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When a player has their character do something completely outside of the perceived norm for that character, is it okay to ask them for a justification?

If they can not give satisfactory justification, would it be appropriate to have them take another course of action?

In my group, one of the biggest issues is meta-gaming. Characters doing things that they would have no cause to do, simply because their player has privileged information. It's gotten so bad, my only recourse when I'm DMing has been to ask players to justify their actions. Some of my players are against this; others find it annoying, but understand as they have to do the same.

Even more so, though, we have an issue with people acting... well, random. Quite often, they will pick the most direct route to solve their problems, while completely ignoring anything near standard cultural norms, or even basic common sense. They will do things that, in any form of society, will get them into no end of trouble. Often times, their characters act more like a collection of stock cartoon-gags than actual people. Our group doesn't have a regular DM because of this very issue. No one is willing to try and put up with dealing with the rest of the group as characters.

I tried providing in-game consequences for their actions. They were arrested, and then immediately assumed it was paramount to a tpk. When I, or anyone, tries giving actions consequences, it only ever frustrates people, as one of two things will happen; either they continue acting random and without fail get their characters killed, or they throw on the breaks so hard to do a 180 with their characters' personality that you can almost hear it.

The group averages from 19-24. It's never been larger than six people, including DM. None of us can find a new group; we can never be sure what day we can meet, we're the only players in a ten mile radius, we've all invested time and money into the current game and don't have enough of either to find a new one, and there aren't enough players to give up even one player, as every time we've added a player, they've left within the month because of scheduling issues.

So, we considered just making it a requirement that any given action taken by a character is subject to DM scrutiny, and will be ignored and re-done if found unsatisfactory as something said character might do. Is there any issue with that?

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If everyone considers it a problem, why is it still a problem?? :/ –  Jason_c_o Aug 16 at 0:04

13 Answers 13

up vote 43 down vote accepted

There are a ton of issues with that.

That doesn’t automatically mean it’s the wrong move, just that it’s fraught with problems.

Ultimately, most people feel that roleplaying works best when everyone, ya know, plays a role. As in, behaves as their character would, based on what their character knows, rather than how they would, based on what they know. This is usually the goal.

However, most groups don’t explicitly enforce it. It’s considered bad taste to meta-game, it’s considered good roleplaying to stay in character even when it hurts, but there aren’t specific rules about it, and in many groups the DM claiming “your character wouldn’t do that” is a gross violation of the player’s area of control (i.e. their character). Statements to that effect have been reasons to leave a group for a lot of players in a lot of situations, and while I am lucky to have never played under a DM who seriously thought that was his business, if I were I most likely wouldn’t tolerate it.

But your group may be different. You are expressing frustration with the status quo, and that is presumably a feeling shared by others. This could be a solution to that, and ideally the questioning would come more as a reminder than as any real attempt to control others’ characters.

That said, the objections of some people in your group suggests that not everyone feels the way you do. There are people in the group who either A. feel they are not metagaming, or B. feel that the metagaming is a good thing, and in both cases there is not a problem. Both perspectives are valid, though B is a bit unusual. (There is a third option, C, wherein people recognize that there is a problem but dislike this solution; I would probably fall in that category. That said, these people are probably already doing their best not to metagame.)

So what you really need to do is discuss metagaming, what is or isn’t and how much is or isn’t appropriate. You need to have a mature discussion, and you need to listen to others’ opinions, perspectives, and preferences. More than likely, no two people in the group will exactly align, but hopefully everyone will be near enough to some common ground that a compromise can be made.

And once you have that, you really probably don’t need this rule. You might include it, in theory, if people felt they needed to be reminded or “called on” for metagaming, but I really cannot imagine any point where it is a good idea for a DM to say “no, your character would not do that.” You can question an action (though even that might be disrespectful), but ultimately the DM has to back down there because his authority, so absolute otherwise, cannot control player characters like that, or else the players have nothing and there is no game.

Under no circumstances should this rule be even considered unless everyone wants it. A group that agreed it would be for the best to get called in this fashion could work. But if some do, and some don’t, it is not a reasonable thing for a DM to expect of players. The individuals who requested it could get called on it, but you should never tell someone he’s not playing his character right, after he’s specifically told you to stay hands-off on that subject. Were it me, I would walk out the very first time it happened, assuming you convinced me to stay at all, which I tend to doubt.

