by Tobie Abad
I know I am going to get into trouble for this article.
Once upon a time, meta-gaming was a bad bad word when it came to role-playing games. To meta-game meant to cheat and use knowledge you've learned from reading the books to your advantage. Such as preparing wooden weapons since you know, once you step past that door in the dungeon, a rust monster is waiting. Or you have your vampire anarch opt to attack a certain part of the city, even if its the first time you've gone there, because you were able to read that the Prince of the city sleeps there during the day. Meta-gaming was about declaring actions that was completely inappropriate or unrealistic for your character to do to gain an advantage using knowledge the player knew.
And yes, back then, any moment you have player and character knowledge mingle someone would most likely call you out on meta-gaming and cheating.
But nowadays, there are kinds of meta-gaming I personally feel are quite acceptable. Gone are the days that all games follow the Meet in Tavern - Explore Dungeon - Return with Loot format. Nowadays, there are approaches to game play that actually do require some level of metagaming to work properly. Unthinkable? Not really if you look at gaming styles with a much more discerning eye.
Narrative Games, for instance, tend to follow what is known as the Hero's Journey. At the most basic level, the Hero's Journey is what Joseph Campbell describes as a basic pattern followed or found in many stories through out history. In brief, it is when a hero "ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Most game masters and storytellers nowadays use this as a framework in mapping out the flow of the chronicle, since the desire for many is to recreate the feeling and story development of popular works in fiction.
Without meta-gaming, the player in the game can conceivably ignore all the story points and charge forward without any care, crafting his own original narrative. But as expected, most gamers would find that doing so upsets the narrative flow or simply ends up with the player feeling lost or uncertain where to go. It is like if Harry Potter was a game you were playing in, and the moment Hagrid and Dumbledore show up, you decide as a player to absolutely never trust them. While much more skilled game masters might still find a way to introduce a different wise old mentor, others might get flustered with the fact the player is not getting the hint. Likewise, in a game where the player is an idealized superhero such as Superman or a Jedi Knight, when faced with an opponent, meta-gaming would call for the player to remember he is a "good character" and so simply defeating the opponent and having the authorities deal with him after is the "right thing." But what if the player is more accustomed to being a vigilante anti-hero type of player with a love for the shades of gray in morality? That player would then be forced to meta-game, that being to step out of what he's normally inclined to choose in playing his character the way he wants, and focus on the themes of the game and choose a more acceptable action for the sake of keeping things running smoother.
An already often practiced classic example of acceptable meta-gaming is not killing a player character outright, whether it be in player versus player conflict, or when facing enemies in a game that espouses heroism or pulp action. Instead the player character is beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and anything else but just killed for the sake of being expedient. How many times have we, as passive viewers in movies, found it stupid that the arch enemy does not just kill the hero once he has the upper hand? Such choices are actually moments of acceptable meta-gaming, where decisions are made not because the character would actually do it (Seriously, how many super genius villains would not just outright kill the very man who always gets in their way?) but because the theme and genre require it for the narrative to work. And more importantly in a role-playing game, for it to be fun for the players involved.
Some would counter that the examples I showed were not moments of meta-gaming but instead were moments where the character's concept required the player to act in a certain way. But realize unless you're talking about Dungeons and Dragons which espoused an Alignment system, or White Wolf's approach to Nature back during classic Changeling the Dreaming which had bans on how you should act, there really is no strict "rule" on how you should play your character save for how you want him to. And again, common sense tends to dictate a player character's actions, which rarely go in-line with what the character concept would really opt to do. Most people, in real life, would run away from conflicts and danger. In role-playing games, characters rarely run away. Why? Because they have to be heroes. Because they are the stars of the show. Because if they act like every normal person, and not meta-game and act like the heroes or leads they are expected to be, the game would fall apart. Players would have characters choose the paths that present less stress. Less danger. Less trouble. If Lord of the Rings was a role-playing game and not a book, the player playing Frodo would have used the ring more often. (Players love to get away with things, after all.) Or maybe would have handed it over to the other player with the best stat for resisting temptation. But experienced players will tell you that Frodo (or character concepts similar to Frodo) would mean playing someone willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of others... when dramatically appropriate.
It is very rare that people would really choose the more complicated and difficult path.
But such is the requirement now for effective dramatic gaming. The need to be aware of the narrative flow, its emotional high and lows, and time portraying the character's vices and virtues at the most appropriate points. In other words, role-playing the character becomes a subtle use of meta-gaming to keep the game running smoother. To give it a narrative cohesion that is rarely accomplished in table top role-playing games. The player steps away from being just the character, and starts thinking as a co-author in the narrative aspect.
Many John Wick games actually embrace this to some degree. In Houses of the Blooded, a player is invited to narrate his own success and failure, and is even reminded that one can narrate a successful roll as a failure, but one which still gives the acting character an advantage. In Schauermarchen and The Shotgun Diaries, the players are reminded to meta-game and not just role-play, or else you'd have players who just "hide it out" rather than go forth and face the fear. Playing a coward is a valid concept. But playing a coward who does nothing but BE a coward in a game, while true to the concept, is not a fun way to play. Meta-gaming when to be a coward for dramatically appropriate moments, and still being active enough to have scenes that have narrative sense, would be meta-gaming in an acceptable way. Maybe you don't always hide or run off, but you do keep one player always in front of you and the other behind you, so you feel safer. Maybe you accidentally open fire at anyone who startles you, but never actually roll to hit them, since they're just meant to be dramatic moments to reflect your concept.
I'm currently working on Muses, a role-playing game that embraces metagaming fully. In fact, in that game, I do two unthinkable things: I explicitly allow player and character knowledge to be mixed. And I do not let the acting player roll the dice.
Unthinkable, eh? Tell you more about it once I can. For those who want a peek though, you can check out the old blog where I stored the concepts of the game. Lots of system changes have happened, but you can see how crazy that game gets.
So yeah I admit, whenever I read online from people who automatically voice out that any form of meta-gaming is bad, I try not to correct them immediately. I offer suggestions and opinions when asked, but I do realize that the stigma is still strong. Meta-gaming had too often been used to merely "beat the system" but now, given the advent of games which allow everyone on the table to have a hand in crafting the narrative, players are starting to see as well that the responsibility in making a game fun and have a cohesive story is not in the hands of the game master or storyteller alone. It took me some time to realize that, and mind you I started gaming in the early 1980s. So I'm willing to let others have the time they need to realize that too.
Meta-gaming is not Powergaming.
And yes, I still abhor Powergaming. Absolutely.