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The Last Dark Art

Four: Getting Back What You Give Away: The Pleasures of Metagaming

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Jan 22,2003


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Four: Getting Back What You Give Away: The Pleasures of Metagaming

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

Like a lot of other geeks, I'm a big fan of movie trailers. Also book-jacket blurbs, program notes, sneak previews, behind-the-scenes specials, and anything else that gives me a bit of a taste of something I'm already interested in. In fact, I'm much more likely to spend time and money on the entertainment I have some idea what I'm going to get from than plunge into a book or movie sight-unseen, and I suspect most other people are the same way - witness the excitement generated by the release of movie trailers for much-anticipated films. Clearly, consumers of literature in all sorts of media enjoy getting a little of the story beforehand, a bit of appetizer to prepare the palate for what's to come.

And yet the world of RPGs has spent some time discouraging this very thing when it comes to games. Maybe it's the way the hobby has sprung out of very "gamist" principles, where the referee is encouraged to hold all cards as close to the chest as possible to discourage the terrible sin of metagaming - that is, any situation where the players act according to knowledge their characters have no access to. And it's true that metagaming can be a terribly lame way of short-circuiting a game in the hands of lazy players - but does that mean it has to be?

It's a fine balance to strike, and requires a delicate touch, but it's possible to do some very interesting things by deliberately revealing information to players that their characters shouldn't have. Lots of stories work very well despite publicity having given away some vital plot point (even, in some cases, the ending - after all, George Lucas has founded his cinematic comeback on telling a story almost everyone already knows the end of). Dramatic tension is a powerful tool, but it's not the only thing that keeps audiences engaged in a narrative. Very often, the meaning's in the journey itself, and watching the unfolding of events leading inexorably from A to B is as interesting and attention-holding as not knowing what happens next.

How does this work in games? Well, there are a number of possibilities, but the major key to making metagaming an element that adds to rather than detracts from the game is cultivating player distance, specifically the distance between the character and the portraying player. On the surface, this is as simple as making decisions that are believably in-character - not taking unnecessary advantage of information the character would not have. But there's more potential to the idea than that. Some of this hearkens back to the first installment of this column, where I suggested that choices might be best made in the service of what's most interesting to the story rather than what's advantageous to the character. This can be a hard leap of faith for many players, who might be excellent roleplayers and still balk at anything that feels like "losing" (if "winning" equals making it through a scenario with the least harm possible to the character). But if the players are up to it, deliberate choices made in the service of setting up interesting drama can be powerful indeed, because the players - as audience - are participating in the tension of situations where they know what's going on but their characters don't.

Again, this is delicate, and necessitates an odd sort of juggling act between in-character immersion and out-of-character distance. But it also takes some of the pressure off the GM to having to spend so much time hiding the strings, so to speak. Everyone knows that the Mayor is a flesh-eating alien; that the seemingly Utopian colony has a dark secret; that the Duke is a lackey of the Vampire Prince - everyone except the PCs, that is, who are going to walk right into a tough spot because the players have agreed to ride out the story in the most interesting way possible. By the same token, it also takes pressure off the players themselves to be constantly engaged in detective work - figuring out "what's really going on" - rather than participating in the narrative.

I mentioned dramatic tension a couple of paragraphs back, and I think it bears emphasizing that this kind of metagaming doesn't negate tension by making all decisions seem predetermined. On the contrary, laying all the cards on the table can open new possibilities by encouraging a play style that's less guarded and careful, more participatory in the real spirit of the narrative. Indeed, GMs who introduce deliberate metagaming might be advised to be especially careful of railroading the scenario (unless, of course, that's what everyone wants), and remain more open than ever to the possibility that the players' ideas of what character choices are the most dramatic might be different, and maybe better, than their own. All of this implies a truly communal philosophy of gaming, where the players are taking an active role in shaping the course of the plot and charting the direction of the campaign. What metagaming adds to this is the ability of the players to make informed decisions on these matters.

Of course, this isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. Groups that are intrigued by this take on metagaming but aren't comfortable with removing all sense of mystery from play can inject just a touch of foreknowledge; if the GM only lets his band of intrepid investigators know that tonight's scenario involves a cryptic manuscript, a senator's estranged daughter, and giant mutant alligators in the sewers, the "teaser trailer" effect will have gotten everyone's attention and nothing of real import will have been given away. On the other end of the spectrum, groups that aren't afraid of flirting with a bit of GM railroading can try bold experiments where the end of the adventure is predetermined: "Tonight's the night Sir Harald meets his death at last." In this sort of adventure, the fun will be in the way everyone in the group works toward reaching the inevitable conclusion, possibly by a route the GM never envisioned. And in between these two poles lies the entire spectrum of other possibilities: interludes where the players act out the villains laying their nefarious plans; Columbo-style "mysteries" where the challenge isn't finding out whodunit, but proving it; bizarre, paranoid scenarios where the players are warned beforehand that the information the GM gives them is for one reason or another unreliable. And, just as with a book or a film, it's always possible to be dramatically selective about the secrets that are revealed to the players beforehand. After all, the metaphorical card the GM shows may not be as important, or as exciting, or as shocking, as the one he's still got in his sleeve.

What out-of-character knowledge is shared with the players, and what's kept mysterious, is a big consideration. Some narratives are more meaningful when the audience knows things the characters don't; some just get spoiled if the Big Secret is given away. Some stories can get away with layers of meaning that open up once a mystery is revealed - but a game, unlike a book or movie, only has one chance to be experienced by its audience. Whether that experience will work better if the GM deliberately shows his hand depends on the group, the game and the scenario. The most important thing to keep in mind is that metagaming comes more or less instinctively; players, given knowledge, will inevitably allow that knowledge to influence their decisions, even if they're skilled enough to play characters that act contrary to that. But under the right circumstances, allowing that influence to come through can produce some truly fascinating, and dramatically powerful, results.

Coming next month: a further look at tension, and what happens when things happen. It happens here. Come back and find out more.

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