In Defense of (Some) Metagaming

Alice and Bob want to play an RPG. Alice volunteers to GM, and the two take a look at the available games on her well-filled shelf. They debate playing Apocalypse World, but are both in the mood for something a bit more fantastical. After some back and forth, Bob remembers that he recently read a fantasy novel with a cool idea he’d want to see in a game. The two discuss it, and settle on Whitehack 2e as their starting point and then set to discuss implementing the basic ideas and the character concept.

Alice and Bob are, throughout this whole process, metagaming.

The word gets a bad rep. Especially among traditional RPG players, it’s associated with toxic players, disrespectful attitudes, and disdain for the logic of the fiction. All these can certainly be true. The sheer amount of horror stories about these subjects speak to their prominence. I think a lot of GM’s/referees have an understandable wariness about behaviors that suggest the horrors of metagaming. Because RPG’s are socially permeable things, they are subject to all the cajoling, bullying, and downright meanness that any social interaction can be. The metagame discourse and level of conversation is, in the wrong hands, merely another tool of the bully or the insensitive player.

Of course, such participants aren’t bad participants because they metagame. They are bad participants because they play in bad faith from the very beginning. Use of the metagame level is incidental, not causal. Unlike play mechanics, in which there are at least some kind of checks and balances on who gets to decide what vis-a-vis THE ROOLZ, the metagame conversation has no such constraints. Of course it’s the asshat’s playground.

Nothing should belong just to the asshats.

Playing the Good Metagame

We negotiate ideas and courses of actions all the time when we play, and the exact point of where the “proper” game begins and the meta ends can be pretty hard to tell. And yet, when it’s done in bad faith, something in the culture and the conversation allows us to identify the bad metagame pretty quickly.

Alice and Bob’s metagame was productive. It ultimately enriched their experience and helped ensure a better outcome for both of them. The same is true of most metagaming, really. Examples of good metagaming include:

  • Safety tools.
  • Pitching campaign ideas.
  • Discussing character options.
  • Transparency about play procedures.
  • House-ruling and hacking to change the game to be a better fit for the group.
  • Openness about character motivations.
  • Understanding and fruitful use of genre expectations.

I find it somewhat odd that these things are not included in the usual discussions about metagaming. Most examples of bad faith metagaming fit into one of the above categories, in a bad mirror universe version kind of way.

Bad metagaming practices tends to produce bad GM practices as well, and the most pernicious example is the undue reverence of ‘immersion’. If the GM’s insistence of the ‘immersive’ reality of his world has primary importance, then the endeavor to maintain this illusion is a carte blanche to all kinds of bad metagaming practices. If the GM’s world and the way he runs must, at all cost, be shrouded in mystery and give the appearance of pure, inspired (but highly planned) creation, that idea allows the GM to disregard safety tools, to unduly shoot down ideas they don’t think “fit”, and to obscure whatever parts of the story they feel like obscuring until the players have ‘earned’ that insight. A lot of unhealthy “GM is god” notions lie the DNA of these ideas.

Enough of the bad examples.

Prehistoric Metagaming

I recently played in an absolutely brilliant game run by my friend Paul. It was a Free Kriegsspiel kind of deal, set in a semi-mythological Paleolithic setting, and it was one of the best games I’ve ever played in. One of the reasons it was excellent is because its metagame was rich and fruitful. Creatively, the group gelled really well, but that’s not all. Paul, being the arbiter and facilitator, made the procedures of the game abundantly clear from the beginning and signposted important decision points. (On another note, I find that Free Kriegsspiel generally games tend to have really healthy attitudes towards metagaming – huh.) The campaign needed an amount of buy-in, and that is not possible without a metagame conversation. It required us to understand when dice rolls were made and negotiate about their stakes and outcome – metagaming. It involved Paul rolling on random tables to determine various world elements and outcomes, and he was honest about doing that – you guessed it, metagaming. We, as players, were constantly allowed a peek behind the curtain. And it was awesome.

Obviously, no one in the group played in bad faith. We could not have played this game if any of us had. And the thing is, I don’t think anyone playing this game in bad faith would have enjoyed it. What would there have been for them to enjoy?

I like to think of metagaming as being similar to filmmaking techniques. A film, after all, has content that could be described independently of its presentation, but so much of a film’s power relies in the acting, the editing, the cinematography, the direction, and so on. And there’s always going to be some in the theater leaning in with a smirk and say “Oh, of course that cliché was going to happen in this type of movie… ” or “Pfft, that thing is totally implausible!” or “This is trash, no real person would ever act that way!”. When engaging cynically with the meta of the movie, everything can be construed as a detrimental quality.

And if one watches a movie with such a mindset, did one ever really intend to enjoy it in the first place?

One thought on “In Defense of (Some) Metagaming

  1. Thanks for writing this. You cut right to the heart of the matter: it’s all about playing in good faith. When we have a stable consensus around the meta-structures and practices we are using in a game we actually become better team players in the construction of our game worlds and experiences. In other words, it’s precisely because we knowlingly and openly recognise that we are in a game, and that meta channels of communication are always open that the game has the potential to be great.
    Ref: “Here’s the situation. What do you do?”
    Players: “What would be cool?” Or “What would be fun?” Or “What would drive the story to where we want to see it go?” Or even, “Can we leverage some part of the rules (thus trusting the rules designer) to help us beat this bastard?….. because we really want to beat this bastard.”
    Ref (after discussion): “Okay, but now it’s time to choose. What do you think this is going to look like? Is there a roll here? What do you do?”
    Players (Describing together what their characters do and how that engages setting and rules): “That felt so right, absolutely like what should have happened! Shall we make up new characters now or next week?” 😀

    Liked by 2 people

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