This article was written by Crimsyn from the USS Portland in Obsidian Fleet.
Meta-gaming is good
There, I said it.
I say this a lot, whether I’m playing tabletop games or play-by-post RPGs. And when I do, I’m invariably met with blank stares. After all, since Gygax first met the d20, it’s been common knowledge in the role-playing community that meta-gaming is one of the greatest sins that a player can commit. One of the first things that a new player is taught is to get into their character’s head and do exactly what their character would do, and don’t you dare use out of character knowledge because that would be meta-gaming!
So, what is this meta-gaming thing which is so bad? Simply put, it’s taking the out-of-character knowledge that the player has and using it to influence their character’s actions, even though their character doesn’t have access to that knowledge. The classic example is a character reaching for a torch when fighting trolls because the player knows that trolls are weak to fire, even though the character may not know that.
Some would call this cheating, or at least, it would be considered bad form. So, how should one respond to such a terrible violation of role-playing etiquette?
We should embrace it.
Hear me out. As a game master, one can come down on this player for using out-of-character knowledge, starting an argument about it and forbidding the player from taking that action. You can tell the player that his character has no way of knowing that, and he’s roleplaying wrong by reaching for the torch. In the meantime, the game has likely come to a screeching halt, and no one is having any fun.
Better, the game master can respond to the meta-gamer by saying “Nice move! How does Ragnar know their weakness?” This gives an opportunity for the player to tell us something about Ragnar and something about the world, maybe something that we didn’t know. Perhaps Ragnar’s family were killed by trolls, and he swore vengeance, spending years studying trolls and their weaknesses for the day he would finally get his revenge. And perhaps this troll king standing between him and the McGuffin is the one who ordered the raid on Ragnar’s village!
That’s an awesome story, and it’s definitely more fun for everyone than arguing about whether or not it is realistic that one of our heroes is smart enough to try smacking a troll with a torch.
Meta-gaming is inevitable.
Here’s the thing. Our characters don’t exist, except as part of and in service to the story. We aren’t spacemen, we’re writers. We may be writing stories about spacemen, but we’re still writers. In fact, these spacemen don’t even exist outside of our writings. As such, it’s foolish to think that we can somehow figure out objectively what our imaginary spacemen who only exist through our writing would do without being tainted by our own ideas as writers. It’s inevitable that our characters’ actions are going to be influenced by out-of-character considerations.
And that’s not a bad thing. Our goal isn’t to provide the most realistic and accurate simulation of what would really happen if our characters were plunked down in a situation. Realism is boring anyways. Our goal in role-playing is to tell cool and interesting stories together, and instead of getting into character and asking ourselves “what would my character do?” sometimes we need to step back and ask ourselves “what COULD my character do that would advance the story in cool and interesting directions?” That’s meta-gaming – it’s allowing out of character factors to influence how you’re playing your character.
Often, it’s easier to write cool and interesting stories together if we freely and openly engage in meta-gaming. Out of character information can make it a lot easier for players to use their characters to build dramatic tension and build stories towards exciting conclusions, rather than just taking things as they come.
Meta-gaming is also useful in maintaining and increasing participation. One of the challenges of managing a role-playing game is involving the entire crew – as a game master, you don’t have the luxury of being able to focus solely on a few characters and neglect the rest. Otherwise, the guy who plays Chakotay is going to start feeling a little like, well, Robert Beltran after six or seven seasons of Voyager.
You may notice from time to time that a certain player isn’t getting much of the spotlight and hasn’t really been participating in the game. But your character may not have much of a reason to interact with this other character. In fact, your character may have reasons not to. Perhaps your Tellarite and his Andorian are prejudiced against each other and would both sure as hell sit on the opposite sides of Ten-Forward. The answer is meta-gaming. Figure out, out of character, a reason for your characters to get together and do that. Then go do some odd-couple buddy-cop stuff together. I guarantee you, whatever you come up with is going to be a much better story than if you both sat on your butts on opposite sides of the ship because not hanging around with a filthy Tellarite is “what my character would do.”
Of course, the one caveat to this is that we should always be focusing on telling cool and interesting stories. Meta-gaming is a powerful tool, and it can be used for evil, scene-stealing, Mary Sue-ing, god-modding, story-wrecking purposes. But in such a case, I would argue that the problem isn’t so much meta-gaming as it is just plain bad and inconsiderate roleplaying.
If I have to trade off a little “realism” (lets just ignore the fact that “realism” is kind of an absurd notion in a universe that contains transporters, faster-than-light travel, and Trip Tucker’s wrist nipple) and immersion for a more interesting story, I’ll meta-game my way into the better story every time.
We need to stop thinking of meta-gaming as something bad. Done well, a bit of meta-gaming can reveal things about the world, enhance stories, and increase participation. Embrace it. Run with it. And use it to tell better stories, because telling awesome stories is why we’re all here.
This article was written by Crimsyn. Crimsyn is an avid tabletop and play-by-post RPG gamer. Currently, as Commander Alenis Meru, he is the game master of the USS Portland in Obsidian Fleet.