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  • Writer's pictureFrancois DesRochers

GM Field Guide #18: Meta-Gaming in Rifts



INTRODUCTION


A contentious topic, for some meta-gaming is a serious no-go issue, while others are more lenient in allowing some transgressions. This could be for a variety of reasons that each gaming group could provide compelling arguments for and against. I would contest there are many who are not aware of how pervasive the issue is. Strategy, tactics, game balance, social contract, collective and collaborative storytelling, these are all elements that have influence over the game. How we express this with Player Character decisions is the crux of the issue. It will happen in every single session you play. What we need to discuss is how pervasive you allow it, and how to handle things when it exceeds your level of acceptability.


DEFINING META-GAMING


Definition of Meta-Gaming. Quite frankly there is no consensus on the precise definition. What some people define as clearly an act of meta-gaming, others find within the realm of reasonable; we’ll cover some possible examples. This leads to debate, even among those looking to try and “fix” or address the issues that meta-gaming presents. At its heart though, we’re talking about gameplay beyond the core functionality or core concept of the core game. For this article, I’ll be adopting something that rather fits the following:


“Any action/reaction a Player Character does with knowledge only the Player actually knows.”

Adaptation of the Definition. Most will intuitively understand this definition. The actual debate comes more from differing on how far and wide to interpret this definition. The core of the matter is essentially interpretation of the rules set and how we interact with them. This goes beyond knowing a series of thus far hidden enemies await the party in ambush; it goes as far as how a Player manipulates their decisions based on their current knowledge of the rules and game state, and how it is expressed in their Player Character’s decisions. Well, heck, that’s pretty much the entirety of the TTRPG experience, isn’t it? Yes, and no…..


Meta-Gaming Assertions. The following is a list (nowhere near exhaustive) of things that could be labeled as meta-gaming:

  • Combat Thresholds. Knowing the target number for a Strike roll before you roll, or asking the GM for the Strike roll that landed on the PC to determine whether they Dodge or not.

  • Skill Checks. Player failed a Skill check without obvious results to the failure, yet the characters behave differently. “Because you failed a Detect Ambush roll your PCs are now suddenly worried about security?”

  • Real World Knowledge. A Player uses their personal skill set to drive a PC’s actions. A Player that’s an EMT with a PC benefitting from absolutely no medical training, should not be able to do more than apply pressure to a wound with little actual effect; heck, that bandage may even turn out to be a tourniquet by mistake.

  • Monster Knowledge. Reading up and exploiting knowledge of a particular monster’s strength/weakness/special abilities. “Hey Carl, don’t walk in the middle of that circle of flowers!”

  • Character Information. Knowing a PC or NPC’s alignment, level, or even the O.C.C. without specifically being told. This can come into play when PC versus PC interactions occur. Just how did that Bob the Mercenary Soldier deduce that Sarah was a True Incan Demi-god, instead of a Ley Line Walker or Shifter?

  • All-Seeing Eye. Blindly attacking around a corner at yet unseen targets. “Really, you cast Carpet of Adhesion across that archway, the one you haven’t had any reason to pay attention to?”

  • Blindly Faith. Simply following an NPC through a randomly generated portal.

  • Player Deduced Information. Applying information into the game state without the Player Character having any reason to know the information. “Hey Carl, I have a sneaking suspicion that vault may be booby-trapped!”

  • Campaign Continuity. Simply signing on to a contract for the sake of continuing the adventure. The leads to some discussion about GM’s railroading Players.

  • Absent But All-knowing. PC knows information they had slept through/were absent from. “If Carl was not even awake or at the secret meeting, how can they know what was said?”

  • World Book Knowledge. The party has taken a portal from North America to England and instantly understands about Mrrlyn’s duplicity. “After traversing the portal from Phase World to another planet, you see several soldiers in black armor with skulls on their helmets.” “Well, they must be Coalition soldiers, so we attack!”

  • Campaign Theme. Character creation is manipulated to best advantage them. “I think I’d like Carl to be a Combat cyborg, with silver-plated blades, and a hidden water gun. Oh, we’re heading to Mexico? What a coincidence?”

  • The GM Changes the Encounters. Based on the PC’s discussions and their capabilities, the GM raised the difficulty level of the encounters.

  • Player Character Informs the Character. Sometimes the Players just don’t get it; they have all the clues and navigated to the exact spot they need to be but can’t piece the clues together to reach the climax of the adventure/solve the riddle needed to move forward. In these cases, it may be that a skill check is used for the PC to inform the Player of a key connection they missed.

  • The Monsters Know EXACTLY Who to Attack. The GM formulates a strategy or tactic that is best suited to challenge the party at their weakest in every way possible. “Well of course the magic-resistant D-Bees are charging the Ley Line Walker instead of the Headhunter.”

