30 May 2013

How To Counter Meta-Gaming

Defined, meta-gaming is a character using the knowledge that a player has. When a player knows that a baatezu is immune to poison when his character has never encountered one nor studied one before, that's not meta-gaming. When that same character tells the party not to use poison on it, that's meta-gaming. All players will have knowledge their characters don't, it's only when that knowledge is used and applied to the game that it becomes meta-gaming.

The act is generally frowned upon, since it ruins the immersion of the game, and finding players who can refrain from doing it is difficult. Not that they are being malicious, it's just hard to do. A player themselves is the first line of defense against meta-gaming. I have one player who is very adamant about not doing it, and will go to lengths to not only not look up information in the books his character wouldn't know, but also make decisions he knows are ill-advised in order to not break immersion. These players are gold and should be cherished, but not held to as a standard. Not everyone can match that level of commitment. Not to mention intentionally walking into danger can be scary when the DM is as lethal as I am.

When the players are unable to avoid meta-gaming, the DM can step in to do his part. Be careful assuming that this is a problem that always needs fixing however; some games do just fine with it, and the occasional slip up won't ruin a game. But if your players are doing it all the time, knowingly or not, the DM can make moves of his own to stop it. Allow me to profer some suggestions:

Call It Out: Simply let the players know that it's happening and to make attempts to curtail it. Usually this is enough to stop it, though most players I've noticed will come up with some convoluted reason why their character knows that trolls are weak against fire. This can be fixed by agreeing with the players what is considered common knowledge and what isn't. If trolls are a common nuisance that is dealt with regularly by simple folk, sure. If there's only one troll in a thousand miles, maybe not.

Subvert The Trope: Everyone knows the mysterious stranger that comes to them in the tavern is totally going to betray them. That ring that has a mind of its own is super evil. The town full of innocent farm folk is just waiting for the moment to prove they're a crazy cult. Everyone knows these tropes, and can see them a mile away. What I like to do is make a few short mini-adventures show-casing exactly what they expect. Yes, the ring is evil. Yes, the mysterious stranger betrays them. This makes the players feel comfortable and even a little smug in their predictions. Not only that, but playing into established tropes can be really fun at times. It can even get players who don't normally role play to join in the fun, fulfilling the trope's hero roles that are expected of them. It's when players abuse this series of expectations that I will subvert what is expected. Suddenly the bad guy won't be the dark figure in the robe but the nice old lady who fed them soup when they were beaten and tired. It will be their trusted friends. The suspicious town will only be suspicious because they were planning a birthday surprise for the mayor, but they will only discover this after they've killed everyone in town. Changing what is expected can teach players that your world is not a cliché, and that meta-gaming will not be allowed.

Lie: How's your poker face? This is my preferred method to deal with the problem, and it counter-acts the most prevalent version of meta-gaming; reading the DMs face. Besides what the players already know, they actually get most of their cues from the game from you. This is perfectly understandable since their only window into the world is what you tell them. If you don't tell them something exists, it doesn't exist. Watch your players' faces the next time you are running a game. You may notice they look at you quite a bit, obviously for the aforementioned reason, but also for another. They're reading you for clues. Do you have any tells? Things you only do in certain situations? It may behoove you to study yourself sometime and see if you're the biggest problem. Since realizing this, I've become quite good at facially lying to my players. As DM I have to be truthful in my words, at least when regarding what the players perceive, but I will never let my face betray what is really going on. Even something as simple as a smile may tip off the players that a trap lies hidden on this door.

Not only can a good poker face keep meta-gaming at bay, it is all but required to convincingly play lying NPCs. If the players think the DM is lying, they will think the NPC is lying. This is also part of why I don't have every NPC know everything they ask. Why would a cobbler know anything about the city guard's schedule? Why would he care? So when the players talk to a knowledgable character, they are glad to find someone who knows about their inquiry, not thinking that everything he says could be a lie. If they display other trustworthy habits and mannerisms, all the better to make them seem reliable. Not every character lies, obviously, but some may. I have a player who intentionally says things like "I think he's lying" to his fellow players, then darts a look at me to see my reaction. He's reading me for a tell, to see if I'll give away whether he's lying or not. A shift in my gaze, a nervous roll of the dice. I give him nothing. In those moments my face is a wall. It has gotten me the reputation with that group of having a very good poker face. But it doesn't stop them from still trying. They are attempting to meta-game.

After I realized what they were doing, that's when I started to intentionally change my reaction when I wanted to instill doubt in them, whether the NPC was lying or not. Characters they knew and trusted would act normally, but I would act differently, putting on a show, acting, to make them think maybe they were lying. I was doing my duties as DM, but turning the tables against their meta-gaming. They cannot trust what they read from me to affect their knowledge of the game, and that is as it should be. DMs should remember that not only are they acting to portray NPC characters, but they are also acting for their players. There are two games going on at every RPG table, and a good DM is adept at both.

