Out-of-character/metagame knowledge

pemerton

Legend
But is this a problem?
I think @hawkeyefan's post about Wilds Beyond Witchlight is a better answer to this question than I can give!

I'm just replying to reiterate that the OP isn't trying to identify a problem, just a phenomenon.

The time to reject the premise is when the game is proposed, not once you've started in on the game. Rejecting the premise once you've agreed to play is just being a jerk.

<snip>

Again, while this is metagaming in the sense that it's outside of the rules as laid down by the game, it's not something that should actually be coming up regularly in play if players are accepting the premise of the game they're playing.
I see a connection between these statements and @Manbearcat's "First Rule of Planchette Club". Some RPGs seem a bit hesitant to come out and state their premises/rules. For instance, the game text might say that your job as a player is to portray your PC, but then the game play that is presented depends upon not conflicting with other PCs, or not splitting the party, or following the GM-presented premise, even when that means not faithfully portraying your PC.

The "problem" in these cases is unclear/confused rules text.

I think players need to know the ground expectations of the game they're playing in order to engage with it appropriately.

<snip>

If you don't tell the players that's the kind of game you are running they are probably going to be lost with how to engage with the game (unless that's the type of game they usually play).
I don't know if I agree with you that because the players are aware that there's a structure to play that means that you can't eliminate or at least reduce the meta aspect of the way they engage with that structure.
What I'm about to post comes out of a fair bit of thinking about the topic, but is nevertheless new in my attempt to actually write it down, and so at this stage remains fairly conjectural.

I think that most RPGing needs to focus on non-typical facets of life. Even the Pendragon/Prince Valiant example, which takes knights errants who by definition live quest- and joust-filled lives as its protagonists, needs to gloss over the polishing of armour, tedious dealings with squires, weeks of riding through the enchanted forest before arriving at the strange castle, etc. This requires at least one participant to make editing-type decisions about the fiction - what aspects of setting, what aspects of situation, what aspects of protagonist decision-making (motivation and/or action), are foregrounded?

Different sorts of game structures, allocations of responsibility, etc do this differently.

In the "adventure" model, the GM foregrounds NPCs who (deliberately, by approaching the PCs, or inadvertently, by dropping all their files in front of the PCs) bring their plights to the attention of the protagonists. The players then make decisions about the protagonists based on metagame/OOC knowledge (or recognition) that this is what the GM is doing. @hawkeyefan's post shows this at work (and also not working, because the players didn't recognise that the GM was engaged in this process).

In the Traveller model, the players foreground the "freelancer" motivations and consequent actions of the protagonists (by spending their week at the Travellers' Aid Society so as to generate a patron encounter check). This sets limits on the viable range of protagonists (no truly shrinking violets, for instance) but seems to require less player decision-making based on metagame/OOC knowledge.

In the knight errant model, the GM foregrounds the moments of excitement ("after weeks of riding, you come to a castle"; "you enter a forest glade and see a sinister-looking knight astride a jet-black destrier"; etc) but the players don't really need to act on OOC knowledge at all. The castle's occupant, or the sinister knight, may be related to their over-arching quest (eg be an agent of Morgan Le Fay) or may not be, but the players don't need to form beliefs about that OOC one way or another in order to make decisions about the protagonists.

The Apocalypse World model seems a bit like the knight errant model except that it is based less on vignettes established via GM editing of time and place, and more on situations that engage protagonist motivations, based on GM editing of non-protagonists characterisation (ie NPCs - who I think have to be more vibrant and nuanced than the cardboard cutouts who can populate the worlds of knights errant) and GM editing of how situations unfold (of course, in AW, structured by the results of checks).

In both the knight errant and AW model, of course the players have to accept the basic premise of play - we're knights errant or Here we all are trying to make a living in Dremmer's hardhold - but I don't think there is much need for them to make out-of-character decisions in order to make play happen.
 

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In both the knight errant and AW model, of course the players have to accept the basic premise of play - we're knights errant or Here we all are trying to make a living in Dremmer's hardhold - but I don't think there is much need for them to make out-of-character decisions in order to make play happen.

I like this write-up. Gave me a lot to think about. This last bit made me think about how my play decisions in most RPGs are informed by information on multiple levels. I definitely think about my character and what they would do in any given situation. This may be informed to different degrees by the mechanics of the game (i.e., particular disadvantages in GURPS). But I've been a GM long enough to also be thinking about the pacing of the game and the fun of the other players. If one player seems to be zoning out or hasn't had much spotlight time, I might choose to do something that engages with their character's dramatic threads.

