There’s a few fights I get into over and over and over. Admittedly, I like getting into fights. So, once I discover something that sets people off, I can’t help but bring it up every couple of months. But there’s also just some topics that really, REALLY piss people off. Once upon a time, I tried to coin the phrase “screaming gamer herpes” for fights that never go away, but keep flaring up every few months. It didn’t catch on. Apparently, I’m the only one who thinks the concept of herpes is funny, but then, I’m also the only one who compares most gamers – self included – to an embarrassing disease.
Okay, that went WAAAAAY off the rails. If I had an editor, they’d probably have a few choice words about that last paragraph. But I don’t give a f$&%.
The thing is, every so often, I say something perfectly innocent and totally true and people get REALLY pissed off about it. To the point where I usually end up being blocked or blocking a few of the more raging psychotics on social media. Sometimes, I even get some hilarious death threats. But that’s the internet and nerds for you.
For example, a few weeks ago, I jokingly said on Twitter that “metagaming is a word that GMs use to yell at players for ruining their screwjobs.” And man oh man oh man did people get mad. After all, “metagaming is a serious issue” and “metagaming ruins the game” and “players ruin challenges by metagaming.” Oh, I called all of that out as utter and complete bulls$&%. And that is why people get mad. Because no one likes to be called on their own stupid bulls$&%.
The thing is, metagaming is an issue I take very seriously. That is to say, it’s a nonissue I take very seriously. Because it’s an issue that touches a lot of different parts of gaming. But, it’s sort of a side issue. Or a side non-issue. It isn’t really a THING by itself. Instead, it’s partly to do with role-playing and partly to do with constructing good challenges and partly to do with fairness and partly to do with creativity and expression. And so, I’ve written about it a few times in a few different places. But I’ve never written a DEFINITIVE THING on metagaming. An analysis of the whole issue and how to deal with it. Or rather, how to not deal with it. Instead, I’ve just sort of touched on it here and there.
As a result of the fallout from my latest bout of screaming gamer herpes, some people asked if I’d ever written a THING on metagaming. A complete thing. And I realized I’d written a few different things on it. But never a solid, full-on analysis. Instead, I’ve written piecemeal about some of the different issues. So, this article is a sort of compilation of my entire feeling on the subject of metagaming and how GMs should think about it and how they should (NOT) deal with it.
The Totally Fake, Pretend, Stupid Definition of Metagaming
First of all, I need to clarify what I’m actually talking about here. Because I HAVE used the term “metagame” before, but I’ve used it correctly. And in this article, I’m talking about the WRONG definition. Because most people who use the word use it f$&%ing wrong. So, let’s clarify. Or rather, let’s unclarify.
Meta is a prefix. And it gets attached to lots of words. Metaphysics. Metathesis. Metapod. Metaconcept. Etc. And, as a prefix, meta is something that lies outside of a thing. It lies below a thing. But it gives the thing structure. It’s sort of the hidden rules that underlie a thing. For example, when we talk about metaphysics, we’re talking about the hidden rules of the universe, the rules outside of physics, but on which the rules are built. For another, more accessible example, we talk about a comedy being “meta” when it makes jokes about the structure of comedy. Much of what The Muppets did in their various movies was to poke fun at the way various movies are put together. Gags like checking the script in The Muppet Movie, explaining the plot directly to the audience during the opening credits of the Great Muppet Caper and then singing about how great the movie was going to be, or traveling by map in The Muppets? Those are metajokes. They are jokes about the medium, the structure. We might also refer to them as pardoy, satire, or self-awareness.
A metagame is a set of rules and structures, therefore, that lie outside of the rules of the game but still affect the game. For example, in competitive online player-vs-player games, the players refer to the balance between various characters and their powers as “the metagame.” If a character is recognized as an overpowered choice and therefore becomes popular, skilled players will focus their efforts on finding good choices to counter that character. That’s how the metagame works. Deck building and all the complex rules of legality of cards in a game like Magic: The Gathering is part of the metagame.
