The metagame of TTRPGs

Very recently I heard someone describe Fallout 1/2 as “as close as developers can get to making a spiritually faithful adaptation of a pen and paper tabletop RGP.” They went on to list various details that support that point of view and I found myself mostly agreeing with them. And I absolutely love both games mostly for the reasons the individual was listing as being the most in common with ttrpgs. Which is fine in and of itself.

The problem with this is that should mean I would like ttrpgs, right? On paper, I should love ttrpgs. In fact, I love the idea of ttrpgs. But every time I’ve dipped my toe into this genre, things don’t seem to go very well.

When I was a young teen, I was invited to join an existing D&D campaign with a group of friends. They had all played for a year or more and I was new to it. So, I rolled a character, read up on how the game should work, and, perhaps, took the RP in ttrpg a bit too literally. My character was a human and a down on their luck and out-of-work bounty hunter who encounters the rest of the party in an inn waiting for job prospects.

Little other prospects available, I joined the party and ostensibly set out for riches and glory. We fought goblins and traversed wagon roads teeming with highwaymen. A couple of the group were more evil-aligned and talked the group into robbing the castle of a wealthy but cruel Baron. I traipsed along and after the weary and wounded party fled the castle with loot in tow, I rolled to cut the rope bridge they were crossing and watched them all fall to their deaths.

They had just committed a crime against a wealthy individual. It was only a matter of time before a bounty would be put upon their heads. I took their heads, traveled back to town and traded them in for the reward, while keeping the loot they took as well.

Ostensibly, I kept with my character’s backstory and motivations, I was lawful evil after all. Ostensibly, they had casually recruited a bounty hunter into their group before going on a rampage of adventure and crime; what did they expect? Ostensibly, it was just a game and my actions in the game would typically be restricted to the game.

I’m sure many of you with more emotional intelligence than 14-year-old pinkunz at the time have already figured out that all of those things didn’t matter. After that, sessions were either cancelled or rescheduled until I found out that they had continued on without me, basically retconning the events at the rope bridge. My character had tripped and fallen to their death. The end.

Fast forward several years and I’m in college. A little wiser, a little more wary. I get invited to D&D session, but it turns out the invite was only from one of the players and my arrival surprises the others and the DM. I offer to go, they fall over themselves saying nonsense, sit down, and join in. I hadn’t played since that time many years ago, and this group was very proficient and technical. They feigned patience with constant references to my character sheet and my questions, but I could tell I was aggravating the DM in particular. I again offered to step out and bone up to come back later, but that was rebuffed.

Anyway, they come across this enormous ceremonial porcelain jar with a giant metal screw lid that is stuck into place. Has some massive troll organ or something (the session was riffing on the whole mummification process and finding the jarred organs to bring someone back from the dead; The Mummy 3 had recently hit theaters and it was in the public consciousness) in it, I think a heart. Anyway, they couldn’t figure out how to open the jar without breaking the glass. Unbeknownst to me, there was a whole plot thread planned to address this and the DM was invested in having this play out.

I didn’t have a proficiency in D&D, but I did have proficiency in plain old physics, so I saw an opportunity to apply that skill. I wanted to use Heat Metal on the metal jar lid. He first said I couldn’t do that, and then, when relenting, I rolled a 17, and he said the jar lid got very hot but was still tightly snug. I confirmed that the lid was metal and the jar was porcelain, the DM confirmed as much. I then asked what kind of metal and whether or not the spell would heat the porcelain as well. I also asked how hot the metal got. After he answered steel and no and hot enough to melt lead, I did the math to show that the melting point of lead is over 300 degrees Celsius above room temperature and steel expands roughly 24 micrometers per meter per degree celcius, which meant that a meter of steel would expand over 7mm. This lid was nearly a half meter across, so the expansion should make the lid turn freely from the porcelain. At this point, the DM backtracked and said, wait, no, the porcelain was also heated to the melting point of lead and expanded as well, so the lid was still stuck. I pointed out that porcelain had a very low thermal expansion rate, and about the time I had found the rate (like 0.1 micrometers per meter per degree Celsius or something like that) a couple of the other players were starting to openly laugh and the DM lost their temper and told me to fucking drop it.

