Out-of-character/metagame knowledge

pemerton

Legend
Some RPGers are hostile to out-of-character/metagame knowledge.

But it seems to me that a lot of typical (what might even be called traditional) approaches to RPGing very strongly foreground such knowledge.

What I've got in mind is any approach to RPGing where the players know that their PCs are engaged in an "adventure".

In classic D&D, that sort of knowledge is the result of the GM describing the dungeon entrance, or dungeon outworks/surface works, to the players. The contrast with real life is obvious: sometimes archaeologists, treasure hunters and the like think they've found an interesting place, but it turns out to be a bit of a bust.

In more post-DL D&D, it comes from the players seeing the GM pick up the module and narrate the opening scene. Here's an example from the 2nd ed AD&D module "Five Shall Be One" (p 6):

The adventure opens with the PCs arriving the city of Rookroost . . . Read the text below to your players at the beginning of the adventure. . . . ". . . As you leave the temple, you see the half-elf mage striding down the steps before you. He falls scattering possessions and documents on the ground before him. He scrabbles desperately to retrieve them, looking anxiously about him."​

Even if the GM somehow manages to hide the fact that this is module text from the players, they will almost certainly realise this is an adventure hook, given that the GM has never before narrated NPCs tripping and dropping their files. The module provides information about what the PCs (and hence players) learn if they take and read any of the files.

Here's an example from the 3E D&D module "Expedition to the Demon Web Pits" (pp 8-11):

No matter which hook you've selected to involve the characters, get the action started quickly with the drow attack. . . . It's a few hours after dusk and the day has wound down, but the PCs are likely awake, preparing food or sharpening weapons and oiling armour. The drow and undead aren't very quiet as they approach the shelter. . . . Once the drow and zombies are defeated, the characters should notice that the drow's tracks came from the east.​

There's also an account of a clue-laden journal to be found on one of the dead drow.

Again, I think it will be fairly evident to players that this is an adventure hook rather than a random encounter - the tracks and the journal signal that even if the players don't notice the GM is reading from a 200+ page hardback book.

That knowledge that the players have, that they are being hooked into an adventure, is out-of-character/metagame knowledge - for the PCs, there is no reason to think that this clumsy file-dropping PC is anything special, or that this journal-carrying drow is any different from any randomly-encountered hostile NPC. And it plays an absolutely fundamental role in structuring and directing play.

Getting rid of this particular sort of metagame knowledge requires fairly radical departure from these typical approaches to framing.
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I have heard deep and dark whispers that some players are not only cognizant of the fact that they roll dice, but have occasionally become fully aware that they are playing ... a game.

I find that the application of a hammer to the head often cures that. Brain trauma can have a salutary effect on metagaming.
 


Certain kinds of metagaming can make the game less fun I suppose. For example, it's one thing for the players to know that the dm is using a module, but what if they read the entire module ahead of time? What if they have the dungeon map and know where all the traps are, and where the best treasure is?
 

payn

Legend
I dont have any problem with the PCs being clued into an adventure hook. The only problem I have is when the players let the mechanics drive their choices instead of their interest.

For example, I once had to paths laid out before the PCs. They knew one had easier foes and the other tougher foes. They had many compelling reasons to go the tougher path first. Namely the timing for the adventure, the risk to NPCs the characters cared about, etc... They took the long route around for the easier foes because "the module expects us to fight those first and get enough XP to level..."
 

Arilyn

Hero
I don't see any problem with the traditional way of dangling hooks in front of players, who usually grab hold because they know that they are in a game. It is interesting however, to think of non-traditional ways to get the session rolling. Having the events tie directly into the players' motivations or even jobs can work. Keeping up a regular roster of dangerous activities is always a stretch realistically. Then again, we don't usually play games that are in any way realistic. There is always going to be an awareness of playing a game with decisions based on that awareness. I feel there is absolutely no problem with that, as long as the social contract of the game isn't being broken.
 

Getting rid of this particular sort of metagame knowledge requires fairly radical departure from these typical approaches to framing.

This is something that I still struggle with, even with games designed with it in mind. And although I don't mind introducing elements that we would call "hooks" or similar (I tend to think of them as prompts), the ones I like tend to be more clearly calls to action, and I tend to prefer them at the very start of a campaign, and then not at all after that. I think an overt call to action works better than these kinds of contrived scenarios that are meant to catch the characters' attention and then slowly draw them into adventure.

For my current game of Spire, I kind of established the opening scenario and then since then, my players have set the agenda entirely on their own. We opened with them being asked to investigate something, and then from that point on, they've engaged with that investigation however they want. I haven't prompted them since, and the game has gone really well so far.
 

