The Metagame | KingSpoom's RPG Design & Theory Junkyard

The Metagame

Ah, the metagame. Metagaming, in the context of rpgs, is using knowledge that the player knows, but the character wouldn't know. Common examples include: Peeking at the GMs notes to learn about upcoming encounters, looking up a monster's stats while you are fighting it, or choosing a rogue because you know that the GM doesn't use constructs in combat.

Metagaming also represents a problem. Metagaming is akin to cheating. It can also erode or disrupt immersion. Generally speaking, the only way for good metagaming to occur is for something else bad to have already happened. That isn't something to strive for, either. Identifying the problem can be the hard part. Each person will have a different set of rules for what is and isn't metagaming, even if they agree on what the spirit of metagaming is.

The system doesn't help... at least it generally doesn't. The system can be made to help, but such a thing is often overlooked. What your character does and doesn't know is often a murky area. This not only causes a problem in play, but out of play as well. Many arguments encompass metagaming. Sometimes it's an unintentional side-effect of trying to make the game more interesting. Many monsters are given unique special abilities that PCs don't have access to. Let's take immunity to magic as an example. A spellcaster happens upon a Golem and tosses a fireball at it, but he is unaffected. Well, maybe a different spell... lightning bolt. Nope, that didn't work either. The golem is made of Iron, so perhaps an acid spell will work? No go there. By now our poor spellcaster has succumbed to the metallic stumps of our golem. He didn't have a chance and he never knew it. There's no apparent difference between immunity to fire and immunity to all magic, so the only way to tell is to have encountered it before or to metagame. Although this is largely a fallacy of absolutes, it also involves the metagame.

A game developed over a long period of time becomes entrenched with tendencies that often ignore or encourage metagaming. Take for example D&D 3.5s prestige classes. A prestige class is like any other class, but it has requirements in order to take. The problem with this is that the requirements are listed for the player... not the character. Thusly, if the only prestige class that allowed you to walk on clouds had the requirement that you be able to play a banjo, you'd be asking for trouble. If I create a character whose goal it is to walk on clouds, I have to learn to play a banjo. The only way I can know that is if I metagame, which leaves little options open for my character. Since the two are unrelated, I have to have a reason for my character to use a banjo. Although (again) this is largely a fallacy of the class system, it is a direct cause of metagaming.

It should be clear by now that you shouldn't want to metagame. However, it can be difficult to avoid. The reason for this is that the system doesn't explain to the player, what the character knows. Fixing that problem will all but rid you of the need to metagame, although people will still do it for other reasons. Sometimes the rules will make it obvious. Saying an attack only works with a sword is a pretty clear message that the character wouldn't think to try it with an axe... but you never know.


Stefan / 1of3 said...

"It should be clear by now that you shouldn't want to metagame."

You carefully explained many things but I can see no apparent reason why one shouldn't meta-game.

thanuir said...

I agree with Stefan. There is a lot of meta-discussion going in play all the time, at least in our game. People throw ideas at each other, sometimes do something that helps their character, sometimes something harmful.

Game mastering is steeped in metagaming, of course.

KingSpoom said...

Well, metagaming can be defined so many ways.

"Peeking at the GMs notes to learn about upcoming encounters, looking up a monster's stats while you are fighting it, or choosing a rogue because you know that the GM doesn't use constructs in combat"

Mainly I'm just talking about cheating, either through knowledge of the system, or knowledge of the gm/another player. As far as giving ideas to other players during play, what I would refer to as kibitz (I think), I don't have a problem with that, although I don't enjoy it as a player.

Do you think players should be doing one of those three examples? Off the top of my head I can only think of bad reasons why you would want to do one of those three things.

Stefan / 1of3 said...

Choosing a Rogue because the GM uses no constructs is totally fine.

KingSpoom said...

Personally I see no difference in 'Buying a ring of fire resistance because you peeked at the GM notes and you're about to face some fire elementals' and 'Choosing to play a rogue because you know the GM won't use constructs in combat'. In both cases you're using player knowledge to gain an advantage in the game. Perhaps we just won't agree in this matter.