The “Meta-game”

The “Meta-game” is, broadly, the awareness of the rules of the game that a player might develop and interact with, but which are unknown to characters. It is often used in a derogatory sense, to indicate that a character is taking some action based on information not available to it, but well known to the player. Examples of that are easy to come by, so I won’t trouble with providing one.

The difficulty with trying to discuss the “meta-game” in a lucid and helpful way is that it’s something of a “baggy monster”. Included in the meta-game are:

  • some, but not all, of the game world rules
  • the social contract between the players
  • an understanding (implicit or explicit) of the meta-plot
  • boundaries for character actions

I am sure there are other things too, which are not easily articulated. I think that Ron Edwards’ GNS theory is a function of meta-game structure.

The conceptual framework that I have been developing views roleplaying as occuring in two distinct arenas. On the one hand we have the players: they must interact in some way in the real world to try and convey their perception of the game to each other. On the other hand, we have the characters in the game who live out their lives. We can think of the “meta-game” as the connection between the players and the characters. Unfortunately, by “characters” we must include a wider understanding of the character than we necessarily have of the players.

This kind of model allows us to exclude a few things from the catch-all common-usage “meta-game”. Most usefully, it allows us to treat the interactions directly between the players separately. It excludes the “social contract” part of the equation.

Now, while this is useful in several ways, it is not necessarily helpful to change your vocabulary, or to use existing words in a new way. This is a major fault (IMHO) with GNS theory: Edwards has defined and re-defined a whole bunch of words with other uses in ways which are not always intuitive, and are in fact often against the intuitive meaning. Moreover, it can be difficult as the user of this “new speak” to keep things perfectly straight. Also, most neologisms sound pretensious.

I’m going to have to come back to this and carry on later, but the key idea here is that we have a connection between the player and their manifestation within the game world. So, when discussing “meta-game” in the broad common-usage sense, we end up wanting to look at that connection as well as world-construction and social contract issues.

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13 Responses to The “Meta-game”

  1. house_monkey says:

    big wurds makum brane hert, wen me role dice?

  2. I am not sure I understand what is being said here but I have a few questions.

    I am confused by your use of the word “game”. Does game mean the entire RPG experience, just the RPG product or just the mechanical aspects of the RPG?

    Is the setting of the RPG a part of the meta-game, especially where the setting may be embodied in the rules of the game? To give some examples of the kinds of things I am thinking of here – classes, alignment, and stunts.

    • mashugenah says:

      Devising terminology here is half the battle I think.

      Talking about the “game” here, I’m talking about the game-world and everything associated with it. Plot, activities, system, setting. In just the same way as if I was talking about Monopoly, where I’d mean the board, the pieces, the activities of dice rolling and strategy…

      In the broadest sense, I think that setting and many bits of the rules probably do fall under the aegis of “meta-game”, inasmuch as the players are aware of them and use them as the parameters for enacting the game, but they are also accessible to those inside the game because of their modelling.

      So, looking at your examples.
      D&D Classes are part of the system, and people inside the world are aware that they are following a particular career/life-path, so they are part of the game world. Classes can become part of the meta-game because players can make decisions for their characters based on class features or agendas in a way the character probably doesn’t see. For example, AD&D Magic-users being unable to use swords doesn’t have an in-game-world rationale. An AD&D 1st magic user would therefore use a staff or dagger in the same circumstances that the same character using 3/3.5 might choose to use a sword. The case here is generally: is there a mis-match between the player’s understanding of the class capabilities with the character’s understanding of his own capabilities.

      Alignment depends entirely on whether it’s being used as a descriptive or a prescriptive tool. A character who develops a certain kind of personality, but occasionally acts in a way that’s uncharacteristic can do so because the player is reminded of the nominal alignment to which he has committed the character. But, by-and-large, characters inside the game environment are aware of, and have access to, alignments. So they’re more a function of the game than meta-game.

      Stunts are I think largely meta-game concepts. The way a stunt works is that your character attempts some action and if the player gives an elaborate description, the character is more likely to succeed. So we have a player action, beyond the ken of the character, influencing the character, hence meta-game. The main point of contention there is that stunts are intended to fully convey the precise way the character is doing whatever activity. The character is aware of his own detailed actions, and so is aware that he is doing a stunt. The line here is probably really defined by the intentions of the player, whether they’re simply stunting to gain dice, or whether the character does things in a particular elaborate way.

      Typically, I’d expect the more cinematic the game, the more explicit meta-game events and structures are needed. The more immersive, the fewer.

      But, the key idea in all of this is to envisage the characters as distinct entities from the players, and to think about the way in which the players interact with those characters.

      • Ah, I think here is a good illustration of where we differ. I don’t really see a distinction between the three concepts, and I struggle to see why you seem to give a greater emphasis to the metagame aspect on stunts than classes and alignment.