I muttered an apology and dropped it and the session continued with me taking minimum action and saying very little. A couple of days later, my friend came up to me and apologized and said that his friends didn’t want me back because they didn’t think I was a good fit for the group.

Jump forward a decade and a half, and some coworkers wanted to start a new D&D group and invite me to join. I was hesitant, but they wore me down, pointing out it was a new group and they were all fairly inexperienced. So, it came to pass that I found myself, again, making a character sheet for Smurg, the half-orc.

We came upon a traveling merchant fighting off Goblins in his carriage, standing on the roof and swinging a longsword. We fought the Goblins and tried to save him, but, while we defeated the Goblins, we were unable to save the merchant. Two of our party were ready to move on immediately, while myself and one other person wanted to search the merchant and his carriage to find out who he was and what was going on. On retrospect, I suspect the DM (a first time DM) didn’t anticipate this angle and had nothing prepared for generic NPC and wagon. Emphasized the man had nothing of value and carriage was empty. I pointed out that made him more suspicious as how is he a merchant if he was driving an empty carriage through dangerous roads infested with Goblins? Was he just a particularly stupid merchant?

Anyway, I then asked about the horses. Huh? The horses, where are the horses? What horses?

Well, he wasn’t dragging the carriage himself, was he?

Oh… uh… they’re both dead.

And how much time has passed since the battle?

Just moments.

Okay, I’d like to roll to start a fire and then roll again to skin and butcher the horses, so I could use the fire to tan the hide and smoke the meat.

Complete silence.

Uh… you can’t do that.

Why not?

Well, you don’t have any fuel to keep the fire going.

Don’t we have an entire wooden carriage sitting here? We can’t take it with us, right?

At that point, one of the players, the one who also wanted to investigate the merchant, wanted to join in and thought it was a great idea, mentioning it would provide food and leather to either eat or sell, which seemed prudent because we were broke.

The other two started complaining loudly that they hadn’t agreed to play a taxidermy simulator and that they wanted to go and murder more Goblins.

My willingness to investigate and try weird stuff seemed to embolden the one other player and the other two became more obstinate over time. Within 5-6 sessions, the DM boxed us into a no-escape scenario with insanely OP enemies and killed off the entire party.

The DM and the other two players expressed no interest in rerolling new characters and starting again.

So, three groups of people in three diverse demographics over a 20+ year span. The only common denominator is me. I like the idea of ttrpgs, but I don’t think I have the emotional and social intelligence to play them in a way that doesn’t drive the entire thing directly off of a social cliff.

Would these interactions be unwelcome at your D&D table? Does anyone else actually play like this, assuming a real fully-fleshed world with specifics if one were to look and consistent logic and physics in it’s world? Or am I simply breaking the game and I need to learn to knock it off or to simply not play?


This is a super interesting question that I don’t have the time to address in depth right now, but while these stories of course made me wince, from my vantage point part of the mismatch is that you didn’t seem to be buying into the genre assumptions of DnD, not of tabletop roleplaying games more generally. This kind of attention to detail, player-not-character problem solving, and interest in mundane activities could make you a good fit for something like Call of Cthulhu or Mage (hell, that story about rules-lawyering the heating of the metal lid reminded me of innumerable Mage games I’ve been in).

It’s tough because DnD has always been the big dog in town – and all the more so now, from my understanding. And it seems like in none of these cases was there a session zero or just general pre-campaign conversation about what folks are looking for in a game, which is often critical even for experienced roleplayers. But still, I wouldn’t give up yet!


“But my character really would kill everyone and steal their stuff” is a very common failure state for D&D with young people new to gaming.

