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.
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.
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!