I think an overt call to action works better than these kinds of contrived scenarios that are meant to catch the characters' attention and then slowly draw them into adventure.
I've seen some conversation in osr circles related to this about the point of false rumors on a rumor table. On one hand, you want to "organically" distribute information to the players via npcs spreading rumors. But in a way, the players need to know that some rumors can be false--that this is a convention of the game--for rumor tables to work most efficiently. In my osr game I've taken to actually writing out rumors they've heard and telling them explicitly that these could be true, false, or partially true. We only play for 2 hours every other week; we need to get stuff done!
 

pemerton

Legend
it's one thing for the players to know that the dm is using a module, but what if they read the entire module ahead of time? What if they have the dungeon map and know where all the traps are, and where the best treasure is?
I've seen some conversation in osr circles related to this about the point of false rumors on a rumor table. On one hand, you want to "organically" distribute information to the players via npcs spreading rumors. But in a way, the players need to know that some rumors can be false--that this is a convention of the game--for rumor tables to work most efficiently. In my osr game I've taken to actually writing out rumors they've heard and telling them explicitly that these could be true, false, or partially true. We only play for 2 hours every other week; we need to get stuff done!
What's the difference between (i) the players knowing their PCs are at the dungeon/module/adventure - rather than in a dead end or a place with no treasure etc - and (ii) the players knowing they're at the place in the dungeon/module/adventure where the best treasure is?

I think in some RPGs - I've got in mind MHRP adapted to Cortex+ Heroic Fantasy, and Burning Wheel - to the extent that the question makes sense, the answer is that there's no real difference.

In B/X D&D, I think there's a difference, but it's not about whether or not metagame knowledge is a bad thing. It's about how (i) and (ii) are differently related to the process of play, and how hidden information is a part of that process.
 

Haiku Elvis

Adventurer
Whilst breaking out of the adventure/story stereotypes can be great and can keep things fresh there is a reason that some tropes and beats exist. If you see a gun in act 1 and it isn't used in act 3 you can feel cheated. If an elf drops dead in front of you clutching an ancient scroll you expect it to be more than a shopping list.
It reminds me of the Spranos while it was a great series there were some storylines that just stopped or left you expecting an end that never came.
Which may be true to life but sometimes if a Russian escapes in the Pine Barrens you expect it to lead to something.
 

What's the difference between (i) the players knowing their PCs are at the dungeon/module/adventure - rather than in a dead end or a place with no treasure etc - and (ii) the players knowing they're at the place in the dungeon/module/adventure where the best treasure is?

I think in some RPGs - I've got in mind MHRP adapted to Cortex+ Heroic Fantasy, and Burning Wheel - to the extent that the question makes sense, the answer is that there's no real difference.

In B/X D&D, I think there's a difference, but it's not about whether or not metagame knowledge is a bad thing. It's about how (i) and (ii) are differently related to the process of play, and how hidden information is a part of that process.
Yeah I think with rumors/information it's part of the investigative mini-game. The reason you wouldn't just tell them that the treasure is at location x is if you think the management of information is part of the point of the game. It's sort of like the quantum ogre but with locations--they can't go to both location x and location y at the same time, and only one of them has the thing they are looking for, and they may run out of time if they make the wrong choice. So they have to piece together the clues they've assembled to make the right choice. I can see a dynamic CoC scenario running like this.

Even if the characters have all the information to make those choices in the fiction, it probably does require some amt of metagame knowledge of game conventions for the player to know how to navigate those scenarios.
 

Metagame knowledge is of course unavoidable. Unless one applies Snarf's methodology.*

Absent a hammer, we need to find a level of metagaming that works for us. This will vary from table to table and game to game. I think @Arilyn has hit the nail on the head (still with the hammers. I think my Freudian slip is showing.)

Write hooks that work for the characters. Or, conversely, write characters that will work with the adventure's premise.

This can be hard if you're playing a campaign without a central plot and the only thing stringing it together is the same characters. If you are, you're going to have to work to make to make it all come together.

That being said metagame knowledge can be lots of fun. It's a great way to build tension.

You can use cut scenes to let the players know what the bad guy is up to.

One time I gave two PCs different clues as to the villain's plot. The thing is the clues were both secrets of the PCs' respective families. Good role players that my boys were, their characters did not immediately seek one another out and swap info. The whole table got to enjoy knowing what the plot was, and seeing how it would unfold, but didn't have any immediate way for their characters to interfere. Much drama was had.

Players can do it themselves. When the investigator sneaks down the stairs to see what is making the strange, dare I say squamous, noise in the basement the player is very deliberately invoking metagame knowledge for an effect.

So yeah, metagame knowledge. It's a thing. Like anything in a creative art (yep, I just called RPGs a creative art) you can do it well or not.


*I'm not saying I'm against it.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Metagaming is part of the game. It has been from the very beginning, when adventures would call on players to use their own problem solving abilities to solve puzzles. No system for "monster knowledge" existed, so being able to recognize how to deal with trolls and other threats was a reward for gaining player experience.

