[English] Meta channel in RPG – Metagaming

I’ve met several definitions of metagaming for TTRPGs. The sum of all of them is incoherent to say the least. They actually relate to different circumstances and phenomena. Take an example from Wikipedia:

Metagaming is a term used in role-playing games, which describes a player’s use of real-life knowledge concerning the state of the game to determine their character‚s actions, when said character has no relevant knowledge or awareness under the circumstances. This can refer to plot information in the game such as secrets or events occurring away from the character, as well as facets of the game’s mechanics such as abstract statistics or the precise limits of abilities. [1] Metagaming is an example of „breaking character„, as the character is making decisions based on information they could not know and thus would not make in reality [2].”

At first glance, it says that „players shouldn’t mix their own knowlegde with their PC’s state of mind”. However, I’ve found a couple of inconsistencies. The middle sentence [1] states, that even „using rules and mechanics” is a metagaming. When player adheres to their character, and when to themselves, I might ask? [2]. Both entities sits inside the same head, they are in one mind. How do you really make clear distinction between knowlegde pool of each entity? But there’s more! This definition heavily implies, that „we play TTRPG only when we’re acting”. Which is outright wrong, because roleplaying in TTRPGs isn’t restricted just to acting. Decision making, setting and playing scenes, making drama in mind and so on…

The issue of „does player character knows the propabilities of success or not” is fruitless. It doesn’t matter, really, whether PC „knows” that they are merely simulated in shared imagined space (SIS) or not. It doesn’t matter how Player Character assesses their capabilities, abilities and resources. In the end, when the entity in charge – The Player – takes the odds into account, the game is still going to be animated. Played. It drives the fiction forward. It’s a part of a game.

That’s why I suggest a different approach to „metagaming in TTRPG”. I’ve took into account the wider definition of „having a game about a game”, which is baseline meaning of metagaming.

Metagaming definition for TTRPG

Metagaming in TTRPG is to make activities and practices about the gameplay, which doesn’t animate it until they’re introduced to the fiction. In other words: techniques, practices and habits signalled and applied to the table, but not yet facilitated to the gameplay. Creative, potential input, which didn’t change the fiction yet.

This heavily implies existence of „meta channel”. I consider it as a layer of communication, where we discuss what it’s happening right in the moment, in the SIS. Including „what ifs” and „what we want to make it happen”. In the end, we play TTRPG sessions by talking to each other. The channel, where we actually make decisions and roleplay character, can be named as „gameplay channel”. Meta channel becomes an auxillary, second communication channel on top of „gameplay”.

  • „Gameplay channel” – where we animate the gameplay (SIS)
  • „Meta channel” – where we make agreements about SIS, discuss and comment it.

Another point of view: „metagaming” happens, when participant introduces something into the gameplay and also what they bring from to themselves. You start TTRPG session with metagaming, it hungs over there during play and metagaming is what remains after the end of session.

We have modes of controlling Player Character called IC (In-Character) and OOC (Out-Of-Character), but I won’t reduce the whole topic into them. It’s an oversimplification.

Meta Channel

Some folks may say „There is no speaking in meta during My Session. If it does exist, it exist ONLY after and before the session”. Technically speaking, this person’s choice of words is incorrect. Firstly, merely talking „after and before the session” and then abstaining from it already implies, that Meta Channel exist for entire time. „Session time” is simply a period, where „gameplay channel” is open. Secondly, a complete lack of Meta Channel might imply that folks literally sits, talks and listens to each other fully immersed, out of their minds, like in theatric VR or Matrix franchise. Like „nobody even gets in check whether people view the situation in hand similarly”. Plain ordinary „let’s take a short break” is already a Meta Channel. Not to mention – for instance – asking whether „we should hit and kill that awesome NPC”…

I’ve mentioned, that the basic function of metagaming is to introduce your own stuff into the session. People mgiht discuss what to do next, for instance. „What really is happening?”. Players might want to communicate their own agenda in advance. They may say „We have only one hour to go, what we want to roleplay next?” and it’s both valid communication and metagaming in TTRPG!

For instance, Blades in the Dark requires Meta Channel. One of the „Best Practices” literally starts with „Keep the meta channel open”. John Harper explains here, that „the characters have a broad spectrum of senses and intuitions to bring to bear in fiction; the players have only the narrow channel of your few words” (it’s a quote from the book). Merely discussing ideas for Score and how to start it simply invokes that Meta Channel. When player chooses Action Rating for Action Roll, they don’t just pick „math thing”. Their choice impacts the fiction: what approach ich chosen by Player Character? „Sway” Action means „you sway someone”„. Mechanics are inseparable from the fiction!

Another example, Burning Wheel. Player needs to both think „as a character” and „above the character”. To play their Beliefs; how Player Character should act according to them (make or break?). Which new Beliefs to introduce to the table? Constantly, during and in between session, Player hops into Author and Director Stance. It’s clearly a metagaming in TTRPG session. Player makes decisions about both earning Artha and meeting the consequences of such play. Meta Channel becomes closely related to Gameplay Channel!

Apocalypse World attempts to make a fluid distinction between „meta” and „game”. When MC simply asks the player, it asks both the player and their character. When MC asks like „do you threaten with force or really seize [them] by force?”, they both ask directly for Move to act and for what player wants to make happen. It’s all „gameplay channel”! The player can accidentaly hit „meta channel”, when they ask others „do you want this bastard to be killed by my Gunlugger?”, for instance. Another point: MC has a Principle to „say names of the Player Characters, not Players”. In AW, we consciously pretend that the fiction is the whole thing!

So, what IS metagaming and what’s NOT?

Metagaming ISN’T: using mechanics of a game, facilitating the rules and procedures. Explaining, how given rule or rulings works at hand . Introducing game’s or session’s structures. Everything what we are doing in order to make the game animated (played), to introduce changes in shared imagined space (SIS).

Metagaming IS: discussing what we want to make happen. Clarifing the situation at hand. Consulting the scenes and game structures to be played (but not act of making it). Safety tools; you literally make interventions into the gameplay for the safety of others.

Ephemera called „Bleed” from live action roleplaying hobby also belongs to metagaming in the context of TTRPG. It’s about transposing your own experiences and feelings into the gameplay. You literally „feel like yourself here in fiction”, thus: you introduce yourself [meta component] into shared imagined space.

I want to underline one crucial point at the end. I feel like „metagaming” word acts like cursed term, which brings a lot of stigma and „badwrong” connotations. Some people act around it like „metagaming is someting inherently evil and ostracizing”. OK, there are some folks who still use Meta Channel for their malicious intent and exploits. But do we rather fear „metagaming” or bad actors? I think that we should take the latter direction instead. Relate to specific folk’s issues; correct them, fix them or perhaps remediate otherwise. Don’t restrict the very needed communication!

Playing TTRPG session is literally making a sophisticated conversation about fictional characters and places, where you pretend that you aren’t yourself for a while. You need a safe space of overriding commentary and moderation – which is a metagaming.

Metagaming is a part of TTPRG session. It’s a consequence of driving the fiction forward through minds and speech of people at the table. It’s a parent channel which helps us to moderate the gameplay and guide us to desired experiences. We only harm ourselves by demonizing metagaming…

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Ten tekst powstał dzięki wsparciu:  Aleksandra Sontowska, Jakub KucharzewskiErpegowe Piekiełko, Sebastian Żarnowski, Marcin Zaród. Dziękuję!

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