Metagaming

Metagaming is a term that gamers use in a decidedly negative fashion. We constantly talk about that guy who knows all the rules by heart and spends the game quoting gnoll stats and damage values for obscure weapons. We’ve all overheard conversations one character is having and carefully adjusted our actions based on that, even if our PC was not present for that conversation… And a million other examples of tailoring your character’s in-game behavior based on a player’s out of game knowledge.

We all deride this action. At the least it dilutes some of the fun by taking away a portion of the game’s internal reality and at the worst it’s “cheating”. We hear metagaming and think, “bad player, no donut,” or we secretly hide our guilt over those minor, unavoidable incidents where we have been tempted. This common knowledge is not the purpose behind my remarks though. I am ruminating instead on the positive side of metagaming – certain, very specific, types of metagaming.

Before I dive into that, let me set a ground rule by giving my definition of metagaming here, so everyone understands the assumption I am proceeding from.

Metagaming: using out of game (player) knowledge that your character (in-game) does not, or could not know, and choosing character actions based on that knowledge.

If we accept that metagaming is outside knowledge affecting the internal reality of the game, then I think three instances of positive metagaming exist. The first positive instance of player metagaming is knowing the game, the second is knowing the gamemaster and the third is knowing themselves (as players). The order doesn’t matter, just read it all and accept that what sounds like common sense on paper often seems to fail at the game table.

Knowing Your Game
Every game has themes and genre conventions. If you are running adventure stories in Dungeons and Dragons 4E, then you are playing a significantly different type of game from a heavily political Aberrant chronicle. Some games are action, adventure, fantasy, horror, realistic, science fiction, space opera, and as many other types as there are gamers. The type of game that you are playing will determine much about the types of characters you should make and the way they should interact with the setting. If the gamemaster tells you that you are going to be playing a dark adventure story (Poe meets the Three Musketeers), then you should be prepared for that sort of storyline and tailor your character choices to have fun in that context. I am not saying that all the characters should look alike or that there will only be one type of acceptable character in such a game. I am saying that you shouldn’t expect the gamemaster to have a place for any character you whip out of your ass on a moment’s notice. Set both your gamemaster and yourself up for success in having a fun game by creating a character compatible with the game being played. Character creation will lead to action in the game and you will have a character well suited to the conventions of the genre you are involved in. If the game is described to you as being, “kinda like the Princess Bride”, then go watch the movie, and maybe the Prisoner of Zenda too. Once you are in the right frame of mind you can suss out the details of you new in-game persona. If you need more, talk to your gamemaster. Which leads us to the next point, which is to know your gamemaster.

Knowing Your GM
If you are just joining a gaming group for the first time it is hard to really “know” your game master. If this is the case, make time to sit down with your GM and really go over the details of how they run games, their expectations and what they love and hate about the games they run. Most people who run games are players too and they know what you will be asking for and appreciate that.

On the other hand, if you have been with a stable group for a while, then you already know how your GM thinks. Almost everyone I know who runs games has certain things that you can expect any time you sit down at the table with them. Just as there are certain genre conventions at work in any game, every GM has likes and dislikes, a certain sense of what they expect from players and a wide variety of views on everything in their game world they just cannot wait to express. Give them the chance. I know that I have really strong views on what it means to be a hero. I have really extreme views about healing and teleportation magic in fantasy games. Epic storylines are what feed my gaming addiction and I love to create a cast of memorable, fun, yet ultimately background, NPC’s. All of these things are parts of being in one of my games. If you come to the table as a player you know that I don’t kill characters the first, or even the second time they do something dumb, that I reward full-out playing and that I am all about getting into some seriously emotional roleplaying.

You are allowed to metagame this stuff. I expect you to. I want you to. If you don’t then you will not be interacting with the story with the same set of expectations I am bringing to the campaign. So go ahead, run with a crazy idea. It may not work out exactly as you had planned, and my villains are almost always extremely intelligent, but they are also flawed and make mistakes. I will punish you and tear out your character’s hearts but I will always come back to you in the end with a reward for all that you have suffered. If you seek out a destiny you will be great. If you simply sit on the couch and wait for a plot to come to you, then you may as well go home. This is what I mean about knowing your gamemaster? It is always important that you know the “how” in the way they run games if you want to get along at all in that game.