There can still be a compromise even if people object to this as a rule, of course; that’s actually normal for most groups. E.g. if you say something like “I won’t call you on it, but it is your responsibility to avoid metagaming and this game isn’t going to survive if you don’t.” and he says “OK, I will do what I can,” that is a workable situation.

But if no compromise can be made, if some feel that their behavior is entirely appropriate and refuse to modify it, and you feel your expectations are entirely reasonable and refuse to modify those, then you have learned this without going through it the hard way: you are not a compatible group of people who are looking for the same game. That’s pretty much what you’d discover if you tried to “enforce” these rules without a compromise, but there’d be a lot more ill feelings. Better to skip that step.

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The game you want to run is not the game they want to play.

Fundamentally, gaming is a consensual activity. You clearly have very strong views about what kind of game you want to play, strong enough to trump your annoyance with the rest of the players not playing that game.

While it's not "wrong" to require justification, it will leave you without players quite quickly.

Instead, pick up a copy of Paranoia, BESM, Maid, or any of the other cartoony-gag based RPGs and embrace the game that the group wants to play. Run through the Same Page Tool with your group and use it to (search for and) build a game-recommendation question that fits your entire groups' needs.

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+1 for the first line alone. @Zach, based on several of your questions here, I really do suspect that this is the case. You have quite a few about trying to induce or coerce “correct” behavior from players, and that’s just never going to work and the fact that you want to speaks to a fundamental difference between what you want and what the players want. –  KRyan Dec 3 '13 at 6:50
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@Zach Now you're literally saying, "I don't give a crap about what the players want, they are a captive audience!" That may be true, but treating them like a captive audience is why your game is busted in the first place. –  Alex P Dec 3 '13 at 18:19
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@Zach At this point, based on your responses to this answer and the comments with it, it sounds less like you're asking for an answer and more asking for validation of your (highly subjective) difficulty with your group. With no specific system tags and no willingness to reevaluate your question, it's going to be very difficult to provide you with satisfying, objective answers without basically rewording the above, as KRyan did below (not to mention the fact that KRyan endorsed this over his own answer as a more concise summation of the same statement). –  David C Ellis Dec 3 '13 at 18:44
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@Zach No, this is a good answer, in fact it is a great answer (as David says, better than mine), it’s just not the answer you want to hear. And for that, well, too bad. –  KRyan Dec 3 '13 at 19:05
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@Zach If time or money are obstacles to changing systems, that could easily become part of a system recommendation question. We can certainly find free and quick to learn games for your group. –  IgneusJotunn Dec 3 '13 at 23:08

I think it's fine, depending on the approach. Here's how I see it, exaggerated a bit for clarity.

Wrong: You can't do that unless you tell me how it makes sense to your character.

Right: That doesn't jive with my understanding of your character. Can you explain why your character is taking that action so I understand him better?

The way I see it is that there are two versions of the character - the GM's and the PC's. I want the PC's version to be correct and assume my version is out of sync. But if the player can't justify the action, it still leaves them room to back pedal without me being the bad guy who denies players their actions.

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Perfect answer. If you demand I justify myself as a player, then "I said so." is really all I should ever need. If you ask me to explain my character's motivations, you will probably get more details than you wanted. And for someone who hadn't thought about their character's motivation, it can help them think it thorugh without being confrontational about it. –  TimothyAWiseman Dec 6 '13 at 18:05

It's probably a bad idea.

Meta-gaming can be an issue, but attempting to forcefully control it in this way will only cause more conflict. After all, being unable to justify how one interprets the actions of their own character can be a sign of excellent roleplaying, as well - if you've really become this other person, only you know what they would do, and no one can judge you on it. The real issue is that this requires a level of trust between game master and players - you have to trust that they will not meta-game, and they have to trust that you will allow them freedom. Without that trust, you're going to continue to have problems indefinitely.

You can't try to force players into behaving. You need to have a trusting, cooperative, understanding relationship with them first. If you don't have this, you should find different players.

