Failing to Meta-Game Causes Problems

Wait, what? Isn’t “meta-gaming” bad?

Not usually. Firstly, we need to pin down what I mean by “meta-gaming”. The way I see it commonly used, it means “cheating”. But cheating doesn’t mean meta-gaming.

Meta (from the Greek meta- μετά- meaning “after” or “beyond”) is a prefix meaning more comprehensive or transcending

— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meta

So, “meta-gaming” then, is “actions or knowledge which are more comprehensive or transcend the game space“. It’s on that second qualifier, that I want to focus.

Transcend (verb) “to rise above or go beyond the limits of”

— https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transcend

Imagine what you might know if your full time job involved climbing a hill twice a day, hunting for glowing mushrooms of energy that, under the right conditions, cured a nasty and fatal illness. You’ll have to imagine, of course, because that job doesn’t really exist. What if we wanted to play in a game about it? What would your character reasonably know? A good place to start would be reading the game’s setting guide or “world book”, perhaps?

That’s meta-gaming, in a nutshell. When you, the player, import material that “transcends the game” — stuff from books, like setting and rules — that is meta-gaming. That’s not automatically “cheating” though, is it?

If your character spends 18 hours a day plotting and refining hyperspace navigation courses and “jumping” stellar singularity objects that warp the readings of AI sensor systems, that character likely knows something that you, the player, does not. Or if that character is any good at their job, we certainly hope they do.

They live, breathe, work, laugh and cry in that world-setting / rules-set. Just like, here, the speed of light is the hard-limit to the the propagation of causality, and just like quantum mechanics makes rainbows, the world-setting of your character has rules. The character, should know some, if not all, of them.It’s not a surprise that magic requires hand-waving, literal hand-waving, for some spells in some Fantasy settings. It’s not a surprise that the further the enemy is away, the harder they are to target with a blaster pistol in some Sci-Fi / Space Opera settings. Depending on the nature of the character and the world-setting, the character may know exactly how much hand-waving means “explosion incoming”, or how much the need to overload their weapon power-pack to get the extra power to compensate for the range.

Or maybe they don’t. Janitors know different things from mechanics, from doctors, from pilots, from metal-workers, from sex-workers, from cashiers. In all these circumstances, however, unless you, the player, actually do that same job in that same world in real life, you have to import knowledge that you possess from both the rule-book and the world-setting into the game so that your character can seem at least vaguely plausible.

Meta-gaming is not inherently bad.

We have to meta-game constantly, if we want to role-play.

So why does meta-gaming get such a bad rap? As I commented earlier, it’s the bit about “cheating”.

Generally, it’s a very specific kind of “cheating”, and it’s the most difficult kind to point out, so we don’t want to use the word “cheating”.

Let’s say Tom, Kass and and Jayne are at the table. A scene is going on where Tom’s character and Kass’ character are at the spaceport, meeting with a possible witness to a crime they are investigating. A lasergun-fight breaks out, and Jayne asks the GM, “can I ‘co-incidentally’ be around the spaceport, and hear the shots, so I can help?“.

In this case, Jayne is asking to take action or position based on plot events that their character likely has no reasonable reason to know. But is that cheating?

cheat (verb) “to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice

— https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cheat

Keyword underlining, mine. So, um, yeah, so that is cheating. But … who wants to call a player left out of the action and being enthusiastic about helping their friends a “cheater”? For starters, they are likely someone you like, given you are gaming with them.

So instead, we say, “no, sorry, that’s meta-gaming. You’re acting on knowledge your character doesn’t have“. A bit less stingy. It sounds like a rule for a rules, so no one gets feelings bruised.

However, then that idea — acting on knowledge your character doesn’t have — starts crawling into every bloody discussion. I’ve seen games bog as players start policing each other about “would your character really know how a gravity engine works, though? Well enough to take it apart?” // “I’d hope so. She’s the ship’s Chief Engineer!” Etcera, etcera.

The fun and pacing go out the door in a hurry that way.

As a GM, for a role-play rich experience, your players need to meta-game. You need to meta-game. The issue is sorting out when enough is enough, and too much will cause a problem.

You can, always, just arbitrate with a dice roll. I’ve met people in trades who were remarkably good at their job, and somehow didn’t know some bit of jargon, or basic technique, or whatever. They had a blind spot in their skill set. Let the dice tell you and the player if that’s the case now.

My usual way of doing things is a modest difficulty roll; about a 60% chance of success. If this is something you think is “core” to their trade or background, then give them between +10% and +25% as a bonus. It’ll make their character look super savvy, and if the roll fails, then it’s going to be easy to wave off as something they likely knew once, given their bonus, but are out of practice or have forgotten.

Part of your job as the GM is managing pacing, too, so don’t be afraid to straight-up “of course you do” as an answer to keep things moving. Likewise, sometimes the answer is automatically the negative, because it doesn’t fit the world-setting or the rules. Either way, explain it to the player so they understand your world-setting, and the rules, better.

As I’ve said in my livestreams and on Twitter, the primary job of the GM is facilitating communications. Between the players and the world, and sometimes even between the players themselves, to ensure that the right person knows the right thing. More importantly, that the right person knows that they know.

Conclusion

Thanks very much for reading this post, and visiting my blog. I hope something I’ve said makes sense or is even helpful. You can catch up with me to talk TTRPGs and GM-ing via Twitter at MichelV69, or most Sunday mornings on Twitch.TV as 902PE_Gaming.

Please feel free to leave comments or questions in the section below. I’d love to hear from you.

All the best, have fun with whatever you are playing, and I hope to chat with you soon.

—Michel

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