Getting backstabbed generally isn’t much fun. It can be fun in Paranoia, but that deliberately takes the party being at cross-purposes to a farcical extreme plus you have five clones as backup and if your character dies, it just gets replaced by a clone. The players all know in advance that pc-on-pc violence is expected.

A game will fail if there isn’t a shared understanding of whether pc-on-pc violence is okay, as well as a bunch of other things regarding what sort of game this is supposed to be, and what content and behavior is acceptable. For several decades, games were either silent or vague about this. In recent decades game designers have been paying attention to these things, and trying to make sure the “how you really play” stuff makes it into the rules (Apocalypse World in 2010 was a specific important turning point in publicizing talking about this).

I could say a lot about this topic, but don’t have time now. But the upshot would be: I believe you could have a great experience with TTRPG-ing if you found the right table that knew how to talk about what they wanted and didn’t want and what kind of game they wanted to play. It could help to play a more recent game written with these things in mind, but that part’s not necessary if the table knows how to do it.

Wanting a detailed realistic game is great. You might have luck looking for GURPS players. Wanting to just fight goblins† is great and is easier to find. Wanting or not wanting games emphasizing diplomacy, or romance, or horror, or a zillion other things is great. People just need to find co-gamers interested in playing the same kind of game they are.

† edited to add: Well actually, it being a commonplace in D&D that one can take for granted that it’s A-OK to kill some given intelligent humanoid because they’re of the wrong race and everyone knows that those people are evil (and doubly okay if they’re somehow standing in the way of you getting to steal the stuff you want) is highly problematic. So make that “Wanting a game full of fighting is great.” (I don’t play in settings like this, despite it basically being the norm, so it’s off my radar: I was taking for granted that if you were fighting goblins it was because something about the game’s situation put you in conflict with those particular goblins.)


I’ve been running games of all sorts for a long time and would be fine to play that style of game, but I would probably slap your hand from time to time. :slight_smile:

The first situation sounds like the age-old mistake of allowing evil-aligned characters. It never goes well for anyone and always ends in someone’s feelings getting hurt. “I’m just playing my character!” is the cry of someone infected with main character syndrome.

The others sound like you ran into inexperienced GM’s who weren’t prepared to go off script, or acknowledge that TTRPGs should go off script. It goes both ways, however, and it sounds like you didn’t recognize this inexperience and were too eager to push the boundaries of the world than accommodate the GM’s abilities.

I’d recommend to keep trying (D&D and different games!) and to find a group who is willing to improvise at the scale you seek, and/or willing to invest time in immersive play over plot advancement. They do exist. You’ll need to make an extra effort to recognize the times when wacky hijinks would be appreciated, and when everyone just wants to keep the story flowing.


the answer isn’t that you’ve had bad experiences with ttrpgs, it’s that you’ve had bad experiences with d&d. this is because d&d is bad and your GMs were probably also bad.


I’ve noticed that it’s more common in the indie game scene to have the need for a session zero to establish common goals and boundaries explicitly stated in the instructions, as well as a feedback system to facilitate discussion: I think Butterfly Court in particular does a very good job of setting the stage and instructions for first time players and would be happy to share some of what’s worked for the Goncharov Girlies’ TTRPG shenanigans with you in a PM or something. Maybe in the Campfire Chat?

Bear in mind I’ve mostly played homebrews (and now indie systems) that focus on roleplay and not crunchy mechanics, where some of the other meowmeows on the forum might be better able to help with suggestions.


The thing about TTRPGs is that they’re fundamentally collaborative group activities. The characters may be at odds, but there should always be the sense that the players (and the GM!) are working together to make sure everyone has fun. But it sounds to me like you’ve been approaching them as if you’re still playing a single-player RPG and are primarily concerned about whether you get to do what you want to do.

