Thursday, 5 April 2012


Dominic Matte
If you're new to tabletop gaming or you don't spend much time on RPG forums, you might be unfamiliar with the term "metagaming". At its most basic, metagaming means using knowledge from outside the game to influence events inside the game. In practice, this typically means that the players are using information that their characters couldn't possibly know to affect their characters' actions.

Metagaming, while useful in some ways, can potentially be a very negative and destructive practice in your game. Read on for tips on how to recognize various types of metagaming.

A simple type of metagaming in roleplaying games is the knowledge of character or monster statistics which don't exist as hard numbers in the game world, based on the player's previous experience with rulebooks or other characters. For example, let's say a player has encountered a red dragon in a previous game, and now comes across one in the current game. If that player uses his knowledge of the dragon's combat ability to affect how his own character acts during combat - like targeting its lowest defense - that's metagaming.

Another example is when the players make assumptions on the stats of the monsters based on the DM's description. For example, if there's a large group of monsters and the DM describes one or two of them as particularly nasty-looking while the rest are fairly generic, they might assume there's an elite commanding a group of minions and attack, when in fact all of the monsters are standard and the group is too much for the party to take on.

This type of metagaming can actually be pretty tough for very experienced players or dungeon masters to avoid, because some of the statistical information has become second nature to them. As another example, let's say a group of experienced players in a low-magic world come across a villain with a sword that can shoot lightning. The characters should by all means be intimidated by such a weapon, having never seen anything like it before; but the players know that it's just an ordinary enchantment and they don't have to worry.

One of the most common and potentially damaging types of player metagaming is also seen in books and movies: the character shield. The players assume that either every challenge is appropriate to their level, or that the DM won't kill their characters because he/she is trying to tell a story. Both of these assumptions tend to manifest in the same way: the players will never question whether they should fight, and they won't consider retreating from combat.

I have a friend who is extremely skilled at engaging his players and making them care about the world and characters by building the world and story around the player characters. In fact, he's so good at getting his players invested that he had the entire table in tears when a major character died. However, the weakness of this approach is that the story is so thoroughly about the player characters that he won't let them die. 

In one game, a party member died at level 1, and we wouldn't be able to afford resurrection for several levels, so the DM literally had the hand of the goddess Avandra come down and raise the character from the dead. Our group learned that our characters are essentially immortal in this DM's games. We tried our very best not to act like immortals, but we still never considered running away from a fight, to the point that the DM got frustrated at us a couple of times for standing and fighting against what he's described as insurmountable odds.

Another common type of metagaming is assuming that everything the DM mentions has meaning -- if he said it, there must have been a reason. If the DM tells the players there's a statue in a corner of the room, they'll crawl all over it looking for a hidden switch or compartment. This one isn't necessarily bad in and of itself, but it has the potential to derail a scene if the players start looking for meaning where there isn't any, asking about the tapestries when the villain is trying to make a speech.

Generally speaking, you want to avoid metagaming as much as possible. If you're a player you should consciously avoid doing it, and if you're a dungeon master you should try to teach your players not to take anything for granted. If, for example, the players believe that their characters can't die, a certain level of suspense is removed from the game. The players stop asking "will we win" and begin asking "how will we win". It might sound like a fine distinction, but it can really alter the game dynamic and break the players' immersion. Combat can become a tactical miniatures game rather than a roleplaying game.

On the other hand, metagaming isn't necessarily bad.  Most types of metagaming aren't explicitly harmful or damaging to the game, and can often be dealt with by a simple "your character doesn't know that" on the DM's part. Besides, if no one at the table has a problem with it, then what's the harm?

Even better, a clever dungeon master can exploit metagaming assumptions to lead the players down a path without them realizing it, to turn player expectations on their heads, or to teach them a lesson about the game world and roleplaying. In future articles I'll look at how a DM can take advantage of metagaming to add some excitement to the game.

How do you feel about metagaming, as either a player or a DM? Have any stories about the effect metagaming has had on your experiences, whether positive or negative?

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