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About 2 weeks ago I was very privileged to be invited for a Zoom session of AD&D.
I don’t get to play a character as often as I’d like. This is partly because of my status as Referee for Life, as well as the fact that I am so busy promoting the Traditional Low Rules play style that I tend to be the one doing the Ref work when I play - I want more people to experience this style of play as it is very different from ruled play.
For some time I have been pondering the problem and or benefits of Meta-Gaming. A lot of gamers disparage other players who Meta-Game. Yet I feel it’s worth examining the use of Meta-Gaming as an inherent and beneficial aspect of RPG play. This recent game session was a good example in favor of Meta-Gaming.
I suppose I should explain what Meta-Gaming is. I see it as players taking information their in game persona should not know and using it to gain advantage during a play session. Often this can take a variety of forms and I am not sure if the term Itself is a very apt label.
The group of players are all Twitter Friends:
The Magic User
I played my latest favorite kind of character, the lowly Dwarven Fighter.
Without going through every detail of the adventure I will outline what I found delightful and what I consider the initiator of Meta-Gaming as well as the benefit. I will cheat and tell you up front that I feel Meta-Gaming is the result of in game immersion. In many instances it’s hard to keep it from happening.
Our game began with all of us on a ship traveling to a large city. We were on a mission
to deliver a prisoner to our patron a powerful wizard. Our DM informed us that if we wanted to, we had the time while on the ship to speak to our prisoner, who happened to be a Frogman.
DING DING DING - My character sheet lists frogman as a language, so I volunteered to go prep the frog man by doing the classic good cop/ bad cop routine. I went to the hold and began to make friends with my frogman friend to be, and warned him that the Paladin was about to come down to do his own conversation.
Me: “Look, the Paladin Dude, he’s a real bastard. If I was you, I’d tell him the truth or he may get creative with his interrogation style and you could get really hurt.”
I am using coded Player Language here. Sure I am talking to the NPC, but I am also telling the DM that I am trying to rig the die rolls in my favor without actually having to outright say so. Hint Hint, If I soften the guy up with a psyche job, maybe we get a bonus when the Paladin comes down?
Then the Paladin came into the hold and began his tough guy routine.
By the time the Paladin entered the scene, I had already started to grow fond of the Frogman. I didn’t really want anything bad to happen to froggy, so I was beginning to side with the frog vs. my party member a little bit, and even proposed we not take the Frogman to the Wizard.
We were barely into our game and I was getting immersed. Our DM was using the tried and true method of, The Puppy with the Hurt Paw. Most people will get attached to animals that are hurt. There is something in our being that makes us want to help the helpless. I was fully aware what our DM was doing to me in terms of game manipulation through this encounter too!
Call this Meta-Game Moment Numero Uno. I was kinda feeling like Froggy was my buddy and I was beginning to have doubts about following along with the party on returning him to the Wizard. The problem is that if I sided with Froggy against the Paladin we’d have a whole different game than what the DM had planned for us. This is what I mean by Meta-Game being a positive thing. I consciously chose to side with the party despite my emotional attachment to Froggy. It goes back to the old rule: Never Split the Party!
Lets skip forward to the next interesting encounter.
Upon our arrival we passed under the gate of the city. Here, under the great stone arch, we were asked to present our papers which outlined that we were to meet the Wizard and more importantly, it is ok to let these strangers into the city as they have business with a local.
Yet, one more thing had to happen before we could could enter. This was where I experienced Meta-Gaming Moment Numero Due!
An old man was waiting with a pot of paint and brush in his hand. His job was to apply a white paint stripe from the top of each of our foreheads down to the end of our noses. This is how the city keeps track of strangers. Anyone who does not live here must wear the stripe!
Inwardly, I was applauding. This is exactly the kind of ‘not in the rules’ stuff I live for during a game. This is culture. It gives me as a player an idea of what these people are like. We are no longer playing in generic Conan meets LOTR fantasy land. This is its own setting and if a tiny detail like wearing a stripe exists, then I expect that there is a lot more to find out about this city and its people. Which is why my favorite RPG is Empire of the Petal Throne; in E.P.T. you spend just as much time exploring the culture as you do exploring ruins.
All of this was my internal not character dialogue.
Lots more stuff happened in this game, but my next intense moment of Meta-gaming is about to occur.
Meta-Gaming Moment Numero Tre!
Our job was to surreptitiously enter a Wizard’s keep and then explore the “basement” in order to get evidence of the Wizard’s nefarious plot. Thus we couldn’t exactly walk right up as ourselves, nor could we use disguises because, well, because the entire party is a motley assortment of oddballs and even with disguises it would be hard to be convincing.
This situation was a problem that needed solving and problems require planning. I don’t know how the other players felt during this part of the game; for me, the planning stage where the whole team comes together to decide on what needs to be done is when I usually begin to get immersed in the game. Everything else can be fudged, but in order to play out any problem it is necessary to engage with the situation and visualize it as if you yourself are actually there in the moment.
It was decided to get in by having the illusionist cast a spell to disguise the party. Once inside things got even more immersive. Having gotten inside disguised as a troop of soldiers, we then needed to find the entrance to the dungeon.