In ye olden days, I only publicly engaged in terms of my character motivations. That was seen as the "right" way to play. The other inputs would be handled more subtly. More recently, I tend to be more transparent, so I might just say aloud, "How can we focus this scene on Bartleby?"

I don't know how this impacts the larger theoretical discussion here, except to say that I presume that most players consciously or unconsciously engage in their play from multiple perspectives.
 

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.
I see the OOC knowledge here operating as a kind of third person limited perspective. The player dips into a more immersed first person perspective from time to time, but spends a lot of the game at some remove and distance, cognizant obviously of the broader narrative but without omniscient knowledge of it.
 

pemerton

Legend
I see the OOC knowledge here operating as a kind of third person limited perspective.
I see this remark as similar to my remark about "editing" not far upthread - the limits on the perspective flow from the editing decisions made by the GM.

But the third person perspective also then flows back into the first person - so when "The player dips into a more immersed first person perspective from time to time" they are making decisions for their PCs (who are the protagonists) that are driven not by that first-person immersion, but by the knowledge of the overall situation that has been obtained via the third person perspective.
 

pemerton

Legend
I like this write-up.
Thanks!

Gave me a lot to think about. This last bit made me think about how my play decisions in most RPGs are informed by information on multiple levels. I definitely think about my character and what they would do in any given situation. This may be informed to different degrees by the mechanics of the game (i.e., particular disadvantages in GURPS). But I've been a GM long enough to also be thinking about the pacing of the game and the fun of the other players. If one player seems to be zoning out or hasn't had much spotlight time, I might choose to do something that engages with their character's dramatic threads.

In ye olden days, I only publicly engaged in terms of my character motivations. That was seen as the "right" way to play. The other inputs would be handled more subtly. More recently, I tend to be more transparent, so I might just say aloud, "How can we focus this scene on Bartleby?"

I don't know how this impacts the larger theoretical discussion here, except to say that I presume that most players consciously or unconsciously engage in their play from multiple perspectives.
I think it's both (i) inevitable and (ii) socially healthy that player decisions be informed in the various ways you describe.

As I've been thinking of it so far in this thread, by metagame/OOC knowledge-based decisions I've been meaning player decisions about what their PCs do - or action declarations for short.

So you saying "How can we focus this scene on Bartleby?" isn't in itself an action declaration, so isn't an instance of what I've got in mind. But you deciding that your PC does <this thing that tends to sideline them in the scene>, so that Bartleby can step up, would count as an instance of what I have in mind.

Normally when GMing I don't have to think about this spotlight thing much, as it tends to happen either organically (the players sort themselves out) or via rules processes (D&D combat, for instance, is turn-based) or because I deliberately frame a scene or present a question which puts a particular player and their PC in the spotlight ("OK, so while X is doing such-and-such, what are you doing?"). But in my last session it came up in an unexpected way. I was GMing Torchbearer, the first session with my usual group. And Torchbearer is like D&D in leaning very heavily into party play. But unlike D&D it doesn't have as tight a turn structure; and furthermore, for various reasons to do with how its player-side resource system (which is party-based) interacts with its PC advancement system (which is individual, unlike 4e D&D which is the main version of D&D I've GMed for over a decade now), it is very sensitive to which player declares an action (and that's not the same thing as which PCs take part in an action - being a helper is different from being the PC whose player makes the roll).

I didn't fully notice it during play, but one of the players raised it after the session: the decisions made by one of the players that tended to put his PC at the centre of action declarations really shaped how things unfolded for the whole table. And not all those unfoldings were happy ones from the point of view of those other PCs and the cost-benefit impact on their PCs!

That player needed to be letting more metagame considerations feed back into how he declares actions for his PC!
 

I see this remark as similar to my remark about "editing" not far upthread - the limits on the perspective flow from the editing decisions made by the GM.

But the third person perspective also then flows back into the first person - so when "The player dips into a more immersed first person perspective from time to time" they are making decisions for their PCs (who are the protagonists) that are driven not by that first-person immersion, but by the knowledge of the overall situation that has been obtained via the third person perspective.
That's how I experience it, playing a character. Sort of like free indirect discourse, where the perspective is limited but shifts between third and first person.

This is an undeveloped thought, but I also wonder if the preference for subtle hooks/clues in dnd (or CoC) is partially driven by trying to model a slower, more literary from (e.g. lord of the rings, shadow of innsmouth, etc). Because Blades in the Dark, for example, has cutting to the action as a principle, and it works because it models itself after a TV episode.
 

