Metagaming

Anyone who spends more than a few moments listening and critically evaluating this video will realize that the speaker is employing age-old rhetoric designed to belittle and break down the listener, to the point where you’re willing to accept his premise, which is, “This thing is totally bad except when I say it’s good because that’s when it supports my goals.”

It sickens me to think that this sort of drivel is not only acceptable discourse in this day-and-age, but worthy of 25,000+ views. Then again, we all know who the current US President is…

“But what about the metagame?” I hear you cry into your monitor. (Really, you should stop doing that. It makes you look weird, especially when you do it in the middle of the library.)

The thing is, “metagame” is a known term. And it doesn’t mean what Guy thinks it means.

Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself. In simple terms, it is the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions.  – Wikipedia

The game outside the game. The Metagame, a concept that exists for all competitive games, can’t be easily defined in one sentence. Put simply, the Metagame is the question of how everyone else is playing. If you know the answer, you can then tailor your own play to take advantage of their weakpoints.  – TV Tropes

Emphasis is mine because that’s a ridiculous claim. Let’s take a stab at it:

The metagame is the collection of unspoken rules or conventions of the game, and the implied strategies used to win the game.

There. One sentence. Not that difficult. (To be fair, it’s the same as the Wikipedia definition, which is also one sentence.) We can look at examples but, honestly, the ones provided by the links are sufficient to illustrate the point (though, as usual, TV Tropes tends to muddy the waters by bringing up examples that less than accurately represent the concept at hand).

So how should we apply the metagame to D&D?

Very carefully. We’re talking about unspoken rules; standard conventions; strategies; in other words, we’re talking about the implied elements of the game, not the written elements. The rules state that a player must roll 4d6 (and ignore the lowest result) six times to generate numbers for stats. They say nothing about where to assign those numbers except that it is at the player’s discretion. What should the player do? Is there a strategy to this process and does one strategy work better than another? Can the player consult his peers? Should the player consider what he knows about the DM’s world? Or the DM’s style? The rules state that there are specific circumstances under which a player is allowed to make a Stealth check. They also outline the conditions where a player gets a bonus or penalty to the check, and they define the difficult rating for different environments or opposing forces. These rules are included in the Player’s Handbook (in practically every edition): when, therefore, does the player step into the metagame by analyzing the situation and attempting to gauge which Stealth rules will and will not apply? What if the player’s character is only familiar with stealth in an urban environment, where his opponent is another humanoid creature? Further, let’s suppose the player is a hunter in real life; can he legitimately argue that his character can perform just as well at Stealth in a wild setting as he can in an urban one? Let’s be more specific: can the player declare that he’s moving upwind of his quarry in order to avoid detection? We’ve established that he’s from an urban environment; he’s no ranger; how does he know about how an animal’s scent works? And what about combat? If Guy tells us that metagaming is bad (except when he says it’s not), then are we not supposed to employ strategy in combat? Because the rules don’t explicitly tell us how to fight a battle. They only tell us how to resolve specific actions within the context of a battle.

Wait, wait… I’m sorry, I’m getting off on a tangent. I’m using the wrong definition. See, the word can have more than one meaning and, while the ones I’ve selected are accurate, they also almost exclusively apply to competitive games. Role-playing is a cooperative game. Clearly, then, there’s an opportunity for us to define metagame as we see fit, as Guy has defined it, as we see in Wikipedia…

In role-play situations (in a game like ‘Garry’s Mod” (which has multiple Role-play servers)) Metagame (ing) means to tell somebody some information about another player or something they are doing that said player’s character should not know about.

Okay, so… ignoring the other definitions which, you know, are borne from a history in math, military science and game theory, we’re still left with a problem. The definition Guy provides is borne from two sources. The first is a misunderstanding. Gamers acquired the term some years back but did not understand what it really means. They’ve been misusing it ever since. It’s a concept that has stuck around despite its lack of practical application. The second source, however, is the real problem and the real reason Guy’s definition persists: it’s a tool to control player actions.

Quick: what do you know? What is the whole depth and breadth of your knowledge? Can you list all the facts that are available to you at any given moment? Of course you can’t. And you are you. You know what’s in your head. Generally, you know what you know – except for those moments when you’re challenged to perform and you succeed but only just barely and you think back to how you managed to get that project done on time and you say, “Holy s#!+! I never knew I could do that!” And that’s when you know that you don’t always know what you don’t know.

If it’s that difficult for us to know what we do and do not know – the full scope of learning, skills and knowledge – how much more difficult is it for us to conceive of what our avatars in a fantasy world might know?

If you’re a DM who discourages metagaming because it’s based on “information about another player or something they are doing that said player’s character should not know about,” try this instead: for your next game, don’t. Don’t stop a player who uses “out-of-game” knowledge. Let them take the action they want to take. Watch how it plays out. Watch how the players react. If they become active, if they show signs of engagement and if they start doing more things because, for the moment at least, they’re allowed to, then you can be certain that your game is improving.

Let the players win. Let them trash your plans. Let yourself fail and step outside your comfort zone for a moment. You’ll be surprised what you learn about yourself.

P.S. Because this came to me as a great example of metagaming and because I can’t fit it in with the post above, consider this: Guy states, in so many words, that metagaming is bad when it disrupts the narrative feel of the game, but that metagaming that plays into the narrative is good. Assuming that the player buys into this h*%$&$#!+, he’s now created a new metagame: knowing what will and will not be acceptable to the DM who, according to Guy’s gaming paradigm, is the sole arbiter of what “feels good” as a narrative. His position doesn’t eliminate the metagame or make it work better for the players. It makes it work better for him.

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