurk's   Another Fool for your Adventures  the 30 pregens  are designed to be dropped into the party as soon as one character expires: each entry comes with an explanation as to how they materialised so swiftly, ranging from the cliched (hey! You guys are my heroes! I've been following you for a long time! Can I join your party? What's that? One of your pals just died? Commiserations - but how convenient that I showed up!*) to the gonzo (a half buried time capsule contains an android from the future sent to destroy humanity but has lost its memory). Mostly the new characters are either imprisoned in or exploring the same adventure site as the party, which has long been a typical method of introducing a new party member.
*This is a really uncharitable reading of the entry for Pixie, which actually says: PIXIE is an ADVENTURER apprentice who has been following the PLAYER CHARACTERS for a long time,  she’s learned a bit by watching them; now she thinks she can join them.
Another technique common to old school games is for players to take over a party retainer when a PC expires. This is my preferred method, as a) it is narratively plausible and b) it gives character death a greater impact (the lost member is not replaced; the party has shrunk).


Tying the Threads Together - Applied Discographic Equestrianism

To summarise the story so far:
  • RPGs contain both diegetic and non-diegetic elements.
  • Making an abstract mechanic or table-practice become "more diegetic" is fun, and nothing is off-limits, including the relationship between player and character knowledge.
  • The means by and the circumstances under which dead characters are replaced together represent a non-diegetic element of old-school gaming that could be brought into the narrative in an interesting manner.
With these three considerations in mind, I decided to play with some of the elements of City of Ghosts (now under the working title, Pariah). This was performance was conducted with the following assumptions:

  • The game takes place in a world where not only is animism the dominant cultural practice, but also where this culture practice is objectively "true" (I dig into this a little in the follow-up post) i.e. spirits are "real" and are capable of influencing the physical world.
  • A design goal of the game is to create a workable community building element, partly inspired by Humza Kazmi's post about leftism in the OSR.
  • The game encourages troupe play, with players controlling two or even three characters at any given time.
The following formerly non-diegetic elements have been giving an in-universe explanation:


  • Out of Character Discussion/ Player Knowledge: In light of Matt Finch's remarks about players representing the character's guardian angel, players play as their characters' ancestral spirits, who together have come to oversee the outcast individuals as they attempt to make a life for themselves. This does not mean that players cannot directly roleplay in character if they wish to do so, rather that the individual character does not represent the ultimate limit on their play experience.
  • Replacing Dead Characters I: If a player loses a character, they already have one or more additional characters with which they can continue to play with their other characters. That is not to say that death is without meaning: the party as a whole (and by extension, their larger community) is now weaker. Furthermore, in a world where spirits and ghosts are real, its imperative that the characters retrieve the body and honour it with appropriate funerary rites to avoid that character being NPCed as a disembodied spirit.
  • Replacing Dead Characters II: A strong element of play is building alliances and expanding the character base: people encountered in the wilderness join the pool of prospective PCs back at the camp.
  • The Troupe:  The game actively supports a West Marches/ revolving table approach through the existence of the troupe or band. Each session can be imagined as an expedition or hunting trip carried out by select members: players draw from a pool of characters that they think might be most useful (or just fun) to send into the unknown. Players can be encouraged to share characters (at least until the characters start to take on personalities of their own).
Nothing revolutionary there I know, but I believe that in conjunction with the other elements of the setting they will conspire to enrich the playing experience. Indeed, those setting elements (and more thoroughly, the thought processes that went into their creation) are the subject of a follow up post that I have alluded to throughout.

Thank you for reading.

- Sofinho

PS. I have a link to this Ted Ed video on common knowledge that's been sat at the foot of this post since I first drafted it... I'm no longer sure why I thought it might be relevant, but if you're curious it presents a challenging riddle!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98TQv5IAtY8

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