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The Game Outside The Game

Posted By Phil Vecchione On December 13, 2010 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

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.

It’s This..

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

Introducing Metagaming

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.




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7 Comments To "The Game Outside The Game"

#1 Comment By Sunyaku On December 13, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

I am currently struggling with a group of new players. Half are located in one city, and half are located in another city two hours away. Scheduling is difficult, and we play an average of once a month.

They are about to level up for the first time, so that always a good metagaming activity, but I really like the idea of soliciting the players to help create the NPCs of our shared world. Thanks!

#2 Comment By BishopOfBattle On December 13, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

During my just finished Shadowrun campaign, I asked players to take turns writing a “character log” for the session which was then posted to a document in Google Docs where everyone could read them. Mainly, my reasoning was to force the team to keep some record of their past exploits. If something came up in a mission then (like a plot related to something they had done in the past) rather than asking me or having to make some rolls to remember what happened, they could consult the log.

This worked to some extent, though I found about half of my players would always write their logs in a timely fashion and with great detail. Others would not do it for a long time, write only a brief entry with very little useful detail, or would just never write one at all.

Going into our next Shadowrun campaign, I would like to continue the logs, as they did prove useful to the players on several occassions, but have also been looking into creating another Metagaming option.

I plan to have multiple jobs available to the team at any one time. Between sessions the teams will need to discuss the jobs available to them and choose which one they want to take for the next session. Generally speaking, they’ll still get to do all the jobs, but there may be obvious or not so obvious rewards or repercussions of prioritizing one job or pushing it off for another week.

Looking even further ahead, if the group and character make it to a third campaign arc, I’m planning to introduce an even larger metagaming aspect. The team, by that point, should be pretty powerful, wealthy and influencial. While the sessions will continue to revolve around them running jobs, I’d like them to start having to farm out small jobs, portions of their next job, and other less interesting tasks to contracters between runs. Based on what they do between sessions, they’ll be provided with more information, weaken the enemy’s defenses, etc. for the job that session.

The most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with is recognizing that metagaming like this isn’t for everyone. In the begginning, I tried to get everyone into it and it became apparrent that some just weren’t into it or wouldn’t make time between sessions to provide any input; they just wanted to play on game night and didn’t want to have “homework” between sessions.

#3 Comment By Lee Hanna On December 13, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

I’ve done some, and I’ve had some done for me. As a player in 4 long-running 3.5 D&D campaigns, I’ve spent a lot of time metagaming as I look for things to do with my PC as he levels up. {These could be a sign that I’ve not been really happy with the characters, too.} I spend a lot more time trying to find some way to make my characters mechanically effective in that game than in any other.

I’ve also had a lot of fun with out-of-character discussions with 1-2 other players about how our characters interact, say in their down time. We usually haven’t done this in the presence of the DM or other players, but we’ve let them know some of the conclusions we’ve reached. These often happen during the commute to/from the game.

As a GM, I’ve had very little happen for me. In one game, D&D again, two players (one of them being one of the players I’ve talked with above) have given me lots of metagame discussions about their PCs, and even in-character email exchanges. Both have given me a few 1-2 page emails to chew on. I’ve given them choicer magic items or bonus xp for it. The reward has been that they want to revisit those PCs, and so do I.

#4 Comment By FeistierErmine On December 13, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

I have found a great deal of success getting the players engaged outside of normal play sessions in one of the campaigns I am currently running. The campaign is based very heavily around giving the PCs important decisions to make. I have kept the players communicating between sessions simply by timing things so that these important decisions always come up at the end of the night. It keeps the players debating their options between sessions because they want to be able to dive straight into their plan of action the next time we meet.

I recently added an extra method to keep my players active between sessions. One of the NPCs introduced an incredibly rare herb that can be brewed into a tea which causes the drinker to have prophetic dreams the next time they sleep. I have made sure to keep this resource limited, and the dreams themselves are always left open to interpretation. It works wonders though when one or more players aren’t sure what the best course of action is. They brew a cup of tea and we run through the dream through email or IM between sessions.

#5 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-12-17 On December 17, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

[…] The Game Outside The Game […]

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 20, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

I played in a game where we kept a journal. Some of these turned into full-blown stories, some of which are/will be published here: http://telastx.blogspot.com/ I feel that it really helped me to ‘connect’ with my character, and is one of the reasons I got back into gaming in a big way.

I currently reward one player for keeping an updated Bestiary for my game, but I haven’t gone much further than that.

#7 Comment By Bercilac On December 20, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

I used to give xp for people drawing sketches of their characters and other odd props and spin-off creative things. I like the idea of planning a heist outside the game, though… Particularly since you could do a minimum of mechanical planning for the “recon” session, then based on the players’ plans decide what the difficulty rolls would be, exactly how many cops would show up in response to the mushroom cloud, etc.


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