Metagaming and Levels

A thread on the forums of an NWN1 PW reminded me of another of the evils of levels. They force metagaming in supposedly immersive roleplay environments.

Let’s take the humble gate guard and his role in the world. He is nearly ubiquitous; being one of the stock decorative NPCs whose role is to convey the idea that there is a ruling entity to “keep the peace”. He represents stability and government in whatever parts of the world are civilized. He is not all powerful. If he were, player characters would be redundant. All of those pressing issues that the denizens of the town have to deal with (a.k.a. quests) would get accomplished so much easier with a reliable police force instead of unreliable mercenaries and bounty hunters (a.k.a. player characters). Those orcs that keep raiding the settlements? Exterminated. Those bandits bothering the trade caravans? All locked up. That dragon (a.k.a. the raid instance) who takes a virgin every full moon as a “protection” payment? Long since stuffed and placed in a museum.

Obviously, the guards can’t be all powerful or these adventure tropes would not exist. Nor can they be all powerful, but too busy to do their jobs. We can’t take the argument that the guards are for the town only. No settlement of any size can survive without the support of the surrounding countryside. Cutting a town or city off from its lifeline to the surrounding countryside is exactly what besieging armies do. The sovereign territory of even the smallest city states extends far enough into the countryside to guarantee a supply of food and water for the city. A guard or militia that was technically capable of dealing with these problems, but chose not to… well, that is a genre by itself and when the characters in this genre have guns, we call it Half Life 2. Let’s presume for a moment that we are not roleplaying subversives in an Orwellian nightmare of a world. Then we are back to non-über guards.

Except there is a problem. Players inhabit our worlds. The player characters – especially elder game characters at or near the level cap – are supposed to be great heroes that are powerful. Except that there are a lot of these epic and unique individuals. Some of these great heroes are more like villains; or at least prone to rowdyism.

This causes a problem for the world in that non-über guards would die regularly at the hands of miscreant PCs. In this case, either the guards are being respawned on a regular basis, or being replaced on a regular basis with the near certainty that a powerful PC will come along and kill them in short order. Since we are after immersion, this straining of credibility is unacceptable. In addition to the lack of prowess, these guards usually do not have proper AI for dealing with miscreants. The “dumb” AI used on mobs, which seems so popular as a design decision for giving players a feeling of success when they pound the stuffing out of animated punching bags, only serves to make the guards weaker, clumsy, easily exploited, or all three.

The problem of course is that in order for the guards to be credible, they have to be completely over the top; or they have to be invulnerable or have some sort of god mode. The usual approach on roleplay oriented worlds is to make guards godlike and leave the awful AI. Then there is some rule about “using common sense” and pretending that they were not so weak, stupid or both after all. This is usually combined with a rule about requiring a GM to be present in order to play out the guards and keep control of the situation. From a purely immersion oriented standpoint, this sort of forced metagaming hurts the roleplay environment, rather than helping it.

I keep track of the forums of a number of roleplay persistent worlds of both the NWN 1/2 and MUD variety. The thread I mentioned in the opening sentence was very interesting. That world is in a Forgotten Realms setting. One of the players of a drow character wanted to clarify rules on sneaking onto a surface city. He was essentially told that doing so without a DM around was metagaming the NPC’s AI. A member of their community brought up a very good point.

I suspect the term metagaming is used slightly differently on compared to P&P gamers, or under vastly different circumstances.

Metagaming in the traditional meaning of the word is, though I expect violent protest against this, perfectly okay in many cases.

If, e. g., your characters are just about to start a journey to some faraway place, but you as players know that there’s a reset in five minutes, you might make your characters wait/prepare a little while so as not to be thrown back to your starting place by the reset. This is a clear case of metagaming – player knowledge changes character behaviour.

Players apparently ask about character levels here before partying to avoid the 5-level-gap-XP-penalty-mechanism, and their characters act accordingly. Again a case of metagaming – the characters have no concept of levels, XP or being in a party or not.