  • GM Adventure Tailoring. Tricky. The GM needs to tailor the adventure to ensure all characters have a viable inject or plot point to contribute to. There is a tipping point where you are spoon-feeding them, or giving specific enemies that are tailored to/against the PC’s special abilities (e.g. water warlock and suddenly faces vampires, or the monsters stay exactly just outside the range of a Combat Cyborg’s plasma gun/Ley Line Walker’s spell range).

  • GM Encounter Tailoring. For any ‘to be determined’ or random encounters not already set in stone, the GM choses enemy forces specifically to challenge and/or negate the PCs’ special abilities. “So, you don’t have a magic user, and the randomly generated monster you encounter is….. several Maxpary Shamblers!” Note: For those without the original Conversion Book 1, the GM just hosed the party.

  • NPC Hive Mind. Just as the PCs can’t have the collective mind and knowledge about specific incidents, the same must apply to the NPCs. Be prepared to answer how and why certain NPCs would know specific details.


PROBLEMS THAT CAUSE META-GAMING


General. In many ways, the act of meta-gaming is actually a symptom, not necessarily the root problem. You can address the symptoms and try to minimize them, but like taking a Tylenol or Advil, it doesn’t necessarily solve the underlying problem, just masks the pain. This could very well be an adequate solution in the short term, but there are certain problems we should identify as likely root causes:

  • Player Expectation/Communications. This is a bit of a tough one, as it falls squarely on the GM. If they don’t communicate their expectations, this can manifest in Players leveraging meta-gaming. This might not be out of malice, but out of ignorance of expectations from you, the GM. If you don’t set the boundaries, you can’t blame someone for crossing that line. Set any of these boundaries before you start, whether at Session Zero or even before that when you are preparing the campaign itself. Laying the groundwork for limitations on character generation (e.g. all humans, no Coalition, only Rifts RUE classes), limitations / rules for Player-vs-Player interactions, taboo subjects of methods of play, et al. Reinforce and support open dialogue on things throughout game play and after the session is over to gauge any problems before they fester.

  • Lack of Trust. This is expressed between the GM and Players, or Players and each other. Most likely when rolls could tip either to success or failure (e.g. jury-rigging a vehicle to work, but it was a close roll. The GM may not convey it as a discrete pass/fail but sets something up for later). I suggest that GMs lay the groundwork right away that there will be no lying between a GM and Player Characters. A Player may have nagging doubts, but the PC is convinced they got it into working just in the nick of time. This doesn’t necessarily apply to NPC interactions with PCs, but this is an immersion piece. Another example is Perception checks with a questionable pass or fail. While the Player may choose to remain paranoid, the PC needs to act as indicated by the GM.

  • Game Breaking Lies/Secrets. When Players keep secrets from each other, or worse is aired in Player-on-Player meta-gaming, this leads to some bad mojo. Brought on by personality conflicts, one character “suddenly discovering and outing another PC’s secret” can lead to some tense in-character and out-of-character issues. The PC that has been a shape-changing dragon this whole time, or the mercenary that was a CS intelligence agent, or the “evil thief that stole from the paladin” trope are classic examples. This is a point that often leads to complete eradication of game flow and any immersion is blown out of the water. You could deal with this by complete PC transparency, but this limits some of the immersion and narrative surprises the GM could exploit.


HOW TO DEAL WITH META-GAMING


Some Meta-Gaming is Acceptable. Originally titled paragraph “Some Meta-gaming is Good,” I thought that went too far; acceptability is more to the point. We’re talking about waving away certain elements of the gaming dynamic in lieu of reinforcing immersion and game. Ultimately, we suspend the disbelief of these element to allow the role-playing to commence.

  • Ever wonder how and why the PCs are doing a dungeon dive, or chasing a bounty with little backstory or motivation? I mean, we must start the adventure somewhere, and there are only so many inns/bars.

  • How about when the PCs that have picked up enough credits to last them a lifetime, and certainly more than most people could earn in their lives? What’s the motivation to keep adventuring?

  • Why is the PC backstory suddenly the driving element of the plot?

  • Why are encounters only just hard enough to challenge the party, but not enough to kill them?

  • Why did the PC suddenly think to throw water on the vampire?


Call Players Out For Meta-Gaming. Sometimes a tricky element, dependent on personalities at the table. Some people take being called out on meta-gaming as a confrontation. Instead, as the Player to define “How would the Player Character know this?” It both calls out the Player for the ‘transgression’ and places the burden on the Player to justify their actions. Here’s the tricky part, you as the GM may have missed something. Be prepared to allow it if the Player points out something as justifiable – use it, go with it! If they fail to reason their position, you as the GM need to figure out a solution, which may simply mean allowing them to do something else in turn. Ultimately though, if this causes an undue delay and isn’t creating a total imbalance in game play, is it worth it? Situations will dictate.


