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Meta-gaming and you

Meta-gaming. The word is used often these days in Croatian larp - some would say overused. So let's talk about it for a bit.

Regarding larp (and pretty much all roleplaying games), there are three separate levels of knowledge.

Your character's knowledge is usually called in-game knowledge, in-character knowledge, in-time knowledge or some variation thereof. It's your character's knowledge of his or her gameworld. Nothing from real world (which is not a part of your game world) matters or has any influence.

Your personal knowledge is usually called off-game knowledge, out-of-character knowledge, out-time knowledge or some other variation. It's your personal knowledge of worldly subjects, such as your family, your job, music, movies, cars, football etc.

Meta-knowledge is your knowledge about the game's in-game details, which you found out (or is available to you) out-of-character, but your character doesn't know it in-character. Meta-gaming is using that meta-knowledge for your own benefit, or simply acting on it as if it were in-game knowledge.

In some competitive games, meta-gaming is an encouraged part of the advanced strategy. Like when you analize your opponent's play in sports. Or in Magic: the Gathering where the term meta-game is specifically used to signify decks popular in your gaming environment - knowing your meta-game allows you to better prepare for a tournament. However, larps and role playing games in general are not competitive games.

Meta-gaming is not always used for someone's advantage - sometimes it's used as a storytelling device. In some narrativistic larps it’s even expected for players to learn the meta-knowledge so that they might provide the best roleplay. In jeepform they even do cuts to repeat scenes in a more dramatic fashion.

But on most larps, meta-gaming is viewed negatively. Here are some examples of metagaming (snatched from Wikipedia):

  • Adjusting a character's actions based on foreknowledge of the long-term intentions of the gamemaster.
  • Gaining knowledge from Out-Of Character.
  • Using knowledge from a previously played or dead character.
  • Using certain types of attack or defense based on the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent that the player's character is unaware of.
  • Acting on any knowledge that the character is not aware of (such as creating gunpowder in a Dark Ages or Middle Ages setting).
  • Adjusting a character's behavior towards other player characters based on real-life relationships with other players.
  • Using knowledge of the game's mechanics to gain an advantage in the game by having the character do something incompatible with that character's personality.
  • Assuming that something that appears to be wrong or unlikely in the game world is a mistake of the gamemaster rather than something that could be investigated. (This does not apply to situations where the mistake appears in the gamemaster's depiction of the world rather than in the world itself, which can cause a player to become aware of something which their character is not aware of.)
  • Deciding on a character's course of action based on how the game's mechanics will affect the outcome without more significant regard placed on how the character would actually behave.
  • Any action that is based upon the knowledge that one is playing a game.
  • Another form of metagaming occurs as a form of powergaming during character creation, when a player takes flaws or liabilities that they know the gamemaster is unlikely to fully exploit, thereby acquiring extra creation options without paying a corresponding penalty.

The more competetive larp is, the more likely it is that meta-gaming will be viewed as cheating (and the more likely it is that meta-gaming will appear). If it happens, it can cause conflicts between people.

Meta-gaming can also rob players of some excellent role-playing opportunities. So if you happen to know something off-game but your character doesn't know it, think about how your character would react once he or she finds out instead of just deciding you "know" it in-character.

The last argument can be managed (to a point) with enforced secrecy and not overly sharing in-character info out-of-character. For things which are supposed to remain secret it's actually a good idea - if a player finds out something for a first time, you'll also probably get a better in-character reaction due to bleed. Secrecy is used on most larps (to a degree) and it's an effective way to reduce meta-gaming, but far from being the only one.

A sort of disciplinary system can be made to manage meta-gaming, but though it can work to a degree it's likely to backfire at least with a part of the gaming population.

Another way to manage meta-gaming is to simply make it unnecessary by focusing on the experience instead of goals. A player can do this himself - though in more competetive games he might be viewed as less useful for doing this - or larp organizers can do it, by running larps in a certain way - though this might require significant changes in the way larp is being run, but removing the causes for meta-gaming is more effective than any player education and disciplinary methods and allows the larp group to play together in a more positive mood.

But perhaps the biggest danger of meta-gaming in larp is that it reduces the possibility of quality immersion - both for players who do it and for others who notice it.

People can even metagame unconsciously, without being aware of it. In fact, most people do that on some small scale, but it's usually not hurtful to the game.

The most important thing of all is to recognize when it happens, and when it happens to understand why it happened. Then perhaps you can do something about it...

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