To a large extent, I’m convinced by the Angry GM’s argument about metagaming: that, for the most part, it’s a non-issue that gamers shouldn’t get so worked up about.

He specifies two types of tabletop metagaming that I think of as genre knowledge and spectator knowledge. The former is stuff you know because you’ve read the rules or played the game before (or are just genre-savvy to this type of story), but your character hasn’t justified knowing. The latter is stuff you observed by spectating at the table, but your character wasn’t actually there when it happened.

Genre knowledge is pretty easy to solve. You can assume something patently obvious like standard monster weaknesses is common enough knowledge in the world for players to exploit: if these monsters exist in the world, folk tales will have prepared virtually everyone for how to deal with them, even if they’ve never had to fight them. Or, you can do the work to change things up enough that things work differently (but consistently) in your world. As long as the change-up is actually something that makes sense in world (and, ideally, something they could have figured out by paying more attention to the lore you were dropping) and not something you changed on the fly to avoid standard player knowledge, your players are likely to be pretty accepting.

Spectator knowledge is harder to universally handle. As Angry points out, oftentimes the problem is that someone is violating the social contract that other people at the table thought they were signing up for. If the rest of the party was spectating out of game while the rogue was sneaking off to donate her cut of the loot to orphans, but not telling her friends to maintain her hard-as-nails reputation, it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s when the rogue is stealing from the party that it becomes a problem.

But even when it’s not just one of the players being a jerk (almost always the rogue), this kind of thing tends to happen because GMs love their semi-PvP secrets. Being tempted by evil is a relevant genre trope, after all, and it’s hard to really build it up if the rest of the target’s friends are like, “Yo, dude, don’t betray us,” from the start. Part of the issue might be solved by just getting buy-in up front that this is a semi-PvP game, where betrayals might happen, and generating a reason for the party to stay together even if they’re suspicious of one another. Another solution is to just fully embrace the cloak-and-dagger nature of it and pass notes, converse between games, or pull one player out of the room for a discussion. When it’s totally information from the GM that the other players shouldn’t know, it’s generally easier to actually prevent players or characters from learning it rather than letting them spectate and hoping they firewall the knowledge.

Because nobody is a good enough player to totally firewall out-of-game knowledge.

I’ve been thinking about this because, as big a problem as it can be in certain tabletop games, it’s a much bigger problem in LARPs. Even LARPs that are primarily story-based games where the player base is cooperating against NPC threats tend to feature two major areas of spectator creep: NPC shifts and player OOC bleed.

NPC shifts are a problem due to limited staffing. Most boffer LARPs I’ve played have a pretty low ratio of staff to players. In the current game I’m playing, it’s often 4:1 or worse, depending on how many people can be convinced to show up for the weekend just to play NPCs. In order to do big fights where the NPCs aren’t significantly outnumbered by PCs, or just to give staff a break throughout the day, players are expected to have an NPC shift where they stop playing their PCs for a while and report to monster town to just act as an NPC for a couple hours. Often, you get sent out as “crunchies:” simple monsters for the players to fight. Others, you actually get tagged in to play a roleplay NPC, and may need to see parts of the plot and/or other PCs’ backstories to portray the NPC correctly. In either case you can learn things your PC has no way to know, due to hearing exact monster traits, learning stuff you need to portray the NPC, or just being around monster town and overhearing/seeing other things staff is sending out.

OOC bleed is a problem because players talk to each other between games, or because sometimes you have to use your imagination. Is the player doing some kind of PvP activity, getting up to something that the other players wouldn’t approve of that’s been handled secretly in game so nobody outside of staff has seen it? What happens when a drunken goobing about the game causes the player to accidentally drop the secret? Is the PC using some kind of impenetrable magical disguise? How do you handle the fact that you’re really just looking at obviously the same person, but they’re telling you to imagine that they look totally different? (This last is also a problem with any game that allows invisibility and you have to pretend someone isn’t standing there with arms crossed over their chest.)

This is a problem not just because your firewall is imperfect. If you know something that you shouldn’t know in game, suddenly you have a huge piece of the puzzle to use as an incentive to figure out the information “in-play,” laundering your out-of-game knowledge into character knowledge.

The bigger problem, to my mind, is that player investigative ability is like butterfly wings: as soon as it’s tainted by out-of-game knowledge, it makes it impossible to fly. When I learn a secret from someone who was drunk and shouldn’t have told me or from an NPC briefing, I can now never know if I would have figured it out totally in-play because that person was acting suspiciously or I otherwise put clues together. If someone is under an illusion and I’m having to pretend to be affected by it, I have no idea if I’d have figured out what was going on through context clues if what I’m imagining I’m seeing was what I was actually seeing.

I actually think people laundering out-of-play knowledge in-play is a smaller problem compared to any out-of-play knowledge suddenly making all your in-play deductions suspect. Maybe it’s because figuring out mysteries in games is one of my particular biggest pleasures from roleplaying. It feels like someone is saying, “Here is the answer. Because I have told you out-of-play, you can never figure it out in-play. That would be cheating.”

In tabletop, where the GM controls nearly all the flow of perception and information, this is a solvable problem. In LARP, it’s much harder, and I’m not sure there’s a viable solution. Never using PCs to do a monster shift is a huge burden on the staff. Trusting players to never slip with their secrets out-of-play is virtually impossible for years-long games.

And no one ever really has the same secret conversation they were going to have when they get walked up on by someone they have to pretend they don’t know is there.