5 Meta-Gaming Tips

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0099

A Brief Word From Johnn

Meta-Gaming Tips This Week

In Issue 77, I asked you for a definition of meta-gaming, as I wasn’t clear on the term. I’ve researched it quite a bit,read all of your responses, and have come to the conclusion that every GM meta-games, whether they know it or not.

I thought I’d send you a couple of ways that you can consciously and purposefully meta-game to tweak your sessions for the better. I hope they help.


Johnn Four
[email protected]



New This Week:

5 Meta-Gaming Tips

Example Definitions

There are many ideas out there of what meta-gaming is.Sometimes, the definitions will give you tips and ideas all by 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 of the 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 information within that circle from a viewpoint outside of that circle.

Here are some other definitions, as submitted by subscribers:

  • The outer-layer of the onion.
  • Self-conscious gaming. Gaming while aware of the bigger picture issues, and letting them affect your decisions.
  • Those things that exist outside of the immediate boundaries of the game system or story line, but which also have a fundamental effect on the action and mood of the game. These are things like player interaction, where the game is being run, props used, etc.
  • Any action taken by the character that has been instigated by knowledge that the player has access to but the character does not.
  • A meta-game reference is when a player or a game master refers to a game mechanic that disrupts the perception of the game reality that you have put so much effort into creating. When describing the setting, for example, if you refer 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 within an inch of his life and is amazed that the orc is still standing, he exclaims, “That orc should have only one or two hit points by now! One more hit should do it.” The reference to the orc’s hit points, as opposed to being amazed at the fortitude of the orc, is a meta-game reference.

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 a double 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 most RPGs because of her special authority and decision-making powers that sets her apart from the other players.)

And peer pressure is simply the influence of thought and behavior that “peers” have over each other in a social setting, such as the game table.

Here are some examples on how you can use peer pressure to make your games more fun and entertaining for the whole group:

Player To Player

Problem: a player is about to make a critically bad decision that will most likely ruin his fun for the rest of the evening (such as making an honest mistake that would result in his PC’s death).

Solution: rather than moving forward immediately and determining the outcome of the doomed PC’s actions, you let the other players wisely counsel him, in and/or out of character. 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 a decision 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 an opposing 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 new interest 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’s game, or are not roleplaying well this session.

Solution: Place some NPCs around the characters, and push the 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 used improperly or for evil, it can ruin a player’s fun. For example, maybe the NPCs’ teasing goes too far, or a player gets 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 with peer pressure, but keep a constant eye on your players to ensure they’re enjoying themselves. Tense body language,sullen quietness, and vocal tone are good ways to spot unhappy players.

One-On-One Meetings

If you’ve read tip #2 about peer pressure, then you know that the presence of others, either real people or fiction alones, can influence a player’s decisions.However, this can back-fire on you when you’d like a PC to consider making a wrong decision, or when you want a player to make a decision on his own.Therefore, meet with the player in a quiet place away from the 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 provide out-of-character information to the other players when it’snot his turn. An important decision for a PC comes up, so you decide to take it to another room so that the PC’s player cannot be influenced by other player.
  • A player must make a tough solo decision, and you don’t want him to draw strength from the group.
  • The PC wants to make a private action that will not be popular with the group.
  • You’d like to tempt a character with an evil offer made privately by an NPC, monster, or foe. You’d rather not have the rest of the group around to keep the player honest.

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 try revealing 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 something that her character doesn’t, and it can favorably increase that player’s in-game tension, focus, and interest.

A secret GM-to-player note (not GM-to-character) is especially effective, because it signals to your player that you know that they know, and that they know that you want them to know. Holy meta mind games Batman!To make it clear that the note is GM-to-player, use the player’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 and effective when I’ve done this in past games, but be careful to only supply non-character specific secrets to players.

If you give away a PC’s secret to another player, you mightalienate the first player, make them feel ganged-up on, or simply the butt of an imaginary joke.

So, only reveal NPC, story, or game world secrets that do not directly relate to another PC and that will drive a good roleplayer crazy!

A Nice Summary Of Meta-Gaming

From J. B. Bell

Johnn: Probably the area on the ‘net that gets the most use out of the term “meta-game” and its attendant concepts is the Usenet group, rec.games.frp.advocacy. Read it for a week and you’ll learn more about meta-game concerns than you ever wanted to know. It hosts some of the most agonizingly academic and hair-splitting discussions about character stances, play styles, the eternal question of “what is’ realism’”, and more! I love it.

