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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #99

5 Meta-Gaming Tips



Contents:
This Week's Tips Summarized

5 Meta-Gaming Tips

  1. Example Definitions
  2. Peer Pressure: A Double-Edged Sword
  3. One-On-One Meetings
  4. Give Players Out-Of-Character Information On Purpose
  5. A Nice Summary Of Meta-Gaming By J. B. Bell
Readers' Tips Summarized

  1. Use Sim Earth For World Building
  2. The Three Types Of Gamers
  3. Meta-Game Thoughts
  4. GM Resource: Poison Links
  5. Enough Lord Of The Rings!

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A Brief Word From Johnn

Meta-Gaming Tips This Week
In Issue 77, I asked you for a definition of meta-gaming, asI wasn't clear on the term. I've researched it quite a bit,read all of your responses, and have come to the conclusionthat every GM meta-games, whether they know it or not.

I thought I'd send you a couple of ways that you canconsciously and purposefully meta-game to tweak yoursessions for the better. I hope they help.

Cheers,

Johnn Fourjohnn@roleplayingtips.com

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New This Week:

5 Meta-Gaming Tips
  1. Example Definitions

    There are many ideas out there of what meta-gaming is.Sometimes, the definitions will give you tips and ideas allby themselves.
    • In my mind, here's what I think meta-gaming is:

      Let's say that you were to draw a circle and you put all ofthe usual gaming stuff in there, such as:
      • Character creation
      • Player interaction
      • Combat and conflict
      • In-character roleplaying and decision making
      • Game master actions and decision making
      • Story design
      • Campaign management

      Meta-gaming then, in my humble opinion, would be to think,act, and make decisions based on all of the informationwithin that circle from a viewpoint outside of that circle.

      Here are some other definitions, as submitted bysubscribers:
    • The outer-layer of the onion.

    • Self-conscious gaming. Gaming while aware of the biggerpicture issues, and letting them affect your decisions.

    • Those things that exist outside of the immediateboundaries of the game system or story line, but which alsohave a fundamental effect on the action and mood of thegame. These are things like player interaction, where thegame is being run, props used, etc.

    • Any action taken by the character that has beeninstigated by knowledge that the player has access to butthe character does not.

    • A meta-game reference is when a player or a game masterrefers to a game mechanic that disrupts the perception ofthe game reality that you have put so much effort intocreating. When describing the setting, for example, if yourefer to a hard, stone surface as a "100 hit point wall",you have made a meta-game reference.Or, if a player at a table has just bashed an orc to withinan inch of his life and is amazed that the orc is stillstanding, he exclaims, "That orc should have only one or twohit points by now! One more hit should do it." Thereference to the orc's hit points, as opposed to beingamazed at the fortitude of the orc, is a meta-game reference.

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  2. Peer Pressure: A Double-Edged Sword

    A neat meta-game aspect that you can wield like a benevolentGM sword is peer pressure. But beware, it does have adouble edge.

    There are three types of peer pressure:
    1. Player to player
    2. Character to character
    3. NPCs to Character

    (For this tip, I do not consider the GM to be a peer in mostRPGs because of her special authority and decision-makingpowers that sets her apart from the other players.)

    And peer pressure is simply the influence of thought andbehaviour that "peers" have over each other in a socialsetting, such as the game table.

    Here are some examples on how you can use peer pressureto make your games more fun and entertaining for the wholegroup:


    Player To Player
    Problem: a player is about to make a critically bad decisionthat will most likely ruin his fun for the rest of theevening (such as making an honest mistake that would resultin his PC's death).

    Solution: rather than moving forward immediately anddetermining the outcome of the doomed PC's actions, you letthe other players wisely counsel him, in and/or out ofcharacter. Then you re-confirm that player's request,allowing a different action, if requested.


    Character To Character
    Problem: the session is a yawner, so far.

