Something strange happened in my Dungeons and Dragons 5th adventure last weekend. Something that has been so incredibly rare I can only think of one other time when it has almost happened and that was over 20 years ago. It was incredible, strange, got my on the verge of spitting mad - and all really was a huge misunderstanding from not metagaming. Which has given me a revelation: Metagaming Is A Wonderful Thing.
Okay, this one you really had to be there to appreciate, so I need to set the scene a little. Bear with me, this will help my point make more sense. I have a small group of friends that I play with. As with all long term gamers we all have our stereotypes (or maybe typecasts?). Aaron is the theif, and usually ends up the de facto party leader weather he wants to or not. Sara is the pinch-hitter, she tends to make whatever character role no one else has filled. Thus, she's been a cleric more times than any of us. Brandon is our archer. And Matt is the wizard/sorcerer/magus, usually with a cart full of crafting supplies. I tend to GM the most, even when we were doing the rotating GM thing (which I honestly like more than being a player). To our merry band we have added three newer players, each with less role-playing experience. Angela, Rose and Matt's wife Karlli are all somewhat new to gaming, but have played some Pathfinder, were in our 13th Age, and tried D&D 5th ed (except Karlli who was swamped with schoolwork that day, hopefully she'll be ble to join us later). We've all played together, from a few times to dozens of times, and we all know each other to varying degrees in real life - and we're all friends.
Which made this so strange. When we started our 5th edition game, I gave the party time to introduce themselves. Half the group had been making characters before we started playing, and we had not been able to meet together to go over stuff beforehand. So during the uneventful initial carrage ride I let everybody get to know each other. Which everybody did - except for Matt. He just said that his abilities were not important, and he actually seemed to walk off during that section (Matt was talking to us over ooVoo from another state). It was very unexpected, and nobody seemed to understand what was going on. We all knew he was actually a Sorcerer though, we had talked to him a little before the adventure began. Still, we didn't press, we just got the adventure started. During the adventure, Matt sent me some text messages, telling me about how he was casting spells without letting the party know, and some other stuff. I thought it was a little weird.
Now, I have to step back a little again. I had never ran a 5th ed game before, so I was a little nervous. I had been in the middle of house ruling 13th Age to the point of making a new game, so I was glad to have a pre-packaged adventure for 5th that I didn't have to prep; but I also did not know it super-well since I had been distracted. And that day, I had not slept well at all, actually for about a week before I'd been having trouble sleeping. So I was not on top of my game that day. And, like a bad GM, I let things spiral out of control instead of dealing with them. Because at one point I got a text from Matt saying that he was going to go off and search for any loot away from the rest of the party - and I saw red.
My take on RPGs is that they are team sports. I do not award individual XP, it all goes into the group pot along with all the gold. I expect my players to act like a team. I am not out to get my players, I am not their enemy as GM, I am trying to give them an interesting box to play in (little sandy, but with some rail cars here and there). The only "adversarial" game I have ever run was the original West End Game's Paranoia. While players were at each other's throats, it was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek send up of the RPG genera and players were given 6 clones in the expectation that they would all likely be dead before the end of the adventure. And we only played it in junior high for a couple of times (best adventures ever to read though, laugh out loud funny stuff). So I am focused on the players acting as a team. And because of that, with only one exception, we have never had a player break off to do his own thing or be the sterotypical "backstab the party" sneaky bastard (actually, that exception was even in Aaron's game, I just got caught in the middle of it).
So when Matt sent that text my first assumption was that he was going for that sort of 'betray the party' character, and I was pissed. Like, hopping, frothing at the mouth mad. I stopped the adventure, and started a diatribe that quickly escalated out of control.
I was also completely wrong. And so were my players. I did not handle that situation well, and I need to apologize to Matt about it, because I only did one right thing in the whole situation - I stopped the adventure. I went "out of character" and started what many would consider "metagaming."