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I disagree. Any choice I can remember making, any action I can remember taking I can tell you WHY I did it. Granted, maybe the justification was not brilliant in hindsight, but I can still point to a reason. –  Pulsehead Dec 3 '13 at 17:27
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@Pulsehead Just like how a real person thinks, not all decisions that a character makes are based on "logic" - at least not that is easily possible to articulate. It's possible to act on gut feelings that you can't explain in words to someone else, yet are completely true to the person. For this reason, it's not acceptable to demand for someone to try. –  Southpaw Hare Dec 3 '13 at 17:48

My gaming group has a specific hour or so set aside before the game to "get our sillies out". We listen to music, or play gag games, such as Munchkin or other games. We don't interact very much aside from on the gaming table so we need to get our fun time out. Sometimes, this is all a group needs.

Other times, they need some sort of emotional attachment to their characters. Often we don't see a reason to connect with our character, and I find the best way to connect is strife and struggle. Now you say they solve their problems with a direct path. So, refuse to show them the solution, don't divulge the information that everyone uses out of character. I know SOME of that is something you can't help, but once in a while we explain something to a player and another player goes "I go to that" (this is the simplified version), so we have to say "To what? You'd have no way of knowing it's there." We have called out players a few times, but we don't have them justify EVERY action, that would get redundant, we encourage thinking aloud though, the DMs loovveee to hear the character thought process. So we encourage them to tell us what their character is thinking. And we don't show them immediate accusation such as "I don't believe you, explain."

We go "That's interesting, how did your character come to that conclusion?" or "Tell me what your character is thinking." Or other similar-ish questions that make it seem like we are more interested in immersion then accusation. Even justify it "I want to learn more about your character" so you can fit it into the game, or create a more immersive deep experience. If you are a player mention thought provoking things that will get them to debate it or have their opinion. Be a little controversial and say something like "My character finds that wrong because __". Or have your character in game confront other characters. Say someone take something from an npc and pushes them aside, your character can step in front and confront them. "What are you doing? That woman has done nothing to you!"

The more you try to accuse or talk to them out of the game, the more they will respond out of game. Anyways, these are just suggestions that seem to work for us and players don't get nearly as annoyed. Well, heated, sometimes, but being passionate over the game is better than being annoyed because they are being accused of something.

Good luck!

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The "I want to learn more about your character" sounds like a nice trick. –  Joel Coehoorn Dec 4 '13 at 4:36

Sometimes it depends on the game system you are using to enforce these types of actions. D&D's alignment system allows you to warn them when they are about to break character attitude because if they do something impactful or often enough they take penalties.

There's also Scion, where there are things called "Virtues", and whenever a character wants to act against any of their four virtues they must roll. Failing the roll lets them act against their nature for that action while success means that their isms get the best of them. There's even a 'critical success' type option where too high a roll makes them do something self detrimental out of disgust with themselves (e.g. someone with Duty as a virtue that tries to shirk responsibility may end up tending only to their responsibilities without eating, sleeping, etc.)

Another example I can think of is Mechwarrior 3e where there is a disadvantage called "Quirk". There are two levels to quirks. The first allows the character to make a steep willpower roll to act against it, and the second means it's an unfailing part of their persona. Quirks are a nice abstract thing, which include Quirk/Clan Honor, Paranoid, Xenophobic, Fear of Fire, Elitism, Vengeful, etc. Quirks comes in all sorts of flavors which makes for a nice widespread creation.

So if you want a little more opacity to the fourth wall, a system with enforced personality traits could be a solution.

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Playing against personality traits is rarely the same thing as metagaming. I don't see this helping the problem in the question. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 3 '13 at 15:38
    
In a lot of games I've been to, the problem with metagaming is people acting out of character to avoid something the player knows is coming. Plus if the characters have any traits that make them bound to certain rules, the aspects about disobeying consequence or common sense come into play. Lawful or good alignments, the virtue of Order, the Quirk of Honor. –  CatLord Dec 4 '13 at 12:45

In our group we prevent this before it can start and have set rules. A player would never break these rules because they would get looked down on.

The only way this can be achieves is through having GM, Assistant GM and a Player Rep position.

They discuss the rules of the group and conduct and if anyone consistently breaks these rules you decide on penalties, either acts of God or a group decision to not ask that member back the following week, with if they come back the week after and repeat then as we call it they are Black Rose'd and asked to leave the group.