    Solution: You set-up an encounter where the PCs must make adecision of some kind, be it simple or difficult:
    • a fork in the road
    • a treasure or reward strangely just lying there for the taking
    • a foe surrenders

    Then you sow seeds with each player to help them come to anopposing opinion as to what to do:
    • pass notes to each player.
    • ask PCs to make skill checks and let them know what their "expert opinions" are on the situation.
    • make up and relate similar past experiences that the PCs might have had ("when you were a boy, your uncle found a locked box just like this one--it almost killed him with a lightning bolt when he tried to open it!).

    Then let the players argue it out. This will generate newinterest in the session, create a little bit of fun tension,and encourage roleplaying.


    NPCs To Character
    Problem: one or more players are just not "into" tonight'sgame, or are not roleplaying well this session.

    Solution: Place some NPCs around the characters, and pushthe players' buttons a little:
    • The PCs are half-heartedly dickering with a merchant. You add in a rival NPC buyer who shows up and starts bidding against the PCs.
    • The PCs are at a social function, bored. You have a rival NPC approach a mixed group of characters and NPCs. The rival starts making subtle and embarrassing allegations or insults about the PCs. The other NPCs catch on, smirk and perhaps even laugh out loud at the PCs. No character likes being publicly laughed at!
    • You know a few of the things that annoy a player in real life, such as people who answer questions with questions, or demanding bosses, or spiders. During the game, you have NPCs push these buttons (lightly though--as long as the game remains fun) so that the NPCs can get whatever it is that they want from the PC.

    The double-edged nature of peer pressure is that, if usedimproperly or for evil, it can ruin a player's fun. Forexample, maybe the NPCs' teasing goes too far, or a playergets frustrated because of all the player kibitzing, or aplayer's had a bad day and just wants to relax without in-game tension or peer pressure.

    You can definitely rescue a ho-hum encounter or session withpeer pressure, but keep a constant eye on your players toensure they're enjoying themselves. Tense body language,sullen quietness, and vocal tone are good ways to spotunhappy players.

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  3. One-On-One Meetings

    If you've read tip #2 about peer pressure, then you knowthat the presence of others, either real people or fictionalones, can influence a player's decisions.

    However, this can back-fire on you when you'd like a PC toconsider making a wrong decision, or when you want a playerto make a decision on his own.

    Therefore, meet with the player in a quiet place away fromthe others for a few minutes until the decision's been made.

    Here are a couple of examples:
    • A player in your group loves to quote rules and provideout-of-character information to the other players when it'snot his turn. An important decision for a PC comes up, soyou decide to take it to another room so that the PC'splayer cannot be influenced by other player.

    • A player must make a tough solo decision, and you don'twant him to draw strength from the group.

    • The PC wants to make a private action that will not bepopular with the group.

    • You'd like to tempt a character with an evil offer madeprivately by an NPC, monster, or foe. You'd rather not havethe rest of the group around to keep the player honest. :)

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  4. Give Players Out-Of-Character Information On Purpose

    If you have a player or players who are good roleplayers,keep secrets well, and are also good at separating in-character from out-of-character information, then tryrevealing an important game secret to them either by"accident", between sessions, or through a secret note.

    I call this player irony, when the player knows somethingthat her character doesn't, and it can favourably increasethat player's in-game tension, focus, and interest.

    A secret GM-to-player note (not GM-to-character) isespecially effective, because it signals to your player thatyou know that they know, and that they know that you wantthem to know. Holy meta mind games Batman!

    To make it clear that the note is GM-to-player, use theplayer's name in it, or explicitly say "this note is GM-to-player".

    A word of caution: I've found this to be quite fun andeffective when I've done this in past games, but be carefulto only supply non-character specific secrets to players. Ifyou give away a PC's secret to another player, you mightalienate the first player, make them feel ganged-up on, orsimply the butt of an imaginary joke.

    So, only reveal NPC, story, or game world secrets that donot directly relate to another PC and that will drive a goodroleplayer crazy!