In that respect, the metagame is actually an important for game designers to understand. And for advanced, hardcore players, it’s also pretty vital to have a grasp of the concept of metagame. Because the metagame deals with things like game balance and advanced strategy. But, there’s other aspects to the metagame too. In an RPG, a big part of what SHOULD be called the metagame is the idea of the social contract. Part of the game is a tacit agreement between the players and the GM that the game is a shared, noncompetitive experience. The players work together. The GM presents obstacles but isn’t actively invested in the players’ failure. And so on. The interactions at the table and the social rules that govern them? Those are part of the metagame.
BUT, that’s not the metagame we’re talking about here. Because, in D&D and other RPGs, the word metagame has become co-opted by screaming GMing dips$&%s who needed a word to yell at players with. And the meaning is this: metagaming (as a verb) occurs when a player makes a decision for their character based on information that the character doesn’t have access to. Now, if you want to be REALLY technical, that actually works with the idea of the metagame as “outside the game.” BUT, the problem is it now has such a negative connotation that you can’t use the word for anything OTHER than pissing and moaning about players you don’t like.
Metagaming, in this respect, comes in two basic forms. First is when one player uses information about another player or character to shape their choices with regard to the other character. The classic example is what I like to call the A$&hole Paladin and the A$&hole Thief. In this example, the thief character is secretly evil and secretly steals from the party. The other characters do not have any evidence that the thief is evil or stealing from them. In fact, the characters have no reason to suspect the thief of any wrongdoing at all. But the players do. Maybe the players have spotted the thief’s character sheet and know that it has “evil” written on it. Maybe the other players have actually seen the thief’s player and the GM playing out the thievery directly at the table. It doesn’t matter. The point is, the players know the thief is evil and stealing from them. The characters don’t. But now you have a paladin and a paladin can’t associate knowingly with evil characters. And further, it is the duty of the paladin to bring lawbreakers and evildoers to justice.
This all comes to a head when the paladin uses his ability to “detect evil” on the thief. The thief player gets mad because the paladin has no reason to suspect the thief. The paladin would never have used the power on the thief. In fact, the paladin has never used the detect evil power on any other member of the party. The paladin player usually comes up with excuses for this. But, one way or another, a major fight breaks out. The less extreme example occurs when the paladin starts watching the thief and purposely trying to catch him in the act to provide the character with evidence that confirms what the player already knows. In effect, the paladin player doesn’t want to be accused of metagaming and is therefore trying to find an excuse.
We’ll call that “player-on-player metagaming.”
The other form of metagame occurs when the players know something about the way the game works and use that to their advantage. The main example is what I call the A$&hole GM and the Troll. In this scenario, the party encounters a troll for the first time. Trolls, of course, constantly regenerate. They can heal wounds, regrow lost limbs, and even recover from death. The only way to get around the regeneration – the only thing that causes a troll permanent wounds – is to burn the troll with fire or acid.
So, the party encounters a troll. One of the players recognizes the troll as a troll because they encountered trolls in a previous game or they’ve read the Monster Manual or they know ANY F$&%ING THING about D&D because FOR F$&%’S SAKE TROLLS HAVE BEEN A PART OF THE GAME FOR 40 F$&%ING YEARS AND THEY’VE APPEARED IN THE SAME FORM IN COUNTLESS VIDEO GAMES AND OTHER FORMS OF MEDIA AND EVERY GAMER KNOWS TROLLS ARE VULNERABLE TO FIRE AND ACID!
Sorry. One of the players recognizes the troll as a troll. Say, the wizard. And the wizard immediately responds by using fire-based attacks. At that point, the GM becomes apoplectic with rage and tells the player they aren’t allowed to use fire on the troll because their characters have never seen a troll before and therefore wouldn’t know to use fire on trolls and they are ruining the challenge of the encounter. The wizard usually counters with the fact that he’s a wizard and therefore fights everything with fire, including fire elementals. Or tries to explain about how he read about trolls in a book. But the GM still won’t let him use fire on the troll because it is ruining the challenge of the encounter until the characters can FIGURE OUT the troll’s vulnerability. And it becomes a hot mess.
We’ll call that “a$&hole GM metagaming.” And yes, I AM editorializing, thank you very much.
In either case, the basic concept behind metagaining is that a character is making a choice based on information that SOMEONE ELSE thinks the character shouldn’t have. And those words I emphasized are important. We’ll get back to them.
