Meta-gaming, Actor-Stance, Author-stance, and Narration

Twitter. The final frontier new hotness. These are the transcripts of gaming nerds, trying to discuss involved game sessions using nerd jargon, in 140 characters or less.

After Wednesday night’s PTA game (where we are now 4/6 on our season of Ironwall), Tim (cyface) tweeted:

cyface A good game of #sg-pta last night. Had to tie @doycet to the stone table to make him RP instead of Metagame, but we got there. ūüôā

Now, I know Tim meant no harm in his comment, and I know specifically (I think) which scene he was (mostly) referring to, but I couldn’t resist a reply.

doycet @cyface I attribute my flighty non-rpness to being really unsure if we’d get the bloody episode done on time without fast-forwarding.

Which unsurety stemmed from the fact that one guy’s spotlight episode (Tim’s, actually) coincided with a ‘screen presence: 2’ for every other character: two of them ramping up to their spotlight eps, and one coming down off his spotlight and ‘wrapping up’. There was a lot going on!

Then, of course, I started second guessing myself:

doycet @cyface Unless I’m that bad all the time — in which case… yeah, I don’t know.

Tim replied:

cyface @doycet Some of both, but generally, live for the moment, as long as the moment is good!

Meera also commented (in a reflection of the fact that she still feels she’s learning to grok some of the indie voodoo):

mtfierce @cyface Funny, I thought @doycet only metagamed in pity for the kids at the back of the indie class.

Which is a kind thing to say, and perhaps more consideration than I warrant — I know one of the things I’ve failed at with PTA in the past has been meta-level discussion of the events in the game in lieu of… you know… PLAYING.¬† It’s something I’ve been trying to avoid (pretty successfully, I believe) in the current season of play.

So went back and really thought about the game session (and previous sessions) in an analytical (and somewhat unkind) fashion.  That analysis prompted my next couple statements:

doycet @cyface Trying to analyze my play — is it meta-game, or doing author-stance narration? If it’s the later, then… yeah, I am. For me, authoring > acting.

doycet @cyface By “>”, I mean “more personal enjoyment/comfortable for me”. I do enjoy both kinds of play in others, and even acting for myself… in smaller doses.

This led us off into a (more profitable, IMO) discussion.

cyface @doycet It’s an interesting question. Assuming author is being well cared for, I’d prolly choose actor. But if author bad, actor = painful

cyface @doycet …and thus I’d choose author since I think it’s affects more people at once. If I can stabilize author, back to actor.

Hmm. Okay, I understand, here, what Tim’s saying, I think: “Assuming the story isn’t careening off the rails, I’d rather ‘play my guy’ and not step back into an author-level role unless necessary.”¬† Which is fine, but not exactly what I was talking about. To whit:

doycet @cyface Not 100% we mean the same wrt ‘author stance’. I just mean ‘playing my guy’ in 3rd person (author), rather than 1st person (actor).

doycet @cyface So, put another way, I-the-player am more comfortable playing in 3rd person than 1st, and wonder if my 3rd-person play reads, to you, as meta-play.

doycet @cyface @mtfierce I think there may be >2 modes: 1st prsn RP, 3rd prsn authorial description, omniscient scene narration, & meta-level “pre-summary”.

Here, I’m basically co-opting Forge-speak terms for stuff.

  • Actor-stance. The way I’m using it, I mean interacting with the game from your character’s 1st person point-of-view.¬† Obviously, you’re only using info the character knows, and your play is mostly roleplay, in the traditional, non-game sense.
  • Author-stance. You’re still just playing your guy, but the POV is more of a personalized 3rd-person, rather than 1st-person. Your character is still only acting ‘as they would act’, but rather than sort of improv’d roleplay acting, you may be describing their actions and what they say, rather than playing them out.
  • Director Stance. The player actually determines aspects of the story relative to the character in some fashion, entirely separately from the character’s knowledge or ability to influence events. So, the player not only determines their character’s actions, but the context, timing, and spatial circumstances of those actions, or even features of the world separate from the characters. (I do this all the time – it still isn’t meta-play.)
  • Meta-level “play” is, for me, something to be avoided, where you’d doing stuff like “Okay, if I succeed here, this is exactly what happens, and if you succeed, this is exactly what happens…” and then we roll dice (or whatever) and… there’s nothing left to PLAY, cuz we already described every possible outcome, so we just tic a box on the form we already filled out and go on to the next scene.¬† Some folks (me included) think of this as ‘playing before you actually play’.