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  5. A Nice Summary Of Meta-Gaming By J. B. Bell

    Johnn:

    Probably the area on the 'net that gets the most use out ofthe term "meta-game" and its attendant concepts is theUsenet group, rec.games.frp.advocacy. Read it for a week andyou'll learn more about meta-game concerns than you everwanted to know. It hosts some of the most agonizinglyacademic and hair-splitting discussions about characterstances, play styles, the eternal question of "what is'realism'", and more! I love it.

    Anyway, from reading that group and having been a GM whoenjoys the academic side of things, here is my stab at adefinition for "meta-game":

    "Meta" comes from the Greek, and in that language itoriginally meant nothing more than "next" or "after".Aristotle's _Metaphysics_, which deals with (among otherthings) "higher realities" beyond the ordinary, sensibleworld, probably gave us the modern meaning that implies"beyond" in a somewhat mystical sense.

    Nowadays, "meta" can also have a reflexive meaning, givingus ideas like "metalanguage" (a language about a language orlanguages), and of course, "meta-game". Technically, thiswould mean "a game of or about a game". In practice, "meta-game" means the concerns surrounding a game that aren'treflected neatly within the game. Who gets the pizza, howmany players must show up for the game to be consideredworth playing that session, whether note-passing is allowed,etc., are all "meta-game" concerns.

    It is a kind of game in itself because people can "play" itto try to get what they want. Of course, it's best if peoplework to maximize everyone's enjoyment, but that doesn'talways happen.

    The meta-game can be fun -- players who have a friendlyrivalry might reflect that in their PC's, making the gamemore entertaining for everyone. Or, it can be harmful -- theplayer who focuses so strongly on "winning" that they bullyothers into maximizing combat effectiveness when they'drather focus on character development. (The opposite ispossible too, of course, and there's nothing wrong withdungeon crawls.)

    Everyone should try to have an understanding of the meta-game issues that will be a part of every gaming group'slife. Players and GMs have different tolerance levels formeta-game intrusions during play time. For example, somegroups enjoy the spice of paranoia that frequent note-passing can create, while others get upset at being forcedto pay attention to a non-game mechanic that makes thembreak character. If you understand your group's meta-game,it will help make gaming more enjoyable. Some groupsactually have a written "contract" to cover meta-gameconcerns, though this isn't necessary for everyone. It mayseem burdensome and annoying to pay attention to thesefactors, especially for the always-harried GM, but it'sworth educating yourself about.



Readers' Tips Of The Week:

  1. Use Sim Earth For World Building
    From: Mike D.

    Have you ever considered the use of software, such as SimEarth (easily found in discount bins), to help map out aworld? Use the random generator and add a few new effects,such as cranking up the Vulcanism and greenhouse effect. Letit run to the level of technology you want and then you havea randomly generated world for exploring.

    The game also has a snapshot feature (under File) thatallows you to save a screen image in pcx format.

    Easy, and a new world every time.

    [Johnn: And I believe that Sim Earth comes in PC and Macformats.]



  2. The Three Types Of Gamers
    From: Roger H.

    It's been said there are three types of RPG fans. No, notreal men, real roleplayers, and real munchkins, but gamists,simulationists, and dramatists.

    Gamists
    The gamist sees the whole RPG thing as just another type ofgame, and so is primarily concerned with winning. Though thequalifications for victory change with setting andcharacter, gamists tend to make victory (however defined)their top priority.

    Simulationists
    Simulationists, on the other hand, treat the game rules asattempts to simulate a make-believe reality accurately.Scenarios must make logical sense (at least according to thegame's genre) or they're no fun.

    Dramatists
    Dramatists are concerned with how a game plays out as a workof fiction, a story. They tend to see themselves as bothaudience and cast, and are interested in the game mainly forthe possibilities of dramatic conflict and characterdevelopment. In short, if it's not adaptable into somethingworth reading, it's a failure.

    Even though there's a lot more to gamer psychology thanthese three classifications, I have to admit that most ofthe gamers I've known tend to strongly favor one of thesethree.

