Gaming the Meta

A partial view of the Mandelbrot set generated by Wolfgang Beyer. Cropped version of the original used here under CC BY-SA 3.0.

RPGs don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re always situated in some sort of large-scale cultural context. Sometimes, they implicitly accept their culture’s values (OD&D as a colonialist fantasy, for example). Other games actively antagonize those values (such as Liam Liwanag Burke’s Dog Eat Dog and Invincible Sword Princess by Kazumi Chin, which subvert and resist colonialist and imperialist attitudes).

But games and gamers also have their own (sub)cultures. Sharing snacks and drinks, perpetuating in-jokes, and even the physical act of sitting down at a table are components of the immediate, recognizable culture of tabletop gaming.

TTRPG culture extends beyond the table, though. It exists on social media, on distribution platforms, on blogs, and in every other place that gamers go to engage each other on the topic of games.

From discussion of in-game events at the table to critiques and theorizing of games in a more abstract sense, these concerns are commonly labeled “metagame” concerns: things that directly relate to but exist outside the play experience. (This isn’t actually what “meta” means—“paragame” would be a more appropriate term—but that’s a rant for another time.)

On occasion, games will adopt a metagame concern as the central focus or dynamic of play. This post looks at three games doing exactly that: momatoes’s Equus Hero, Heroic Archivist by Richard Kelly, and MΣTΔ from Tragos Games.

Equus Hero

There’s a bit of genealogy behind Equus Hero, and it begins with Exquisite Corpse. This “game” (more of a playful diversion, really) is similar to Mad Libs: players contribute words that are assembled into an absurd, entertaining sentence.

momatoes’s Exquisite Hero adopts this approach for character creation. Each player takes a slip of paper containing either the head and torso, abdomen, or legs, answers specific questions and defines particular traits, and at the end, they’ve assembled a character with genuine depth and motivation.

Equus Hero takes this process and returns it to the realm of verbal absurdity while refocusing it on concerns adjacent to games themselves. Players combine 5 elements (a framing sentence, a topic, two elements, and a thesis) into statements that parody the cultural discourse (💿🐴) surrounding TTRPGs (particularly on social media).

In itself, Equus Hero isn’t so much a game as it is a tactile, combinatorial statement-making machine akin to the Postmodernism Generator. Both emphasize the obtuse, contorted, and often ridiculous claims that emerge from using specialized language and ideas in service to Very Strong Opinions. But overall, Equus Hero is a clever and entertaining concept that’s good for a few laughs and, if you’re lucky, starting a flame war on Bird App.

Heroic Archivist

Heroic Archivist © 2021 Richard Kelly. Pamphlet layout and design by Raul Fontoura.

Even without knowing its pre-history, anyone vaguely acquainted with the 💿🐴 can still appreciate Equus Hero and its humor. In contrast, Richard Kelly’s Heroic Archivist plants itself much more fully in historical foundations and, although shot through with humor, sets its sights on a very serious cultural mission.

As agents of the Shin Mecha Library of Alexandria II, players are tasked with the retrieval and curation of written documents from across recorded history. But despite being nestled away in a pocket dimension outside time and space, the library is still beset by Roman legionnaires who want to burn the whole thing to the ground … just ’cuz.

That’s where you come in. Players earn points by reading, rating, and reviewing indie RPGs. They can use these points to buy levels and powerups and then use those to combat the pesky legionnaires, who get stronger with each passing week. The more games the player reads, the more points they have to spend, and the better they’re able to match up against their nemeses.

Most games’ play takes place in a virtual, imaginary space, and they are typically autotelic: their goals lie within that magic circle of play, and the satisfaction of playing is an end in itself. But Heroic Archivist’s play takes place primarily in real-world sites like itch.io and DTRPG, and it is exotelic: it incorporates a concrete, external reward for attaining 500 points.

That prize is a personal pan pizza replete with whatever toppings (within reason) the player desires.

This is self-evidently an affectionate allusion to Book It, a literacy program operated by Pizza Hut that rewards reading with free pizza. (People of my generation remember it fondly even if the pizza wasn’t very good.) But in Heroic Archivist, your pizza also (rather cheekily) comes with a free coupon for interdimensional library repairs, which will shut out the legionnaires once and for all.

