Monday, September 10, 2012

The Inverse Metagame

Special note: I did not realize how long and boring this post was until after I typed it. I apologize in advance for this wall of text, but game theory is something I fully enjoy exploring.

I was reading a post from Cobblestone Chaos about meta gaming and got to thinking about it in my own games.

While meta gaming will always happen, we try to avoid it as much as possible. The players and I really enjoy playing things out as they should be - the PCs exploring a world of unknowns with only their skills and wits to save them. I am glad that I can be free to leave the adventure sitting out on the table when I leave the room. If I accidentally blurt out something that I shouldn't, I know they won't use it to their advantage. "What would [character name] do in this situation?" is a question asked more often by the players than by the GM and I wouldn't have it any other way.

There are occasions however, where it's almost impossible for a GM to get away with his nefarious schemes without giving his/her secrets away. These are the occasions where I pull out my own brand of meta gaming. It can't be so simple as a lie - that's regular ammo in the GM arsenal. It needs to be theatrical if possible. I find the greatest meta gaming payoffs occur when the seeds are planted much earlier in the adventure.

Say you have a villain that the players have not met. VillainX is a wizard with a penchant for abusing magic jar. The players first encounter him inhabiting the body of a local mercenary or townsfolk, leading a horde of minions. Before taking any mortal wounds, VillainX leaves the body and escapes. Rather than having the body fall to a lump on the floor, you add a little flavor.

"The soldier's body falls face-first to the floor, writhing in uncontrollable spasms. After a brief moment the seizure passes and he lifts himself unsteadily, his forearms shaking as they support his weight. He blinks a few times before speaking, "Where am I? What happened?"

While this might seem like simple fluff, it hides something much more sinister. The players will immediately realize that something is wrong and with a little interview and research, they will at least determine that he was charmed in one way or another.

Fast forward to the next encounter. VillainX has decided to inhabit one of the players! We don't roll a lot of secret saves at our table. I may ask the players to roll and not give them a reason but I rarely make rolls for them. This creates the unique problem that no matter what, (unless you insist on many red-herring rolls) they know something has happened. I pass a note to the afflicted player. It tells him to act casual, to pull out his weapon and act like it has some magical quality he's never noticed before, telling the other players to come take a look.

Everything goes down as planned except for one player -a new guy who doesn't trust anything- he immediately unsheathes his weapon and attacks his party mate. The jar'd player plays along and acts surprised as the rest of the party subdues the new guy. While they play it out a decent bit, I know the cover is blown. Everyone smells something a bit rotten that they can't justifiably role play around. Something is wrong with their companion and they know it.

Whats a GM to do? Easy, grow the seeds planted earlier in your adventure! Have the afflicted player fall to the ground, writhing and shaking just like the soldier from earlier in the adventure. Pass him a note describing what the experience was like in the magic jar and let the players go about their business.

Unfortunately for them, he was never released from the jar! Think about it. Wizards are smart people, they read giant tomes and cast complex spells, who's to say VillainX wouldn't trick the players into thinking their friend has been released from the spell? Using their previous experience with the soldier against them, VillainX pretended to release the PC from the jar in order to gain the party's trust! What better way to do that than to relinquish control back to the actual player? While the PC may think he's controlling his character, he is really playing as VillanX! Have the PC's make bluff checks or sense motive checks if need be and then WHAM, have the PC attack with the still unsheathed weapon!

GM tricks can be used to great effect to circumvent player knowledge or for any multitude of reasons.

-Have a one-trick pony of a wizard who just loves fireball? Place a room full of low-mid level baddies moving crates and barrels which (unbeknownst to the wizard) are full of oil or gunpowder!

-You could run a mystery-based adventure with tons of very obvious evidence pointing toward the wrong guy because he's being framed! My personal favorite is the werewolf/wizard who uses magic to frame others for his own crimes and then accepts payment for "killing the werewolf" who conveniently turned back to a human upon death.

-The old "double trap" technique. Trap makers, like wizards are smart folks. Players may find a pit trap and jump over it only to land on a different, perhaps much more painful trap.

Just remember to use stuff like this sparingly and only to help balance out the game. Otherwise the players will feel cheated and that's no good for anyone.

Thanks for reading, happy gaming!                 

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