AnotherGuy

Adventurer
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!"
I would imagine if I were in your position to usually play the elderly character in the group or perhaps the most learned, as that would help with the player urge to 'explain the lore' bit :ROFLMAO:
 


aramis erak

Legend
My working approach to metagaming:
  • It's not metagaming to factor in mechanics for character decisions. the character would intuit the physics, and that's represented by the player knowing the mechanics.
  • It's good metagaming to make decisions based upon tropes of the game that aren't encoded in the mechanics
  • It's bad metagaming to make decisions based upon knowledge of the adventure itself
  • It's bad metagaming to make decisions based solely upon the mechanics without reference to the character, story state, and game state.
  • It's bad metagaming to waste players time with interpretation arguments for unclear rules.
  • It's bad metagaming to make use of exploits that lack character level sensibility... (like the vast number of characters in GURPS with Eidetic Memory solely for the skills benefits.)
One should not be surprised at all that this factors in to why I like systems where the rolls generate points to spend on various side effects...
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
To a point I agree; and many published modules are bad for this. It's why I almost always throw out whatever backstory the module gives me and replace it with something that makes in-setting sense and - if things go well - is considerably more seamless in its integration with whatever else is going on.

But after that, there's lots of instances where player knowledge (we just got our next adventure) and character knowledge (we've just been given a mission by the Temple of Moradin to do x y and z) map closely enough that who cares. There's other times - usually involving intrigue-type adventures - when one thing just kinda leads to another and the PCs are into an adventure before the player fully realizes it. And there's other times when the PCs in-character will actively seek out a mission or task, again mapping player and character knowledge as being the same.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
When we put being a jerk on the spectrum of metagaming, then we're effectively saying that there's a little bit of that end of the spectrum the bleeds through the rest -- that metagaming is at least associated with being a jerk and cheating and whathaveyou. I find that this poisons discussion.
I don't see this as poisoning discussion at all, rather - given that in my eyes some of the listed-upthread forms of metagaming take a player well into the "jerk" spectrum - it merely serves to clarify it.

Some others, however, I don't see as metagaming so much as just playing the game. Knowing you're playing through a module, for instance, or even what module it is, isn't really metagaming; but having and using prior foreknowledge of that module in play (e.g. knowing its secrets via having read, played, or run it before and acting on that knowledge) is metagaming and IMO verges on (or is) cheating.

Oftentimes before running a canned module I'll ask the players if they've hit it before, and if someone has then I'll go to plan B. Other times I'll run something they haven't seen in ages and rely on faulty memory and-or change it up just enough to make a difference. :)

I'm also pretty hard-line on trying to keep player knowledge and character knowledge the same where-when I can, in full realization that such is not always possible and that sometimes one will know more than the other in either direction.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Back in 4e, we had the reverse of this problem a lot. I was involved in the Living Forgotten Realms scene, and we'd often get new players who wanted to join. Of course, there were only so many low level adventures, and you needed to fill tables, so you'd have instances where people would go on the same adventure two or three times.

So it became an effort to NOT metagame, even when you knew there was a skill challenge or b.s. fight about to happen. The worse was this adventure called, if memory serves "The Black Knight of Cormyr". There's a missing child and this guy in black armor running around with a flaming helmet who everyone is sure is responsible. He sets up a battle in advance on difficult terrain, and boasts how he will crush us all. One tough fight later, he's dead, and we find his journal, where it inexplicably says he was a good guy all along, trying to fight the real villains, the Cult of Cyric or something, but nobody believed him because he had a cursed helmet.

So the adventure makes you feel bad for killing someone that is set up to be a villain, and not once is there a moment where you go "maybe he's not?". I mean the guy even gives a villain speech when you encounter him! This was very frustrating (but the adventure gave out a good quest reward, I think, which is why it kept getting run), and invariably, the new player would be shocked while we're all biting our tongues to keep out damn mouths shut- and then gripe that we could have warned them when they murdered the guy!
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I see a connection between these statements and @Manbearcat's "First Rule of Planchette Club". Some RPGs seem a bit hesitant to come out and state their premises/rules. For instance, the game text might say that your job as a player is to portray your PC, but then the game play that is presented depends upon not conflicting with other PCs, or not splitting the party, or following the GM-presented premise, even when that means not faithfully portraying your PC.