Metagaming is Bulls$&%
Now, most GMs and even quite a few players will look at those examples – and remember, they are just EXAMPLES, metgaming takes many forms – many gamers will look at those examples and they will say “the player is clearly doing SOMETHING wrong.” Even if we don’t CALL IT metagaming, obviously, they are playing the game in some sort of impure and unforgiveable way. And I can forgive you for thinking that way. I mean, you’re wrong. You’re a dumba$&. But I can forgive you. Because you don’t know any better yet.
The issue is that it is IMPOSSIBLE not to metagame. I don’t mean that it’s hard. I mean that it is literally an impossible thing for a human being to do. I like to call it the “strike it from the record” problem.
So, imagine you’re on the jury in court. And the case is a murder case. And the prosecutor presents DNA evidence that the defendant is probably pretty guilty. But the evidence was obtained illegally. If the judge said “okay, now, pretend you didn’t hear that because the evidence is inadmissible and only consider all the other evidence,” could you realistically, objectively pretend you didn’t know the murderer was probably guilty? No. Even if you did consciously try to ignore the evidence, you’d still view all of the other evidence in the case in the worst light possible. Because now you know the dude is probably guilty. So, everything that confirms his guilt will stick in your head and anything that causes doubt will slip out through your ear hole. That’s how human brains work. We can’t pretend we don’t know things. Even if we think we can do it consciously, it changes our behavior subconsciously.
In the example of the “player-on-player” metagaming, what generally happens is that the paladin’s player instantly begins building a case against the thief. And he interprets everything the thief does and every suspicious occurrence as evidence of the thief’s evil. Once the paladin player arbitrarily decides that he has enough “evidence,” he chooses to act. Never mind that all of that “evidence” is built on a bias. And, no matter how good the case actually is, the thief will always see the case as biased by the player knowledge. And usually, so will the GM.
In the “a$&%hole GM” metagaming, the troll will keep coming back to life until the party burns it. And generally speaking, when the players confront something like that – assuming they fail an arbitrary die roll to see what they are allowed to KNOW about the monster – they start experimenting with different strategies until something accidentally works. Or else, they brute force it. They hack the troll apart until they overwhelm its regeneration.
So, imagine you’re the wizard and you know about the fire and acid thing. You don’t want to metagame. So, how many wrong spells do you have to throw before you’re allowed to throw fire and “discover” that’s the right solution.
And ultimately, this is ALWAYS the problem with trying to control metagaming. All it does is create a new game. The player with the metagame knowledge now ends up playing a game of trying to figure out when they are actually justified in saying their character has “discovered” or “figured out” the thing.
Guess what, kiddo? That’s ALSO metagaming. It’s just trading one form of metagaing for another. Because it still isn’t making decisions based on pure understanding of the character’s motives and knowledge.
And because the other players and the GM will ALSO have an opinion on when a thing is or isn’t metagaming and at what point it becomes a legitimate discovery, you are almost always going to have a fight on your hand about what characters are allowed to know what when.
And THAT isn’t pure role-playing either. In fact, now you have other people intervening on how YOU are allowed to play YOUR character.
And that is why any attempt to control metagaming is utter horses$&%.
Metagaming is a Fever
So, what are you supposed to do? As a GM, how can you curb metagaming if any attempt to curb metagaming is just a different way of breaking the game? After all, metagaming is obviously bad behavior. Just look as those examples. Clearly, those players are playing wrong. It has to be stopped.
The thing is, metagaming isn’t ACTUALLY a problem. Now, that might sound crazy. Clearly the Paladin and the Thief scenario IS a problem. And the Wizard and the Troll IS obviously a problem. But are they?
Here’s the thing: metagaming is like a fever. That’s why I used that as the title for this particular section. What do I mean by that? When you get sick, it is because some sort of microorganism has invaded your body and has started causing damage. One of the things your body does to fight the infection is to crank up the thermostat. See, most invaders have a very narrow comfort zone and if the temperature is even slightly off, they stop functioning efficiently. Meanwhile, the parts of your body that fight infection actually perform better if the temperature is up slightly. Now, the immune system is very complicated and there’s lots of other things that feed into this whole thing, but the point is this: being sick and having a fever are two different things. A fever is a sign of illness. It’s actually a sign that your body is trying to fight illness.