Sticking to certain rules or expected behaviours here requires a certain amount of metagaming in the traditional use of the word.

This particular server has a level cap of 30; which puts you well into the “epic” category under the 3E Dungeons and Dragon’s ruleset. We have a dissonance here. We are trying to achieve immersion conductive to roleplay, yet we have to explicitly spell out rules of conduct for when to take NPCs at face value and when not to; in short, how to metagame to preserve the fiction. This sort of officially sanctioned metagaming nonsense happens all over. Are there rules governing experience payout when there is a large level difference between characters? This is officially sanctioned metagaming. Are there any level based unlocks for gear, content, etc? Again, officially sanctioned metagaming. Do mobs not drop the equipment that they were obviously wielding? Etc. In such cases, we are asked to pretend we don’t see the gyrating elephant.

The lead developer of the server had a comment in the thread that was probably intended to be snarky:

My suggestion: Let’s put the level cap of Amia at 5. All problems solved

Interestingly enough, what if there was such a cap? That world would probably lose its playerbase. In my experience in the NWN PW roleplay scene, higher level caps tend to correlate with higher achiever/gamist focus at the loss of the other foci. Such a playerbase will always strike a balance between gameplay and immersion that errs on the gameplay side and have to live with the metagaming that it entails.

What about players who would not be scared away by such a policy? The dramists and simulationists of the world use the immersion factor to drive their play more so than the gameplay factor. Guards no longer need to be über because even the greatest of heroes are not invincible.

But is it viable?

NWN 1/2 makes a good data source for looking at this as it is a standardized “codebase” where the engine mechanics are the same or similar; so we can presumably make direct comparisons based on how high the level cap is. What does not bode well for this type of approach is that the seven NWN1 PWs categorized under roleplay that are currently up and have level caps below 20 as I write this have 25 players between them; with seventeen on “Zombie Survival”, six on one, two on another and the other four empty. On the NWN2 side, one of the two servers with a cap of 15 has two players and the other is empty. In total, the number of players on roleplay category servers currently number in the low hundreds between the two platforms.

This is interesting to me as the results of Nick Yee’s player motivations research suggests that there should be a large subset of roleplayers who don’t highly value achievement. Could it be that having the numbers available means that players want to metagame and will actively choose a world with higher level counts? Is this an artifact due to a large percentage of NWN players being attracted specifically to the D&D ruleset and its traditions? Is it because players simply expect achievement, even if they are not attracted to it explicitly? Or is it simply that the low cap worlds have other problems?

These are intersting questions for an immersion oriented designer.

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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2 Responses to Metagaming and Levels

  1. D^t says:

    I am far from an expert on D&D worlds, but – as an outsider – levels, regardless of game, have a stigma of representing power and growth to a player, and in some misinformed circles content.

    Everything is relative of course, but if D&D has a history of having the most epic of encounters around level 25 to 30, why would someone ever want to limit themselves out of that content range? Why play in a world where the level cap is 5 or 10 and the quests involve killing goblins and undead when you can play in a world with the level cap at 20 an kill liches and dragons?

    In the level 20 world one can still theoretically complete level 5-10 quests, but why invest time into a world with limitations is my argument? Now as I said before, this is a unhealthy stigma developed from birth when we turn age 1 and believe numbers represent something more than what they are.

    The second reason I’ve found is a numerical return on investment. If I’m a gamer choosing where to spend time in a game, I feel more accomplished if after a month of game play I’m level 30 instead of 10. Dungeons & Dragons Online had his very exact problem when they launched so they added meta levels (actual D&D levels are broke into chunks of 10) to give the player a sense achievement.

    To be successful a game can not start with any preconceived notion of levels which is where I believe the NWN model breaks down.

    -D^t

  2. Pingback: More on Williams’ roleplayer survey « Dancing Elephants

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