Dice Tales: Metagaming

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the eighth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)

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Continuing off the “emergence” concept of my last post . . . I admitted there that things aren’t usually 100% serendipitous. Players do make plans, and even if those plans don’t survive contact with the enemy, fragments of them may carry through. I’d like to talk some more about that planning, and specifically, a concept referred to as “metagaming.”

By default, that’s a pejorative term. A player is supposed to act based on what their character knows, not on what the player knows. If another PC is in a separate part of town and planning to ambush an NPC I want to keep alive, I shouldn’t magically decide my character decides to walk that NPC home and prevent the assassination, just because I’m sitting right there and heard the other player formulate their plan. If I-the-player recognize the creature that just attacked our party but my PC is clueless, I shouldn’t just happen to attack it with the one tactic that targets its vulnerabilities. Doing so runs counter to the ethical code of “good gaming,” and can cross the line into what gamers would consider outright cheating.

The same applies to the GM, but not as much. After all, if the GM’s job is to create fun challenges for the players, it helps to exploit out-of-character knowledge to make that happen. The PCs suspect an NPC of a crime he actually committed? I’ll see if there aren’t ways for me to throw doubt on that conclusion, suggesting his innocence or providing red herrings to complicate the picture. I don’t want the mystery to be boring and easily solved. What isn’t considered kosher, though, is for me to change my mind entirely about who’s guilty, just because the PCs figured it out too quickly for my taste. If they prepare well for a big challenge, they should be rewarded for their effort and skill, not undercut by me changing the parameters just to keep things difficult. Otherwise there’s no incentive for them to even try: they might as well just walk in unprepared, because they’ll be screwed either way, and that approach is easier.

But here’s the flip side. If you want to create a good story, then quite often, OOC knowledge can help you do that.

I refer to this as “benevolent metagaming.” If you think back to the “False Colours” story I told in my previous post: the guy playing my love interest knew me. He could look at me and think, “hmmm, is she playing a male character? Or is she playing a female character pretending to be a man?” He knew narrative tropes and the kind of things that would entertain me, and he could read between the lines on that “really close friendship” we’d decided our characters had. I never told him OOC that my character was cross-dressing, but he figured it out for himself. And rather than trying to pretend he had no inkling, he used that knowledge to heighten the tension. He looked for opportunities to have his (entirely clueless) PC say or do things that would make my character tear her hair out over continuing to lie to him, until she finally reached her breaking point and confessed. He was absolutely exploiting OOC information — but he did it in ways that made the story better rather than worse. That wasn’t cheating; it was doing the kind of thing a novelist might do, to good effect.

The players in the games I run tend to be awesome about this sort of thing. They will gleefully screw themselves over, in the full awareness that’s what they’re doing, because they know the result of it will be hilarious. Their PCs spill secrets, fail to put two and two together, accidentally flirt with the wrong person, while the player is busy going “I shouldn’t have said that” or “my character totally doesn’t notice this” or “what’s the worst thing I could possibly do here?” They will forgo the chance to make a roll, declaring that they just fail at whatever they might be attempting to do. In the long run, of course, they still want things to turn out well — unless the plan is for their character to go down in flames, which does sometimes happen. (Tragic stories can be good stories, too.) But they don’t mind failures along the way, because they know those can make the whole thing better.

So although it’s theoretically bad form to use OOC knowledge to influence how you behave IC, in practice, it isn’t that simple. Sometimes you have to think like the character. Sometimes you have to think like the player. The best results come from shifting between those modes at the most opportune moment.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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