The freedom of play in a low rules format allows players to somewhat assume the role of a different class character as needed. Sure, I am the Dwarven Fighter, but I am going to do things that are usually reserved for thief characters because that is the skill-set we most need right now. This feeds into the oldest RPG rule of them all: A player can try to do anything!
Because our DM is used to this kind of play, he immediately cued in to what I was telling him in the exchange that follows.
This is also my Meta-Gaming Moment Numero Cuatro!
Part of our ruse was that we were to arrive early and the person we needed to meet with would not be there. Thus we were ushered into a spare room to wait for this person’s return in an hour or more.
Now the time had come for us to look for the entrance to the lower levels of the keep.
We decided the best plan was to have one player sneak around, get the lay of the land, and locate what we were looking for. As the short one, I immediately volunteered for the task.
You may be asking how is this Meta-Gaming?
The answer is simple. Based on what my stats are, I am really strong of body, but not very strong of mind. Yet, I was so engaged and immersed into what was about to happen that I acted more like myself and I was using my prior knowledge about commandos and spies than my character and stats would allow me to know, yet for me this was the high point of the adventure.
This is one of the ironies of RPGs, as a situation gets more immersive you will notice players do less play-acting, and more and more, they will just act like themselves.
So again, just as there is Coded Language for DMs, (i.e. “Are you sure you want to do that?” This is the DM sealing the deal, or demanding player buy-in to their own demise. As we all know, players always choose their own death. It translates to: from here on out the result of everything you say you do can result in death.) there is also Coded Player Language.
I am signaling to the DM through my actions that I expect a slightly favorable die roll in the following description. I am going alone to investigate, certainly this must lead to me being less noticeable. (I am surprised how few gamers actually use their Thieves as scouts who go ahead of the party to explore more silently through the use of their more stealthy ability, and also risk triggering traps, while the party lags a little way behind. Thieves are the bomb removal squad in FRP.) This kind of self aware description of an action is also a bit of Meta-Gaming. Players know how to beg for a bonus to a die roll and they know when to draw on outside knowledge.
Me, “Ok, I am going to walk down the hall very slowly. Every once in a while I will stop to listen, especially if I come near a closed door.”
It’s likely I was even more verbose in hammering home just how careful I was trying to be.
The Ref rolled some dice and said, “You don’t hear anything coming from the doors or the hall ahead of you.”
Me: “Once I get to the great hall, I want to know how much light is coming into this area from the windows. Am I seeing things normally, or am I using my special night vision?”
Ref: There is enough light coming into this area that you can see normally, but it is more like being in shadow as the light is not direct sunlight.”
This back and forth, which is very familiar to all of us continued until I located the stairs down to a pair of locked doors. The entire time I was groveling for die roll bonuses!
I then cautiously returned to the party. Instead of going all the way to the room they were in, I stopped at the end of the hallway leading to that room. The rest of the party was waiting at the other end and could see me. It was time for a bit of non-verbal Role Play. Without talking, I held up my hand palm outward to indicate that they should halt. Then I pointed at the Paladin and waved him forward. Once he reached me, I gestured in the direction the stairway was located and waited to see him disappear down the stairs. Since we were using Zoom, I could act this part out for the players and they understood my hand gestures immediately. I repeated the hand gestures for the rest of the party until we had all gathered before the entrance to the unknown underworld we were sent to explore.
So this is the question: Is it ok to Meta-Game if it adds to the experience of the adventure you are playing in? I am inclined to say that we all do it at times. I also think it’s perfectly fine within certain contexts.
Our DM had set up a series of encounters that led to the commando/spy scenario inside the Wizard’s keep. In order to play through this game effectively, we would need to act exactly like those kinds of characters that are familiar to us from action movies, and we would be drawing on that tradition strongly. Of course, my Dwarf Fighter and his Intelligence of about 10 and wisdom of 7 wouldn’t really make a good commando, or spy. More importantly, Dorf The Dwarf is not likely to know what MI6 is, or to have read most of John le Carré’s novels either. By going ahead and using a bit of Meta-Gaming I was able to rise to needs of the game we played.
How the Old Rules Allow For Meta-Gaming
This leads me to want to discuss how stats affect character play earlier RPGs. This applies to AD&D, but is more easily seen in Original Dungeons & Dragons.
With OD&D there were only 3 stats that mattered as far as classes were concerned. These were Strength, Intelligence, and Wisdom. Thus there were only three classes in the game. Abilities were not used as a way to get die roll bonuses at all. The only effect an attribute had on a character was through Experience Point bonuses. Those with higher stats in their class would gain levels up to 10% faster. It is worth considering how these stats although named as physical and mental attributes, are very abstract. They could just as easily be named, Fighting Aptitude, Magical Aptitude, and Priestly Aptitude. Thus your PC does not need to be limited to actually having to be low intelligence, or without common sense. The attributes merely tell you that they can fight, use magical spells, or do clerical actions. The rest of what your character does is really up to you and you own ability.
Thanks for reading, Griff
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