As TTRPG players we switch frames constantly. One moment we’re players, arguing rules and optimized builds. The next we are our PCs, swinging swords and slinging spells and shouting one-liners. Then the session wraps for the night, and suddenly we’re just a group of friends hanging out independent of the game. In today’s comic, we’ve got Oracle peering through the veil of realities, and so glimpsing the hand of beings more powerful than the gods. But regardless of what frames we’re talking about, I think it’s important to remember that those frames are permeable.

Character, player, designer, and social group… All have the power to affect one another. An errant bit of errata can have far-reaching consequences for a player, especially if it causes an oracle to fail an all-important save. The stereotype of the GM’s girlfriend links the group dynamic to the fictional game world in a major way, showering one character with undue benefits. Your status as a total noob might mean that your homebrew class gets vetoed by the grognards at the table, putting your chops as a designer at odds with your social status. Once you become aware of these relationships, it’s hard to believe that the fantasy exists independent of the other world(s) at play. And what with all the frame-switching at play, certain ideas begin to bubble up at the table.

“Hey guys, why don’t we play ourselves in this campaign?”

“Dudes… What if you make a Perception check so high that you realize you’re a character in an RPG?”

“We should do a session where our characters show up on Earth!”

Clearly, this kind of stuff can work well. The much-loved “The Gamers” franchise trades on the trope constantly. That one episode of Thundarr where the gang went to San Antonio is a personal favorite. The famous closing shot of Duck Amuck might as well be the icon for the technique, making Bugs Bunny the patron saint of 4th wall breaking.

Be warned though: This stuff tends to work better in cartoons and comedy. If you’re trying to build a coherent fantasy world it can get messy in a hurry, undermining the seriousness of the project. For example, The Handbook of Heroes incorporated the voice of a GM exactly once, and it’s always bothered me that we made that call way back in the beginning. Of course, we aren’t exactly Middle Earth over here, but I do like to provide a veneer of world-building in this comic. We’ve since switched over to Quest Giver as a GM stand-in. Various monsters have taken up similar duties. That’s because the suspension of disbelief is a tenuous thing, and breaking the 4th wall is best handled with a degree of restraint. Watching a character suddenly turn to address the audience is good for fun and laughs, but when that becomes a weird meta-plot things get muddled. Case in point: Do edition wars and game designers actually exist in Handbook-World? Or is it just a gag and not really part of the setting and dear-gods-please-no let’s not go down that rabbit hole?

And so, speaking of addressing the audience, I think you guys can guess what’s coming up for today’s discussion question. Tell us about a time when the 4th wall broke in one of your games. Was it a campaign premise? A one-off joke? An oddly inebriated session wherein you believed that you had actually become a half-elven wizard? Let’s hear all those stories of blurred boundaries and converging realities down in the comments!


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