So… yeah, if I read Tim’s first tweet as being backed with all this terminology (I rather doubt it was, and good for him), then I’d have thought he was saying I was doing that last thing.¬† Hopefully, what he was saying was that I was doing more Director Stance wankery (which, to be fair, I enjoy) rather than Actor (which, to be fair, Tim seems to (inexplicably) enjoy seeing me do).

doycet @cyface @mtfierce I’d say only meta-“pre-summary” is sucky “playing-without-play”, but either rules/results analysis -or- bad scene narration can BECOME that thing, by accident.

Now, personally, I don’t necessarily think Author or Director stances are bad – I’m a writer, so of course I enjoy looking at the scene from the CAMERA’S point of view, rather than the actors.¬† I’d go so far as to say I actually prefer them over Actor stance (full on, first person roleplay) for myself, but I’m at ease enough in my own neuroses to admit that at least one (lesser) reason I find them more comfortable (read: safe) is because when I get into first-person roleplaying in a scene, I get more emotionally wrapped up in the scene.

Well, duh.  Of course I do.  Let me rephrase.

“I’ll actually (sometimes) get more emotionally wrapped up in the scene than I’m comfortable with, and I’m concerned I might¬† make my fellow players uncomfortable with the level of my emotional involvement (when I play angry, I’ll get angry, et cetera), so I instinctively avoid it… That’s actually happened in the past, and I make me feel a little oogey.”

Said oogeyness is entirely a trust issue, and I really should cowboy-up and let go of my trust issues when I’m playing with the Wednesday group. Feh.

But still… that issue aside, I just plain like author/director modes.

What about you guys?


In a weird bit of synchronicity, Paul Czege made this comment on a thread over on Story Games just last week:

I think lots of indie games have skewed many of us to where our play behavior is more like authoring at each other than it is character play. We play many indie games to use the engine of the mechanics to author something that affects the other players. But the result is, paradoxically, less affecting.

Because for a story to be affecting, it must be made from some of the author’s bare personality and honest identity. When a player’s character is a tool for affecting others, more than a membrane for two-way communication, play is “awesome” but boring. We appreciate the creativity and talents of our fellow players, but have no contact with their identities.

So there’s that. I don’t think Paul is wrong.


  1. Rrrgh. I have three thoughts that really probably warrant three separate posts in response, and no time to write them. But short form – it’s not just you. I dominate the “quotes page” in my Tuesday night group and barely manage a startled “eep!” here. It’s getting better, and I know this one is the better overall experience, I just need to feel out some boundaries and find the comfort level. I have a lot of theories.

  2. I have another post more specific to comparisons in actual games, so some stuff might be relevant there as well.

    And, as with me, some of your quiet might come from lack of complete comfort. That’ll come, I’m sure.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I hadn’t. I’m reading it (and the rest of the thread) with interest (and a mix of nodding and head-shaking, as appropriate).

    In the particular case of PTA, I don’t know that we have the problem you described — we haven’t played enough, probably, to get to that point — the awarding of fanmail is something that still seems to happen as kind of an afterthought, with neither the players or the audience really aware of it at the time.

  4. Tim and I talked about this whole thing some more on Monday night. Some good stuff came out of that talk that didn’t make it over here. One highlight:

    “Yes, but getting emotionally involved in a scene and into that kind of ‘dangerous’ place is where a lot of GOOD is.”
    “Yeah, I know…”

  5. What’s interesting to me is just how enculturated this “authoring at” style of play has become. Go to Forge Midwest, Camp Nerdly, Dreamation, Gen Con, and it’s what you find. And not just with Primetime Adventures, but also with Dogs In the Vineyard, The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, Grey Ranks, and any game that lets the players hone and refine conflicts, scene details, and character actions for more awesome.