Anyway, from reading that group and having been a GM who enjoys the academic side of things, here is my stab at definition for “meta-game”:”Meta” comes from the Greek, and in that language it originally meant nothing more than “next” or “after”.Aristotle’s _Metaphysics_, which deals with (among other things) “higher realities” beyond the ordinary, sensible world, probably gave us the modern meaning that implies”beyond” in a somewhat mystical sense.Nowadays, “meta” can also have a reflexive meaning, giving us ideas like “metalanguage” (a language about a language or languages), and of course, “meta-game”.

Technically, this would mean “a game of or about a game”. In practice, “meta-game” means the concerns surrounding a game that aren’t reflected neatly within the game. Who gets the pizza, how many players must show up for the game to be considered worth 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 people work to maximize everyone’s enjoyment, but that doesn’t always 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’s life. Players and GMs have different tolerance levels formeta-game intrusions during play time. For example, some groups enjoy the spice of paranoia that frequent note-passing can create, while others get upset at being forced to pay attention to a non-game mechanic that makes them break character. If you understand your group’s meta-game,it will help make gaming more enjoyable.

Some groups actually have a written “contract” to cover meta-gameconcerns, though this isn’t necessary for everyone. It may seem burdensome and annoying to pay attention to these factors, especially for the always-harried GM, but it’s worth educating yourself about.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use Sim Earth For World Building

From Mike D.

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

The game also has a snapshot feature (under File) that allows 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.]

Graphic of section divider

The Three Types Of Gamers

From Roger H.

It’s been said there are three types of RPG fans. No, not real men, real roleplayers, and real munchkins, but gamists, simulations, and dramatists.


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


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


Dramatists are concerned with how a game plays out as a work of fiction, a story. They tend to see themselves as both audience and cast, and are interested in the game mainly for the possibilities of dramatic conflict and character development. In short, if it’s not adaptable into something worth reading, it’s a failure.

Even though there’s a lot more to gamer psychology than these three classifications, I have to admit that most of the gamers I’ve known tend to strongly favor one of these three.

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

Graphic of section divider

Meta-Game Thoughts

From Plourde

I know firsthand (as I’m sure many GM’s do) just how irritating meta-gaming can be. My own personal experience has led me to define meta-gaming as “any action taken by the character which has been instigated by knowledge which the player 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 do even though they shouldn’t it’s a problem. There are two ways to sidestep this as I see it…

  1. Don’t let the players know anything you don’t want them too. This is hard if you are using pre-created game world sand if the players have their own copies of the pertinent world books.However, if your group is fairly static, then it may be easy for one player to “own” one game and be the only GM for said game world and thus be the only player allowed to read through the published material. This puts the players and their PCs on even ground.
  2. Make stuff up as you go. In other words, change the rules. When you start a new campaign, let the players know that not everything will be the same then simply create new information for the current monsters, NPCs, and countries.Perhaps “Blackcoast” is normally an evil empire in your game world. So, make the infamous Blackcoast a rich peaceful Kingdom whose name stems from rich oil shoals off the coast that turn the water black, instead. Perhaps a gorgon doesn’t petrify the PCs but instead makes them fall under the gorgon’s control via a song (simply switching the gorgon’s power with that of a siren’s). In this way, as above, the players do not know what the PCs do not know, and as a result will act accordingly.As an alternative, you can penalize players for not acting in character and performing meta-game feats. You could also simply find a way to give the PCs the info that the players have 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 have everyone write their actions down and pass them to you.
  • Characters know when they fail to perform a skill (when they really shouldn’t): sometimes a problem if a PC is trying to figure out the weakness of a monster.When the player fails his roll he knows he failed, so an alternative is to roll his skill check in secret and tell him either wrong or right information based on his successor failure.

Hope these tips help.

Graphic of section divider

From Jess N.

I’ve collected some websites for more people interested in information about poisons…

This is a good site with lots of good information including description of the different types of poisons and what they do to the body:
Clinical Toxinology Resources

Poisons (plants):
Plants Poisonous to Livestock and other Animals


Venoms (reptiles and insects):


Platypus (but you didn’t know these were toxic):

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

Graphic of section divider

Enough Lord Of The Rings!

From Scott H.

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.