The RPG Course – Lecture Two

Yesterday was the second lecture of the roleplaying studies course that I’m attending.

I notice I have garnered a bit of attention with this. I’ve been getting hits from strange places, some of which I’ve had to put through Google Translate to understand what they’re saying. It’s mostly variations on the theme of “lucky bastard”, which warms the cockles of my heart.

Today’s topic was tabletop roleplaying games. The lecturers went over stuff like power in narration, the question whether there is or isn’t a story in a roleplaying game session, and what the hell is a story, anyway, and so forth.

And then there was the dread diegesis.

“Diegesis” is one of the terms that I’ve heard bandied about in RPG theory for about as long as I’ve been aware of it existing. Ironically, it’s been mostly Stenros and Montola bandying it about. For the first time, I actually understood the concept.

It’s probably easiest to use a movie as an example. Diegesis is, in short, what is real inside the context of the story. In, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy, his whip, the temple and Mola Ram and all that crap exist inside the diegesis, are real within the film. The John Williams score is outside the diegesis – Indy doesn’t hear the familiar chords every time he performs feats of derring-do, or he’d probably get fed up with it right quick and keep to the classroom. It is possible, of course, that a character dreams or hallucinates some of the events, but even in that case, the act of dreaming or hallucinating exists within the diegesis.

I hope I got that explanation right. If not, someone will likely be along shortly to correct me.

Every player also creates his own diegesis, because every player interprets the game material in a subtly different fashion. This was illustrated with a Knights of the Dinner Table strip, where B.A. (the DM) tells the party they see a beholder, his concept of it described with the beholder illustration from the 3E Monster Manual. The party’s different interpretations of this were different pieces of beholder art from other supplements, except Dave’s, who had no idea what a beholder was. Though the different pieces of beholder art have a number of differences between them, they are still identifiably the same creature and though each player’s concept of the beholder is subtly different, they are still compatible enough for the game to smoothly proceed. There is a constant process of negotiation between the players to find an equifinal diegesis.

When it doesn’t work, it leads into the Tale of Eric and the Gazebo. Which the lecturers acted out in front of the class. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed with tears in my eyes on a lecture before.

In addition to the lectures, we also have articles to read, included in the 31MB pack of course material. For this one, we had a pair of articles from the collection Gaming as Culture, by Dennis D. Waskul and Sean Q. Hendricks. They’re very basic descriptions of roleplaying games from a sociologist’s point of view.

I did find a point of irritation in Waskul’s article, “The Role-Playing Game and the Game of Role-Playing”, though, in his example of “bad metagaming”. It is a direct quote from a player interview, and the game is explicitly stated to be Dungeons & Dragons.

Once, when we were fighting an army of goblins – well, maybe an army is over exaggerated, but anyway – because one of the players knew the average hit points of a goblin and the average damage of his fireball spell, he knew exactly how many times he would have to cast the spell. While it could be seen that the player would know this, it seems that the player took the role-playing out and turned it into a numbers game – which, in my opinion, takes the fun out of the game!

Which doesn’t really hold any merit whatsoever as an example of metagaming. For a start, it cannot be generalised into any game system that cannot be reduced to a numbers level. Additionally, the details, when viewed inside the context of Dungeons & Dragons, make no sense. A goblin’s hit points are, depending slightly on the edition (and the article only refers specifically to the third edition), around 5-7. In every edition of the game, a fireball spell does 1d6 points of damage per level of the caster. It’s a third-level spell, and a wizard gains it at level 5. Therefore, the minimum damage of a fireball is 5d6. The absolute minimum that can be rolled, with a really crappy roll, would be five. A fireball will more or less automatically kill any goblins it hits. The example makes no sense because it makes it look like it’d take some sort of calculation, analysis, or conscious thought to count the fireballs, which it doesn’t, since anyone who’s played a character to the fifth level will know that a goblin has jack and shit for hit points and hitting a goblin with a fireball is much like hitting a first-grader with a frag grenade. Now, class, how many frag grenades can a first-grader take? Anyone? Bueller?

Essentially, unless the player really rattled out the numbers in that instance, one cannot say that metagaming has happened, and even then, I’d call it bad roleplaying instead of metagaming

Oh, and what the hell is a fifth-level wizard doing fighting goblins, anyway? They’re what you fight at first level, and amount to little more than speed bumps at fireball levels. Using a fireball on goblins would be a waste, anyway, since the group’s fighter and cleric can just wade in swinging and take them all out without expending a third-level spell, a valuable resource.

I’d say a far better example of metagaming would be a player utilising intradiegetic information that his character can in no way possess – for instance, after a PC and an NPC have had a conversation without the presence of other PCs that was played out at the game table before all the other players, using information gleaned from that conversation even though your PC was not present. Or the classic example, when a party member is getting his ass kicked on an alley while the rest of the party is carousing in the inn, the carousers suddenly getting an urge to go check out the local graffiti.

Next week, LARP.

Perhaps I should review the course for Roolipelaaja. I wonder if I can get a five if I promise to give them a top score?

7 thoughts on “The RPG Course – Lecture Two

  1. Very nice seeing that the course is having such an effect on you – the use of diegesis is spot on. πŸ™‚

    And I very much agree with you on Waskul, but one has to take into account that it’s written from a very different gaming perspective than what is taking place here in the Nordic countries.

  2. “In every edition of the game, a fireball spell does 1d6 points of damage per level of the caster. It’s a third-level spell, and a wizard gains it at level 5. Therefore, the minimum damage of a fireball is 5d6. The absolute minimum that can be rolled, with a really crappy roll, would be five. A fireball will more or less automatically kill any goblins it hits.”

    The above isn’t true for 4e. In 4e, Fireball is a 5th level daily that does 3d6+Intelligence modifier fire damage. A fireball can not kill ANY goblin (except minons) at the moment it is gained. 4e’s just like all the other editions of D&D except where it isn’t. πŸ˜‰

  3. I can see the “bad metagaming” example can be taken the way the lecutrer saw it. If that is you take metagaming to be the following.

    “The player allowing the character to have information regarding the situation the character would not know”.

    Now, considering we are talking about D&D3.X it is possible the goblins had levels and it is therefore possible they would not automatically be killed out right with a fireball. However, even if for a moment the player thought…”mmm goblins, I am level x there are n number of them and that means they are likey to have y hp between them” the player has given information to his character that does not exist within the world his character is a part.

    But, to be honest with you, I think D&D is partly targeted at that mindset and people should not be too shocked that some players actually enjoy playing the game from that perspective.

  4. Joseph, you are quite correct. However, the book was released years before 4E and therefore it cannot be the edition in question.

    Bartmoss, possibly, but that information was not included in the essay. It is clear to me that the person describing the event either cut a few corners or just made it up.

    Also, I’d argue that a wizard, just like anyone else, can tell that a goblin isn’t likely to take many hits and stay standing, just by looking at one. Especially after the fighter has offed the first one.

  5. In case we forgot to mention on the lecture, the two beholder slides illustrating diegeses were stolen from Andreas Lieberoth.

    – M

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s