Defining Meta-techniques

“Meta-techniques” gets thrown around gaming discussions often. I have a sneaking suspicion that most people put meta-techniques in the category of “I know it when I see it.” As an explanation of a common set of methods used in larp and freeform games, it’s a little vague.

And that’s no surprise–when I went looking for the definition of “meta-techniques” I found precious little in the written tradition. The Nordic Larp Wiki says it’s a lose set of rules and narrative tools/practices, communication between players and characters or additions to the story that “doesn’t fit into the game’s space or time continuum.” (Sept 5 update: I have since discovered more writing: Petter Karlsson’s definition used in the Larpwriter Summer School or Nathan Hook’s discussion of the definition raised at the Winter gathering.)

There’s something to that definition, but I also find it over-broad, since character sheets and gamemaster instructions would meet the criteria, and I think most people who use the word “meta-technqiues” wouldn’t want to include them.

For me, a useful technical term is powerful, and in order for a term to be powerful it must name a unique and specific phenomenon.

Part of the vagueness of “meta-technique” arises from its heritage. It seems to have come into popular use around the time of the Swedish larp A Nice Evening with the Family (2007), which featured a “meta-hour” for the players during which folks went into a room and played scenes outside the timeline of the larp. Soon, the term made its way across national borders, scene borders, and oceans. With so many people applying the label to different practices, it’s no wonder the term ended up with varying definitions.

I’m not aiming to describe everything that’s ever been dubbed a meta-technique–I think that’s too high a threshold to cross. I do want to boil the term down to its core uses. For this reason, it’s likely that the below discussion–which draws on my experience as a player, designer, organizer, and observer of roleplayers–will exclude some practices. Such is the price of specificity.

The Function of Meta-techniques

To me, meta-techniques all share a common function–they operate as literary devices. A literary device, in my mind, is something used to control the flow of narrative.

Imagine a world in which writers could only write single long scenes. That would be horrific. We’d have to follow Mrs. Dalloway to the bathroom, watch her pay her bills, and maybe even spy on her while sleeping. It’d be boring. But introduce narrative summary–“and then she slept for eight hours and dreamt of her childhood”–and the writer can interrupt the flow of the narrative control time and to bring focus to specific moments in time. Introduce internal monologues, “as she looked at Mr. Dalloway, she noticed the familiar crinkle in his forehead that meant he was going to hit on someone at this party”–and even scenes with no action can become fascinating.

For me, this is what meta-techniques do–bring focus to specific moments of play even when they interrupt the scenic flow. They also transform the game experience from a purely first-person experience to one with some of the aspects of omniscient narration, opening up the internal lives of characters to public scrutiny. During the game experience, they help players operate on a common level that stands above the game narrative as it is experienced by the characters. Meta-techniques add something to the drama that is unattainable if players remain realistically locked within their characters.

Another angle on meta-techniques examines them as a mechanic that provides contextual information. Maybe Mr. Dalloway’s furrowed brow only makes sense if we flash back to a party fifteen years ago and watch him cheating on the Mrs. The flashback is the lens of context that we require in order to enjoy the scene’s surface action.

Ernest Hemingway thought good fiction was like an iceberg–only 1/8 of it was visible on the page, but that small fraction hinted at and evoked a tremendously deep and massive experience. In a roleplaying game, meta-techniques can help evoke the hidden majority of that narrative iceberg.

More importantly, meta-techniques are literary devices that do not merely generate contextual information but communicate it to players. As her co-players, it is dull for us to watch Mrs. Dalloway shop for flowers while looking pensive–in order to provide good play for us, she must tell us what she is thinking. Once that information has been provided, we can, in turn, act on it.

Summary: Meta-techniques operate as literary devices that break the flow of narrative or the constraints of character and often provide contextual information to other participants.

 How Meta-techniques Communicate Information

To me, meta-techniques communicate information subtly. They invite without inviting directly. They evoke or suggest behavior without saying outright.

Here’s what I mean by subtle: we can break the constraints of our characters and talk out of game for ten minutes about how I really want you to talk about children around me because my character has issues with infertility. To me, that’s not a meta-technique, but a meta-discussion–it’s a blunt direct way of shaping the narrative.

Consider, instead a scenario with the meta-technique of monologing. During a dinner party my character stands up and monologues about how watching your children makes her feel, how it’s been so difficult not to be able to have my own, then sits down and returns to the scene. I’ve communicated the same information to you, but I’ve done it less directly, and without demanding of you. Maybe it merely lets you enjoy my facial expressions at dinner better. However, if you are a sensitive co-player, I’ve just suggested an avenue for play to you–I’ve given you the opportunity to make a good scene for me. And it’s up to you to pick up on it.

Summary: Meta-techniques make subtle suggestions for play.

Meta-techniques Are Liminal Interactions

One reason meta-techniques are subtle is that they occur in liminal space. Liminal space is space around a threshold, essentially–it is space between, neither here nor there, and in no-man’s land.

The liminal space where meta-techniques operate is the space between in-game and out of game. When my character monologues, in some sense I am my character–I am following her train of thought, and I am embodying her way of being–and in some sense it is out of game–my character probably does not wander around audibly saying everything on her mind.

By the same token, when I monologue, my co-players are in a liminal space. They are in-game still, frozen on the stage and listening to me, but they are receiving out of game knowledge. We are neither fully in game nor fully out of it.

This liminal boundary might manifest differently depending on the technique. Let’s say I am playing your shadow, portraying your darkest impulses. I might follow you around the play space and manipulate your physicality, moving your arms, or directing your gaze in certain directions. In some sense, we’re in liminal space together–I am modfiying your behavior but I might not be visible to other characters. On the one hand, I am part of your character–I am the darkest version of you–although within the fiction of the game, I might also be a persona non-grata since I can only suggest actions to you, and while you, as the “real” version of our character will make the ultimate choices about what happens.

