Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Metagame is the Game?

Just a random thought that's been percolating in my brain recently.  It's no where near developed fully, but I figure I might as well throw the first draft out there.

One reason that different versions of D&D "feel" different is the metagame that goes on behind the actual play.  Different versions seem to encourage different metagame focuses that run parallel to the actual game play.  Here's my initial ideas about what some of the editions encourage for "metagame play"

OD&D/Classic D&D/1E AD&D: Using player ingenuity to make the most of what the random rolls give you at character creation, and what random shit the DM gives you in play.  It's a little beyond simple resource management on a strategic/tactical split.  It's really about coming up with that odd idea that makes an encounter easy (or at least easier).

2E D&D: Making your character so interesting and fleshed out that the DM grants you plot immunity.  This is not knocking the game.  2E focused on the grand plots, and clever ideas and all that are nice, but making the DM think twice about letting you fail that save vs. petrification counts more when the plot is on the line.

3E/Pathfinder:  Optimizing your character build.  When I say optimizing here, it's not necessarily about DPS (to borrow the MMO term), it's about finding the right mix of ability scores, classes, feats and skills to craft the "perfect" character for whatever it is you want to do in the game.

4E:  Optimizing your adventuring party.  4E really plays up the "tactical war game" aspect of D&D.  Making sure you've got not only a competent character, but that your character fits into the overall makeup of the party seems crucial to successful 4E play.  Fail to "play your role" and those big long encounters can become bigger and longer.

Now, like I say, this is just my initial ideas here.  I'm not trying to knock any play style, just thinking in print about what makes the play of each edition different.  If you've got comments, criticisms, or can think of anything I'm being just plain stupid about, feel free to let me know.


  1. I think that's pretty good. Obviously, these are tendencies and not mutual exclusivities (out of the box thinking can count in any of them, I'd guess, and 3E style adventure paths bring a lot of plot, too), but I think you have something here.

  2. DISCLAIMER: The only games I was playing back in the D&D1e games were D&D, Traveller, Star Frontiers, and Boot Hill. There may well have been games out in the 70s or early 80s that were much different.

    I had an argument recently. I won it mainly because I shouted loudest, but I still stand by my thesis. AD&D & AD&D2e didn't have party roles in the way we understand them now. They had classes, which stood in for roles, but with the exception of "heal" and "sneak" everyone was expected to do everything within the limits of their ability scores and the crap they could afford. Obviously, Magic Users and Clerics could cast "spells", but the spells tended to have functions that could be replicated by other stuff, at least until you got to things like Magic Jar.

    I think the notion of a "role" evolved from the idea that certain functional areas could be purchased independent of class, and furthermore that specializing in one (and in turn seeing to it that someone else specialized in another one) made the party more effective. Niche protection, which has been a HORRIBLE problem in games I have run because invariably one or more players want to be a utility knife, evolved from this.

    I was in a 1e-ish game within the last 5 years wherein I felt my niche had been violated, initially making me think my thesis incorrect. But in fact the game, though 1e, allowed for skills, feats, and other wacky stuff far beyond the original 1e rules. One of the other characters was therefore able to wear the best armor and wield the best weapons, while making use of his Alchemy and Engineer skills to make devices and gadgets that, at the level of play we'd reached, were more effective than my character's spells (Magic User). Without the additional rules, he would have been a Gnome Fighter, and the pair of Paladins would have been fine with that.

  3. These are perceptive comments, and I think they help explain part of my frustration with 3E/Pathfinder.

    As both a GM and player, I like the danger of an adventure to be real, and death to be a possibility. I've found that the more time players spend fine-tuning character creation and planning out future levels, the more likely they are to feel cheated if a character dies. Players can easily feel that all the effort has been wasted.

    I eventually learned to state my outlook up front before starting a new campaign as GM. Now I have a group with a play style that matches my GM style.

  4. 2e isn't really like that is it? That's not how we played at all.

  5. @anonymous - not how I played it either, but then myself and the people I played with came from earlier editions and just kept on. Stories I've heard from people that started with 2E (anecdotal evidence, but I'm not writing a publication for a journal here) tend to support it.

    As Trey said, though, any of these meta-game concepts can influence any edition's play. OD&D works best with a balanced party, obsessive character building can and does take place in what I've seen of 4E, and 3E, as pointed out, has plenty of story-line aficionados.

    I just see each as strongest in the editions I listed them to above.

  6. I would of course rephrase in a more positive way what you said about the second edition, but I can see the truth in it. However at the same time, the primacy of characters as main characters in a long story (instead of red shirts in a series of unfortunate events) was how we played the basic edition, the first edition, Rolemaster, Runequest, Pendragon and Warhammer Fantasy. Only in Call of Cthulhu did we revel in a fatalistic atmosphere.
    As for building a party, we always expected someone to heal, someone to defend the wizard, to cast spells, to overcome traps. Of course it took longer to build a capable party in the old games: at first only magical items and extra hit points could strengthen anyone's role (or as you say, over-the-top creative thinking).

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  8. (Edit: I could not edit, so I deleted and reposted.)

    Continuing: I suppose the Fourth Edition arose because there were just enough grognards like me who had always looked for something different in D&D or played it differently (and not just the newer players coming from new kinds of games). The ugly split among players concerning the editions also arose because the two (or more) different styles had never been so clearly set out in print beside each other before.