Finding a group that is on the same wavelength as you about what’s fun is a big help with this, but honestly there are always going to be moments when you want to do something no one else (often including the GM) thinks is fun, and if you want to have fun with TTRPGs, I think you have to learn to recognize those moments and be willing to back off and not get too hung up on the fact that you didn’t get to do the thing.

Also, it’s perfectly legit to decide that the collaborative storytelling aspect where you have to keep the rest of the group’s interests in mind doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time and stick to single-player RPG video games. I feel like there are a lot of people who feel like they should learn to like tabletop because it’s a popular nerd activity (especially these days), it’s adjacent to things they like, a bunch of their friends are into it, etc., but it’s not everybody’s thing and that’s fine.


honestly it sounds (especially with the last example) that pinkunz was trying to think outside the box and do things in character but their dm and players all 3 times didn’t want to allow any of it. sure, they could’ve worked better with the groups but what the groups were doing sounds really railroady and unpleasant to me. the fact that they retconned everything pinkunz did really sounds awful, no wonder pinkunz was turned off.

objectively I think this was not really a problem with them or with ttrpgs and more ‘there’s a mismatch between what they want and what those groups wanted’.

subjectively this mismatch is because those groups’ games were boring and pinkunz is interesting, but that’s just my biased read


I agree that it was a fundamental mismatch in playstyle. I also think that extended arguments with the GM when it’s clear they and other players are not into what you want to do are never really a good move.


fair point, I just wish that these groups would’ve more clearly expectation set or said “look stop arguing with me please” out of game, rather than giving half-baked in-universe excuses. I don’t blame an inexperienced ttrpg player, who’s been given a bad in universe reason for why something doesn’t work, for trying to explain why in universe it should work, instead of getting the out of game hint to drop it.


I mean, if TTRPG players and GMs could internalize that out-of-game issue need to be resolved out of game – well, there’d be a lot fewer horror stories on the internet and one wouldn’t need to automatically wince in anticipatory pain at reading a sentence like “when I was a young teen, I was invited to join an existing D&D campaign” :slight_smile:


I do agree all three GMs could/should have put their foot down sooner and more unequivocally, although I can’t really blame GM #1, who I assume was also a teen at the time.



I would welcome you with open arms! Of course, I’m also the type who planned endlessly, and be willing to throw the highly developed detailed scenario out the door, in order to pursue interesting actions, which yours are.

I understand a great majority of GM can’t handle that.


Let’s name games Pinkunz should play!

I think you should play The Quiet Year! (I just really like The Quiet Year!) The Quiet Year - Buried Without Ceremony

Also, Fiasco is an oldie, but a chaotic goodie: Fiasco – Bully Pulpit Games


I think the GURPS suggestion by @Zed is really good and can absolutely accomodate for physics expansion of heated metal.

You might also like Runescape/Mythras which is a system with more fidelity and crunchiness which allows for amazing creativity with spells and abilities, explicitly inviting unique uses that aren’t necessarily in the books’ spell descriptions.

I personally really like games that are ‘powered by the Apocalypse’, i.e. a family of games inspired by/using the structure of Apocalypse World. It’s a more narrative system and gets deep into genre tropes of the game’s system (so Apocalypse World is post apocalypse, Monster of the Week is monster of the week tv serials, Masks is kid superheroes, etc)


My suggestion would be to find a table running either a Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark game. One of the bedrock principles of those games is “play to find out,” which is much better at accommodating an off-the-wall approach like “superheat the lid to open the jar.” Moreover, any GM with a session or two worth of experience will know not to prep the game like a three-act play with necessary story beats, so no one should get mad about you wanting to try something unorthodox. D&D has a long history of much more constraining play, so it’s not surprising that veteran D&D players balked at your approach.

That said, RPGs are almost always shared hallucinations, so you should generally talk through big, direction-changing ideas with your fellow players. It’s sorta on everyone to make sure that the whole table is having fun. That, frankly, is more important than respecting the GM’s prep (and I say this as a Forever GM).