The "problem" in these cases is unclear/confused rules text.
And in mixed or crossed expectations between any of the game itself, the GM, and-or the player(s).

For my own part I put faithful portrayal of character above all else and expect-hope the other players will do likewise; and if that means splitting the party or whatever then that's what's gonna happen.
What I'm about to post comes out of a fair bit of thinking about the topic, but is nevertheless new in my attempt to actually write it down, and so at this stage remains fairly conjectural.

I think that most RPGing needs to focus on non-typical facets of life. Even the Pendragon/Prince Valiant example, which takes knights errants who by definition live quest- and joust-filled lives as its protagonists, needs to gloss over the polishing of armour, tedious dealings with squires, weeks of riding through the enchanted forest before arriving at the strange castle, etc. This requires at least one participant to make editing-type decisions about the fiction - what aspects of setting, what aspects of situation, what aspects of protagonist decision-making (motivation and/or action), are foregrounded?
This is going to be both system dependent and table dependent.

Some systems want to delve into minutae more than others e.g. a system that expects and demands that gear and encumbrance be tracked to a T vs a system that doesn't worry about these things.

For some tables the in-setting minutae is the game at least some of the time - they want to know a lot of detail about that enchanted forest they're riding through, for example, along with each day's weather and anything interesting seen or met along the way. They want to take the time to explore each hallway and search each room. Etc.

And for some, and I fall squarely into this camp, that greater level of detail is desired because it allows and encourages a greater degree of interaction with the setting - which is what I want - which can and sometimes will include left-turning e.g. in this case never getting to the strange castle because something else caught our attention on the way and we followed up on that instead.

So while I somewhat agree that an RPG should focus on the non-typical aspects of life I don't think those typical aspects should be overlooked or forgotten; nor should it be forgotten that not every player or GM is going to define typical and non-typical the same way. For example a long-time player might not care about polishing armour or riding through an enchanted forest because it's all old hat but for a new player those "typical" things might be highly engaging as they're both new and not something said player gets to do in real life.
 

pemerton

Legend
So it became an effort to NOT metagame, even when you knew there was a skill challenge or b.s. fight about to happen. The worse was this adventure called, if memory serves "The Black Knight of Cormyr". There's a missing child and this guy in black armor running around with a flaming helmet who everyone is sure is responsible. He sets up a battle in advance on difficult terrain, and boasts how he will crush us all. One tough fight later, he's dead, and we find his journal, where it inexplicably says he was a good guy all along, trying to fight the real villains, the Cult of Cyric or something, but nobody believed him because he had a cursed helmet.

So the adventure makes you feel bad for killing someone that is set up to be a villain, and not once is there a moment where you go "maybe he's not?". I mean the guy even gives a villain speech when you encounter him! This was very frustrating (but the adventure gave out a good quest reward, I think, which is why it kept getting run), and invariably, the new player would be shocked while we're all biting our tongues to keep out damn mouths shut- and then gripe that we could have warned them when they murdered the guy!
There are two things I don't like about the sound of that adventure.

One, it sounds like a railroad - "you knew there was a skill challenge or fight about to happen". That is, it sounds like the sequence of significant events was pre-scripted.

Second, it sounds like it features my least-favourite thing in scenario design, namely, using the GM's privilege of control over backstory to make the players (and/or their PCs) look like fools. It baffles me that this is so popular in published modules, when it is so obviously cheap and abusive of the players' metagame-driven decisions to go along with the GM's scenaio.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Oh yeah, these were short adventures intended to be run in a couple of hours, so they weren't usually very free-form. You were on a railroad, though you usually had a little freedom to tackle objectives, like, there's three leads, take them in any order you want, you're eventually going to end up in the final encounter, with maybe a few changes in difficulty based on your decisions/success at the skill challenge.

And yeah, making the players look like idiots when they had no reason to know otherwise is pretty shabby, but while this was frustrating, there were only a few LFR modules I truly despised- it's hard to write an adventure for an "average party" when there was no telling who or what would belly up to the table.

And as I recall, the people who kept LFR going were volunteers, not paid staff.

For an example of a really bad scenario, "Dancing Shadows" has this big fight with a Black Dragon. When it gets low on hit points, the adventure says it dives into the swamp and escapes (it rejoins it's mate and gets some hit points back for the final battle).

I had it slowed reducing it's speed to like 20 ft. when the DM announced "the dragon swims away" and I was like, wait, what now? "That's what the adventure says, it gets away."

