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Hot Button: To Meta Or Not To Meta?

Posted By John Arcadian On November 12, 2010 @ 1:27 am In Hot Buttons | 9 Comments

image If you happen to do a search on the tag meta here on the stew, you’ll find that I tend to dominate use of the tag. That could be because I’m the only one who uses it, but it is also because the metagame is a key component in a lot of my Game Mastering philosophy. Looking it up on Dictionary.com, meta is defined as:

meta- 1.a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, with the meanings “after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” “behind,” and productive in English on the Greek model: metacarpus; metagenesis; metalinguistics.

When we refer to things that are meta, in almost all conventional usage, we are generally referring to things that are beyond or above the subject at hand but still related. The metadata in our MP3s and images reveals information about the MP3 or image that isn’t the music of visuals that are important. When we refer to the metagame surrounding our roleplaying games, it is usually in the sense of things the player knows that the PC wouldn’t.

And that brings up the question behind this Hot Button article. Do you, as the game master, allow meta knowledge in your games?  There are some pros and cons to allowing metaknowledge and metagameplay. Here are just a few

Pros To Allowing Meta

  • Can speed up gameplay.
  • Can compensate for the lack of seeing it from the characters’ eyes. (i.e., The characters would pick up on things actually being in any real situation that the players wouldn’t by merely having the situation described to them.)
  • Can create roleplaying moments when the players describe how or why their characters would logically know something they know.
  • Can provide a different perspective on various game elements by letting the players make use of knowledge they would have. (i.e., A character might not know anything about forensics, but the player knows some very basic facts and can treat a crime scene differently.)

Cons To Allowing Meta

  • Can defy a sense of realism about the game.
  • Can provide unfair advantage.
  • Can prevent roleplaying because players don’t feel the need to do things “in-game”.
  • Can make specialized knowledge that a character is built around less valuable. (i.e., Why be a traveling scholar with skill in the cultures of various lands when the characters can know anything the players read about?)

I phrased everything in that brief list in terms of “can”, because it really comes down to how the metaknowledge and metagameplay occurs in the game, and that brings up the really important part of this article – your game. Do you allow meta knowledge to be a big factor of your game? Are there situations where it feels appropriate and situations where it doesn’t? Some part of the game always occurs in the meta-space surrounding the game, but how much of the game do you think should go on there?

IMG: Public Domain

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Hot Button: To Meta Or Not To Meta?"

#1 Comment By Dunx On November 12, 2010 @ 8:35 am

As with so many other questions, the answer depends on the game. But for _my_ games, the answer is a resounding “No!”

Part of it is the setting. I almost exclusively run Cthulhu Mythos games, and if the characters knew what the players did they wouldn’t go anywhere near the suspicious basement or abandoned mine.

But my group also tries to enforce a rule that only players whose characters are in a situation can contribute to negotiating it. This is pretty porous in practice, but it at least means that the views of one player can’t dominate every situation.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 12, 2010 @ 9:06 am

I tend to frown upon metaknowledge in my games as both a player and as a GM. I hate when the dumb as rocks barbarian suddenly knows how to operate the mechanical contraption, or the wizard suddenly spouts off a ton of cannon information for a setting that has nothing to do with his specialty. These things lessen the suspension of disbelief for me.

As a player I will ask the GM out of character if my PC knows what I do. This is what I expect the players to do when I GM. I trust the GM to judge such situations, and I expect the players to trust me when I GM to be fair as well. I do not punish a player for bringing metaknowledge into the game, but I certainly do not enjoy it and let them know how I feel.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On November 12, 2010 @ 10:32 am

@Dunx – Game setting will be a big factor, like you said. Meta knowledge in a cthulu mythos game would just ruin a lot of the feel of the game.

@Patrick Benson – I’ve seen different GMs handle this different ways, so here is a question for you: How do you handle instances where the character concept or the desired reward for the player is inherent to metaknowledge? . I.e. Player eventually wants their character to get that awesome dragon rider class at level XX, but their character concept of peasant fighter (and they way they are currently roleplaying it) wouldn’t give them a reason to know about or want to be a dragon rider unless an in-game element spurred them there.

#4 Comment By BishopOfBattle On November 12, 2010 @ 11:36 am

Within reasonable limits, I think *all* games make use of player Meta Knowledge.

“Meta gaming” is what keeps a party together and functional half the time. Unless you have a party of adventures with completely intertwined backstories who all have the same alignment, goals, motivations and principals who agree on everything all the time, there is likely a point where “real characters” would say “To hell with this, I’m going my own way!” The players, of course, don’t do this for the goal of fostering group enjoyment and keeping the game moving.

Within reason, there’s no reason player knowledge of the game world can’t equal in game character knowledge. Unless we’re talking about a player who has run a particular published adventure before and knows where the traps are and that they will be ambushed in this next room and actively seeks to circumvent those challenges. The twists and surprises of the world, then, can be handled as “secret” organizations they can’t read about. You can know the Forgotten Realms campaign setting backwards and forwards, but if the GM creates the Cult of the Shattered Mind and inserts it into the world for their own use, there’s no way you’ll know anything about it until he tells you it (and your high intelligence characters can still roll for knowledge on it). This is one reason I generally don’t allow characters especially weak in any one area (no Barbarians with an intelligence or wisdom of 3!… unless the player really is that dense, then maybe).

