Metagaming – When Is It Not Unfair?

AntiMetazombie

Metagaming.

The term is practically a dirty word in some larp circles. By definition, metagaming means the utilization of out-of-game information to affect in-character play. While in some forms of games metagaming is a neutral idea, within larp communities the term has a lot more baggage. The word conjures up images of confrontations between players over misused knowledge and hard feelings over player cheating. However when examining the concept of what it means to metagame, it becomes clear that the complex issue comes down to a question of player intent rather than a hard and fast rule.

In many forms of games, metagaming is a regular part of play. Players in sports or board games such as chess may study not only the rules of the game, but the strategies that have developed around game play. They bring that information to their sessions to optimize their strategy. This meta information is not considered in any way negative, but instead proves that the player has prepared to bring their best to the game space. In these games, the player is themselves both in and out of game and shares knowledge without a separation. If someone is playing chess, they aren’t taking on the character of another person to play, and therefore their knowledge is their own. The nature of roleplaying games makes the issue of the metagame different because of the different persona a player takes on when they are in the game.  Inside the world of a roleplaying game, a player is meant to be separate from the character they play and therefore, theoretically, some of their knowledge is meant to remain separate. Metagaming in a larp means using information that your character wouldn’t normally be able to access to impact the in character course of events. This is usually done to present the player who is metagaming with an advantage over other players or the game itself. In many larps, it is considered a form of cheating.

2104744Examples of metagaming can be broken down into a few different categories:

Story knowledge: The first occurs when a player uses a piece of information they overheard out of character while in character, thereby providing their character with some knowledge they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. This is the most controversial and generally discouraged type of metagaming. A player might be looking for an advantage in the game and, instead of roleplaying through a scene, reacts to knowledge they shouldn’t have in character, thereby changing the gameplay in their favor. In most games, this kind of metagaming is frowned upon for the sake of fairness. If everyone were to utilize metagame knowledge in their roleplaying, good storytelling could break down; story secrets and hidden knowledge could no longer be safe. Additionally, it shows a focus by the player on their individual achievement versus the enjoyment of the community of players as a whole.

Mechanical knowledge: A second example of metagaming involves a player making decisions for their character based on their knowledge of the rules system, such as deciding whether or not to take on an enemy based on their out-of-character knowledge of how much health they have or how deadly the enemy can be. This kind of strategic thinking is a grey area for many players, since it does straddle the line between performing in-game as their character and playing the game as an out-of-character gamer. Information on a character’s sheet, for example, is not in-character knowledge in the sense that the character doesn’t know how many points it has to spend on experience, or how many health points it has before it does.

metagaming

To engage with the rules of the game, a player has to step outside of the in-character headspace at least a little to fight enemies and calculate their damage. That breach of roleplaying into the out-of-character headspace can lead to players making decisions for their character based on their knowledge of out-of-character information, but it may be considered less severe. After all, it lets a player fully engage with the rules system that adjudicates game challenges.

Safety: This third kind of metagaming conjures up less issues of unfairness or misbehavior. Within any game, a player may engage with something that makes them uncomfortable or unhappy, even something that makes them fear for their physical or psychological safety. A player may choose to react to that situation from an out-of-character feeling of discomfort, choosing to remove themselves or to address the problem with game staff and other players, rather than engaging with it on an in-character level. This reaction, by definition, could still be considered metagaming. However, due to the fact that it involves a player taking consideration for their own safety and well-being, it doesn’t come with the same baggage. The fact that this kind of self-care in game is still technically considered  metagaming points to the fact that engaging in metagaming is not always a bad thing; it just depends on the context.

The decision about whether metagaming is considered a cheating offense and how severely it is dealt with largely relies on how stiff the barrier is between being in character and out of character. Games that focus on keeping a strict boundary between in character persona and out-of-character player may have strict rules against metagaming and levy consequences against players that are caught. In games where the separation is more lax, the consequences might be less serious. Still other games, like many Nordic style larps, break down this boundary completely by encouraging players to play ‘close to home’; that is, to build characters that are very much like themselves. They also include techniques within the game that allow players to break character and explore their feelings, thoughts, and decisions with other players out of character before scenes are played. This style of play focuses on metagaming as yet another technique for telling a rich story while stripping away hidden information in play.

