What is Metagaming? Metagaming is any action, method or strategy used inside of the game environment which is taken from an external factor. It is taking knowledge gained or known from outside the game world ,and then utilized and deployed during game play in such a way as to usually gain advantage, or avoid a negative situation. It is knowledge a player has that his or her character does not!
Metagaming is by far one of the worst things for a Dungeon Master to deal with, and a player to employ. I consider it the worst form of cheating! It takes a well disciplined player to have a ton of game knowledge, and then act in contrary to this knowledge because he knows his character is unaware. Yet that is what is expected. When a Dungeon Master is confronted by obvious meta gaming he typically has only a couple of choices open to him. he can call “foul” and tell the player your character would not know to do that and as such deny the action, or he can let it go unchallenged. Either way it causes an issue.
So why is metagaming such a taboo in Role Playing Games? Well as a Player your job is to take on the role of a character. You have to act and behave in a way as to become that character. Your character is an entirely different persona than you, and has a different skill set and a different upbringing and education. When you deploy knowledge that you have as a player, and transfer it to your character you are breaking down the walls of division. The real world crosses over into the game world and causes damage to the integrity of the world as well as to the immersion for all involved. As a Dungeon Master I consider it treason to the game!
Lets give you a good example of metagaming. A Fighter who grew up in a small town as a blacksmiths son has been adventuring for several years. He enters a dark damp cave and encounters a ghoul. It is clear to him that it is a form of undead, but he has never encounter the undead before. So far the Fighter has entered every combat with his broadsword and shield and battled valiantly against all the foes he has faced. After hearing the description of the creature from the Dungeon Master, the player announces that instead he wishes to use his short bow instead. The player knows that ghouls can cause paralysis if they touch you, the character does not. The player in this case is metagaming by using his knowledge of the ghoul special attacks to avoid risk to his character in a situation where the character has no way to know this information.
Now if the character had typically used his short bow in the past in similar situations, the Dungeon master may accept the action as typical, but it is the non typical when deployed in these situations that cause the Dungeon Master to expect metagaming. As the Dungeon Master it is down to you to determine when metagaming is afoot. Some players are crafty, and may argue a path of reason to try to justify their action. In the above example the player could say “well it looks nasty and it smells so i just don’t want it close to me”. Is that a reasonable reason to change from his higher damage broadsword to his lower damage short bow, in the dark where he will take penalties to hit at this range with the short bow? Sometimes it can be hard to determine if the player action is a direct attempt to metagame or not, but typically a metagamer will commit multiple and frequent offenses and develop a visible pattern.
Now for the player let me say this in regards to metagaming. DON’T! just DON’T! I do not care how attached you are to your character, or how much you think that you need your fighter to survive to help his fellow adventurers. Metagaming is cheating and ruins the game for everyone.
For the Dungeon Master I say DO NOT tolerate it and confront it when it happens. Challenge a suspected metagamer (I always suggest privately when possible) and explain why you want him to stop. Also remeber you can change anything at anytime as the Dungeon Master, so i often change things up from the norm so a metagamer who expects his knowledge to be accurate finds often that in my world it is not. This is also a great way to baffle rules lawyers.
NOTE: I want to take this opportunity to tell you, the players, something you may not have realized. You can only discover any one piece of information once for the first time. The first time you encounter the ghoul, and through actual play learn about it, is unique. The first time you discover that a glowing golden sword is a sun blade is exciting. Much like a child with life, a new player has the full wonder of the game ahead of them. Once you know almost everything about every monster, every magic item and every spell the game is forever changed for you. It is tempting as a new player to look up monsters, spells, magic items etc that do not relate to you. I suggest strongly that you DON’T. You deprive yourself from a sense of wonder and discovery, which is a fun aspect of the game, but also you open yourself up to potential metagaming or worse the act of over compensating where metagaming is concerned.
