|December 13, 2010||Posted by Phil Vecchione|
Years ago, before the Stew was cooking, I read a great essay by Richard Garfield written for The Horsemen of the Apocalypse anthology discussing how he came up with the idea of Magic:The Gathering. In the essay, he talked about the idea of playing the game outside of the game…a metagame, and how the metagame intensified the game. That got me thinking about Metagaming in RPG’s.
It’s Not This…
So most of us are familiar with the negative connotation of metagaming, defined in the D&D 3.0 Dungeon Master Guide. The DMG defined metagaming as the use of player knowledge to influence a characters decision in the game. For instance: “Ahh that NPC has a first and last name, she must be important.” Ditch that. That’s not what we are talking about here, and that’s the last time we are talking about that kind of metagaming.
What we are talking about are the activities that you and your players take part in when you are not sitting around the table actually playing the game. The best example for metagaming can be seen in Magic:The Gathering. When I learned to play Magic: The Gathering, around the time of the Unlimited set, I found that when I was not sitting across from someone playing a duel, that I was sitting around building decks, planning combos, collecting cards, trading cards etc. In fact there were times, where I was having as much fun, if not more, doing all those activities than actually playing the game. Years later, I got into Mage Knight, and the same thing was true. I was building armies, collecting and trading figures, and building terrain. I had the same experience, I had as much fun making terrain, as I did pitting my army against an opponent.
That is the good kind of metagaming, and what we are talking about today.
Why Metagaming Works
What metagaming does is to create opportunities which allow the participant to interact with the game when the game is not being played. These activities create a sustained interest for the participant between sessions, which in turn increases the interest of the participants when the game is being played. In many cases the activities can build excitement for the participant who is eager to bring what was created between sessions, into the coming session.
For games that are not playing weekly, perhaps playing bi-weekly or monthly, sustaining interest in a game during those down times is key to keeping your campaign alive. Far too often in campaigns with long durations between sessions, interest wanes which can lead to apathy at the table, which will eventually kill a game.
Metagming Activities In RPG’s
Not every RPG has built in metagame opportunities. Amber: Diceless Role Playing was a great example of an RPG with built in metagaming, with activities that players could perform for a bonus in character creation points. The good news is that even if the game you are playing does not have mechanics for metagaming, its not hard to create them.
There are two general types of metagame activities: solo and group activities. Solo activities are the kinds of things a GM or player can do alone. These activities include:
- Creating NPC’s
- Making spell lists
- Creating a map of your stronghold
- Drawing a sketch of your character
- Keeping a player journal
- Prep for a session
- Brainstorming for future sessions
Group activities are out of game activities where several participants in the game (players and/or GM) engage in a shared activity. Since, by their nature they need to occur outside of the normal gaming session, these activities are often done online, using email or another form of electronic communication. Some of these activities can include:
- A dialog between two PC’s
- A dialog between a PC and NPC
- The PC’s planning an attack/heist/ambush
If your game does not have rules for metagaming, then as the GM you can introduce some of these activities. For solo activities you can reward players for performing the activities between sessions, since these are kind of like “homework” between sessions. For example: in a Savage Worlds game, you could reward a player with an extra bennie if they wrote an entry into their character’s journal.
Group activities are not often rewarded, as the opportunity to extend play with others outside the game is often reward enough, but nothing says you can’t reward them a few XP for their efforts. For group activities the GM should identify scenes where metagaming could take place, and identify or initiate them for the players. For example: A player may want to have a long discussion with their Uncle that is not germane to the plot. So the GM offers to conduct the conversation online, between sessions by email.
A favorite metagame activity of mine is to set up a heist or assault such that in one session I introduce the objective (i.e. steal the artifact from the vault) and allow the players to do all their recon and information gathering during the session. Then between sessions, the players get together online and plan the heist. At the next session the players then get to enact their plan.
Do You Metagame?
Metagaming is a powerful tool that can help to keep you and your players engaged between sessions. The activities can help to add depth to characters and your campaign world. They provide you and your players an opportunity to enjoy different aspects of the game mechanics and campaign setting.
Do you have regular metagame activities that you include in your games? Does the game you play have a regular metagame mechanic? What was your favorite metagaming moment?
About Phil Vecchione
A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.