This is a drastic action but no group needs to be disrupted and even amongst friends rules need to be set and you have to be frank honest and open while out of character.

To elaborate slightly with an example: If a member of the group is using information not obtained by the character a house rule may be as lenient as a roll to see if they can use intuition or guess this is the case, or even blankly say no. Further if a player is continuously making disruptions to the group and spoiling it for other players they can be asked to take a time out after discussing the matter in private with them.

I cannot say what would be right for your groups but you would know and sit down with at least 2 other people to decide what house rules should be applied and what they should be.

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You mention rules that prevent this, but don't say what they are. Which exact rules do you have that work to prevent metagaming? –  SevenSidedDie Dec 3 '13 at 15:40
    
You have to define your own rules, standards of play and be honest if these aren't met and give guidance. Our roleplay group expanded to over 4 times its original size because of the fair structure in place and it really helps. We set out requirements, bonuses, in house rules that will sway what happens depending on the players roleplay efforts. I say efforts because as long as someone tries then they arent doing it wrong. –  Hugh Wood Dec 3 '13 at 15:59
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I mean, supplying an example would improve this. Right now it just says "make a rule that you have to behave, kick them out if they break it", which is good but vague advice. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 3 '13 at 18:01
    
Unfortunately it is vague as the question is broad. Every group is different and you need to take this into account. –  Hugh Wood Jan 10 at 11:43
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The example you added on the 3rd does improve this, adding clarity for the reader without accidentally suggesting that everyone should use the exact same house rule. Thanks! –  SevenSidedDie Jan 10 at 15:35

I can't really tell you if it is right or wrong but you could give an incentive to do right actions that your character would do. Our GM gives us bonus XP for playing our character completely true and giving him a reason for the actions. Maybe the bonus XP would help keep your players on track. It really helped our group, it even made us go more in-depth in character creation.

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The question isn't about how to incentivise users to follow their alignments, just about whether it is appropriate or something a GM should be doing. This does not appear to be answering the question. –  doppelgreener Dec 3 '13 at 15:37

As other folks have mentioned, you can't make anyone do anything. What you can do, is have a conversation about what kind of game you're looking for and find out if there is any possibility of overlap or not.

That said, you've mentioned that this is the standard behavior for the group.

They're having fun doing the "Grand Theft Auto" kind of game - you go around, do what you want and most of the fun is creating chaos and blowing things up. Story, consistency, the idea of a character having a personality, history or plans for the future are all really not the point here. They're totally not here for the same game you are.

You've also mentioned other people will not GM for this group - what if you contact those other folks and go play with them?

The other consideration is this - a lot of gamers start off excited to do some kind of story or fantasy world - and a lot of times they end up playing in games where the GM railroads them and forces them into ridiculous, implausible situations. The engagement with the game boils down to whatever is the most effective to staying alive, wasting time on ridiculous things, or trying to cause chaos, because they've had enough games where that really is the only form of agency they get. Abused Gamer Syndrome.

Now you come along and you tell them, "No, actually, these things should matter!" but no one can easily shift gears at this point. Pretty much all railroading type GMs also say the same thing, so... the words are empty to folks who've gone through this. Mind also, that if your gaming is based on railroading, linear or branching path type, they will not shift out because a lot of times that kind of behavior is protest TO that style of play.

Players who I find get stuck in this, I usually play a game that has narration trading - like Inspectres, octaNe, The Pool, or Primetime Adventures - when you play games that have hardcoded in the rules the impossibility of railroading, players get a chance to work out the issues of not having agency at all, and can start trusting the possibility of playing the game they want and getting the stories they want without falling back to coping mechanisms. "I get to control my character" becomes an actual rule instead of a lie in play.

Of course, that depends on them even wanting such a thing, which may or may not be the case, and would require an honest, clear conversation first.

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There is a huge issue with "making it a requirement that any given action taken by a character is subject to DM scrutiny". However, there are some things a GM can do to help the situation.

First all, if it happens once: leave it be. Just say something like, "Well, that's an interesting move for an _ character" and move on.