Knowing Your Fellow Players
Finally you should get to know your fellow players. I cannot say enough about this one. Again, it varies depending on whether you are just joining a new group or if you have been with the same people for some time. Ultimately it is about the same things. I have players that rarely talk because they are insecure about their skills, but when they do talk they have probably already considered a problem the party is facing for half an hour and are prepared to give the solution if you listen to them. There are as many types of players as there are people who play. You should all work together to create a group which compliments itself. Just as you try to create a party of balanced classes and races in D&D, so too should you strive for that balance in the group of players. If you don’t trust the people you game with you are not going to be comfortable in character. Don’t forget that you may be playing a campaign with these people for some time, maybe even years. If you don’t like them or the way they play then find another game. If you get to know them and form bonds outside of the game though, then you will be able to fall easily into routines in the game that make sessions just click.

Final Thoughts
All of what I have described above is a form of metagaming. You will be using your knowledge about the game in the game. Would you say that any of these things are “bad” though? I certainly wouldn’t, and I encourage, perhaps even demand, that anyone who plays in my games takes these points to heart.

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6 responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more with “Know Your Game.” I get people all the time who can’t break out of their “We’re still playing DnD, right?” mentality. In Dark Heresy, as soon as the last cultist hits the floor, they start rifling though pockets and the rest of the PCs start executing them for Warp taint. People need to realize what game they’re playing before they act.

    As for knowing the GM, I think you can get away with failing at that one if you are a good enough player. For instance, I was starting a DnD 3.5 game about 5 years ago, and my buddy Matt says to me “I’m going to make a druid for this one.”

    I said, “You are aware that I hate druids, right? If you play one I’m not going to put in druid circles or any of that crap.” Matt said he was aware, and was fine with it. He went on to play a pretty memorable character, completely unsupported by me.

  2. You make some good points. Thing is, I don’t know that many people actually consider these metagaming, even if they are.

    I’d make the nitpick that you’ve made it sound like these categories are themselves positive metagaming, when really they’re just a place that you can FIND positive metagaming if you look. “Knowing the game,” for example, is full of many instances of undesirable (for most) metagaming, and a few examples of desirable. “Even though everyone else is going in there, I’m staying behind.” “Why?” “Because this is Call of Cthulhu, and I know goddamn well there is something in there that’s going to cost my sanity, if it doesn’t kill me outright.”

  3. @Paul

    You are certainly right that a very strong player will find ways to thrive in any game, and perhaps his resistance sprang out of knowing that you wouldn’t be putting “druid circles or any of that crap” in his path, but he wanted to interact with the game at that level. But would the game have been better if he had been more in-tune with your expectations or you with his (as a player)? That is the question.

    @Kodak

    To be fair, your “nitpick” is exactly why I chose the metagaming concept to write this. Most people wouldn’t think of what I wrote here as “metagaming.” But the reason they wouldn’t is because we only attach negative meanings to the term. Your CoC example is the classic, textbook case of what every gamer thinks of the moment you say metagaming.

    My use of the term to describe positive aspects of “out of game thinking affecting the in game reality” was strategic and intentional. The categories don’t really mean anything. The material under each heading is the meat of the argument. I want players thinking about the game outside of the game. I want players to relax a little because they know their GM’s style and expectations. I want players comfortable with the game they are playing.

    The idea is strictly to highlight the idea that you can use out of game thinking, in game. It was a vehicle to provide some useful player advice and to be a little dissonant because most people will have your immediate reaction to that word.

  4. @Kodak

    Also, I guess I would say, for the player who says, “Even though everyone else is going in there, I’m staying behind.” “Why?” “Because this is Call of Cthulhu, and I know goddamn well there is something in there that’s going to cost my sanity, if it doesn’t kill me outright,” in a CoC game, aren’t they missing the point? It would seem to me that they don’t know the game they are playing…

    Turn that scenario around. Players in a CoC game should embrace the sanity loss, embrace the evil mysteries slowly exposing themselves… They should understand that struggling against forces you aren’t even a speck to is part and parcel of the CoC experience. To deny the exploration and mystery would mean they aren’t really in-tune with the game they are playing at all. That would be my reaction to a player who makes the statement you mentioned above.

  5. @Morrison

    Well, I suppose you could attribute the success of Matt’s character to him metagaming my GMing, since Matt has been in every DnD game I have ever run. He knows I’m a very permissive and simulationist GM, so whatever the PCs do will amuse me, and my world will respond appropriately to them no matter what they are.

    So I think I’ve proved your original point in a round about way. Matt was able to ignore my wishes, and still have a good character, because he knew I wouldn’t prevent him from playing anything. 🙂

  6. […] Player Knowledge, Metaplots, and Deep Secrets September 30, 2010 Posted by morrisonmp in Bits, Game Talk. Tags: conversational, rpg, setting trackback I was reading a great exploration of “character knowledge” issues over at Age of Ravens and it got me thinking (again) about this issue — which I touched on in one of my very first post about taking a new look at the term “metagaming.” […]

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