    So, does anyone have a better method of gamer taxonomy? And,has anyone else had any bad experiences from clashingapproaches to a game? [Johnn: and what did you do to resolvethe problem?]

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  3. Meta-Game Thoughts
    From: Plourde

    Hello, Moderator :)

    I know firsthand (as I'm sure many GM's do) just howirritating meta-gaming can be. My own personal experiencehas led me to define meta-gaming as "any action taken by thecharacter which has been instigated by knowledge which theplayer has access to but the player does not".

    I don't mind if the players know what kind of powers monster"X" has but if the PCs seem to be reacting as though they doeven though they shouldn't it's a problem. There are twoways to sidestep this as I see it...
    1. Don't let the players know anything you don't want themtoo. This is hard if you are using pre-created game worldsand if the players have their own copies of the pertinentworld books.

      However, if your group is fairly static, then it may be easyfor one player to "own" one game and be the only GM for saidgame world and thus be the only player allowed to readthrough the published material. This puts the players andtheir PCs on even ground.

    2. Make stuff up as you go. In other words, change therules. When you start a new campaign, let the players knowthat not everything will be the same then simply create newinformation for the current monsters, NPCs, and countries.

      Perhaps "Blackcoast" is normally an evil empire in your gameworld. So, make the infamous Blackcoast a rich peacefulKingdom whose name stems from rich oil shoals off the coastthat turn the water black, instead. Perhaps a gorgon doesn'tpetrify the PCs but instead makes them fall under thegorgon's control via a song (simply switching the gorgon'spower with that of a siren's). In this way, as above, theplayers do not know what the PCs do not know, and as aresult will act accordingly.

      As an alternative, you can penalize players for not acting incharacter and performing meta-game feats. You could alsosimply find a way to give the PCs the info that the playershave had access to (assuming this won't throw off the game).

    Additional meta-game problems:
    • Characters discussing battle tactics during the battle:this can be a problem or not depending on your style.Generally, the only way to avoid this 100% is to haveeveryone write their actions down and pass them to you.

    • Characters know when they fail to perform a skill (whenthey really shouldn't): sometimes a problem if a PC istrying to figure out the weakness of a monster.

      When the player fails his roll he knows he failed, so analternative is to roll his skill check in secret and tellhim either wrong or right information based on his successor failure.

    Hope these tips help.

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  4. GM Resource: Poison Links
    From: Jess N.

    I've collected some websites for more people interested ininformation about poisons...

    This is a good site with lots of good information includinga description of the different types of poisons and whatthey do to the body:
    http://www.wch.sa.gov.au/paedm/clintox/index.html

    Poisons (plants):
    http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/index.html

    http://chppm-www.apgea.army.mil/ento/PLANT.HTM

    Venoms (reptiles and insects):
    http://www.kingsnake.com/toxinology/venomtypes.html

    http://www.pharmacology.unimelb.edu.au/pharmwww/avruweb/arthrop.htm#ants

    Platypus (but you didn't know these were toxic):
    http://www.kingsnake.com/toxinology/mammals/platypus.html

    All this information with the one noted exception is allreal world poison information.

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  5. Enough Lord Of The Rings!
    From: Scott H.

    Hey Johnn!

    I've noticed lately how many GM's like to draw upon The Lordof the Rings for inspiration in their worlds. While this isnot a bad idea (Tolkien is the master) it has the potentialof becoming trite or recognizable for the players. With theresurgence of this fantastic series to the forefront ofpopular culture, it is no longer perhaps the best choice forinspiration.

    I suggest, instead, The Silmarillion. I can't begin to tellyou how much information (from world building to religion tomythology and so on...) is contained in this one book.

    Another volume that I use like a "One Thousand an One Ideas"manual is called the Complete Guide to Middle Earth. Thisbook has info on characters and situations that are barelyeven mentioned in the main body of Tolkien's work.

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