If you start having problems with metagaming, it’s usually the result of some other problem in your game. In fact, most metagaming is actually a result of the players trying to fix a problem in the game.
See, even though I distinguished between “player-on-player” metagaming and “a%&hole GM” metagaming, I could have called it all “a%&hole GM” metagaming. Because usually, the game has a problem that the GM has caused or allowed. And the metagaming is the game running a fever while the parts of the game try to fix the problem.
And THAT is why I get so adamant about GMs yelling at players over metagaming.
Secrets and Lies
Let’s first discuss the problem inherent in player-on-player metagaming. Because, at least there, we can agree that there is a problem and the problem is pretty obvious. In the case of the Paladin and the Thief, the immediately obvious question to anyone who isn’t a complete dumba%& is “why the f$&% did the GM allow the paladin and the thief into the same game?”
See, the problem in most player-on-player metagaming is secrets. The players have secrets and if those secrets get out, they will somehow wreck the game or the party or whatever. Being secretly evil in a party of good guys (or being secretly good in a party of bad guys) is very obviously an unsustainable situation. Once that secret is out, something is going to break. Once the party discovers, for example, that the thief is evil and stealing from them, the thief is likely to get exiled from the group. At best. At worst, the thief is likely to end up dismembered. Because, seriously, what a$&hole decides to piss off an armed strike-team of expert murderers who are already ACTIVELY HELPING HIM GET LOOT in return for a little more loot? Honestly, the thief deserves whatever they get.
The problem is that game-breaking secrets are a ticking time bomb. They are ALWAYS going to break the game. Player-on-player metagaming is just one of the ways they are going to come up. The player-vs.-player battle royale is another. Hurt feelings and a ruined game group are another. The problem here isn’t metagaming, it’s the existence of the thing about which people are metagaming. Because the game-breaking secret should never have been allowed into the game.
Step back, for a moment, to the other definition of metagaming. Recall that D&D and other RPGs assume a certain agreement between all of the players and the GM about how the game is going to be played. The Paladin and the Thief scenario actually occurs because one of the players is in the party under false pretenses. Or maybe several of the players are. The paladin clearly thinks the party is supposed to work together as a team and views evil as the enemy. The thief player clearly thinks everyone is in it for themselves and views everyone as a potential victim. Those two expectations are just completely incompatible.
Of course, the Paladin and the Thief is just one example. But whenever there is a secret floating around in the group that is in someone’s best interests to keep from the group, there’s a false pretense between the players. And even if the secret isn’t game breaking, it can also f$&% with the game.
I recently ran a game that started with the party being united against an evil cult. Each of their backstories left them with certain information about the cult that, when put together, would set their investigation going. They were all generally good people and they all had an interest in taking down the cult. But a few of the players decided their characters were secretive a%&holes and didn’t share their information. Thus, the party ended up flailing because they were all missing pieces of the puzzle. It f$&%ed up the game. And there was no reason for it.
I actually would have LOVED a little metagaming in that game because the dips$&%s wouldn’t have needed me to tell them to stop being untrustworthy a$&holes for NO REASON when I had CLEARLY spelled out how the start of the game would go based on the way they had created their characters. “Each of you has a piece of the puzzle, you need to put them together.” I TOLD THEM THAT! WHY DID THEY FEEL THE NEED TO KEEP SECRETS!?!?!!!?!
The point is, player-on-player metagaming is only a problem in an environment where dangerous secrets are floating around. And dangerous secrets are a ticking time bomb and should be viewed as such.
Now, let’s look at the issue of A%&hole GM Metagaming. And the reason why I even call it that. Let’s look at the troll example again.
The GM has created a challenge in which the party has to fight a creature that keeps healing from all damage except for one or two specific types of damage. The GM assumes the party doesn’t know how to counteract the regeneration.
Here is where the GM brain gets really, REALLY odd. What if the party opens up with fire and acid? Well, if they simply shut down the troll’s regeneration, the party has made the encounter too easy. The troll’s defining feature hasn’t come into play. Therefore, the party hasn’t really EARNED a victory.
