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Meta-game The Hell Out of It

A few weeks back, we played the fourth session of our Dresden Files Accelerated campaign and it was excellent. In my view it was the tabletop role-playing game equivalent of an Emmy winning episode. Yeah, a bit of hyperbole, but it was really great and I really loved it.

As you know, I don’t do best of lists, but if I did, that session would be a candidate.

The session is worth mentioning because of why it was great. It was great because we meta-gamed the hell out of the experience, something many a gamer has hard rules against.

The ‘Bad’ Meta-gaming

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. In simple terms, it is the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions.

Okay, let’s get something out of the way. I do agree there is such a thing as bad meta-gaming. It’s that clear form of meta-gaming that removes tension, drama and is pretty much cheating. The simple example that everyone has a variation of is the character who comes across a troll, kills it and then finds any excuse they can to set the body alight so it does not come back to life even though the character has no idea it regenerates.

You can easily come up with all sorts of variation on this. These examples are quite simple and I don’t think anyone would disagree that this is a bad idea.

It can get more grey than that. It tends to be when the character needs to know something that has recently happened but doesn’t know – so the player stretches things and plays around the boundaries of what is possible to know. They’re looking for excuses and it can get uncomfortable.

So, What’s The Problem?

The problem is some people have a very strict view of meta-gaming that I think is a detriment to the potential of what can happen at the table. This more strict view tends to be that the player should only ever exist in the head of their character and always be limited to what their character knows, sees and experiences.

Only what their character knows. All the time.

The problem I have with this is it assumes the perspective of the player should always be one of an actor limited to making decisions based purely on the character’s perceptions and knowledge. There are people that go even further and add a simulative element to it, for example there character is very professional and only engages in dramatic, character relationship stuff in the downtime as doing it during ‘the adventure’ would not be professional.

The heart of my argument is, for me, it’s very valuable to have the characters not be actors but be writers and for this ‘writer perspective’ to encompass a whole load of stuff that exists outside of their character’s head.

When Everyone Writes The Game

When looking at things from the writer perspective you may choose to create a scene based on knowledge your character does not have. This is not the same as using knowledge in the scene your character doesn’t have once it starts.

We did this all the time last session as we meta-gamed the hell out of it.

We Knew The ‘Ending’

The vast majority of the session’s actual play took place in flashback scenes and we knew what the goal was and where we needed to end up. How we got there in specific scenes and how it would exactly look at the end was not known. Basically, we reached a point in the previous session where a key conflict was about to kick-off at a party in one of the character’s homes and the flashback scenes needed to establish how the group of monster hunters formed and give a more intense, emotional context to the conflict about to start.

That is one massive dose of meta-gaming right there as the players were making writing choices outside of the characters heads, with knowledge of future events and a goal so outside the individual character’s heads it might as well have been a drug-induced trip to Mars.

When you do this: amazing things happen.

A series of individual decisions with this end goal target in mind meant a session worthy of an Emmy was produced. Relationships with three rival monster hunters were set-up, adding context and intensity to already existing enemies, along with two NPC’s we’d only met in the cliffhanger of the last session. Not only that, one of those relationships added a new, permanent NPC and provided the context for a brilliant conflict.

We also defined how the characters met and how our monster hunting company was formed. If we’d all just existed in our characters heads this would have been very hard to do and it would have certainly not turned out as well. It might also have had to be meticulously constructed by the GM.

I Need To Be In A Bad Place

The previous session had built to the point were it made sense for the end of the first four episodes of the campaign to be that my character was in a bad place. I had an idea what the event might be to finalise that ‘bad place the character needs to recover from’ but I couldn’t know for sure.

I did approach the whole session knowing that I was nudging the character into that place though, across the flashbacks, conscious how some of the other players’ scenes were forming in the past, even though I was not in them, etc, all contributing to this nudging as well as reacting to events in front of my character in the present.

This worked out both extremely well and in a way totally different than how I could have envisioned based on the choices of all the characters in the past, actions of NPC’s, etc, and it put the character into that bad place while keeping the major NPC of her background alive (one of the natural outcomes of being in that bad place might have been that characters death). The outcome of everyone’s’ decisions and ideas was way better than mine alone.

It was TV gold and that gold is really hard to get to only playing in the character’s head.

When Superheroes Fight

One of the scenes that established how two of the monster hunters met was with my character and another. The other player quickly went with the idea that this was going to be framed as a ‘when heroes end up fighting’ idea. He didn’t verbalise that explicitly but it was signalled in the framing and the opening choices.

I decided at this point I was totally happy for my character to lose to establish the ‘once a God’ nature of that character. The dice went that way and I was totally happy with it. In truth, if I existed only in the characters head, she would have went all out to win and slay the monster that she thought had taken a kid. I didn’t think that would be that exciting though, so we went with the allowing the other character to go all ‘flare’ and ‘superhero’ on mine which also gave a good grounding for why she is in the team.

It was a great scene and turned out much better than if each character had just played what would be ‘the logical decisions in each of their heads’.

Backgrounds As Quantum Physics

This one isn’t a big example of meta-gaming, it may not even be meta-gaming at all, but it does involve playing with things that I know sets some players on edge so it’s worth mentioning.

I don’t write long backgrounds. I guess my backgrounds are more framing for future conflicts in the actual game, so they tend to be about half a page of A4. Since they are so short there is a lot that remains to be defined. This is why flashback sessions like the one we had are great as it allows me to start adding flesh to the bone in actual play.

It gets even better when the past and the present become one and create something even better. Due to how the flashback scenes and the present conflict panned out I think the relationship with the key NPC in my character’s background is going to go evolve completely different elements than I originally intended.

Like way differently. It has some serious elements that weren’t even in my head when I wrote it down. The events in the background and future impacted each other to create something better as I changed each in the moment.

And, Finally…

Using liberal meta-gaming made the session great and this is why I tend to find players who have strict rules on only ever existing in a characters head as odd. I’ve ran into problems in some games because of my willingness to enter the head space of a writer rather than actor as this was seen as the GM’s domain.

My approach is quite simple, I tend to have a writer’s focus and then I zoom in to the actor focus in the specific scenes. Where do I want to get to? What framing does this scene have? Then zoom into the actor lens to see where things actually go…which often means you get the intent of what you hoped for but with completely different outcomes…

…and that is exciting.

About Ian O'Rourke

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