By examining the different ways metagaming is used, avoided, or punished, we can see that information can and does spill over from the out-of-character realm into a player’s character. Metagaming can not only sometimes be helpful in a game, sometimes it might be necessary for the safety and well-being of players. It comes down, then, to the intent behind the metagaming and whether or not the game allows for the free exchange of information over the in character/out of character line.

What’s been your experience with metagaming? Share your experiences with us about the issue!

About Shoshana Kessock

Shoshana Kessock is a game designer and writer who has worked on over a dozen larps over the years. She is the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions, an independent tabletop and larp publication and production house, and a full-time storyteller at Dystopia Rising New Jersey. When she isn't writing for LARPing.org she is getting her masters degree at NYU in Game Design, working on several theater LARPs including The Unofficial Dresden Files LARP and writing both fiction and tabletop RPGs. She lives in New York.

9 thoughts on “Metagaming – When Is It Not Unfair?

  1. Adam Schemanoff

    Mechanical knowledge section is not metagaming it’s power gaming, whihc is a whole different thing.

    Power gaming is much mroe socialy acceptable, it’s about getting the most out of any given rule system, while staying within the rules of the game world, to achive a goal or advantage. LARP after all is a game and all games can be won. Power gaming is just about identifying your own personal win conditions and then using the game world to achive that.

    While this use to eb frowned upon over the last 10 years we have seen power gaming become more socialy acceptable.

    Reply
    1. Sarah

      I think that using mechanical knowledge can be metagaming. For example, in the LARP I participate in, on our sheet we have the option to take “lore” as a stat (you can have many different kinds). Most of us know the information that “lore 5″ would give a character because we have read or heard about it on some level. And I would say that using that information in character is metagaming (and is usually more of an accident than on purpose, and is generally well regulated by other players).

      I personally don’t find power gaming acceptable, because in my experience, it forces other players to outright change their motives and often changes the way their game is played (and not often to their benefit), because they must rise to meet someone who is no longer acting for the good of himself and the group. I have had enough of the highest experienced players complaining that there aren’t enough inexperienced, younger generation, weak characters in play, but nothing is stopping them from playing a weaker character except themselves. Of course, an experienced player deserves to play what they have earned, but at the same time, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

      Not only that, but I feel like power gaming is intimidating to potential new players.

      As far as metagaming goes though, Shoshana is right. In our LARPs, we metagame in order to help new players on a semi-regular basis, and despite the negative part, metagaming is not going away. We are all human and sometimes accidents happen. We just have to do our best to play honestly as people and as characters.

      Reply
  2. MostlyLarp

    Story metagaming is definitely the most egregious form, both in terms of potentially disrupting the game and in terms of how likely people are to get completely bent out of shape over minor infractions.

    In a role-playing game, choosing not to use metagame knowledge is a mental strain on the player. Figuring out how to role-play having less information than you actually have requires extra mental effort, and that’s never ideal. The ideal solution is to minimize the opportunities for metagame knowledge to be a problem. The games I play achieve this simply by declaring in the rules that if you hear in-game information in an out-of-game context, then your character can know that information too. How? They just can, and you can make up whatever story you need to to justify how you learned it in-game. If you want something to stay secret, then KEEP IT SECRET.

    Even though they are a staple of both fantasy and science fiction, it’s also a good idea to minimize the existence of memory-altering effects in the the game. Requiring people to do mental calculations of how much memory they’re supposed to pretend to have lost adds a layer of complexity to their role-playing.

    Reply
  3. Ashley T.

    I feel the biggest metagaming experience I face in Dystopia Rising is the “wind”– the NPCs that are walking down a path out of character, and someone in the group says “There’s a big gust down that way, we shouldn’t go that way.” It’s gotten to the point where my weekends have started becoming dull because that’s how I end up avoiding all combat, by avoiding any breeze that comes my way. Recently, my response has been, “Fresh air will do us good, let’s go through.” So far, they haven’t spawned right next to me only because they’re shocked someone was actually walking through, but I’m sure that’ll change in time. And when it does… Ohh, I can’t wait for that fight…

    Reply
  4. Seidwolf

    Hey Shoshana – a good article.