Of course, if the players have the right knowledge skill and roll a good roll, they get rewarded with the information and they get to have an easy fight. In effect, they EARN the victory with a good knowledge roll.
But if the players don’t have the right knowledge skill or don’t roll well, they have to fight the troll as is. Otherwise, they don’t EARN the victory. Of course, if they FIGURE OUT that the troll is weak to fire or acid, that’s okay. Then they have EARNED the victory. But if they don’t figure it out on their own for reals, they deserve a hard fight.
Now that SEEMS logical, right? Except, it’s actually bizarro logic that doesn’t really work if you really look at it.
There is nothing wrong with the idea of creating a challenge that rewards the players for having the right skills or figuring things out or coming up with a clever plan. In fact, that’s a very good way to design a challenge. Challenges should reward the players for their skills and ideas and choices. Players who chose the right skills or deduce the right facts feel like they have created their own victory.
The problem is there is actually no way to figure out most challenges that are prone to metagaming. For example, absent a die roll on a monster knowledge skill, how is a clueless player SUPPOSED TO figure out the troll’s vulnerability? There really isn’t a way to figure it out. They just have to act at random until they stumble on it, right? I mean, it’s one thing if it is a FIRE breathing RED dragon wreathed in FLAME in a FLAMING volcano. You can guess pretty easily that the thing is going to take a lot of punishment from a cone of cold spell but will probably shrug off a fireball. But the troll situation isn’t like that at all.
Basically, the players have to be handed the information as the result of a random die roll OR they have to act randomly until they stumble on the answer. And if you look at just about situation in which a GM is whining about player metagaming “breaking the challenge,” you invariably come back to a situation that isn’t really something that even can be figured out.
The problem is that a challenge that can be “broken” by a specific piece of information is a poorly designed challenge. There isn’t anything interesting about rolling a random die roll, acting at random to figure something out, or else getting screwed. It isn’t fun gameplay. The question is always this: “does this challenge become MORE interesting if the players know the information or LESS interesting.”
A single troll becomes really boring if the players know its vulnerability. Unless fire is a limited resource. For example, fireballs are limited resources. Oil is a limited resource. If the party has to deal with a cave full of trolls, the fact that they need to either come prepared with literal FIREpower or manage their resources well makes the adventure interesting. A troll shaman that can shield his allies from fire makes the information MORE interesting. A mine filled with gas pockets that will explode if exposed to fire makes the information MORE interesting.
The thing is, in many cases, the information DOES make the fight more interesting. The GM only thinks it breaks the challenge. As noted, fire is not something everyone has. Nor is acid. And both are limited resources. Even if the party knows the vulnerability, their tactical choices are going to be limited and subpar and create a resource management game. In the context of an extended adventure, that troll IS interesting even if the party literally burns through the encounter.
Personally, this sort of metagaming, where the players know things about the game or the monsters or the way stories are structured? The Metagaming Against Challenges? I advise GMs not to sweat it. After all, the players are supposed to win anyway. Who gives a f$&%? If they torch the troll without breaking a sweat, oh well. There will be another fight. A better fight. If they realize the answer to the mystery because of the way I structured my mysteries, I’ll have to write better adventures. Obviously, I’m settling into a pattern or becoming too predictable. I need to up my game. I need to do more interesting things. If I catch my players metagaming, it’s a sign I f$&%ed up. Either I need to make my game impossible to metagame OR I need to make my game such that metagaming doesn’t break it.
But usually, all the GM needs is an attitude adjustment. Usually, the GM just has a skewed view of how to construct challenges, obstacles, and adventures.
The Realism Argument
And now we come to the crux of the issue. Even if you’re with me that metagaming is usually a sign of another problem, even if you agree with everything I’ve said in the previous 4,000 words, you might still be left with a sour taste in your mouth about metagaming because it is impure and dirty. After all, the characters should only EVER act on information they could have in the game world. If the players are acting on their own knowledge of DCs and numbers or monster abilities or the structure of stories or clichés or the fact that the vizier is ALWAYS evil, they aren’t really role-playing. They are doing something gross and icky.