The game’s frame narrative and antagonists center on the motif of censorship, albeit casual and disinterested rather than maliciously oppressive. Consequently, the play dynamic transforms players into lone guerillas waging war against the de facto loss of indie titles amidst the inexorable, indifferent march of time.

Heroic Archivist’s argument is implicit: it is unconditionally incumbent upon us, the readers and the players, to lift up obscure indie creators and help save their games from the towering trash fire that is modern history. Jerome McGann, commenting on literary scholarship in Are the Humanities Inconsequent?, said it best:

“We handle these antiquities with care—we take them to our heavens—not because of their virtues but because they are our responsibility. It doesn’t matter whether or not we think them deserving of this care or who takes an interest in them or why. … We owe them all our attention in any case.”

MΣTΔ

In terms of RPGs, most people have either never played a game or they’ve played many. There’s a band between comprised of those who’ve just entered the hobby (possibly for the first and last time). And even if they only ever use one single system, those who pursue RPGs usually end up playing more than one game using that system.

But plenty of gamers have sampled many different titles, each with their own mechanical and fictive flavors. Different games let us explore different worlds and settings in different ways. No two will ever be the same.

MΣTΔ © 2021 Tragos Games

This experience of crossing over and amongst different games is the driving concept of MΣTΔ from Tragos Games. Players assume the roles of metas, ephemeral entities defined only by a name and alignment, and those metas incarnate as different people on different worlds.

In other words, the humans play metas, who are first-order player characters representing fictional players. The metas play incarnations, who are second-order player characters embodying player characters as we normally interpret them.

Thus, the incarnations—not the metas—have abilities, gain experience, and level up in their respective classes. And these classes are where MΣTΔ leverages its existential hierarchy by tangling it and wrapping back around to the level of human experience.

Each class represents a different way of playing RPGs. The seer is the game master, the slayer is the combat- and loot-oriented gamer, the storyteller is the narrative- and character-focused roleplayer, and the strategist is the champion of the formal system and its rules.

As incarnations level up, they gain feats that reflect their particular play style. One of the seer’s abilities allows them to import tables from other games. The slayer can enhance the value of loot. The storyteller can adopt personas, which are alternate identities that grant the meta greater agency in the world. The strategist can invert and add caveats to MΣTΔ’s rules.

These are just a handful of examples; each class’s feat list is rife with clever incorporations of player styles and desires. MΣTΔ also includes NPC classes that represent the negative, antagonistic side of these play styles: the railroading GM, the murderhobo, the spotlight hog, and the rules lawyer.

MΣTΔ can be played with a game master—not a seer character, but a metamaster who runs the game. But it also allows players to break the standard RPG asymmetry by playing as a group without a single, dedicated gamemaster. Instead, players fill GM roles based on their incarnations’ classes. The seer may take responsibility for worldbuilding and plot, the storyteller for in-game cultures and NPCs, the slayer for combat, and the strategist for interpreting and arbitrating the rules.

MΣTΔ also includes a handy oracle and a sprawling roster of tables to facilitate play. This approach doesn’t place full creative weight on spur-of-the-moment imagination, and it doesn’t give players arbitrary power either; it provides a solid framework to inspire and structure creative choices. (Notably, MΣTΔ also includes copious support documents for tracking metas, incarnations, personas, worlds, and emendations to the rules.)

Not only does this create a unique, formalized, collective worldbuilding dynamic, but it’s also a good way to help players step out of their comfort zones—for example, always playing a slayer-type or playing a character instead of stepping into a game-mastering role. By emulating the experience of moving amongst games and characters, MΣTΔ encourages players to move amongst styles and goals, further broadening their gaming horizons.

Meta-cine

Equus Hero focuses on the general discourse surrounding TTRPGs. Heroic Archivist addresses games’ circulation and consumption. And MΣTΔ takes the final step back toward games by structuring the play experience according to our experience of play across multiple games and characters.

Games like these hold up a mirror and show the players something new about the world by way of themselves. The motivation for doing so may be serious or it may be satirical, but it serves to make us more aware of ourselves, our actions, and our attitudes toward games in ways that may have otherwise eluded our notice.


Are there other games out there that deal with metagame topics? Of course there are—I just haven’t found them yet. Tell me about your favorites so I can do a follow-up post!

The header image is a partial view of the Mandelbrot set generated by Wolfgang Beyer. It is a cropped version of the original and is used here under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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