I hope I've helped you or given you some ideas on how to curtail meta-gaming at your table. I'd love to hear how other gamers managed to stop it as well, so feel free to comment below if you have something to add to the discussion. Thanks for reading!

12 May 2013

Ending A Campaign

Ending a campaign is a difficult process. One of my games is coming to a close within a month or so, and I'm actually extremely nervous. This current campaign is the final one of three that have taken three years to come to fruition, and now that the end is nigh, I have to worry about making it truly epic and worth the investment my players have put into it.

Part of the trepidation comes from the inevitability of The Big Reveal, in which a secret that I've hidden clues to throughout the campaign is unleashed, leaving the players hopefully with minds blown. Pretty much the entire game has been leading to this moment from level one all the way to level twenty. How does one reveal a game changing secret without making the players feel betrayed or cheated, and how does one end a campaign three years in the making?

My first campaign ended on a cliffhanger, with the players having unwittingly revived an evil god from the dead, leading to the death of the paladin's god and the players being banished to a realm of eternal war and strife. It was dramatic, intense, epic, and suitably final if the players didn't wish to continue. The second campaign that grew from the first ended almost peacefully, though they did change the very face of Sigil and had an encounter with the Lady of Pain. It was more a self-contained campaign story that held elements of the overarcing plot but the ending didn't expand on it much. I was a tad disappointed in that ending. Now on the third and final campaign of the story, I find myself drawn to the same elements that ended the first one. Overblown set pieces seem to really make good endings, so I hope to include some in mine.

I'm a firm believer in cliffhangers, and I am going to incorporate one into this one, despite it being the end of a three part series. The characters will move on and get their happy endings, but of course, a darker, more powerful enemy lies in the shadows, waiting for the world to lower its guard once again. I don't know if we will ever return to this campaign world, but I want to be able to go somewhere with the plot in case we do. An important part of serial story-telling, which tabletop gaming most definitely is, is not trapping oneself in a corner where the only way out is through ham-fisted deus ex machina mechanics (coughcoughCrisisOnInfiniteEarthscoughcough). Leaving a story element unfinished leaves that strand to be pulled later. Even if it's years later.

As for The Big Reveal, this is what's been giving me an ulcer since it was first conceived years ago. Keeping a secret from the players can be tricky. If you spring it on them with no clues they feel cheated and abused. As DM you are their only window into the world, you control all information, and by not sharing the proper information, one runs the risk of alienating their players. On the other hand, showing too many clues can betray the secret too soon, and the players may come to the realization before the plan can reach its natural epic conclusion. This occurrence is not as big a deal in my mind, because if they do figure it out, it's up to the DM to reward that ingenuity. Besides, enemies can always have contingency plans, or perhaps something even more epic will happen as a result of a ruined plan.

In my case, I have dropped several subtle clues here and there throughout the game, even going so far as to completely misdirect the players in the wrong direction using clues. I'll cover more on those sort of techniques in my entry on using player meta gaming against them. In the end, I plan on referencing all the clues to show the players this did not come out of nowhere. One proven method for my group is the passage of time. The longer apart my clues are, the harder they are to piece together. In a three year game, clues can be months apart. Any questions they ask about past events that they may not remember are immediately answered however. It's not my job to hinder the players in matters that their much more adept characters would know.

In the end, I think I'll probably make the final set piece into a grand encounter against their nemesis who is attempting to rise to godhood mid-fight. He will advance to different levels of deity using the Deities & Demigods rules, eventually advancing into an enemy so mind-bogglingly powerful they will truly despair and feel weak in comparison. The party had used imprison against a llinorm earlier in the adventure, well what if the fight took them to the center of the earth where it was imprisoned in stasis, and the nemesis attempts to bring it back to attack them? What if they rode the llinorm through the core of the planet? What if he teleported the whole party across all the realms of reality? Making them suffer each plane's particular side effects? There's really no reason to hold back now, it's the end of the game!

I'll be writing more regularly now that I'm finished with my short hiatus. Thanks for bearing with me. As for what happens with my campaign I'll let you know in a few weeks when it concludes as epically as I hope. In the mean time, please share with me some awesome campaign endings of your own, or even final encounters that went out in the most grandiose of ways. I love hearing about them. Maybe they'll give me an idea or two for my own game. Thanks for reading!

Relevant Links
Divine Ranks and Powers
Divine Abilities and Feats
B is for Boss
The End is Nigh