But that doesn't sound like your situation. After it happens over and over and over, many games have an alignment or behavior system that you can use to create consequences for out-of-character or strange actions. Certain bonuses, abilities, or penalties will depend on the player keeping the character in line with these rules. For example, if a "good" character is picking up random useful items off the street they can find, like they might playing Final Fantasy, they are effectively stealing. As a GM, you can tell your player that the character is no longer a "good" character, and force them to calculate any penalties or lose abilities until they can make the changes needed to become good again.

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But many games don't have alignment systems... –  Phil Dec 4 '13 at 9:29

We have done this. Many year ago, we had a similar situation in a Vampire game.

The characters were in a night club; one of them was on the outside and saw a truck that was going to crash against it. The meta-gamer then said that his character was going to the restroom. The Storyteller asked him why at that precise moment his character (who didn't even pee) was going there, and he said his character could do whatever he wanted.

The ST didn't allow it, and I think he did right. Metagaming cheapens the game and the story, making characters do things incoherent with the plot. It also lessens the challenge. If your players metagame, you will have an illogical, incoherent story.

That doesn't mean that fighting against metagaming is a task only for you. In our game group all players can warn when they think another one is metagaming. We ask frequently "How do your character know that?", or "Why is he suddenly changing his action?", or even "Are you sure that is not metagame?".

We set a system of penalties and rewards that we happily haven't needed to use yet. Establishing the system and thinking about the problem has made everyone aware, and much reduced the metagaming.

So, talk to your players and explain why metagaming makes everyone's game worse. Then tell them you need their help, and come up with means to avoid metagaming. And as a last resort, with extremely illogical actions, don't allow them (IMHO).

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I've been reading a lot about negative consequences for poor behavior. How about doing the opposite? Only reward proper behavior. So, those who don't metagame get more experience points, obtain rewards (magic items?) from NPC's, etc. Dangle the carrot and let them grab for it.

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Hello, welcome to RPG.StackExchange.com. Can you expand your answer and address the question more precisely? Also, please read the About when you get a chance. –  C. Ross Dec 5 '13 at 16:19

In general, this isn't wrong, but it is very, very dangerous.

The six words most feared by any D&D player are "Your character refuses to do that". It's within your rights as the DM, but it's the nuclear option: pulling it out creates serious bad blood between the DM and the player, and often ripples out into the rest of the group. Gaming groups fall apart over things like that, and so this should only ever be done when a player poses an even bigger threat to the group. The classic example is if one PC attempts to rape another PC.

Asking for in-character justification is the soft version of this, because there's an implied threat that you may take more direct control if the answer is unsatisfactory. If direct control is the nuclear option, then asking for justification is nuclear brinksmanship. Once again, this isn't necessarily wrong, but it is dangerous. If you're considering doing it at all, then that fact alone indicates that there is a serious problem.

This problem might be with the player in question, or with the target of that player's desired actions, or both. Usually the problem is of this first type, though I don't think your case is. It could also be a problem with you as DM: an unfortunate possibility that DMs nevertheless need to stay open to, though again, I don't think your case is like this.

In your specific case, I think you have the third type of problem: a mismatch between the game the players want to play and the game that's actually being played. I think @Brian has a point as far as this goes. He puts a personal spin on it that I'm not sure is warranted, though: I wouldn't put this as being between you and the group. From the rest of your post, it sounds like other people in the group have noticed the same thing when it's their turn to DM, so it's possible that as a player, you might have these very same tendencies.

It sounds to me as though what your group needs is a silly campaign. I'm not saying that it necessarily needs to be ridiculous: Paranoia can be fun, but it isn't for everyone. I'm also not saying that this needs to be a permanent thing; it's just a temporary accommodation for what your group seems to want right now.

One method that can adapt itself well to many campaigns is taken from theater of the absurd: take your original premise, but make the one simple change that the PCs know they are characters. How much they know about this is up to you: they might not know they're in a game, and even if they do, they might not know the rules. It's also possible that other characters don't know (and can't be convinced) about the world's fictional nature, and think the PCs are a little crazy. You know how "those adventurers" get, after all.

Once people get this out of their system, you might find that they're ready for something more serious again. Like I said, this only needs to be a temporary situation. But I do think that it's needed.

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