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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

More on Metagaming

My previous post on metagaming started a mini-discussion. Robert Conley gave his own definition of metagaming in the comments, and expanded on it on his own blog. Dennis Laffey clarified that he didn’t entirely disagree with the original definition of metagaming in the video, but focused more on the natural conclusions you have to draw if you are using a definition like that.

And I totally get that. I didn’t give my own definition of metagaming, either, or really address what I thought of that definition. But now is the time for me to talk directly about how I define metagaming. Or rather, to say I haven’t quite decided how to define it, because I’m not entirely sure it’s a useful concept.

Here’s my line of thought on this: When we make up a new word with the “meta-” prefix, it’s to talk about an abstract level one step above, beyond, or removed from a more direct concept. An example directly relevant to RPGs is metaplot, the story that some RPG products create that overrides the plot ideas individual GMs and/or players create at the table.

So what would “metagaming” be? It’s the abstract level above the level of game rules or game play. Behaviors that override the game rules themselves. Both of the metagaming definitions being discussed incorporate some sense of that. But I’m thinking that roleplaying itself overrides system-level concerns. It’s the real metagame level. What’s usually being discussed in debates about metagaming is something interfering with the roleplaying aspect, because the player is either using knowledge that the group considers outside the character’s reach or socially manipulating the GM or group to get their own way.

The solutions usually proposed to fix the metagame problem are either system level (XP penalties for acting out-of-character, for example) or social level (having a serious talk with a player.) You can, as I suggested previously, see this itself as metagaming… or meta-metagaming… or maybe metaroleplaying. It’s really more like a back-and-forth between game system and player control, with one overriding the other for a while until the balance seems tipped too far in one direction. I’m not sure you can actually pin down what counts as metagaming, or what counts as bad metagaming, even for an individual group. It’s something that’s constantly in flux.

I may have more to say on this after Thanksgiving, as I mull it over.

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  1. Your statement that it is an abstract level above the activity itself is spot on. There are many other things that meta- is used for, and it's not controversial, indeed it's sometimes seen as necessary. Metadata is data about data and essential to any good database.

    So the metagame is a game about the game. It's when the player is using the game to play a completely different game. The common fetish among some people to create different 'builds' of characters is a metagame. They use the game to play a new game at a more abstract level.

  2. The question I pose is the point of tabletop roleplaying is to play the rules in the sense that we play chess? Or is the point to pretend to be a character having adventures where the rules are just one of the tools to make this happen in a fun and interesting way?

  3. A most trenchant question, Mr Conley. And I would posit, the difference between what I consider the OSR mindset vs the video game mindset is exactly that. OSR is about the adventure, a character may triumph or die, gloriously or ignobly. A video game mindset is about the player winning, which posits an adversarial relationship with the DM. Metagaming assists the player in the game more than the character in the adventure.