        I see classes as tools that get across the setting by enforcing certain archetypes that are a part of the setting and genre. I don’t see them as something the characters are aware of except in the influence on other game mechanics like combat ability.

        The same goes for Alignment. It is tool to get across in the setting that there are definite concepts of good and evil and this is a part of the genre. I don’t really see it as a personality mechanic as I don’t think the character would think on these terms.

        Stunts are another similar tool to get across the setting and genre.

        It seems like a part of the reason for your distinction is that Stunts are more external than classes and alignment. To say it another way, you as Mash are able to say that you could follow the path of the warrior or be a good person but doing something in an elaborate manner does not make something more likely to succeed.

        This would also explain to an extent why you cut out many narrative tools like those I suggested yesterday.

        I agree that classes and alignment are more internal but they still have external aspects in the game they are used in. IMO they are primarily included to reinforce a setting and genre. Elaborate action in a world like Exalted is a part of the setting and a way that the game communicates the gap between player and character.

        I am not sure where this leads. I do like Ryan Paddy’s comments on immersion into fiction on NZRaG and I think this is part of that. A character is part of the world, story and genre in which they exist. Trying to carve him out of it seems starnge to me.

        Oh and BTW I don’t agree with your comment that cinematic and immersive are somehow opposites. I think being immersed into a cinematic world and character is just a valid as being immersed into a normal world and character.

      • mashugenah says:

        I don’t see them as something the characters are aware of except in the influence on other game mechanics like combat ability.

        Depends a bit on the game. In MERP, for example or WFRP, or d20 CoC, I can see a character not being aware of their class, because the classes are fairly generic essentially being skill-groupings. In AD&D 1st, however, a Monk can’t really be unaware that he’s doing things differently than a fighter. Likewise Jedi in d20 Star Wars, Druids are the prime example of this, where in order get beyond a certain level you need to (in game) kill a person of that level. Clearly in order to do that, you need to be aware that you’re 1. A Druid, 2. At the maximum level attainable. I’m going to argue here that a character both has a class, and is aware of it, and their level in that class, in Mage: The Awakening. They’ve got an in-game terminology for it and everything. Here, the skill-based system is perhaps the wrong arrangement for the in-game-structure.

        Likewise with alignments. It’s difficult to argue that they’re a meta-game tool when they are objective measurable realities within the game. Now, Nature and Demeanour: they’re looking more like meta-game entities.

        This would also explain to an extent why you cut out many narrative tools like those I suggested yesterday.

        That’s a personal preference thing, not a utility one.

        IMO they are primarily included to reinforce a setting and genre.

        That’s perfectly true, but also largely irrelevant within the parameters we’re discussing. It’s like saying that in a conspiracy theory game, the conspiracy theories are just there to give the game a particular feel. Yes, they are but they’re also integral to the in-game structure of the world. What’s a vampire-hunting game without vampires?

        Trying to carve him out of it seems starnge to me.

        I don’t understand what you’re getting at here.

        In general, the benefit for trying to isolate the different types of game/meta-game devices is so that you can discriminate between them to suit the game. So, for example, if I want a cinematic pulp game, I am more likely to ponder what kind of stunt mechanic that I want than angst too much over how to enforce a particular personality profile, as oWOD did with the Nature/Demeanour line. They’re both meta-game concepts, but they’re operating in different areas, and in different ways. Trying to treat them both the same seems too reductive.

        Oh and BTW I don’t agree with your comment that cinematic and immersive are somehow opposites.

        I more view them as x and y axes on a graph.

      • mashugenah says:

        Sorry, x and y axes with z being meta-game protrusion. The shape of the interaction is probably a hyperbolic parabaloid.

      • house_monkey says:

        Hyperbolic parabaloid? F*ck me, I thought we were talking about roleplaying.

      • mashugenah says:

        All things are one.

      • house_monkey says:

        Oh, you mean like that Jet Li movie? That wasn’t very good.

      • mashugenah says:

        All things are one.

      • Sorry for more on the spot questions. Do you consider genre/style to be a part of the “game”?

      • mashugenah says:

        That’s a tricky one in the end.

        I’m going to have to say “game” rather than “meta-game” because there are a bunch of different meta-game approaches which will all emulate (to one degree or another) the same genre. Some “meta-game” structures will be more helpful than others for a given genre, but they’re still at least slightly independant.

        The difficulty is this: are characters potentially aware of their genre? Do pulp heroes understand the nature of pulp? Some genres pretty clearly are understood by the inhabitants: slasher horrors, for example. Exalted heroes are potentially aware of their heroic nature: the in-game event of exaltation makes that obvious. But are D&D heroes aware of the heroic nature of the world? Possibly not.

        My inclination, as I said, is to see Genre as integral to the world construction, and informing the rules of the game (and concomitantly, the cosmological structure of the game world); but I can see the converse argument.

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