Saturday, November 2, 2019

PSA to Dungeon Masters: Intentionally "Metagame" More

Let’s get through this one right off the bat: people generally take metagaming way too seriously. It’s a transition I see lots of gamers go through. They hear about it early on and spend way too much time and energy thinking about it as a problem that must be overcome or worked around or whatever, they experiment in how to get past it, they insist that metagaming is one of the most serious bad habits a player can have, and then… they eventually get over it. I’ve seen this journey of personal growth pretty consistently in lots of players at this point. So if I’m going to revisit the question of metagaming, I want to attack it from a new angle so that it’s worth it.

DMs are the worst about navigating the complications of metagaming. Yes, DMs.

People are so goddamn hung up on the dire consequences of a player deriving an unfair, “unearned” advantage from gaining knowledge they aren’t “supposed” to have that they become paranoid and create confusion where there needn’t be any.

Let’s review the basic facts: the world of your campaign exists in fiction space. The players exist in reality. In between, there is a diegetic barrier that all knowledge has to pass through. It is the job of the DM to get knowledge back and forth across that barrier. Otherwise, the players can’t know anything about your world that you want them to.

The DM has the world in their head and the players need the DM to transcribe it for them. That means they need to be able to ask questions and clarify and, if necessary, experiment and explore. I have seen DMs fumble on the transcription process because they’re trying to be careful about “giving away too much.” Before saying anything, they ask themselves the question, “but how could the PC know this is true?” and then they set the bar a little too high and withhold information probably unnecessarily.

I sympathize with the instinct behind this habit and I understand, rationally, why it makes sense. But it makes the game worse. There is a time and a place to make use of “The Unknown” as an element in storytelling, and it shouldn’t be very common. Being in a state of confusion or ignorance does not facilitate good gameplay very well. It ought to be used as a rare and potent emotion that you stimulate in the players, something that may drive a mystery or the feeling of fear. But it shouldn’t be a condition that impairs them from being able to play the game and make choices and work through problems. Not knowing things is almost always more boring than knowing things.

If you really, really need to satisfy the question, “but how could they know this??” then I will enlighten you to two incredible sources of knowledge at every in-universe character’s disposal that a lot of DMs neglect: interpretive ability and background familiarity.

Firstly, you can oftentimes skip forward to the explanation of something and summarize it as, “you are able to figure out that the room’s purpose is probably XYZ.” What they do with the weird magic room is more interesting than the process of figuring out that it even is a weird magic room. If you really wanted the focus of the encounter to be on the “figuring things out” phase, you need to understand that they’re in an inherently bad position to do that. Remember, they have to rely on you to transcribe the world for them. No matter how smart or intuitive a player is, they cannot use their full interpretive faculties when playing D&D because all knowledge has to be translated by the DM. This is, generally speaking, not the best medium for that type of audience-engagement.

Like, to contrast this with another example, let’s talk about Escape Rooms. Escape Rooms fall within “gaming arts,” interactive fiction spaces where the audience engages the art through making choices and interpreting things. But compared to other gaming arts, Escape Rooms are specifically optimized for facilitating a “figuring things out” form of engagement. Literally everything that could possibly inform the player towards the solution can be found in that one room, and they are locked in that room. There is never any worry that a piece of the answer could be somewhere outside the room or something they needed to know from background knowledge. At the same time, they have the full freedom to use their own interpretive faculties when navigating this space because the diegetic barrier is soooo transparent. No translator is needed: the player can literally walk around the room with their own physical body, examine things with their own eyes, and explore as much as they need to in order to arrive at the answer based on the strengths of their own brain. With an RPG… you can’t really offer them that. The diegetic barrier is much too significant, so they have a much lower chance of being able to accomplish this without some help. You have to serve as their eyes, so you can’t always be frustrated that the players can’t see what you want them to see.

I think you should become okay with giving this help and even recognize how it improves the game and makes your job easier. You don’t need to spend too much time modifying the answer before you give it to them. You can safely reveal a lot more information to players as long as you rationalize it on the basis that, “their characters are smart enough to put 2 and 2 together so I can safely skip to the important takeaways.”

Secondly, background familiarity is way bigger than most DMs imagine. Usually, we force ourselves to rationalize things on the basis of very specific sources of experience in the character’s past. Can you tie this knowledge to their class, race, background, or proficiencies specifically? No? Then they have no way of knowing it. BULLSHIT. Humans know an incredible amount of things that they have no realistic hope of ever tracing back to its source. Have you ever dropped some trivia and been asked, “wow, where did you learn that?” and been at a loss for an answer? People just pick up new information all the time. And people have a vague awareness and understanding of a million things. While specific, detailed knowledge should definitely be validated and rewarded more, we should recognize that people have an amazing ability to get by on very basic knowledge. A lot of people go through their adult lives “faking it until they make it” with passing familiarity of hundreds of topics and it usually does well enough. For one thing, passing familiarity can do the vast majority of the work involved in interpretive ability. It’s called making an inference.