And when I hear THAT, I think back to a line from my favorite character in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Now, DS9 was a show that I have very fond memories of and that I’ve recently discovered are the result of my greatly misremembering the number of s&%$ episodes that show had. It had a few really GREAT episodes and some fantastic characters. But the vast majority of the show was medicore and bland. And it had a lot of steaming turd episodes. Like anything to do with Quark. But I did love the show at the time because I didn’t have a refined palette back then.
Anyway, Elem Garak was an exiled formed spy living in cognito as a tailor. He was charismatic and oily and shady and secretive and fun. And everything he said was a lie. Almost everything. He was a pathological liar. And he was proud of that fact. At one point, he claimed “the truth is usually just an excuse for a lack of imagination.”
And that’s how I feel about the realism argument against metagaming.
For example, people often claim that acting based on the knowledge of numbers and skills and probabilities is metagaming. I like to point out that those numbers and skills and probabilities are our way of translating the game world the characters can see into terms we can understand. For example, most rock climbers – from amateur to expert – learn to assess their skills and the difficulty of particular climbs. The ones that survive know how to judge whether a climb is within their skills. I don’t know much about rock climbing AND I can’t see the cliff my particular character is getting ready to climb AND I don’t know how to actually qualify my character’s skill level because of my own lack of experience, BUT my character sure knows a thing or two about rock climbing and knows how to assess a climb. Yes, they don’t know the odds to the same degree of precision that I do, but it’s ridiculous to say they wouldn’t know anything about the odds at all.
The same goes for combat situations. Every adventurer possesses at least one weapon proficiency. That means they have trained for combat. And that means they can assess the relative skills of various opponents. They know when someone is beyond them. Usually.
Sure, people misjudge their skills or the challenges they face all the time. And that sort of thing is wrapped up in the fact that the outcome is random. When the rock climber rolls a 2 and falls to their death, it might have been an unavoidable accident or an unseen loose handhold or it might have been poor judgment on the part of the climber. Who knows.
The numbers of the game MEAN something. They exist as analogs for things that have a reality in the game world. Armor class, hit points, skills, DCs, all of that stuff is the language used to describe a world we can’t see or understand completely. But our characters can.
Now, when it comes to other stuff like vulnerabilities and specific information about specific monsters and magical items and whatever, the problem is that there’s actually no good reason to assume characters don’t know anything. Basically, we assume that the characters only know what they have actively studied (their skills) or what they have personally experienced. But the thing is, apart from my list of trained skills – I’m talking about REAL LIFE me – I have a whole hodgepodge of trivia and useless information. I mean, f$&%, I know what a vampire’s weaknesses are and I never studied vampires actively. It’s just an accident of pop culture.
Now, you might say “sure, you know because you live in an era of internets and role-playing games, but medieval people in fantasy land don’t have those things.” And I would counter with “pop culture has existed since the dawn of time.” Every Greek citizen who had seen or heard about a certain play knew the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle. And consequently, they knew what a Sphinx was and how to get around it. Europeans have known for AGES how to deal with a vampire. The reason that s$&% is in our games today is because hundreds or thousands of years ago, it was so ubiquitous, it survived.
The characters in D&D don’t grow up in a vacuum. They have pop culture too. They have stories, myths, books, plays, songs, legends, and trivia. Hell, the bard class is PROOF that that crap exists in D&D and is wildly popular.
The thing is, it is just as easy to argue that a character knows a random thing as it is to argue that they don’t. And trying to control metagaming by screaming that it’s unrealistic for someone to know a thing they never personally experienced is squashing creativity and imagination. Hell, why not ASK the player to explain the knowledge. I mean, that’s stupid bulls$&% and a waste of f$&%ing time, but some people really get off on that creative story bulls$&%. So, let the wizard explain that his teacher “One-Eyed Waldorf” lost his eye to a troll and the wizard had to listen to the story so many f$&%ing times in his studies that he can practically sing it in his sleep.
Yelling About Metagaming Makes You a Dick
In the end, as a GM, if you start losing your s$&% about metagaming, you need to adjust your attitude. Most metagaming isn’t problematic. It’s only problematic because you have some f$&%ed up idea about how the game is supposed to work. And the problematic metagaming, the metagaming that really DOES somehow break something is a sign of another problem. And you need to fix THAT problem. And THAT problem is usually you.
No matter how you slice it, metagaming is your fault.