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This question has arisen due to repeatedly facing misunderstandings when trying to discuss certain differences in the handling of mechanics, decision making etc. between RPGs or between different parts of a single RPG. First, here is the description of the two contrasting cases in abstract terms, hopefully as long-winded as necessary to ensure clarity (if necessary, it will be edited and expanded).

Definition in Abstract Terms

  • Pattern A: The situation as perceived by the PC is described by the GM. The player decides how the PC decides to react to the situation, and describes the PC's action. In accordance to this action of the PC, a game mechanic is used to resolve further outcomes. The mechanic in question is an outcome of the PC's decision and subsequent action. In a perfect example, the choice of which mechanics to employ hinges solely and unambiguously on the description of the PC's thoughts and actions, and can be derived from them even if the player didn't convey system information (but in practice most examples aren't this perfect).

  • Pattern B: The situation as perceived by the PC is described by the GM. The player decides what outcomes the player wants and what mechanics can help achieve that. In accordance to this player decision, a game mechanic is used to resolve further outcomes. The mechanic in question is fully independent of the PC's decision and subsequent action, and the decision to use the mechanic does not represent any decision of the PC. In a strong example, whether the mechanic is to be used cannot be derived from the sole description of the PC's thoughts and actions, and requires the player to speak in system terms (in practice not all examples are like this, but many are).


Less Abstract Examples

  • Pattern A: The GM describes a skeleton monster as dangerous but flimsy. The mighty warrior decides to forego defence and hit the skeleton with all his strength, hoping to slay it in one blow. The game mechanics reflect the warrior's decision in the form of giving the All-Out Attack bonus to damage (which negates Active Defences). The player rolls the dice to see if the warrior hits.

  • Pattern B: The GM describes said mighty warrior's swing as going off-target (alternatively, the player may just see the negative outcome on the dice and react without waiting for the GM's description). The player decide that in this case, failure is unacceptable, and decides to use the Luck trait, which allows making a reroll. The warrior did not decide to be lucky this moment instead some other moment - the decision was strictly on the player's head. The reroll mechanic is used strictly based on the player's decision.


Terms I've Seen Used to Describe Pattern B, and Why I Seek Alternatives to Them

  • Supernatural: One that I think least used and also most misleading, and yet I have encountered a few times. From an inside-the-campaign-world perspective, nothing supernatural actually happened in Pattern B. In fact a lot of the time Pattern B assumes that all mechanically possible outcomes are supposed to also be naturally possible in-setting.

  • Meta: People object to it as meaningless by statements such as 'Rolling the dice is a metagame action! It's not something characters do after all'.

  • Narrative, Narrative Control etc.: generally using the word 'narrative' in discussion of RPGs tends to result in people jumping to the conclusion that I must be using it in a GNS meaning and cannot ever possibly be meaning anything else.

  • Immersion-breaking (contrasting to Pattern A being labelled immersive): people usually object by saying 'Thinking about whether to accept a Compel or declare a Story Detail doesn't break my immersion, but counting HP does!', which at best results in a long and repetitive discussion of what exactly is meant by the word 'immersion' by a given person and how the definitions radically differ.

  • Dissociative Mechanic (contrasting to Pattern A being labelled associative): people also object to it in a similar manner - 'I don't feel dissociated from my character when I think of the ways my warrior could get lucky, I do when I calculate encumbrance'; another objection I seen was a claim that the term was coined with the goal of being derogatory of such mechanics (a belief I do not share but am losing any enthusiasm to dispute by now).

  • Author Stance (contrasting to Pattern A being labelled Character/Actor Stance): the objection is generally along the lines of 'Oh, you called me an Author, as if I'm not an actual roleplayer / not engaging in roleplaying, but rather just writing a book'. I believe there are some roots of this objection in the reference to the advice for railroading GMs to write a book instead, though it seems like a stretch.


Given the flaws of the above terms, what would be a good replacement? I'm seeking terms that are unambiguous, intuitive and not prone to causing definition arguments and flame wars, and would let me clearly talk to other roleplayers about the contrast between the two patterns - whether by use of two labels for the patterns, or just one of them and saying not-this when talking about the other one.

I consider a good term for the contrast itself to be a last-ditch option, but maybe even that is more useful than I initially envisioned. Yes, I know I won't get a perfect, 100% safe solution, but I'm seeking something that is at least better than the ones I found so far.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Miniman, screamline, Oblivious Sage, GreySage, Szega Dec 21 '18 at 16:11

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What is wrong with "character decision" vs "player decision"? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 21 '18 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ 'every character decision is a player decision in disguise' — yes it is. But not every player decision is a character decision. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 21 '18 at 13:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ "having to go down the rabbit hole and point it out other members of a discussion is one of the things I'm trying to avoid " — I'm not sure it is possible to avoid this by finding a magic word. People will object to any term in your explanation, if they think the outcome is wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Dec 21 '18 at 13:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have to agree with enkryptor here – whatever new magic words you'd use, they would most probably lead to the very same discussions you are trying to avoid, since they would describe the same complex concepts. Even more so, since the terms would most probably be unknown to the other party. Moreover, it bears repeating, that the distinction between the two "modes" is not and (in my opinion) cannot be clear, which in itself is the cause for confusion and misunderstanding, not necessarily the word choice. \$\endgroup\$ – J.E Dec 21 '18 at 14:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the difference between player chooses an action to do and player chooses a mechanic to apply? \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Dec 21 '18 at 14:31
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It is not possible to achieve this goal only by finding a "right" term

Your stated goal is

clearly talk to other roleplayers about the contrast between the two patterns

This assumes that there is such a contrast, and also that it is common knowledge, so there must be a clear term. However, the lack of the term itself indicates that it might not be the case.

Also @J.E added a fair point here:

Whatever new magic words you'd use, they would most probably lead to the very same discussions you are trying to avoid, since they would describe the same complex concepts. Even more so, since the terms would most probably be unknown to the other party. Moreover, it bears repeating, that the distinction between the two "modes" is not and (in my opinion) cannot be clear, which in itself is the cause for confusion and misunderstanding, not necessarily the word choice.

"Dissociated mechanics" or "Meta" are probably the closest ones

Not all player decisions lead to their characters' decisions or actions. There are mechanics which are designed to be triggered by a pure player decision, like the above-mentioned Lucky trait.

"Meta" is a common term for this kind of game knowledge and decisions. It literally means something beyond the game world.

"Dissociated Mechanics" (not "dissociative") is a term for the game mechanics design type. A dissociated mechanic is one which is disconnected from the game world.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you’re sure they’re not contrastive patterns or ends of a spectrum, just say so in your answer and support it. This repeated “are you sure?” line of argument in the comments is unproductive and inappropriate. There’s no need to toy with the asker: do it or don’t. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 21 '18 at 17:21

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