For every knowledge check I make players do, I always have a base level of information to give them no matter how low they roll, because there are some things that are just universally known. You don’t have to be an expert on dragonology to know that dragons are usually characterized as giant flying reptiles that breath fire. In fact, determining what kind of information is and isn’t common knowledge is a really valuable worldbuilding tool that DMs can take advantage of.

I’m not just talking about monster lore and whatnot, though. Even a player’s judgment about the situation is something that they cannot reliably make without the DM’s help. This is a well-recognized obstacle for groups that do theatre-of-the-mind combat: the DM and the PCs frequently end up on a different mental page, start picturing the scenario differently, and the PCs’ ability to make informed decisions becomes impaired because they were imagining the distances or positioning a little off. The DM needs to be transparent about things for this to work.

Whenever a player wants to declare an action they need to first know if it’s even possible, but the person who determines that is the DM. Now yes, there are plenty of circumstances where it would genuinely be impossible for the player’s character to know and they simply have to take a shot in the dark. But frequently, I think the player should be entitled to a truthful answer to that question from the DM because, again, they need the DM to help smooth the diegetic barrier. For them to have an idea about what kinds of feats in combat their character is capable of pulling off, you should recognize that, despite the player’s lack of knowledge, the character should be basically aware of themselves. No one at my table is an expert on military tactics, so it’s actually an unfair disadvantage to impose on the players to try and force them to guess what kind of tactics are viable. No one at my table is an expert at surviving in the harsh wilderness, so they shouldn’t have to guess at it. No one at my table is an experienced pickpocket and even if they were, they cannot physically see all the necessary clues to help inform their approach to a pickpocket attempt. The player is able to ask, “based on the duke’s position sleeping in his chair, do you think I have a realistic chance of being able to pickpocket him or is he pocket totally inaccessible?” and get an answer to that without needing to try it because their character would have that understanding of things. Roleplaying means that there are things your character knows that you don’t. If we put the burden of background knowledge on the player all the time then you are denying them the chance to roleplay.

DMs should get used to saying the sentence, “your character would understand that to be (im)possible based on their knowledge of…” Sometimes this can only be determined by the DM and the player just needs to be told.

This also extends to the framing we use when playing the game. I have heard a couple DMs make the mistake of categorizing “speaking in gaming terminology” as a form of metagaming. I mean, in a technical sense it is. But it does not grant an unfair advantage the way that foreknowledge of the monster’s weakness might. It really just gives players a fair advantage. The format of the game and its mechanics are also serving the purpose of helping to transcribe information across the diegetic barrier. Again, my players don’t really know much about battlefield tactics. They probably don’t know every little split-second consideration that goes into a swordfight, so for them to judge their ability to accurately hit an enemy by saying, “well have a +1 to attack and they have an AC of 18 so I probably can’t damage them” is completely fair. They need to be able to transcribe it through those terms or else they’ll be hopeless. Presumably, the in-fiction characters are well aware of their own abilities, so a monk should understand well enough how many special semi-magic fighting moves he is capable of pulling off, even if he doesn’t himself think of it in terms of discrete “ki points” the way that his player thinks of it. For fuck’s sake, if we disallowed gaming language as unfair metagaming, how the hell could a spellcaster ever make any decision? D&D magic is not a real thing, it only exists in the fiction space. It only can be described in “metagaming terms.” I know this can make the experience feel more “game-y” to use this language frequently, but if that bothers you then just play a mechanically-simpler system. You’ll probably enjoy it, too. I prefer 5th Edition D&D but I’ll gladly admit that it has weaknesses. I frequently prefer the style of play offered by Knave instead where we never even seem to have conversations about metagaming anyway.

I guess this means I should give all the standard disclaimers. This doesn’t apply to all DMs, not everyone has this issue, there are lots of exceptions, blablabla. The exact line between when you should just give information away versus when you should make the players work for it is a very blurry thing, it’s true. And there still can be lots of great gameplay and roleplaying experience derived from, “figuring it out” style challenges, even if the medium as a whole isn’t optimized for that sort of thing. All I’m saying is that I’ve known quite a few DMs who needed to hear this.


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