GM Description Is Key. One of the clearest means of meta-gaming is a Player’s knowledge of the monsters they go up against. Player Characters that have already encountered a certain beast can wave away this issue, but when confronted for the first time? Not likely. In some cases, it would make sense for the PC to have some knowledge, particularly with a successful Lore check (e.g. Demons & Monsters, Magic, Fairie). Without this previous experience or a skill check, it falls on the GM to narrate the scene in a way that does not simply present the name of the beast – show, don’t tell. Describe the beast and do everything in your power to not present the actual name until the PCs (not Players) could justifiably piece the information together. This can come from in-character discussions, which the GM should favor as they work out what they are facing and the best way to deal with it.


Change Things Up. There are so many different monsters a GM can use in Rifts. Many have varying degrees of M.D.C. and special abilities (e.g. dragons, Xiticix drone types, Gigantes), while others can be randomly generated from scratch. One of the things I miss from the original Rifts RPG book is the Quick Roll Monster section, which allowed a GM to spend all of 5 minutes rolling and consolidating the results into a unique and compelling monster not found elsewhere in Rifts library. Even enemy combatants like the Coalition States can be easily switched up by having earlier damage to armor change the threshold for killing them, giving some of them with better bonuses to Strike or Dodge, or perhaps throw in a Juicer or a couple of Dog Boys to change the composition of the squad.


Inform the Players. Spend the 60 seconds in Session Zero or at the beginning of the adventure to inform your Players on the limitations you would like to impose on them. Simply request they restrain themselves in terms of reading the module, forecasting the adventure, bringing in previous Player experience to deal with monsters, and any other issues related to meta-gaming. You’ll likely be surprised how people can self-manage, so long as it is previously indicated. There is a social contract, and Players are as a party to it as well.


Player Character Game Play. If a PC is asking questions that fall within their disposition and makes sense, allow them to learn the information. I’m not a fan of saying “No” as a GM, but if the PC is a laconic grunt, suddenly asking the group’s Ley Line Walker about the super-secret meeting of mages researching a spell from the night before is not going to fly. That said, if the natural flow of discussions hints at it, and the PCs follow up, see where it goes. If the Ley Line Walker is tight-lipped, the Grunt has no reason to be suddenly paranoid.


Refrain From Saying No. A bit of an odd title. What I mean is that as GM, if Players ask about doing ‘X,’ allow them the opportunity to do so, but give them an idea of the consequences. A Juicer leaping across the chasm of two ruined buildings is an entirely different dynamic than a Rogue Scientist looking to do the same. “Sure, Johnny the Juicer made the leap and landed just shy of the edge. You have some seriously nagging doubts on your ability to keep up. It’s six stories high from one end to the next. Do you still want to jump?”


Hide Your Notes. A bit pedantic, but an option, nonetheless. If using a module, refrain from allowing the Players to read it. If a homebrew adventure, keep things secret. Part of the joy of a great adventure is the surprise, the unknown. This includes the rolls for Strike against the PC, the damage taken by the monsters, the bonuses the monsters have when Striking/Dodging.

Subvert the Tropes. When Players encounter monsters, they expect them to come charging with gnashing teeth and slashing claws. What would they do if the monster fled upon contact? What about a CS patrol that comes asking for medical aid? What if that CS patrol had just defended a convoy from ravaging demons? What if the statues in the massive throne room don’t come to life, but simply tilt their heads towards the PCs as they try and sneak by? Perhaps the bounty placed on a target was simply a frame job in retribution for a bad business deal? Maybe the PCs are the ones that now have the bounty placed on their heads. There are myriad ways to keep the PCs on their toes by throwing them a curveball occasionally.


Experience Point Rewards. I am very heavy-handed with Experience Points as a reward for Players who have kept their PC’s role in mind when they chose how to react. By giving discrete Experience Points for the “blissful ignorance” the Player kept with while role-playing through a scenario, you reward and support behaviour that you want to see. This also further reinforces the immersion.


CONCLUSION


If any meta-gaming is a problem, be considerate of the other Players. Some of this may be annoying, sure. But at the expense of game flow and immersion, some meta-gaming likely needs to occur to keep the game going. If any level of meta-gaming is going to cause your campaign to fail, then there are other issues to address. At some level we’ve all done a bit of meta-gaming, whether an active participant or passively allowing. There are certainly elements that Players and GMs alike would be fine with; many readers may look at elements and balk at even defining it as meta-gaming at all. This simply reflects the wider scope of the issue.


GM needs to provide narrative release valves that allow minor transgressions on meta-gaming to occur without breaking game flow and immersion. To put this into perspective, the PC is the one facing off against a Cyclops giant, or a Coalition Spider Skull Walker. In some instances, it’s the PC’s perspective that will be informing the Player, through rule interactions (skill checks and combat rolls) and GM narration to provide the story and visuals the Players will react to. The greater the Player immersion into the story, the less they will concentrate on the technicalities of the game rules and trying to always find the ideal way to maximize their rolls; they will focus more on what their PC would be doing and become a participant in the narrative (role-playing vice roll-playing).


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