Very frustrating. I ran into something similar in 5e Adventure League, where an enemy flees under cover of darkness, as if the writer forgot Warlocks with Devil's Sight and 250' range Eldritch Blasts were a thing!
 

pemerton

Legend
For an example of a really bad scenario, "Dancing Shadows" has this big fight with a Black Dragon. When it gets low on hit points, the adventure says it dives into the swamp and escapes (it rejoins it's mate and gets some hit points back for the final battle).

I had it slowed reducing it's speed to like 20 ft. when the DM announced "the dragon swims away" and I was like, wait, what now? "That's what the adventure says, it gets away."

Very frustrating. I ran into something similar in 5e Adventure League, where an enemy flees under cover of darkness, as if the writer forgot Warlocks with Devil's Sight and 250' range Eldritch Blasts were a thing!
These would be examples of circumstances which, to work in play, require players acting on metagame knowledge - ie having their PCs let the NPC get away with it because that's what the adventure says.

@hawkeyefan has posted about something similar to this in his 5e play experiences.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
These would be examples of circumstances which, to work in play, require players acting on metagame knowledge - ie having their PCs let the NPC get away with it because that's what the adventure says.

@hawkeyefan has posted about something similar to this in his 5e play experiences.

But that has nothing to do with 5e, or particular RPGs in general.

It's a feature (bug) of running published adventures.

For that matter, unwritten norms that exist in D&D (such as "don't split the party apart") aren't rules for a reason- because not all table play that way. Some tables are perfectly happy splitting the party apart! That was, in fact, somewhat common in the 70s and 80s.

The reason it has developed into more of a norm is just because of the desire to keep most of the table engage most of the time; it has nothing to do with meta-gaming.

For that matter, the rise of the norm against PvP likely mirrors the rise in people choosing to play their characters longer. When D&D had more meat-grindery features, it was less of a taboo because people were less attached to a single character that they might be playing for six months ... or six years. On the other hand, games that are single-shots, or rarely played as "campaigns" (or are explicitly about the PvP, like Paranoia) do not have the same norms regarding PvP. All that said, there are still table that don't use that norm.

Putting all of this in terms of "metagaming," if you're actually looking at "framing," seem ... weird. IMO.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
It is 'role' playing, experience is reward for it, players that go outside their characters should not be rewarded for it. GMs know what the players are doing and have just got lazy with. This is not wrong if the table is having fun but once it causes issues, the GM should stop rewarding bad behavior.
 

But that has nothing to do with 5e, or particular RPGs in general.

It's a feature (bug) of running published adventures.

The examples from my play that @pemerton cites are from my 5e game. They are not from material that was published.

One involved a hag escaping from a battle essentially because she “was supposed” to get away so we could face her again later. The second involved my use of my Ranger’s Folk Hero background feature to avoid a conflict and the GM essentially bypassing it to ensure a conflict happened.

I would say that the 5e system and general approach were very much a part of the reason why these things happened. Part of that is the requirement of prepared material. You say “published” but I’d say “prepared” is more fitting. In both cases, the GM was essentially trying to preserve what he’d prepared.

I’d also attribute the fuzziness of certain rules/processes as a factor. How exactly does the Folk Hero background ability work? Here’s the text:

Feature: Rustic Hospitality
Since you come from the ranks of the common folk, you fit in among them with ease. You can find a place to hide, rest, or recuperate among other commoners, unless you have shown yourself to be a danger to them. They will shield you from the law or anyone else searching for you, though they will not risk their lives for you.

Seems to me like it should just work. And it did… until our PCs woke in the morning to find the farmhouse they’d taken shelter in was surrounded by the duke’s men. How did that happen? The GM admitted to doing this because he felt no conflict was “too easy” and he thought a showdown with the duke’s men from inside a surrounded farmhouse would be an exciting scene (he mentioned the final scene of “Young Guns” as coming to mind).

Nothing he did here was against the rules or processes of the game. That’s what I found frustrating. No checks or dice rolls… just the GM deciding “this is what’s going to happen”. And while I think that may be fine at times, especially in establishing a scene or initiating a scenario, doing it in response to a player move and basically rendering that move pointless seems questionable. I think many folks would be at least somewhat frustrated by that.

And although you are correct that this can happen in games besides 5e, there are also games where it would not happen. Where the mechanics and processes are designed to avoid such things, where they are sufficiently player facing so that the results of play are clear. Where the principles of play are clearly stated and would actively discourage this kind of decision. Such games actively discourage that kind of thing, and make it clear as day to the players that the GM went against the principles of play.
 

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