Saturday, June 28, 2014

Metagame Dissonance in Roleplaying Games aka Dissociative Mechanics aka the Plot Coupon aka Director Stance Mechanics

I’ve wanted to write a post about this concept for a while now.   There is a lot of confusion on the subject and many people don’t grasp the meaning.  As such they don’t understand others who argue along these lines and often give responses that seem out in left field.   I’m not going to try and convince you that Metagame Dissonance is good or bad.  That’s for you to decide.  My goal for this blog is to help, hopefully, you to understand what it is I’m talking about.

The implied science of the D&D world is our own world plus magic.    Since we know nothing about magic that really works in our world, we have to rely upon the rules as written to tell us what magic can do.   D&D made up magic in the same way that the author of Superman said he could fly.  He gave various off the cuff reasons but in reality he just made it up.  It was a starting premise of that world.  With that in mind, we have a game with abstract rules that reflect the world and what goes on in that world.

Let me start by saying that everything a player character says his character is doing is not metagame dissonance.   If a player says “My fighter attacks the orc with his sword” then no one doubts the fighter himself could just as easily have said “I attack the orc with my sword.”  If a player says “My wizard casts his fireball spell” then no one doubts the wizard himself could just as easily have said “I cast my fireball spell”.

So a plot coupon or something that leads to metagame dissonance is more than just taking an action.  The nature of the action has to cause a disconnect between the player of the character and the character.   A great example of this is hero points.  In some game systems you get a certain number of hero points.  Whenever something happens the player is allowed to spend a hero point and either force a reroll or negate what happened outright.   Here is an example.

DM – “The orc swings his great axe” – rolls d20 gets a critical rolls damage.  Enough damage is done to kill the PC.  “Owe.  Bad luck.  Emerikol is dead.”
Player of Emerikol – “Wait! I spend a hero point.”
DM – rolls d20 again and gets a lower number.  “Ok Emerikol he hits but you are still alive.”

Now what is wrong with what happened above?  Look at what the player of Emerikol said.   Would Emerikol have ever said such a thing?  Absolutely not.  Emerikol does not know about hero points.  In fact all Emerikol knows is what the DM said the second time.  The hero point is a plot coupon.  It lets the player do something outside the game to make what’s happening inside occur differently.  This is a pretty obvious example but more subtle examples are coming.

Can the nearly identical event done by different characters be a plot coupon in one instance and not a plot coupon in another instance.  The answer is yes.  In our world it would be impossible.  But it is not impossible in a world with magic.

Let’s look at two scenarios.

Scenario #1 will be a warlord healing an ally.
Player of Warlord says “I use my inspiring word to heal the fighter”.  The fighter spends a surge and gets back 12 hit points (or whatever).

Scenario #2 will be a cleric healing an ally
Player of Cleric says “I use my healing word to heal the fighter”.  The fighter spends a surge and gets back 12 hit points.

So why is scenario #1 causing metagame dissonance when scenario #2 does not.  In both cases, lets assume that both the warlord and the cleric each have two uses of their healing ability.

The warlord is saying words of inspiration and encouragement that rallies the wounded fighter and makes the abstraction we know as hit points a little bit better.  The cleric is calling upon the power of his God to magical make the abstraction we know as hit points a little bit better.   We know certain that Clerics have finite magical resources.  That is one of the implied rules of magic I discussed above.  The cleric character as well as the cleric player knows he has a fixed resource pool.

The Warlord on the other hand is not using magic.  He is using the force of his personality to rally an ally.   Is the warlord character aware that he has a fixed resource pool?  No.  He couldn’t know.  He can rally his allies all day long with words of encouragement.   How would he know that this word or that word is effectual and all the others are not effectual?  The player of the warlord though knows exactly when and where they are effectual and that he as a limited resource pool.  I am not attacking warlord healing here.  I am showing that the resource management limitation is player knowledge but not character knowledge.

When a player does something that his character cannot possibly know or think, it is metagame dissonance.  For some people this dissonance detracts from the game.  It makes them question the authenticity or the realism of the world.  The suspense of disbelief is made more difficult.  Now it’s clear to me that people have different reactions to this and to different degrees.  I myself was bothered by it before I ever put my finger on what it is.  I was bothered by hero points, years ago, but couldn’t figure out why.  Now that I came to grips with metagame dissonance and realize it affects me I am aware of it.

Other things with metagame dissonance are martial daily powers, barbarian rages from third edition,  action points,  just to name a few.  


  1. None of those terms are self-explanatory enough.

    "Dissociated mechanics" is just awful. There's absolutely nothing in that phrase that tells me what it's dissociated from.

    "Metagame" would mean that it's not in the game. Very easy to misunderstand.

    "Director stance" means much more than what you're trying to say, which is the perfect recipe for misunderstanding.

    "Plot coupon" suggests a level of abstraction that is beside the point.

    And I won't even try to go into "NMU" and "NMH", because it's so obscure that I'm not even sure I understand it.

    Why not just call it "out-of-character decision"? That term is pretty self-explanatory, I think.

  2. The term dissociated original mean players being dissociated from their characters. Meaning players acting out of character. "out-of-character decision" mechanics is kind of a tough name.