    Its been my experience that the Metagaming issues extends equally in LARP and Tabletop formats. Personally I tend to find it breaks the immersion if one has been acclimated to the game system and such. Safety issues aside (which is when I believe its completely necessary) I tend to see two key trends; those that metagame because (a) the sense of competitiveness is overwhelming (power gaming, rules lawyers, optimizers, etc); or (b) identity disparity between the player and character (not good fit, over reaching, inability to immerse in role, etc).

    I play because I enjoy Story-telling, so I try very hard to keep my “self” and my character segregated – ignoring leaked plots, fact points, experiences, etc. This can annoy more casual gamers that tend to believe that you need to support the team/party as much as possible – such as suggesting courses of action you have from out of character experience.

    I don’t think one can eliminate it entirely other than balancing the metagaming with realistic expectations about what will be fun & exciting as well as challenging to players and designers/GMs as well. If its balanced, then the few times you lose immersion becomes less of an issue. The only way to help keep it balanced is to be judicious about your players to keep the blend of personalities and playing styles consistent with your vision of the game’s course and feel.

    Ultimately, that’s what I believe it comes down to – the feel of it all.

    Reply
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  6. Cynewulf

    There are some GOOD meta-gaming choices, I think. For example, meta-gaming a response in an effort to increase player inclusion in a plot line. I am a dwarf who doesn’t trust elves. I am asked to go on a quest with my buddies. Elf player is new and hasn’t been given an opportunity to get involved. So, in-game I wouldn’t give the elf a second glance, but OOG concern for them having an enjoyable weekend makes me think of a more creative solution… so I say, “I don’t trust that elf…. we should bring him along so I can keep an eye on him.”
    Besides inclusion meta-gaming, there is also ‘creating opportunities for awesome RP’ metagaming, which I also find to be a postive contribution to LARPing. We are fighting gnolls, but the NPC playing the gnoll is fat and out of shape. Instead of siezing the opportunity and killing it off, I take the opportunity to yell out a challenge (thus giving the gnoll, who should be in better shape in the fantasy world than my drunken dwarf), “I am Bolli, son of Bragi, son of Bruni, son of Bjorni! Look on your last day on this middleearth, you barking cur!”. Another example, is that my dwarf is very tight with his money… but, players are standing around waiting for ‘plot’ to happen, so I meta-game and offer a 1 gold reward for anyone who can shoot an arrow through the stocks at 100 paces. Bolli is too miserly to do that, but I sacrificed character integrity for making the event more fun…. I consider that, good metagaming.

    Reply
  7. Dan

    If you are miserly and offer a gold piece for a worthless contest, that is not metagaming. That is breaking character. Same for anything that goes against your character’s profile.
    Metagaming is taking information learned outside of character and using it in character. An example would be learning OOC in the parking lot that the new Elf has information or an ability required to complete the quest. So you go out of your way to bring him into your adventure group to succeed at the quest. This both breaks character, as your character would not associate with an elf and it is metagaming because your character would not know the elf has this item or ability that is required. Though play, he may find out that the elf does, but then he would not interact with the elf because that would beak character. Just saying.

    Reply
  8. Rich

    I agree with all of this, especially the point that it’s the intention that matters. Even “Safety” concerns can be abused. I remember a combat (a long time ago) where we had the enemy overpowered and outnumbered. They retreated, got close to a fire, and someone called a hold. So far so fair. They moved us backwards (and them forwards) away from the fire, and resumed play, at which point the enemy retreated, until they were close to the fire. This went on three or four times, until the Safety marshal turned us around, so that the enemy’s back was to open space, rather than into a confined area, and they fled.

    Intentionally or not, the valid Safety concern was used to metagame to achieve the enemy’s escape, rather than total destruction.

    Now that I run a LARP (the Westlands), I am very aware of issues like this, and try to ensure that safety concerns (and any other out-of-game issues) are dealt with in ways that do not affect the outcome of a situation, to avoid metagaming.

    However, I find that as the runner of a LARP, I battle sometimes to dissociate myself enough with the players sometimes. Our system is one-death (no resurrection), so when I have a PC at my mercy during a fight, I have to decide whether to kill them or not, and find that I metagame in favour of characters far too often (letting them live), which results in no PC deaths, and removes the feeling of danger from the game.

    Do any other game-runners have advice on how to get past that?

    Reply

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