Metagaming tends to get a bad rap. If you are not "playing in character" then you are doing something wrong is the usual assumption. And I can kind of understand that. I like associated mechanics (to borrow The Alexandrian's phrase) that keep the player in the character's headspace. I like to keep my players engaged with the adventure. But metagaming is not bad, and it is not wrong. Actually a couple of great articles by The Angry GM (which I'll link below) really got me thinking about it in a clearer light. And metagaming is great because it is the one thing that can clear up what I did wrong:
I made an assumption about my player.
I assumed that Matt was being an antisocial pain. I assumed that he wanted to find some loot for himslef and not share it with the party. I made a lot of assumptions and I didn't do the one thing I should have in the very beginning:
I didn't ask him.
Now, we all share some of this. Even the players knew Matt was acting oddly, not the guy we had gamed with plenty of times before. We knew something was up. But none of us just steeped out of the game and asked him directly, "hey man, what's going on?"
Instead, it took my blowup and nearly ejecting him from my game to actually stop and talk about why he was being the way he was. And when we did, it made perfect sense.
If you don't know 5th edition, it adds some role-playing stuff not in previous editions of D&D. Namely, you get a Background, what you did before adventuring (and maybe still), and that comes with an Ideal, Flaw and Bond. Your Ideal is what you value, your Flaw what tends to get you in trouble, and your Bond something or someone in the world that matters to you. It adds some depth to your character beyond your abilities to kill monsters effectively.
Thing was, Matt was just playing his character. He had taken the Background of being an Urchin, and his Ideal/Flaw/Bond were all about how he had been hurt before and had trouble trusting anyone else. So he hid his actions and his powers - not to backstab the party, but because Matt is an Actor at heart, and he was acting his character to the hilt.
And I'm okay with that.
I see an RPG as being two parts. One is acting: speaking and making decisions in character. The other is the game: having an adventure to discover and obstacles to overcome. Monsters to kill, things to talk to. I'm okay with acting, as long as it doesn't get in the way of playing the game. As long as we keep moving and overcoming the obstacles, unfolding the adventure, I don't care how much or little acting a player wants to do. And metagaming is a part of stepping in-between the two. Of asking for clarification, of seeing the things that can't be properly replicated at the table. Of setting up future stories and directing the game towards things the players find interesting. Metagaming, talking about the game from outside the characters, is a great and wonderful thing because it can eliminate confusion. It makes sure that everyone is on the same page, and that each player and the GM are all helping to create something specific and engaging to all involved.
Funny thing is, for as much as I was mad at Matt at the time (and chagrined now), I actually like the kind of character that he created. One of my favorite characters in fiction is Vin, from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn fantasy series. Vin is just like Matt's character, she was a street urchin, betrayed by her own brother and expecting to be hurt or betrayed by everyone. Her story of growing and becoming a part of a team, and eventually a sort of savior of the world, is very compelling. Also, in our own group Rose made a character with a very similar background, an urchin Half-Orc who grew to become a Cleric. So knowing what Matt's character is, we can actually make a lot of great stories out of him discovering a better way to live, learning to trust his fellow adventurers, and possibly even make a great bond between Matt's and Rose's characters. There is some great material to work with.
Which we would have never realized unless we did the "metagaming" thing and actually talked about who everybody was. So while I'm not proud of my own behavior, I think something very useful came out of the whole sticky situation. A reminder of what we all knew, just managed to overlook.
So my advise to you, from hard experience, is: don't be afraid of metagaming. Step out and make sure that everybody is one the same page, then go back into inhabiting your character's head. It's not a bad thing - it's vital to having an enjoyable experience for everyone.
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And since so many others tend to say things better than I can, here are a few links to The Angry GM about this very topic that I think are highly worth reading and discussing with your group-
Angry Rants: Stupid Decisions (and Metagaming)
Angry Rants: Stop Playing Against Stereotypes!
Angry Rants: Secrets (Part 1)
and find parts 2 and however-many-else because Angry is always worth reading :)