One complex issue regarding metagaming is when a player overcompensates to ensure they are NOT meatagaming. This is when a reasonable course of action may be open to your character, but you refrain from doing it so as to avoid metagaming. In this situation, trust between you and the Dungeon Master comes in, as well as a mutual gained respect. If you are a good player that does not metagame, and a situation presents itself where you feel a certain action is reasonable, even though there could be a case raised against you for metagaming the Dungeon Master will probably respect your choice and allow it.
There are a few forms of metagaming that are a little less obvious and not standard. One such type is acquiring “on the fly” knowledge. This is when a player looks up information on the spot. The Dungeon master describes a monster and then the player reaches for the monster manual or whips out his phone to google it so he can know what it can do etc. A player may not intend to use this information to his characters advantage, but it is poor practice. It not only artificially alters the tension level of the encounter, but it ruins the wonderment for the player and often those around him. If I see a player reach for a monster manual or attempt to google it I tell them STOP! Firstly it is not the players concern at that time, and distracts from the current mood. Secondly people will assume that any action taken that seems like metagaming during that encounter is so! I have been challenged in the past by players saying things like “well Rob knows what it is, so what does it matter if I look it up?” my reply is always “I cant control what Rob already knows, but now is not the time to look things up. We are involved in the encounter and your attention is required.”
This is a good time to remind players and Dungeon Masters alike, it is good practice not to allow players to have access to certain books, Ipads, laptops or smart phones during game play. It is the one thing I wish I could control on Howreroll. A few unique matagaming opportunities exist when using a virtual tabletop that do not exist around a physical table. Sadly as we play using a virtual tabletop, a computer is essential for the players. As I only see their head and upper torso die to playing with web cameras, I can not see what devices or books they may have around them, or if they google something in a different window. They could metagame by chatting privately using our text chat program. Character chat should always be heard by the Dungeon Master and is part of play. Here is an example. John (who plays Ragnar the barbarian) privately messages Sandra (who plays Salindra the cleric) and tells her to cast hold person on the chief when it is her action. In reality the characters are in the heat of battle and Ragnar would have to shout this suggestion to Salindra. In doing so the chief would be forewarned. make no mistake this IS metagaming. They could even get passed info privately by some of our experienced viewers ,in the same way and told how to do something that they themselves would not realize to do. I have to trust that they are not doing so. I would be deeply disappointed in them if they did. If you play over a virtual tabletop you just have to trust your players do not employ any of these methods.
Another form of metagaming is what I call probing. This is when you ask deliberate questions in order to try to create justification for your desired actions. Asking questions is fine, but you need to consider why you are asking them. Is it to clarify something for the character, or is it to create a window of opportunity in which you can get away with something. For example. The party rogue has been deprived of his share of treasure because he was not present when it was found. Due to some of his past indiscretions the rest of the party have decided not to include him in this round of wealth sharing. He begins to ask questions like, “Does Ragnar the Barbarians back pack look fuller than usual?” or “When Salindra goes to sell her jewelery can I follow her to see what she tries to sell?” These actions are being made because the player knows what happened but his character does not. He know better than to react openly, so instead he tries to alter the situation to gain knowledge to be able to react. This too is metagaming.
Now a final point on metagaming. Dungeon Masters can be guilty of metagaming too! “What?” I hear you ask. “How can the Dungeon Master metagame, he knows everything and can alter things at will. How can he be accused of metagaming?” Well if you adjust a course of predetermined action due to something a player just did in a way that is directly aimed to counter his action, that is metagaming. If an Non Player Character alters his course of action due to something you know about the players that the Non Player Character could not possibly know, that too is metagaming. If players feel that their good ideas have been thwarted by the Dungeon Master in an unfair way, or in such a way as to force an action to happen the way he wants it too, it can cause distrust. As the Dungeon Master you have to have the trust of your players, and doing anything that damages that trust is a failing on your part.
In closing. Metagaming is a vial form of cheating in pen and paper Role Playing Games and something that every player and Dungeon master alike should strive to eradicate from their game. It can be hard sometimes to allow your character do act in a way that you know he should but as a player you also know it is to his detriment. You should do it anyway. The integrity of the story and the game demands it!