Summary: Meta-techniques create liminal space.

Meta-techniques and Dramatic Irony

This might not belong in the definition, I think, but it’s too interesting not to mention. American designer Emily Care Boss has noticed that meta-techniques often produce specific literary effects, particularly dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony is what happens when the audience knows more than the characters. For example, the audience knows that Juliet is only sleeping, not really dead, but Romeo does not–this creates horror and dread in the spectators that informs how they experience Romeo’s suicide. Dramatic irony adds an extra layer to the narrative.

In roleplaying games, there isn’t a separate audience, rather, each players is the audience for themselves and for their scene partners. Still, meta-techniques can add a complex layer of emotion to the proceedings. If the game includes a date between Bill and Susie, and Susie monologues about Bill’s terrible breath, it can be quite funny to watch her hit on him back in scene, with a fake smile plastered on her face.

My Definition

A meta-technique is a specific type of mechanic or technique used in freeform roleplaying games and larps. Meta-techniques let players communicate with one another about their characters within a liminal space that is neither fully in game nor out of game. When used skillfully, meta-techniques let players suggest playable scene hooks to others, and add an enjoyable layer of dramatic irony to the proceedings.

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10 thoughts on “Defining Meta-techniques

  1. Trying to define meta-techniques was a bit debate at the larpwriter winter retreat this year.
    Trying to pick this apart and test the borders of this definition:
    “A meta-technique is a specific type of mechanic or technique used in freeform roleplaying games and larps. Meta-techniques let players communicate with one another about their characters within a liminal space that is neither fully in game nor out of game”

    – is a damage call in a boffer larp a meta-technique? it is one player communicating how much damage they are inflicting on another character?

    – would a hand sign (e.g. obfuscate in a MET vampire larp) be a meta-technique?

    – does the word ‘players’ in this include non-playing organisers? for example, an organiser controlling the coloured lights to affect the mood in a black box larp?

    – would a safe word be a meta-technique? It feels like it should be, but it breaks the ‘about the characters’ clause in this definition. The same applies to scene cuts generally in a scene-based larp.

    – would ‘green light indicates presence of radiation’ (from Celestra) be a meta-technique (it’s communication, but not from a player)?

    • Nathan, here are my knee-jerk reactions:

      I don’t think damage calls or hand-signs are meta-techniques–I think they’re simple mechanics and I don’t think they rise to the bar of narrative or subtlety demanded by meta-technique. I think they are too directly and immediately representative to be meta-techniques–they don’t operate like literary devices or methods, but more like vocabulary words or technical terms assigned specific meaning in the text of the game.

      I don’t think safe words are meta-techniques. They are ways to step fully in or out of game–I think they are more like rules. Maybe there is an argument for a “brake” word being a meta-technique–does it meet the subtlety bar? but “cut” words simply stop the game and they miss the subtlety. I don’t think scene cuts are meta-techniques.

      I’m not familiar enough with the Celestra mechanics to comment on them.

      As for whether organizers count as players for the purposes of the definition: not sure one way or the other. On one hand, many freeform games demand very active facilitators who are responsible for deploying the meta-techniques. But I think a skillful organizer deploys them primarily for the purposes of the players and not for the purposes of self. So it’s an edge case. I don’t think changing the mood with lighting in a blackbox larp is a metatechnique unless it signals the entry to a liminal space in which the characters can express the unexpressible.

  2. That notion of liminal space between in-game and out-of-game is really useful! Thanks a lot.

    Gears are turning in my head already.

  3. Nathan, your comment started some wheels turning too.

    I think one of the differences between stuff like boffer hits and monologuing is the thickness of the liminality.

    If we imagine the boundary between in-game and out-of-game as a permeable membrane, rules and meta-techniques would be the pores. I think that the difference between something like a rule or a mechanic and a meta-technique has to do with how intentionally you shoot for that liminal space.

    For me, the intention of meta-techniques is to reside in that liminal space for a while, and to relish it for its own sake. The point of a mechanic like boffer fighting, in contrast, is to pass back and forth over that boundary as rapidly as possible.

    So both techniques cross into that liminal space, but for meta-techniques it’s the aim, and for stuff like boffer rules or hand signs, the point is not in the doing but rather in the effect.

  4. Glad the comment provoked some thoughts.

    Perhaps it would help if you listed a few examples of different meta-techniques? What is a meta-technique, besides monologuing? (and mention other examples of things which some people have been calling meta-techniques casually, but really aren’t)

    A seperate point – one difference between screen and stage acting is stage acting lacks the close-ups, so actors play up their emotional response to make them more visible to the audience. Rather than speaking a monologue to express their character’s feelings, one alternative is play up emotional responses like a stage actor to convey the character’s feelings to other players.

    • So here are some candidates for meta-techniques:

      monologuing (which can be initiated in various ways)
      black boxing or meta-room stuff
      shadow play
      bird-in-ear (if you count the organizer as a player)
      Certain sorts of character non-monogamy
      symbolic instances of ars amandi (maybe)
      certain sorts of flashbacks (maybe)
      certain sorts of symbolic signaling (like, for instance, the way I understand feathers were used in Just a Little Lovin’. Maybe)

  5. What does ‘character non-monogamy’ mean in this context? People borrowing each others’ characters?

    • Yes, it means having more than one player portray a character. Sometimes character non-monogamy is a tag-team sort of thing in which I’m on screen and then you tap me and then you’re on screen. I think that is maybe more like a rule use, since one is crossing the boundary rapidly and completely.

      But then there’s stuff where I’m playing one aspect of a character and you are playing the other, and we might be in scenes together. That feels more meta-technique-y to me.

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