Meta gaming is also lots of fun to use as a GM. If you know what your players know and know what their assumptions are, you can have lots of fun with it. I recently ran a set of Shadowrun missions based on the Zombie Outbreak scenario in Eureka! However, the “adventure” was actually the characters sitting down to play an AR game of a Zombie outbreak… but I didn’t tell the players that.

So the players felt they were just showing up for another job, doing a pro-bono job for a friend, that just so happened to land them in a facility with a zombie infestation that eventually spread to neighboring civilization and began tearing the world down around them.

The intent was to have fun with a zombie scenario with lots of danger (Zombies are dangerous after all) that would destroy the gameworld and, in the end, the big “twist” was revealed that they were in a game and everything was going to be alright. The characters knew the whole time of course, but abusing the player’s “Meta knowledge” kept the sense of danger high for the players.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 12, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

@John Arcadian – Part of my job as the GM is to help the player with their character concept, so I insert events into the game that will give the player opportunities to role play that development.

I can work with the player to have an element in their background such as an uncle who told stories about dragon riders to the PC as a child. I can have a dragon rider appear streaking across the sky one day and the PC sees it clearly.

Instead of the player using metaknowledge I prefer that we work together and discuss their goals for the character. Besides, would it not be more fun for the player if the campaign built up to that dramatic moment when the peasant finally saddles up on his dragon mount and is recognized for transforming himself through adventure and discovery? I think as a GM I should help tell that player tell the story of their PC, and that means supplying the opportunites where the PC acquires that knowledge instead of relying on the player’s metaknowledge.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On November 12, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

@BishopOfBattle – That’s a great example. Metaknowledge is often what keeps parties together, especially when people have wildly divergent character ideas. In reality, a team wouldn’t likely be made up of 5 people with wildly different talents, it would be 3 or 4 core people with a specialty and then other teams to support them, at least as far as combat situations go. There is really no reason for the sniper to be walking along the corridors of the building with the hand combat specialists, but in games they do because that is the way things progress.

@Patrick Benson – I am in full agreement that one of the GMs roles is to help the player bring about those goals for their character, but not all GMs are. I remember one GM, a very bad one, who refused character ideas because of their lack of connection to the concept in the game world. He told us that if our characters had a reason to become specialists at killing undead, they could take those classes. Ok. No major issues there, but there were never any chances to fight undead even though that was what one of us was leaning towards. It’s an extreme example, but it demonstrates that kind of talking and negotiating that has to happen in the metaspace of the game. The GMs and players have to be on the same page about what the game is going to be like in order for them all to have fun.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 12, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

@John Arcadian – I am uncertain if that is the metaspace of the game though. To me that is very much a part of the actual game. It may not be the game world, but the social interaction between the players and the GM is at the core of any RPG.

Does that make sense? The player can exhibit metaknowledge, but is it meta space to discuss how the player and the GM will interact while playing the game? I have never though of it as being so, but what do others think?

#8 Comment By E-l337 On November 12, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

As with all things, I use an odd combination: I fully expect, and even anticipate, my players to use meta knowledge, because most of the time the things they know are things their character ought to know, within reason. If I believe their character is out of bounds with an action or information, I shut that player down immediately by saying just that: There is no possible way your character could know X thing.

Most of the time, I’ll let it slide. But because of the danger of metaknowledge interfering with combat situations, I tend to custom-create a lot of creatures – tweaks on old things. Sometimes it is just changing a dragon’s abilities around. Maybe it’s just adding a twist to a manticore’s abilities. If I expect my players to use meta knowledge to their advantage, sometimes I’ll toss out a few hints in the game to see if they’ll pick up on it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they do not.

As a player, I love using my metaknowledge, but I am very careful with it. Every time I realize that my meta-knowledge might be detrimental to the game, I ask my GM: would it be reasonable for my character to assume X thing? Does my character know anything about organization Y? Asking questions like this helps to guide my character and their reactions.

I feel that meta-knowledge is not bad, in itself. It can be a great thing. But sometimes, it does break the suspension of disbelief – and in those instances, it’s best to set it to the sidelines, and remember that your character isn’t as smart as you are.

Seems to work for me.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On November 15, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

I allow a lot of meta knowledge– mostly because policing meta knowledge is a pain, because some explicitly “gamey” systems are built on the assumption that both sides play hard-but-fair, and because while it’s fun to pretend to be scared of the goblin every once in a while, dude, it’s a goblin!

On the last; I love playing with new players and getting to experience their discovery and delight when a GM goes out of their way to make the world immersive. Waist high scaly people who bark in the words of magic can be awesome, particularly the first time a player sees them. After twenty five years… I know a kobold. If the GM steps up and creates an immersive description I’ll follow along, but if he short-cuts to a dozen kobolds ambushing us, I’ll follow her lead and respond to a dozen kobolds ambushing us– not “a dozen mysterious, scaly, short creatures”.

It’s sometimes hard to figure out where meta knowledge begins and ends. A world with practical, replicable magic and specific creatures lends itself to practical discussions (red things that breathe fire tend to be immune to fire), instead of our own ghost stories and myth. Though even that is interesting to subvert; most horror movies have ordinary people perplexed by zombies, vampires, and werewolves, but some subvert convention and have people make educated guesses based on the movies and TV shows the characters have watched.

The Dresden RPG and novels use the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a significant strike against the black court vampires– because soon everyone knows how to kill them.


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