Backstabbing the entire group can be okay, in the right kind of game. In a D&D one shot or a funnel game, it’s generally more acceptable, because there’s less attachment. In campaign play, though, these are characters the players may already be invested in, and that they want to develop more over many sessions to come. It doesn’t surprise me that the players got angry about their deaths, no matter how narratively sound the betrayal. That falls under the heading of “everyone’s responsible for the fun.” (The GM is also at fault there, to be clear — they could have very easily overruled the dice roll to say that the party survived, which might have even been more fun, since then they could have hunted your character down to enact their revenge.) And there are games built to accommodate more adversarial player characters, but AFAIK, D&D isn’t one of them.

All else failing, there’s always solo play, though I wouldn’t blame you if those three experiences had soured you on the idea altogether.


I have to admit, once when I was not there for a session, the other players crashed a flying ship into a royal tower, killing the royal family and setting the whole town against us. I’ll have to deal with that fact today at lunchtime. :rofl:

EDIT: By town, I mean a city of 2 million people!


Other Players. They’re the worst!


It’s only partly you… :wink:

Killing or stealing from the other PC’s is a pretty big “nope” in my games. Arguments that “I’m just playing my character” are usually just attempts to one-up other players or just plain be disruptive. I can see as a new player you might not have the context to realize this, and the DM should’ve explained what was expected of players in their campaign.

The other scenarios sound more like DM issues. With regard to the jar, that was a DM who clearly wanted things to go a specific way. Being able to “roll with the punches” of players doing unexpected stuff is a hallmark of a good DM. I love it when players upend my plans through clever thinking, even if it puts me on the spot. That said, it is unreasonable to expect physics in D&D to work anything like physics in the real world, and attempting to make gunpowder or build steam engines will be futile if the DM decrees it. Now, if the DM is flipping back and forth, allowing things to work for NPC’s but not players, then that’s a different issue. Edit: It is also unreasonable to assume your character would have the same knowledge of physics (or anything really) that you do.

Your last scenario is pretty obviously an inexperienced DM unprepared for the level of detail a DM often must attend to and limiting your options was their way of coping. I would expect the players to have some sympathy in that case and back off. The DM has the hardest job by far, but it is not their sole responsibility to make sure you have fun.

Overall the best advice I have for playing D&D is to remember that while you are all playing characters (even the DM), ultimately you are just people trying to have a good time.

My primary table rule is this: It is everyone’s responsibility to keep the game fun. Anyone who breaks that rule is never invited back. I try to balance what players want with what will be fun for the whole group (myself included).

Additional D&D rambling:
In general, I think alignment in D&D is largely a waste of time and typically results in players acting like cardboard cutout villains/heroes in order to “play their alignment”. Trying to make alignment prescriptive (instead of descriptive) of character behavior is even worse. I mostly ignore alignment except for purposes of spells (protection from good/evil, etc.)

If I have a party of evil characters (or even just one), I set up the following expectations before starting a game:

  • Being evil is perfectly OK, but believably evil characters have (sometimes complicated) reasons for their behavior. They generally don’t just murder people for fun. No one wants to adventure with a sociopath who’s likely to stab you in the back.
  • Just remember you are all adventuring together and risking your lives together for a reason. Think of one and make it work.
  • Doing lone wolf crap like stealing from or betraying other party members* may sound fun, but it means someone will be pissed off before the night is over. Those sorts of things make for a lousy game so don’t do it.

*That also goes for less direct things like murdering townsfolk when it is clear the rest of the group is not OK with that. If you insist, you should be prepared for the full weight of an omnipotent DM to come crashing down on your character. If someone is destined to be pissed off, I will use my unlimited power as DM to make sure it is you.


Maybe better to think of DnD as less of a game in the way playing cards is a game, and more of a social activity with some formalities to help everybody feel it’s being conducted fairly. It’s like the grown-up (debatably) version of telling a bedtime story… if the kid doesn’t like it, it doesn’t happen.