Is Meta Better?
I imagine metagaming originally occurred the first time someone got a look at Gygax’s or Anderson’s notes. This use of player knowledge was probably called “cheating” from the start. To ensure we are on the same page, let’s use this Wikipedia article to define it. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
Metagaming in role playing.
You’ve all read it, right? It’s pretty detailed and hard to criticize. The article narrows down the definition of “metagaming” to “using setting/adventure knowledge or rules knowledge to your advantage”. The first of these seems to be the most egregious; the other is just a piety. While there are cheaters in the world, that’s what they are: cheaters (not metagamers). Some people obtain their meta knowledge by - god forbid - reading the rules; some learn the campaign’s setting rules by being GMs themselves, still others because they happen to have a good memory even though they may have switched characters.
Can we realistically expect players to forget this information, or to deliberately avoid using it? And is that really fair? For instance: think about the characters’ own knowledge. Realistically speaking, your characters should know so much more than you do about the setting. Do you really think that a peasant living near a bunch of raiding orcs doesn’t know anything about those orcs? Or that your diplomat doesn’t know how to behave when in the presence of the king?
When the “problem” of metagaming was first discussed many years ago, the bottom line we arrived at was “just don’t use OOC (out of character) knowledge,” and it became popular to shame metagamers. We then introduced skill and attribute checks for things like lore, knowledge and experience, but the players most in need of these mechanics would never give up a skill with an increased chance of success for a skill without such a bonus, even if it made more sense to do so.
Given the fact that (a) players will obtain meta knowledge, while (b) characters actually need meta knowledge, designers began to seek ways to walk that line. Accepting the implacable need and desire for metagaming, some games began to encourage player participation in setting creation. For some designers even this wasn’t enough, and now we have games in which everyone is a GM and everyone adds to the setting: the “GM-less” RPGs.
I favor the player participation approach. Before I go on, I have to admit that I like a lot of GM-less games, but they require players who: (a) are accustomed to creating settings, (b) are fast on their feet, and (c) who don’t see “beating the GM” as the point of the game. These games also seem work best when used as one-shots; for metagaming mostly comes into play in extended campaigns.
In the player participation approach, all players help describe and create the setting with the artful assistance of a dedicated GM. My critique of player participation – that egregious metagamers would be the last people to trade a bonus-granting skill for a merely narrative one – could be addressed by adding a house rule: a bonus to a resolution for having a lore skill. For example, the space gunner who took knowledge of space fleet +5 might get a +5 to damaging ships, because they know enemy ships. In addition, players should get free lore skills based on their specialties. This should make the metagamers sit up and take notice.
Another thing to address is the concern that some storyteller’s methods might threaten to take the setting completely out of the GM’s control. To address this, perhaps a player can only add setting information if they make a successful lore check; otherwise the GM decides. A really immersed player might even describe how they know this lore in character: OMG – are we all now playing in character? With players who use their knowledge to enhance the game? Imagine that!