When people started to take umbrage at this sort of thing, by saying "you don't know what a troll is", I pointed out a lot of the classic "trap monsters" are going to kill you unless you have some knowledge about them in game. If your wet behind the ears adventurer doesn't know how to recognize that a treasure chest isn't always a treasure chest, or that you shouldn't put on cloaks you find in dungeons, or that ghouls can paralyze you with a touch, you're not going to survive long.

And when your next character will be forced to die the same way because there is no way for you to know that some creatures are to be avoided (or that you should always carry wine around in case of mimics), that just feels like an exercise in futility.

There are degrees of metagaming, of course. I'm told there's a layer of the Abyss set aside for players who read adventures ahead of time or dare to peek at the DM's notes. And groups should hammer out a social contract on what level of metagaming they are ok with before Session 1 begins.
 




kenada

Legend
Getting rid of this particular sort of metagame knowledge requires fairly radical departure from these typical approaches to framing.
Am I metaposting if I assume the departure looks something like a certain, story-creating approach and reply accordingly? 🤔

The only way I can see to avoid this “problem” is by shifting your agenda away from doing traditional adventures. That’s what I do in my game (D&D-adjacent but not traditional), but I suspect it’s actually a desired part of the game. If you’re going to tell a story, then you need to signal to everyone that it’s time to get started, and accepting the adventure hook is part of that ceremony.
 


James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Since most of the people I play with are younger, and haven't been playing since the AD&D era, I'm usually the "old man" that they look to to explain lore and what the heck they are fighting. While I don't have any problems explaining stuff away from the table, at the table, I always look to the DM first before going on about the difference between regular Orcs and Gray Orcs, or why that cute little bunny rabbit with the unicorn horn should probably be left alone.

I do sometimes get excited when I realize what we're up against is a classic monster from the days of yore. My most recent memory of that was when the DM described a bunch of "flying heads with bat wings for ears" and I was like "holy sh-, VARGOUILLES!"

Even the DM was like "wait, you've heard of these? I thought they were made up for this adventure!"
 

pemerton

Legend
understanding that you're at a table, trying to have fun with others, is absolutely called for.
The OP does describe something a bit more specific than that.

I don't see any problem with the traditional way of dangling hooks in front of players, who usually grab hold because they know that they are in a game.
The OP isn't meant to be a criticism of this method. In the most recent three sessions of RPGing that I GMed (all Torchbearer), the start of play involved me describing to the players where their PCs were, and what was interesting about it. (The players then chose their PC goals.)

What the OP is saying is that this sort of technique seems at odds with an anti-metagaming/anti-OOC knowledge agenda.

Whilst breaking out of the adventure/story stereotypes can be great and can keep things fresh there is a reason that some tropes and beats exist. If you see a gun in act 1 and it isn't used in act 3 you can feel cheated. If an elf drops dead in front of you clutching an ancient scroll you expect it to be more than a shopping list.
Sure! Again, the OP isn't hostile to cues and foreshadowing and other "storytelling" techniques. Just saying that they don't seem consistent with an opposition to players acting on metagame/OOC knowledge.

This is something that I still struggle with, even with games designed with it in mind. And although I don't mind introducing elements that we would call "hooks" or similar (I tend to think of them as prompts), the ones I like tend to be more clearly calls to action, and I tend to prefer them at the very start of a campaign, and then not at all after that. I think an overt call to action works better than these kinds of contrived scenarios that are meant to catch the characters' attention and then slowly draw them into adventure.
It is interesting however, to think of non-traditional ways to get the session rolling. Having the events tie directly into the players' motivations or even jobs can work.
One non-traditional way is to have the player write the call-to-action for their PC.

The traditional way in Classic Traveller is to have the players roll for a patron encounter (throw 5+ on one die, or 4+ if you have Carousing-1+, checking once per week). The players still have metagame knowledge, but it's a bit narrower than the examples I gave in the OP - in the fiction that patron quickly reveals that they are looking to hire a team of "specialists", and the players' knowledge that there won't be another patron encounter check for a week corresponds at least roughly to the character's knowledge that the number of patrons (ie people with ready cash to pay freelancers to do weird things) is finite.

I tend to share hawkeyefan's preference for some sort of immediacy over the slow drawing in.

The only way I can see to avoid this “problem” is by shifting your agenda away from doing traditional adventures.
I've never GMed Apocalypse World, but I think it has an interesting set-up for the first session: rather than a GM hook for an adventure, we learn about the PCs in their world, and rely on the rules for narrating consequences, especially failures, and for framing (ie soft moves followed by hard moves) to make things happen.

I've used a somewhat similar approach in Burning Wheel.

The "metagame" dimension comes in via the rules for framing and for consequence narration, which direct the GM to do these things in a particular sort of non-"neutral" way.
 

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