I like Matt Colville’s work. He has good advice, even if he feels the need to couch it in language that’s more palatable to the sensitive viewer. I wish he would be more consistent with his views. It’d be nice if he was a little more critical. And I’m expecting the Strongholds and Followers book will contain quite a bit of useless material ~ not because I think Colville’s work is necessarily useless, but because I expect that his project will fall prey to the usual thinking that plagues the RPG industry ~ that innovation means capturing the desires of the masses without applying much critical thinking to the why behind those desires.
I really hope I’m wrong about that last one.
In this video, he discusses meta-gaming ~ a topic that inevitably comes up for discussion in every gaming group, and where inevitably everyone falls prey to common misunderstandings.
(Disclaimer: I fell in with this thinking for some time but came around to another viewpoint, one which I feel much more accurately represents the dynamics of the game.)
There are many things said in the video, but one that I want to focus on is this
I asked on Twitter what meta-gaming was, and I asked for examples… and overwhelmingly… 80-90% of the responses said some variation of, “meta-gaming is when your character acts on information that you as a player have, but that the character does not.”
I think that is a good definition and regardless of whether it is or not, it’s the one we’re stuck with because, ultimately, usage is what matters.
Conventional wisdom, yes? I mean, if the majority of the population believes it to be true, it must be, right?
Never mind that this was an informal poll taken exclusively of Twitter users. Never mind that D&D players and DMs who use Twitter are not representative of the community at-large. Never mind that meta-gaming has a definition outside of D&D, that that definition has been around for some time and that it applies equally well to a number of game- and sports-related hobbies.
This is what I find so damned frustrating about Colville (and other public personalities of the online D&D community): they’re not stupid yet they continue to support and advance stupid ideas.
The community says, “Meta-gaming is acting on knowledge that you ~ the player ~ possess but that your character does not.” But this is utter horseshit and immediately apparent to anyone who takes more than a few seconds to consider the implications.
Still… a part of me understands: most people simply aren’t interested in challenging preconceived notions. We’re not really interested in learning anything new.
When asked about his success with the recent Kickstarter, Colville said something to the effect of, “I didn’t build the Kickstarter campaign. I built the community. After I built the community, I said, ‘hey, I’ve got this idea, do you want to help me produce it?’ The community said, ‘yes.'” This is a great lesson for anyone interested in selling a product online. The problem I have isn’t with the advice itself but with what it implies: that, in order to build a community, I have to accept that people are stupid and I have to change my message to come across as accepting of people’s stupidity.
I don’t know that I can do that. I don’t know that I have a need to, either, but still…
I had another thought on the topic and I believe it’s worth exploring:
Meta-gaming is a thing that happens whenever a player becomes serious about the game they are playing.
Role-playing is a thing that happens whenever a player becomes serious about the game they are playing.
Meta-gaming and role-playing are pretty much the same thing.
Despite the name, role-playing in the sense of acting is not a requirement to play an RPG. Knowing the rules is a requirement. Getting into character, is not. Knowing when it’s a good idea to run away from a fight, is. The game is “pretend to be [insert one- or two-word descriptor].” How is this done? By reading these rules on character generation, these rules on combat and these rules that are relevant to your specific character ~ after that, just play pretend.
The serious player is one who identifies on a personal level with his character. He takes this collection of numbers and words on a piece of paper, and turns it into a living, breathing person. The interaction and story-telling that takes place between the players and the DM help to solidify this anthropomorphism. The character is made even more real because we refer to it as “you,” as though talking about the player. Role-playing in the sense of acting the part is just a natural extension of playing the game, where the game is about directing the actions of an ostensibly living person (a pretend person, to be sure, but on some level our brains don’t recognize this difference).
Meta-gaming is not a requirement to play an RPG. Just like role-playing (acting), meta-gaming is something that happens when the player becomes serious about the game. The serious player takes his game to the next level by thinking about the ways the rules interact with each other; by running through different scenarios in his head or out loud with fellow players; by studying the tactics and techniques of other players; by observing and testing hypotheses about how the DM runs her game; and so on.
The only real difference between role-playing and meta-gaming is this distinction about what the character knows as opposed to what the player knows. Since we’ve demonstrated rather clearly that that distinction is near impossible to make with any level of certainty ~ and without creating an entirely new meta-game, revolving around manipulating the DM to let you get away with meta-gaming ~ it follows that this distinction is not relevant.
If you’re serious about the game, you’ll find a way to get into character and you’ll find a way to use the rules to your advantage. And that’s exactly what we, as DMs, should expect of our players.