One of the ideas in roleplaying games that really gets my goat is that metagaming is a no-no. I’ve seen metagaming policed harshly in the tabletop roleplaying community, from the members of a gaming group shutting a player down, to an organized LARP instituting warnings and demerits. Even if you haven’t experienced these extreme reactions to metagaming, I guarantee you’ve at least heard someone say “metagaming” with a derisive tone.
The reason why this phenomenon bothers me so much is because the idea that you can separate the player from the character is asinine. People cry “metagaming” whenever a character expresses knowledge that they don’t possess, but their player does. But attempting to enforce this separation is impossible: if a player knows something their character doesn’t, the character’s actions will be influenced by that knowledge, even if the player has the character act against that knowledge. Once you know something, you can’t unknow it, and it will out through gameplay in subtle ways that you yourself won’t notice.
Characters are not autonomous; they need players. But to employ anti-metagaming measures is to erase the players from the equation. Games that single out metagaming – whether through social contracts at the table or rules written in the books – are denying the very fact that they are games. There is no practical way to avoid metagaming except to violate the integrity of the game.
You can’t design or play a game without also considering what’s going on in the game space. Not only is metagaming an integral part of playing any game, but it’s something that should be done actively and constructively. If you can harness this at your table, your roleplaying experience will be significantly enhanced.
If you make the meta work for you, then you never have to fear it again.
Some brave GMs have nixed the screen. They roll the dice in full view of their players. If the big boss fails their saving throw or what should have been a glancing blow beheads a beloved character, there’s no going back. I judge a person’s honesty by their commitment to a random number generated by a plastic cube.
Now go a step further and show the players your notes. When you roll enough damage to kill a character, tell the player that you want them to live, but that you need to come up with an appropriate setback together. When I run Burning Wheel I even go so far as to lay all my plans bare: “The king’s vizier is going all ‘Grima Wormtongue’ on him. Now what are some cool scenes we can have so you guys can figure that out?”
Lifting the veil – even just enough to show some leg – shows the players that the game isn’t about overcoming a checklist of encounters, nor is the GM out to beat or trick them. A lot of roleplaying games claim to have elements of collaborative storytelling, but this is only true if the players share the burden of storytelling (read: metagaming).
Player Skill vs. Character Skill
Another phrase that people love to throw around in the roleplaying community is “it’s roleplaying, not rollplaying.” The idea here is that the actions characters take should come from a player getting in their character’s head, not left up to the orbs and hedrons that burden us with random values. It’s another anti-metagaming slur that translates to “don’t let the mechanics you interact with as a player affect how you play your character.”
(This doesn’t excuse one of my biggest pet peeves at the table, which is players rolling dice to help them make a hard decision, like “if I roll 1-3 I’ll go into the cave, if I roll 4-6 I won’t.” Every choice should be difficult and meaningful – metagaming or not – and players shouldn’t be allowed to worm out of that so easily.)
I have no idea where this notion came from, since Dungeons & Dragons actively promoted rollplay up through the end of its 2nd edition, and the games inspired by that era are having a renaissance. Forget writing backgrounds and fine-tuning personality traits, you didn’t even name your character until they survived their first outing. Characters weren’t defined by what the player thought of them, but what the player did with them.
It’s for this reason that I substitute rollplay with player skill and roleplay with character skill. Games that value player skill tend to be much more engaging for players because it tests and challenges them; character development is just a byproduct of that. I feel like the best games are those that make roleplay a function of player skill by gamifying character development. That way, the characters become richer and plot denser by thinking about the game as a game, which is more natural for players than thinking about a game as not a game.
The Last Word
I feel like Stefan Poag put what I think about roleplay vs. rollplay, player vs. character skill, and metagaming in general a lot more eloquently than I have. I’ve been trying to find ways to paraphrase him, but I wouldn’t change a word of what he posted. I spied this in a post he made about liking skill checks in DCC, when I was looking for reasons to rag on skill checks in DCC. Which makes me feel like an ass.
Resolving actions ‘just through talking’ was a big part of my introduction to roleplaying games (first using the Holmes set in 1978) and was a big part of the ‘role’ in ‘roleplaying’ in those early days… and that was how we liked it. Talking like a pirate or saying, “My character wouldn’t do X because of some pre-determined personality trait” was NOT a part of my early role playing experience — even though that seems to be how many people define ‘roleplaying.’ My definition of ‘old school roleplaying’ was mentally inserting yourself into the situation that the DM described and attempting to reason out a good course of action using your own noodle and the information at hand.
Our Experience vs. My Experience
Added on 8/25/17
After reading a bunch of awesome, constructive comments on Google+, I’ve realized that the dichotomy at play here really seems to be “having our experience” and “having my experience.”
When the Judge says “you’re having my experience,” you can expect either a living world that unfolds as players discover it at the same time their characters do, or a handmade scenario meant to provoke a certain sentiment. Judges who run a game like this are likely to suppress the meta so that it doesn’t break the illusion they’ve crafted. The problem with this type of play is that some players will have strong reactions against their lack of control, or won’t resonate with the concept.
When the Judge says “we’re having our experience,” the metagaming plays a much larger part. Players are encouraged to contribute the content they want to see, whether utilizing certain mechanics, hitting specific plot points, or exploring particular avenues of character development. Judges who run a game like this have to fully embrace the meta if their game is to truly be “collaborative.” But the issue here is that you need players who are in sync, willing to take setbacks, seize or shift the spotlight, and get messy with the lore, all duties that the Judge typically performs. Crowdsourcing a role as central as the Judge’s requires a lot of fine tuning, which a lot of people don’t have the opportunity or find the need to do.
Neither is bad, and neither is good: they simply are. Just like metagaming. No matter what, Judges can’t ignore that metagaming exists, and cutting such an integral aspect of any and all games at the root is not the solution. Might I suggest instead warping the meta to your advantage.
If, as a Judge, you’re instituting your experience, use what the players attempt to decipher against them. This is a common use of the meta, seen in things like the Quantum Ogre, or the whole “self-fulfilling prophecy” trick when players’ flapping gobs give you nefarious ideas. If you’re open to the more plural side of things, frame your game around specific scenarios that prompt player contributions almost like an Ad-Lib. The beauty of metagaming is that you can control what kind of meta is being had, giving you a whole new set of tools to work with and make the experience (whichever kind you choose) that much more potent.