Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today, the wonkery continues as we go deep with meta-game mechanics.
DM: After a couple minutes, you hear the tumblers click and the door lock releases. What do you do next?
Alric the Thief: Hang on guys. We found the stairway to the lower level four rooms back, but I think there’s someone in the next room.
Urg the Barbarian: What makes you say that?
Alric: Well, so far, we’ve gotten enough XP to level in each floor, but we’re about 600 short. So, based on that, the encounter should be roughly…
DM: Seriously? Quit meta-gaming. Do you go through the door or not?
We’ve all seen it before, and some of us have done it. While role-playing games are supposed to be “games of the imagination”, they have rules and patterns, and no matter what you do, you as a player understand these rules even if your character isn’t supposed to know they exist. When you add in character optimization that you as a player do to make your character better according to “the rules”, the cognitive dissonance expands further.
But hold on. A game like D&D may create confusion with constructions like “levels” and “feats”, but in other games, engaging with meta-game mechanics as a player is equally a part of playing the game as getting into the head of your character. If you’re playing Fate, for instance, you as a player are going to have Fate Points, and you know that spending them will affect the story…even if your character has no idea what a Fate point is. While some people greatly enjoy these sorts of mechanics, and some people loathe them, the important thing to understand is that they represent different ways for game systems to help players have fun.
I’m going to lay out a few types of meta-mechanics, which are all different ways that you the player affect the game world as opposed to your character.
“Let the dice fall where they may” is a popular gameplay axiom, especially among old-school gamers and those who prefer more immersive gameplay. When your game design choices are more based on simulation, though, you’re going to enter into some areas where, as realistic as your outcomes may be, they aren’t fun. Enter luck mechanics. Each player has a certain number of chances to reroll, add to a roll, or just generally change the circumstances in order to avoid an ugly result. These mechanics are couched in terms like luck, fate, and karma so that your character’s sudden reversal of fortune is given permission to make sense in the game world. These sorts of mechanics exist all over the gaming world, including Shadowrun, Dark Heresy, Cyberpunk 2020, and GURPS (where it is an optional advantage).
Character advancement is common throughout nearly all role-playing games. but some try to simulate growth through experience. GURPS has a “time-use” sheet where you can track your character’s spare time and what skills they’re working on improving. Burning Wheel bases all advancements off of tracking each individual skill test. While these games often do a decent job of emulating the learning process at some level, systems like this don’t always make advancement compelling or fast-paced. The solution for this comes in the form of more abstract advancement mechanics. While you could argue that a D&D “experience point” is an analogue for a certain amount of real-world experience, no amount of rationalization makes a “level” equivalent to anything…nor is there any logic to the timing of “feats” other than game balance. That’s fine, though! Feats from D&D, talent trees from FFG Star Wars and XP-based ability buying in any number of other systems are all ways to make progression fun, as opposed to realistic.
Meta-currencies are points that players spend to make their characters more awesome or important in that moment. They serve multiple purposes, being a luck mechanic, a game balance tool, and an incentive for role-playing and story-telling. Some games don’t emphasize this latter part (like Savage Worlds, where both PCs and NPCs get Bennies), while others do (like Fate, where earning Fate points comes almost exclusively from accepting complications that make the story more interesting). While luck mechanics are couched in in-character ideas and advancement mechanics are a replacement or simplification of a real concept, meta-currencies have no analogue in-character and are simply there to help the GM and players have an exciting game session.
Characterization is the in-game assignment of status to characters. A common version of this is what’s called “mook” or “mob” rules, mechanics in games that let you label certain NPCs as weak or treat an entire group as one character so you can skip some bookkeeping. Many games have mechanical delineation between PCs and NPCs, while some games go much further: in Savage Worlds, PCs are considered “wild card” characters who roll extra dice for every skill test. These differences are there in service to game balance for the players, rather than anything that actually exists for the characters.
Handing Over the Pen
Both the most extreme meta-mechanic and the one that involves the least rules, handing over the pen is simply the act of the GM letting the players write some of the world or plot for him. This happens to a small extent in many games, including Fate (players can spend Fate points to declare a setting element) and even GURPS (an optional rule allows players to spend character points to declare setting elements), but the biggest example of this is arguably the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system. GMs are encouraged to ask their players questions, both at the beginning of a campaign and all the way through it, and let them decide the elements that are important to them. Beyond that, many moves in PbtA games give players leeway to decide what happens that goes far beyond what their characters are actually controlling.
While for some players meta-game thinking is merely an annoyance that breaks immersion, for many others the meta-game is a game into and of itself. In many games players will lovingly plan out all of their progression, testing out different builds and making long-range plans. In PbtA and Fate games, establishing the world and having a five-way conversation around the table about the sort of story you want to tell is a gaming session just like any other. Desire for and/or tolerance of meta-mechanics in games varies greatly, and is not quite continuous. Some players may abhor the notion of meta-currencies while having artificial advancement mechanics doesn’t bother them at all, as one example. The key, as in many situations, is communication: you’re all playing to have fun, so finding a system that presents a good compromise is important. At the same time, a role-playing game with stronger meta-mechanics doesn’t have less role-playing in it. Think about when your players are being players at the table, and when they’re in the shoes of their characters. While some people find transitioning between the two jarring, others will find that having the two roles more strongly separated will help them appreciate the role of meta-mechanics in the game.
At the end of the day, you’re sitting around a table playing a game, and there will always be something in that game that is meant for the player as opposed to the character. That said, design choices around meta-mechanics can have as strong an impact on the feel of a game as genre does, and should be considered at the same level. When authors write versions of their games for multiple rulesets, it’s often for reasons around meta-mechanics rather than anything else (which explains why the pair of Savage Worlds and Fate, with vastly different approaches to the meta-game, are commonly used together). Knowing this, and knowing your players, it should be easier to figure out what you’re looking for when finding a new or different game to play. Like so many other design elements in role-playing games, different meta-elements are not inherently better or worse than each other, but they are made to cater to a range of preferences. When you understand the preferences of your group, it’s that much easier to find a game that’s fun for everyone.