  6. But yeah, the “dangerous place” is an interesting concept. Does it only arise as a possibility when there’s some outer constraint on scene details? To be an honest dangerous place it has to feel dangerous as a player, right?

  7. I wish I could get to more of those game conventions — my last Forge Midwest was two years back, sadly — but on the other hand, I suppose I’ve missed out on this development, and … I’m okay with that?

    To whit: what I see you describing here (and in that thread) is a kind of self-aware authoring of events so as to get specific reactions from the rest of the players at the table.

    Which is… kind of bullshit? I mean, I’ll say at the table, during narration “Oh, you know what would be awesome? If the car blows up too.” But I’m not really sitting there thinking “okay, if the car blows up, will I get FanMail? What WOULD get me fanmail?” (More on that in a sec.)

    What originally prompted this whole twitter conversation betwixt me and Tim was something at the table where I do this:

    “Blackwing sort of looks at you in this funny, almost taken aback way, and then mutters something like, ‘you think you know someone…'”

    And what (I feel) Tim wants (or at least what he pushed for last session):

    *Doyce looks at [meera] with a strange, taken aback expressions, and mutters ‘you think you know someone…’*

    … mostly because Tim apparently finds it enjoyable to see me in that mode of play.

    … which I’m slowly realizing I’m adverse too solely because I’m insulating myself like a big chicken.

  8. Yeah, that’s exactly it, Paul. A dangerous place doesn’t have to be DANGEROUS dangerous — I’m not talking about delving into “Silence Makes a Victim”-level stuff here, just a situation where the scene is emotionally charged enough that *I* am going to get emotionally charged.

    I’m an emotional motherfucker, sometimes, and I’ve *gotten* emotional while playing some character or other in a game, and while I felt like it resulted in GOOD stuff, it also felt like I left a few people with a distinctly shifting-in-thier-seats feeling for a bit, and I didn’t like THAT, so I’ve avoided that level of emotional… something. Investment isn’t quite right. Sharing.

    It’s a trust issue — knowing that the people at the table will know that (a) this isn’t exactly you, but still appreciating that (b) it IS a *little* bit of you, which is part of what makes the whole scene better.

    Or, as Tim said on Monday. “Yeah, but that’s where the GOOD STUFF is at.”

    And he’s right. There are two reasons I trained myself away from those dangerous scenes for about five years (except, ironically, when I’m at cons or playing with strangers), and now I think I need to let myself go back there some more.

  9. Identity is always an issue. (Hah!)

    I don’t want to say being the only woman at the table is an issue, because there’s no reason it should be.

    Comfort with my character is an issue – it does take me a few sessions to really “know” a character – Sienna and Celia was a surprise, but a fun one. I’m still not 100% sure of what Sienna and Blackwing’s relationship is, but I’ll know by next session, darnit.

    System comfort is an issue. How fast and furious should the fanmail fly?

    Story comfort is an issue: the scene when Sienna came back from Veronica and talked to Cam was the first scene I was truly comfortable playing. I knew what I wanted/needed to say. Pinning Cam down with, “You *fix* things,” was good (IMO).

    Sometimes we might own a character too much. Maybe we fear how they might change. (Not been my problem in a while, but that’s because chance likes to beat me.)

    There’s always personal issues – how frantic was traffic? Did I eat? Is my mom blowing up the phone because of some kind of crisis? Am I still in work clothes? These kinds of things that are inevitable and with discipline can be removed from focus.

    It isn’t like we’re revealing personal secrets, but there’s still a lot of intimacy in gaming and all the baloney associated. Getting to the right place may just take time.

  10. Very good article and comments. It looks like wherever this discussion goes it has it’s own flavor. I like the way it’s presented here better than the other places I’ve seen it this week, yet I know it would be very different if it were me and my group.

    I’d still like to hear you three do a podcast on this subject. There’s clearly a lot left to discuss!

Comments are closed.